Transitioning from Individual Contributor to Manager | Part 2
Three technical leaders give advice about stepping into the realm of management.
Transitioning into a technical leadership position can come with a steep learning curve. That’s why our team interviewed technical leaders who rocked the transition. Alex Mitchell is the Chief Product Officer at ICX Media, Ashley Bryant-Baker is a Lead Data Science Analyst at Amtrak, and Jon Lounsbury is the VP of Engineering at Silectis.
During the first part of our conversation, we asked about the key lessons they learned while transitioning into a leadership position.
But we also wanted to know if they had any tips for those who are currently stepping into that leadership role. Here’s what they shared.
The conversations below have been edited for length and content.
What are a few valuable tips you’d recommend to someone navigating the transition into a leadership position?
Alex Mitchell – Chief Product Officer
I’d recommend that you take the time to survey the landscape as you enter a new leadership position. Observe how things are working. Don’t assume anything. Resist that urge to go in and shake things up.
Spend the first month, or two months, to gather information. Talk with customers. Get feedback from team members. All of this will help you to recognize what’s working and what’s not working.
You could end up in the same place as you had planned, but this exercise still has a couple of benefits. You get a real view of how things are, instead of the view you had before. You also build a relationship with the team and prove that you care about their opinion – what they think is working, what’s not working, what opportunities they see to make things better or how the team might go in a new direction.
Another key piece of advice is to give yourself deliberate reminders to go against the grain and do something that doesn’t come naturally to your daily routine.
For me, this means setting aside time to zoom out and see the big picture. I look at the team’s roadmap, review customer feedback, and realign with the business goals.
For other leaders, it might be a reminder to zoom in and get involved with the team – look at the tickets they’re working on, get involved with the code, or meet up one on one with team members.
I think it’s okay to be very deliberate about this. I’ve learned to put reminders on my calendar to make sure I don’t forget. For example, every two weeks I block off time to get that high-level view again. This practice has been helpful in all the roles I’ve been in.
If you don’t block off this time, you might still devote a little energy to these activities, but not enough.
Ashley Bryant-Baker – Lead Data Science Analyst
Now that I’m leading a team, my main focus has become protecting my team from busy work – things that aren’t going to utilize their ability.
I think that in the data science field, especially in a larger organization, people start seeing us as the analytics gophers. But we don’t just run reports.
As much as I can, I try to protect my team from tasks that could be done at the business level.
Along that vein, a significant aspect of my role has become making sure the team has visibility within the organization so people can understand what we do and what value we bring. That way, when there are projects that have a data science component to them, our team is brought into the work. Getting this exposure ensures my team is consistently progressing and gets the opportunity to be promoted.
So really, a key focus for leaders is to guard their team’s time and ensure the technical efficacy of the team’s work. Your team’s time can translate into burnout. It can translate into being unsatisfied with the kind of work that they’re doing. I think protecting your team’s mental zen as much as possible is really important if you want to recruit and retain the right people.
Another shift for new managers is being less involved in the technical tasks.
This can be challenging, but it’s also exciting to see your team learn and grow. It means you get to uplift team members in the areas where they excel and that they’re interested in. You get to make sure everybody’s leveling up in areas that reflect their interests.
I’d recommend meeting with team members on a regular basis to discuss what they’re interested in, what kinds of things they’re reading about, what they love in the space, and how, as their manager, you can help them get into projects that reflect their passions. If you keep an eye out for them, you can make sure they’re on projects they get excited about.
Not every task is going to be fun, shiny, and resume-worthy. But you can at least make sure they are doing those fun, shiny, and resume-worthy things when they’re available.
Jon Lounsbury – VP of Engineering
As you start leading teams, it can be easy to leave the technical side and just focus on management. I think as much as possible, people should try to stay involved on the technical side of things. As I transitioned into higher leadership roles, it became more difficult to stay engaged with the technical details. But I always found ways to contribute – whether that was designing the technical architecture of a product or developing certain pieces of the product. The parts that I developed myself ended up getting smaller and smaller over time. But there were certain pieces that I was doing on every development cycle.
When I did reviews with my team, they told me it was helpful. They valued being managed by another engineer, since I understood the technical side.
One of the ways our team at Silectis applies this concept is by doing a hackathon twice a year. Even our company’s CEO gets involved with the code during the hackathon. It’s been cool for everyone on the team to see that the leadership can still contribute to the code base.
Incorporating this kind of thing into your leadership style is something I’d recommend to those transitioning into a leadership role. Contribute to the code base, even if it’s small contributions. It’s helpful to make sure you still understand the technical side and enables you to provide better guidance to your team.
Missed part 1 of this interview? Check it out.