There came a time for me, relatively early in my professional life, when I saw saw two distinct paths I could take with my career. I could continue in the technical track and aspire to a consultant level role, demonstrating mastery in a particular technical arena. Or I could pursue a role in management, leading teams and organizations and putting them in the best position to be successful. I chose the latter based on a number of factors not the least of which was that reading manuals and configurations guides isn’t something that grabs me. I believe that individual contributors that show leadership ability will (or at least should) eventually be faced with this choice. Neither path is the de facto correct one – it is based on each individual’s situation and aspirations. I’m going to address some of the forces at work in this decision, using my own situation as an example throughout.
Owning one’s career path is something every should feel empowered (and responsible) to do. No one will advocate on your behalf if you don’t step up to the plate. With this in mind, the choice between a technical role and a management role should be carefully considered. Some will argue that there are positions that split the difference – often these are called “technical manager” or “working manager”. While I don’t dismiss the idea out of hand, I do question its validity. In small organizations, I can certainly see it. Small team, not a ton of funding, small scope – plausible for someone to manage the team as well as participate in the day to day responsibilities of the group. As you move into larger organizations, however, “working manager” sounds more like “We know we need a manager but we don’t have the headcount so can you do two jobs at once?” I believe this is an awful place to put someone and while some may see it as a stepping stone, I fear that this type of role splits time such that to succeed in one set of responsibilities, one must give up on the other. Or simply commit the necessary hours to be successful at both (bye bye work/life balance). I’ve laid this out as black and white and I know gray exists. I’m always wary of job descriptions of this kind.
Assuming you’re faced with a choice between a technical role or a managerial role, what factors should you consider in deciding which road to take? The primary question here is always a simple one in my mind – “What do you enjoy doing?” At it’s core, this should really be the driver for your career. There are other factors that certainly come into play but if you’re not happy doing what you spend 40, 60, 80 hours a week doing, it weighs on you. While this is certainly a subjective factor, I believe it should come first in the conversation and not lower down the list. The decision between a technical role or managerial role becomes clarified when viewed in this light. You’re in a technical field because you like technology – that is a given. Do you like working directly on technology, developing solutions or do you prefer leadership and growing people? Do you prefer working in Visio or working in PowerPoint? These roles have fundamentally different sets of responsibilities which translates to a different “day in the life” and a good indication of which will make you more satisfied at work. I don’t want to oversimplify this decision as it a difficult one but first and foremost ask yourself, “What is going to make me happy?”
In an ideal world, personal happiness would be the only driver and we wouldn’t have to consider anything else. But this is reality and of course, there are other pressures. The first factor that comes to many people’s mind is salary. Generally speaking, the ceiling for a management track is higher in terms of salary but for lower level management, the scale is usually tipped toward the technologist side. This changes as one rises up the management career path but generally, you don’t become a Director overnight. In my own personal experience, becoming a manger didn’t accelerate my salary as quickly as I thought it would. Of course I was completely ignorant of the facts at the time! I was lucky in that I also knew what would satisfy me professionally so my personal happiness and financial goals aligned. If financial pressure outweighs personal happiness and you are leaning toward pursuing the higher ceiling rather than your own fulfillment, I’d caution against chasing the paycheck. In the end, I don’t think it outweighs going to work with a smile on your face coming home the same way.
Opportunity will also often play into this decision. If you have been career planning with your manager and have indicated a desire to consider a management role, know that they do not come along often in organizations. If an opportunity does arise, you need to make the decision one way or the other and know that you are probably making it for at least the medium term. There is opportunity cost of another type as well. I’ve often heard sentiment that, “They only knock on the door once, you’d better answer.” That is unfortunately, for many environments, accurate. If you are offered a role and turn it down, it likely won’t come around again for a while. That said, if you have a good relationship with you boss, this isn’t insurmountable. If a management role is what you want, but you have concerns with the role being offered or your preparedness, be open with you boss. Look to understand the support you can expect. Transparency is key in this discussion. Don’t be overconfident only to flame out. If you’re worried about losing you technical edge, discuss that too and ways in which you can maintain it. Management roles provide a constantly changing set of issues and puzzles, akin to the changing technology landscape that technical individual contributors have to deal with. The skill sets required to tackle each are certainly different but both are challenging. If you decide to go after a management role, keep the dialogue open with your boss constantly. That way, when an opportunity arises, you be able to assess it accurately and discuss your concerns openly.
The final factor in this decision doesn’t apply universally but I believe occurs frequently enough to discuss. Many times, if an organization is inclined to promote from within, you may find yourself in the position of managing people who were once your peers. While this can be a tough situation, I would not let it dissuade you from taking a role. If people have issue with reporting to you because you once shared a metaphorical cube, that is their issue and not something your are responsible for. Open communication is key but do not feel bad if someone doesn’t adjust well.
If your decision is still muddy, there are certainly roles that strike a balance between technology and management. These roles have titles like technical program manager or team lead or technical lead. They certainly vary by organization but in general these are roles with some good technical depth but that also layer in the leadership that many find appealing about management (and without the paperwork!) These jobs are never all technical or all management so if you are unsure about where you career should take you, these are options to help you test the leadership waters without diving in. They will all help to develop skills necessary in management without committing you to a pure management role.
I have great respect for both career paths I’ve discussed here and while my decision was fairly simple, I know that many struggle with it. The pressures of personal happiness, finances, opportunity all play into this choice. Nothing is wrong with either option – you have to pick the one that is right for you.