How to stay technical as a software manager

As a manager, it’s very easy to quickly lose your technical edge.  Most of your day will get filled with meetings, planning sessions, strategy sessions, tactical status updates, 1 on 1’s, etc.  On top of a day filled with meetings you will need to figure out how to execute various initiatives, and spend nights catching up on email.

Given the above time and mindshare constraints, how can anyone expect you to have time to keep up with technical skills?

The simple answer is, “it doesn’t matter”, you need to figure out a way to do it regardless!

Why Stay Technical?

Ok, so for starters, why even attempt to stay technical?  Isn’t there a clear path to higher levels of management where your technical skills are less critical?

The answer is simple, there is no downside to continuing to have sharp technical skills.  I have not seen a management position where this can hurt you.

On the contrary, there are only downsides to losing your technical skills, including:

  • Respect from your team of technical contributors
  • Ability to make critical technical and business decisions
  • Ability to influence those outside of your group.
  • Ability to predict and preempt situations that your team may encounter.
  • No job security.  If you have no core domain expertise, even in a management position, you are easily replaceable.

In the past I took on a role as director of engineering at a company whose tech stack I had no background in.  I was very forthcoming with this during the interview process.  Once onboard I had no time to ramp up on the tech stack, and found myself quickly pigeon holed into just being the ‘manager’.

I found myself paralyzed with the inability to help weigh in as an authority figure and help the team make technical decisions.  In the end I found my value add to be limited and quickly moved on to another company.

OK, so how do I stay technical?

If you are currently a manager then you already know this.  You are always going to be swamped.  I find that my to-do list is never shrinking.  The key point here is that you need to make time to hone your tech skills.

1. Leverage pointless meetings

If you are like me then you often find yourself if pointless meetings throughout the day.  I use this time to jump into design or code reviews that my team is working on.  Shoot to poke at a single pull request per day.  That should be doable!

Your time is valuable.  If a meeting is not generating value for you, then create some on your own!

2. Use 1×1 time

I try to avoid using 1×1’s for status updates.  Oftentimes in a 1×1, I find myself out of sheer curiosity wondering how a particular problem was solved.  I’ll usually pull up a particular piece of code that we are discussing and start to walk through it.  I find this to be one way to have an engaging conversation with an engineer.  They like to show off their work, and I can use the time to understand what is going at the lowest level of the code base.

3. Design Reviews

I’ve found that engineers don’t like to host design reviews.  I use my role to encourage folks to hold design review sessions in person.  I make sure to attend and be engaged.  I strive to understand the design being discussed and ask lots of questions.

4. Pick a side project at home

Ok, this is a controversial one.  I’ve got a wife, multiple kids, lots of house projects, and no free time.  I get it.

Regardless, I shoot to have one or two technical side projects in my queue.  At least once a week at night I try to work on it, even for an hour or two.

You’d be surprised how your progress can compound and over several months you have something demonstrable.

5. Pick a side project at work

Find some low hanging fruit that is annoying the team.  It should be easy to implement, add a ton of value, and off the critical path.  Block off a recurring half day on fridays.  Hide out in a conference room, put on headphones, or even go remote if possible.

Your team will love you for contributing, and you’ll keep your skills sharp.

6. Listen to podcasts / watch youtube videos

Replace your netflix and junk TV watching at night with a tech talk on youtube.  Or use your commute to listen to dev podcast.

Socialize what you’ve learned from the talk with others in the office.

Summary

You need to stay technical to be an effective software manager, at any level.  Given that you most likely won’t be assigned specific technical tasks in your role, you need to find the time to stay technical.  There is free time in your schedule that you can squeeze out!

I hope some of the ideas above can help.  I’d love to hear your ideas of other ways to stay technical in the comments section below!

 

Thanks,

-Dave

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1 thought on “How to stay technical as a software manager”

  1. Agree with you 100%. I have seen some software development managers with no technical skills, and the team quickly lost confident on those kind of managers. I don’t think you can effectively manage a team if they don’t take you seriously.

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