Promoting Software Development Managers from Within

I want to take a slight detour today and talk about what in my opinion is one of the most relevant, actionable and valuable concepts in management theory. The Peter Principle.

I was first introduced to this theory in college and later studied it more in depth in graduate school. It essentially states:

When a candidate is selected for promotion based on performance in their current role instead of their abilities to perform in the intended role. They will eventually rise to the level of their own incompetence.

The traditional example of this was the star salesman. Eventually the top sellers get tapped to come in from the road and be a sales manager. It sounds like a great opportunity, a hard earned promotion, however the skills of a good manager don’t necessarily correspond to those of a top salesman.

Going from managing individual priorities and utilizing the techniques that work with a client wont always work with executive management. Being solely responsible for ones own schedule, personal development and concerns doesn’t necessarily translate to an aptitude for the same with regard to the individuals that make up a sales team.

However, I think its fair to say that sales organisations largely started to identify this problem starting back in the eighties. Today most sales companies have strong management training opportunities and also offer advancement tracks to those top sellers who do not aspire towards management.

And so on to software. Unfortunately it seems that while no one was looking, the peter principle found a new home in the technology departments of companies across a broad spectrum of industries. In fact I would speculate that the only software development departments where it is not a threat is within the software and technology industry, where IT is not considered so much of a ‘black box’.

So why does this happen? It seems that outside of the tech sector, IT/Software are still quite often siloed from the rest of the organisation. Although things are improving, the old stereotypes of the introverted geeks still exist. There can be a perception that the software guys are impossible to talk to, they give overly detailed and complex answers to simple questions about the technology or infrastructure. They seem condescending and belittling to less tech savvy co workers or they are overly sensitive about unexpected requests. Lets face it, sometimes this is a pretty accurate description of the software team or the tech guys.

As a result of this perception management can take the view that best person to manage the team is one of their own, and of that group they typically lean towards “the most productive developer”. Seems to make sense, they are probably with the company a long time, they can speak to the rest of the geeks, maybe even make them more productive developers too. But all to often this is where the peter principle comes into play.

Yes productive developers are a great asset, and yes they can probably converse very effectively with the rest of the development team. But is that what competent leadership is about? I would contest that what is really needed is an individual with the ability to translate “geek speak” into business terms and vise-versa. The ability to think strategically without getting too caught up in the technical details. The skills to bring introverted developers into the open and expose them to the rest of the organisation. To identify and facilitate training for future management candidates.

Productive developers are detail focused, competent managers are big picture with an understanding of the detail.

Productive developers lose productivity when their focus shifts to management duties. This often causes a skills shortage and productivity dip. The result is more pressure on the new manager. Who rather than addressing the cause will try to treat the symptom by exerting that pressure back on the team. Or neglecting their management duties in order to “do what they do best” and start coding. Meanwhile the team struggles to deal with the personal aspects of their work life as their manager is too heavily involved with the mechanical and not focusing enough on the human.

So whats the solution? Heed the peter principle, look for the candidates that demonstrate the skills and attributes that will best fit the role they will fill, not the role they are currently in. Some questions to start with might be;

Do you have a developer who wants to be in management? 
Do you have a developer who interfaces well with the rest of the business?
Do you have a developer with a business degree?
Do you have a developer with prior management experience?

These are questions that in the long term will yield a more successful result when looking for software development managers on your current team rather than defaulting to “who’s here longest” or “who is the best programmer”.

Maybe you have someone that meets some or all of the above criteria, if you do I would suggest starting there. If you don’t then you may need to evaluate your hiring strategy, succession planning and training opportunities.

Though this was a problem in sales, I think it was a somewhat manageable one, selling to people and managing people are still about people, though the skills may have needed honing it was all still within the realm of interpersonal communication skills and human interaction.

In the software development world the chasm is so much greater, there is no grey area in coding. When is the last time you tried to open an application and your computer said maybe.

So yes, an exceptional developer could make a great manager, but a good developer could make an exceptional one.

Originally published at