Returning to Development from Management

by | Career | 24 comments

I originally wrote this article shortly before I returned to development from management. I’ve now been back to full-time development since 2011, so I’m living proof it’s possible. And it’s worth it.

Around the same time, I was interviewed by Rob Conery for an 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. Rob did 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.

Here’s a list I put together in preparation for the interview. It mainly applies to former developers who find themselves in management and are regretting it. Or perhaps you’ve just began your own journey back. From comments and emails I’ve received about this over the past several years, 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’ve 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 understand “just enough” of the code to be dangerous.
  • You like hanging out with developers at developer events, 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 events, 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’ve managed, and those who respect you, to become your mentors.
  • Lay out a very specific plan.
  • Review core concepts and one or two (in demand) languages — remember, you want to eliminate obstacles when 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 you, but the process will be much slower, otherwise.
  • Consider going into consulting, due to your gained life experiences, and your honed communication skills. If you find the right opportunities, it may even help loosen those “golden handcuffs,” as well.
  • Ideally have your re-entrant opportunity working for someone who knows 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.
  • 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 your time is running out.
  • You’ll feel like you’re facing young, smart competition, who have remained focused in 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 there are more rules.
  • 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 likely 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 a career reset.
  • 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.