To take or not to take a programmer lead or manager role

Published December 4, 2013 1:02 pm

In the last post, I tried to go over natural traits of a programmer and see whether one has natural inclination to be a programmer? As a programmer, you come at a crossroad – typically in 1-5 years – where you have to decide whether you want to lead a team? It exposes itself as an opportunity or you come across it when thinking about your career growth. In my case, it came as an opportunity within 3rd year of the career as programmer.

It is human to feel uncomfortable with the change at the onset. I did not know much theory about change mgmt. then. Later, I had come across theory about how people respond to change. Closest picture I could find on net about that is here and here. Your response to the expected change might be inline with the curve in the picture. That is ok but there is more to this.

There are 3 parties involved when you take up lead role – you, work and team. As long as you work as a programmer (individual contributor aka IC), there are only two parties involved – you and work. This change is key to note. There was so much to learn when I boarded my first job. My key focus at that time was to grasp, learn at exponential rate. In a way, focus is so much on you and what you produce; your excellence. The other parameter – team – brings team deliverables, team performance and career mgmt. to name a few items. Like it or not – they are equally important if not more – in your role as lead. (There are many titles that are used for this – like dev lead, project manager, test lead, qa lead. I will keep it as lead in the post.). It is good to come to terms with this. This will impact how much time (at the least in the short term) you can spend programming/researching yourself. Typically, you get to spend good 50% time or more with other items – to begin with.

Lead role typically comes with career growth though it may not always be the case. There are companies where there is a parallel career path for IC and manager. That is there is no need to be a lead – only for growth. Also in this role, supporting people through their career growth generates intangible job satisfaction. It is very key to know your intention. That is whether you are interested in the lead role for career growth or supporting people or both. If for career growth only or mostly, it may not work well. It will be hard to grow as a manager without being genuinely interested in people, and you may finding it taxing. Well, we all see during our career – good managers and bad managers. How come the bad manager could grow so much in that case? You are right. Let me put it other way – you might not make a great manager although you could still grow based on other parameters like – taking scaled up responsibility and deliverables. In nutshell, it will always help – to have genuine interest in the growth of the people – as manager. It may not stop you from taking a manager role.

First level manager are better accepted as techno managers. Are you at a stage where you have something to impart to the fellow team members? Some of these questions might help know that objectively?

  1. Do you ace your deliverables in the project?
  2. Are you considered a go to person for some of the component(s) in the project?
  3. Have you successfully on-boarded/mentored new joiners in the project?
  4. Do you produce code as per the standards of the group – if not help improve it?
  5. Do you debug difficult technical bugs and issues for the project?
  6. Have you handled external communications (technical or otherwise) sometimes?
  7. Have you negotiated your schedule/deliverables with your manager?
  8. Have you debated technical designs/issues with fellow team members?

Some of these question will help answer objectively whether your team can look up to you – to learn & lead and whether you have basic skills to lead a team. I am not going through the laundry list of skills here to avoid going by the book. Your organization might have listed the management skills formally and it won’t harm to skim through them.

If these parameters are aligned – that is 1) you are ok juggling – you, work and team – priorities and its impact on your daily working pattern 2) you are interested in people n their career 3) you ace your art as IC and have basic skills required to be first level manager, it won’t harm to take your first plunge into leading a group of programmers. Even if you are not be able to make an long term choice – to take IC vs lead track now, experiences from lead role will help hone up new skills that compliment technical skills for your career growth. For example: it helps – to be a better communicator, to be able to influence fellow team members, have empathy and to be little more team-social – as IC.

If you have made a choice to take up lead role, congratulations in your new role and best wishes! After few more years into your lead role, you may face more choices. For example: shall I go back to an IC role, is moving between IC and lead roles ok, Shall I take up M2 role, Can I take up programmer role as life time career path? Let’s pick up one of these in the next post.

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