Returning to Development from Management

I was interviewed today by Rob Conery for an upcoming episode of This Developer’s Life on this topic.  It was the first time in several years I was interviewed for a podcast, so my mind went a little blank at times.  I’m sure Rob will do a cool editing job to make it appear I had it all together. Winking smile We spoke for an hour, but I still have so much more to say on the topic.

I’m thinking about starting a podcast on this, or maybe on the struggles for new and re-entrant developers in general; I’m not sure yet.  I’d interview people with war stories and advice for successfully making it through it all.

For now, here’s a list I put together in preparation for the interview.  I’m considering a presentation for user groups, etc.  Let me know if you think this would be a useful topic.

The following only applies to former developers who find themselves in management, and are regretting it.  There are a lot of you.  Some of you may be numb to it, and may not have realized it until now.

Believe me – I totally get it.

How Someone Finds Themselves “Stuck” in Management

Signs You Made a Horrible Mistake

  • You’re in love with an idea, but then realize you’d really love to be the one implementing it.
  • You always say to yourself (or others) that you can do it much faster and better than your subordinates.
  • You find it hard to delegate.  Developers are natural control freaks — not a good management trait.
  • You realize you’re starting to know “just enough” of the details to be dangerous.
  • You like hanging out with developers at developer functions, but you start feeling like an outsider and imposter.
  • You start being afraid of remaining “comfortably numb” in management.
  • You start feeling terribly trapped, compounded by the “golden handcuff” effect.
  • You feel like a part of your soul has died.
  • You fall into a deep depression.
  • You feel like you’re committing career suicide.
  • You seriously consider leaving the field, before realizing the reason you started hating the field is due to your frustration of not living development anymore.

Steps to Get Back in the Game

  • Continue to attend developer functions, user groups, etc.  Even run your own.
  • Make sure you have a support team all around you — family, friends, co-workers, former colleagues, and others in your field.
  • Recruit the people you managed, and who respect you, to become your mentors.
  • Lay out a very specific plan.
  • Review the core concepts and one or two (in demand) languages — remember, you want to eliminate obstacles in getting re-started.
  • Focus on learning one or two key (and in-demand) technologies.  You can always expand on these once you’re back “in”.
  • Go public with what you’re looking to do.  This may not be comfortable for everyone, but the process will be much slower, otherwise.
  • Consider going into consulting, due to gained life experience, and honed communication skills.  If you find the right opportunities, it may even help loosen the “golden handcuffs,” as well.
  • Ideally have your re-entrant opportunity in working for someone who knows of your capabilities, and knows what you’re attempting to do.

Struggles You’ll Face

  • Getting used to using that part of your brain again.  It’s a very different way of thinking than what you’ve gotten used to.
  • Diving into the details again will often trigger an inferiority complex.  You’ll constantly ask yourself, “am I fooling myself?”
  • You’ll face an overwhelming number of choices these days.  Stay focused!
  • You’ll feel like you have to (re-)learn everything, all at once.  Since people in management are often there after years of experience, you may feel time is running out.
  • You’ll feel like you’re facing young, smart competition, who have always remained focused on development.  But your life experience does matter.
  • Even though programming is somewhat like riding a bike, the bikes are more sophisticated than when you last rode one, and the rules are more formalized.
  • You’ll hit the wall, or the “dip” often, as you re-learn.  There is pain, but it’s worth breaking through each wall.  Break through one wall at a time.

Thoughts to Leave With

  • Being good at something doesn’t make it the right thing for you to do.  Management should not be your final destination, if you don’t want it to be.
  • Caution others you see going down the same path you did.  You’ll recognize the signs right away.  But your warnings will be ignored.
  • You could try and get your role changed at your current job, but this is a lot more difficult than you may realize.  People already see you as a manager, and will pull you back in.  Sometimes a clean break is necessary for such a career change.
  • This is very scary, but the alternatives are even more frightening.
  • You only live once.  Do what you know you love to do.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  It’s your life.  It’s your soul.

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Returning to Development from Management by Mark Freedman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Comments

  1. Climbing out of management hell says

    Mark,

    This post really hits home. I have been in management for the last 7 years. I was a developer that started working on an application for a big bank. The application got noticed and the IT group in the bank decided they wanted to roll out the application across the globe. Needless to say I needed to get some other developers to write code as well. My manager at the time basically threatened me into being the team leader. In the following couple of years I was doing two jobs, writing code and managing people. Needless to say I didn’t do either job as well as I could if I had only been doing one job. I would spend about 6 hours a day coding and about 6 hours a day managing. As the team grew I spent less time coding and more time managing. Well about 3 years after this and with a team of 70 people, the only coding I did was messing about with stuff that was in MSDN magazine. It was painful watching all of the developers get to have fun in their job while all I got to do was go to meetings and do reports. My soul was being slowly destroyed.

    The problem was that I was surrounded by people for which success meant moving up the corporate ladder. I didn’t realise that success was doing something I loved to do and being the best I could possibly at it. I picked up a book by Anthony Robbins as I was in one of those, ‘why do I hate my job’ moods and was wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. He was teling this story about a CEO he had that didn’t exactly work out. I was surprised to hear that he actually had a CEO, wasn’t this something Tony should do himself? Why didn’t Tony think that being the CEO was the pinnacle of success? I then realised that the reason he isn’t CEO is that if he had to sit behind a desk all day and only get a break away from that desk to go to a meeting would probably kill his soul.

    The lighbulb went off in my head at that point and I had one of those ureka moments. This was earlier this year so I have been studying every .Net, C#, domain driven design, MVC, DSL, design pattern book I could get my hands on. In 2011 I am going to get a job as a developer and resume doing a job that I am passionate about.

    It’s funny, I thought that I was the only one who felt like this.

    Thanks for telling your story and thanks to Rob and Scott for putting this on a pod cast.

  2. says

    Thanks for telling your story, “Climbing”. I often turn to Robbins and other life coach books and tapes when I get into those moods. Funny thing was, it took me a while to get beyond the passive listening / reading phase, to the “take action” phase. It took my giving six months notice at my current job to shake myself up, and force myself to take action. I understand that not everyone can get away with giving enough notice to plan the switch (I’ve been there almost 11 years). But there’s nothing like a good deadline to get things moving.

    Good luck in your journey.

  3. Gilad says

    Hi,
    The podcast was very inspiring for me and right on time.
    I’ve been a manager for 8 years now and it took me about a year to acknowledge how I want to proceed with my life and my career. I came to realize that the satisfaction of creating something from scratch is much greater for me than the knowledge that I managed to steer a large group of people to the right place. Some downsides that are not often mentioned in being a manger are firing people, wasting time and energy on organization politics, and the struggle of managing your friends. Saying that, I still believe that being a good manager is very challenging and has its moments, so I do not regret I did it and recommend others to try this path – you might like it.
    I managed to promote one of my team leaders and switch to an architect position for the time of my notice so I have some quit time but am still around to help out in management decisions when needed. For me as well, the challenge now is to get up to date with the latest technology, remove the rust from my creative side of my brain, and adjusting to sitting all day in front of the computer again. I would love to hear how others coped with the challenge.
    Thanks

  4. says

    Hi Gilad.

    You hit on a couple of key points there, that I neglected to mention. Having to fire people, politics, and managing friends. That last point can be extremely difficult.

    Once I had to be the boss, relationships changed permanently. Attempting to keep a balance to maintain the friendship will lessen your effectiveness as a manager tremendously. Not only do people sense favoritism, but your subordinate friends (and often formerly equal peers) don’t feel that they should concede to you making final decisions, when they’ve been used to consensus. And reviews? Forget about it! Human nature. That’s a big reason why promotion within the same department is never a good idea.

    I could go on and on why moving a technical person into management should never be an automatic career path, but the above scenarios, on TOP of losing the creativity part of your job, can be a crushing double blow for developers.

    Sure, lessons are always learned being placed in such a position, but the cost is extremely high. Once you’ve gotten through those hard times, and you do get back to what you love to do, makes it easier to appreciate the lessons and experience gained. In hindsight, I could agree about those positives, but I doubt I would recommend it to everyone who considers it. At least not without a warning of what they should be prepared for.

  5. says

    Mark,

    Incredible checklist: check, check, check… on every point.

    I’m 36 and going through similar pain. My career had been in the rise for the last 6 years. Back then, my boss “promoted” me out of development because I was good. In corporate terms, I was too good to be a developer. Since then, I’ve had different team & project management roles as well as business development.
    But ever since, I’ve been feeling the vacuum of not being part of the creation process, or only limited to a small portion of it that doesn’t make the difference.

    This vacuum grew much bigger when I moved to Business Development. While trying to sell the SW product we had, I realized how limited it was, and also how I could have done it better. And I turned back to coding to prove it.
    The prototype was a success. What next? “You are now the SW Architect, and development goes to “.
    SW Architect became Solutions Architect, so I went working with the customer to understand their requirements and expectations, while all design & coding were done off-shore.

    Some months later, I opened the “SW can” delivered to us. It was *full* of it. I had to go overseas to consult to our overseas consultants on how to write decent software.
    I spent 2 weeks working with the development team. We achieved in 2-3 days what they used to do in 2-4 weeks. Although it’s sad from the product perspective, it made me realize two things: (1) How I like to work with the team on the code and (2) How good it feels to be good at it.

    I’m in a big struggle now. I want to go back to SW Engineering. As described above, in my current company it’s like going back to zero. Even worst, most SW dev is outsourced, just like the cleaning services: this analogy is to describe how SW engineering is perceived at many levels. Once HR told me: We believe in you, but you have to stop thinking in bits and bytes.

    The irony is that after seeing the disastrous products we are creating, what this company needs are hard-core SW skills rather than another manager.
    But I can’t change corporate culture or salary policies on my own, so I’ve decided to leave.

    Now, while looking for a technical position, I realize that it’s not only my current company, but also this small European country, that has gone bland in SW skills. All that there is in the marketplace are entry-level consulting positions in the usual areas. No high-tech environment that would make me thrive.

    Now, I’ve turned my radar to the Silicon Valley. From the job postings I see, it’s SW Engineering paradise. Then comes the ironic flip of the coin: I’m outdated to take one of those bleeding-edge positions.
    I got a reject letter yesterday “we are afraid that your profile doesn’t meet our expectations”.
    What a dilemma… I’m too techy for Europe and too generalist for the US. Moving to the US is also a big step for my family so I need some insurance it’s the right thing to do.

    I’m clueless on how I’m going to bridge this gap.

    -UC

  6. says

    Silicon Valley, UC? I can relate to that. Back in late June, my wife and I spent a week and a half out there shopping for real-estate. It was our full intention to move out there, away from New York, away from the snow, into software paradise. It was going to be my ticket out of the hole I dug, and give me a fresh start. We sold a bunch of our stuff, scaled down, prepared for the big move…

    …out of management…

    …back to development…

    …new home, after living in NY all our lives…

    …into a beautiful climate year-round.

    We were in a position to down-size. Our daughter was now on her own, so we didn’t have to worry about college, etc., anymore. The adventure was about to start…

    Well, long story short, sticker shock was an understatement. Seems that no matter how depressed the real-estate market is everywhere else, it didn’t seem to touch it there (although the realtors out there claimed otherwise — if so, that is sick).

    Even if we found a place worth the money, I had to face the reality that I could only do it if I had a full-time management job (not easy getting a mortgage when not yet established as a consultant), still doing what I hated, or live in a box. There was no such thing as downsizing out there. Everything is an up-size.

    I still would love to make it out there one day, but for now, I decided to focus on my career change and stay in NY. It’s going to be tough, but not nearly as painful as trying to make two huge changes at once, if we moved to Silicon Valley. One huge step at a time.

    Are you diving into the latest technology yet? One reject letter should not discourage you. By giving my company six months notice, it forced me to dive back into practicing development and learning new things, QUICKLY. I always made sure to stay on top of it enough for it to make sense when deep-diving. From your message and your blog post, it sounds like you kept enough skills where your jump wouldn’t be so hard, either.

    You mention that in your marketplace, consulting positions are entry-level — are those consulting, or heads-down, outsource-able “contracting” jobs? “Entry-level” and “consulting” is an oxymoron. Consulting implies experience, wisdom, and knowledge sharing capabilities, which it definitely sounds like you have a lot of. Maybe focus on that when marketing yourself. And don’t worry so much about being a generalist. That could be a good trait if you go into consulting. You can always pick up a couple of specialist skills after re-establishing yourself in development.

    Main thing, though, is that I want to caution you about making a move to the Silicon Valley just yet, based on my very real, and very recent experience.

    I’ll expand on this blog post soon, and dive into some of the points.

  7. says

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks again for your word of advice.
    The reject letter was a shock for me. I thought I was the ideal candidate :-). I would have expected at least a phone interview. It was an Energy-awareness startup, and I’m in the Smart Grids area since 2 years. There are not many folks walking around with some understanding of the sector.

    This made me realize that my CV might not be representing me correctly. A friend suggested to have it revamped by a professional CV writer. Don’t know. It feels like cheating.
    But he has a point and I’ll work on it in any case.

    I scanned again the local market: nothing interesting. Yes, when I said consulting, those are “heads-down” jobs. Most hiring companies are IT outsourcing. Not my thing. I’m located in the heart of Europe, so labor is expensive and most companies having offices here are for coordination purposes, not R&D. I work for one of the few multi-nationals that actually do R&D here (and as you read before, we actually off-shore it). It doesn’t look too promising for a career in SW Engineering.

    Thanks for the advice on the housing conditions in the Silicon Valley. We just did major renovations to our house ($90k in works), so it’s a hard call to move somewhere else.

    My current plan is to try to apply to one of the ‘big guys’ in the Valley. Hard to know if I make a chance. I guess I need a serious sharpening before trying.

    Enjoy the New Year celebrations!

    -UC.

  8. says

    Hi Mark,

    I’ve just listen to podcast and read you blog post here. It is just amazing! I’ve been exactly in the same situation: succesfull developer, good project leader.. and finally promoted to management. 4 year ago I thought it is great opportunity to me.. more money, more respect, more pleasure. But I was completely wrong! My life turn to be in solving conflicts with top management and customers, sitting and speaking on long stupid meetings, preparing reports and plans that lie and never happen.

    I felt all symptoms that you described here! But I didn’t know what to do.. It might be great if I read you blog post several year ago :)..

    Fortunately for me, I was bad manager :).. I postponded this decision many times, but finally I realized – I have to back to development, the area that I really like!

    And I did it.. nearly year ago! I’ve changed dramatically, I back to be techincal geek again.. .NET, MVC, NHibernate, Stackoverflow, blogs – that all belogs back to me now :). I feel really happy of doing my developers job now!

  9. says

    Hi Mark,

    I already emailed you to ask for advice and you responded extremely quickly. I would like to just fill you in on the good news that is happening for me.

    Since the podcast I have now decided to setup a company with my brother and dad. Myself as the main driving force and generalist, my brother as developer, and my Dad as mentor (20-30 years PM experience, just retired)

    I’m very confident about what we’re going to do, hitting the mobile/web apps/interactive art markets providing b2b to creative agency’s in London. I am also lucky to have a friend that would make a great creative director, and while he is not ready to make the leap yet, he will do one day I hope.

    We’ve managed to get a loan from my gran for 6 months to help startup costs, but I am confident we can break even before then. Consider we will be able to provide all business needs, there should be little to outsource or hire for in the early days.

    My mood has completely changed, my mind is completely calm and happy and positive about the future. Before I was feeling very upset about my future. That was even in a fantastic company, with great people. There was just no reward in what my day to day job provided to me. Maybe I could have become a £1000 a day management consultant one day, but that is not a path for me.

    Thanks again for your thoughts in the podcast, and I hope your venture is going well too.

    Kind regards,

    Chris Barry

  10. says

    Thanks for your story, Alexander. I’ve been developing again full time for a month, and I’m loving it as well. I can finally read technical articles and books, and know I can actually put it to use in my job.

  11. says

    Great to hear from you again, Chris. Your venture sounds exciting!

    Yep, I’ve been coding full time for the past month, and it’s been great. I’m also expanding on this post with some new articles. Perhaps I can help others avoid the same path I had to take to get back here.

    Best of luck!

  12. Olivier says

    Hi Mark,

    Great segment and I just heard the podcast on “This Developer’s Life”.

    I am going through a similar thing where I left development 7+ years ago to move to the business-side.

    I left because my projects were put on hold due to budget freezes, and the company I work for was outsourcing development. The business department that I moved into, quickly used my skills to create a database infrastructure and BI tools to improve their operations.
    So, I was doing some development, but not nearly as deep as what I was doing when I was in I/T (C#/ASP.net). At the time, I wanted to go further into the business-side, so got my MBA 3 years ago while still working, and was able to move into a business strategy department a year ago.

    Now, I regret my move and really miss the days when I was utilizing my creative side in coding and designing. So, for the past 4 to 5 months, I’ve been learning Python, and relearning JavaScript. I am not sure if I should try to relearn C# or switch over to Java. The reason why I switched over to open-source is due to the fact that I lost my MSDN license, and cannot get the latest in IDEs like Visual Studio, and SQL Server without paying a fortune.

    My main question to you, is how did you convince potential employers to hire you considering that your most recent work experience was in management?

    Also, you suggest that we “Lay out a very specific plan”. Could you elaborate on that plan? Like did you keep a schedule of when you were going to develop after work or at home. Did it specify what languages and what technologies like web, database, or mobile. Did you create at-home projects with deadlines in mind?

    Thank you for your time consideration,

    Olivier

  13. says

    Hi, Olivier.

    When I made the decision to get back into development, I gave my company a full six month notice. This served several purposes:

    • It forced me to prepare for the move. It lit a fire under me, since I was now publicly committed to switching (and would be unemployed in six months).
    • It gave me some time to prepare for the move. I spent those months preparing, refreshing my knowledge, and coding at night and on weekends.
    • Of course, it helped that I was at my company for a long time in a significant role, so they were supportive. I asked to become involved in some small coding projects during my remaining time.
    • They were more open to allowing that, because I gave so much notice, and was also able to help transfer my role to others during those months as well.

    For finding work:

    • If you’re able to talk with your boss about this, maybe they can split your time, and help with your transition. But this totally depends upon your relationship with your management. I was very open with mine, but it helped that I was there for so long, and made myself valuable enough that it was in their best interest to keep me around as long as possible, despite my career frustration.
    • I only looked for contract work, and was up front with potential clients, offering a discounted rate because I was ramping back up. There are potential clients who are fine with that, but since it is very hard to raise rates while working for a specific client, your best bet is short-term projects.
    • Reach out to people who you have worked with as a developer in the past, and are familiar with your capabilities. This is your best bet, and it’s what I did. I gave a small break on my rate, in exchange for a long-term contract, and they were supportive in my efforts.
    • Use your now well-rounded experience to market yourself. I made it clear that my experience in management would make me a much more effective consultant, since I now understood business from several points of view. This is extremely valuable.
    • Sign up with Guru.com, Elance, oDesk, or similar site to find small projects. Although you’ll be competing with lower rate competition, you can find multiple and concurrent short-term projects that would also put you on a faster path for re-learning things. I did not go this route, but I know of others who have.

    Because you already have C# experience, I would stick with that at first. Although Java is similar to C# in many ways, it’s sort of the opposite side of the coin — enterprises mainly invest in either the Microsoft .NET ecosystem or the Java ecosystem. The main learning curve for moving to Java would be a new ecosystem, so your on-ramp would be much smoother with C#. Have you considered applying for the BizSpark program? If you start your own company to develop a product using Microsoft tools, you can get an MSDN license and support for your growing business without a fee (there are some terms and conditions). And that business can be a side business, while you take a full-time position. And they’re dying for .NET developers to build Windows 8 Surface and Windows 8 Phone apps.

    There are also a lot of opportunities in the LAMP stack (Linux / Apache / MySQL / PHP), and since all of those are free, or close to it, it’s a great on-ramp. You can find several open-source projects to contribute towards that use this stack, and can be a great way to learn.

    As far as a plan, have you read the following posts? They’re over two years old, and the tools and technologies may have changed a bit, but the ideas are more or less the same:

    Re-Education Action Plan – The Lessons
    Re-Education Action Plan – Learning Process
    JIT Learning – This is my most recent post, and more up-to-date. As I mention here, you don’t have to learn, or relearn everything in one shot.

    I wake up daily (7 days a week) at 5:00 AM. As I’m writing this response, I’ve already been awake for over an hour. This gives me time to keep up with learning, as well as catch up on non-work-related stuff. I’m not very good at self-imposed deadlines (may be my ADD), so my wife helps to keep me in line :) The real deadline was the overall goal to remain employed in six months. My giving six month notice essentially forced a six month deadline upon myself. By the way, finding short-term projects on Guru.com or those other sites I mentioned above would come with built-in deadlines.

    Finally, if you are able to make the move by working on small projects while you keep your management job, I’d recommend that. Unfortunately, I was too burnt out from my day job for that to work well for me. But that is the best of both worlds, and less risky.

    Good luck with everything!

  14. Prashant says

    Very Nice article, I am glad to know that there are many people who went back to development role after long gap. I am also trying to switch to development role from my current Onsite lead position.

  15. Chris says

    Hi Mark. Great article, really hit home. I went the management route out of a sense of obligation when another manager left and his boss asked me to take the role. I thought it would be interesting. It was for about 2 weeks . . . then I missed coding. I ended up leaving the company after a few months to get back to the tech side of things. I regret taking the position but it, like everything, can be viewed as a learning experience.

  16. NG says

    Hi Mark,

    Really interesting post, very well written and inspiring.
    I’ve been doing project management for the past 8 years. I was leading a technical team before that and writing code myself of course. A conflict in my company and an amazing PM opportunity in a company that was a leader in sports made me switch. It never felt right and I always felt like I was wasting my time. Still I continued. The last 2 years I am working in a Pharma company again as an IT PM and still asking myself if I am doing it right. I start some projects for myself from time to time, like learning to develop an App on the iOS devices etc, but thats the extent of it. When deciding about the future, I decided to stay the course and started working on an executive MBA.

    One reason I haven’t yet gone back to development is the money. I’m the sole earner in the family and switching back to development means going to a salary that is 20-30% lower than the one I have now. Another worry is that if I do manage to switch, what if I realize that I made a mistake? There are development jobs and there are development jobs. The only possible solution could be to start my own firm, but that is another game altogether.

    All that said, I found your post through google search for a reason. It has again piqued my interest. Perhaps I could combine my .NET dev past and my management skills to start something new. Any suggestions?

    Cheers,
    NG

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