Managing for the First Time

by Krishna on September 11, 2007

We had an interesting discussion in our office today about how developers should handle new management responsibilities and reconcile that with their regular coding work. The topic was fascinating because there comes a time in the lives of many developers when they are no longer individual contributors, but also have to take responsibility for other people in the project.

The change itself may come about without much fanfare. But make no mistake — it causes significant disruption to the person’s way of working and requires a different outlook altogether. Here are some of the challenges:

  1. By definition, anyone who has been given management responsibilities over others will usually be more technically competent than them. When people make mistakes (as they inevitably do), the new manager is accountable for them, although she knows that she could have done a much better job if she had handled the task herself.
  2. Good developers love coding and learning about new developments in software development. A developer-manager is too buried in tasks to spend large amounts of time on coding. He has to focus at a more higher level than get involved in the details.
  3. They love being left alone to do their stuff. Managers, on the other hand, have a thousand interruptions a day. They have to interact with many different people. They seldom get time to focus on one task for significant chunks of time.
  4. Managers have to interact with many kinds of personalities, including technically clueless people who are unaware of how software development works. This requires significant patience and understanding. Developers are used to being straightforward, not politically correct.

What is the solution? What should a person do? I think the first step in the process is to understand what managing is all about. Here is my definition:

When a person is tasked with managing, then managing becomes their primary responsibility regardless of their existing tasks and regardless of the actual hours they may be required to spend on managing.

Managing is not another task item on the To-Do list. It becomes the core function of that person. It does not matter what the title is: “module leader”, “team leader” or “project manager”. What else was being done by that person goes down in priority and managing should take precedence.

Managers cannot focus on their individual successes. They must do their best within their capability to help subordinates succeed. The manager wins or loses based on the performance of his/her team. Nothing else matters. There is no purpose in pointing to the manager’s knowledge or work if the project is unsuccessful.

This is seldom understood by both people who give and who accept management responsibilities. Both think that management can be done “on the side” and pay a heavy price for the mistake. The people who appoint managers carelessly find that business objectives are not met. The people who are appointed managers struggle to understand why they are ineffective at their new jobs.

Understanding this basic principle leads to the manager re-inventing himself or herself. This consists of the following steps:

  1. Understanding and committing to the business objectives: If personal objectives are in opposition to the business objectives, the manager must evaluate the situation and either quit the position or reconcile himself to the situation. Having one foot each in a different boat will not help.
  2. Centering one’s work around the business objectives: The management responsibility assumes precedence. One’s own work has to be de-prioritized when compared to the task of helping the team succeed.
  3. Delegating as much as possible: Most managers fail at this terribly. They keep holding to tasks they love doing and delegate what they hate. Instead, they should delegate whatever others can do better, take on tasks only they can do and continue training their team on handling even those tasks.
  4. Letting go: The old life is not going to come back. The manager may have to deal with constant interruptions, incapable employees, tough superiors, rude customers, crazy hours, bad luck, etc. Being naive about what one is getting into can lead to supreme disappointment.


Pamela September 18, 2007 at 10:45 pm

Great article. Each and everyone of us have to start at the beginning. It can be a huge time saver if we know where to start.

Alan September 19, 2007 at 6:38 pm

True. If we want to understand something completely, we should always look back to the basic.
We will most definitely save time if we stick with the basics.

Krishna Kumar September 20, 2007 at 10:32 am

Thanks for your comments, Pamela and Alan.

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