By Daniel Flax
It starts when you land your first management position. Suddenly, you’re splitting your time between telling other people what to do and actually doing stuff yourself. And as you climb further up the chain, the balance shifts and you spend more and more time managing people, projects, budgets, and bosses. Then, one day, you realize that the unthinkable has happened: you’ve been so busy managing a team that you’ve let your hands-on skills deteriorate.
As you advance in your career, you will frequently hear that it’s not your hands-on skills, but rather your ability to lead your team to success that matters. I would never suggest that leadership ability is not critical to your advancement. It certainly is. But I would also suggest a supplement: pick a skill and keep it sharp. Keep it razor sharp. Having a relevant, current, hands-on skill is one of the best things you can do as you advance your career.
The single most important thing you need to do as both an advancing and established manager is to recruit and retain the very best talent. The best talent always has options and is always looking for the most engaging, rewarding, and interesting place to work. As a recruiter, you’ve got to present your organization and — more importantly — yourself as the most interesting person for whom to work. You need to let your candidates know that you’re going to challenge them. One of the best ways to do this is to show them just how much you challenge yourself.
Hands-on technical candidates want to know that their potential manager is going to give them the opportunity to work with current technology. What better way to demonstrate that than to be hands-on with current tech yourself? Candidates want to know that when they get excited about some new coding design pattern, their boss will engage with them about it. Furthermore, where are you going to find these very best candidates? Like all good recruiters, you’ll do best if you meet them where they are. You are far more likely to find like-minded candidates by staying hands-on with a current technology, and attending MeetUps and other groups yourself.
Find Something You Love
I’ve been using Macs since their introduction in 1984. In the early 2000s, I recognized that my career had taken on a decidedly infrastructure focus. Wanting to round out my development background, I chose to learn how to program in Objective C. Taking that forward, the iPhone/iPad introductions made for great opportunities to continue that. In 2010, after convincing my then employer to produce a native iPad app, I realized that not only did we have no iOS developers on staff, I didn’t really know how to hire one and evaluate their skills.
So I went to NYU and took some classes. I figured that there might be some students worth considering as candidates and at the very least, I’d learn a bunch. While it turned out that none of my fellow students were a good fit, I had learned enough that when I began my search for a full-time hire, I was able to attract a truly talented PhD-holding developer who was able to bring our ideas to life.
People Want to Know
Shortly after I joined my current organization, my boss wanted to introduce me to the board of directors as the newest addition to the team. After giving a bit of preamble about how important technology is to our mission and how excited he was to have me on board, he relayed the story of me taking an iOS development class and how I had apps in the App Store. His real story to the board was that he hadn’t just hired another IT manager, but rather someone who is current, relevant, and would be able to attract talent to push the mission forward. The board’s reaction was universally approving.
Razor Sharp, Always
It’s an enormously worthwhile endeavor to keep learning new skills, even if you choose one that you don’t employ in your current gig. Whether it’s during one-on-one sessions or at a full team lunch, the boss who can talk turkey is the kind of manager who retains their best talent. If you can think of this as a hobby and not as work, all the better. Think of the glow on your face when you tell your friends about your favorite hobby. Now imagine having that same glow when you are relating your new skills to your colleagues. It will help you recruit, retain, and relate to the very best candidates. No matter how high up the technology food chain you get, having a few razor sharp skills will always pay dividends.
Daniel Flax is VP, Engineering for CapTap, a division of Capital Access Network. He was previously Chief Information Officer for TheStreet, Inc. He also serves on the Board of Trustees for the Volunteer Consulting Group. This is his first post on TheHiredGuns.com.