Job postings often declare the requirement for “upward career progression”, reinforcing the established convention that progress is linear and has a specific direction – the next promotion or the next salary raise.
So, when I decided to transition from a development manager to a software engineer, well-meaning friends gently commented that I had been on the path to great success in my previous role, or confessed that they simply did not understand why I made the move.
I looked like the plant that grew away from the sun.
It has been two years since I decided to transition back to working as a software engineer in the world of startups, and two years of explosive growth filled with rewarding relationships. If you’re an engineering manager feeling some stagnation in your role or you aren’t entirely excited with the prospects of the next ascension, I encourage you to dip back into a software engineer role at least once in your career.
Opening yourself up to a different experience can grow you in surprising ways.
Dipping back into a software engineering role
Two years ago, I was in a directorship position in big bank tech, managing team leads on an application development program. I excelled at managing stakeholders and making sure my teams felt content in their work and while continuing to be positively challenged.
However, having to play the role of engineering manager and a tech lead meant that I was handling two full-time jobs, which was unsustainable in the long run.
I was advocating for architecture at technology councils but I felt out of touch with the technical conversations my leads were having with their teams. I could moderate when needed, but since we were using new frameworks and languages that I was unfamiliar with, I had to defer to my leads to lead the debate with their positions.
It was in one of these exchanges that I realized that the longer I stayed in my role, the more my human capital would be built with lessons on how my organization handles new technology, as opposed to expertise on technology itself. While this is in no way a bad thing, I did feel somewhat lop-sided. I knew deep down I wanted my capabilities to sit closer to the intersection of people and technology.
It wasn’t easy to walk away from something stable and something you’re good at, but you realize what you really want when you pursue it in spite of what everyone thinks.
What it really means to grow “away from the sun”
If I could go back in time, would I make the same decision? Absolutely, for two main reasons: your technical skills get a facelift, and you learn to be a better advocate for your peers, especially your fellow women in tech.
Career progression isn’t a formula for a straight line, it’s what you want it to be. Sometimes you prune a plant to encourage newer, fuller growth. In the same vein, renewed focus on your technical skills allows you to achieve breadth, and more importantly, your employability. Employability doesn’t just equate to the potential to negotiate a better compensation package, it can also mean access to new doors, e.g. if you wanted to move into another industry or an organization of a different lifecycle.
Becoming an individual contributor doesn’t necessarily close the door on leadership, in fact, you can still be a part-time leader - with the benefit of optionality. There’ll always be a project out there looking for a lead, and leading without being responsible for taking charge (as with management roles) affords you optionality - you can lead on your own time.
You also become a stronger leader by influence. Championing your peers is different from endorsing an employee that reports to you. Working in the same codebase and facing the same trials and tribulations gives you a brand of authenticity and makes you more approachable by other software engineers. Personal conversations felt more open, responses more genuine, and suggestions more wholeheartedly considered. You’re not “management”, you’re a shipmate. Software engineers were more comfortable telling me what they considered a great manager and this feedback was so valuable to me.
As a manager with some authority, leadership by power is straightforward. One can step in to defend someone if one feels they weren’t being treated fairly. Leadership by influence is taking a backseat, asking if they want you to step in for them, asking them how they felt in the moment, offering ways to help them achieve the outcome they want. Power can be taken away, but the influence you generate through your tenure lasts as long as you want it to.
If ever you fear this move walks you down a one-way street, there is great wisdom out there that dispenses otherwise. As this is largely a path less-trodden, finding community was really important for me - this chapter of my career journey has motivated me to reach out to well-known inspirational figures in tech, who turned out to be kind and intelligent people. If this feels like something you want to try or have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!