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What are the possibilities for senior engineers and their career paths?

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Time for a change

I’d just been promoted to Senior Engineering Manager, but had a nagging feeling something was amiss. Staring at the career ladder for my organization, I knew I’d need to become ‘more strategic’ to make the transition to Director  –  a magical quality measured primarily by the ability to set technical strategy and influence management peers to march our teams in a common direction.

But how could I be sure of my chosen strategic direction if I hadn’t written a line of code in at least 12 months, and was perpetually drained from dealing with everything but the code? My empathetic side couldn’t face the thought of having to write another performance review. It was time to change things up again.

Over the last ten years, I’ve moved  – sometimes deliberately, sometimes out of necessity (as an immigrant on a work visa)  – between individual contribution and management. My approach to career development is focused on seeking out new experiences in roles, company sizes, and levels I haven’t tried yet. Continual learning and avoiding ‘getting too comfortable’  is key,  and after multiple iterations, I’m convinced this approach holds significant value.

I was thrilled to learn of the Engineer/Manager Pendulum and that I wasn’t alone in this pursuit.

‘We don’t talk about this nearly enough: the immense breadth and strength that accrues to engineers who make a practice of going back and forth.’

Charity Majors, The Engineer/Manager Pendulum

Important considerations

Below, I outline some thoughts for managers considering a return to working as an individual contributor (IC).

Your skills are no longer up-to-date. Even if you have been a relatively ‘hands-on’ manager, there will be aspects of your skills that are now outdated. You will need to study recent updates to your preferred language and ensure you understand them well in order to pass specialist interviews (such as for my chosen field,  iOS). This will take time, effort, and planning ahead of a job search. You will be humbled by the details you’ve forgotten. You won’t feel fully competent for many months after restarting development full-time. While take-home interviews can be problematic if not structured well, I found that these were my preferred method to demonstrate skill. They allowed me to avoid worrying about appearing ‘rusty’ while interviewing or moving at a slower pace through a technical exercise.

You will need to tell your career story with confidence. When interviewing, my now non-traditional path was noticeably confusing to some interviewers. Some assumed I was not an experienced engineer, or had not been an effective manager. Being very prepared for technical interviews, and being able to clearly articulate why I was seeking this specific role in this specific organization was important for navigating this conversation.

You will usually earn less as an individual contributor. Managers are usually paid more than their reports. When interviewing, however, you as a current manager have the benefit of access to data that individual contributors do not usually get to see. In my most recent job search, I was told my salary expectations as an IC were unrealistic by a number of companies, though I had seen higher numbers paid out to people that worked for me in the past. Beware the company that confirms you passed interviews for management and individual contributor roles, but then makes you an offer for the latter only, with no additional reasoning provided.

You will need to re-learn how to influence without authority. Good managers do not consciously rely on their authority to influence, but it is easy to forget that a power imbalance still exists in a managerial relationship. Influencing as an incoming engineer relies upon building up trust from scratch with a large number of peers. Depending on the organization, titles may aid this or make the situation worse; invest in the process as much as when you were a manager and get to know people around you.

You will notice team problems that are no longer your sole responsibility to fix. You will likely have strong perspectives on process or team structure issues that you have solved before in a different organizational context. Flagging these and sharing your perspective is important, but becoming deeply involved with them is not. Remember that while you’re being consulted, the final decision is no longer yours.

You may now be reporting to someone with less experience than you, or less experiencing managing overall. Reporting to someone with less experience than you becomes increasingly likely as you progress in your career. This scenario can be a setup for a great relationship provided communication is effective and you avoid undue influence on management-specific subjects. 

I strive to be an ‘easy’ (read: self-sufficient) report while being frank with feedback on technical and non-technical issues affecting the team. One technique I have found useful in 1:1s is to state when I’m sharing thoughts on an issue I’m noticing, rather than requesting specific action be taken. The hope is that this allows the manager to hear an issue without expecting them to move it to the top of their priority list.

You will need to learn to manage your time on a Maker’s schedule. Because you will be subject to significantly fewer meetings, it can be tempting to attend meetings that have no material impact on your now-primary job :  to deliver quality software. Your meeting tolerance will likely be higher than for your engineering peers. Make yourself available to managers and ICs alike when problems arise, but block your calendar to prevent meeting creep, especially if it’s self-inflicted due to curiosity.

Be specific. In managerial roles, I notice myself abstracting issue details significantly when describing them, for efficiency and to make them easier to remember and re-communicate. While summarizing a problem at a high level can be a useful introduction to presenting it, don’t forget to bring the specifics to the conversation as an individual contributor. Your notebook and sufficient depth of understanding of the issue to allow people to dig into the details will be expected.

You will be overjoyed at the chance to stretch your technical brain. If this is the right decision for you, it will feel amazing to deliver software again. For me, the satisfaction of solving tricky bugs remains unmatched.

Future plans

While thoroughly enjoying my current engineering role, I can imagine a move back to management in a future pendulum iteration  – perhaps even to reach the elusive Director position.

Moving between managerial and individual contributor roles isn’t yet a standard in tech, but my hope is that this will change in the next decade. Encouraging a commitment to life-long learning and development and a true respect for the difficulties inherent in each position, in my view, will only create healthier workplaces.

For managers considering a return to individual contribution work, please be assured that like most other endeavors, with enough time, patience, and planning, this can be a very rewarding switch.