To Engineering Mangement and back
When my professional career as a software engineer started, a friend asked about my career goals. I wanted to move to management at some point, so I half-ironically answered, “I no longer want to write code as soon as I turn 30”. He laughed as he didn’t believe me. “You enjoy creating things too much to quit programming”, he replied.
Fast forward a few years, and I became an Engineering Manager at GitLab. So one could say I achieved my career goal. However, after nearly one year of being an engineering manager, this is the story of me stepping back from engineering management.
Becoming a manager
I always liked taking over responsibilities, helping others, and overviewing projects. These sound like good reasons to be a manager, so I thought it would be the next (logical) step.
Trying it out
Luckily, GitLab has a great process to try out engineering management before pursuing the role. There is:
- Acting engineering manager if you want to try it out.
- Interim engineering manager if you’re going to apply for the job and want to gain experience for the promotion.
There is always the chance to go back and be an engineer again. This safety net helped me to move forward, as there were many unknowns about the role:
- What does an engineering manager do all day?
- Can I be an excellent manager?
- What is the definition of an excellent manager, and how do I measure it?
So, I’ve done what I always do when I have no plan:
I read a book. I jumped right into it when I got the chance and became an acting engineering manager, leading a team of eight engineers.
Starting the new job
My first weeks as a manager were overwhelming but exciting. It’s an entirely different job, and I had to learn more about the domain of the new team. Especially during the first months, I quickly learned how to coordinate, jump between multiple projects, and delegate.
My work schedule changed significantly compared to my time as an engineer. From 1-2 hours of weekly meetings to 10-14 hours. My impact was no longer measured by how much I shipped but by how efficient and happy the team was.
Instead of my code editor, I found myself tabbing through Google Docs, Gmail, Slack notifications, Spreadsheets, and my Calendar most of the day. I suddenly discussed compensation changes, hired people, and gave my direct reports feedback on their performance.
After a few months, I was unsure if I wanted to move forward with a promotion. Still, I realized how much more impact I could have in this role, so I went for the promotion. It took me a few more months to finally admit that I should have gone back.
Why I decided to step back
As an engineer, most of my manager’s work was invisible. But after nearly one year in the job, I know management is demanding, and I now see all the different challenges that come with it. For myself, I realized that the management challenges didn’t excite me enough compared to those I had as an engineer.
Another factor was my energy level. Due to the number of meetings (and being more of an introvert), I was constantly exhausted socially and emotionally after workdays.
I initially thought I had lost one year of experience as an engineer or was stupid for stepping down the artificial career ladder. However, the knowledge I gained by being a manager is invaluable. I learned how to be a more effective communicator, have an impact beyond my team, collaborate with multiple departments, and gain insights into the business. It made me a better engineer.
So, after all, my friend was right. I enjoy creating things too much to quit programming.