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Don't panic! 10 anxieties on the road from software engineer to manager

Marcus Blankenship President,
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One of the most difficult transitions that programmers make is from engineer to manager. They have spent years studying architectures, languages, frameworks, and agile processes, yet those studies don't prepare them for the new challenges of management.

As the saying goes, “What got you here won’t get you there.” This leaves first-time software leaders feeling an array of anxieties. To help you face your fears up front, here are 10 common anxieties you will likely experience on the road from software engineer to manager.


1. You are not prepared

A software leadership survey conducted by Johanna Rothman and myself revealed that 76% of the 192 technical leaders who participated received less than eight hours of training for their first management role. Contrast this with your local Starbucks barista, who receives three times as much formal training to prepare your favorite drink. 

It’s no wonder you feel anxious in your new role—your software engineering skills have done little to prepare you. You need to kick-start your learning with books, leadership courses, or a mentor to guide you through this transition. At the very least, let your boss know you would appreciate extra one-on-one time during this transition. 

Don’t be surprised if you experience impostor syndrome until you build confidence in your new role. With time, you’ll develop the skills needed to lead your team.

2. You may have to balance two jobs: Programmer and manager

The Rothman/Blankenship study also revealed a not-so-shocking fact: 77% of new tech leaders were expected to spend at least half of their time coding, and 29% said they were still supposed to do “mostly technical work.” 

Organizations that promote programmers may not be giving them a fighting chance to succeed, or have unrealistic expectations about the time commitment needed for the leadership work. The same company that would give a programmer six months full time to learn Clojure may not give a new manager six days to learn the new skills necessary for success. 

If this sounds familiar, you need to carve out focused time for your management work and step away from production development as much as possible.

3. You are leaving something behind

You become a software engineer to build software, and that’s what you love to do. Becoming a manager means changing your focus to building teams, and while that’s an admirable goal, it might leave you with a feeling of loss. Loss aversion studies reveal that people would rather not lose $5 than gain $5, and in this case, you might be losing much more than a few dollars. 

It might feel like you are leaving behind the art and craft that you love, and it’s normal that this will cause anxiety. In this case, it might be time to find an open-source project to contribute to, or maybe build some tools for your team. While you shouldn’t be writing production code, that doesn’t mean you can’t still experience the joy of coding.

4. You might become a pointy-haired boss

Technical managers don’t have a good reputation. After all, what’s the most common cultural icon of a technical boss? The pointy-haired boss in "Dilbert"! Most of us have worked for a boss like that at some point, and we might fear becoming a clueless jerk. 

If this fear is lurking in your head, it’s time to look for new role models, and you’re in luck. In the past two years, our industry has seen a new generation of great leaders arise and talk about managing programmers well. Michael Lopp, Johanna Rothman, Kim Scott, myself, and many others are writing, speaking, and training more than ever before. Conferences such as the Lead Developer and dedicated Slack rooms now exist to support your growth as a leader and encourage you to be a great boss for your team. Take advantage of these new resources to discuss your work with other good leaders.

5. You must work in public

On top of everything, you might feel acutely aware that your team and your boss are watching you closely. Your team wants to see what kind of leader you’ll be, hoping you won’t be like Dilbert's boss. Your boss is watching to make sure that everything is getting done and that you’re keeping an eye on the team. Your customer is waiting to see if you’ll deliver what the last manager promised. All eyes are on you, and they are scrutinizing your every move.

Or maybe not. While some new managers feel this way, most of these fears are just in their head. Your boss, team, and customers probably have better things to do than simply watch you work. And even if they are watching you more closely, other demands of the job will quickly pull their focus back to their work. 

6. It looks easy (but it’s not)

Managers are everywhere: grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants. We take for granted that there’s a manager on duty everywhere we go, and this may trick us into thinking that it’s an easy job. After all, if managers are everywhere, how hard can it be? 

The truth is, managing is pretty tough no matter what business you’re in. The business and leadership section is one of the biggest of most bookstores for a reason: The job is hard, and there’s a lot at stake. If you now realize how tough this job is, maybe it’s time to thank your manager for the work she’s been doing that went unnoticed. She might appreciate that you took the time to acknowledge her work, and this might build more trust between you.

7. It’s hard to ask for help

If managing looks easy, then asking for help can be doubly hard. Combine this with working in public, and we find many people struggling quietly in their new role, hoping no one will notice they aren’t keeping their head above water. Asking for help feels risky because it may seem like admitting defeat or telling your boss you’re not good at this new, “easy” job. 

But remember, your boss and others above you have also gone through this transition. No one is a born manager, and they know how hard the job is. Taking a risk to ask for help from your boss, mentor, or an online community will pay off and reveal that many of your struggles are common to all leaders. This job isn’t easy, but it’s worth it, and it deserves to be done well. Take advantage of the support that your company provides, and lean on your boss when things get tough.

8. You didn’t have a good role model for being a manager

Learning to manage is a lot like learning to parent: It’s easier when you’ve had good role models. When you’re in doubt about how to handle something, you can always fall back on the “do unto others what was done to you” management strategy. Unfortunately, not all of us have the benefit of this experience, and we may have had poor managerial role models that we’re trying to avoid. This can leave you feeling anxious and exhausted because you have to invent solutions for every situation.

With time, this anxiety will fade as you face more situations and gain confidence through experience, so give yourself some grace and find a support system to bounce ideas off of when things are tough.

9. You don’t have a communication framework

In Bruce Tulgan’s book The 27 Challenges Managers Face, he states, “When things are going wrong, the common denominator is unstructured, low-substance hit-or-miss communication.” As managers, we need to set up communication frameworks that provide structured, high-substance, consistent communication with our developers. One-on-one meetings, team meetings, stand-ups, sprint planning, and retrospectives are examples of these vital communication channels.

Too many tech leads run around like chickens with their heads cut off, putting out fires and barking orders at the team. Being in firefighting mode may get your adrenaline pumping, but it will ultimately wear you down. Having a communication framework reduces your workload (and your anxiety) by allowing you to work at a reasonable pace, and modeling structured time investment to your team. 

10. You may lose your technical skills

Losing your tech skills is the granddaddy of the new manager's anxieties. What if you forget how to write loops or what a variable is used for? What if the moment you put on khakis and matching socks, all those years of coding fly right out of your head? 

Silly, right? This is the biggest anxiety that programmers have, and also the least realistic. If you’ve been coding for more than two years and are an expert programmer, what you’ve learned will NOT vanish overnight. It’s like riding a bicycle—it will come back when you need it. This kind of deep learning will stay with you forever because you acquired this knowledge over many years and applied it hundreds of times.

Of course, you will want to keep up with tech trends, because that’s one of the perks of managing programmers. You should continue to go to conferences and try new things, since that will help you evaluate new technologies your team could use. Don’t worry about losing your edge, though; that’s an unrealistic fear.

You are not alone

The programmer-to-manager transition can cause anxieties for many reasons. By understanding these common problems, you may realize that you're not alone and find ways to overcome these fears. Having lived through all these myself, I promise the journey is worth the work.


Image credit: Flickr

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