Engineering Manager or Individual Contributor?

The age-old engineering career development question rings as true at NatureBox as everywhere else: should I pursue a role as an engineering manager, or continue on the path of a sleeves-rolled-up code-writing individual contributor? In my career, I’ve been fortunate to work as both, and learned a great deal about how what you value in your day to day work life and aspire to in your career ought to drive your decision making. As you begin to forge your way down either path, consider the following questions to determine what it is you really want out of your career.

Where Can I Make the Most Impact?

I strive to spend my day where I think it can have the biggest impact on company goals. As I was starting my career, the people I looked up to were primarily in engineering management positions. Personally, I wanted to help my teammates develop, be successful, and understand the connection their contributions were making to high-level team and business goals. Over time, however, you start to realize that in most organizations, being a leader and influencer doesn’t mean you have to be a manager. Many engineers gravitate towards the traditional career ladder because it’s the obvious, expected means of progression. On the IC side, however, senior engineers, principal engineers, and architects make massive contributions to the business. They often wind up being mentors and leaders in their teams, and still get to do what they love–code.

What Business Aspect Do I Most Value?

The biggest question you should ask yourself when you’re trying to figure out where you fall on the spectrum of roles is what do you personally value the most.  Many people who gravitate toward engineering management enjoy growing and mentoring others, while some prefer making large projects or organizations efficient and effective. Choosing engineering management is a choice that says you want to focus on the direct contributions of others over yourself. This resonates well with some, but others find less fulfilling than the joy of personal creation that comes with writing, managing, and scaling code.

How Are My Responsibilities Contributing to My Growth?

In most engineering organizations, roles are what you make of them.  The question I tell people to ask themselves is whether the experience they are getting is helping them grow.  It’s fairly common to end up on projects where the team needs someone to contribute more from an organizational side. While most engineers might not want to transition to being a project manager, having experience filling the role will give you a taste of the management side of things, and also make you more qualified for that career track should you pursue it. In this example, you can personally grow while testing the waters of other career paths. On the other hand, if you side step into this function and aren’t enjoying it, then you need to have a conversation about re-orienting your day-to-day so it’s helping you grow in the way you want to. Asking yourself what you’re learning in your current role is a great way to assess what path you may accidentally be trodding along, and gives you the opportunity to recalibrate.

Do I Have to Choose Right Now?

OK, granted, this one is rhetorical. No, you don’t have to choose right away. As noted above, there are ways to suss out which direction is for you before you accept a slew of new responsibilities.  In most technical discussions, the opinion that carries the most weight is the person with direct experience in the code, but in order to maximize that, you should find a set of responsibilities that give you visibility into more than just the code you’re writing.  That may be as an architect or a dev lead where you spend a good portion of your time doing design and code reviews, or if you’re just getting started, offer to do more code reviews for peers.  There are a lot of agile teams where the process management/organization responsibilities are shared on the team.  Those kind of opportunities can show your coworkers where your strengths are, and help you decide whether you prefer determining the direction of your company’s tech, or helping your peers grow and succeed and in so doing build a finely-tuned engineering machine.

For more from Shawn Zeller and other experienced engineering leaders, head over to Plato and start connecting with established, brilliant tech talent.



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