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 smellit 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.
One of my stretch goals for 2019 was to start writing an advice column. I get a lot of questions about everything under the sun: observability, databases, career advice, management problems, what the best stack is for a startup, how to hire and interview, etc. And while I enjoy this, having a high opinion of my own opinions and all, it doesn’t scale as well as writing essays. I do have a (rather all-consuming) day job.
So I’d like to share some of the (edited and lightly anonymized) questions I get asked and some of the answers I have given. With permission, of course. And so, with great appreciation to my anonymous correspondent for letting me publish this, here is one.
I’ve been in tech for 25 years. I don’t have a degree, but I worked my way up from menial jobs to engineering, and since then I have worked on some of the biggest sites in the world. I have been offered a management role many times, but every time I refused. Until about two years ago, when I said “fuck it, I’m almost 40; why not try.”
I took the job with boundless enthusiasm and motivation, because the team was honestly a mess. We were building everything on-prem, and ops was constantly bullying developers over their supposed incompetence. I had gone to conferences, listened to podcasts, and read enough blog posts that my head was full of “DevOps/CloudNative/ServiceOriented//You-build-it-you-run-it/ServantLeaders” idealism. I knew I couldn’t make it any worse, and thought maybe, just maybe I could even make it better.
Soon after I took the job, though, there were company-wide layoffs. It was not done well, and morale was low and sour. People started leaving for happier pastures. But I stayed. It was an interesting challenge, and I threw my heart and soul into it.
For two years I have stayed and grinded it out: recruiting (oh that is so hard), hiring, and then starting a migration to a cloud provider, and with the help of more and more people on the new team, slowly shifted the mindset of the whole engineering group to embrace devops best practices. Now service teams own their code in production and are on-call for them, migrate themselves to the cloud with my team supporting them and building tools for them. It is almost unrecognizable compared to where we were when I began managing.
A beautiful story isn’t it? I hope you’re still reading. 🙂
Now I have to say that with my schedule full of 1:1s, budgeting, hiring, firing, publishing papers of mission statements and OKRs, shaping the teams, wielding influence, I realized that I enjoyed none of the above. I read your 17 reasons not to be a manager, and I check so many boxes. It is a pain in the ass to constantly listen to people’s egos, talk to them and keep everybody aligned (which obviously never happens). And of course I am being crushed between top-down on-the-spot business decisions and bottom-up frustration of poorly executed engineering work under deadlines. I am also destroyed by the mistrust and power games I am witnessing (or involved in, sometimes). while I long for collaboration and trust. And of course when things go well my team gets all the praise, and when things go wrong I take all the blame. I honestly don’t know how one can survive without the energy provided by praise and a sense of achievement.
All of the above makes me miss being an IC (Individual Contributor), where I could work for 8 hours straight without talking to anyone, build stuff, say what I wanted when I wanted, switch jobs if I wasn’t happy, and basically be a little shit like the ones you mention in your article.
But when I think about doing it, I get stuck. I don’t know if I would be able to do it again, or if I could still enjoy it. I’ve seen too many things, I’ve tasted what it’s like to be (sometimes) in control, and I did have a big impact on the company’s direction over time. I like that. If I went back to being an IC, I would feel small and meaningless, like just another cog in the machine. And of course, being 40-ish, I will compete with all those 20-something smartasses who were born with kubernetes.
Thank you for reading. Could you give me your thoughts on this? In any case, it was good to get it off my chest.
Holy shitballs! What an amazing story! That is an incredible achievement in just two years, let alone as a rookie manager. You deserve huge props for having the vision, the courage, and the tenacity to drive such a massive change through.
Of COURSE you’re feeling bored and restless. You didn’t set out on a glorious quest for a life of updating mission statements and OKRs, balancing budgets, tending to people’s egos and fluffing their feelings, tweaking job descriptions, endless 1x1s and meetings meetings meetings, and the rest of the corporate middle manager’s portfolio. You wanted something much bigger. You wanted to change the world. And you did!
But now you’ve done it. What’s next?
First of all, YOUR COMPANY SUCKS. You don’t once mention your leadership — where are they in all this? If you had a good manager, they would be encouraging you and eagerly lining up a new and bigger role to keep you challenged and engaged at work. They are not, so they don’t deserve you. Fuck em. Please leave.
Another thing I am hearing from you is, you harbor no secret desire to climb the managerial ranks at this time. You don’t love the daily rhythms of management (believe it or not, some do); you crave novelty and mastery and advancement. It sounds like you are willing to endure being a manager, so long as that is useful or required in order to tackle bigger and harder problems. Nothing wrong with that! But when the music stops, it’s time to move on. Nobody should be saddled with a manager whose heart isn’t in the work.
You’re at the two year mark. This is a pivotal moment, because it’s the beginning of the end of the time when you can easily slip back into technical work. It will get harder and harder over the next 2-3 years, and at some point you will no longer have the option.
Picking up another technical role is the most strategic option, the one that maximizes your future opportunities as a technical leader. But you do not seem excited by this option; instead you feel many complex and uncomfortable things. It feels like going backwards. It feels like losing ground. It feels like ceding status and power.
“Management isn’t a promotion, it’s a career change.”
But if management is not a promotion, then going back to an engineering role should not feel like a demotion! What the fuck?!
It’s one thing to say that. Whether it’s true or not is another question entirely, a question of policy and org dynamics. The fact is that in most places, most of the power does go to the managers, and management IS a promotion. Power flows naturally away from engineers and towards managers unless the org actively and vigorously pushes back on this tendency by explicitly allocating certain powers and responsibilities to other roles.
I’m betting your org doesn’t do this. So yeah, going back to being an IC WILL be a step down in terms of your power and influence and ability to set the agenda. That’s going to feel crappy, no question. We humans hate that.
You cannot go back to doing exactly what you did before, for the very simple reason that you are not the same person. You are going to be attuned to power dynamics and ways of influencing that you never were before — and remember, leadership is primarily exercised through influence, not explicit authority.Senior ICs who have been managers are supremely powerful beings, who tend to wield outsize influence. Smart managers will lean on them extensively for everything from shadow management and mentorship to advice, strategy, etc. (Dumb managers don’t. So find a smart manager who isn’t threatened by your experience.)
You’re a short-timer here, remember? Your company sucks. You’re just renewing your technical skills and pulling a paycheck while finding a company that will treat you better, that is more aligned with your values.
Lastly (and most importantly), I have a question. Why did you need to become a manager in order to drive sweeping technical change over the past two years? WHY couldn’t you have done it as a senior IC? Shouldn’t technical people be responsible for technical decisions, and people managers responsible for people decisions? Could this be your next challenge, or part of it? Could you go back to being an engineer, equipped with your shiny new powers of influence and mystical aura of recent management experience, and use it to organize the other senior ICs to assert their rightful ownership over technical decisions? Could you use your newfound clout with leadership and upper management to convince them that this will help them recruit and retain better talent, and is a better way to run a technical org — for everyone?
I believe this is a better way, but I have only ever seen these changes happen when agitated for and demanded by the senior ICs. If the senior ICs don’t assert their leadership, managers are unlikely to give it to them. If managers try, but senior ICs don’t inhabit their power, eventually the managers just shrug and go back to making all the decisions. That is why ultimately this is a change that must be driven and owned — at a minimum co-owned — by the senior individual contributors.
I hope you can push back against that fear of being small and meaningless as an individual contributor. The fact that it very often is this way, especially in strongly hierarchical organizations, does not mean that it has to be this way; and in healthy organizations it is not this way. Command-and-control systems are not conducive to creative flourishing. We have to fight the baggage of the authoritarian structures we inherited in order to make better ones.
Organizations are created afresh each and every day — not created for us, but by us. Help create the organization you want to work at, where senior people are respected equally and have domains of ownership whether they manage people or technology. If your current gig won’t value that labor, find one that will..
They exist. And they want to hire you.
Lots of companies are DYING to hire this kind of senior IC, someone who is still hands on yet feels responsibility for the team as a whole, who knows the business side, who knows how to mentor and craft a culture and can herd cats when nec
There are companies that know how to use ICs at the strategic level, even executive level. There are bosses who will see you not as a threat, but as a *huge asset* they can entrust with monumental work.
As a senior contributor who moves fluidly between roles, you are especially well-equipped to help shape a sociotechnical organization. Could you make it your mission to model the kind of relationship you want to see between management and ICs, whichever side you happen to be on? We need more people figuring out how to build organizations where management is not a promotion, just a change of career, and where going back and forth carries no baggage about promotions and demotions. Help us.
And when you figure it out, please don’t keep it to yourself. Expand your influence and share your findings by writing your experiences in blog posts, in articles, in talks. Tell stories. Show people people how much better it is this way. Be so magnificently effective and mysteriously influential as a senior IC that all the baby engineers you work with want to grow up to be just like you.
Hope this helps.
P.S. — Oh and stop fretting about “competing” with the 20-somethings kuberneteheads, you dork. You have been learning shit your whole career and you’ll learn this shit too. The tech is the easy part. The tech will always be the easy part. 🙂
Over a year and a half ago, I wrote up a post about the rights and responsibilities due any engineer at Honeycomb. At the time we were in the middle of a growth spurt, had just hired several new engineers, and I was in the process of turning over day-to-day engineering management over to Emily. Writing things down helped me codify what I actually cared about, and helped keep us true to our principles as we grew.
Tacked on to the end of the post was a list of manager responsibilities, almost as an afterthought. Many people protested, “don’t managers get any rights??” (and naturally I snapped “NO! hahahahahha”)
I always intended to circle back and write a followup post with the rights and responsibilities for managers. But it wasn’t til recently, as we are gearing up for another hiring spurt and have expanded our managerial ranks, that it really felt like its time had come.
The time has come, the time is now, as marvin k. mooney once said. Added the bill of rights, and updated and expanded the list of responsibilities. Thanks Emily Nakashima for co-writing it with me.
Manager’s Bill of Rights
You shall receive honest, courageous, timely feedback about yourself and your team, from your reports, your peers, and your leaders. (No one is exempt from feeding the hungry hungry feedback hippo! NOO ONNEEEE!) 🦛🦛🦛🦛🦛🦛🦛
Management will be treated with the same respect and importance as individual work.
You have the final say over hiring, firing, and leveling decisions for your team. It is expected that you solicit feedback from your team and peers and drive consensus where possible. But in the end, the say is yours.
Management can be draining, difficult work, even at places that do it well. You will get tactical, strategic, and emotional support from other managers.
You cannot take care of others unless you first practice self-care. You damn well better take vacations. (Real ones.)
You have the right to personal development, career progression, and professional support. We will retain a leadership coach for you.
You do not have to be a manager if you do not want to. No one will ever pressure you.
Recruit and hire and train your team. Foster a sense of solidarity and “teaminess” as well as real emotional safety.
Cultivate an inclusive culture and redistribute opportunity. Fuck a pedigree. Resist monoculture.
Care for the people on your team. Support them in their career trajectory, personal goals, work/life balance, and inter- and intra-team dynamics.
Keep an eye out for people on other teams who aren’t getting the support they need, and work with your leadership and manager peers to fix the situation.
Give feedback early and often. Receive feedback gracefully. Always say the hard things, but say them with love.
Move us relentlessly forward, staying alert for rabbit-holing and work that doesn’t contribute to our goals. Ensure redundancy/coverage of critical areas.
Own the planning process for your team, be accountable for the goals you set. Allocate resources by communicating priorities and requesting support. Add focus or urgency where needed.
Own your time and attention. Be accessible. Actively manage your calendar. Try not to make your emotions everyone else’s problems (but do lean on your own manager and your peers for support).
Make your own personal growth and self-care a priority. Model the values and traits we want employees to pattern themselves after.
Last night I was out with a dear friend who has been an engineering manager for a year now, and by two drinks in I was rattling off a long list things I always say to newer engineering managers.
Then I remembered: I should write a post! It’s one of my goals this year to write more long form instead of just twittering off into the abyss.
There’s a piece I wrote two years ago, The Engineer/Manager Pendulum, which is probably my all time favorite. It was a love letter to a friend who I desperately wanted to see go back to engineering, for his own happiness and mental health. Well, this piece is a sequel to that one.
It’s primarily aimed at new managers, who aren’t sure what their career options look like or how to evaluate the opportunities that come their way, or how it may expand or shrink their future opportunities.
The first fork in the manager’s path
Every manager reaches a point where they need to choose: do they want to manage engineers (a “line manager”), or do they want to try to climb the org chart? — manage managers, managers of other managers, even other divisions; while being “promoted” from manager to senior manager, director to senior director, all the way up to VP and so forth. Almost everyone’s instinct is to say “climb the org chart”, but we’ll talk about why you should be critical of this instinct.
They also face a closely related question: how technical do they wish to stay, and how badly do they care?
Are you an “engineering MANAGER” or an “ENGINEERING manager”?
These are not unlike the decisions every engineer ends up making about whether to go deep or go broad, whether to specialize or be a generalist. The problem is that both engineers and managers often make these career choices with very little information — or even awareness that they are doing it.
And managers in particular then have a tendency to look up ten years later and realize that those choices, witting or unwitting, have made them a) less employable and b) deeply unhappy.
Lots of people have the mindset that once they become an engineering manager, they should just go from gig to gig as an engineering manager who manages other engineers: that’s who they are now. But this is actually a very fragile place to sit long-term, as we’ll discuss further on in this piece.
But let’s start at to the beginning, so I can speak to those of you who are considering management for the very first time.
“So you want to try engineering management.”
COOL! I think lots of senior engineers should try management, maybe even most senior engineers. It’s so good for you, it makes you better at your job. (If you aren’t a senior engineer, and by that I mean at least 7+ years of engineering experience, be very wary; know this isn’t usually in your best interest.)
Hopefully you have already gathered that management is a career change, not a promotion, and you’re aware that nobody is very good at it when they first start.
That’s okay! It takes a solid year or two to find new rhythms and reward mechanisms before you can even begin to find your own voice or trust your judgment. Management problems look easy, deceptively so. Reasons this is hard include:
Most tech companies are absolutely abysmal at providing any sort of training or structure to help you learn the ropes and find your feet.
Even if they do, you still have to own your own careerdevelopment. If learning to be a good engineer was sort of like getting your bachelor’s, learning to be a good manager is like getting your PhD — much more custom to who you are.
It will exhaust you mentally and emotionally in the weirdest ways for much longer than you think it should. You’ll be tired a lot, and you’ll miss feeling like you’re good at something (anything).
This is because you need to change your habits and practices, which in turn will actually change who you are. This takes time. Which is why …
The minimum tour of duty as a new manager is two years.
If you really want to try being a manager, and the opportunity presents itself, do it! But only if you are prepared to fully commit to a two year long experiment.
Commit to it like a proper career change. Seek out new peers, find new heroes. Bring fresh eyes and a beginner’s mindset. Ask lots of questions. Re-examine every one of your patterns and habits and priorities: do they still serve you? your team?
Don’t even bother thinking about in terms of whether you “enjoy managing” for a while, or trying to figure out if you are are any good at it. Of course you aren’t any good at it yet. And even if you are, you don’t know how to recognize when you’ve succeeded at something, and you haven’t yet connected your brain’s reward systems to your successes. A long stretch of time without satisfying brain drugs is just the price of admission if you want to earn these experiences, sadly.
It takes more than one year to learn management skills and wire up your brain to like it. If you are waffling over the two year commitment, maybe now is not the time. Switching managers too frequently is disruptive to the team, and it’s not fair to make them report to someone who would rather be doing something else or isn’t trying their ass off.
It takes about 3-5 years for your skills to deteriorate.
So you’ve been managing a team for a couple years, and it’s starting to feel … comfortable? Hey, you’re pretty good at this! Yay!
With a couple of years under your belt as a line manager, you now have TWO powerful skill sets. You can build things, AND you can organize people into teams to build even bigger things. Right now, both sets are sharp. You could return to engineering pretty easily, or keep on as a manager — your choice.
But this state of grace doesn’t last very long. Your technical skills stop advancing when you become a manager, and instead begin eroding. Two years in, you aren’t the effective tech lead you once were; your information is out of date and full of gaps, the hard parts are led by other people these days.
More critically, your patterns of mind and habits shift over time, and become those of a manager, not an engineer. Consider how excited an engineer becomes at the prospect of a justifiable greenfield project; now compare to her manager’s glum reaction as she instinctively winces at having to plan for something so reprehensibly unpredictable and difficult to estimate. It takes time to rewire yourself back.
If you like engineering management, your tendency is to go “cool, now I’m a manager”, and move from job to job as an engineering manager, managing team after team of engineers. But this is a trap. It is not a sound long term plan. It leads too many people off to a place they never wanted to end up: technically sidelined.
Why can’t I just make a career out of being a combo tech lead+line manager?
One of the most common paths to management is this: you’re a tech lead, you’re directing ever larger chunks of technical work, doing 1x1s and picking up some of the people stuff, when your boss asks if you’d like to manage the team. “Sure!”, you say, and voila — you are an engineering manager with deep domain expertise.
But if you are doing your job, you begin the process of divesting yourself of technical leadership responsibilities starting immediately. Your own technical development should screech to a halt once you become a manager, because you have a whole new career to focus on learning.
Your job is to leverage that technical expertise to grow your engineers into great senior engineers and tech leads themselves. Your job is not to hog the glory and squat on the hard problems yourself, it’s to empower and challenge and guide your team. Don’t suck up all the oxygen: you’ll stunt the growth of your team.
But your technical knowledge gets dated, and your skills atrophy.. The longer it’s been since you worked as an engineer, the harder it will be to switch back. It gets real hard around three years, and five years seems like a tipping point.
And because so much of your credibility and effectiveness as an engineering leader comes from your expertise in the technology that your team uses every day, ultimately you will be no longer capable of technical leadership, only people management.
On being an “engineering manager” who only does people management
I mean, there’s a reason we don’t lure good people managers away from Starbucks to run engineering teams. It’s the intersection and juxtaposition of skill sets that gives engineering managers such outsize impact.
The great ones can make a large team thrum with energy. The great ones can break down a massive project into projects that challenge (but do not overwhelm) a dozen or more engineers, from new grads to grizzled veterans, pushing everyone to grow. The great ones can look ahead and guess which rocks you are going to die on if you don’t work to avoid them right now.
The great ones are a treasure: and they are rare. And in order to stay great, they regularly need to go back to the well to refresh their own hands-on technical abilities.
There is an enormous demand for technical engineering leaders — far more demand than supply. The most common hackaround is to pair a people manager (who can speak the language and knows the concepts, but stopped engineering ages ago) with a tech lead, and make them collaborate to co-lead the team. This unwieldy setup often works pretty well.
But most of those people managers didn’t want or expect to end up sidelined in this way when they were told to stop engineering.
If you want to be a pure people manager and not do engineering work, and don’t want to climb the ladder or can’t find a ladder to climb, more power to you. I don’t know that I’ve met many of these people in my life. I have met a lot of people in this situation by accident, and they are always kinda angsty and unhappy about it. Don’t let yourself become this person by accident. Please.
Which brings me to my next point.
You will be advised to stop writing code or engineering.
Everybody’s favorite hobby is hassling new managers about whether or not they’ve stopped writing code yet, and not letting up until they say that they have. This is a terrible, horrible, no-good VERY bad idea that seems like it must originally have been a botched repeating of the correct advice, which is:
Stop writing code and engineering
in the critical path
Can you spot the difference? It’s very subtle. Let’s run a quick test:
Authoring a feature? ⛔️
Covering on-call when someone needs a break? ✅
Diving on the biggest project after a post mortem? ⛔️
Code reviews? ✅
Picking up a p2 bug that’s annoying but never seems to become top priority? ✅
Insisting that all commits be gated on their approval? ⛔️
Cleaning up the monitoring checks and writing a library to generate coverage? ✅
The more you can keep your hands warm, the more effective you will be as a coach and a leader. You’ll have a richer instinct for what people need and want from you and each other, which will help you keep a light touch. You will write better reviews and resolve technical disputes with more authority. You will also slow the erosion and geriatric creep of your own technical chops.
I firmly believe every line manager should either be in the on call rotation or pinch hit liberally and regularly, but that’s a different post.
Technical Leadership track
If you love technology and want to remain a subject-matter expert in designing, building and shipping cutting-edge technical products and systems, you cannot afford to let yourself drift too far or too long away from hands-on engineering work. You need to consciously cultivate your path , probably by practicing some form of the engineer/manager pendulum.
If you love managing engineers — if being a technical leader is a part of your identity that you take great pride in, then you must keep up your technical skills and periodically invest in your practice and renew your education. Again: this is simply the price of admission. You need to renew your technical abilities, your habits of mind, and your visceral senses around creating and maintaining systems. There is no way to do this besides doing it. If management isn’t a promotion, then returning to hands-on work isn’t a demotion, either. Right?
One warning: Your company may be great, but it doesn’t exist for your benefit. You and only you can decide what your needs are and advocate for them. Remember that next time your boss tries to guilt you into staying on as manager because you’re so badly needed, when you can feel your skills getting rusty and your effectiveness dwindling. You owe it to yourself to figure out what makes you happy and build a portfolio of experiences that liberate you to do what you love. Don’t sacrifice your happiness at the altar of any company. There are always other companies.
Honestly, I would try not to think of yourself as a manager at all: you are an “engineering leader” performing a tour of duty in management. You’re pursuing a long term strategy towards being a well-respected technologist, someone who can sling code, give informed technical guidance and explain in detail customized for to anyone at any level of sophistication.
Organizational Leadership Track
Most managers assume they want to climb the ladder. Leveling up feels like an achievement, and that can feel impossible to resist.
Resist it. Or at least, resist doing it unthinkingly. Don’t do it because the ladder is there and must be climbed. Know as much as you can about what you’re in for before you decide it’s what you want.
Here are a few reasons to think critically about climbing the ladder to director and executive roles.
Your choices shrink. There are fewer jobs, with more competition, mostly at bigger companies. (Do you even like big companies?)
You basically need to do real time at a big company where they teach effective management skills, or you’ll start from a disadvantage.
Bureaucracies are highly idiosyncratic, skills and relationships may or may not transfer with you between companies. As an engineer you could skip every year or two for greener pastures if you landed a crap gig. An engineer has … about 2-3x more leeway in this regard than an exec does. A string of short director/exec gigs is a career ender or a coach seat straight to consultant life.
You are going to become less employable overall. The ever-higher continuous climb almost never happens, usually for reasons you have no control over. This can be a very bitter pill.
Your employability becomes more about your “likability” and other problematic things. Your company’s success determines the shape of your career much more than your own performance. (Actually, this probably begins the day you start managing people.)
Your time is not your own. Your flaws are no longer cute. You will see your worst failings ripple outward and be magnified and reflected. (Ditto, applies to all leaders but intensifies as you rise.)
You may never feel the dopamine hit of “i learned something, i fixed something, i did something” that comes so freely as an I.C. Some people learn to feel satisfaction from managery things, others never do. Most describe it as a very subdued version of the thrill you get from building things.
You will go home tired every night, unable to articulate what you did that day. You cannot compartmentalize or push it aside. If the project failed for reasons outside your control, you will be identified with the failure anyway.
Nobody really thinks of you as a person anymore, you turn into a totem for them to project shit on. (Things will only get worse if you hit back.) Can you handle that? Are you sure?
It’s pretty much a one-way trip.
Sure, there are compensating rewards. Money, power, impact. But I’m pointing out the negatives because most people don’t stop to consider them when they start saying they want to try managing managers. Every manager says that.
The mere existence of a ladder compels us all to climb.
I know people who have climbed, gotten stuck, and wished they hadn’t. I know people who never realized how hard it would be for them to go back to something they loved doing after 5+ years climbing the ladder farther and farther away from tech. I know some who are struggling their way back, others who have no idea how or where to start. For those who try, it is hard.
You can’t go back and forth from engineering to executive, or even director to manager, in the way you can traverse freely between management and engineering as a technologist.
I just want more of you entering management with eyes wide open. That’s all I’m saying.
If you don’t know what you want, act to maximize your options.
Engineering is a creative act. Managing engineers will require your full attentive and authentic self. You will be more successful if you figure out what that self is, and honor its needs. Try to resist the default narratives about promotions and titles and roles, they have nothing to do with what satisfies your soul. If you have influence, use it to lean hard against things like paying managers more than ICs of the same level.
It’s totally normal not to know who you want to be, or have some passionate end goal. It’s great to live your life and work your work and keep an eye out for interesting opportunities, and see what resonates. It’s awesome when you get asked to step up and opportunistically build on your successes.
If you want a sustainable career in tech, you are going to need to keep learning your whole life. The world is changing much faster than humans evolved to naturally adapt, so you need to stay a little bit restless and unnaturally hungry to succeed in this industry.
The best way to do that is to make sure you a) know yourself and what makes you happy, b) spend your time mostly in alignment with that. Doing things that make you happy give you energy. Doing things that drain you are antithetical to your success. Find out what those things are, and don’t do them.
Don’t be a martyr, don’t let your spending habits shackle you, and don’t build things that trouble your conscience.
And have fun.
Yours in inverting $(allthehierarchies),
 Important point: I am not saying you can’t pick up the skills and patience to practice engineering again. You probably can! But employers are extremely reluctant to pay you a salary as an engineer if you haven’t been paid to ship code recently. The tipping point for hireability comes long before the tipping point for learning ability, in my experience.
 It is in no one’s best interest for money to factor into the decision of whether to be a manager or not. Slack pays their managers LESS than engineers of the same level, and I think this is incredibly smart: sends a strong signal of servant leadership.