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I just got asked for advice on what it takes for geeks to rise up through the ranks of your company and become a manager.

I’m probably the worst person to ask.  Check out my wacko career path:

  • 1992 – Went to college determined to learn economics and preach capitalism to the newly freed Russian people.
  • 1993 – Dropped out of college after 3 semesters. Economics bored the hell out of me.
  • 1994 – Went back to work in hotels (had experience from HS)
  • 1996 – Worked my way up the hotel chain, became hotel General Manager.
  • 1997 – Realized management is nothing more than hiring, training, disciplining and firing subordinates – no matter how much you make or how high you go.
  • 1998 – Switched to IT.
  • 1999 – Realized IT was nothing more than buying, installing, repairing and replacing servers.
  • 2000 – Switched to coding.
  • 2003 – Realized development was nothing more than learning languages, mastering them, and then picking a new one when yours was deprecated.
  • 2004 – Pushed into management because of my hotel experience, took it for the moolah
  • 2005 – Burned out on management again, switched to DBA.
  • 2006 – Turned down two offers to manage my team.  Never been happier.
  • 2008 – Switched to “expert,” where I blog, work with the community and work with Quest developers. I blogged about my job here.

The next step is still evolving – I think I’m going to end up working in social media somehow – but you can be damn sure my day job won’t be in management.

My advice: unless you really, passionately love interacting with people – not in chat rooms, but in meatspace – don’t get into management.  I’ve met so many fantastic geeks who thought (just like I did) that management could be learned via a checklist process and studying.  Management requires a whole lot of skills that are completely and wildly different than geekdom.  Your average Gap sales clerk has a better head start on IT management than the best geek.

Being a good manager boils down to one simple thing: motivating people you dislike to do things they dislike.

Your Employees Are The Whammies

Your Employees Are The Whammies

Anybody can motivate people they like to do things they like.  That’s not management – that’s being a game show host.

Most people can even motivate people they dislike as long as they’re trying to get those people to do things they like.  You grit your teeth and bear it, and the people grit their teeth and bear you because they’re doing stuff they like.

Managers have to do this nasty task all the time.  You can’t always fire the people you hate, or let your people ignore the tasks they hate.  If you’ve got half a dozen employees, at any one time, at least one of them needs to do something they hate.  Whether it’s filing expense reports on time, improving their soft skills, or dealing with an abusive client, it just never stops.

I’ve learned that I’m no good at motivating people I dislike to do things they dislike, so I’ve adapted.  Rather than having a day job in management, I do some management in my spare time.  This lets me do community management, which consists of getting people I love to do things they love.  If somebody’s a jerk, I give ‘em the finger and eject ‘em from my community.  The resulting group of people gets to conquer tasks they love.

If you really wanna go for the management track, start by leading a volunteer community first.  It’s the easiest management there is.  If you like that and if you succeed – if people rally around you and your group accomplishes tough challenges – then you’ll stand a better chance of succeeding at tougher kinds of management, like leading employees.

Find your local PASS chapter today and get started in the volunteer community.

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  1. Hi Brent – I agree, and have often phrased management and HR as “managing expectations”. If you are the type of person who likes to solve problems, be aware that management is not solving problems but “managing expectations”.

    Yes – motivating people you dislike to do things they dislike is not fun, but even worse is motivating people you LIKE to do things they dislike. These were sometimes people I considered friends (in some cases we were friends before I managed them). I knew management sucked when I had to tell my best friend that she had to work an overnight during the company holiday party.

    • I dunno, I don’t mind telling people I like to do things I dislike, because I can make it up to ‘em with favors. It’s easy to say, “Look, I know this is gonna suck, but you know I’m good for it. I’ll make it back up to you.”

      When I’m managing people I don’t like, I’m not so quick to make those promises, and I grit my teeth when I do it. (sigh)

  2. I agree – it sucks but you will definitely learn many things: about who you are, about “people”, about working with teams, and so forth. Definitely something that, if you get a chance and you enjoy being a leader, is worth pursuing (if for no other reason than to say you were a manager at one point).

    This is actually a bigger topic for developers and DBAs than some younger folks realize. Do you really want to be doing “maintenance programming” when you are 63 years old? Do you want to have to learn the intricacies of the latest language/server when you are 64 years old? Some will, some won’t, and some will just get b-o-r-e-d with things after a while (like it seems you did). Having management experience on the resume is helpful in opening up many opportunities.

  3. Hi Brent,

    I’ve been a in a management position for a number of years now, and while I agree with most of what you said, I’ve got to take exception to one point. I would suggest that leading a volunteer community is one of the most difficult management positions for a couple reasons. First, you need to recruit people to work for free and second, you need to motivate people to work at thier regular capacity with absolutely no consequence if they don’t. While this might not seem daunting, if you gave that task to an average manager they would most likely curl into the fetal position and start rocking while they sobbed quietly to themselves.

    That being said, if you can manage a volunteer group succesfully, you can manage just about anything.

    Thanks for your wonderful blog!

    • I dunno, I’ve found it easier to recruit people to work for free as long as they’re doing something they love. Before the days of the intertubez, it was pretty tough, but now there’s a ton of people itching to help out with things.

      For me it least, it gets tougher when there’s a paycheck involved. Even more people line up to ask for the job, and you have to be much pickier about who you let in the door. I can let volunteers sign up with reckless abandon because it’s easy to cut a volunteer loose if he turns out to be a jerk. Employees, that’s much more difficult.

    • Sorry Brent I am going to have to agree with Christine. Managing volunteers is a completely different animal. Take it from an returned Peace Corps Volunteer. With a paycheck and a power structure managing is simply dealing with the bad. Take both those things away and give a volunteer a task that they do not want to do and see how “easy” it is.

      • Anon – if I understand your comment correctly, you’re saying that because you were a volunteer, you were unmotivated to do things. Gosh, that does indeed suck. So why did you volunteer?

  4. Awesome post and amen! It is my career aspiration to make it through life without ever being a manager. Life is too short to have to deal with the stress. I do, however, feel free to liberally offer management advice to my husband who is a COO–I tell him I’m going to write a book “Management Advice From a Non-Manager.” ;)

  5. If this is what management mean to you, then you should never be a manager. You should remain an individual contributor or freelancer, and stop deprecating mangers simply because managing doesn’t inspire YOU.

    I have been in management positions for 11 years, and it is a privilege to lead teams of people, and empowering them to do things they never thought they could do. Watching people grow, and knowing I had something to do with it, is the most fulfilling part of my work.

    You are also incredibly wrong about managing volunteers. It is neither easier nor more difficult. The challenges are just different.

    • Frank – I truly apologize if it sounded like I was downplaying managers. What I meant to say is that management sucks because it’s very difficult. I have nothing but respect for good managers – and for that matter, good salespeople, another profession I view as astonishingly difficult.

      Managing volunteers is indeed different, and it’s easier for geeks to get started managing volunteers than paid employees. Like you said, the challenges are just different, and those challenges seem more suited for geek types who don’t usually interact with people (or people’s paychecks.)

      I’m glad you enjoy your career, and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from that. Sorry we got off on the wrong foot. If there’s anything you read in this post that seems to indicate that managers are bad people, please let me know so that I can correct that right away. I wouldn’t want anybody else to get that same impression.

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