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Management

By Andy Warren,

One of the challenges of our profession is moving people into management. Often when a vacancy appears we promote the person who has been there the longest, or the person with the strongest skills. In fact it happens so often it's hard for me to call it an invalid strategy, but how effective it is depends a lot on the manager that will be managing the new manager! The other piece to the challenge is that many people want/try to move into management for a lot of wrong reasons. Together those two problems often cause the stereotype of the pointy eared manager to be all too true. This article is my take on how you can decide if moving to management is right for you, and if you do want to pursue that path, some steps you can take to get ready now.

Before we start, consider this; managing is a career of it's own. When you become a manager all your technical skills don't become worthless, but they become secondary to a whole set of new skills that you must acquire. I'm sure many will disagree, but I prefer to work for a good manager with lesser technical skills than a poor manager with great technical skills. I like working for a manager that shields me from distractions, helps me with my career, in general just makes being a manager look effortless. Managers get paid to set direction, hire and retain staff, make decisions (to some degree), accomplish goals, and to act as good stewards of the company resources. Nothing in there requires them to be the alpha coder/DBA! I'm not suggesting you give up your technical skills when you become a manager, but the truth is they will atrophy over time if you insist on being a good manager because you put time into the things that matter most and low level technical skills don't have the same return on time investment they used to.

Let's start with the bad reasons for becoming a manager:

  • Wanting to make more money. Nothing wrong with wanting to leverage your skills and experience to increase your salary and corresponding ability to care for family, but many people who move up for this reason end up unhappy. Why? The main reason - a common theme you'll see throughout this article - is that they end up giving up the very skills that they enjoyed most. Before moving to management for more money make sure you've tried hard to get them to increase the salary cap on your current position, considered changing jobs for one with a higher salary cap, or even considered joining a consulting firm. I'll also add that salaries for first line managers aren't usually that much higher, it's the bonus (not guaranteed) of 0-20% that most are eligible for that makes the difference.
  • Because  we should aspire to move up. It's easy to feel like an under achiever if you don't aspire to management, and as you approach age 40 (or number of your choice!) you may start to feel like everyone is passing you by. There's nothing wrong with being a career craftsman. If you enjoy the work and earn a premium for your experience you have nothing to apologize for!
  • We're tired of the IT treadmill/day to day grind. It's easy to get burned out on coding or restoring databases, or  with trying to learn all the new features and changes that happen in our world every few years. Moving into management will require learning a whole new set of skills - many people related - and dealing with the technology isn't going to go away. Ask yourself if changing jobs/focus would help, maybe you need to work with some people with skills greater than your own to challenge you, or maybe a job where you can mentor would help. Recharge first, then if management still looks good, then go for it.
  • Wanting to fix things that are broken. Nothing wrong with this goal and in practice you may well have to do it, but if you're moving into management only because of this, will you enjoy the job after it's fixed? What if you can't fix it (reality can be harsh)? If your focus is on technical issues consider strongly finding a position as a technical lead that will let you try to guide people and projects based on your hard won experience without the full scale move into management.

So, are there good reasons? Of course!

  • Your mojo has shifted. As we age and grow we all find our interests changing as result of our experiences. For some of us that means that we start to become less interested in technology for the sake of technology and more interested in using technology to solve a business problem (make money). You'll know when this happens and while it doesn't guarantee you'll be a good manager, it does mean you won't bemoan the degradation of your technical skills while you're learning the new craft.
  • You yearn to lead. I don't believe that leaders are born, most grow and evolve based on circumstance. For many of us it's entirely comfortable yet fun and challenging to work 'for the man' and just do the work that needs to be done, and to do it well. For others, nothing less than driving will make them happy and that's the start of being a leader.

Before you decide that you want to be a manager, consider some hard lessons you're going to have to accept:

  • As a manager you get paid to get things done, things that are dictated by someone higher up. Fail to get it done and they'll just get someone else. Read that one a few times. It may sound simple, brutal, or just stupid, but it's absolutely the way the world is.
  • You'll have to keep secrets from your team. It may be an upcoming merger, acquisition, layoffs, even planning to fire a poor performer, but as a manager you'll be privy to things you cannot share.
  • You have to be able to look someone in the eye and criticize them and in some cases, fire them. Look at your team right now and imagine being promoted. Could you fire the non performer, or candidly (but tactfully) tell someone your senior that they are making mistakes or not getting work done appropriately?
  • You have to be willing and able to delegate work. This sounds easy, but in practice it feels like it takes longer to explain a task than to just do it. It also sucks when you delegate something, they screw it up, and you have to pay. Successful delegation separates great managers from good ones.
  • No one is going to check on you to make sure your work is being done. If you're not 100% self motivated, think twice.
  • Your peers are now managers, and not necessarily technical managers. Yes, you can still go to lunch with the team, but you will need to spend a lot more time with your peers to be effective.
  • You can't be the alpha geek and manage. Maybe one in a thousand of you will be the exception, but for most of us mortals it's just too much. We'll keep up on technology and try to lend a hand now and then, but slowly we'll fall back to the middle of the pack.
  • Dealing with people is hard. They tend to test the fences constantly, stray off task, argue with each other, and in general want you to solve all their problems personal and professional. My friend Steve says his rule is to 'treat them all the same but differently'. When you can understand that grasshopper, you have learned!
  • Manager's don't get trained to be managers. They are thrown in the deep end and told to swim. If you sink, they just get another one!

So I haven't talked you out of being a manager? Good! We need good managers in our profession and if you've come this far without ranting at me, you might well make it! The truth is you're going to have to learn a lot of lessons the hard way, but I'll share some tips from my various times managing:

  • Start to pay attention to the way your current manager does things. Which things work and which don't? See if you can build a rapport that will allow you to ask for insight into 'what made you decide this way instead of that way'. If you see that your manager isn't very effective, look for one that is. A good role model is invaluable in that 1-2 years before you decide to seek a management job.
  • Take any management training they do offer. Some of it will be useful, some won't, but it will help you to see what things are important to a manager and help you confirm (or regret) your decision to try to move to management.
  • From 8 to 5 be a manager. Manage and lead the team during the day, then code or tune or whatever from 5 pm until as late as you care to work, just be in at 8 am the next morning. This makes sure you do your job first.
  • Buy a time management book and read it twice. Time management will have more to do with your success or failure than you might think, and it leads back to delegation.
  • The first job you take as a manager should be a very carefully thought out decision. For that first job you want to work for a manager that can coach you to success, not just throw you in the pool. If your manager was only so-so and they were just promoted, do you really want to work for them? It's tempting to take the first opportunity that comes along, but don't!
  • If you feel like you're failing step back and think; what would the next person do differently that I'm not doing?
  • Working harder is never the answer. This is partly time management, but it's really a larger philosophy. Working harder/longer works for a time when we can do the work from muscle memory. It doesn't work for creative work. You can't afford to be tired and irritable with your team or your boss, they deserve (and expect) you at 100% during the day.
  • I have two barometers I use for technical managers. One is that I expect to normally get a reply to any email to them within one business day. The other is asking them how much time they spend on 'nice to have' tasks like sending people to training, or implementing new processes. If it isn't happening I know they are mired in details.

Finally, even if you try management and ultimately decide to return to being a DBA or developer, don't count that as a failure. I guarantee it will make you a better employee and will give you a better appreciation for the relative simplicity of just having to worry about what you need to get done. I look forward to your comments.

I blog once a week or so at http://blogs.sqlservercentral.com/andy_warren/default.aspx about SQL Server, SQL user groups, and related topics. I hope you'll visit and comment occasionally!

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