Preparing to become a manager without being one

And what it has in common with training to run a race

Preparing to become a manager without being one

The switch from senior software engineer to manager requires a mindset change and different competencies. What made you successful as an individual contributor doesn't naturally translate into your new role.

How have other managers experienced the transition? Some describe it as being thrown into cold water. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The right preparation makes the transition a positive and enthralling experience.

In this post, I will explain how you can think about preparing to become a manager without first being one. It’s similar to training to run a race, where you are better prepared by not training at race pace. Let’s look at how you can use the idea of race training to shift to a managerial mindset.

Why you shouldn’t train at race pace (or become a manager all at once)

You don’t train for a marathon by running one. Most training plans for running any race length will focus on different types of runs, where you build endurance (easy runs), improve your lactate threshold (tempo runs), increase your ability to consume oxygen (interval runs), or practice speed (strides). Each training run focuses on improving an individual function of your body.

That is the difference between practice and training. Practicing means running without knowing which function you are improving. Training means you know why you are on your feet.

Just like race training, you shouldn’t train to be a manager by trying to do it all at once.

You need to break down the manager role into required skills. Once you understand which skills are required you can start training them individually. Applying a skill in the context of the business and providing value is making it a competence. If you focus on the next title or spend time trying to convince others that you are ready, you are probably not ready yet. If you focus on these competencies you will see growth.

A guiding principle for switching from individual contributor to a manager

I will share with you one principle that helps you adjust your mindset. As an individual contributor you deliver impact through technical aspects, while as a manager you deliver impact through people. One of the most important abilities you need is to make others more effective. As a junior developer you can work with guidance, as a senior developer you can work self-dependently and as a manager you make others effective. Here are some examples:

  • I deliver high quality code quickly → I help other developers to deliver high quality code quickly
  • I can manage a project by myself → I grow others so they can manage a project themselves
  • I am always on top of things → I help others to be on top of things
  • I can follow a process → I improve the process → I help others to improve the process
  • I understand what I contribute to the goals of the business → I understand what my team contributes to the goals of the business and I help others to understand
  • I give feedback during a retrospective → I moderate a retrospective

Shifting the focus from “I do well” to “I help others do well” is one way to start shifting your mindset.

Exercises to help you prepare to be a manager

The following two exercises will help you get started:

  • Break down the manager role into required competencies and determine where you are. Your manager and peers can give you valuable feedback. That is easier said than done. How do you break down a role that you haven’t practiced yet? You’ll find career frameworks and competencies under The following examples can help you get a sense of the manager role:
    • Take responsibility for topics that no one is taking responsibility for
    • Take responsibility for improving the hiring or onboarding process
    • Manage an intern
    • Manage an initiative across teams with stakeholders you aren’t familiar with
    • Become the interim manager when your manager is on vacation
    • Introduce a change and convince others outside of your team
    • Pick a topic and level up your team
    • Present your team’s results
  • Look at your work items and see how much you spend making others more effective. Can you do more?

While you train your skills and make others more effective you will increase your influence, responsibilities and impact.

Training to be a manager is just like training to run a marathon. Focus on individual skills and focus on getting better one skill at a time. You’ll find that when you put them all together, it’s much easier to reach the finish line.