How to Be a Great Software Development Manager

How to Be a Great Software Development Manager

“I saw the angels in the organisation and carved until I set them free.”

~ Michelangelo (paraphrased)

First off, skip past the job title. If you think that you can be a great Software Development Manger by sticking to your neat little box on the org chart, honing and polishing the software development function until it gleams, you’re sadly mistaken.

Aside: It would be nice if organisations realised this and labelled such positions more descriptively and appropriately. We are some years away from this, I suspect. Maybe decades.

Simply “managing” the software development function brings local optimisation, dysfunction and madness. Oh yes, you may be thanked for it – you may even be tasked, via explicit or implicit targets and expectations, to do it. And if you succumb to that temptation – or pressure – you’ll not achieve anything like the results that are possible.

The very fact that an organisation labels your role as “Software Development Manager” is a strong signal that they remain mired in the Analytic mindset. But hey, they may want to change that – even without explicitly understanding the core issues, such as how the effectiveness of the entire organisation is a function of the prevailing organisational mindset. As a great Software Development Manager, it’s your job to bring that to folks’ attention, up and down the company. And to champion the necessary transition to a more effective organisational mindset.

The Brief

Sometimes it’s a mistake to try to be a great software development manager. Many executives ask for one without realising what that actually entails (disruption; fundamental change; end of the status quo; executives, too, having to change the way they think, work and see the world of work).

“Be careful what you wish for. There’s always a catch.”

~ Laurie Halse Anderson

Sometimes organisations really just want a good software development manager. Someone who will skulk quietly and proficiently in the hinterland of the IT department and not make waves. In these circumstances a great software development manager will rarely last long, or achieve much.

Results

What scale of results do you consider as signifying “great”? Given that the organisation is likely around the “one” mark on the Rightshifting index, then you could probably deliver ten, twenty, even thirty percent per annum uplift in productivity through hard work, determination and with (relatively) little disruption to the Status Quo. Sounds good? Maybe. Until you realise the potential exists for a hundred, two hundred, three hundred percent improvement – across the whole organisation.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

~ Michelangelo

Deferred Results

You may be tempted to spend time fixing a “broken” software development organisation. On working on tools, methods, processes and technology issues. Don’t. Every day you spend on that is a day lost in accomplishing the real work of transition. No one inside the development function will have much thanks for you poking your nose into things they’re quite capable of fixing themselves. And no one outside the development function will have much interest, excepting those few things that impact them and their departments. And the solutions to those issues generally lie outside the development function itself, not inside.

“If not now, then when?”

~ Hillel the Elder

It’s all too easy to hunker down, look busy, do what folks are expecting you to do, and miss the bigger picture. So easy, in fact, that many software development managers never get out of this busywork and on the the real work of greatness.

The Heroic Manager

Maybe you think of yourself as some kind of saviour, riding in on a white horse and saving the organisation from its follies. But a great software development manager knows he or she is only a catalyst for change. A dead nematode in the heart of the oyster. He or she knows that the real work comes from everyone in the organisation, and the accolades are due to everyone, likewise.

So, act to create the situation where folks can actually give of their best. And even then, in organisations hobbled by years of ineffectual or under-achieving change initiatives, getting folks to step up and engage can be a challenge. Coercion, however sugar-coated, is not helpful here.

Find out what folks want and need – for themselves, for their colleague – for the wider organisation. Go look at what their jobs entail. And not just within Software Development. You may have a nice office – even a corner office – but every hour you spend in it is a hour lost on the road to greatness.

“Don’t just do something, stand there.”

~ The Buddha

Find out what’s been going well so far. Build on achievements, and folks’ individual and collective needs. Work together to find a common cause, a common purpose, that everyone can buy into – at an emotional, as opposed to rational, level.

As well as getting out of the office – get out of the building. Go see customers, suppliers, competitors and communities – work-related and social, both.

In the same way as understanding where and how the software development function fits in the wider organisation, get to understand where the organisation fits in its wider commercial ecosystem, and in society as a whole.

Over-Communicate

Talk with anyone and everyone – up and down the business, inside and out –  about their view of the world of work. Listen to folks who have anything to say about the subject. Empathise with their point of view – even if it seems unhelpful or outmoded. What they say will help you understand their needs. If their needs are not being met, then don’t be surprised by a lack of cooperation.

Engage in meaningful dialogue – share your own perspective on the nature of organisations, on the world of work, and listen to others’. And exchange ideas on how work should work.

Don’t waste time on discussing how software development should work. That can come later – if it’s ever necessary. Instead, build a consensus on the role of the software development function in the wider context of the whole organisation. This will not make you many friends or allies. But it is essential.

“If not you, then who?”

~ Hillel the Elder

You will be misunderstood. At times, these misunderstanding will be so great as to threaten your credibility – and your job.

Alienation

In most organisations, great people in any discipline are seen as strange – alien, even. Most folks won’t understand what you’re saying, and even less what you’re thinking. How could it be otherwise, when the future that beckons is so unlike their present?

“The future is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Alienation does not make for good working relationships, however. Invest time and effort in reducing the distance between yourself and other folks. Not by changing your vision or by watering-down the things you say, but by being human – something we all have in common. Something that unites us.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

~ Maya Angelou

Make Friends

You will need friends. Not allies – we’re trying to build bridges, not erect walls and create divisions. You will need friends for those dark days when your courage seems ready to fail you. When the obstacles seem insurmountable. When the vultures are circling overhead.

Courage

There’s no getting away from it. Taking on the task of changing a whole organisational mindset is a challenge. Even when most or all of the folks in the organisation are willing and able to help it’s still a challenge – and that’s the ideal scenario.

You might be lucky – being in an organisation at a confluence of circumstances where, for instance, the alternatives are so unpalatable as to make a transition clearly the best choice.

Or you may be really unlucky, and have circumstances, mindset and incumbents (a.k.a. vested interests) all pitted against you.

So although courage is likely essential, sometimes it’s not going to be enough. Sometimes, nothing is going to be enough.

“Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.”

~ Marcus Aurelius

Work Yourself Out

In highly effective organisations, the very job of “manager” fades away. If you do a truly great job for the organisation, you can expect your job to fade away too. In fact, that’s the best way of determining whether you really have had a great and lasting impact on the organisation. Work yourself out of a job. And into another, more satisfying role in the reborn organisation. Because once the organisation is working in ways that meet your needs, why would you ever want to leave?

- Bob

Further Reading

If not you, then who? – Blog post
Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities ~ Adam Kahane
Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together ~ William Isaacs
First Break All the Rules ~ Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
The Presence Workbook ~ Jaworski, Kahane and Scharmer
The Germ Theory of Management ~ Myron Tribus (pdf)

Afterword

21 comments
  1. Another nail in the coffin of “average” organisations. I have no real feedback (suggestions) because this post is GREAT and I wanted to say so – there’s a lot to it and I’ve learnt a number of lessons the hard way, and that’s probably the only thing I’d add is to encourage feedback from the organisation, team and especially _yourself_ (ie through Inspect and Adapt) as the path you think you’ll be taking is probably not the one you should be taking…

    • Hi Ric,

      Thanks for your comment. It helps me feel like I’m on the right track with this post. Your advice meets my need for improvement suggestions: I’ve elaborated slightly on the term “meaningful dialogue” – in the paragraph prior to the phrase “Engage in meaningful dialogue…”. Does my edit meet your need about encouraging feedback?

      – Bob

      • Hi Bob, it’s certainly a start – to me, Inspect and Adapt is more a principle / frame of mind, with Dialogue being a Subset. e.g. I could alter my body language to be more open with a person who I’m having difficulty engaging with, I may present information in a manner that’s more “friendly” to the organisation (e.g. Solution Design as PPT rather than Doc), etc…

        I suppose you can flip the above around and say that it is covered by the “generic” form of dialogue, but I think it’s worth calling out as many people interpret dialogue to be a verbal exchange.

  2. Great post, highly inspiring ! I had to share it right now. The dead nematode is an interesting metaphor by the way, I’ll borrow it with your agreement.

  3. Great that you included courage. I now repeat to everyone in organizations attempting to change: if you want to change anything in your workplace you must be ready and willing to get fired over it. (see also: http://bit.ly/STeBWE ) Managers should exhibit even more courage than developers, because one of their roles is to protect them from disturbances and dysfunction. It is harder for managers, I admit, because it is much easier to find a new job if you are a developer than if you are a manager.

    On the note of making yourself redundant: this has been a mark of a good leader always. A good leader is a mentor for those less experienced than him (a mentor, btw, is not someone who wants to shape them in his image – but someone who helps them shape themselves by sharing what he has learned and providing thoughtful feedback). Part of that is looking from day one for potential replacements and helping them develop.

  4. Just picking one section for now. I’m surprised and glad to see a section on friendship. Having friends, allies, fellow conspirators is very important. Certain roles are very lonely and you need to turn to someone when the going gets tough. Someone who you can speak your mind to and visa versa. I would have gone crazy years ago without this.

    • Rereading your post. You make a distinction between friends and allies. Would you mind elaborating? I consider a good friend to also be a good ally, but a good friend also challenges you when you need to be challenged

      • Hi James,

        Thanks for joining the conversation.

        Yes, I make a distinction between friends and allies. The latter brings with it, for me, connotations of “sides” or “factions” – not a helpful dynamic when attempting to bring the whole organisation along on the journey. There’s way too much “us vs them” in most organisations already. I consider it part of the challenge to bring folks together, rather than drive them apart.

        – Bob

  5. Awesome post. Could be required reading for every manager I work with.
    I’d like you to create a “paper” version of it so that I could carry it around, hand it out to managers I meet and be present while they read it…
    Thank you. 10/10 for this one.

  6. I really enjoyed reading the post, and as always it made me think and question. The quote at the end was cool, but I actually liked the post content just as much; what makes that quote effective is the way that you have presented it.

    It made me think: That it would be an interesting exercise to see if you could (taking inspiration from Olaf) turn the post itself into some kind of poster / infographic etc. consolidating the post content into key salient points or phrases that convey the same ideas and spirit?

    Just some Monday musing… thank you for helping me start the week in the “right” direction!

  7. @Bob very true, but I’m afraid this masterpiece of yours will scare managers away from becoming great software managers. Except for some that really want to “manage” in a sensible way (and are probably doing it already). What can we do so that managers can learn better ways to manage professionals, and that they are recognized by organizations when they enable professionals to deliver more value?

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. In the same way that businesses won’t get any better until their markets and customers demand better, I believe that managers won’t manage any better until the folks that hire them and pay them demand better. And that won’t happen until these folks realise a) what better looks like, b) that ‘better’ (and dramatically better) is even possible, and c) that it’s realistic to ask for better (that these folks exist).

      Of course, as the post suggests, once we get to “better”, the role of manager dissipates and fades out.

      – Bob

      • Bob, agree! I have been and am working with several “better” managers, who get (or grab!) the chances in their organizations to do it. It is possible, but still very rare, unfortunately.

  8. I agree this is a great post. I work for a software development company and we are fortunate enough to have a CEO who puts a great emphasis on culture. I think it all starts with culture. One point you were making that really struck me was: “work together to find a common cause, a common purpose, that everyone can buy into at an emotional – as opposed to rational – level.” This was a topic that came up at a recent company meeting. Our CEO referred to it as “Changing the physics”. He was talking about creating a workplace where individuals share a deep connection to each other and the company. His belief is that the most successful organizations are those where the individual’s personal goals and the company’s goals are complimentary. We compared it to them term “Grok” … a phrase that was coined in the bestselling book of 1961 called: Stranger in a Strange Land. The word “Grok” means to intimately and completely share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity. The author’s belief is that: “Grokking is two entities combining to create a new reality greater than the sum of its parts. Things that once had separate realities become entangled in the same experiences, goals, history, and purpose.”

  9. Martin Blore said:

    A really enjoyable read, thanks for this Bob. An incredibly refreshing perspective.

  10. Raza Ali said:

    1. Do you not think that a manager’s personality traits should also be a factor here? Or would you rather introverts never assume such roles (and should stick to being developers forever)?

    2. Overall I do agree with the need for focusing on the emotional side ‘AS WELL’ but not completely. So a good manager would balance emotional leadership with managing work using tools and systems. I have witnessed both types of managers and can spot weaknesses in both approaches.

  11. Marcio said:

    I liked very much. Thanks, Bob.

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