From Contributor to Manager - The Hardest Transition in IT, professional development, social business

Given the dearth of quality talent, finding a job as an individual contributor in the IT field has been quite easy for some time now. What has been a bit harder is to make the career transition into management positions. There are so many obstacles, both hidden and obvious, that many people give up rather than deal with the political machine that seems designed to restrict them to a life of system development and/or support. The stubborn few keep trying; interview after interview; sometimes company after company even, to get a shot at a job that leads to management.

The Path to Manager: No Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

Some companies have transitional roles like team-lead, supervisor, or even associate manager, but what these roles still fail to account for is how an accomplished senior-level contributor who took the time to master their craft and become an architect can move to different track without taking several steps seemingly backward in title and possibly compensation. Quite often, this catch-22 leads to people jumping to a different company to get their chance. Other times, proven leadership without direct managerial experience is not enough to qualify for the interview process. 

There are several factors that lead up to this gordian knot and thankfully there are several tactics the persevering and committed IT professional can take to maximize both their chances to jump the chasm and their chances of success when they land on the other side.

The Obstacles: Soft Skills, Managerial Experience

"You need to work on your soft skills": This refrain is said so often to IT professionals throughout their careers and unsurprisingly, like a computer from a classic Star Trek episode, smoke starts to emerge from the ports, sounds and vibrations start emerging from the facial unit and a response akin to "That Does Not Compute" is given back. Many of the most talented IT professionals struggle with this out of a lack of understanding of organizational dynamics and what it takes to lead large groups of people with a love/hate relationship with authority (they love the idea of having it and hate it when anyone wields it over them).

"You have no management experience": This criticism is never viewed as helpful because it implies that in order to get chance at moving into a career path with executive leadership potential, a person will have to take backwards steps in title, responsibility and possibly compensation in order to get the "required experience". Given that this path sounds like a 3 to 7 year investment to get a job that many professionals believe they can currently do, this is viewed as asking too much.

From IT Profession to Manager: The Tactics

Other then switching companies, there are several things an IT professional can do to make the transition more likely to happen and be successful when it does:

Learning Opportunities

  1. Get an MBA - Before you wince and move on, think about how palatable this is compared to taking 2 to 3 steps backward with no portable value between employers. More importantly, remember that many companies reimburse the cost of advanced educational programs and will even be flexible with your schedule to allow you take daytime classes. Think about your career in the 10 year time range and this option becomes a no-brainer; You will learn the basic language of your business counterparts (finance, marketing, operations) at a minimal cost to yourself and make yourself qualified for more than twice as many opportunities in enterprises and startups.
  2. Ask for administrative tasks - All management jobs have some level of administrative requirement. From time sheets to personnel reviews, it is an inescapable part of the job and the more you show that you can handle the drudgery parts of the job without complaining, the less someone else will be able to claim that you are only interested in management for the money.
  3. Learn the crafts of your peer disciplines - Whether it is UX, Project Management, Product Management or Quality Assurance, pick one you have some interest in and find ways to learn from and be of service to your counterparts. Ask for books to read and opportunities to participate in their processes. Be crystal clear that your interest is not to do, or interfere in their jobs, but only to get foundational understanding of their methods, activities and deliverables so that you can do your job better.
  4. Participate in the recruiting and hiring processes - Do interviews. Go to career fairs. Aside from the practical management experience it will give you, you'll also be building relationships with recruiting and HR who just happen to be the gatekeepers for the management interviews.

Imagine your next interview after you have completed these tasks:

Q: "Have you ever had managerial experience?"

A: "Yes. I completed my MBA three months ago and I've led projects and tracks within projects for the last five years that required critical thinking, judgement and sometimes difficult conversations. I've been managing reporting compliance for my team and helped move us into a recognized center of excellence. I've been working with the UX team for the last few years and I've been recognized as being instrumental in improving the working relationship between the teams. I've been deeply involved in the recruiting and hiring processes for the company as well and I've helped to hire the last 10 engineers into the my team. I feel like have both the foundation and experience that will help me be successful in this new role."

Doesn't that sound like someone you would want to give a shot to?

Editor's Note: Stephen will also address the leap from Manager to director this Wednesday. Until then check out The Biggest IT/Business Problem Unmasked.

Image courtesy Viorel Sima (Shutterstock)