The fork in the road

Not so long ago, when I managed a team, I used to coach people in their career directions. (How well I coached people is another matter, and I can only leave it to those people to assess my real effectiveness.) I’d help them understand their successes, their opportunities, and help them avoid the pitfalls that were common with advancement. Everyone wants to get ahead, after all.

One thing I always cautioned more senior people was the “fork in the road”, the point at which you decided on your “next” direction. One avenue would take you down the road of the specialist, the code ninja who could seemingly pull miracles out of thin air. The other avenue was expanding one’s view beyond the initial skill to encompass the Big Pictureâ„¢. In other words, management.

Watch out for that wrong turn — here be dragons.

The fork will hit many people over the course of their careers. Companies prefer to rely on known quantities — they’re trustworthy, they get results, and have proven themselves time and time again under stressful circumstances. In theory, that sort of person would make a good leader, and someone who could “look after” teams and projects. That’s usually how a specialist finds themselves taking on the responsibilities — in effect taking the turn at the fork — and going down Management Lane.

At a high enough level, you could almost see it as “six of one, half a dozen of another”. The person still has a job, and new opportunities are a good thing. This makes a person more valuable, and ultimately provides more benefit to the company. But there’s a catch (of course) — at a high enough level, you don’t see the complications that come with taking the wrong fork.

Not everyone should be a manager. In my career, I’ve only met a small number of people who do it well (and despite my history, I’m reticent to include myself in that group). The right person is patient, attentive, trustworthy and trusting, and protective of their team. The right person instills faith in the larger group, makes sure that unnecessary noise (such as problems that do not affect the team directly) are kept silent, and can help solve the team’s problems when they arise. All while understanding the team’s work, the plan for the team, and the long-term vision.

With all of that comes a necessary need to relinquish the practices that they used to, such as programming. Why? Because both require considerable focus and attention, and any attempt to split across both will ultimately cause trouble in both — you can’t do two full-time jobs at once with the same level of quality.

And that’s where some managers fail. They try to do both, to the detriment of their work, and (in really bad cases) their team. It’s certainly not the person’s intention ("the road to hell…") — no-one ever intentionally plans to fail. But it does happen.

The trick? Well, there lies the rub. The person reaching the fork — and it isn’t always obvious when you are — needs to think long and hard about what they want to do. Are they willing to give up the previous job for a new one, to operate at higher levels? Or do they want to become the expert, the person who can deliver anything that’s asked.

There are always avenues for the specialists, too. I’ve yet to see a situation where someone has practiced their trade so well that they’ve effectively taken themselves past the point of usefulness (dying trade/technology, or pricing themselves out of the market, notwithstanding). In my many years in the technology industry, there have been the “experts”, the people who know a technology, practice, or methodology so well that they are able to execute a solution almost asleep. Those skills are highly valuable and should never be discounted. I know plenty of developers who are still developers after many years, taking only promotions within their particular expertise, practicing a level of skill the likes of which I can only imagine.

Me? I took the management fork, to the detriment of my development skills. I’m kind of paying for that decision now, but that’s the way life goes, sometimes. Do I regret it? Not one bit. The experience is incalculable, and I think also helps me be a little more critical of the directions I take in the work I do now. Would I do it differently, knowing what I know now? Possibly…

(Yeah, cop-out answer, I know. I’ve learned not to dwell on “what if” situations. They’re painful spirals of doom.)

So I leave this as a cautionary tale for those of you on the way up: think carefully about what you want to do, and where you want to go. Be careful of the road you choose, and know the potential dangers of going down the “wrong” path — sometimes, it is far less pretty than it appears.