Tech & Work

Transition from techie to manager isn't easy

As a software engineer, Martin Van Ryswyk got gratification from finding solutions in new code. But as a VP for engineering at a software company, he found a new set of challenges. This week's Tech Watch explores how he made the transition.


Martin Van Ryswyk fought some personal battles when he moved from techie to manager to his present job as vice president of engineering at Redwood City, CA-based Luminate, which makes products and services that help companies monitor their technology systems.

Techie to manager
When software engineer Van Ryswyk joined Luminate four years ago, the transition to manager was easy—maybe even easier than he had expected. This was due to the fact that he “had one foot in each camp.”

“Initially, only 10 percent of my time was spent managing a small staff, which meant most of my time could be devoted to coding and working on projects,” he said.

Van Ryswyk, 35, spent 13 years of his career immersed in technical projects, and he loved every facet of the problem-solving process. Things became trickier when his staff grew and he was forced to spend 50 percent of his time on managerial responsibilities. He was learning how to be a manager, but he could still spend a good deal of time on technical projects.

Manager to VP
But, life became more complicated for Van Ryswyk when he was offered his present job in August 1999. Many engineers would have jumped at the opportunity, but he had serious qualms about taking the job, the biggest of which was spending 100 percent of his time managing 50 techies.

The question he struggled with was whether he should relinquish his role as a hands-on technical person to spend all of his time as a manager. Instead of spending his days working on projects, he’d be managing them, directing a staff he used to be part of, and reporting directly to the CEO.

Van Ryswyk took the VP job and learned relationships suddenly change. The camaraderie and frequent after-work drinks with colleagues ended.

“When I walk into a room, it gets quiet,” he said. “There’s a different interpersonal dynamic that takes place once you become a senior manager.”

There was also a credibility gap that had to be bridged. “When you first make the change, you have a lot of credibility with the people you’re managing,” Van Ryswyk explains.

The challenge he faced was not losing credibility, especially with new hires. It was difficult, for example, to stay current and be a great manager. “There was no way I could keep coding and be a full-time manager,” he says. “It was a catch-22 situation. Top managers must understand the technology.”

He also realized he would no longer understand all the details of programming languages. “Now my role was understanding the issues so I’m not snowed,” he said.

Van Ryswyk had to constantly prove himself and lead by example: “You don’t want people thinking you’re a windbag and paper shuffler.”

Learning how to manage
Once he accepted his role as a full-time manager, the next critical hurdle was learning how to be a manager. One of his biggest mistakes was trying to be a counselor and befriending employees with personal problems. But being a hard-nose only alienates employees.

“People will do what you say, but it doesn’t accomplish your goals,” Van Ryswyk said. “It’s about making course corrections and steering the ship in the right direction. The idea is thinking strategically so you can get people to see the larger vision.”

Van Ryswyk successfully made the transition to senior manger, along the way realizing that not everyone is cut out for the job. “You have to like people and be able to deal with many different personalities and work styles,” he said. “You also have to be patient, open-minded, and tolerant of people’s imperfections. Equally important, you also have to understand how the entire business process works.”

Like all newly-minted managers, Van Ryswyk discovered it’s impossible to be right all the time. “I have a new appreciation of the manager’s role,” he says. “No one is capable of making perfect decisions all the time. It’s human nature.”

By the same token, Van Ryswyk is not ashamed to say he misses his old job. “There are times when I miss coding,” he says. “It’s usually when an engineer finds a solution and gets excited. I know what that feels like, and I miss the immediate gratification.”
Whether your background is in technology or business, becoming an IT executive comes with its own set of demands. How did you make the switch? Post your comments or send us an e-mail.

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