TL;DR: If you are unsure whether you should pursue a career in management, ask yourself certain questions: Do you truly care about your co-workers? Can you enjoy working with people? Can you listen? Can you spot talent? Do you feel fully comfortable in your technical field? Only if you can answer a majority of these questions with “yes” should you switch to management.
Advanced engineers sometimes face an important choice: Do you want to stay on a purely technical track, or do you take on management responsibility? Switching to management is not a promotion, it is a career change. Therefore, this decision should not be made lightly. Since it is pretty different from engineering, many engineers are unsure what to expect, if they would enjoy it, or if they would be any good at it.
Below, I suggest ten relevant reasons that you can use as a decision helper in case you are in such a situation. The more statements you can answer with “yes”, the greater the probability that you would enjoy a switch towards management, and that you would be — or become — good at it.
1. You care
If you have worked under a manager who does not care, you probably know that it’s a frustrating experience. You make them aware of a problem, and all they do is try to get rid of you as soon as possible. You ask them for feedback, and they give you useless generalities and platitudes like “Everything is all right” or “Don’t worry, you’re doing fine”. You talk to them, and they are only half listening to you, while they are typing away on their laptop, mechanically answering with “hmm-hmmmmm” when you pause for a while. You pull off something amazing, and they barely realize.
Managers who do not truly care about their directs as people, and about the success of their teams, can turn the work atmosphere into a dull grey, and suck all motivation and energy out of the people around them. They are also one of the dominating causes for people to leave. Therefore, caring is, to me, the number one requirement if you want to become a manager.
You should care how the people around you are doing. Are they making progress? Are they motivated? If not, why not? Is there something holding them back? Are they at odds with somebody else? Is somebody underperforming and people are frustrated because nobody is doing anything about it? Is somebody in the wrong role, or working on the wrong topic? Is somebody constantly overworked, or do they have private problems that might affect their work? If questions like these come naturally to you, this is a very good sign, because it shows that you would not be a careless manager. You would be there for your people, and watch out for them.
By the way, caring does not mean that you go all soft and cuddly. On the contrary. Caring means tough love. If somebody does not meet expectations, you point it out, and hold them accountable. Caring means choosing the right path of action, not necessarily the popular one. Dick Costolo sums this up perfectly:
“You need to care deeply, deeply about your people while not worrying or really even caring about what they think about you. Managing by trying to be liked is the path to ruin.”
2. You don’t hate people
Julie Zhuo, design manager at Facebook, has a very good quote on the people aspect of management:
“Imagine you spend a full day in back-to-back 1:1s talking to people. Does that sound awful or awesome?”
There is a lot of truth in this. Management means that there are times where you are dealing with people problems more than with technical problems. Technical problems are hard, but people problems are not only hard, they can also be frustrating, long-winding, ever-recurring, and completely irrational. Be prepared to catch yourself thinking: “God, am I in kindergarten? I should not have to deal with this!”
However, if you refuse to tackle these people issues, then your team will degenerate and fall apart. In these situations, it helps a lot if you don’t actually hate people. Can you muster some understanding for someone else even if you do not agree with them? Can you remind yourself of how they must be feeling to act in such an annoying way? Empathy is a talent that is very valuable for managers, because it lets them view a problem from different people’s standpoints. Apply this understanding in a discussion, and it might already be enough to defuse a conflict. Intelligent people do not always have to have it their way, but they need to feel that they have been truly heard. If you are curious about people and about what drives them, then you are in a very good starting position to manage conflicts and disagreements.
3. You are a good listener
As a manager, information gathering is going to be one of your most important activities. It helps to be a good observer to find out where things go wrong, or where people are dissatisfied. However, ultimately, you cannot be everywhere at the same time, and you will not notice everything. Therefore, you will have to get people to tell you what is going on.
And yet people will not tell you what is going on if they have the feeling you are not listening. If you are a bad listener and have no intention to change that, please don’t become a manager. Listening is more than hearing. Listening means asking good questions, paying attention to what was omitted, and rephrasing things that were said so that there are no misunderstandings and the other party truly feels heard.
For example, imagine you ask someone how they like their current work. The reply is “It’s pretty interesting.”, but then that’s all, and they move around in their chair uncomfortably. In such a case, it’s your job to ask what they mean by that, and tell them that they don’t seem very happy. You might learn that, yes, the actual subject matter of the work might be interesting, but the lack of progress is frustrating. The decision structure is unclear, and meetings are dominated by political discussions. However, your employee did not want to complain, or cause you any trouble, because they know that this would mean a lot of work for you, or that it might be impossible to fix.
It’s your job to get them to talk. If you feel you haven’t gotten to the bottom of things, ask another question.
4. You have an eye for talent
The most important asset in a knowledge intensive economy are your people. The foundation of assembling a world-class team is hiring great people. If you get hiring wrong, no amount of training will set it right. Therefore, you have to be good at spotting talented people who fit your team.
Moreover, having an eye for talent is not only crucial when it comes to hiring. When you have a tech lead position to fill, or when you need somebody to mentor a newcomer, picking the right people for the job is equally important as hiring new employees.
If you are not sure if you have that eye for talent, try to assess your colleagues in terms of technical and teamwork skills. Note your assessments down in a private document. This step is important, because it keeps you from cheating and changing your opinion as you go, without noticing. Then, try to mentor as many junior people as you can, and try to pair program with as many people as possible. This should give you an idea if your assessments are realistic, or if they are way off.
If you haven’t yet, try to get into recruiting. Interviewing job candidates, and later interacting with those candidates as colleagues, can teach you how to read people and assess their skills.
5. You trust your colleagues
If a manager who does not care (see point 1 above) is the worst thing that can happen to you, a manager who does not trust you comes in a close second. Managers who do not trust their people will micromanage them. They will prescribe each step instead of setting a goal and letting their employees figure out the rest. Then, they will take over themselves at some point, because they do not trust their people to get the job done.
There is no room to grow under a mistrustful manager. She will carefully limit the information she shares with you. On the other hand, she will be furious if she has the feeling that you are withholding something from her, or that you are talking to her boss without informing her first. No matter how “correctly” you behave, there will never be real trust between you. There will only be less mistrust, or emulated trust, if things go well for a long time. However, one “blunder” on your part, and you’re back to doubt and control.
So, please, please, please: If you are naturally mistrustful, do not become a manager of people. It will not be a pleasant experience for you, because you will constantly think somebody is betraying you, and it will be a horrible experience for your direct reports. Instead, you might be better off considering a purely technical career, or project management.
6. You have good communication skills
No matter if you want to be a technical leader or a manager of people, a great part of it will be communication. And while, as a developer, you might be able to get away with communicating mainly in writing, this option is gone once you step out of the individual contributor role.
Communicating clearly is essential in a lot of situations. You have to give proper feedback to people. You have to delegate tasks. You have to explain your people’s work in the larger context of the organization, and make them understand why the work is important. You have to describe the future of the team, department, or company, and how you will get there. All this means you have to stand up in front of people, and share your thoughts.
Maybe you do not consider yourself a great communicator just yet. I don’t consider myself a great communicator. However, through reading, writing, and practicing, I have become a lot better than I used to be, and so can you. Use every opportunity to speak publicly. Write your thoughts down to achieve a clearer understanding of things, and to strengthen your opinions. Volunteer to be the moderator in meetings, or to give a workshop on a topic you know well. All these little things will come together and improve your communication skills, so that you can rely on them when it really matters.
7. You are willing to point things out
If you do not point out bad behaviour on the team, chances are that nobody else will, and that the behaviour just continues, or even becomes worse. In a management position, giving critical feedback from time to time is inevitable, unless you don’t do your job properly, or you are exclusively working with angels. Moreover, you will have to do it in a way so that you cannot be misunderstood:
- It is their problem, so don’t try to make it yours. It’s not we, it’s you. Don’t ask “What could we do to improve the situation?”, but rather “What do you suggest you do to improve the situation?”.
- If they come up with something too general or lame, say “I don’t think that’s enough. What else could you do?”
- Don’t wrap criticism in layers of compliments (also known as the shit sandwich). “Robert, this refactoring of the repository layer was really great. One thing, though: You could be a bit less insulting in code review comments. And, by the way, I love how you even updated the documentation!” No! The message will get lost in the feel-good noise you wrap it in.
- Don’t forget about things after one conversation. Be willing to follow up and monitor. Tell them “I would like to talk about this again in four weeks.”, and mean it! Don’t be afraid of being a pain in the ass. They need to know you are serious.
Again, it comes back to caring and tough love. Do you enjoy holding somebody accountable? Of course not! You did not sign up for this job to play people’s parent, did you? However, it’s not nearly as bad as seeing standards in quality and behaviour drop around you. As seeing people take shortcuts. As seeing sloppiness and carelessness build up. So you do it. And it is closely related to the next reason why you should be a manager…
8. You don’t have to be best friends with everybody
Giving critical feedback is even more difficult if you are somebody’s best friend, and you are afraid of damaging your personal relationship. Conversely, it helps if you can keep a professional distance with your direct reports, even if it’s just a distance you are keeping within yourself. An inner attitude. At the very least, you should be self-assured enough so that you do not have to be best friends with everybody. Remember the Dick Costolo quote above: “Managing by trying to be liked is the path to ruin.”
So, ask yourself: Can you stay objective even when things become emotional? Will you put your team’s health first, even if it is painful for an individual? Let’s hope it never has to happen, but could you fire somebody if you have a good reason? Can you have a difficult conversation with somebody you like? How about with somebody you don’t like? Can you imagine moderating a conflict between two people you both like, even at the risk that they will both be mad at you afterwards?
Again, I am not suggesting that you have to be able to do all this right now, when you have not yet started management. You will grow with the task at hand, and you can grow and improve a lot through books, mentoring, and practice. However, if you read through the previous paragraph, and you start breathing heavily, your hands get sweaty, and you want to run away screaming, this is a rather bad sign.
9. You have mastered a technical field
While the other points so far were rather generic, this one refers specifically to engineering. Before you change your career towards management, you should feel really comfortable in your technical domain, for several reasons. One, employees who feel that their manager knows what their job is about, or whose manager can even jump in and do their job, have higher job satisfaction.
Secondly, as Andy Grove says, “training is always the boss’s job”, and if you train people, you naturally have to know what you are talking about. This does not mean that you have to be the best engineer in the organization, but you should have some maturity and authority as an engineer.
The third reason why it is recommended to know at least one field really well before you move into management is that you might have to move back at some point. Maybe the organization has to shrink, and you have to move back to an individual contributor role. Maybe you move to another company, and you start over in an IC role. So, having mastered a technical field simply makes a lot of sense from a risk management point of view: If your management position disappears, you will still be able to fall back to a technical role. If you want to read more on this aspect, I urge you to read Camille Fournier’s articles or book.
10. If you don’t do it, somebody who cares less will
One of my favourite quotes on managers is from a great article by Rich Armstrong:
“The only reason there’s so many awful managers is that good people like you refuse to do the job.”
You might have doubts if you are the right person for the job. You might wonder if you are the one who can settle conflicts, who can guide people, whom people trust to lead them. You might wonder if you deserve the position, and if it is justified to put you in that role.
Let me tell you: This is a good sign, because imagine the opposite. Imagine someone taking the job who is fully convinced that he is the perfect and, in fact, the only serious candidate for the job. Somebody who wants to climb the career ladder, and for whom this “promotion” is only an intermediate stopover on his way to CTO, or Vice President, or some other fancy title. Or, somebody who only does it for the money. In short, they do not have this self-doubt, but they have the wrong motives, and they certainly don’t care as much as you.
There is a high chance that these people would be bad managers people run away from. Therefore, have the courage to be a good manager and prevent that scenario from coming true. Even if it feels weird at first.
If you are considering a move into management, think about the points above. How many can you answer with “yes” or “rather yes”? The more, the better. Should you be worried when your number is less than, say, six? That’s hard to say in general, but you should definitely be able to somewhat subscribe to You care (1) and You don’t hate people (2). Number four, You have an eye for talent (4), is also pretty vital. If you have deficits there, you should at least be able to make up for hiring or promotion mistakes by Being willing to point things out (7) and Not having to be friends with everyone (8). All in all, I think if your score is seven and above, chances are high that you will eventually succeed in management.
That said, always keep in mind that nobody starts out as a perfect manager. Far from it. Everyone screws up. There are simply things about this kind of job that you cannot learn from a book. Therefore, perhaps the most important requirement — number Zero — should be You are willing to learn and to grow. Management will take you outside your comfort zone, and you have to be ok with that. In Rich Armstrong’s words: “Start learning to be a manager, and be uncomfortable about it.” People around you will be thankful that it’s you — someone thoughtful — instead of somebody who is only career-driven.
This blog post took me about 5 hours to write and research.