Most of us who choose a career in IT do so because we love the hands-on work. We start out on the front lines as a developer, DBA, designer, administrator or support tech. With time, we grow into new roles as our natural drive and curiosity prompt us to learn — about the technical areas we have chosen, the products and platforms we work on, the new technologies we’d like to work on and the roles we have yet to play in technical organizations and projects.
At some point along this trajectory, we are likely to hear a question whose implications are more profound for our careers and lives than we probably realize: “Do you want to be a manager?”
Those probably won’t be the exact words you’re asked. (And there’s a good chance that you won’t be asked at all, but instead will have a management “promotion” thrust upon you without the opportunity to really think about whether it’s something you want.) The question can seem innocuous, suggesting that you’re being asked to take on a few new minor responsibilities in addition to your current job: “Can you lead a team of three developers on the next sprint?” “Will you take charge of the next deployment?” “Would you like to manage the late shift on the help desk?”
Your impulse is probably going to be to say “sure” and then return to what you were doing without giving it a second thought. The reality — you’re now on a management path — won’t sink in for a long time. And by then, getting off that path could be much more difficult than getting on it was.
If a question like that comes at you from out of the blue, you need to take some time to consider your answer. Even better would be to thrash out your thinking about entering management ahead of time. Here are a couple of key questions you should ask yourself.
Do you understand what it means to be a manager? Most of us want to be recognized for the work we do and expand our capacities. We want the respect, pay and promotions that we feel should come with our achievements. And we want the opportunities to try on new roles, to move up in the world.
But is management the best way for you, individually, to achieve those things? Do you hold misconceptions about management — that management roles bring you power, when they actually depend on influence, or that having been a technician means you understand what technicians need to be happy and productive? Such misconceptions can lead you to be bad at managing or miserable while trying.
Are you ready for a career change rather than a promotion? Although most people think of moving into management as a natural career progression for strong individual contributors, nothing could be further from the truth. Being the best developer in your organization doesn’t mean that you would make a good manager of developers. In fact, the reasons that you are such a good developer — a love of solitary work, of finding clear solutions to well-defined problems or of getting rapid and unambiguous feedback on how well you are doing — may lead you to hate being a manager. And you have to realize that if you do well in a management role, you will have to give up much of what you now love about your job. You won’t be able to maintain your technical chops and develop new managerial ones at the same time. You’ll have to choose one or the other.
Supposing that you have thought about those two questions and decided that management will be a good fit for you, you will want to ask a couple more questions before accepting that offer to lead the next deployment.
What support will be available for me as I learn to lead? You’re going to need help understanding your new role, and you’ll also need someone safe to talk to who shares your concerns and can give advice. New managers often feel challenged and afraid to ask for help out of fear of looking incompetent. They also frequently feel frightened and alone.
How can we arrange things so that, if I decide that being a manager isn’t right for me, I can go back to a technical role without it looking like I’ve been demoted? Engineers who enter a management track can feel stuck. They want to go back to what they love doing, but the only way they can see doing that without losing face is to leave the company. Chart out a path back if you like the organization you’re in and want to stay there even if management isn’t for you.
If you spend a little time thinking about whether you’d like to become a manager, you’re more likely to have a good experience when the opportunity appears rather than struggling when you need your clarity most.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.