Twin Anxieties of the Engineer/Manager Pendulum

I have written a lot about the pendulum swing between engineering and management, so I often hear from people who are angsting about the transition.

A quick recap of the relevant posts:

There are two anxieties I hear people express above all the rest.

The first one is something I hear over and over again, particularly from first-time managers as they contemplate the possibility of leaving management and returning to IC (individual contributor) work as an engineer:

“What if I never get another shot at people management?”
“Maybe this is the only chance I’ll ever get … and I’m about to give it up??”
“Am I going to regret this?”

“Will I ever get another shot at management?”

People decide to go back to engineering for lots of reasons. Maybe they’re burned out, or they work someplace with a poisonous management culture, or they’re having a kid and want to return to a role that feels more comfortable for a while. Or maybe they’ve been managing teams for a few years now, and have decided it’s time to go back to the well and refresh their technical skills in the interest of their long-term employability.

Regardless, these are not typically people who disliked being a manager. Rather they tend to be engineers who really enjoyed people management, and find it bittersweet to give up. Maybe they will miss the strategic elements and roadmap work, but they’re excited to clear their calendar and spend time in flow again, or they will miss having 1x1s but can’t wait to have time to mentor people. Whatever. They want to manage teams again someday, and worry they won’t get another chance.

Their anxiety is understandable! Lots of people feel like they waited a long time to be tapped for management, or like they were passed over again and again. Our cultural scripts about management definitely contribute to this sense of scarcity and diminution of agency (i.e. that management is a promotion, it is bestowed on you by your “superiors” as a reward for your performance, and it is pushy or improper to openly seek the role for yourself).

This anxiety is also, in my experience, ridiculously misplaced. ☺️

Once a manager, marked for life as a manager

You may have struggled to get your first opportunity to manage a team. But it’s a whole different story once you’ve done the job. Now you have the skills and the experience, and people can smell it on you.

I’m not joking. If you’re a good manager it’s actually nearly impossible to hide that you have the skills, because of the way it infuses your work and everything that you do as an IC. You get better at prioritization, more attuned to the needs of the business, and restless about work that doesn’t materially move the business forward. You get better at asking questions about why things need to be done and at communicating with stakeholders. You get better at motivating the people you work with, understanding their motivations and your own, and mediating conflicts or putting a damper on drama between peers. People come to you for advice and may seem to just do what you say, or go where you point.

Senior engineers with management experience are worth their weight in gold. They are valuable contributors and influential teammates. It’s a palpable shift! And every experienced manager in their vicinity will sense it.

So yes, you will be tapped for management again. And again and again and again. You are more likely to spend the rest of your career fending off management “opportunities” with a baseball bat than you are to wither away, pining for another shot.

There is a chronic shortage of good engineering managers, just like there is a chronic shortage of good, empathetic managers in every line of work. The challenge you will face from now on will not be about getting the chance to manage a team, but about being intentional and firm in carving out the time you need to recover and recharge your skills as an engineer.

“Am I too rusty to go back to engineering?”

The second anxiety is in some ways a mirror of the first:

“Can I still perform as an engineer?”
“Will anyone hire me for an engineering role?”
“Has it been too long, am I too rusty, will I be able to pull my weight?”

This is a more materially valid concern than the first one, in my opinion. Your engineering skills do wither and erode as time goes on. It will take longer and longer to refresh your skills the longer you go without using them. Management skills don’t decay in the same way that technical ones do, nor do they go out of date every few years as languages, frameworks and technologies tend to do.

If you aren’t interested in climbing the ladder and becoming a director or VP — or rather, if you aren’t actively, successfully climbing the ladder — you should have a strategy for keeping your hands-on skills sharp, because your ability to be a strong line manager is grounded in your own engineering skills.

Never, ever accept a managerial role until you are already solidly senior as an engineer. To me this means at least seven years or more writing and shipping code; definitely, absolutely no less than five. It may feel like a compliment when someone offers you the job of manager — hell, take the compliment 🙃 — but they are not doing you any favors when it comes to your career or your ability to be effective.

When you accept your first manager job, I think you should make a commitment to yourself to stick it out for two years. That’s how long it takes to rewire your instincts and synapses, to learn enough that you can tell whether you’re doing a good job or not.

After two or three years of management, it’s still pretty easy to go back to engineering. After five years, it gets progressively harder. But it can be done. And it should be worth it to your employer to invest in keeping you while you refresh your skills over the six months or whatever it may take. Insist on it, if you must. It’s better to refresh your skills while employed, on a system and codebase you’re familiar with, than to find yourself struggling to brush up enough to pass a coding interview.

Engineering fluency == job security

There is one more reason to refresh your engineering skills from time to time, one I don’t often see mentioned, and that is job security and optionality.

The higher you go up the ladder, the more money you will get paid…but the fewer jobs there be, and the fewer still that match your profile.

As a senior software engineer, there are fifteen bajillion job openings for you. Everyone wants to hire you. You can get a new job in a matter of days, no matter how picky you want to be about location, flexibility, technologies, product types, whatever. You’ve reached Peak Hire.

If you are looking for management roles, there will be an order of magnitude fewer opportunities (and more idiosyncratic hiring criteria), but still plenty for the most part. But for every step up the ladder you go, the opportunities drop by another order of magnitude, and the scrutiny becomes much more intense and particular. If you’re looking for VP roles, it may take months to find a place you want to work at, and then they might not choose you. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Maintaining your technical chops is a stellar way to hedge against uncertainties and maintain your optionality.

 

Twin Anxieties of the Engineer/Manager Pendulum

One thought on “Twin Anxieties of the Engineer/Manager Pendulum

  1. I love this series! After your previous post about reasons not to want to be a manager, I realized I needed to change. I have 15+ years plus experience as an engineer, and now a few years of experience managing various types of teams. I’m now going to transition to the role of enterprise architect, I feel like I have all the options now, I could go back to managing anytime, or I can have fun on the technical side. And as an EA I’ll be able to put a lot of skills that I picked up as a manager to good use.

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