Is Your Manager Responsible for Your Career?

A few years back, I wrote an essay about the best and worst tech interview questions and I dare say that you may find some of the suggestions valuable today. However, in re-reading that essay recently, my attention came to a screeching halt when I encountered this paragraph, which is ostensibly about the often-considered-lame question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Mark asks the five-year question, too. Like others, he wants to know if the candidate has given thought to her career. But he also sees it as part of his managerial responsibility. "There is an important role 90%+ managers abdicate: managing your employee's career! I ask because I need to know how to progress their career. This, of course, is not my only query on the subject, but it's helpful to understand how they will evolve with the team."

For the moment, let's sidestep whether that's a useful question to ask during a job interview, and whether the answers help either the interviewer or the developer make a better decision about if this person is a good "fit." Besides, I've written plenty recently on useful questions to ask in job interviews.

Rather, what I question is whether Mark's attitude represents your own experience as a developer and as a manager. Do you believe that it's part of your manager's role to pay attention to your career, and to provide mentoring that helps you move to the next stage — whatever that might be? Or do you figure that as long as the paycheck arrives, you don't need the advice of any pointy-haired boss about how to run your life?

I suppose that there isn't any one right answer; as with so many other things, it's a matter of finding a fit between what you want in a manager and what you get. A manager that one developer perceives as supportive and encouraging might come across as rudely invasive to someone else. And, too, there's all sorts of behavior that falls under the "guide my people" umbrella, from micro-lessons in how to improve your skills (that is, sharing experience, which can happen as part of a code review) to a casual suggestion that the developer get extra training in a new technology (not to mention providing a budget for it) to explicit one-on-one conversations that start with a question like, "Where do you want to be in five years?" (sincerely meant, without it sounding like a lame job interview).

But this presupposes that your manager's advice is welcome and worthwhile. If you work for an idiot, his suggestions about what to do with your career may make you choose the opposite. Even if your boss is decent, it doesn't mean you should accept her suggestions; the prototypical example is a former developer who went into management and imagines that's the right career path for everyone else, too. Advice is only advice, and it's worth what you paid for it.

In general, I've been lucky. I've reported to several people who gave me the mentoring I wanted, either at a day-to-day level ("Here's one way to make your articles a little better..") or with specific career advice ("I really think you should speak at this industry conference"). I didn't necessarily follow their advice, but it was always worth considering. I've had several no-op managers who at best could be described as "mostly harmless," and just a few absolute jerks. The jerks never bothered to offer advice (not that I'd have taken it), and as I think of it, the perfectly nice managers who didn't change my life... didn't try to. I'm not sure if it's wise to generalize from my own experience, though.

I know plenty of developers who might be offended by managers who believe it's part of their role to offer career guidance. What's your opinion? I created a handy poll to make it easy to compare notes, but I think there's plenty of opportunity to share viewpoints.

You probably should follow me on Twitter. Because, y'know, you just should.

This story, "Is Your Manager Responsible for Your Career?" was originally published by JavaWorld.


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