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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
SQL Server, SQL user groups, and related topics. I hope you'll visit and comment