Dear Senior Devs: It’s Okay if You Don’t Want to be a Manager
An Unconventional Move
Last year, I took a really cool job whereby I got to manage two amazing teams: a Platform team running the HashiCorp stack, and an Observability team. It has been a really fun ride, and I was fortunate enough to work with some really amazing engineers who taught me a lot of really cool stuff. I’d say that I was doing very well in the role, and I was even being groomed for a Director position. Living the dream, right? But the thing is, something felt a bit off. I mean, I loved what I had accomplished in my 10-ish months at my previous employer, but the thought of being a Director kinda made my stomach churn.
And then, out of the blue, when I wasn’t looking, but was rethinking my career direction, a cool new opportunity came up— a Developer Advocate role. I just had to take it. Um, how could I not? So, next week, I will embark on this new role. Not as a manager, but as an individual contributor (IC), getting my hands dirty on techie stuff related to a topic near and dear to my heart, and talking about it.
When I shared my upcoming career move with close friends, many were um…shocked? After all, I was being groomed to be a Director, and I just “threw it all away” to be an IC?? Scandalous! The thing is, many people equate a title like Manager, Director, and VP with “making it”. And to be honest, so did I, earlier in my career.
I have been in tech for a long time, and one of the biggest personal struggles that I had in my career was the internal conflict that I had between chasing a fancy title, and achieving personal career satisfaction.
Picture this: July 2001. Straight outta university, I was fortunate enough to work for one of the Big Consulting Firms. (I say fortunate only because I met my husband of years there. Also, I learned about the value of work-life balance at a place that didn’t value it. But I digress.) The expectation was that you “paid your dues” as a coder in the entry-level Analyst position, and then you were rewarded with a shiny new Manager title within 5 years or so. Less, if you knew how to play The Game well, which was a combination of luck, hard work, and ass-kissing.
I was at Consulting Firm for 4 years. The last role I had at the company had me managing two dev teams and one team of business analysts. That’s THREE teams, with 10 people total. Surely this was THE recipe for a career-making role — the role that would put me on the fast track to being promoted to Manager. But guess what? I hated it. So. Very. Much. I also sucked at it. Because I was so very very over-stretched. It’s one thing to work a little outside your comfort zone, and it’s another to be set up for failure. My case was the latter. It didn’t help that the client and Consulting Firm management folks with whom I worked were awful, TOXIC people. To top it all off, I didn’t feel like I had enough technical chops to properly manage a technical team. Let alone two. Let alone a team of business analysts. 😱
So I quit.
Management on pause
I took a job as a Sr. Java dev at a mid-sized tech company. Consulting life wasn’t my jam, and it took this very awful role to get me outta there. This career move was very unconventional. Since I didn’t feel that I was ready for management, I chose to put the management thing on hold. Sure, having worked at a Big Consulting Firm for 4 years, I could’ve easily used that as leverage to seek a Fancy Title at another company. But it didn’t feel right to me. As I said before, I didn’t feel that I had enough technical skills to manage a technical team, and I wanted to build up my tech skills before trying my hand at management again.
I’m a firm believer that in order to be a good manager of a technical team, you have to be well…technical. Not just I-coded-for-a-couple-years technical, but I-have-solved-some-dope-ass-problems technical. I have encountered way too many managers of technical teams — or worse…directors or VPs of technical departments — who have no business giving technical direction, and I didn’t want to be one of them. Taking time to build up my tech skills didn’t mean that I needed to be The Smartest Person in the Room in order to be a tech manager. Far from it. But it did mean that I had to know enough to keep BS in check, and course correct my team if they ended up heading down an unfavourable path.
I spent many years building up my skillset with a few different tech roles. Solving gnarly problems was my happy place. You know…the kind where you’ve poured blood, sweat, and tears to solve, and you come out VICTORIOUS, jumping up and down in the middle of the night with nobody watching but your bewildered stuffed animals. And then you wanna tell everyone that you’ve solved it, cuz daaaayummm…that was a cool solve!
Unfortunately, for many years, solving cool problems alone wasn’t enough to satisfy me because I was “just a dev”, and not in management. Society leads us to believe that career success (and happiness) mean having some Big Shot position at Company X, be it Manager, Sr. Manager, Director, VP, etc, and I totally went along with it. So because I was “just” a developer, I felt like a total loser.
I kept obsessing over the fact that most of the folks who started at the same time as me at Consulting Firm had gotten promoted to Manager or above at the company. Those who didn’t stick around managed to get Super Fancy Title elsewhere. Every time I found out about an acquaintance’s career success, I felt worse about my own career.
My self-worth was tied to a dumb title, and it was affecting my overall happiness. When I think about it now, it feels both silly and sad. Unfortunately, I was too blinded by what I thought was a measure of career success to be satisfied with my personal career accomplishments. I didn’t actually stop to think about whether or not I actually wanted to go into management.
This is not healthy, and gives people the wrong sense of what career success means. We have to de-stigmatize this idea that success in tech is equated with “promotion” to management. Because management is not a promotion — it’s just a different career track.
I got my shot
So I eventually did get my shot at management. I was even pretty good at it. But for every management role I took, the role following it tended to be an IC role. I realize now that while there are some aspects of management that are kind of fun, I’m partially allergic to some of the baggage that comes with it, which is why I need an IC break. Here are some of the things that I’ve found rather exhausting about management:
- More office politics compared to an IC role…even in a place relatively low on the office politics scale.
- Dealing with administrative stuff. For example: regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports, vacation approvals, expense approvals, hiring and firings.
- Spending more time on slide decks than code.
- Spending more time on emails/Slack messages than code.
- The occasional sense that at the end of a busy day, I sometimes felt like I’d accomplished nothing.
- The meetings. The endless meetings. (Yes, I realize that some ICs can get caught up in Meeting Hell too.)
Yes, you learn to manage your time better so you don’t drown in BS meetings and don’t react to every single email or Slack message, but it can still be intense if you’re either new to it or if it ain’t your jam.
Do I prefer being an IC over being a manager? Depends on when you ask me. I do enjoy some aspects of management, like tech strategy and mentoring. But I could probably do that as an IC too. Will I ever aspire to be a Director or VP or CTO in my career? At this exact moment in time, I’m saying no. (Maybe I’ll change my mind.) I’m saying this not because I don’t have any career aspirations, but because I don’t think that that type of work will truly fulfill me.
Some things to keep in mind if you find yourself trying to decide between management and IC:
- Making manager isn’t the be-all end-all. For some, the thought of doing that kind of work gives them hives. Others thrive in it.
- If you’re not sure if you want to go into management, give it a test drive, and see how you like it.
- Don’t let your self-worth be dictated by what others expect of you, and what you think others expect of you.
- Don’t feel that a non-management track makes you any less awesome than you already are.
- If you do choose a management track and love it, then awesome! I’m super happy that you found what you were looking for in your career!!
- If you like to zig-zag between IC and manager, cool beans! It’s a great way to keep things interesting! If you don’t, that’s cool too!
- You don’t have to go into management to be a great leader. Leadership is all about influencing people. That comes with effective communication and having something genuinely interesting to say. You don’t need a fancy title to be able to do that!
If there’s one thing that you take away from my post, it’s this:
If you choose a non-management path in your technical career, it’s all good! If you choose a management path in your technical career, it’s all good too!
Whatever you choose do, just make sure that you do you.
Now, please enjoy this lovely picture of a bunny. Isn’t it so FLUFFY? ❤️
Peace, love, and code. 🌈 🦄 💫
Charity Majors has a bunch of great posts on this topic. I love reading them, because they remind me that I’m not alone in my struggles. Check out some of my faves: