To Management and Back
Have you switched to management at some point in your career and regretted it a while later?
After over 3 months back in Engineering and more than 5 months after having deleted LinkedIn, I thought it’s time to write a little post about how it’s been, which assumptions held true, and which didn’t. For me, deleting LinkedIn went hand in hand with going back to Engineering. When I was still on LinkedIn, I was invested in a financially growing career and afraid of missing out on important connections. After all, two thirds of my network of people were either peers, mentees I had taught over the years, or senior management and executives. The downside of having several connections in high positions is that you are also more confronted with burnouts, depression, failed relationship stories, and layoffs.
After managing reports across six time zones and therefore being available basically 24/7, I switched companies, switched again, and simply couldn’t find a healthy way of spending my work time with work and then doing something else outside of work. If someone in my team is angry at someone else or if something isn’t working as intended, I am unable to just “turn it off”. I will practically obsess over it until it’s fixed. This is a great trademark for an engineer, but terrible for your sanity if you’re managing ten people, of which at least 2-3 are always going to have some problem that involves some form of guidance or intervention.
Increasingly, I realized that I’d much rather have just one problem than three at once. I prefer filling out five tickets asking for access to seven different systems than preparing for and then leading the hard conversations. No more telling one person that they’re not getting a bonus this quarter because they underperformed or pondering how to phrase that someone is a brilliant jerk and then working together on changing that while dealing with the avalanche of complaints from all sides during the process.
Moving away from LinkedIn for me meant that I gave up on my last social media platform and my last “public persona”. This also meant that I had to make a short list of people informing them personally that I am from now on only reachable via good old phone number or e-mail. Moving away from management for me meant that I am accepting a lower salary and less “authority”. So what did I gain in exchange, if anything? Let’s go through the assumptions of what it means to move back to Engineering from a management position in a corporation.
More productivity and focus time: True. You will get more focus time as you have less meetings and it’s much more acceptable to skip the ones where you’re not needed. Your manager does not have the same luxury. It’s up to you how you use that time for productivity, though.
More time in general: True. It’s really nice to just turn off and not be bothered by the late pings, swooshes, plocks, and whistles. If you’re not working in a team with an on call rotation, your life suddenly becomes a lot quieter and it’s glorious.
Less politics: True. I know some of you might disagree as there is a whole lot of politics in open source, in closed source, in inner source, between teams and how they organize code. Code reviews, code organization, and architecture can become as political and toxic a discussion as any management round. The stakes are lower, though, and you’re less likely to get fired if you suggest a different piece of the architecture than if you suggest a different way to manage people or change the company structure. You’re also much less replaceable as a good engineer than you are as a good manager.
Less money: True, but it also depends. If you’re working in a large company, there usually is a good engineering track where you can keep getting promoted and your salary will rise in accordance with your specializations and understanding of the company strategy and products.
Less authority and decision making powers: It depends. I don’t feel any less or more powerful than as a manager. Show me the code is a wonderful sentiment, but it only works in Engineering, when you’re honing your craft and not becoming complacent in your day-to-day work. If you’re not coding regularly, the ability to just show something instead of talking and strategizing about it is limited. Something to show usually wins. As an engineer, you have plenty of ways to convince your managers that one way is better than another, especially if you’re able to rally your team or, even better, other teams around your idea.
Shame: It depends. If you’re a person who’s easily feeling like an outcast or doesn’t like to be the odd one out, you’ll have a hard time doing what feels like a downgrade to most people. You have to do it for an actually good reason - both going to management and going back if it turns out it’s draining you. I went to management because I thought I can’t be as good as some brilliant people I met along the way. It was frustrating for me to see them code out things in half an hour that I knew I’d probably need a week to write. I didn’t have good role models back then and engineering culture was much worse ten years ago than it is nowadays. So I gave up on engineering and did program management, people management, and similar roles instead. For a while, I was content just helping other people, raising their profile, and helping them to their next promotion.
Loss of valuable time and career: False. You’re infinitely worth more to the market if you have specialized skills as there will be less of you. If you fire a CEO or CTO somewhere, the next one is already waiting. Try to fill the position for a Distinguished Engineer, though, and the queue is getting a lot shorter. Even if you lose ten years on management and then go back to Engineering, as long as you can live with a smaller salary and less pronounced authority, it will be worth it in time and mental hygiene for yourself - depending on where your personal goals and ambitions lie.
If you are thinking of switching away from or to Engineering, you’ve probably considered all these points already. Good luck in your next adventure and don’t forget to write up your own experiences somewhere!