Back into the Code

Thu, Mar 12, 2020

The most successful coders often become managers, and not necessarily because they’ve demonstrated managerial competence. Yet most of those coders find management–dealing with irrational entities over which they have essentially no control–disappointing. Coding is an unusual professional taste, and those who have it are unlikely to be motivated by typical professional rewards, up to and including managerial responsibility for a large team. A technical leader who gets to decide where the brackets will go? Sure. A manager responsible for motivating team members who are struggling? Not so much.

I started in Information Technology as the lowest entry-level coder. Unlike most people in that position, I had managerial training and experience (and no computer training). I wanted to be coder, and I got to be a pretty good one. My managerial and other business background helped me to make sure that my code correctly fit the context in which it was deployed and effectively served the purpose for which it was intended. But thinking of systems at that level meant I wasn’t thinking only of coding. And continued suggestions about how we could be more effectively organized didn’t help.

Soon enough, because–as my supervisor at the time put it–I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, I was made a manager. I was worried that I’d lose touch with the coding I enjoyed, but I considered what I was doing to be making larger systems of human organizations and software. For a time, this went very well. With both my managerial training and experience and my experience coding, I could understand the efforts under consideration from whatever perspective was necessary. But eventually, it had been long enough since I’d been actively coding that I didn’t understand my work as effectively from that perspective. And then there were the developers, who can react to any question about their approaches or decisions, especially from a non-coding manager, the way a teenager reacts to a step-parent.

Some of my worries have come true, and I want to try to back up a little. I don’t necessarily want to go back to being a coder again. But I’d like to reestablish enough of my coding bona fides that I can speak to the technical aspect of the work for which I’m ultimately responsible. Specifically, I’m studying data science and machine learning. I’m doing this not just because there appears growth ahead in that area, but also because that’s where I’ve come closest to doing technical work lately. We’ll see how it goes.