From developer to IT leader: 3 keys to make the leap

Transitioning from developer to IT leader? Lean on three skills that are already in your personal code
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Crossing the gap to big data

The formula for a good manager is often treated like it is shrouded in mystery.   

But for technical professionals looking to make the transition to management, the truth is this “secret” is simply a code they already have the tools to decrypt. I’ve seen many developers, programmers and engineers thrust into management positions — either by choice or by necessity — and there’s a common thread that can help predict their success: Those who tap into the skills they learned on the technical side and apply them to their management style make great leaders. 

[ Do you understand the signs of toxic leaders? Read Bad Blood: 4 lessons from Theranos for IT leaders. ]

Let’s be clear. Not all brilliant developers or programmers have what it takes to lead an effective team. Often, their talents are better applied to mentoring more junior team members on the technical intricacies of the job and advising management about tools, processes, and technology trends. However, all technical professionals learn skills on the job that can be directly applied to management, and those who can leverage them the most effectively can transform teams. 

If you’re thinking about making the leap into management — or have been thrust into the role out of a need for a manager — drawing from the unique skills you’ve learned on the job is one of the quickest ways to lead a team more effectively. Combined with healthy doses of empathy, pragmatism, and communication, you’ll find the following three considerations to good management are already in your code: 

1. Operate an agile team 

Any technical professional is familiar with Agile methodology. It’s iterative and incremental, and, at its core, designed to be open and adaptive to change. More than likely, you’ve been pushing code and product updates in this manner for years. Apply these same principles to the way you manage your team and start making feedback loops as short as possible.

Meet one-on-one with team members regularly to find out what’s working, what isn’t, and what you as a manager can do to make a positive change. Communication is key; since you’re no longer in the trenches, it’s imperative you remain plugged in and are prepared to make changes when the team signals they need you to step in and help. 

Also, consider employing techniques that help advance the team’s experience, and establish a culture of perpetual learning and continuous improvement. Activities like code reviews and blameless retrospectives provide feedback in a safe environment and can lead to productive improvements to processes and lessons learned for future projects.

But these activities shouldn’t be limited to just projects. Using constructive techniques like these to evaluate team processes and operations will help bring the team closer together and create a comfortable environment to share feedback with one another. This will help set concrete goals for your team — goals that you can develop and provide incentives for when met. 

[ Read also: How to be a stronger DevOps leader: 9 tips. ]

2. Keep your skills, but learn to keep your distance 

Many on the technical side can pride themselves on being the hero — jumping in and squashing bugs and making quick fixes to ensure on-time updates. These are the marks of talented developers and programmers, but not of good managers. A good leader makes sure to keep his or her skills sharp — by keeping tabs on trends, new tools, and techniques within the industry — but resists the urge to jump in as the hero when things go wrong.

Let your team lead themselves through – and learn from – crises.

Instead, give your team the tools to problem solve and troubleshoot on their own. Appoint more experienced team members to mentor newer employees, and outline strategies for fixing a problem with the team without being a part of the front-line execution.

In your new role, you have to manage both the long and short-term success of the team, and that means stepping back and letting your team lead themselves through – and learn from – crises. This also means allowing your team to set their own style for dealing with challenges, even if they may differ from your own preference for how to tackle an issue. 

3. Remember your roots 

Though not a technical skill, great IT managers need empathy. It’s very likely that, as a manager, you’ll be facing pressure from your own bosses when a project is going off the rails or the team gets behind on delivery. It can be tempting to put pressure on the team or lay blame out of frustration. But in these moments, effective managers take a pause and put themselves in their team’s shoes. 

To do this, try to recall the days when you dealt with legacy technology, tight deadlines, and high utilization. Pick your battles and make sure you aren’t always bowing to the will of your managers or clients. Instead, defend your team. This helps earn their respect, boost their morale and, in the long term, fight against turnover. Building a strong team means gaining their trust, and showing empathy toward the same issues you once dealt with is a big step towards this. 

Honing management skills doesn’t happen overnight, and leadership for technical professionals may come more naturally to some people than others. But everyone who has spent time in the technical trenches has skills they can apply if the time comes to manage a team.

The quicker you realize these skills are already in your codebase and apply them as a manager, the faster you’ll build the trust needed for a strong, agile team. 

[ For more advice, get The Open Organization Workbook, a free download with advice from more than 25 experts on building transparent organizations. ]

I’m a polyglot software engineer, architect, and lead one of the custom application development practices at SPR Consulting, a digital technology consultancy, where we focus on building solutions for our clients using open source technology. My team’s broad expertise enables us to build the right solution, not the most convenient or comfortable solution.