How to move back from a Project Manager to a Developer Role

There are different reasons why a developer transitions to a Project/Program manager role. After some time, there could be a moment in your career when you want to move back to a developer role. If you think moving to a PM role was a right choice, ignore reading this further. If you think you miss technical hands-on development in that you excelled, it’s never late to switch back. Here are some tips to get back on a hands-on development track and take your career to the next level:

1. Find out why you want to be a developer again: 

It’s important to assess your whys clearly. Let’s look at some common whys:

  • Self-realization: Switching from a developer to a PM may not be easier for everyone. Some developers will find the ecstasy in a PM role. A PM who was an excellent developer, may have two possible thoughts on two extremes: 
  1. Oh, I wish, I was born as a PM. I like leading people towards a goal. I love meeting people. I love high level integration, without going in deep of the code (then again, you don’t need to read it further).
  2. Oh, did I really work today? Am I really delivering any value? I heard I led that meeting well, but I didn’t do anything at all. I just presented what others did. Am I going to get any credit for any of the work? If yes, is it fair to get the credit for something I didn’t do? Does anyone really appreciate scheduling a meeting and asking people to work towards a goal? Don’t they already know why, how, and what to work towards their goals? I don’t think I did anything. Did I have to pull up my sleeve to get into anything deep technical, to solve a problem? Why are people thanking me as if I did all the magic to make the project successful? Is it a fake thank you and they really meant to say: you were not needed, you wasted our time with many useless meetings.
  • A step to be a technical manager: Many times, a belief is that to be a development manager, you must excel in technical skills, leadership skills, and operational/business skills. Getting into a PM role may provide you a right combination of leadership and operational/business skills.

2. Acknowledge what you learned as a PM:

The years you worked as a PM were a great investment. You learned these skills:

  • How to lead and communicate: This is a great skill to have. As a developer, the tendency is to know all the details about a system. PM skills are great in understanding and leading the integration of systems as a black box (not knowing what’s inside).
  • Influencing stakeholders: As a developer, your job generally is to complete the assigned tasks. There may be opportunities to influence technical teams for a technical solution. But, as a PM, you get more assigned tasks to influence users. How many developers will be motivated to read a book on influencing stakeholders? If we ask the same question to a PM community, the question should be opposite: can you be a PM without reading the book on influencing stakeholders?
  • Respect what PMs do: To appreciate a skill, it’s the best to be in that role yourself. As a PM, do you recall your scariest moment when you were not sure to get a buy-in from your stakeholders? If you were wrong (they showed up to your meeting and respected your engagement) and you got their buy-in, will you ever forget that moment of joy? You clearly remember the number of stakeholders you invited who showed up to your meeting. And yes, majority of them agreed to your point of view.

3. Finally, how to be a developer again:

  • You’re here with the real interest: Congratulations. You clarified your whys and made a decision. You’re learning the development with your true interest. This is a critical step. 
  • Don’t give up and don’t lean back: As it’s your interest and your strong desire, you’ll succeed if you don’t give up. So, first thing first: don’t give up in your uncomfortable journey ahead, of becoming a developer again. Here are some common feelings you’ll encounter as your daemons and you must not deviate from your goal:
  • Are you too old to be a developer ? Will people laugh and will you feel bad at your moderate and old technical skills?
  • Did you fail as a PM? Many people may ask you, why are you transitioning back to a developer role? Did you not perform well as a PM? Is it a demotion? You may hear people saying: the grass is greener on the other side.
  • Will you excel as a developer again? There’re many smart developers in the market who’re young, probably with less family responsibilities. Will you be able to spend that much time again? Are you still that sharp to learn new technical skills quickly?
  • What if you become an average developer who’s not able to cope up with newer technologies? There are many intelligent new age developers. You quickly recalled an incidence. That day, a developer was cursing himself to be a developer. He was feeling overwhelmed with so many new technologies to learn.
  • Work/life balance. Development tasks are very time consuming. It feels like two 40 hours a week sets are needed (at the same time). But will you be paid for 80 hours a week? You may feel it was nice to be a PM. As a PM, you guided many people how to manage their time within 40 hours a week.
  • Decide a skills set: List out what skills you acquired earlier that are still in demand. If not the same, at least, do you find equivalent skills set in the market? Once you find your strengths, it’s important to decide a new technical skills set that you want to master. Stay with the planned skills set.
  • Join forums and communities: Find opportunities inside and outside your company, to learn new technical development skills.
  • Show your curiosity of technical skills: Show your curiosity of technical development skills within your network. You know how to communicate, make relationships, and it’s the time to ask for the help of others to help you learn technical skills.
  • Find the development opportunities: Find a development opportunity in your area. Here are key ideas:
  • Do you see a gap of technical resources in your project? If yes and if you can do the task, dive into it, work beyond your comfort zone, and own the technical task.
  • Work on a prototype code that’s not mission critical.
  • Develop your side project you have been dreaming for years. There are no limits to the possibilities. It could be your pet project to organize your family members list, your investments, your documents, or a simple utility that your family & friends would like to use.
  • Review your progress: Review your development skills progress after six months. Then, follow a quarterly review routine. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
  • Will you be an excellent developer again: You are skilled in communication skills, operational/business skills, and you’re progressing in your development skills. It’s not fair to assess yourself in one dimension. Do what you love to. A better question would be: am I an all-rounder professional who loves development as the core skill set?
  • By now, you failed many times: But. You already made a decision. Don’t look back. Stay on the journey. You’ll succeed if you don’t give up.

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