Mailbag: Did I become a manager too soon?
I recently got an email about moving into an engineering management role too early in the email writer’s career:
I became an engineering manager two years ago, which was also two years into my career. The reason is mainly that we were a small team and when the time came to add line management I was around and down for it. I have loved this position, and find it extremely fulfilling to be able to remain technical and still have a deeply human job and build strong relationships with my team and across the company. I was quite successful at this job and well recognized in the company. Yet now that I am considering leaving the company, I feel like the “normal” path for an EM is to first have a lot of technical seniority and expertise (more than two years of IC work anyway). Deep down I want to remain a manager, but I am wondering if you think the sensible thing to do if I ever want to join a large organization as an EM, would be to instead go back to an IC role and build up my expertise?
The specific advice I give to folks who ask me this question is: if you are considering being a career manager, rather than just trying it for a few years, make sure you’ve accomplished what you want to as an engineer before cementing the transition. If you’re successful as a manager, it can be difficult to move back without slowing down your career.
Why do I give this advice?
You absolutely can move back and forth between manager and individual contributor work, as captured in Charity Majors' classic post on the engineer, manager pendulum. I’ve worked with many folks who’ve moved back and forth between these roles for the first ten or fifteen years of their career. That said, I do find it less common for folks to continue rotating across these roles as they get more senior, as there is a level of specialization that is difficult to attain while rotating.
Related to specalization, I’ve found that many folks encounter breakout roles in their careers which significantly advance them down the path they’re current on. My first breakout role was working in Uber’s infrastructure organization and founding the Uber SRE team. I could have moved back into an individual contributor role after that point, but there was an intense gravity pulling me to continue in the management track: over those two years I’d become a significantly stronger manager candidate than engineer candidate, and it was hard to walk away from the stronger career opportunities and compensation. This is a theme that I see in many folks’ careers: after a breakout role, it takes a lot of courage to walk away from that accelerating path, and very few folks do.
It’s not solely courage, it’s also a practical issue. The day to day work of a line manager in a small company has a lot in common with the work a senior engineer might be doing. This is less and less true the further you go up the technical and managerial career trees. As a VP of Engineering, you might spend most of your time on compensation policy and troubleshooting alignment between product strategy and the financial plan. As a Staff Engineer, you’d be doing very different work. This makes switching paths increasingly difficult as you move up the career ladder, unless you’re able to tolerate a reset in your career momentum. And maybe you should be, striving towards increasingly senior roles isn’t a very deliberate plan for working across a forty-year career.
These are all future concerns, and looking at your decision today, you can’t really make a wrong decision here. Similarly to you, I personally moved into a manager role after two years of full-time development experience, and it was entirely due to the company’s needs as all the managers had quit or been laid off. This early shift hasn’t harmed me, although I do wish I’d spent more time as an engineer simply because I really enjoyed that work. That said, forty years is a long time, and you can do a lot of stuff across that horizon!