How Software Developers Become Leaders Without Going into Management

Don Tennant
Slide Show

How to Promote Yourself on the Job

A lot of companies are acknowledging that management isn’t for everybody in the software development world, and they need to provide the means for developers to advance in their careers, and to be rewarded accordingly, outside of the management track. One such company is Acquia, a digital experience platform provider headquartered in Boston.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss this topic with Andrew Kenney, vice president of engineering at Acquia, who opened the discussion by explaining his company’s approach:

I firmly believe that there should be separate tracks for individual contributors and for managers. At Acquia, we have individual contributors who are able to be technical team leads, as well as architects.


As they grow in their career and progress through the different levels, they demonstrate best practices and the ability to deliver novel solutions on time and under budget. They also show leadership qualities via mentoring their colleagues, helping new people get up to speed, researching new programming languages and methodologies. A lot of these mechanisms help show they are not just a great senior engineer, but a great leader of their team. It’s the kind of behavior we want to encourage.

I asked Kenney if he’s found that the pool of strong management candidates among a group of software developers is smaller than the pool in other professions, just by virtue of the nature of the people who tend to gravitate toward software development. He said it’s definitely harder to find engineers who naturally put themselves forward as a strong manager, or even a strong team lead:

A lot of that has to do with being light on soft skills, so we work to grow those, as well, and to challenge the employees to stretch themselves in different ways. So I think some of it is just the nature of who is in this profession. It’s harder for us to find engineering managers than it is to find senior engineers.

We’re looking for certain qualities in our engineers — we’re constantly asking them if they want to take on not just leadership on a technical level, but leadership of people or initiatives. Every once in a while you find a gem in the rough, but often you have to go outside the engineering department, within the rest of the company.

Of course, there are plenty of software development and engineering students who do aspire to be leaders, if not necessarily managers, so I asked Kenney what his advice is for those young people to prepare themselves academically. He said beyond the basics of the curriculum, students need to prove themselves outside of school:

We look for things such as, are they working on open-source projects in their free time? Do they build their own website, or websites for organizations they’re a part of? Are they only learning Java or whatever is offered by the school, or do they pick up different programming languages on their own free time? That thirst for knowledge while they’re in school is something we think is the mark of an excellent engineer as they enter an organization.

How many clubs are they a part of? Are they just an individual participant, or are they a leader? These are all things we look for, and we encourage candidates to do co-ops and internships. Make sure you don’t just pick the company you aspire to go to, but get a feel for the various types of software development and engineering that are out there. Make sure you pick something that you’re excited to be doing when you go into work every day.

For a student who aspires to take the management track, is the engineering degree sufficient? Kenney responded by saying Acquia doesn’t hire a lot of managers directly out of school:

It’s usually a trait that is demonstrated over time. We are primarily looking for excellent engineers, those who can constantly pick up new skills. If someone does want to progress into management, I think the type of thing they need to demonstrate, and what will give them great experience, is just taking a challenge, really going for some lofty, ambitious goal, and delivering upon that. That shows the ability both to stretch yourself and commit to something over time, and to execute in the trenches at the same time. That’s a skill that works well while you’re in school, as well as once you get out into the work force.

I asked Kenney if he had it to do over again, what he would do differently to better prepare himself for what he’s doing now. He said he would take advantage of internships and co-ops:

When I was in school I had summer jobs, but they weren’t tied to my future profession. I was always more of a hobbyist entrepreneur, and not working for large organizations and stretching myself in professional software development and technology companies. The colleges we have the most successful relationships with are those that have great co-op and internship programs. You get the cream-of-the-crop students — they learn a tremendous amount, and they add value to Acquia as well as take back their experiences to their peers and to their curriculums. So I would definitely encourage a younger me to go the co-op and internship route as much as possible.

Kenney wrapped up the conversation by advocating a culture in which inspiring “a little crazy” isn’t a bad thing:

I think a key thing that isn’t talked enough about is enabling autonomous, empowered people and groups, and giving them the chance, for better or worse, to make decisions, learn from their experiences, and celebrate failure as well as success. That way, they can tell their peers and the leadership what went right and what went wrong, what they’ve learned, and what they’re going to do differently next time.

The organizations that innovate and deliver the best products are not afraid of risk. They’re willing to go out and tackle audacious challenges, and learn from those experiences. The people who are driving startups are those who are often willing to go out on a ledge, and just do crazy things. One of the core things in our DNA is to inspire a little crazy, and we look for candidates who are willing to do that sort of thing.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.



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