If you’ve stepped into a leadership role, you might have faced the challenge of getting hands-on experience with the technology your team is using.
Some leaders focus on managerial responsibilities while others stay as involved with the tech as possible.
We talked with Taylor Poindexter, Senior Software Engineer at tech.co and founder of Black Code Collective about this challenge. Being entrenched in the tech scene for several years, she’s witnessed a myriad of approaches.
We asked her what approach allows technical leaders to be most successful. She believes in order to really succeed, you have to strengthen both your technical and leadership skills.
The conversation below has been edited for length and content.
A lot of folks in technical roles step away from technology as they take on managerial positions. What are the best ways to remain technical as you progress through your career?
The most effective approach I’ve seen is something called the pendulum career. Basically, a person will tackle the tech side hands on and spend a couple of years there, getting acquainted with it. Then they move into a position on the management side. Their career track is a forever swinging back and forth between the two.
This enables someone to never be too out of the loop on the technical side, but also keep their management skills. It helps them keep both sides of the career pushing forward.
The second thing, in lieu of tech always changing, is joining a tech community where you feel welcome and that you actually enjoy. That way, even if you may not be working with a lot of tech at your own job, you’re a part of conversations where you’re hearing about new technologies. You can learn enough to stay dangerous (which is actually pretty nice).
Have you found that the pendulum approach enables people to keep climbing upwards if they want a managerial position? Or does that route tend to hold people back?
In my opinion, a pendulum style career wouldn’t hold someone back, but it depends on what you want from your career. Some people, and I think this should be more acceptable, don’t really want to do management stuff. They just want to get deep into the tech. Others really want to manage and prefer to know just enough tech stuff to stay dangerous.
In that case, they’ll have to learn how to navigate the transition from individual contributor to manager. They may rely on the tech community to learn about tech topics they’re interested in rather than getting back into an individual contributor role. If anything, I think it will make you stronger. There aren’t many technical people who are both great managers and also strong enough on the technical side to the point where they don’t have to call in their technical teams when making a high-ranking decision.
Those who work in the tech space know that there’s no limit to what they can learn. Where should they start?
This is especially relevant when starting your career. I see a lot of junior engineers who want to learn everything. In my opinion that’s basically the worst thing you can do. I would pick one, maybe two technologies that you really want to focus on, and gain expertise. Once you have a solid foundation, then you can branch out and put more things in your toolbox. This is a good way to find a balance between specializing and being language agnostic.
Even as you progress in your career, I would still try to really focus on what’s important to you at that time and not spread yourself too thin. If you’re in a management position, it may be acceptable for you to only learn a surface level amount of information about a topic and then allow your team of experts to handle the deeper dives into a topic.
We’re really fortunate as engineers to have so much free online content. I still like to do coding katas or tutorials on anything I’d like to stay up-to-date on. There are also some pretty good conferences out there that not only help us expand our network but also pick up on new technologies and ideas that we may not be privy to otherwise.
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