It is often the case in software engineering that individual contributors (ICs) are looking for guidance on sticking with a technical path or moving into management. This is probably less of a dramatic move than we make it out to be, however, the front line manager has a huge impact on the functioning and happiness of a team (Indeed, 2021). We as leaders need to be extremely careful to ensure we hire and promote people with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be successful in that role.
This article is about a few techniques to prepare an individual who is solidly delivering high quality software to add more management into their repertoire of responsibility.
Before we begin this path, let’s take a moment to reflect on where your aspiring individual contributor is in their current role. Are they considered a top performer in their current role? This should not be understated, we are about to add a lot of leadership to this person, you, them, and their peers should all agree this individual has earned this opportunity. Actions speak loudly and as a leader you are about to make a big statement. Next, ask the individual contributor: Can you reasonably maintain this level of performance while adding on the bonus work that is to come as you test out management? We are about to add new responsibility to this person, eventually the workload can be evened out to get more reasonable, but this opportunity will be additive to their workload. Just like taking a class at night, this is hard work, but potentially well worth it.
Ultimately, we are trying to set an individual up for success. We want them to get the opportunity to show that getting promoted requires personal commitment. Further, they will have the chance to fully prove to the team they have earned this new role. A great podcast about this is called the 150% rule. It suggests you should be not only contributing 100% of your current job, you should be performing about half of the responsibility of the next role as you work for that promotion. This is about the first step in getting to that extra 50%
Feeling good? Let’s begin.
The first step in moving into management is learning more about yourself and your team. There are some touchy feely aspects to this, however this is an easily measurable goal:
During Q3 I will take a personal DiSC assessment, meet with each of the members on my team and report back to my manager with what I believe each of their profiles to be.
We start here, because this work will be useful regardless of this project ultimately ending in a promotion. Specifically, I ask individuals to take a DISC assessment. This is a product similar to a Meyers Briggs, however, it is quite a bit simpler to use and very focused on one’s performance in a workplace. This talks about default behaviors, under stress am I likely to lead by edict or gather consensus to make a decision? Am I going to tell you a story about me or ask how you are doing? These defaults can be trained and coached, and it is great to know yourself and start to learn how to identify your team members.
This has a couple of purposes: First, learn the material. Management is about improving the flow of information on a team and understanding that communication only happens if the recipient receives the information in the manner you intend is essential. Knowing yourself and your team makes this possible. Further, as an individual contributor one can often get away with not being a great communicator to everyone, there’s usually a manager to help smooth out these rough edges. As a manager there is nowhere to hide. Not only must this IC build a solid report with each member of their team, they will need to smooth out intra and inter team communication on a regular basis.
The second reason is to figure out if the IC taking on this task likes it. Moving into management requires learning about people, psychology, and sociology. If this feels onerous, management might not be the perfect next step in one’s career… at this time.
As a manager assigning this work, you may want to recheck some of this material to make sure you are up on it. The great opportunity of your direct reports leveling themselves up means you too need to stay out in front of the content they are consuming. Doesn’t mean you need to be perfect, if your relationships are sound, this is a great opportunity for Iron to sharpen Iron.
Take your time on this one, learning about oneself and one’s team can take a little time to make sure the team feels like they aren’t just rungs on a ladder. This should lead to some solid one-on-one discussions about how interactions in meetings, through slack, and if you are lucky, in person communications should be changed based on the individuals interacting with this aspiring manager.
This is just the first step on the path to management. Next, we’ll look at a set of books I ask my managers to read as they start to be responsible for the output of a software delivery team.