Why going from R&D ace to tech manager isn't as straightforward as it may sound

Newly-appointed tech team leaders who have been promoted on the basis of their technological skills find themselves very quickly facing new and completely different challenges as managers

Social anxiety, lack of orientation, longing to write code or even excessive aggressiveness - developers and engineers who are promoted to the position of team leaders in high-tech companies can often find themselves facing new challenges. The decision to promote them is made on the basis of their technological skills but then, as managers, they need completely different skills.
"I got my first team leader position at Amdocs. I remember the first day I had to go into the room and gather the team for a morning stand-up call, and I didn't think it was reasonable to ask my friends for a status update, as if they should report to me. From there I went up to a meeting with the development center management. There are 20 people, it’s my first time in the forum and I still don't know all the concepts and significance and need to leave it with an understanding of what I will receive and when from the various groups so that I can commit to the client on the project. After that, I go up to talk to the architect in the U.S. who sends me a list of development tasks. I know I will spend the night just deciphering what each task means. Every day for the first few weeks, I experienced such struggles with a lack of orientation and control," says Hila Geva, today VP R&D at Verbit, who has been serving in R&D management position for years.
1 View gallery
מדריך לעובדים מדריך לעובד בוס מנהל
מדריך לעובדים מדריך לעובד בוס מנהל
(Photo: Shutterstock)
Anxiety from every meeting
In an anonymous post recently published in the group 'Troubles in High-Tech', a new team leader wrote about the anxiety caused by multi-participant meetings in which he is required to participate by virtue of his position. "In every meeting I'm in I fight a terrible anxiety to get words out of my mouth and speak my mind. It can be accompanied by a high pulse when I know it's my turn to speak. Sometimes I leave with a terrible feeling that I could have added things to the meeting and I didn't. What can I do to deal with this?".
For Shai Shwartz, manager of the Full Stack team at Elementor, which developed a platform for building open source websites, the problem was actually the opposite. "In the beginning, I remember being very aggressive in meetings. I thought that the one who shouts louder and is more dominant in the end is the one who gets what he wants. In retrospect, it was a beginner's mistake. There are other ways to influence, and it is worth accommodating and listening and not thinking that you are the smartest person in the room. To this day, there are forums where I feel more comfortable expressing myself and there are those where I am less comfortable. I realized that it is better to talk when you have something meaningful to say, that it is sometimes better to give space to other participants in the conversation to feel more involved in the process. Meetings are not a final stop, there are ways to influence outside the meeting room as well and drive processes in different ways," he says.
He compares the transition from a developer to a team leader to the transition from a basketball player to a coach, who instead of focusing on scoring the winning basket focuses on the game plan. "As a developer, I focused on writing the most beautiful and efficient code, I aspired to be the best possible. The situation changed, suddenly I participated in meetings, planning, consultations, corridor conversations and promotion of the team's responsibilities. The change significantly reduced my ability to focus and specialize in code."
Omer Calfon, a team manager at the Cycode cyber company, which operates in the field of application security management, took on the position two years ago. At first he feared that, like Shwartz, he would miss writing code but discovered that the most significant challenge he faced was not technological but human.
"The biggest challenge I face as a manager is to help my employees develop and become better and more professional. When an employee approaches me with a problem, I have the option to solve it myself quickly and in the short term it may be even more efficient and even easier for me. But in my role as a team leader I understood that for the benefit of the organization, the employees themselves need to reach a solution and face every challenge. Coping with the transition from tech work to training and knowledge transfer was very challenging for me and at the beginning and required me to work many more hours and learn new management skills in situations that were not natural to me."
Hila Amsalem, VP of HR at the Glassbox software company, explains that the transition from the role of an individual employee to the role of a team manager, in any field, can be perceived as threatening and involves loneliness. She says that often young managers encounter a variety of difficulties such as: dealing with refusal, the need to maintain professionalism and back up the company's decisions, motivate the team, a feeling of not meeting expectations, dealing with mishaps, or difficulty expressing oneself in front of colleagues.
"In light of this, it is very important to manage the process of transitioning to a managerial position and to provide full support to the employee who has been promoted. Our approach is proactive. We do not wait to hear about difficulties that will arise, but prepare in advance through a proven and effective training program. The managerial training process also includes an internal manager development course that provides among other things, tools for managing communication and speaking in front of an audience," she says.
Every promotion entails challenges and the need to use slightly different skills than the previous position, but for developers and engineers in high-tech companies the phenomenon is particularly noticeable since these are the largest departments where many team leaders are required in order to develop quickly. Therefore, sometimes people are promoted who do not necessarily have management abilities or 'soft' skills required for the position, and sometimes even those who are not interested in managing at all. Unlike other professions such as marketing or sales in which some of the skills needed for success overlap with those needed to manage teams, in the development professions there is almost no overlap.
"You get to this position of a young team leader usually because you were the best programmer, you checked off every box and you cooperated with the company, and then suddenly you find yourself on unfamiliar ground, with expectations and challenges that you are not prepared for. You soon realize that you have accomplished nothing. Sometimes you have to ask to receive updates and give instructions to developers who were your friends only yesterday. ou have to stand in front of the management and explain why the team did not finish the task and what to do now," says Geva.
'Soft' skills or 'power' skills
One of the ways to help team leaders at the beginning of their journey is to work on their management abilities and 'soft' skills. "The heads of the technical teams are usually promoted because they are professionally strong, but without support and development of management skills they often feel lost'. They really need HR support from the first day they enter the management position, and usually organizations tend to neglect them. Either that or there is a low ratio of HR to managers," says Chen Gabay, VP of HR at the startup Zero Networks.
"The thing with technology team leaders is that they advance to the position from a place of professional strength, they were the best in their position, but this position required them to have a completely different set of abilities. They wrote code, were strong in logic. Suddenly they are required to have a completely different skill set. Hence, they, more than team leaders in other fields, need the support of HR and real work on soft management skills."
At Salesforce, they refer to 'soft skills' as Power Skills, based on the concept that these are necessary abilities "that empower and advance employees personally and professionally, fostering deeper insights and driving continuous improvement in performance," says Naama Elia, Director of Learning and Organizational Development at Salesforce.
"Even in the realm of executive development, at middle levels, and even in senior management, power skills are of enormous importance because they are the driving force of the organization. They bridge the organization's strategy with the employees who implement it. Employees need to know how to convey messages effectively, practice communication with both senior levels and team members, manage priorities, build effective teams, handle tasks, reflect on actions, and brand themselves and their team. Additionally, they should raise red flags when necessary and, above all, be highly flexible – and not everyone does this automatically," she says.
Gil Ronen, Head of Data at Mavens, has been managing a team of 11 people for three years. Initially, he was focused on directing employees on what to do and how to do it, which was stressful. "I quickly realized that as a manager, I don't need to be the smartest person in the room, but rather to motivate the smartest people to collaborate, find solutions, and work together."
Understanding that each employee is different and has unique needs is crucial. Some require independence and minimal guidance, while others need closer supervision and frequent consultations. It's essential to recognize and respect everyone's rhythm while ensuring alignment with the department and company objectives.
"The phrase that people don't leave a company, they leave a manager, always stresses me. As a manager, you represent the company to your employees. Balancing productivity with understanding each person's needs is one of the most challenging tasks," he says.
First published: 11:56, 07.04.24