“Why did you decide to become a manager?”
It’s a question that gets asked a lot, in job interviews, 1x1s, and plain old casual conversation. I ask this question a lot, and I am often frustrated (or bored) by the answers I hear back.
Most of them can be bucketed in one of three ways:
- The pious. “I just really, really love helping other people achieve their goals.”
- The pleasers. the ones who answer, then pause uncertainly: “Is that what you’re looking for?”
- The sheepish. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but..” (followed by something very close to real honesty)
People are rarely inclined to divulge the range and depth of their reasons for going into management. And why should they? We are constantly being lectured about what the RIGHT reasons for going into management are, with aspersions cast upon anyone who dares enter the profession for any reasons that are not completely selfless.
“I LOVE mentoring.” “I wanted to protect my team.” “I’m motivated by people problems.” “I just really love helping people grow.”
I’m not saying that everybody who says these words is lying, but I would be surprised if it was the entire story. People make career moves for a complex mix of altruism and self-interest.
It’s socially acceptable to cop to the selfless reasons. But what about the rest? Like “I wanted more money”? “I wanted career progression and couldn’t get any as an IC”? What about “I couldn’t get a seat at the table as an engineer”, “I was tired of being left out of important decisions”, or “My reporting chain was opaque and kept fucking up, and I figured I couldn’t do any worse than those bozos”?
Now we’re talking.
Most people become managers to compensate for org fuckery.
In my experience, most engineers become managers primarily due to organizational dysfunction. When you become a manager you acquire certain institutional powers, and you can use those powers to change the thing that makes you miserable.
It’s a hack. A gnarly one. And like most hacks, it kinda works.
For example, say it pisses you off to be left out of decisions. So you become a manager, and then you can either a) use your power and access to push for including engineers in the decision-making process, or at very least b) you personally will no longer left out.
In a healthy org, I would argue that most of these reasons should not exist. You should not have to become a manager to have career progression, pay equity, access to information, to be included in the decision-making process, even to set company strategy (to an extent congruent with your level, impact, role, tenure, etc)..
Everybody can’t weigh in on everything, obviously, but technical leaders are the best people to make technical decisions, not managers. In healthy orgs, managers work to push those powers outwards to the people closest to the work rather than hoarding it for themselves.
Legitimate reasons for being interested in management.
If you claw away all the org fuckery that forces so many people who care deeply about their work and coworkers into management, there is only one honest reason left for why anyone should try management.
✨Because you feel like it.✨
Because you’re curious. Because there’s an opportunity, maybe, or it seems interesting. Because why not? It’s as good a reason as any. Why do you learn a new framework, a new language, why do you write about your work, why do you pick up any new skill or new role? Why do any of it?
We are not rational beings. First comes emotional urge (“I want that”), then comes rationalization (“because, uh, I love people?”). That’s just how our brains work. You don’t really have to defend or justify it any further.
In reality …
I have observed that many people (especially early-career) are semi-obsessed with getting in to management.
There are many reasons for this. In most places, it is still regarded as a promotion, not a support role / change of career. With high achievers, all you have to do is plunk a ladder next to them to make them want to climb it. Many people feel a lack of agency and lack of autonomy in their role, and they think becoming a manager will solve all their problems.
The swiftest cure for this delusion is … actually becoming a manager.
Management is a role where you are granted certain institutional powers, at the expense of other powers, freedoms and benefits. Many people who try management figure out pretty quickly that it’s not for them. Formal powers are, in many ways, the weakest powers of them all.
Which is why I think anybody who is interested in management should get a shot at it. Let’s demystify the role, strip it of its mystique and glamour, and make it what it should be: a role of service to others not dominance over others; staffed by people who genuinely take joy in that people side of sociotechnical problem solving.
13 thoughts on “The Official, Authorized List Of Legitimate Reasons For Deciding to Become a Manager”
How about: “Because my life isn’t hard enough.”
I’ve been a manager (now a Senior Manager, oooooooh) for a long time and what they don’t tell you is that while it does increase what you control and what you influence, there’s still an awful lot you have to just suck up whether you like it or not. So if anyone wants to be a manager to have a seat at the table: you’ll get that seat sometimes, which means you’ll get to speak into things, but that doesn’t mean anybody will listen.
Don’t become a manager because you “think you’re supposed to.” I was promoted after being in the business for ~20 years, had the best review of my career that year, then had the worst performance of my career within a year. The key difference was that I lost my champion and support in the organization though of course there were plenty of other reasons I wasn’t successful – principally because of a major shift in the upper management and my inability to adapt to “adult” CxO-level supervision. I think the expectation was that I would build and run a proper organization vs. just cat-herd a bunch of geeks like myself. Didn’t matter we got most of the projects that had been delayed for 5+ years done within 12-18 months when I was promoted. I think most serious executives want to detect you’re building a real “organization” vs. just a bunch of nerdy wrench-turners who get the job done but aren’t strategic enough for the business.
Managing up is a different skill entirely than managing out or down, that’s for damn sure.
great food for thought. leadership is a privelidge paid for by service to a cause and people.
The most popular reason people want to become manager is because the vast majority of software developers start their first day of their first job in their lives with this in their mind: “I can’t wait to stop coding anymore”.
This way we got generations over generations of a management who look at coding activities and wish those could happen another way than opening a text editor. I grew up with this and I have my work life filled with people that constantly tell me “I don’t get why you like coding so much” (and in fact I wanna grow as a staff engineer).
I’m pleased finally companies are separating the tracks, past decades from what I could see managers were just “senior senior developers” – luckily in my company this stopped happening. And things went for the better.
I agree with the whole post. Thanks.
just my 2 cents 🙂
Whoa, really? In my world most managers desperately miss writing code, and miss it every day. Who are these people that hate it so much?!
Heh. Most of peeps in consultancy companies here in Italy really hate coding, from my experience. Product companies are better, but still we have an (in my opinion) huge percentage of peeps thinking “the sole thing I wanna do is close the laptop and play with Jira forever” – but I think it’s something related to european engineering culture. Also my POV! I hope data tell me the contrary 😀
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I became a manager to get the power to build systems the way I though the company needed. And that have been my sole purpose for the last 5 years. Technical management positions have enabled me to be into the meetings where decisions have been made, and have a voice a tall. I am pretty technical on my position, even that I have to manage 2 teams.
I would never want to work at a company where only the managers got to be in the meetings where decisions get made, or have a voice at all. That’s a horrible place to be an IC. Though if you’re gonna be there, sure, guess you better be a manager.
[…] wrote a piece this week about what motivates people to become managers (tldr mostly org dysfunction), and Julian […]