Returning to Development from Management

by | Career | 17 comments

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.