Why A Technology Leader Should Code
After I left the military, I started in corporate America as a software developer. I spent several years programming on various projects in a variety of languages. Perhaps more quickly than I wanted, I entered the management ranks. Starting as an engineering manager, I progressed into a number of executive roles including VP of Engineering, CIO, and CTO. It has now been well over a decade for me as a manager and executive but through these years I have continued to program. From the technology executives that I’ve met this is fairly unusual. Most tech execs gladly give up programming upon entering management and never look back.
I’ve never considered myself a great programmer and what I do today compared to a professional developer is like comparing a weekend gardener with an industrial farmer. Recently I’ve been considering whether continuing to program is clutching to my technical youth or actually beneficial as a technology leader. We’ve written about How Technical a CTO Should Be but here are a few more specific thoughts on programming.
Technical and Tactical Proficiency
As a junior officer I was taught that in order to lead one had to be “technically and tactically” proficient. I owed it to the soldiers in my unit to understand the equipment our unit employed and the basic combat tactics that we would be following. This concept has stuck with me and I believe that technology leaders need to understand the tools that their team is working with and the processes that they are following. The exact level of understanding is a personal choice and highly debatable. For me, I like if at all possible to have hands on experience. Periodically having to code a feature and deploy it will provide the engineering manager a better understanding and appreciation for what her engineers go through on a daily basis.
Leading people can be one of the most challenging and yet rewarding jobs. Getting a team to buy into a single vision and motivating them to deliver that vision is a day-to-day challenge that can wear the best of us down. When that team finally delivers or when the junior employee that you’ve been coaching starts performing like the star that you knew they could be, it all seems worth it. Unfortunately, those reward days are months or years in between. During the interim days and weeks it can be difficult to not achieve tangible results.
This is where programming fits. Coding provides immediate feedback and accomplishment of short-term goals. When your function works perfectly the first time you test it or when the solution to that very difficult problem becomes clear, you receive instant gratification and tangible results.
Some leaders use other hobbies like woodworking or gardening to provide this short-term gratification. Start working on a garden and within a couple of hours or days you can see the impact of your work. The ground is turned over, weeds are removed, seeds are planted. After a couple of weeks or months the project is completed with the results on your dinner table, proof of your achievement.
While these physical activities are enjoyable and rewarding they don’t expand your knowledge of developing systems. Consider deliberate practice by picking up a programming project to receive tangible rewards and improve your technical and tactical proficiency.