You have a degree in computer science or mathematics from a top-flight school. You land a job with a growing, fast-paced technology company. You earn a good salary, work with smart colleagues in a great environment that nurtures your passion for engineering. You become known as the “go-to” guy for solving tough technical issues.
In time, you’re asked to interview candidates for open slots. You feel comfortable contributing to the hiring decision. Management seems to value your input. All is right with the world.
One day, your manager asks you to lunch. Over sushi and miso soup, he tells you he’s being transferred to another office, and the area vice president has asked for replacement recommendations. He wants to recommend you.
Your first reaction is excitement and gratitude. A promotion. You’ll probably get a raise. You may get an office with a window. And you’ll have the chance to develop management skills.
But then: You wonder if you should stay where you are. You have a flexible work schedule and can effectively work from home. Managers often can’t. Plus, you have colleagues who have “hanked” – gone from a staff to a management position – and back again. The term comes from a gentleman named Hank, a manager who ended up not liking management. The question is: Will you?
Questions to Ask Yourself
Jed Roberts, a Harvard educated mathematician and currently a software developer at Ab Initio Software in Lexington, Mass., is an example of someone who’s succeeded on both fronts but now prefers not being in management. “Engineers should think long and hard before taking the step into management,” he cautions. He suggests asking yourself a few
questions if you’re considering the move.
For example, “do you really want to spend more time at meetings?” Roberts asks. “Do you really want to deal with the often petty personality issues that come up?” If you enjoy the hiring process, Roberts wonders how you’ll respond to the equally important process of firing employees. Answering such questions may help you understand your likes and dislikes, your assets and liabilities. Such understanding is key to making the choice that’s right for you.
To manage or not to manage – when is it better to make the transition and when it is a good idea to stay where you are? Become a manager and you’ll be giving up day-to-day technical work, which you presumably enjoy and are good at, to gain prestige, perks, salary increase, and maybe even an administrator to help with paperwork. Assuming more
responsibility for the good of the company can also be appealing: After all, technical companies often critically need good managers.
“In my experience as a recruiter, there are many people who decide to try management, but there are fewer managers who are really great at it,” observes Mark Goodstein, president of TechPros, a Newton, Mass., recruiting firm that specializes in placing software professionals. “If you believe, however, that you have the skills, ability and aptitude to learn how to become a good manager, then you should go for it.”
What it Takes
“Good management is about leadership, influencing, mentorship and patience,” says Goodstein. “As a manager, you spend your day focusing on different activities and goals than you had before. Your managerial achievement becomes your ability to get your team to produce what they need to produce, on time, within budget, and with high quality.”
If you think you’d be a good manager, your engineering skills will be an essential part of the mix. Engineering managers are a different breed than other managers. They understand technology and the domain of the company, and are able to understand and evaluate decisions made by the technical staff. Maintaining your technical understanding is necessary to provide guidance and to ensure the work being performed is up to appropriate professional standards.
Roberts thinks most people acquire one set of skills over another: They become good managers with people skills, or they become good engineers with technology skills. Because people prefer doing what they’re good at, he thinks most engineers deliver their greatest value when they remain technical. His advice to those who embrace management: “Keep your fingers in the technology pie. Give yourself some of the technical projects. You’ll be a better manager for it, and if you decide to go back to engineering, you won’t be a dinosaur.”
Roberts’ point becomes especially important if the economy sours. When technology companies lay off workers, middle management is often the first to go. On the other hand, if you’re so good at management you make it to the vice president’s level, you may have more job security than either an individual contributor or a middle manager.
The best of both worlds may be a company that offers similar pay, promotions and job security for engineering gurus and engineering managers alike.
“The worst thing that can happen for both the individual and the company is to go down the path of turning a great technical contributor into a lousy manager,” says Peter George, senior vice president of engineering and chief technology officer at Chelmsford, Mass. -based Kronos Incorporated. “Quality companies will have a dual ladder that recognizes and values the contributions of individual technical contributors equally with those of managers.”
When a company offers such parallel tracks, engineers can enter management and return to engineering without sacrificing benefits. And, it’s not necessary to manage for the prestige and perks. Career success, after all, should be measured by job satisfaction, not by a title.
By Alice Ain Rich, a Career Coach/Corporate Advisor in Weston, Mass.
First publish July 17, 2008