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How (and why) Should Managers Code?

The Three Is

  • Intrinsic the value of what the code does
  • Instructive the value of the example the code sets
  • Investigative the value of what you learn in writing the code

The New Manager Trap

  • In trying to deliver code of high intrinsic value within the time constraints of your new role, something has to give and you’ve implicitly set an example that it’s OK to give it up. This can be quality, this can be timeliness, but whatever it is you have normalised deviance and standards will slip.
  • You intuitively grasp that your work sets an example and you strive to do so, but once again, something has to give and it’s usually your work/life balance and burnout is just around the corner.

A Plan to Keep Coding

  • You can never, ever again pick coding tasks by their intrinsic value. This is the domain of your team. If it’s on the critical path it is for full time engineers alone.
  • The exception to that rule is where you are trying to be instructive about different subtypes of intrinsic value. Maybe the company is rallying around a single goal for the quarter, but engineers are prioritising tasks by other metrics — lead by example.
  • Because time is always short, try and pick tasks that deliver value aligned with the management work you’re doing. Trying to troubleshoot a team in your portfolio? Pick up some of their work and understand them better. Talking about improving test quality? Go fix some tests and let your actions magnify your words.
  • Pick some tasks at random. Management involvement in the day to day carries signalling risk so you need to give it camouflage.
  • Give all coding a healthy air-gap after your promotion. Spend the time learning the new job, just make sure to come back to coding before you’ve lost all touch.
  • It’s healthy to let your instructive quality drop from your pre-promotion peak. Leave room for your senior and staff engineers to shine. Don’t let it drop too much, bad coding will undermine your voice in technical discussions more than not coding at all.

The Prioritised Backlog and New Hires




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John Barton

Bicycle, book, and booze enthusiast. Rubyist and Gopher. Founder @HecateApp, ex @99designs/@envato