Whenever I hear a technical person say, "I just got promoted into management," I know he's in for a rough ride. Because chances are he doesn't understand what he's gotten himself into, and whoever gave him the job hasn't prepared him well. Very rarely do they realize that in technical work, this new role isn't a promotion -- it's a career change.
To get a promotion is generally to receive added responsibilities. There is a sense of continuity: What came before is a part of what is to come. But for technical people, nothing could be further from the truth.
Engineering and management are entirely different careers, with no overlap in required skills, knowledge and behaviors. Technical managers don't need to be great engineers. They need to be skilled at creating the conditions under which others can become great engineers. To move from a technical role to management is to abandon one career for another.
Selecting and growing successful technical managers requires a keen appreciation of both the differences between the roles and the dynamics of the transition, because the shift from one career to another can be rather traumatic. Here are some things you can do to help avoid that trauma.
Try before you buy. A large percentage of engineers who try management don't like it. Too often, they choose to leave the organization rather than suffer the public humiliation of a "demotion" or perceived failure. So the organization loses some of its best engineering talent because it tries to "promote" engineers to jobs they ultimately don't want.
To avoid this, give engineers an opportunity to dabble in management without making any public declarations that are hard to back away from. They need a chance to try on the managerial hat before committing to a major career change.
Use rites of passage. Once a managerial candidate decides to commit to the new career, it's important to make a public statement that symbolizes that he has transitioned to a new career path. This helps the manager recognize the profundity of the shift. It can be classic, like an office party -- but it can be fun too. Maybe you can organize a ceremonial surrendering of the pocket protector.
Expect grief and insecurity. Most new managers resist the idea that they'll have to abandon their former glory to embrace the new role. They try hard to be both technical and managerial but eventually realize that it's not possible. When they recognize that there is no going back to being purely technical, you need to account for the accompanying sadness of loss. They are not only losing the work that they love, but also embracing something so totally new that they will inevitably feel incompetent and insecure for a while.
Offer training and support. Training can be helpful, but it's rarely enough. Becoming a manager is about a lot more than just acquiring new skills. It's about mastering a new way of work and a new understanding of self. Managers need coaching to make the change.
Allow indulgences. New managers need the opportunity to occasionally dabble in their former work. Let them code just a little. But make sure they recognize that such things are indulgences that let them revisit the glory days but don't provide significant value to the organization.
With a few relatively easy adjustments in language and approach, you can create an environment in which new technical managers grow and your team gets the leadership it needs.
Paul Glen is the CEO of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to unlocking the value of technical people. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Read more about management and careers in Computerworld's Management and Careers Topic Center.