How to Move from Lead Developer to Manager

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Think you’re ready to lead a development team? Here’s how one developer went about it. By Betsy Mikel (Editor, Women 2.0)

Once you’ve got some solid experience under your belt as a developer, you’ll hopefully get the opportunity to spearhead new projects as a lead developer. Then, what’s next?

Maybe you’d like to move into a management position and lead a team of developers. It’s a new challenge that requires a different set of skills.

To get a feel for how to make this transition, we spoke to Katie Willard who joined the team at Weebly as an engineer in 2013. Two years later, she became the first female manager of engineers at the company.

Here’s what she had to say about becoming the team lead and the advice she has to offer other developers looking to make the leap.

Women 2.0: Tell us a little bit about your background before Weebly.

Katie Willard: I got my degree in Computer Engineering because I loved circuit design and robotics. But instead of jumping right in to an industry job after graduating, I followed my heart and moved to Italy to teach computers to young children at an American School.

In addition to teaching, I was in charge of the school’s website, which was really rewarding. Did I mention it was built in Flash!? Hah!

Because of this experience, I took a web development job when I returned from Italy. It exposed me to several different programming languages and my passion for web technologies really grew.

I spent a few more years honing my skills and then most notably, worked my way into a lead role at a digital agency in Florida called Tambourine that specializes in travel and tourism. There, I was leading a small team, building websites for various hotels and boards of tourism.

As the main technical point of contact on all projects, I worked with clients, advised the team and maintained our development environment and repos. Most of our projects were completed and handed off to the client without many opportunities to refactor code or build out the exciting features we had proposed but were cut due to client budget restrictions.

Finally, I began looking for a job with a development team dedicated to a single product. I loved the idea of working on a product that I could continue to make improvements upon. I reached out to some people in my network and found Weebly through an old colleague and friend.

The transition from small baby websites to giant 20+ million users has been a great and humbling experience! I have learned so much over the last couple years and continue to learn something new every day!

W2: What’s something about your job that might surprise outsiders?

KW: Working in engineering sometimes means losing sight of the big picture. Since we’re in the code all day working on a small section of the codebase, it’s easy to forget about the end user. Weebly loves our customers and knows how important it is to keep them in mind no matter what we are working on.

Every employee has an opportunity to get in touch with one of our customers and and present that customer’s website to the company at our “all-hands” meeting each Friday. It is great to see what our customers are doing with our product and consider the ways in which we can improve it. I really enjoy the customer stories, because it makes everything we do that much more meaningful and rewarding.

W2: How did you work your way up to managing an engineering team?

KW: Transitioning from a company whose largest site had about 10,000 unique views a day to a product getting 10+ million unique views a day was overwhelming. From an engineering standpoint, there are so many more things to consider when working with a large user base.

Deploying code is terrifying. A seemingly innocuous bug could affect millions of users and may not immediately present itself either! It is a horrible feeling to have a co-worker tell you they hunted down and fixed one of your bugs.

Naturally, I worked hard to catch up. I tuned into the technical conversations being had around me. I studied the codebase. I paid attention to feedback that I was receiving on pull requests. I paid attention to feedback others were receiving on pull requests. I kept track of parts of the project that I was not responsible for and reviewed the code my team was submitting before it was my job to do so.

I think that the move into management is a natural fit for me. I’m managing four extremely talented developers working on Weebly’s cloud services. I’m coding less now, but I still get to be meticulous when it comes to reviewing tasks that my team is completing.

W2: What’s one piece of advice you wish you could give your younger self?

KW: If you’re not satisfied with your job, don’t wait to make a change! There were a couple years where I was really stagnating. I was no longer being challenged at my job and felt undervalued.

While being lead developer was a great learning opportunity that taught me a lot of new business skills, my team was too small. I needed to be surrounded by more engineers to challenge me and keep me current. My heart was in my work and my co-workers were like family, but I wish I had moved around more to gain exposure to other working environments and learning opportunities. I should have moved to San Francisco years ago!

W2: Any other comments or pieces of advice you’d like to add for young engineers?

KW: There are so many! It’s really important to learn to work with others and be a team player. Listen to the ideas of others. Support one another and offer encouragement and help as frequently as you offer critique. Alternately, accept any critique of your own work graciously. It will only make you stronger and more capable!

Thanks for chatting with us Katie! Readers: What did you learn when you moved to a development management position?


About the author: Betsy Mikel is the managing editor of Women 2.0 and runs the content consultancy Aveck. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and a lifelong obsession with French language and culture. When she's not biking all over every city she visits to find its best taqueria, you can find Betsy on Twitter at @betsym.