November 16, 2023
min read

Should Tech Managers Be Developers First? Pros and Cons

Luis Minvielle

Can a developer be a manager? Of course. Many developers have had the opportunity to transition to management. Now — will one with the technical knowledge needed to manage coding roadmaps give you an advantage over managers who don't? Yes, most developers agree with this. Managers who've been developers will work better with a tech team. 

In this blog post, we’ll browse the pros and cons of working with a manager with previous tech experience. 

Why should a manager be a developer first?

Tech managers should be developers first — in the ideal world. A manager’s job is to achieve company goals and help the people in your team to grow. They need to be able to open up blockades, and technical skills are necessary for this last part if you’re working in tech.

While the primary responsibility is managing people, understanding the technology and the problems their team is facing is arguably essential. A developer-turned-manager can do that. They'll know the technical jargon, and what a specific request takes, and on top of that: they've been in the hot seat themselves. If managers are about helping and not micromanaging, having a developer manager would be like having a hotline to a very company-niche Stack Overflow message board. 

The bitter truth about the ideal developers’ manager

The manager described above is almost impossible to come by.

Developers want to work with managers who have gone through the same process as them, but are the last ones to accept the position when it’s offered to them. 

That said — there are great non-technical managers out there, who are good at unblocking the team and taking hits for them. They will defer all technical decisions to the developers but handle any bureaucracy that comes their team's way, putting all the skills that go outside technical work into managing the social side — something many technical managers fail to pick up. Resolving conflict, negotiating, and advocating: these are non-technical skills that could make a manager more successful than numerous technical skills. 

Can a developer-turned-manager be a bad idea?

What if a developer-turned-manager is actually a bad idea? There are many plausible scenarios to back up this thought. Some are pretty obvious: Even if the person leading the team is a coding wizard, the manager could be simply a good coder–bad boss who can’t pick priorities adequately. This can also happen if your boss is not from the coding world, indeed. 

Still, some negative scenarios could only come up if your manager used to develop. Some have to do with how fast the programming world moves forward. Your manager could be a formerly excellent developer who’s lagging in terms of best practices, or who may come from a company with a very different codebase and can’t adapt to the rhythm. This could slow you down. A non-programming manager, on the other hand, would probably have to turn a blind eye to your coding practices or JavaScript framework choices because they don’t know about it.

Managers can be spread too thin every so often. A technically apt, developer manager won’t break loose from this fate. They can become bogged down in meetings and lose sight of the day-to-day coding work. You’ll know this when they get to send you an “urgent” Slack message asking about a project you pushed two weeks ago and very tidily explained on the company’s repo. That’s micromanagement, even if your boss didn’t mean to micromanage you.

Moreover, managers and execs rely on metrics to measure progress. Suppose your developer manager is questioned about your low number of commits — which could be a metric that you’re working very well — and can’t defend your quality work instead of quantity. In that case, you’ll be hurled to the company’s mail room because they’ll consider you a “freeloader.” A developer-manager is a splendid thing, but it can also be a technically challenging reality.

So… should managers be developers first?  

Yes, managers should ideally be developers first, but the balance between both skills is really difficult to come by. Luckily, there’s one straightforward solution for this problem: offering two leading positions in their team — manager and technical lead. The manager will represent the team and the unit from outside to business and doesn't have to have strong technical knowledge, but does need to understand what their team is dealing with. Deep technical knowledge is needed for the tech lead role. This job will serve as a buffer between the supervisor and their team. With devs and managers working in a righteous give-and-take, representing the team's capabilities to the business, the “management concern” is settled.

Also, as discussed before, hiring a manager who was previously a developer will not instantly yield a perfectly working team, as many seem to think. Although managers who have basic tech knowledge have a dreadful reputation in the tech world, working with one who is: 

  1. Helpful when needing to figure out architectural and business-centred problems, and 
  2. Efficient when breaking down and planning work…

… could be surprisingly even more helpful in their job than a developer-turned-manager with poor soft skills. 

It’s about a tradeoff. Having a manager who is not experienced in the non-technical and relationship-building side of their job, but is there to make any financial decisions or solve really complex problems, can be profitable and productive for the team's outcomes. Still, it could also lead to teammates being excessively reliant on them. 

So, If you stumble upon the unicorn developer who, apart from being excellent in their job, counts with incredible social skills and (most implausibly) wants to be a manager — then jackpot 🎰. Don't let them go, no matter if you’re a business owner or a dev. But don’t worry if they don’t seem to appear: If a partnership is achieved between the teammates and their manager where both take advantage of their strengths to work out the team's issues, having a manager who doesn’t have the best tech skills will not be a problem.

Landing a job with the right kind of manager

Your next manager might be technically apt or more of a people person but without JavaScript knowledge. That’s for you to decide, though — if you check out our job board, you’ll notice that at WeAreDevelopers we are constantly vetting and featuring the greatest positions in Europe. So good luck with your job hunt and your new manager probe!

Should Tech Managers Be Developers First? Pros and Cons

November 16, 2023
min read

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