Crossing the Line: Skill Atrophy

In this blog series titled “Crossing the Line,” I will explore the various aspects, concerns, and successes associated with the transition from coder to manager. Reader participation is highly encouraged. I am interested in your stories of experience, challenges, and successes in this regard. Please share in the comment section of the post.

Developing a proficiency in any skill requires years of study and experience. Proficiency demands commitment, investment, and focus. Possessing a proficiency in a coding language, or technology often equates to increased marketability, reputation, and salary. When presented with an opportunity that threatens the continuity of that proficiency, the instinctual response is to decline the opportunity. This opportunity can be taking on the responsibilities of management, or embracing the shift in technologies.

Technology Shift

In my earliest years of my technical career, I developed a level of proficiency in Microsoft Access, Visual Basic, and Batch Files. I was experiencing success in my chosen path and was gaining a level of notoriety in my circle of peers. Then came the Internet age of development – a whole new paradigm. I was faced with a decision. After deep introspection, I discovered that I enjoyed database work much more than developing applications, so I made my choice and put the effort in developing a new set of skills. The decision resulted in a gain of a new proficiency at the cost of an existing proficiency.

Management Shift

Many years later, I was faced with another similar choice. I was presented with an opportunity to lead a team of data professionals… a management role. My proficiency in database development and administration at that point had reached a relatively high level. I was a leader in the technology community and regarded by my peers to be an expert in some aspects of the technology that I used. In my pursuit of continual improvement and love of facing new challenges, I accepted this opportunity. I entered the opportunity with the expectation that I would be a “working manager,” one who could maintain his proficiency while developing proficiency in management. I quickly found the fallacy of this expectation. It was clear that I could not develop the proficiency needed to be a successful manager without sacrificing some of the proficiency that I had gained in the database development realm. As such, I was determined to focus on those skills that I needed to develop and went as far as earning a degree in management.

In Retrospect

At this station in my career, I have learned that all atrophy is not complete, and that past effort in proficiency contribute to a higher level of future proficiency. Because I was a coder, I can advocate for the team or aid in difficult situations in ways that a manager without coding experience could not. I have also learned that some of the most rewarding aspects of my career would not have been experienced if I had decided to remain on the coding path.

This post is not intended to suggest that accepting the management career is the universally optimal career path. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses in different areas, and have distinct aspirations of career satisfaction. However, to fully leverage our strengths (whether they are latent or fully developed) and mitigate the influence of fear in our career choices, I encourage you to apply raw, honest introspection when these opportunities come your way. While you must solely own your decision, you are not alone in its arrival.