Transitioning to Management is Trial by Fire

A couple months back, I wrote about how promotions typically work inside of midsized to large companies. In short, they’re usually descriptive in nature, so the individual only gets the new level and title after they’re essentially doing that job.

This doesn’t quite work when someone goes into management.

I guess before we get into why it doesn’t work, there’s the question of whether management should be considered a promotion at all. There’s the theory of the dual career ladder — where individual contributors (IC) hold the same levels as managers — which applies well to software engineering, but I think this ladder structure is really difficult to implement in practice. For most companies and more importantly in most peoples’ minds, moving into management is considered a promotion. Of course, if you work for a place where moving to and from management is truly lateral1, then these points still apply to the contrasting roles; just replace “promotion” with “transition”, hence the title.

Whereas promotions often require the candidate to get used to work at the next level, moving into management is made more difficult in large part because a lot of that work isn’t available to ICs. There are some areas which can apply to both jobs:

  • Mentorship
  • Leading projects — both via project management as well as technically/architecturally
  • Creating technical processes

But there are plenty of other areas where typically only a manager could perform, after formally stepping into the role:

  • Hiring processes
  • Performance reviews / 1-on-1s / PIPs
  • Personnel-related discussions and decisions (e.g., team transfers, org charts)

Furthermore, there are lines of communication usually only established for managers which make these tasks easier.

And even if a manager-to-be were to find a way to gather all that information required for good management while keeping an IC title, maintaining two distinctly different roles is massively unfair, particularly when it comes time to evaluate performance. It sounds ridiculous, but I did hear about something like this from a friend at a major tech company: if he was to move into management, he was expected to try takin on the duties of a manager while maintaining his performance as an IC. Auditioning for a position should not be exponentially more difficult than working in it.

So, with no real good way to simulate management for most ICs, making the transition is always a bit risky. Thus, whenever I meet new managers, I ask about their first major screwup. There is always something they didn’t expect, and the lack of experience plus the inability to really practice beforehand can snowfall a bad start to a horrific catastrophe.

Plus, if they’re able to laugh about it, that might just the sign of a promising career in management.

  1. A good litmus test is to see whether managers can go back to being ICs and continue to progress in their careers, as opposed to being perceived as taking a step back.

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