DiceTV: Is Management for You?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEtAjF6hJdY?rel=0&hd=1&w=425&h=349]

Think through the pros and cons of working as a manager – before you take that promotion.

By Alice Ain Rich | April 2009

You have a degree in computer science or mathematics from a top-flight school. You land a job with a growing, fast-paced technology company. You earn a good salary, work with smart colleagues in a great environment that nurtures your passion for engineering. You become known as the “go-to” guy for solving tough technical issues.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEtAjF6hJdY&hl=en&fs=1]

In time, you’re asked to interview candidates for open slots. You feel comfortable contributing to the hiring decision. Management seems to value your input. All is right with the world.

One day, your manager asks you to lunch. Over sushi and miso soup, he tells you he’s being transferred to another office, and the area vice president has asked for replacement recommendations. He wants to recommend you.


Your first reaction is excitement and gratitude. A promotion. You’ll probably get a raise. You may get an office with a window. And you’ll have the chance to develop management skills.

But then: You wonder if you should stay where you are. You have a flexible work schedule and can effectively work from home. Managers often can’t. Plus, you have colleagues who have “hanked” – gone from a staff to a management position – and back again. The term comes from a gentleman named Hank, a manager who ended up not liking management. The question is: Will you?

Questions to Ask Yourself

Jed Roberts, a Harvard educated mathematician and currently a software developer at Ab Initio Software in Lexington, Mass., is an example of someone who’s succeeded on both fronts but now prefers not being in management. “Engineers should think long and hard before taking the step into management,” he cautions. He suggests asking yourself a few questions if you’re considering the move.

For example, “do you really want to spend more time at meetings?” Roberts asks. “Do you really want to deal with the often petty personality issues that come up?” If you enjoy the hiring process, Roberts wonders how you’ll respond to the equally important process of firing employees. Answering such questions may help you understand your likes and dislikes, your assets and liabilities. Such understanding is key to making the choice that’s right for you.

To manage or not to manage – when is it better to make the transition and when it is a good idea to stay where you are? Become a manager and you’ll be giving up day-to-day technical work, which you presumably enjoy and are good at, to gain prestige, perks, salary increase, and maybe even an administrator to help with paperwork. Assuming more responsibility for the good of the company can also be appealing: After all, technical companies often critically need good managers.

“In my experience as a recruiter, there are many people who decide to try management, but there are fewer managers who are really great at it,” observes Mark Goodstein, president of TechPros, a Newton, Mass., recruiting firm that specializes in placing software professionals. “If you believe, however, that you have the skills, ability and aptitude to learn how to become a good manager, then you should go for it.”

What it Takes

“Good management is about leadership, influencing, mentorship and patience,” says Goodstein. “As a manager, you spend your day focusing on different activities and goals than you had before. Your managerial achievement becomes your ability to get your team to produce what they need to produce, on time, within budget, and with high quality.”

If you think you’d be a good manager, your engineering skills will be an essential part of the mix. Engineering managers are a different breed than other managers. They understand technology and the domain of the company, and are able to understand and evaluate decisions made by the technical staff. Maintaining your technical understanding is necessary to provide guidance and to ensure the work being performed is up to appropriate professional standards.

Roberts thinks most people acquire one set of skills over another: They become good managers with people skills, or they become good engineers with technology skills. Because people prefer doing what they’re good at, he thinks most engineers deliver their greatest value when they remain technical. His advice to those who embrace management: “Keep your fingers in the technology pie. Give yourself some of the technical projects. You’ll be a better manager for it, and if you decide to go back to engineering, you won’t be a dinosaur.”

Roberts’ point becomes especially important if the economy sours. When technology companies lay off workers, middle management is often the first to go. On the other hand, if you’re so good at management you make it to the vice president’s level, you may have more job security than either an individual contributor or a middle manager.

The best of both worlds may be a company that offers similar pay, promotions and job security for engineering gurus and engineering managers alike.

“The worst thing that can happen for both the individual and the company is to go down the path of turning a great technical contributor into a lousy manager,” says Peter George, senior vice president of engineering and chief technology officer at Chelmsford, Mass. -based Kronos Incorporated. “Quality companies will have a dual ladder that recognizes and values the contributions of individual technical contributors equally with those of managers.”

When a company offers such parallel tracks, engineers can enter management and return to engineering without sacrificing benefits. And, it’s not necessary to manage for the prestige and perks. Career success, after all, should be measured by job satisfaction, not by a title.

Alice Ain Rich is a Career Coach/Corporate Advisor in Weston, Mass. This article was originally published in July 2008.

9 Responses to “DiceTV: Is Management for You?”

  1. John M. Mereness, Esq.

    My previous employer was smart – they sought out a certain management style that worked well with a brilliant group of people and moved R & D forward. So, basically they hired me for management and knew I had the skill sets to learn the technical. To assist with the technical they had a pool of advisers that I could contact for the 5 minute or a 5 second answer. Last year, I had one of the largest IT spends in the World – and the tutorials worked just fine. I also understand the problem as most attorneys make bad managers – I am just one of the few that has a management education and the skills to use such effectively. John M. Mereness, Esq.

  2. Tech people tend to look for gurus. The last thing they want to do is document their work, or implement repeatable and sustainable processes. They usually just want to do cool stuff. Management tends to look for good politicians. Incredible as it seems, I often find that management avoids getting things done in favor of managing failure. A good technical manager is someone who realizes that he/she is dumber than the people he/she manages, and so is willing to listen to them. They should also have the ability to communicate unpleasant truths up and down the line, and be very well organized. There are lots of folks out there with this combination of skills. At least more than is supposed. The problem is that no-one is looking for them. Most organizations are too busy looking for politicians or gurus. In the end, they get what they ask for.

  3. Great topic. IT is particularly odd in that most technical people make horrible people managers. I have been offered a manager position twice in my 10 years in IT. I turned it down both times. While I think I could be a pretty good manager of a small team, I have to consider what I really get off on doing everyday, which is being knee deep in the technology. I don’t play well with politics and I loathe meetings that don’t really accomplish anything. Money and perks aren’t worth giving up your passion for getting up each day. However, in companies that don’t provide a career path for non-managers, a 50 year old IT person can be viewed as unambitious and unpromotable…which can lead to mid-life career meltdown, a layoff and long term unemployment.

  4. diecast

    Another option for a techie who’s gone round the block a few times is Architect. You can get more money and respect and people don’t wonder why you’re still coding at 50. It’s also interesting and challenging work because you get to see more of the bigger picture.

  5. Jason writes: “IT is particularly odd in that most technical people make horrible people managers”

    This is often the case, but someone needs to explain that to companies. As I apply for positions, far too much time is spent nitpicking my technical skills. My management skills are glossed over.

    It drives me crazy.

  6. Interesting comment about dual-track companies, but in over 25 yrs in the technical industry, I find that most companies support that idea with nothing more than lip-service. Can anyone name names, with first-hand experience….?

    And I whole-heartedly second the comment about Architect, it’s the way I’ve stayed highly technical as I (too quickly) close in on 50 yrs old…. 🙂