If you are considering leadership in the software engineering field, there are many factors to consider for how to get there, but first, you want to determine if it’s the right move for you.
How do I get into management without prior leadership experience?
1. Be a known quantity: It’s tricky to go from straight programming to management; like many fields, you need experience to get experience. But, you can get around this conundrum. If you’ve worked with the decision-maker for the role you’re interested in pursuing, it could be the break you’ve for which you have been waiting. Maybe you interacted with the vice president of engineering for a couple of years, and he or she loved what you did and saw your leadership skills in action. More than someone who doesn’t know you, this person may be more open to giving you a shot at adding some management responsibilities to your resume.
2. Join an early-stage start-up: If you are one of the first engineers to join a company when they are poised for growth, you can prove yourself by demonstrating leadership capabilities that catch the founder’s attention. When it comes time to grow the team, they may prefer to promote from within, and you will be an easy choice.
3. Join a company that is growing like crazy: With an emergent, exciting company, you can make a strategic decision to take a “lateral” move with the hope that your growing team will need leaders within a year or two. Prove yourself in those early months; demonstrate guidance and show ambition whenever you can, and you may likely be tapped for a management position. You can go from being entirely hands-on during the start to adding leadership skills over time. It’s a great way to get the step up you may be seeking.
What are the pitfalls I need to consider?
4. Look out for a sinking company: If a company wants to hire you directly for a leadership role, you should, of course, be flattered. But, it may be best to temper your excitement and think about why they want to place someone without prior leadership experience into a management position. Maybe they see something truly special in you, but it’s also a time to look at whether there are indications of the company making unwise decisions. Maybe there are financial issues, retention problems or other reasons the company may be heading down. If this is the case, be thoughtful about the move you make. At the very least, you should try to step back and ask yourself why they aren’t hiring a proven leader.
5. Don’t lose your skills: The number one thing I would stress to any engineer is to stay current. Use mainstream technologies that are transferable from one company to the next and remain hands-on. The quickest way to hurt your marketability is to take a role that is pure management and to become rusty with your programming skills. In a “what have you done for me lately” industry, your ticket to optimal marketability is your technical skill-set. If you abandon that, you are vulnerable, and if things change (the company begins to struggle or you become unhappy), it won’t be as easy to find a job. The Boston market, for example, is comprised of many small companies that value leaders who are still active in their field.
6. Management isn’t the be-all/end-all in engineering: One of the biggest mistakes I see is when engineers want to be promoted, or want more responsibility, and go full force into management. Management is not for everyone, and the temptation to move another rung up the ladder can be dangerous. In technology, there are multiple ways to take on more responsibility or broaden your skills without hurting your marketability:
•Talk to your boss about taking on a tech lead or team lead role
•Stay in a purely hands-on role, but go above and beyond with product or feature ownership
•Raise your hand to mentor an intern
•Work on a side project; you could strengthen your project management skills or learn a new programming language
Hands-on engineers at the top end of the market are now making the same, if not more, than a line manager. Be thoughtful before taking the plunge into management, and above all else, make sure you are doing it for the right reason – that you want to be a leader rather than simply wanting to move up the career ladder.Career advice | Job search advice | Leadership & management | Software | Technology