Some pretext: I have been a software developer for just over a decade and recently moved into management while still playing a huge role in the day-to-day development at my current job. I have been at the company for the majority of my career and spent my time moving up in roles that were likely created to encompass the work I was doing. I never discussed with my previous manager about what a career roadmap looked like and mostly just did my job and kept solving my problems and taking promotions.
I moved into a leadership role (title: Lead Software Developer) about two years ago, and last year my old boss had left the company - leaving the GM to tap me to take on the responsibilities of running the team.
I have been loving the job but one of the big concerns I have is that I do not know how to provide good guidance or structure for career growth within my team. Because of this, I am asking you - how are your teams structured and what paths for career growth do you have at your company?
Thank you in advance!
Your team is made of people, who each have individual skills and motivations. As long as you remember and internalise that, you probably won’t go too far wrong. The worst management I’ve seen has always been as a result of failing to get that step right.
IMO, the book Engineering Management for the Rest of Us does a good job at pointing that out, how to deal with conflicts that arise and so on.
Thanks for the recommendation, I’ve not seen that one before. Of all the management books that I’ve read, the one that I’d recommend if you were going to read only one is PeopleWare. I’ve read the first and second editions. I’ve heard good things about the third edition but not seen a copy.
In my spare time, I’m writing a book specifically about managing remote teams, since it’s something I’ve been doing for most of my career and people keep telling me that it’s hard. I hope to finish it over the summer.
Thanks for reminding me of PeopleWare, it’s supposed to be a classic but I haven’t read it (yet).
This is 100% how you get from “Manager RPG” Level 1 to ~middle tier: remember, pay attention to, and support your people. It’s critical, and worthwhile because human beings are more important in basically every case.
Above a certain level, though, it’s insufficient because how your team feels and acts is only one part of their overall success. In larger orgs/projects, visibility, impact, credit, and scope usually depend at least as much on the “political BS” people call out as they do any one group’s technical (or even communications) excellence.
Past “Senior Engineer” or “Senior Manager” in a mid-to-large org you have to be attuned to the larger organizational temperament and trends if you want to advance and have the maximum impact. Having a dedicated advocate on your behalf who is similarly clued-in can be a good stopgap, but if they leave/lose favor/shift focus you should be prepared to take it on yourself.
Great managers start and end with supporting their team, but in between there’s a lot of thought, communication, and upward/lateral management required to make that successful long-term.
Completely agreed. Managing up is a different set of tasks to managing down. I took the question to be about managing down, but it may be that managing up was not part of the question because the author didn’t know how important it was.
Ensuring that your company understands what your team is doing and that you understand how your team’s activity fits into (and contributes to) overall strategy are both very important. Assuming, of course, that your company has an overall strategy.
Thanks for reiterating this - this is definitely how have I have been managing the small team already. The one thing I am struggling with is they are not providing me with a lot of input and are asking me directly what the paths forward look like. A lot of my response is “Well what do you want to do?” So having a good map or some examples of how I can structure the team for growth is really helpful to foster better conversations.
I had a lot of conversations like that with students. I found that giving them an overview of a few different career paths worked well to start the conversations going. In particular, it was great for finding the things that they realised that they really didn’t want to do. I’d also recommend The Coaching Habit, not least because it has a path for making the person that you’re coaching do most of the work.
Beyond that, people tend to relate better when you’re talking about what you did than when you’re talking about what other people did. If you can, talk about what you did and introduce them to people who can give them other perspectives.
I’d start by asking yourself ‘what motivates this person?’ about each member of your team. There’s a lot written about intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and you really want to know what gets each person excited (building cool things, learning new stuff, micro-optimising things, seeing things deployed at scale, whatever). If you can’t answer that question about someone on your team, spend some time getting to know them. Make sure you have regular informal conversations with everyone, because as soon as you’re on a ‘we’re talking about work’ footing you lose the ability to learn these things. Chatting to your team is not slacking off, it’s part of your job as a manager. Once you understand what motivates people, you can think about the career paths that will increase their opportunities to do these things. And you can help direct them towards doing things that will help them build these skills.
But all of that comes back to ‘remember that your people are people’. They are not resources. They are not fungible. As long as you remember that, you’ll be fine.
Do not look out. Look within. Given your long tenure at this company find a senior manager that is willing to mentor you. Ideally, your company has a management onboarding program but it doesn’t seem like it. So the next best thing is learning how your company is doing things by asking around, sharing questions, issues and possible solutions with people more experienced than you.
I recommend looking internally first because there are too many flavors of management and it seems you don’t know which one your management prefers.
While I completely appreciate and agree with this advice - reaching out to lobste.rs was not my first action on this particular subject. A lot of the management and senior management within my company (my colleagues) are also unsure about the kind of paths I can provide my team.
Generally, there are three to four levels of individual contributor (IC), from new grad to about six to ten years of experience. After that, there is a fork, where a person can start going up the manager track (which has one or two levels of managing ICs only, to managing managers and experienced ICs, to managing successively larger orgs), or go up the IC track. In my experience, the number of managing levels scales with the size of the org, but the number of IC levels (at least occupied) depends on the complexity or need for disparate impact within the company.
In an aerospace company I worked, they created new levels if they needed to retain super talent, They also created titles to reward superior technical competency, although the titles weren’t really a new “level” or pay grade. In a startup, we had multiple levels of ICs that weren’t occupied for years as we 1) didn’t have anyone of that stature and 2) didn’t need anyone of that stature yet. This is to say that, while there are patterns, companies create these structures as the need arises.
If you are looking for tools in providing better guidance and structure, I recommend the tools in the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott. She presents a way to draw out what motivates individual employees. (I have personal experience with it in both directions.) Tailoring opportunities for employees based on their desires, or being able to tell them that their desires aren’t realistic within the company, can be a more meaningful way for growing careers than trying to define what a title means.
Thank you for the recommendation - I get a lot of recommendations for Radical Candor these days so I am going to take a look at it seriously. I have been reading An Elegant Puzzle by Will Larson but a lot the advice and examples seem to be for fast-growth (volume of people) product teams - which is not what we have at my company.
Moving up the chain can be hard because your lens on the world has a change a bit. If your organization has the following attributes:
If you work in an organization with those attributes, I highly encourage you to focus your energy in the other direction, take all the other posters well meaning advice on being kind and all that to your employees for sure. Yet, the issue is understanding the politics and profit centers for the company and what will actually get these people into higher positions, and you may well realize the best way for them to move up if for you to move up and carry them with you.
Talking to your employees all day about their desired growth when you can’t provide it might be useful for you in understanding their risk of leaving and possibly mitigating it short term with perks, but unless you can open slots, money and work the political system… you won’t do much for them.
Too many middle managers these days have too little power to provide any opportunity to their employees, so if you really want to help and retain them, look up and find / open places for them to go or grow your own power structure so you can provide them growth directly.
Thanks for the response! A part of the power I do wield is the ability to create those open slots for the developers to move into - the problem I’m trying to wrap my head around is what are those slots? Determining what the actual job description and title would be would be easier if I could foster some conversation with them about where they want to go.
The things I know now, for sure: they want to make more money. That’s obvious. Because of he corporate structure, the easiest way to do that is a title change. So without knowing where they want to go I can’t really just start inventing new roles they may or may not want to have. Hence me asking how things are structured elsewhere. I’m looking for some examples to really flesh out possible roadmaps.
I do appreciate this feedback though and its definitely more in-line with how the business is run and how I should approach this kind of topic with my manager - so thank you!
Sounds like you already got the biggest hurdle handled! If you have budget authority and power to create new slots, then you really just need to know if they want to stay IC, people management or tech management (architecture, automation, etc). Then bump them along the chain. Now youa are a principal engineer, now you are a distinguished engineer… with creativity there are infinite titles.
edit: I should prefix this with that I am deliberately still an IC because I want to reduce the political bs in my work life. My current role still has plenty of it.
The book that I see recommended a lot in the last years is The Manager’s Path In my previous company that was recommended/required for anyone going from IC to Management. I follow Camille on twitter/mastodon for ages. I think she knows her stuff.
I personally have never much given thought to career development or planning that. Any plan typically falls apart with the next re-org or whatever else may be happening to your team/group/company. I guess I have been lucky in that I have a good career even though I am doing it all “wrong”.
That being said as a manager you have to be more receptive to people that are not like that. There are people that are more driven by job titles. They have “goals” they want to reach. So I believe empathy is the number one thing you need to be a good manager. Understand that people are not like you and you will be fine. Also, last but not least I have always liked honesty with my managers and I appreciate it whent they don’t say corporate word salad to me but talk straight.
There are different scales here. The ‘exactly what do I need to do to get the next promotion’ is subject to reorgs and so on (and suffers a lot from the fact that the easiest way to get a promotion in tech is to move to a competitor). The macro scale is a lot easier to think about. What skills will you need for your longer-term career goals and how do you get there? This can be technical things like wanting to get a deep understanding of something so that you become the company’s leading expert in technology X. More often it’s the skills involved in tech-lead positions, which include taking ownership of things, mentoring mor junior people, and so on. Sometimes it’s management things. Once you understand what your people want to learn, it’s easy to give them opportunities to develop those skills.
For a lot of folks, understanding the expectations for other roles is also useful. This happens even for more senior people. Someone managing a moderately large team may not know what a VP or a CxO’s job actually entails, for example, and so doesn’t have a clear idea of whether that’s something that they’d want as a career goal.