Fallback Plan in Action: From Software Manager to Developer

Everyone relishes the confidence of a having a backup plan if everything falls apart. For myself as a manager it was knowing I could always go back to development if something unexpected came up. After 10 years as a development manager, I got the unfortunate call to follow my director to an unannounced meeting first thing in the morning. Turns out the CIO had decided the organization didn’t need developers and could get by with contractors so there was no need for a development manager. My director would depart the company as well a few months later.

I was in a state of shock for a few days. Sacramento is a small IT market normally and finding open development management positions is fairly rare. I explored a number of options for the first month afterwards including biting the bullet and taking a great job in the Bay area but living with a horrible commute and lousy family life. For many reasons I choose family over a nasty commute.

I came back to the plan of returning to a developer/architect/tech lead role. I hadn’t done day to day development in at least 5 years, but I’ve always kept up my skills with home projects and taking on the tasks of running infrastructure tools like source control, CI servers , wikis, and functional testing tools. I really enjoyed managing development teams and moving obstacles and really growing the skills of my team, but now it was time to focus on myself.

Fear was right up front. I felt like an impostor in the first few development interviews all of which went well despite this. I’ve never felt a high degree of confidence in my abilities and always felt the need to prove myself. With my background as in professional services I eventually got acclimated to the feeling that I was an impostor working on the client’s project. It motivated me to spin up incredibly quickly so I wouldn’t be exposed as a fraud. I’m still not sure this has been the healthiest approach, but I’m still working through my affliction with the Impostor’s Syndrome.

Another factor was figuring out how comfortable I was with making less. Development managers simply make more than senior developers. I’m certain this is the wrong approach in many cases as I always felt at least my top few people were more important to the company than myself, but HR departments really like hierarchal salary structures. So diving into development was likely to mean a salary hit. I have a wonderful wife, two kids, and a hefty mortgage. The prospect of taking a startup job with a firm that was a using new technologies was enticing, but taking a big salary cut was going to be very hard. Lesson learned with the mortgage, sometimes the nice new house isn’t worth the career choices it forces you into to, but you end up making some compromises in life.

I ended up deciding I had to hold out for a well paying position even if that meant working for less exciting companies and technologies. It probably meant a lot of Java/J2EE given my background instead of Groovy/Ruby or mobile development.

Anyway after a month or so of doing some big career thinking, visiting family and friends, and polishing up some slightly rusty Java chops I dipped my toes back in the water with a couple one off gigs for a former employer. I took on a mentoring an organization through development tool choices and how to guide their staff on working with these new tools. From there I took an assignment to do a custom WebLogic course for a client. It was a week long course which I felt I could ramp and cover, but brought back a lot of lingering doubts.

I’ve done many presentations over the years ranging from an hour or two to a half day seminar. I feel very confident in the ability to deliver them with a high degree of quality. Before this I had done two week-long courses in the past and survived them both, but walked away from each feeling as though I had done a horrible job. Keeping a class engaged and interested in a topic for an entire week and knowing it deeply enough to answer almost any question is quite a tall order. So the WebLogic course was a big challenge.

I spent a week immersed in the course material and working through the labs several times after building a VMWare image. I prepped in front of the director of the company, feeling like I was going to fail. I delivered the course, and spent 6 hours every night reviewing everything for the next days class. I was actually shaking stood up to deliver a lecture on a new section. The good news was even though I felt like it hadn’t gone that well, I got glowing reviews from the students.

Soon after I dived full time back into consulting with a company. I had many assignments helping mentor development organizations and a ton of classes and custom class deliveries. In 6 months I actually taught 21 different week long courses. The work was brutal, but eventually I got the confidence in my abilities back, and I can almost effortlessly present on technical topics with just a small amount of prep time. Over the last 6 months I’ve come back to almost full time coding and even gotten to do a nice Groovy/Grails/jQuery project utilizing 1 week iterations.

I’ve read many times about how many technical managers make the mistake of letting themselves get promoted and then they can’t let go of the coding. And many technical managers point out the need to focus on the management tasks of the job. My approach to this was to focus on the management of my team, but to keep my skills fresh by doing side projects at home, presenting at user groups, and doing code reviews and maintaining build servers at the office. I don’t think this is the common approach of development managers, but it’s the only approach I’ve felt comfortable with. I do remember feeling some camaraderie with Rands (of Rands in Repose) as he proposes:

“I’m still cringing. Someone is already yelling at me, “MANAGERS OWNING FEATURES??!?!” (And I agree.) You are still a manager, so make it a small feature, ok? You’ve still got a lot to do. If you can’t imagine owning a feature, my back-up advice is to fix some bugs. You won’t get the joy of ownership, but you’ll gain an understanding of the construction of the product that you’ll never get walking the hallway.”


So the fallback plan is just as important as the financial advice you always get to make sure you have at least 6 months of salary socked away so you can ride out a layoff. Rather than fighting for nearly nonexistent management positions in a bad economy I was able to step into development and do important work. While I love management there are aspects of development that I’m very passionate about and I may continue on this course for the next few years. I’m sure I’ll return to managing a development team as it’s in my DNA, but for now I’m enjoying firing off a ‘git commit’, seeing lots of green tests passing and building a quality app in short iterations.