Computer science curricula fail to cover one basic skill set required of programmers with aspiration of one day becoming managers—navigating corporate politics. Here are a few bits of advice that I’ve learned to safely manage my career “beyond the code.”
Prepare for a “New Diplomacy.” Sounds like political science, right? There’s no way around it; the business world is extremely political. Make as many friends as possible. When someone from another unit needs a little assistance, do what you can; you may need help sooner than you think. Business drivers spend the majority of their time working together and don’t always agree, so back scratching goes a long way. In an environment of competing business goals, compromise is essential.
Perception is reality. The development world can sometimes be very black-and-white. Code either works or it doesn’t. In business, the appearance of a presentation is as important as the substance itself. In this context, it’s not only important to be prepared but also to appear prepared. Crossing every T and dotting every I in a presentation will pay immediate dividends from bigger fishes higher in the corporate food chain.
Be overorganized. You’ll need a complete filing system and a PDA or planner to keep control of the variety of new tasks. In a role where meetings make up the day and decisions are manufactured across business units, it’s vital to document everything. This not only helps you protect yourself when something goes wrong, it lets you keep yourself and your team aware of decisions and commitments.
Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes. One of the pearls of political wisdom is to simply not be afraid. Once a mistake has been made, you can’t change it, and any attempt to gloss it over or hide it will eventually backfire. In fact, if you take responsibility for your mistakes, you can actually make your handling of the situation a political asset. On one of the first large projects I managed, a piece of testing was not completed, and we ended up with an unacceptable production bug. Rather than deny the situation, I worked with the appropriate people to resolve the bug and complete an analysis of the process that failed. In the end, my resolution was more of an asset than the failure was a liability.
While I doubt that corporate politics will ever be a required college course, stick your head out in your new role and learn what you must to make the move from coder to business driver. In the end, there’s no substitute for the school of hard knocks.