Finding the Right People to Manage Your Programmers
Programming is hard for a number of reasons. According to Joe Armstrong, in addition to the technical challenges, a lack of time to learn things and bad physical environments are other reasons. Managers are often the ones responsible for removing impediments, but finding people who are good at managing programmers is difficult.
Juan Pablo Dellarroquelle argues that one reason that good engineering managers are hard to find is that "Unlike virtually every other function in a software company, engineers—particularly the good ones—don’t want to move up."
Dellarroquelle suggests that the engineers who want to be promoted want to do so for the wrong reasons. He classifies engineers into two groups.
There are those who are weaker technically, good at tracking and organizing, and view their status in terms of the number of people they manage. The second group consists of those who lead by example and have a lot of influence but eschew a formal management role. This may be a simplistic perspective that ignores the view that management and leadership are distinct roles, but the post describes some stereotypes that may sound familiar to many.
One challenge to finding good engineering managers might be that it’s hard to step away from the belief that hierarchical organizations are a given. Management is a function, and by nature managers need to coordinate a group of people.
By default however, most managers in organizations are either more highly paid than others or considered superior. Project—as opposed to people—managers are an example of a management role that is orthogonal to an organizational hierarchy and a model for managers and coordinators who have responsibilities but do not handle direct reports. But, the correspondence between management and promotion persists.
In a related post, David Burkus discusses why we keep creative people out of leadership roles. He highlights a study where "researchers found a negative correlation between creativity and leadership potential." Burkus believes that one issue is that leaders are judged against the status-quo, which selects against those who tend toward unconventional solutions. He ends by sharing that the study suggests that "it is possible to counteract the bias against creative leaders."
Management, leadership, and mentoring are all necessary functions for teams to be successful, and it can be a struggle to get those teams working. By understanding the difference between a manager, leader, and mentor—and acknowledging the value each role brings—teams can find a balance that works for them.
One can lead without explicit authority, and those with authority may not be successful leaders. The biggest challenge is understanding how to step outside the constraints of traditional role and job title definitions.
How are managers selected in your organization? Does the approach select good managers? Do your teams distinguish between managers and leaders? Do you agree that creative management is often discouraged?