Monday, March 9, 2015

Making The Leap From Individual Contributor To Management

A few years ago I made the switch from being an individual contributor (IC) to being a manager. At the time of my transition I was a principle software engineer and engineering lead on a team of developers building mobile apps and frameworks for iOS and Android.

The last few years of being an IC I was the engineering lead on several projects at several different companies. My time as an engineering lead gave me greater exposure to mentoring, project management, and product management. I started coding less and taking more accountability and responsibility for the vision of the projects I was working on as well as the delivery as a team.

Growing Others

As an engineering lead I started taking on more responsibility for growing other engineers on my team and across the company. I worked with engineers and their managers to identify areas of growth both technically as well as from a career perspective. I also worked with them on their social dynamics and team interactions, trying to help them work more effectively with their teammates and those in the company they didn't personally get along with.

From a career development perspective I mainly focused on helping them to make the connection between their contributions on the project, the work they pick up, growing their skills, and stretching as individuals. I found that I really enjoyed this part of mentoring more than any other aspect. As I saw people being successful putting to practice things we'd talked about and worked on I felt very fulfilled. Surprisingly, this fulfillment was equal to or greater than the fulfillment I had when I delivered a complex solution I had solved in code.

Managing The Project

I've been a very big fan of agile software development for a long time. Early in my career I worked with several people who helped me understand that what you're building changes as the ambiguity is removed from a project. The system that you use to manage your project life-cycle has to be able to account for this change.

As an engineering lead I usually took on the role of scrum leader. This meant that I was managing the sprint, everything from daily stand-up to sprint planning meetings. I found that I enjoyed planning the sprints and found myself taking every opportunity that presented itself to expand my scope of planning, owning the project schedules and plans for large features and projects.

Future Of The Product

As an engineering lead I would attend meetings with management and product to talk about the direction of the product. We'd focus on the current project and talk about where the product was heading, what road blocks we saw getting in our way, and what areas of the product were emerging that we hadn't envisioned or that had been to ambiguous previously.

In these meetings I found that I was able to bring a different perspective. It's not that my being more technically focused was the game changer, but more that I discovered that I was able to translate some of the more technical details into something that was actionable by product management.

Making The Leap

At an employee moral event a few years ago I was having a casual conversation with one of the directors at the company I was at and I jokingly mentioned that I thought I could handle managing one of his teams that was currently without a manager. After that event he reached out to me and asked if I was serious about wanting to give managing a team a try. I thought about it for a few weeks, talked to my wife, and decided to dive in.

I've found that management is very fulfilling. I'm able to stretch myself in ways that I couldn't as an IC. I'm able to have a larger impact on my organization, my project, and my team. Along the way I've learned a lot about humility, about being a better listener, effective coordination, and how to build a collaborative environment.

I still write a lot of code at home on personal projects. I'm still a software engineer at heart. But I've also discovered that I'm a good people manager. I've find more satisfaction in the success of my direct reports than I ever thought possible. I've learned more about myself, my gaps, and skills I never thought I had.

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