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Posted on: Tuesday, 20 January 2009 by Rajiv Popat

If you've told yourself that you've been a developer long enough and that you need to 'grow to the next level' and become a manager, or if you've been hopping jobs in your relentless quest of managerial power may I suggest that you close your browser right now, leave and never come back to this URL.

This post, is not for you.  Neither is it about you. Seriously. If you fall in this category of I-need-to-grow-and-become-a-manager developers or you want to become a manager because you find programming depressing,  this post is not for you. Trust us. Just close the browser and leave. Now.

Actually,  on a side note, you can also try out this URL and if that doesn't make you very happy you can go here for relevant content that might satisfy your needs.

Ok, 'they' have left.

Now, with the highly irrelevant audience filtered out, let's get this out in the open, shall we?

If you're still reading this, and you love writing code, you're probably on your life long path of trying to become kick-ass programmer and a one man army, who hates meetings and loves what he does. Long story short, you love programming; and you think it is fun.

Chances are also high, that you're probably an introvert who loves talking to the compiler because it's much more rewarding and predictable than trying to figure out human beings who happen to be fairly unpredictable and act funny at times. You're happy; you're content and satisfied your work keeps you 'in the flow' for a good part of the day. In a world where most programmers can't program let's just say, you're a rather rare breed. Go ahead; pat yourself on your back.

What I'm going to say now, will make you feel a little insulted. It'll make you feel like serializing yourself into XML, flowing over HTTP, appearing right out of my monitor, grabbing me by my throat and strangling me to death; but before you plan any of that; hear me out.

You need to become a --- manager.

Ok, easy. Breath. Let it sink in.

If you thought my giving that advice to you meant that I had lost my mind and that I should be strangled to death for hinting that you move over to management, Rob Walling has sensible advice for you in his post 'Becoming a Better Developer Part 6: Become a Manager':

Many of you gasped at the title of this post:

“Become a manager? Has he lost his mind?! I'll be a coder 'til the day I die!”

I'm not implying that you should give up your coding gloves and step into the ranks of full-time management, but you gain incredible perspective about what makes good and bad developers once you've managed a few of them. Even if you never become a full-fledged supervisor, managing a project, being a technical lead, or running your own business are all suitable ways to experience what makes a “better” developer from a different angle. 

Rob suggests five primary reasons why you should think of becoming a manager if you happen to be a kick-ass developer. These include:

  1. Observing your best developers and Learning what makes your best developers, the best.
  2. Judging your boss from a pragmatic perspective - It's Easy to Complain about Your Boss Until You Have to Do His Job.
  3. Learning How To Self Manage.
  4. Doing what it takes to achieve results.
  5. Pushing the  no surprise culture in the organization.

It is an rather interesting post with valid reasons why really kick-ass programmers and one man armies out there, should try their hand at management; but none of these reasons explains reasons why I relentlessly nudge kick-ass developers and one man armies to try their hand at management.

Here's my reason: If you don't step up, 'they' will. Scott Hanselman, accidently describes this what I mean by 'they', in his rather interesting post on 'Cake-mail, Ninjas on Fire, and other Anecdotes', through an incident he recollects:

When I worked with Travis Illig (who is the origin of the term "Hanselminute," by the way) and Stuart Thompson at Corillian/CheckFree, we had a project manager who didn't totally "get" stuff.

What I mean is that we'd be in a meeting, perhaps a feature meeting or something, and we'd be firing on all cylinders. Everyone was working well together, communicating clearly, finishing each other's sentences, just an all around great day. Designs become clear, backlog items were created at a furious pace, and it was generally felt that everyone in the meeting "grokked" what we needed to do.

At this point this particular project manager, who had been quiet until this point, would ask something like

"Now, wait, are you saying that Java replaces XML?"

...and silence. Crickets. We were hearing English *words*, but not a cohesive sentence. After all that, the last hour of banging through stuff, he had not just a disconnect, but a total fundamental misunderstanding of some aspect of computers and systems design. 

Reflect back and chances are you've been through one of these meetings. Unless you're very lucky you're probably flocked by some of these project manages. 'They' are all around you and if you don't manage your projects, 'they' will.

I see a talented programmer knitting his brows at me right now:

Hey Pops, you're telling me to turn myself into a do-nothing manager who does absolutely nothing, runs around with Gantt charts in his hands, sits in those lousy meetings and talks big even when he is completely clue-less about software development. I want to stay connected to programming and I want to write code; I love computers and there is nothing that is going to change that! 

Absolutely. I love computers too. In fact, in the past, I've gone ahead and said that even young and budding managers should write code. I avoid those meetings too; but consider this; as much as you might feel that managers don't do any real work; as much as you would rather stick to software development and as much as you might hate those stupid never ending meetings, depending on when you are reading this, chances are, that in the real world, in your very own organization, a couple of these stupid meetings are going-on right now even as you read this.

It is in these meetings that a bunch of Freds who know nothing about software development are estimating your timelines and developing the project plan for your next project. They're taking important decisions that'll impact you and your team. You need to be in some of those meetings and tell them that they've got planning all wrong. You need to be there; express your opinions openly, speak up with spine and conviction, show them how stupid some of these decisions are and more importantly, set timers to end those meetings.

Steve Yegge, in his post on (Not) Managing Developers explains why budding programmers wanting to 'grow up' and desperately become managers should not be allowed to.  He also describes the problem from an organizational perspective and how most organizations out there are killing themselves by considering developers, irrespective of how good they are, to be second class citizens. He explains:

The catch-22 of software management is that the ones who want it most are usually the worst at it. Some people, for worse or for worst, want to be managers because it gives them power over their peers. There's nothing good that can come of this arrangement: you should never give power to someone who craves it, for reasons that I hope are obvious.

Unfortunately, many tech companies do exactly that, because they don't know any better. And they exacerbate the problem by setting up a bad feedback loop, in which managers get to make all the decisions and effectively have all the power, or at any rate too much of it. A company may say they value their engineers, but if compensation decisions are all made by managers, guess who gets all the compensation? And then everyone sets a long-term goal of becoming a manager, at which point the company is no longer focused on innovation.

If you're an engineer at a company where becoming a manager is considered a promotion, then you only have three choices: become a manager yourself, or leave, or resign yourself to being a second-class employee. 

Sadly most companies around the world that I've visited, consulted for or worked with, besides a couple of rather rare cases, fall in the range of organizations who consider managers to be a superior breed of employees. I've had my share of being considered a non-decision-maker or yet-another-developer whose feedback hardly mattered and having experienced it first hand I can easily relate to most developer complaining about having bosses who have no freaking clue of how software development is done; but there's a small flip side to  the story.

As I continue to work with and visit multiple organizations across countries I've heard stories of lost-and-clueless-bosses-and-managers multiple times and yet I see highly capable developers and kick-ass programmers, who know what they are doing and how software development is done, being highly reluctant to take up added responsibilities including genuinely leading and helping a team of other kick-ass programmers.

Most kick-ass programmers don't even what to try their hand at it. The Freds on the other hand, are, for obvious reasons of course, dying to move forward and take up 'more responsibility' only to make the problem Steve describes in his post, even worse.

If you're stuck in an organization where you have incompetent managers who have no idea of software development all around you and you think you can make your projects move smoother without them, you are primarily left with two options: "You can Change Your Organization or Change Your Organization." 

Unless, you plan on changing your job or you happen to be one lucky son of a gun who has stumbled upon an organization that lends him a boss who knows how an 'engineering and organizational culture' gets formed; you need to make small and progressive changes in your current workplace. Next time, they offer you a promotion, don't shrug and go 'Nah, I just want to write some code'. Accept it. Step up if needed; and then try your best to 'not manage developers' and not be a prick.

If you don't step up, 'they' will; and then, before you know it, Java will indeed replace XML and the world will end.

Ok maybe it's not that bad; maybe the world won't come to and end; but on a serious note, we have enough Freds flocking the world of software development, trying to 'grow' in their professional life, trying to 'manage developers' and screwing things up repeatedly. We really won't mind a few more competent developers who know what they are talking about, failing often, failing early and running projects pragmatically.

That's it. I'm done. I've committed the ultimate sin of insulting competent developers and decently good human beings by asking them to try their hand at management and morph themselves into managers if they can. If you happen to be one a kick-ass developer, who also happens to be decently good with human beings; or if you just happen to be someone who loves writing code, chances are that you may have perhaps felt slightly turned off by my gentle nudging and trying to push you to the other side of the wall.

If my gentle nudge ended up insulting you, go ahead; serialize yourself into XML, stream over HTTP, come out of my monitor and strangle me to death if you must; and then you can whine about how incompetent your managers are; or we can talk about how your team has been taking a lot of stupid decisions lately. Alternately, you accept leadership roles, make small differences and maybe even make the whole traditional 'manager' role redundant. 

If you're a kick-ass programmer capable of shipping, see if you can morph yourself into a manager; mentor one or more small yet smart teams of other kick-ass developers and then see if you can continue writing that kick-ass code you always loved writing. I wish you good luck.