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How to become an effective software development manager and team leader: Tips and advice from Drupal founder Dries Buytaert

Dr. Dries Buytaert, creator of Drupal and co-founder and CTO of Acquia, offers his first-hand advice for developers who are going from writing code everyday to managing projects and people.

Successfully transitioning from writing code everyday to managing projects and people, can be a challenge and takes skills that not everyone starts off with, but can learn and develop over time. On this episode of Dynamic Developer, I talkd with someone who’s made the jump from coder to software engineering leader, Dr. Dries Buytaert. As the founder and project lead of Drupal, Dries has certainly written a lot of code. But he’s also the founder and CTO of Acquia, a company that offers software and services built around Drupal and has been recognized as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.

How to overcome the challenges of moving into engineering management

Bill Detwiler: So Dries, you’ve taken a career path that I think many develops and engineers take. From coder to a project manager lead and eventually now to an executive position, right? I mean, maybe most devs won’t become a CTO or co-found a company like you have, but they do make that transition from daily coding into management. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges maybe that developers and engineers, coders face when they transition from a coder to someone who manages people and projects?

Dries Buytaert: Yeah. That’s a good question. I mean, I can talk about my experience. I don’t know if it’s universal for every developer that transitions into a manager, but I’ve done a couple of different things, right? So maybe I can you a little bit of the context first, but I was an engineer by education and then ended up started an Open Source project called Drupal, which actually has grown to be one of the larger Open Source projects in the world. That actually taught me quite a bit about management, but I also started a company called Acquia, build around Drupal and that has grown to over a thousand people actually. So I’ve definitely went through the… I’m an individual developer working in my basement on an Open Source project and then seeing Drupal take off and see Acquia take off.

People ask me this question from time to time and… what advice would you have? One of the things that I sometimes answer and it’s a little bit purposely controversial. When you say that to developers, but I usually give them the advice to learn sales and marketing. Sometimes, there is a little bit of an adverse reaction to sales and marketing, right? Which is why I say it that way, but if you think about what it means to be a manager or to be a founder of a company, so much of your time is spent selling and marketing, and maybe a better word would be communicating. But when you start your company, you have to convince investors to give you money. That was hard. Then when you have the money, you need to convince other engineers to join your company. Then once they’ve joined your company, you need to sell them on the vision of the company and where we’re going. Then you need to start getting customers, is what you’re doing now. Trying to convince and sell and market to prospects to try and convince them to become customers.

“All of a sudden, you need to learn how to recruit people and how to manage people and how to deal with poor performers. All of these things I had to learn on the way.” Dries Buytaert, founder of Drupal and founder and CTO of Acquia

So for me, the thing that I had to learn the most, because I was… and I still am actually an introvert. I had to really learn how to communicate well I guess, in a way that is convincing and maybe inspiring to people, and please investors, customers and so I think being a manager… it’s learning about leadership and communication. Listen, but also lay out the vision and where you’re going and the plans, so these are things that I had to learn. I had to learn them two times too. Once in Drupal an then once at Acquia and my leadership style is actually a little bit different in both. Because the way you lead an Open Source project is more about inspiration if you will. The way you lead a company, you’re a little bit more direct, right? You can serve… this is what we’re going to do and everybody says, “Okay.” I’m simplifying, but in Open Source it’s a different story. It’s like, “Here’s what I think we should do.” Then hopefully people will follow.

Even in a company, people have to follow obviously, but it’s… there’s nuances. I had to learn that actually because when I started Acquia, I’d been doing Drupal for seven years. I had to adjust a little bit. Anyway.

How to learn the right leadership skills

Bill Detwiler: Is there anything you wish you’d known, but besides learning those learning how to sell yourself, learning how to sell your product, learning how to sell your company, or just convince people and inspire people. Is there anything you wish you’d known back then that you know now?

Dries Buytaert: A thousand things, yeah. There’s a long list of things. I mean, like how to manage, how to hire. I mean, all of these things that you learn. Once you’re promoted to a manager, you tend to be a hiring manager too.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah.

Dries Buytaert: All of a sudden, you need to learn how to recruit people and how to manage people and how to deal with poor performers. All of these things I had to learn on the way.

Bill Detwiler: How did you learn them? I mean, did you just learn from other… did you have mentors that helped you? Did you watch other managers? Did you watch… did you take classes, right? Did you literally go get… take MBA classes. What was the process like for you coming from an engineering background, a PhD then to a more people skill. It’s… I don’t know if you would make the comparison and say, “I come from an engineering background too myself, but I also had a little soft skills.” So they’re equally complicated in their own ways. What was it for you that helped you learn them?

Dries Buytaert: Yeah, I learned-

Bill Detwiler: The schemes.

Must-read developer content

Dries Buytaert: I learn by doing, and I learn from others. So first of all, I don’t think anyone is born with these skills. I mean, some people are better communicators than other people, but a lot of the things that you actually have to learn like how to manage somebody, how to… the good news is it can be learned and the way I learned it is by doing and getting better every time I did it. But I was also fortunate that I was able to surround myself with really great people every step along the way, both in Drupal and at Acquia frankly. So surrounding yourself with experienced managers, or experienced leaders is very helpful and fast tracks that learning, right? You can see, “Oh, here’s how this person does it and here’s how she does that. So you can take those thins from them and apply them to your own team let’s say.

So I think learning from others is the fastest way to learn. I don’t think there’s classes. I’m sure there’s classes around this, but I have never gone to formal classes. Just by doing.

Bill Detwiler: Do you think… how important is it also do you think, because I hear you describing yourself as being very observant. Saying, “I think I want to get better at this. So I’m going to attack this like any other project. I’m going to watch people who have more experience, or it seems to be working better for them, or they seem to be getting the result I wanted. So you were open and receptive to learning that, whereas I know a lot of managers maybe, or people that don’t succeed at that maybe aren’t as open, or they think they know best, or they think, “I can manage both of these organizations the same way, and I’ll have the same results.” They don’t try to change, or they don’t do that. That to me sounds like something you did. Maybe it’s just inherent to your nature, but it sounds like something other people could learn.

If you’re not willing to make any changes and accept that, “I don’t know how to do this. I’m going to watch this and learn from them.” That’s going to set people up for a bad experience. To really not succeed at that.

Dries Buytaert: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I agree. If you’re a person and you think like you know it all… I mean, that’s arrogance, right? Nobody knows it all. I think everybody keeps learning. I hope I can be a lifelong learner. That’s actually rewarding to me, so… there is no such thing as being a perfect manager. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, and everybody ha opportunities to learn and get better. So I think you definitely need to have the learning mentality. I personally love learning and I learn by observing. I learn by reading. Actually, what I did do a lot is read books and I still read a lot of books on management and all sorts of things, right? Yeah, I think… keep leaning, that’s part of the fun to me. Ask for feedback too. I think that’s something that I try to do, especially at Acquia. I just ask for feedback.

What can I do better? What can I do more of? And I think that’s healthy to have dialogues with the people that you manage and I think I learn from that as well.

SEE: Tips for building and advancing your leadership career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

How to prioritize your tasks to make the biggest impact each day

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. So I have to ask, do you still have time to write code these days? I mean, with everything you’re doing with Drupal and at Acquia and traveling around. Do you still get a time to go back to your roots a little bit, write some code?

Dries Buytaert: I do. Not a lot, but I will tell you, I miss coding. I think about it almost everyday actually. But I prioritize it lower than a lot of other things that I do. Literally, when I wake up I try to think, “What should I do today that has the biggest impact on Drupal and Acquia?” It’s almost never coding for me, unfortunately. I secretly hope it would be one day it’s like, “Wow, go code. Go write this piece of code.” But it usually involves unblocking other people or teams, or helping to fundraise for the Drupal Association right now.

So the coding is often reserved for evenings and weekends. I like to dabble with code still. I like to work on things. Even my own website, my blog, I build it. I maintain it. I write some custom extensions for it. I like to learn new technology, so yeah. I still do some coding, but it’s more on the edge versus the core systems of Drupal or something.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. Well Dries, I think that’s a great place to end it, because I think that is a great piece of advice that ties into what you said earlier about lifelong learning. Where can folks go to learn more about Acquia, learn more about Drupal and read your blog, which is excellent by the way.

Dries Buytaert: Thank you. Well Acquia, our website is probably the best way. That’s Drupal is D-R-U-P-A-L. By the way, never let me name anything going forward and then my name, my blog is just my name. It’s D-R-I.E-S. So That’s my blog.

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