Wanted: Painter Managers

I have the distinct pleasure of helping people plan and build their careers. In my current organization, one of my primary goals is to recruit and hire talented software developers to add to an already talented and energetic team. In this role, there is something that has me baffled:

“Why is there an awkwardly high percentage of developers who aspire to be managers?”

A snippet from the great Paul Graham post (and book), “Hackers and Painters”
When I finished grad school in computer science I went to art school to study painting. A lot of people seemed surprised that someone interested in computers would also be interested in painting. They seemed to think that hacking and painting were very different kinds of work– that hacking was cold, precise, and methodical, and that painting was the frenzied expression of some primal urge.

Both of these images are wrong. Hacking and painting have a lot in common. In fact, of all the different types of people I’ve known, hackers and painters are among the most alike.

What hackers and painters have in common is that they’re both makers. Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things.

If this is true, then why aren’t composers putting on a resume, “Wish to expand my career toward Composer Management”? Why aren’t painters asking for more “Painter Leadership” courses from the market?

I truly feel that comparing developers and painters is apropos. What alarms me is the rate at which organizations, especially large organizations, bastardize the career aspirations of artistic and expressive craftspeople by giving them one narrow path to advance, management. Many organizations can’t fathom a career path that doesn’t include leading others and amassing direct reports. Now, as a result, many developers can’t fathom it either. Sad.

If we think long and hard about what we are doing by encouraging this mindset, I argue we would never do it. As organizations, we typically take the best and brightest producers and “elevate” them to a non-producing position. (This is typically followed by a giant sucking sound whereby these people’s souls are ripped from their bodies.)

Don’t get me wrong. Leadership and management IS a noble career aspiration. I’m arguing it is not the ONLY noble career aspiration, and if you’re the type of person who wants to build things and be expressive and creative, then it might not be the path for you.

With all this said, as organizations we should work at giving developers an alternate career path. One where they can be dynamic, brilliant, and celebrated artists.

11 Replies to “Wanted: Painter Managers”

  1. Pingback: Jason Montague
  2. Pingback: Jason Montague
  3. Pingback: Andy Wenzel
  4. Well said sir… Couldn’t agree more to the ‘painter’ analogy for a developer. I feel the same all time time and I’ve struggled hard (and almost given up on) trying to elevate myself to the ‘manager’ position.

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  7. Software developers are in general quite egotistic. Becoming a development manager allows you to remain hands on, delegate the work to junior developers instead of doing it yourself and claim credit for their hard and over stressed work load. In my opinion, managers are social bullies and a majority of developers are introverted due to their interest in writing code and feel a need to express their personalities when they reach a certain level of maturity. Once again, this is my opinion and based on over 10 years in software development.

  8. I work at a large corporation that is not technically in the business of software development. We have a huge investment in software development for ETL, and some custom applications. As a developer, I find that the investment in offshore and contractor resources is the main reason why those I know have moved into technical lead and manager roles. In this economy, I’m not sure how successful I can be moving to a company that does produce software.

    I have struggled with this, wondering why employees here cannot be valued as they achieve higher levels of competency vs. simply climbing the ladder. Personally I do not feel comfortable supervising others; but as a lead or senior I could help mentor others on better techniques.

  9. I don’t actually want to be a supervisor; I want to have more control over the overall direction of the products I work on and the tools and processes used, and especially over budgets. People with supervisory authority have a lot more influence over those things (or at least that’s how I’ve always perceived it). The ideal job might be a high-level architect or consultant of some sort but development managers are much more common.

    Painters probably have a lot more control over what they are going to paint, what style to use, what brand of paint and model of brush they buy, etc. A more interesting question might be, why are graphic designers so often freelancers (with all the other issues that entails) whereas developers are usually company employees?

  10. OK, so what is the answer? What other paths can large orgs offer their star developers that will still leverage their skills, yet offer significant advancement opportunites?

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