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There is much written on the subject of engineering leaders and whether they need to maintain the technical skills that got them into those leadership positions. I use the term “leaders” to include architects, managers and in some cases directors. Some sources claim that leaders need to let go of their “old skills” or forever be weighed down by them in their new role. Other sources say that leaders need to keep their skills and still deliver some amount of software for the company. [1] [2]

I think a hybrid solution is best here, although it is much more demanding on the leader. I think an engineering leader must keep their technical skills current but do so outside of their managerial and leadership responsibilities required at their job. This means that the manager should treat their technical skills as a passionate hobby instead of an old habit. This burdens the leader with effectively two jobs, but if the leader enjoys technology then this is a labor of love.

Staying technically competent requires some amount of recent software development experience. Designing and writing software is a perishable skill that must be refreshed. A side project can serve as that refreshment in addition to a healthy dose of technical reading. Cloud providers make it easy to spin up clusters of machines and test out ideas at scale for minimal cost.

Personally, this hands-on experience gives me (as a engineering leader) more credibility in technical discussions held within my team and my organization. Plus, there is evidence that if your boss could do your job, you’re more likely to be happy at work which is vital for workplace engagement and productivity. Current software development experience gives me the ability to hire top-notch engineers as my recruiting pitch is far more comprehensive than a non-technical leader. For these reasons, I believe engineering leaders should make every effort to maintain their technical knowledge and abilities as they move into management and leadership.