In Tech, Management Is
Not a Promotion
To move from
a technical role
is to abandon
one career for
henever i hear
a technical person say,
“I just got promoted into management,” I know he’s in for a rough ride. Because chances are he doesn’t understand what he’s gotten himself into, and whoever gave him the job hasn’t prepared him well. Very rarely do they
CEO of Leading
Geeks, an education
and consulting firm
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realize that in technical work, this new role isn’t a
promotion — it’s a career change.
To get a promotion is generally to receive added
responsibilities. There is a sense of continuity:
What came before is a part of what is to come.
But for technical people, nothing could be further
from the truth.
Engineering and management are entirely dif-
ferent careers, with no overlap in required skills,
knowledge and behaviors. Technical managers
don’t need to be great engineers. They need to
be skilled at creating the conditions under which
others can become great engineers. To move from
a technical role to management is to abandon one
career for another.
Selecting and growing successful technical
managers requires a keen appreciation of both the
differences between the roles and the dynamics of
the transition, because the shift from one career
to another can be rather traumatic. Here are some
things you can do to help avoid that trauma.
try before you buy.
A large percentage of engi-
neers who try management don’t like it. Too often,
they choose to leave the organization rather than
suffer the public humiliation of a “demotion” or per-
ceived failure. So the organization loses some of its
best engineering talent because it tries to “promote”
engineers to jobs they ultimately don’t want.
To avoid this, give engineers an opportunity to
dabble in management without making any public
declarations that are hard to back away from.
They need a chance to try on the managerial hat
before committing to a major career change.
use rites of passage.
Once a managerial candi-
date decides to commit to the new career, it’s im-
portant to make a public statement that symbol-
izes that he has transitioned to a new career path.
This helps the manager recognize the profundity
of the shift. It can be classic, like an office party
— but it can be fun too. Maybe you can organize a
ceremonial surrendering of the pocket protector.
expect grief and insecurity.
Most new manag-
ers resist the idea that they’ll have to abandon
their former glory to embrace the new role. They
try hard to be both technical and managerial but
eventually realize that it’s not possible. When they
recognize that there is no going back to being
purely technical, you need to account for the
accompanying sadness of loss. They are not only
losing the work that they love, but also embracing
something so totally new that they will inevitably
feel incompetent and insecure for a while.
offer training and support.
be helpful, but it’s rarely enough. Becoming a
manager is about a lot more than just acquiring
new skills. It’s about mastering a new way of work
and a new understanding of self. Managers need
coaching to make the change.
New managers need the
opportunity to occasionally dabble in their former
work. Let them code just a little. But make sure
they recognize that such things are indulgences
that let them revisit the glory days but don’t
provide significant value to the organization.
With a few relatively easy adjustments in lan-
guage and approach, you can create an environ-
ment in which new technical managers grow and
your team gets the leadership it needs. u
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