Making the transition from developer to manager

Making the move from developer to manager means more money, but it also means more responsibility and headaches. Find out how to make the transition a smooth one with these best practices.
Written by Bruce Walton, Contributor
A classic “Dilbert” cartoon depicts the Pointy Haired Boss promoting a developer to a managerial position. The developer is overcome with anxiety as the boss hands him a tie and says, “Don’t be afraid, it’s called a necktie.” While a promotion from a technical role to a supervisory position isn’t that scary, a few bumps can be expected. Let’s take a look at a few tips to help ease the transition from developer to manager.

Is a manager's role right for you?
Technical people should ask themselves before they pursue a managerial position: “Is a manager's role right for me?” Being a supervisor or manager is very different from being a developer. Look at how you currently spend your day and ask yourself some more questions. Do you enjoy digging into the nitty-gritty of low-level issues? Do you enjoy developing elegant solutions to complex problems? How do you feel about meetings? How comfortable are you in directing the work of others and dealing with conflicts? These are some of the things you should consider before making a move up the ladder.

Another key question is, “Why do I want to be a manager?” For a long time I wanted to be a manager because, in the organization where I worked, the career path was developer—senior developer—manager. There was no “technical career path”; you either became a manager or you slowly ascended to the ceiling of the senior developer pay scale. So, as a senior developer, I wanted to be a manager in order to continue in the career path. I was shocked into reassessing my feelings when my manager, who was a good friend and mentor, told me that she would have stayed longer in the senior developer position if she had to do all it over.

Making the leap
So, you made the jump from developer to a manager. Now what? Here are a few tips to help ease the move.

Get a mentor
A mentor is good to have no matter where you are in your career. But at key transitions like this, a mentor can make all the difference. Mentors can help you with the many new things you'll need to learn. Look for a mentor in someone who's been in your position for a few years. These people have learned the ropes but are still close enough to the transition to remember what it was like for them.

Go to training
Get some management and team leadership training. Some topics I recommend are: effective team leadership, conflict resolution, negotiation skills, and helping others succeed. Also, if your Human Resources department has a class in employee evaluations, take it. Writing and giving employee evaluations is hard.

Get to know your team
Even if you've worked with the team for years, get to know them better. Meet with each person one-on-one to discuss their career aspirations, their likes, what they are currently working on, what they'd like to work on, and what they expect from you. When I was not a manager, I always tried to understand what my manager’s expectations were of me and worked to meet or exceed them. Likewise, as a manager, you need to know what your team’s expectations are of you.

Improve your time management skills
As a manager, you'll be adding more directions in which you can be pulled. Develop your time management skills to balance the increased load.

Find a way to keep your technical skills sharp
A big complaint from new technology and development managers is that their technical skills suffer. Let’s face it, as you become more involved in managing you will have less exposure to the things that keep your technical skills as sharp as when you were coding all day. Look for ways to stay involved technically. Perhaps you can assign yourself small programming projects aligned with your team's project—small because you need to balance your time and workload.

You should also try to keep up with technology shifts and new languages. If your team wants to use a particular technology or language, look into it yourself. If you're familiar with a new technology, it will be easier to sell it to the people you report to.

Represent your team well
As you go to meetings or deal with other managers, remember that you're representing the team. Don’t overcommit the team or, conversely, sell it short. Also, be careful not to say one thing to one group and something completely different to another.

Be humble
Arrogance does not fit well on a new manager. You are in a big learning situation where you are bound to make a few mistakes. Take them in stride and learn from them.

Learn to let go
You may feel the urge to jump in and help your team with every issue. Don't. We all know the name for that type of person: “micromanager.” This is one of the hardest things to learn. You need to oversee your team, but you need to give them room to grow.

A good way to measure your success as a manager is to ask your team how you're doing in helping them grow. Ask them individually because each person has unique needs.

Go forward with confidence
These tips will help you make the transition from developer to manager. The road may be bumpy, and you may feel overwhelmed at times, but with any new challenge there is the potential for great reward. Use these tips, and be confident that you can succeed.

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