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Chapter 4: How to Really Put Down the Tools and Get Back to Being a Manager

New tech agency owners make all sorts of mistakes. Some are small and private, some are very public–and embarrassing.

But there’s one mistake all managers make during their first year, and it’s this: they don’t put down the tools.

The problem is that when the principals insist on trying to be programmers as well as managers, things fall apart. You can’t work on the assembly line, try to keep it running, and maintain your sanity.

But, But… What if I Can’t Put Down the Tools?

We all fall into the trap of trying to be the hero when the house is burning down. It’s a great and noble intention.

And in times of stress, it’s easy to try to depend on your own uber-geek brain for a hands-on solution. I understand.

However, when you know this cardinal rule and you pick up the tools anyway, there are only a handful of reasons. If you see yourself in one of these examples, never fear. You can get the work done and be an effective manager.

Why You Think You Can’t Put Down the Tools

I understand the pressures of being a leader while producing high-quality code under scrutiny of your team and your clients. Please understand that I’m not placing blame—I’m shining a light on false beliefs that will handicap you until you give them up.

1. You don’t want to.
Even though you’re running the whole show, you still have the impression that your primary value to your company is in your abilities as a programmer. Unless you’re coding, you don’t feel like you’re actually working.

2. You just can’t help yourself.
No matter how hard you try, you can’t step away from the IDE. It’s a compulsion, plain and simple.

3. You believe that coding should be a significant part of your job description.
You’d like to focus on your management duties instead of your coding duties, but you’re afraid you’ll lose respect or your skills if you do. You may have worked in an organization that required managers to code, and you’re still clinging to that culture.

Breaking Free of Coding

Seeing the problem is great, but having real solutions is even better. After years of hunting for decent role models and experimentation, here’s my go-to list of strategies to stay out of the IDE.

You don’t want to stop… but you could.

Admit that you love coding, you’re proud of your skills, and you’re afraid they’re going to deteriorate as you spend less time in front of a screen.

Yes, eventually you will see other team members’ skills bypass your own, but you now have the ability to build teams, not just software. There’s so much you can accomplish even though your hands aren’t creating software every day.

Take a good look at why you wanted to be own your own company in the first place.

Was it to do even more coding? Of course not. Seek out the places where you can identify and remove roadblocks for your team. You want to train yourself to think like a manager and business owner, not a programmer.

Remember that this is a process.

If you are committed to the idea of being a great leader (are you?) you will have to put down the tools more and more, especially if you are managing a team of more than two people. Even if it feels awkward now, lay in a plan to release more and more of the programming to your team and dedicate that time to management activities.

You want to stop… but you keep getting sucked back in.

Watch for behavioral triggers

Pay attention to what you’re thinking and saying just before you stalk over to the computer–again. Chances are, this is what’s going through your brain:

“They don’t get it!”
“I’m the only one who understands this stuff.”
“Why can’t anyone else figure this out?”

Sound familiar? When you hear this kind of blaming and frustration, it’s a clear signal that you need to invest more in your team. If their skills are lacking, then it’s on you to get them up to speed.

Think of it this way: If you don’t take the time to teach them these skills, what’s going to happen when you go on vacation or have an emergency? Take off the hero’s cape and build a team that can support you.

Become a force multiplier.

It’s easy to jump back in, thinking that one more body = more productivity.

But it doesn’t.

If no one has an eye on the production line, then details get dropped and small problems get out of control–quickly. Yes, even if you have a very lean team of two to four people, a dedicated manager can make a massive difference.

With a leader in place, keeping downtime and preventable errors to a minimum, those two or three programmers’ productivity can increase 10–25% (I’ve seen it!), completely surpassing the contribution you could make in your distracted and stressed-out state.

You can’t shake the idea that you need to code

It takes a lot of courage to overcome previous habits, but it can happen.

When I drew a line in the sand and made a plan to pull back on my coding responsibilities, it was frightening. I thought I would throw production into chaos. I decided to try a 3-month experiment, which completely proved that coding less made my team stronger. But if your situation doesn’t allow for that…

Get some perspective.

Ask other agency owners how they wedge in coding with their other responsibilities. I’m guessing you’ll hear that they’re near the breaking point as well. But if they’re doing well, ask them to mentor you.

Prioritize the team’s needs over your own.

No, this doesn’t mean that you should work yourself to the breaking point. I’m suggesting that you focus on the activities that make the team more effective, and put your efforts there instead of coding.

Maybe that means having a stand-up meeting every day or making sure salespeople and clients talk to you instead of your team members. Find the black holes and manage them.

Keep a log of time spent coding.

Find out exactly how you’re using your time, then start investing more of that time in management activities, like training, delegating and communicating.

Management Must-Dos

The best way to keep yourself out of coding’s powerful tractor beam is to commit yourself to management activities. Just as a smokers need to replace the satisfying rituals they used before lighting up, you need to develop alternate habits to keep from falling back into a programmer mindset.

  • Start your day with some management activity to put yourself in that headspace first thing in the morning. Don’t get sucked into dealing with bugs right off the bat.
  • Schedule meetings for code review, planning, resource allocation, etc. Actually put them on your calendar so you drive home their importance.
  • Make a plan to reduce your coding time to 0% so you can manage 100%. Follow your instincts when you find yourself thinking, “I should communicate with my team more.”

Please don’t be a skeptic.

I know it’s hard to believe that letting go of coding responsibilities equals lost production and expertise, but leveraging your time for better team dynamics will make everyone’s life easier.


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