For many software engineers, there comes a time when they must decide whether to remain technical or pursue a role that primarily requires managing others. They are no longer solely responsible for their own contributions, but also that of others and the team as a whole. The transition to 'manager of others' must certainly be one of the more stressful milestones in one’s career - a hypothesis partly supported by the numerous articles online on this topic.
However, very little is said from the perspective of those responsible for promoting an individual into a leadership role. What are some of the common challenges and fears facing new managers, and what can leaders of leaders do to support them during the transition?
Areas of discomfort for new managers
Software engineers — especially the high achievers, those most likely to be promoted into a leadership role — are natural ‘yes’ people, willing to take on a new challenge without always knowing what’s on the other side of the door. There is plenty to debate about whether moving into a management position is indeed a step-up on the career ladder, but let’s assume it’s happening, and for the right reasons.
Influence over control
The most notable adjustment is shifting from a position of control to a position of influence. As a ‘doer’ of the work, you are in direct control of what you’re building. Your responsibilities are task oriented, hands-on, and your actions have an immediate and tangible effect on your output.
As a manager of others, your job is to influence. Leadership style plays a large part in your effectiveness as a manager, and often requires the new manager to cede a significant level of control of how the job gets done.
Losing technical skills
Spending more time managing delivery and team members naturally takes away time from being able to practice the technical skills that have been part of your technical career until now. This is a real fear many new managers face — their livelihood has been anchored on these technical skills for most, if not all, of their career up until this point. Addressing this fear is important to avoid regret later down the line.
Holding others to account
Giving constructive feedback to others, both positive and negative, is something that many new managers can find extremely uncomfortable. It takes part skill and part courage and includes holding others to account for not meeting expectations.
Priorities, time management and context switching
Technical individuals will naturally gravitate towards technical tasks since this is where they feel most comfortable. They have a high level of confidence that they will succeed, and believe that technical tasks is where their time is best spent. Plus, there is a common misconception that time not spent designing a solution or writing code is time wasted. However, this also happens to require larger chunks of focus time, which is a luxury that managers don’t always have. So, the ability to prioritize what’s important and context switch appropriately in the new role is a common challenge faced by most new managers.
Dealing with imprecise elements
Software engineers are used to binary outcomes: it either works or it doesn’t, and the timeframes for feedback on these outcomes in the software world are fairly instant. As a manager, the focus shifts from binary outcomes to one of motivating others, building relationships, making decisions with limited information and planning more than one or two sprints ahead. New managers from a technical background often struggle to adjust to making long-view decisions, especially with imperfect information.
Supporting the transition to management
It’s easy to assume an individual who excelled in a technical role will naturally perform at a similar level in a leadership role, especially if they are career driven, enthusiastic, and eager to take on new challenges. Ideally they’ve been operating with some or all of these responsibilities before taking full accountability, but this isn’t always practical given the current demand for both technical and leadership skills in the software development world. What can we do as leaders of leaders to better support them in their new role?
First be a mentor, then a boss
Software engineers come from a learning process of reading books, doing online courses, experimenting with code and tools and on the job experiences. A large part of their growth comes from interacting with other team members discussing technical designs and the merits of one approach over another. The soft skills required for a leadership role cannot easily be digested through the same learning approach. Providing a hands-on, mentorship role during the early stages can help guide in ways that cannot be found in a text book, or through formal job descriptions and performance appraisals.
Set proper boundaries
New managers often struggle with knowing what decisions they can and cannot make. Make the boundaries of the role explicit and give permission to make mistakes. Encourage them to continue developing their technical skills through various means, but be clear that a key focus of the role is growing and developing others. Talk through the challenges of time management and get them to commit an appropriate amount of time in the right areas, especially those outside their comfort zone.
Teach them how to give effective feedback
Just as you expect a new manager to hold others to account, do the same for them — lead by example and show first-hand how to give effective feedback to team members. Spend time in feedback sessions, preparing discussion points and suitable techniques for dealing with potentially difficult discussions, and doing retrospectives on how various scenarios could have been tackled differently.
If you’re promoting someone in an area you’ve directly been responsible for in the past, give them the space to find their own leadership style. Don’t micro-manage. In the same way you’re guiding them to trust their team, trust the new manager to decide how to achieve his or her own objectives.
Develop management skills, emphasize leadership
There are a broad range of skills to master to become an effective manager. The one area of development that will benefit the new manager the most is leadership. Teaching them how to influence and develop others in a manner that builds trust and strong relationships will go further than any other skill.
New managers can experience a significant amount of discomfort and stress when moving from a technical to a management role, which may not manifest immediately. If they’re taking on this new role and staying with their current team and environment, be sure to explain their new responsibilities to both team and client. Having a suitable strategy in place to support an individual during this transition can go a long way in helping them be the best leader they can be.