How to Succeed in Management if You’re Stuck in a Technical Role

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Let’s face it. You’ve been a software developer, architect, systems analyst, technical lead, senior engineer, and a variety of other interchangeable titles that management knows nothing about. All they know is that you do something special and technical behind the scenes to make it all happen. Sure, they pretend to understand you, use familiar jargon like object-oriented, agile, machine-learning, cloud computing, and a host of others they picked up from fast reads so they can speak to you at your level. But you know better, and see right through them while thinking to yourself, How in the world did these people ever get to where they are knowing so little?

Having worked in a variety of industries for over three decades, I can tell you this: no matter where you go, who you work for, it’s always the same. Sure, people’s faces and titles may be slightly different, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same game. After a few job changes, you will soon start recognizing it for yourself: the clueless manager on top, stressed-out middle managers trying to keep things together, and frustrated developers at the bottom feeling slighted, overworked, and under-compensated. In the end, if the project succeeds, management gets full recognition and big bonuses, middle management get leftovers, and the technical staff is reduced to half or let go altogether, since the product has transitioned to “support” mode. And if the project fails outright, everyone blames it on technical incompetence, and the outcome for those at the bottom is still the same.

I may be oversimplifying to make a point, but it’s not too far from the truth. This is not an anti-management tirade, but quite the opposite; it’s your ticket to the office corner, a chance to join the elites at your company, to get a taste of the action (as they say), if you so choose.

Like anything in life, you shouldn’t criticize or commend until you truly have first-hand experience. Then, and only then, are you allowed to legitimize your opinion. So, here’s my advice after working for thirty-odd years at various companies across many industries. If you follow through, it will take you to a world you never imagined existed, a world where success is inversely proportional to the amount of work you actually do, where your value is correlated to your confidence, and where work takes on a whole different meaning than productivity. Everything you learned in school is inconsequential, and the only thing that really matters is how much perceived power and influence you possess.

Some of this may sound contrary to logic. But that’s the point. Management is not about logic. It’s about success, or more precisely, the appearance of success.

The first rule is this, and please, burn this into your thick skull by repeating it a thousand times a day: Never Do Actual Work.

That’s right.

Say it with me. Never Do Actual Work.

Say it over and over until you start believing in it. It may take a few days, a week, or even a month perhaps. Because if you don’t believe it, then you do not have what it takes to succeed, and you might as well stop reading this now and go back to work.

So you made it this far, let’s say. You recited Never Do Actual Work ten thousand times. You can actually say this to yourself without snickering. You are ready to test that theory out, and see how well you hold up. Next time you’re in a meeting, and management asks for volunteers to fix a problem or come in on the weekend to support an issue, resist the urge to raise your hand thinking you will get recognized and rewarded. Chances are you won’t. They will easily forget you and take all the credit. If you think you will be remembered, it will be for the time you messed up. So, don’t do it. In fact, don’t even entertain that thought.

What you should be thinking of is a good excuse why it shouldn’t be you. This is where the second piece of advice comes in handy: You Need to BS on the Spot. No hesitation. No pausing. Just let it all flow out. It should be as natural as shitting.

Let’s say this weekend there’s a big release coming out, and your manager is looking for a few volunteers to put in some extra hours. When it’s your turn, say you can’t because you have a cousin who invited you to join him at a private dinner party where he promised to introduce you to Elon Musk. The more outrageous, the better. Just make it memorable, enough so that you yourself won’t forget, also. Don’t come up with something lame like you’re going to your grandmother’s 100th birthday, which is out of town. Nobody cares, and besides, you may forget yourself and later re-use that same excuse some years later, and someone just might remember. Don’t risk BSing small stuff. Go big or go home. “But what if someone asks you later on what came out of that meeting with Mr. Musk?” That’s what you’re hoping they would ask. You would say you two spoke extensively about some very interesting project ideas (all secret of course), and he saw great potential in you. You don’t have to give specifics, just make sure anything you say is upping your worth and confidence.

Once you’re comfortable with the power of meaningful BS, it’s time to move on to the next piece of advice: Always Look Busy. And I mean, always. Even if you’re in the restroom standing there peacefully urinating, have your phone out and start shouting. If you are in a stall, make sure your neighbors hear your voice and follow your conversation. This is your chance to perform and shine and display your confidence and negotiating skills. Pretend you’re talking with your fictitious contractor who’s building a fictitious extension to your modest home. “Look, I want twenty of your best people at my property tomorrow morning, and they better have their shit together, you hear me? I want the floors to be done by noon or there will be hell to pay…” Come across as a demanding hard-ass, and with a take-no-prisoners kind of a tone. After hearing you, everyone will make sure to stay out of your line of fire.

When you’re in an important meeting, pretend to be on your phone or on your laptop, clicking away. Never look at anyone in the eye, and act as though you’re not paying any attention. When someone asks you a question, reply with “What’s that? I was checking my rank in the 100 K Buy-In Fantasy Football Pool. Are you in that one?” This shows: 1) you are so rich you can afford to gamble more than their entire salary, and 2) their problems are so small compared to things that truly matter to you. Management will see this and consider you as “one of them”, even though they may publicly express disapproval to your behavior at meetings.

There may be some slow days where it is impossible to look busy. Believe me, I know. You have to plan for these times ahead by making sure you are using your time wisely at your desk. Take all the technical books which you think are impressive to own and throw them all out. Better yet, donate them to Good Will and write them off on your taxes. Then, find all the top management books you can find and bring them to the office. A good place to look is at your local library. They are often never borrowed and in really good condition. In fact, they may just give them to you for free since they take up valuable shelf space where they could stock more popular books instead.

Once you have a few hundred or so books, line them up on your shelves, on your desk, on top of chairs, and even along the floors. Have a few of them opened to random pages as if you were in the middle of reading them. Then, put your head down and take a nap. When your manager walks by, he or she will see how dedicated you are and must have pulled an all-nighter. Everyone will let you be, fearing that if they wake you, they will face your wrath as demonstrated in the restroom.

This all sounds like up is down, and down is up, and in fact, it is. But this is the kind of world you have to be willing to live in if you want to succeed badly enough. If you don’t believe me, next time you talk to the CEO or some high-ranking VP at your company, see what he or she is more interested in, the vulnerabilities and adoption rate of IPv6 protocol and its ramifications, or does he or she know anyone who can get you a pair of Super Bowl tickets? If you asked the first, you may think you have made a name for yourself by having deep technical knowledge, but what you have done was embarrassed him or her for not knowing how to respond appropriately. If you tried the second, he or she will be proud to show off his or her deep connections to sources and you may be attending the Super Bowl.

Finally, the last piece of advice is the most important, and if you can’t follow the others, at least try to follow this one, and you might still be somewhat successful: Work Hard at Avoiding Work. Read that again after you scratched your head a few times. “But wait, didn’t you just said the first rule is to never do actual work?” you may ask. That’s right. Actual work. Nothing in life is ever free. So in order to not do any actual work and still get paid for it, you have to do something to avoid the work in the first place.

When you wake up in the morning, while riding the subway or driving in slow-moving traffic, instead of worrying about your workload for the day, think to yourself, “What can I do to avoid doing work today?” I am sure by the time you get in, you will have at least ten or so good ideas. Put them into practice and see which ones pay the most dividends. Then the next day, repeat the process and keep the ones that worked best.

As an example, say you need to get a report ready by the end of the month. It’s already two weeks behind schedule. Well done. You haven’t worked for two weeks. Now, look around and see who is anxious to prove themselves to the team, or who else can pull it off. Maybe a lowly intern just joined the department. It would be a fantastic “opportunity” for him or her to try to complete the report — not just on time, but ahead of schedule even. Or maybe time is running out, so you need to tell your boss that you have promised your spouse or significant other that you two had planned three weeks in Aruba months ago for some “healing” time. It must have slipped your mind due to all that’s going on, and if you don’t go, your spouse will divorce you or your significant other will leave you. This is not a vacation per se, but a trip to “heal” the relationship. This will show: 1) you have empathy in relationships, and 2) you keep promises. Your boss will wish you a safe trip and find someone else to finish the report in your absence.

In no time, you will be rising up in the management ranks faster than you ever would have in the technical swamp where technology changes every few weeks rendering your deep knowledge and know-how completely useless. You will soon discover how easy it is to dumb down in order to move up. Leave the actual work to those who are convinced that it pays off, and focus on the work that truly gets you ahead. In the end, it may just be the same amount of effort, but at least it won’t become obsoleted every few years.

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