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Moving from developer to project manager: 4 lessons from Doctor Who

Considering a move from programming into team leadership? Let an expert in regeneration advise your career path.

"Doctor Who" is a long-running BBC television show that tells the tale of a Time Lord, known as the Doctor, as he travels through time and space. Wait, did I write he? The Doctor’s next adventure will be through time, space, and gender, thanks to a recent regeneration into a Time Lady.

To some people, that’s a dramatic shift. But the Doctor has regenerated a baker’s dozen times (and twice as a Baker), so to others, this is a natural progression.

It’s kind of like switching from development to project management—in other words, from a technical role to a managerial one. And luckily, you don’t have to suffer a fatal calamity to make that transition. Well, probably.

But what do you really know about this new role you’ve been eyeing? Let’s see what a British-accented lover of quirky accessories (fez, overlong scarf, bits of celery) can tell you about transitions.

These tips are accompanied by advice from other humanoid life forms who personally moved from software development into a team leadership job, each of whom learned the lessons so well that it put them into positions of leadership. Robyn Miller is currently a digital program execution lead. Harwell Thrasher went from developer to project manager to IT executive. Kariz Matic is now CEO of The Matic, a San Francisco technology consultancy.

As Matic says, “Today, as a CEO and a startup founder, I feel like everything is framed around a project for me. I find it more of an orientation than a role. I’m always a project manager.”

Developers have advantages

The Doctor calls himself the Doctor, but it’s only a moniker. His real name—Gallifreyan—is complex and unpronounceable to all but himself and wife River Song. But as it happens, the 900-plus-year-old protagonist actually is a doctor. The name, it seems, is a natural fit.

Your new job can be, too. As it turns out, developers may have an advantage over non-developers when stepping into a project manager role.

Project management, in any context, is the art and science of completing a project, whether it’s assembling the Key to Time or producing software that sells like fish fingers and custard. Project managers set deadlines, design features, assign tasks, and monitor status so those deadlines are met—ideally, on time, on budget, and to spec.

Miller says, “As a developer, you understand how system requirements need to be written in order to effectively create a robust software environment.” Your past experience as a developer teaches you to respond to user needs, she says: “You can translate what the business has into something effective for the developers to create. You're also much more cognizant of creating realistic timelines in order to do that.”

Less obviously, your developer past means “you have a better bullshit meter,” says Thrasher. A kinder way to describe this is useful mentoring. If a developer gives an unrealistically long estimate for a project task, you can explain how and why that schedule could be moved up. Also, he says, “you can offer shortcuts. They may be making some assumption they don't have to make.”

Kind of like how the Zygons assume that the Doctor doesn’t understand the nature of war.

Human interaction: A necessary aspect of the job

The Doctor almost always has a companion, someone to help him right universal wrongs and keep him from being lonely. Not everyone gets along. But his friends help him get the job done—which includes returning Earth to its proper place around the sun.

While the Doctor may have his friends, stereotypically, developers are a solitary bunch, more content in front of a monitor than a water cooler. Project management, conversely, is a people- or Weeping Angel-facing job.

For some, working with people is a bug; for others, it’s a feature.

Matic says, “I'm 100% an extrovert, and shifting into that [project management] role meant interacting with more people. Once I realized that my technical skills had value in helping organize, communicate, coordinate, and motivate people, that excited me. It meant not having to abandon the technical aspect of the job. In fact, it would be helpful.”

Fear not, introverts. You can still do the job, even if you're not a Chatty Cathy (or an overly verbal Donna Noble). Thrasher says, “Most of the conversations you have are project-directed.” Even if you're not terribly social, your discussions can revolve around asking stakeholders how long it will take them to get the job done, what they need, and how you can help them.

Still, Matic says, "communicate often." That way, "it won't come as a surprise” if there's a delay in a deliverable or a shift in the time vortex.

You still plan and solve problems—only different ones

The Doctor travels courtesy of his Police-Box-style time machine. But in what is arguably the greatest episode of "Doctor Who," he travels into the future without his TARDIS. Trapped within his confession dial, he manages to escape by traveling the long way. Or, as we say about a whopping 4.5 billion years, the very long way.

While the Doctor still travels in time, you too will solve problems—even if it isn’t quite what you imagined.

“Project managers need to discover tasks to be done, account for them, and try to predict when the project will complete,” Mark Russo says. “You focus on status monitoring and projection. You have to have a handle on where things stand and what things need to get done.”

If you’re unsure how to get that handle, Thrasher recommends courses in project management or perhaps a certification. That way, you can learn how to create schedules, plan for risks, and manage change.

But there are some drawbacks

The Doctor is a hands-on problem-solver—even when not asked. But as a project manager, you have to declare your intentions, then stand back and let the team do the work. It takes a bit of trust and the ability to delegate.

As Miller says, “It’s very easy for someone who's been a coder to want to get into problem-solving and debugging mode.” Project managers, however, are generally too busy project managing to bug hunt. Team members, if it’s the right team, can handle the debugging, design, and other pieces of the software creation process, but they need you to keep the project on track while they do. Slipping back into your old, comfortable role means you risk paying too little attention to the requirements of your new one.

Project management involves a larger scope. While one developer may have completed one task, the project isn’t necessarily finished. “I have to look at what’s there, what’s next, and what’s late,” says Miller. And while developers receive feedback from project managers, project managers rarely receive it themselves from the people they report to.

Then there’s responsibility to the project. “As a developer,” Miller says, “I was responsible for my own work. As a project manager, I can let down a lot of people. You have other pressure behind being responsible for an entire program.”

Miller adds, “Quite honestly, I found being a developer very rewarding. On the plus side, I no longer wake up at 3 a.m. realizing what the issue of the program I'm debugging is.”

We hope you management-minded developers will have a great journey through time, space, and your company’s projects. Geronimo.

Moving from developer to project manager: Lessons for leaders

  • Project management isn't just a new job—it's a potential next step in a developer’s career. It’s kind of like entering the TARDIS for the first time: You're not sure where it will lead you, but it could be exciting. (But hey, if you don't want to manage and you do love coding, that's just fine too. We don't judge.)
  • You don’t have to be an extrovert to succeed as a project manager. But you do need to interact with people. It’s either a bug or a feature.
  • A real danger for a new team lead is to try to hold onto old job responsibilities such as writing code. But the whole point of the exercise is to scale yourself. You can’t do the whole project yourself; the point is to delegate.
  • Project management classes or a certification course may give you the foundation you need to take that great leap into the unknown.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.