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Good-engineers-can-become-good-leaders
Venkat Pulella
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
The most difficult transition many engineers make is from managing self to managing others. This can be traumatic for the manager as well as for the people around him, but with a little effort towards learning management, just like one learns technology, the whole experience could be made far better.

There is enough debate on whether management is an art or can be learned. There is also enough debate on whether leaders are born or made. I am sharing my experience in growing from a technical role to a manager and the difficulties I faced therein, with the hope that this awareness makes it easier for you to make the switch.

On a personal level
More often than not, as a team grows, the best technical person is made the manager. With little or no guidance, he discovers the art of managing by trial and error. My story is the same.

I discovered the joy of programming when I was in the second year of engineering. I wrote millions of lines of code as a programmer, enjoying it more than any thing else in my life. I had never expected that one day I would not want to write code. When the day came by, I decided to be a manager for the lack of an alternative.

My manager at the time had other thoughts. ‘You are not yet ready for the transition’, he’d told me. What ensued was the most difficult phase engineers in any product development company go through. I started building a healthy paranoia towards my manager and the management in general, even feeling like a victim at times.

Eventually I made it to the manager title, and though it was my own decision, managing for me was more of a way to get away from coding than not managing people and projects. My paranoia towards the senior management did not help either. The following are the lessons I gleaned from the experience about managerial roles and responsibilities. Building the skill sets required makes the transition easy.

Difficulties of a first-time manager
As an individual contributor, you have some control over your deliverables, but as a manager, there’s hardly any control over your colleagues’ deliverables. Thus, on making the transition, you will find that it is hard to delegate and wait for things to be taken care of by others. Lack of status of various activities will make you anxious, which will lead to micromanaging issues on your part. To ease this anxiety, it is extremely essential to set expectations of your team, make those known, and take status calls on the projects from time to time.

Having said that, asking your colleagues for the status of a project is the most difficult thing after becoming a manager. It is a communication issue, and you must do it in a way so as to not sound bossy. One way is to ask broad questions like ‘can I help you’ or ‘how is the coding going on’, before proceeding to questions on the status of specific tasks. The process becomes even harder with senior folks. One way of making things easy is to make status calls a part of structured discussions, like one-on-ones or project status meetings.

It’s likely that every one in your team will know that you were the best techie before the transition, but you will need to prove it again and again with your team. Competing with the team for air time during discussions will not only shut the conversations, but also make people retreat into a shell and not come forth with different opinions. This will build cynicism over a period of time.

If there is one thing a manager should do it is one-on-ones. Most managers do this very promptly, but make it into a status meeting. It is important to stick to an agenda that is decided upon by the employee, and take five minutes at the end to appreciate and encourage the progress made.

My mentor a while back told me that “Once you are a manager, you are your people and your equipment”. While he might have gotten carried away by the equipment aspect, it is definitely about people. I would say take care of your people and they take care of the work.

As managers we always depend on a few high performers. I have two right hands and two left hands. Be aware that the high performers with high motivation also get de-motivated quickly. It is important to observe them and intervene to help.

Move when you are emotionally ready
Deciding between technical and managerial paths is difficult. Depending on the company culture, one path may look easier than the other. Trying to be on both sides of the line does not help. A manager who sticks to his technical leader role and does not grow new skills required to go to next level does not succeed. It is better to try technical leadership well as leading a team before making up the mind.

Management can be learned, as I said, just like any technical subject. It is worth putting some effort in to learning soft skills and management.

The last suggestion I have is to lead a small team on specific task to pick up skills. Be a team lead before becoming a manager.
Leader or manager?
I deliberately mentioned leadership in the title and talked about only management in the article. I look at management as a first step towards leadership. Management is about leading when you are put in a place of authority. Practising and perfecting some of these skills give you confidence. When you are confident you can influence people and get their trust, following which others follow you and you become a true leader.
In summary, being aware of the most important transition in your career, building skill sets required for the new role and leaving behind some old habits make this transition easy on all involved. Formal training in management helps too. Make the move only when you are emotionally ready to be successful.

Venkat Pullela is the Director of Engineering at Cisco Systems India. He can be reached at vpullela@cisco.com

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