Tips for developers in new management roles
Strong and competent leadership is also needed in the IT industry. When entering the management level, new executives face significant challenges, as the future job profile includes different and more comprehensive tasks.
No one is born to be a leader.
Often, an employee has gained several years of work experience, supervised various projects, and distinguished themselves through a good performance before a promotion is due. Now a new career phase begins, which brings with it several changes. Colleagues become employees — at least formally — and working is increasingly less shaped by day-to-day operations.
It’s a time of adjustment that raises many questions and presents fresh executives with new and unusual challenges. But don’t worry, no master has fallen from the sky yet. There is no recipe for success in becoming a good boss, no ten-point list that needs to be checked off. In the following article, I would like to share the experiences that I have had in the ten years since I have been leading teams. The article is intended to serve as a guide and source of new food for thought for newly minted leaders in IT.
Most tech-savvy employees who rise to leadership have previously worked actively in a very deeply embedded technology role. This usually focused on actively using technology to turn ideas into a product themselves.
Whether as a software developer, business intelligence analyst, or data scientist, all of these areas require in-depth knowledge of the respective subject matter. In their career so far, this subject matter has become increasingly “manageable” for the individual employee, and the skill set has become more and more difficult to master. Consistent learning and professional development were sufficient to master new challenges within the structures. With the step one career level higher, the former specialists are now faced with building up a completely new skill set within a concise period of time: professionally and in the area of soft skills.
See existing architecture holistically.
Most technical managers were previously experts in their field and felt not only in good hands but also secure. They know their development environment and infrastructure inside out and, for example, usually have an immediate sense of where bugs come from when they occur.
This state changes quickly as soon as you have to lead a team that may be working in a different programming language or on a different environment but a completely different platform. First and foremost, managers should take the time to understand the new holistic architecture. It helps to visualize the architecture independently and to discuss and understand it in detail with individual team members. Also, managers should roughly familiarize themselves with the new programming language or platform to better understand the context.
Become active yourself
Young managers are usually recruited from ambitious developers and therefore tend to want to continue actively solving tricky tasks and the particularly demanding interesting work themselves in their new position. This is also quite normal in parts; it represents a large part of their previous activity areas. Especially in the first few months after taking up a management position, there may be an urge to withhold these tasks from one’s own employees.
Young managers should therefore be aware that their area of responsibility is defined differently by their new role and that they are no longer an active part of the development. Giving tasks and problems to the team at this point protects their own resources and ensures that the team feels valued by being entrusted with complex activities.
The more leadership responsibility you get and the bigger your team is, the less time you will develop it. Particularly after some time, you may find that you are missing something in your daily work as a manager. As a result, workdays can feel unproductive because you “didn’t get to anything” due to leadership and management. Therefore, as a manager, you should regularly — at least once a month — take the time to develop something yourself or try out updates and new technology.
Hand over responsibility
Many newly appointed bosses often tend to make decisions — especially technical ones — from the top down. This may be because one has the most experienced team or has been with the company the longest. Potential consequences for team spirit and fitness can be fatal; ultimately, the entire team may have to bear the decision for years. It is therefore important to recognize when a single person should make a decision with expertise or by the entire team.
When one can choose between a variety of very mature technology, tools and methods, the chosen solution is often not decisive for success or failure. Much more important is the path to the decision and how it was made. Managers should always pay special attention to how the individual employees feel best picked up to understand, evaluate and support decisions.
Although — or especially because of — the rise to management level, it is essential to act as a team player. Young managers often underestimate how important consistent and trusting communication is. If you were previously a part of a team, you are now suddenly their superior. Words and gestures have a completely different effect on the team as a result. This does not mean that you should completely change your previous appearance. Instead, it is advisable to check exactly what effect what is said has on the respective employees and colleagues.
Experience shows that communication with other stakeholders outside the team, in particular, can lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretation. Since you inevitably have to coordinate with the other teams' managers, you should ensure an open and clear communication culture from the outset. As a young manager, it is also helpful to practice communicating externally and in front of groups.
In the IT sector, numerous topics can undermine one’s own thought leadership and contribute to positioning oneself in the public eye. Meetups, user group presentations, or conferences are particularly suitable for this. You can speak on topics that are not purely technical and practice speaking outside your own range of topics.
Build soft skills
IT people often have an obvious orientation framework, as algorithms provide a schematized representation of reality. Here, wrong/correct or true/untrue often counts, and the structures are clearly defined from the outset. Does an application not work properly? Then it will usually be a bug, which can be fixed by deep analysis and structured debugging.
This does not necessarily mean that developers all sit in front of their computers and go about their daily routine without any exchange with their environment. Still, it does show that other professions such as marketing managers, sales employees, or human resources staff may well be on a different communicative level due to the constant contact with people. Therefore a different form of communication should be chosen.
When such employees develop into leadership roles, it is not just a matter of learning to hand off tasks or take a strategic and far-sighted view of developing one’s own area. It is also a matter of developing and expanding soft skills that ensure trusting cooperation within the team.