At a Career Crossroads - Management vs Staying Technical

I often find myself speaking with technologists at a crossroads in their career. Some of these folks arrive at the crossroads via a major change, like a layoff or a new job offer, while others get there after job frustration or stagnation cause them to question their purpose.

Part I of this series will address the decision to move to a management position or opting to stay on the more technical career path.

It seems that many in technology feel that the natural career progression goes something like this: start as a junior programmer and eventually senior programmer, then to a technical lead or architect slot, and then to managing developers, and then possibly just managing other managers. If you look at most org charts, that progression is a fairly reasonable path of ascent from the bottom to the top for those that perform. Being that most people are at least somewhat upwardly mobile, it appears the way to get more influence/power and money, and possibly job satisfaction, is clear.

What many technologists often ignore or fail to see is how they are suited for the different roles on that path, and whether or not the continued progression up the org chart is actually the best long-term career option. As the technology industry has matured over the past couple decades, most of you at some point witnessed the dated practice of simply promoting the “best” programmers into management roles becoming far less prevalent, and the concept that the best programmers will always become the best managers has become a running joke at companies that still make this mistake. This is obviously because the skills that are required to be a good developer, architect, technical lead, manager and executive are quite disparate.

Maybe you are one of those that have come to me in the past to discuss a possible transition into management, yet had some concerns about your marketability if you made the move? Perhaps you are even one of those that did make the transition, eventually regretted the decision, and subsequently asked what the best way back into the technical path would be?

If you are one of those that is considering a move into management that will distance you from reading and writing code, be sure to ask yourself some questions before coming to any decisions.

  • Why did I choose this line of work in the first place, and what do I like about being a technologist? (Money? Problem solving? Fame? Makes me more desirable?)
  • Do I have the leadership skills to mentor, motivate, and manage other developers?
  • Will I be happy in a position where a significant portion of my duties may include resource allocation, setting timelines, writing evaluations, negotiating with vendors, hiring/firing, reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates? Will I be challenged if I’m not solving technical problems on a daily basis?
  • Is a move into management and away from technology something I truly want, something that others want for me, or just what seems like that natural next step?
  • If I’m considering a move to management simply for the money, are there other options where I can continue to stay technical and make more money? How do I value job satisfaction when compared with compensation?
  • If I subsequently regret making the move to management, what is my way back to a hands-on technical role? Will I have to leave my company or take a pay cut in order to get back to the code? How steep will the learning curve be to learn the technology over again?

These questions are just a sample of the many you should be asking when considering a move away from a technical role. Many technologists can make the move farther and farther from the code without any problems or regrets. If it is a money issue that is causing you to consider the move, think about options in consulting or with companies that may place more value on those that code. Keep in mind that it is often a difficult transition back once you move into a management role, and be honest with yourself as to whether you feel you will be satisfied and successful in a less technical role.