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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Technical Leadership and People Management

The other day I had a discussion about leadership and management. When we came to an argument that there’s no chance to advance to a position where you can facilitate leadership and management skills in discussed organization several people (from present and from past) automatically came to my mind. They all have the same problem which they may overlook.

They all are (or were) great engineers. People you’d love to have on your team. But at some point of their careers they started to think about having their own teams, managing their own people. Hey, that’s natural career path for great engineers, isn’t it?

Well, actually it is not.

Do a simple exercise. Think who you consider as a great engineer, no matter if he’s a star book author or your colleague no one outside your company knows about. Now what do they do to pay the rent? I guess they are (surprise, surprise) engineers, tech leads, freelancers, independent consultants or entrepreneurs. I guess there are none who would be called a manager in the first place, even when they happen to do some managerial work from time to time.

Why? Because these two paths are mutually exclusive. You can’t keep your technical expertise on respected level in the meantime, between performance review of your team member and 3-hour status meeting with your manager. You either keep your hands busy with writing code or you get disconnected with other developers out there.

On the other hand what makes you a great engineer usually makes you a poor manager at the same time. If you spend all day long coding, you don’t have enough time for people in your team. And they do need your attention. They do much more often than you’d think. If you’re going to be a decent manager big part of your time will be reserved on managerial tasks. There won’t be enough time left to keep on technical track. Sorry.

That’s why all these people who I thought of have to (or had to) make a decision which way they are (were) going to choose. Technical leadership path means most of the time you won’t have people to manage but you may be respected as an architect, designer, senior engineer. If you’re lucky enough you can even get one of these fancy business cards with title of Chief Scientist or Chief Guru or maybe just a simple Co-Owner.

Managerial path on the other hand will make you feel lame during basically every technical discussion out there but yes, you will have people to manage. If you’re lucky, and I mean lucky, not competent, you’ll become VP or something.

You have to choose. Or you had to some time ago. What’s your choice? What do you regret about it?

in: personal development, team management

25 comments… add one

  • Anonymous October 14, 2009, 7:25 pm

    Agree

  • Vukoje October 17, 2009, 7:58 am

    I fear that you are right and that this is programmer's horrible truth :)

    One thing I am sure for now, you can't be architect/leader etc. and not be a active programmer.

    Still I will try to walk this impossible road of half manager/half programmer…

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 17, 2009, 8:10 am

    Vukoje,

    I fully agree you can't be a competent architect while not being a programmer any more. E.g. I can say a lot about architecture, I can have great advice on the subject but I won't work out whole architecture There's too much about modern technologies I just don't know since I don't code any more.

    Talking about trying to be half programmer and half manager, well, soon you'll just have to make a decision which one you like more. Other way you'll struggle to have enough time for either one.

  • Vukoje January 30, 2010, 8:11 am

    Yap, you were right, it can’t be done :(

    I guess that one programmer can become so valuable that having him just write code isn’t efficient enough. You have to fin a way to scale his knowledge/influence and that can be done through some sort of delegation/leadership/managing.

    So the trick is to add some management but to stay strong in technology or it will all lose sense. I have tried to be Scrum Master, Product Owner and Technical Leader. The result is that I suck in every area.

    But I have in my mind a combination that would work. :)

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 31, 2010, 7:20 am

    Vukoje,

    If you look for a way to leverage knowledge and experience you shouldn’t think about management but about technical leadership. This doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t if you ask me) be done through promoting a person to management position where he gets a team to supervise. You should rather think about all kind of guru roles, where a person has all the engineering tasks but is also a go-to guy when itcomes to technical advice or even decisions.

    Call them tech leads, architects or whatever, but don’t give them teams to manage since all these administrative tasks (like performance reviews, budgeting etc) steal a lot of time. Time which you could use either on coaching others or on engineering tasks.

  • Vukoje February 1, 2010, 1:19 am

    I was thinking more coaching, task distribution, code checking/testing, maybe motivation… not budgeting and reviews.

    Does this make any difference in you opinion?

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 1, 2010, 2:08 am

    Yes, at least partially. If you avoid being a manager of a group (formally) you save a lot of time which you’d spend on non-engineering-related tasks. If you want to make much use of your technical expertise make as much of your duties as possible engineering-related. This basically means you should prefer not to manage people directly.

    But choosing to stay away from management also means you won’t distribute tasks or motivate people (at least not the way most people consider it should be done).

    From what you write I understand you have power to decide what exactly you’re going to do. If I were you I’d choose one side, either people management or technical leadership, and stick with it as much as possible. If your choice is technical leadership you can always switch to people management later. The other way around it’s much harder.

  • Vukoje February 1, 2010, 1:12 pm

    Thanks Pawel, I have a much clearer picture now.
    I think that the reason why I am under impression that I can do this is because I have really really good and close collaboration with my HR manager and Product Manager.

  • Yogish Baliga April 7, 2010, 12:47 pm

    Being a manager does not necessarily mean you have to give up on technical track. You can be a hands-on coder, architect as well as manager at the same time. It is just a matter of time management. If one cannot do time management, he cannot be a good manager nor a good engineer.

    Yes.. In almost all the organization I have worked, what you say is correct. That is because all these policies are set by bunch of MBAs who don’t want to think outside the box (what they learned). They think that what they learned is what they need to use.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 7, 2010, 1:39 pm

    Yogish,

    Yes, being a manager doesn’t automatically mean you have to abandon technical track at all. But I keep my point that excellence in either one management or development takes too much time to be able to do both.

    You may be average manager and great coder. You may be average coder and great manager. This actually mean you can do both, but there isn’t much value of your average skill. It would probably be much better to focus on on your stronger side.

    I can hardly imagine people who can excel in both areas but I don’t say they don’t exists. I’d love to see an example. But even though they would be very, very rare.

    I agree that management stereotypes don’t help but that’s not where is the source of the problem. Good manager would overcome organizational constraints in 9 cases out of 10. Heck, I saw multiple great teams built in companies which are basically hostile for healthy groups.

    Personally I stopped tricking myself that I can catch on with technical track long ago. I see people trying to combine these two all the time and they’re failing all the time and it happens in a wide range of different organizations. If someone finally succeeds, good for them, but I wouldn’t bet with my own money.

  • nikhil January 4, 2012, 9:48 pm

    I agree with Yogish. However, companies are fearful of either loosing you for being too valuable or having to pay you more.
    Also, how would you be a manager if you are not a part of the technical knowledge and projects?. It is never good for a manager to choose one or the other . A manager who picks and chooses is a bad manager.

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 5, 2012, 1:43 am

    @nikhil – Can’t agree. Actually in terms of technical, hands-on, project-related experience I had basically none in every team I led since 2004. I had to choose: I could focus on learning new programming languages and keeping my technical sword sharp or focus on the thing I was paid for – managing people.

    I made my choice and I don’t feel like I was a bad manager.

    Of course it is very different when you’re promoted in a team you worked in for longer time so you get kick start basically for free. But even then, if you don’t spend significant time actively sharpening your skills, they will be slowly but continuously disappearing.

    If I was a great developer in 2003 (I wasn’t but that’s not the point) would I still be one now? No. Unless I kept actively working as one. If I spent, say, one third of my time as a developer would I still be great? A half, maybe? Now would I be able to become that much better manager over this time? No, not really. And believe me, I was a crappy manager back then.

    I will give you the same challenge I gave Yogish – give me an example of someone who achieved this, someone who is widely considered both: a great developer and a great manager. If achieving that was easy I believe we should have truckload of such people.

  • nikhil January 24, 2012, 8:43 pm

    Just as you mentioned one has to keep developing skills even if you get promoted in a group. This means you have to keep technical skills current to be able to lead your group. It is also a personal choice, if one just wants to be a manager or an employee or both. It also depends on one potential. Today economy is pressing huge demands on employees. However, employees are not receiving enough returns. Sure, it does build a good resume, but you also get trapped as a prisoner and often employers make sure you do not get any promotions. So off record you are so called lead! doing all managerial duties as well, while the real manager has no idea, since he has decided to pick the management of project track, which only involves meetings of which he has no idea what they are talking about in the meeting since he is now away from technical world as well.

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 25, 2012, 1:55 am

    @nikhil – I don’t know where you work, but you should seriously consider changing the team. Or the job if that is how things look like in the whole organization.

    I would say that you’re wrong on so many levels but I won’t as I know there are places such as the one you describe. BTW: if you feel like a prisoner you have two choices: either serve your sentence or escape :)

  • Oleg June 21, 2012, 6:19 am

    Pawel,
    thank you for the discussion. I am in the midst of this decision: to stay an expert or choose a management track. My senior management is saying exact same thing: you got to choose.
    And I hate to choose cause I want to be both. But I see your point well.

    BTW: one of the example of being a great leader/manager and still be technically strong could be Bill Gates who had been heavily involved in coding/reviewing code for many years while being at the helm of the organization. He eventually gave up technical side, but was jugling both for a long time.

    Now, my question: if one decides to stay on technical side, then he/she intentionally limits himself/herself in earning power. Why would anyone want to do it to himself? Or how can one enhance the earning potential while staying on technical side? Is it possible at all?

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 21, 2012, 2:28 pm

    @Oleg – I don’t think I agree on Bill Gates example. I mean from what I read he was very skilled engineer but when he moved to management he didn’t develop his technical skills any more and was just building on knowledge and technical intuition he already had. BTW: see this story from 1992 as a reference.

    Coming back to the point: what’s the point of getting power? I mean you can have lots and lots of influence working as a line employee. And you can earn tons of money as one too. It probably is more challenging to achieve that without involving any leadership/management position but definitely doable in any healthy organization.

    I would go even further – getting more power and improving earning potential are bot wrong motivations to have. You aren’t going to be a good leader if you do that purely for money and power. It just doesn’t work that way. In such case, just stick to whatever you like to do.

  • Oleg June 21, 2012, 8:40 pm

    Pawel,
    you took it really a bit too far. It was never mentioned to be a good leader just “purely for money and power” reasons. I would take it even further by stating that if those were the ONLY intentions then it’s just plain wrong for any kind of endevours. Like you can not be a good baseball player if you just want tons of money from it and so it goes…

    May be you heard of such compensation benchmarks as Mercer code etc. Those define compensation ranges based on industry averages. Once you get to the upper limit for your particular position then the only way to increase your compensation is to move up the rank i.e. up to management. Otherwise once at the top of the range in all probability you would see an inflation index added to your paycheck every year give-or-take. And I believe this is true for many “healthy” organizations as well.

    Thanks for taking time to respond though. I found this blog really interesting and informative.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 21, 2012, 11:12 pm

    @Oleg – Sorry if I overinterpreted your point. Anyway the point is still true: if your org isn’t willing to pay you what you feel you’re worth you’re perfectly free to try to get more in other org. If your feeling is right you will such a job.

    Also organizations introducing compensation glass ceilings basing blindly on industry averages don’t fall into “healthy” bucket for me. I would understand if it was based on their financial condition, assessing how much people are worth to the org or avoiding pay differences that are beyond comparison. But simply paying “industry averages” or averages multiplied by a factor seems totally dysfunctional for me.

    On a totally unrelated note: in most cases I know from IT engineering this glass ceiling, even if exists, is on very, very decent level. So my question would be: what kind of motivation is behind “I want more” attitude? The simple fact that you haven’t got a rise for some time? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

  • oleg June 22, 2012, 6:21 am

    Pawel,
    to answer your question “what kind of motivation is behind “I want more” attitude”. There could be a few depending on the situation and a person. One could be a feeling that you got to the maximum you can earn for the rest of your life unless you do something else in addition to just being an excellent expert; two, is when you see a mediocre collegue being promoted to become your boss with all resulting consequences. In general, it’s been shown that it’s not the absolute amount that one earns that matters but expectation of future improvements in economic, etc. well-being. Feeling “stuck “even” at a decent level without prospects of improvement does not make most people happier. The prospects of improvement do.
    I agree it may not be correct in the first place. But this is just human nature, for most of us anyway.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 22, 2012, 8:11 am

    @Oleg – I think we’re bringing this discussion sideways but if you’re willing to continue it I am too. You bring two arguments.

    1) What happens if a mediocre colleague gets promoted. My question would not be what kind of engineer he’s been (I read the answer that “mediocre”) but what kind of manager he’s going to be (I read “I have no freaking idea”). Actually I consider myself rather average engineer and yet I believe when I was promoted I started shining as a leader. Coming further – would you, being an excellent engineer, would be such a great manager too? Play with this question for a moment before making a decision. If, for whatever reasons, you don’t assume you would be a great leader as well it might be a career-limiting move. For most people it is hard to move back from management position back to engineering.

    2) Let’s assume that remuneration issue is important for you in a way that you need to earn more over time to feel satisfied. Not that I get this attitude, as I don’t, but I can see that one could make such assumption. First, what’s made you thinking that the glass ceiling of maximum salary won’t change over time? I mean IT industry is changing so rapidly that such assumption is purely insane. Second, what makes you fixed in the organization you currently work for? I mean, there are others out there (believe me!) that don’t have this idea of glass ceiling. Three, if you really are all about earning more and more money there are plenty of paths to consider, starting with being a contractor and finishing with starting own business. Yes, these options bring some risks along, but don’t tell me there aren’t any options.

    Finally, personally I just don’t get “I want more” attitude. I happened to change work and got 40% salary reduction in a process. I happened to agree for salary reduction without changing jobs (and changing role in any way). At the moment I’m earning less than I was a few years ago. I was offered a job with a significantly better salary and rejected it. All these facts, besides they were all great lessons, are irrelevant in terms of my happiness with my salary. I mean I earn enough to take salary out of the table as a hygiene factor, which is definitely true, and then my motivation is all about what I do at work.

    If you’re all for money, which I guess is overinterpretation, I guess there are roles that are paid better than both software engineer and software manager. Why not pursue them?

  • Oleg June 22, 2012, 11:24 am

    Pawel,

    You guessed it right. It’s an overinterpretation again. Not sure why you try to bring it to personal level while I was talking about the statistical average. Check the research, I am not making it up, statistically those who enjoy sustained improvement in the economic well-being and are optimistic about future economic prospects are a happier bunch. Period.
    Now, I am having doubts about you being an excellent leader if you move the discussion onto personal level so quick and easy and making claims like “If you’re all for money” without even knowing a person you are talking about?! Is that how you deal with your subordinates too?
    And believe me you are not the only one for whom money is not the key factor for being happy. I have taken reductions many times to pursue what I really liked, cause guess what?- money is not everything for me either. So, that we are clear about it.
    I agree the discussion has gone sideways, but I appreciate your time and the insights.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 22, 2012, 4:02 pm

    @Oleg – I really wish I had a chance to discuss the whole thing with you face to face. Comments on the blog leave pretty little space for showing emotions, thus make it really hard to interpret the attitude standing behind a specific comment.

    By the way, the same way I interpret your comments you do mine. Actually, I never brought it to the personal level and if you felt that way – it wasn’t my intention. BTW: note the every “if” statement in comments.

    And if you want to judge me as a manager – go work for me, and not build an opinion basing on a blog comments. How would you even know that I wasn’t just acting here?

  • Oleg June 22, 2012, 6:33 pm

    Pawel,
    the easy way to see if a message turned personal is to count the “you”s in it.
    My 2 cents to the discussion on leadership and people management ;)
    Take it light though :)

  • Murat November 27, 2012, 10:48 pm

    I am at a crossing point in my career path between technical excellence and management. Currently I am a Chief Scientist. I am afraid I would agree with Pawel’s, Oleg’s and Nikhil’s statements that there is a considerable compensation gap between technical and management track, and I know it was the case at five companies that I worked in the past. I am not sure whether such ideal place that Pawel referring where gifted engineers would fairly get proportional salaries close to their managers based on merit evaluations even exists. It is a utopia many managers are afraid to confess even to themselves. The gap that I am aware of is more than half, even at industrial research labs where marketing is not another leverage for managers to pump up their compensations.

    Interestingly, all my past managers were coming from the engineering backgrounds, with maybe some patch of management training. Unfortunately they had learned to become acceptable performers by making many, many, and sometimes irrecoverable mistakes using their team of engineers as lab rats, in most cases sacrificing subordinates for the sake of their job security. In my real-life experience managers rarely get the blame for such issues as long as they play their political cards well with upper management.

    And none of them would say that management is good for you (I see a pattern) and they complain how unthankful the people management is when you consult to them personally. Fear of loosing their seats is a part of the equation. Yet, still none of them considered to go back to their past technical path. They seem to enjoy riding on the success of their subordinates and getting paid ridiculously more. Human nature I guess.

    Anyway, it does not mean a discussion such as above would Pawel a questionable manager, yet punt of counting you’s is thought provoking.

    Engineers can and surely become acceptable even good managers. The question to answer is not whether you should do technical plus people management but what kind of personality you have, it seems to me.

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 29, 2012, 6:47 am

    @Murat – I don’t deny that managers on average earn more than engineers. However if one perceives one’s career through averages it’s going to be an average career. For every rule there are many exceptions. I know pretty well at least one company where the best paid person is an engineer, and I do include CEO on the list too.

    I don’t say it’s easy to find an org where technical skills are appreciated so much that engineers salaries are on par with management salaries. I just don’t agree with generalizing the case.

    The very different thing is a picture of managers you draw. Let me tell you this: if this is normal in an org one work for they should run as fast as possible. While typically managers earn more than engineers I wouldn’t say that typically managers “sacrifice subordinates for the sake of their job security.” That’s definitely not my experience.

    I also know pretty few managers complaining how unthankful the job is. And I worked with a bunch of them to transit them from management to non-management roles. It seems that I’m working only with people who aren’t aligned with patterns you guys draw. Or maybe, just maybe, given the right organizational culture and right people among senior managers it just works differently…

    I don’t try to deny that there are many dysfunctional managers and dysfunctional organizations. Neither I assume one has enough power to change one or the other. I only say that it’s not a good idea to consider promotion options only within an org one works for at the moment. The more so if the org isn’t healthy.

    I fully agree that someone who is a great engineer can become a great manager. It’s just a matter of devotion to self-development (and potential) in this or that area. My point is that you can excel at both at the same time. The skillsets are just too different. And of course it is a matter of your character (personality, skills, mindset, etc.) which one suits you better.

    Commenting on “you’s,” well, it’s just a way of writing. I never implied unconditional statements in the discussion. One could easily change “you” with “one” and my point would be the same. Yet of course I don’t mind picking at me.

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