As a junior engineer, I did not want to become a manager. When I became a manager, I did not want to return to engineering. Here's how and why I did both, and never looked back.
You Only Know What You Know
If you ask an engineer what keeps them going, solving problems day in and day out, they would usually have the same answer - that special feeling when it just… works. The rush of creating something from nothing, of fighting a bug or stumbling through new technology, and seeing your efforts materialize glamorously on the screen. My friends call it "the builder's high".
Engineers have a hard time seeing management as productive or creative. Maybe it's our built-in condescension or our preference to interface with machines rather than people. When I was faced with that classic crossroads, even though I had confidence in my people and communication skills, I did not think I would feel fulfilled without producing something. Without creating something with my own two hands. No no, my place was between the text editor and command line.
Lucky for me, not only did my then-manager know better, he also knew to carve out the right opportunity for me, to dip my toes in the management pool and see how it feels. And to my surprise, the water felt fine. It felt great! I was hit with the revelation that, while it's true I was not producing code, my productivity was multiplied by leading others and helping them produce their best work. I embraced this new direction and continued on to managing and growing my own team.
When faced with these life-altering opportunities, sometimes it's important to try to ignore your preconceived notions and simply give it a try. You never know how tainted your view is until you remove your glasses and try on a different pair. Even if you're just considering a career change, the best you can do is hands-on experience. Companies like employees with a growth mindset, and will often welcome and accommodate your ambition, so don't be afraid to ask to try out a role or shadow someone in a similar position. Your company's interest is that you are a productive member of the team, and you are most productive if you're doing something that you love and maximizing your strengths.
Calibrate, Assess, Adjust
You're probably thinking that's it, right? The hard part's over, we're on the path and following the yellow brick road. Well, folks, it's not quite that simple. At least, it shouldn't be, if you want to continue to be fulfilled and engaged. When I was younger, I thought of careers as a sort of wind-up toy - you work hard to jump-start it, winding and winding, and then release it and let it cruise on inertia. But since then I've learned that there's no bigger joy-killer than complacency. Even when you feel you're on the right track, you must continue to take an active role.
Working on your career actively means constantly deciding how aggressively you want to progress. Career trajectories are a thing, they have different speeds, and spoiler - yours will likely change multiple times as you go through life. Here's an excerpt from Radical Candor as an example of steep vs. gradual growth. It's important to know both as a manager and as an individual contributor, that you can grow gradually and still excel, and the pace of your progression is entirely up to you.
There are always micro-crossroads as you go through life. Should I focus on getting comfortable with people management, or move up to manage more teams? Should I pad my team with junior engineers and provide growth opportunities, or focus on senior talent that can handle a more complex workload? Should I be taking technical training or focus on management skills? There are no absolute right or wrong answers, just what is right for you at the moment. The best thing you can do for your career is to stay in touch with yourself.
When I first fell in love with management, I worked hard to learn everything about it, took workshops, read books, made process changes, and drafted growth plans. I wanted to be an excellent resource to both my team and the company, and I put in the hours to get there. I'm grateful to myself for knowing when to hit the gas, and for building this runway for myself when I was in a good position to do so. Since nothing could prepare me for what was about to come next.
Steer Into the Skid
It's March 2020. I had been at Compass for 4 years, and officially managing for a little over a year. As life events go, a global pandemic is a major one, as well as personal loss and relocating to another country. And I experienced all of these within a few turbulent months, while attempting to raise a toddler. I found myself on the other side of the globe, trying to rebuild my life while grappling with this new reality. COVID-19 offered me the fortuitous opportunity to continue working remotely, but had thrown a wrench in how I viewed my career and my future as a whole, as it did for most of the planet.
Of course, this situation is not limited to an unprecedented worldwide event. Sometimes things just go awry. And as your circumstances change, so can your outlook on what you should be doing. Just as before, the only way to course-correct is to stay in touch with what you truly want, feel and need.
I found myself having to bow out of management because of where life put me - in a different timezone, with a small child and no reliable daycare. I was once again lucky to have an empathetic manager who helped me recalculate and accommodated my needs. I transitioned back into an individual contributor role, and made most of it: studied new technologies I was eager to experiment with, applied my leadership skills to execute complex projects, and finally got to address our team's ever-growing tech debt. Getting back to my roots helped me find focus and sanity in a time of great uncertainty, and allowed me the stability I needed to get my life back on track.
Ultimately I made a decision that was right for my mental health, my family, and my team. And I've learned from it that controlling your growth doesn't always mean charging full speed ahead at your life's goals. It means constantly reassessing, and setting the pace with intention.
The Race is Long, and in the End, It Is Only With Yourself
The 6 years I've spent so far at Compass have felt both long and short at the same time. I've grown so much, from engineer to senior engineer, to manager and back again. I learned a lot and still have much more to learn. But most of all, I've learned priorities ebb and flow. Sometimes you need to take leaps and put the pedal to the metal. Sometimes your career will take a back seat. It doesn't mean you can't pick it back up again when you're ready, and that it won't be an amazing journey nonetheless. Have faith in yourself that when you are ready to get back on track, you will know how and you will be in a better place to do so. As long as you're in tune with yourself and what you want, as well as what you need, you can't go wrong.
So now I'm asking you - are you happy with your current path? If not, why? What needs to change? And most importantly, who's driving?