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Why I Left Management: the engineering technical track vs. management track

When advancing in an engineering career, at some point, the question will come up of if you’re interested in the technical track or the management track. Different people thrive on different tracks and many people move back and forth between the two, some of them multiple times. While at many companies, good engineers are promoted to become engineering managers, the jobs are actually very different, and it’s worth considering what you’re getting yourself into and if it’s a position in which you can thrive. As I made the transition into management and ultimately back, I learned some things about myself and how I operate. There are many things to consider including, knowing what gives you energy and what drains you, recognizing how you feel accomplishment and understanding what drives you. Ultimately which track you choose is a very personal decision and will come down to understanding yourself.

Why did I go into management?

Before I spend a lot of time discussing why I left management, I want to give a brief background on why I went into management in the first place. When I originally started my first engineering job, I had no intention of going into management. Over time, I came to realize that I’m actually pretty good at a lot of things that are valuable in a manager. I’m good at leading discussions to make sure they move forward. I’m good at motivating a team and making sure that they execute consistently and predictably. I’m good at seeing the big picture and making sure that things don’t get dropped across my entire project. After taking on more and more of these types of responsibilities for my team, I had several mentors (who thought I would really excel as a manager) strongly encourage me to try it out. I still wasn’t quite sure, but decided that I would never know for sure if I liked management unless I tried it and that being a manager was an experience that I could learn a lot from. Over the course of my time managing, I did in fact learn a lot, but I also found that management was something that I ultimately didn’t enjoy.

What gives you energy and what drains you?

Think about what gives you energy and what drains you. I found that as a part of my job in management, I spent a lot of time interviewing, talking with people one on one, reading and responding to emails and giving feedback. I find all of these activities very draining. I find it stressful to meet with someone new that I’ve never met with before, both in an interview setting, but also in a 1:1 meeting setting. I also have a really hard time filling empty space in a conversation when I don’t know someone well, which also stresses me. When I give feedback, I also find myself playing over in my head how to make sure what I have to say comes out in a way that the other person will understand the feedback and take it in a productive way.

Between all of these activities, I was finding that I would get to the end of the week feeling completely de-energized and drained. While it’s good to step out of your comfort zone and try new things and things that scare you, if you find that a very high percentage of the things you do fall into this stressful or de-energizing category, it will quickly burn you out.

How do you feel accomplishment?

It is also important to understand how you feel accomplishment. Personally, I have a really hard time taking responsibility for the successes of my team. I know rationally that their success is my success and that them succeeding is partially a result of my efforts, but emotionally, I don’t feel that way. When my team accomplished something big, I was happy and proud for them, but I really struggled to share in any of that feeling for myself and I tended to feel like I hadn’t done anything to contribute.

Along similar lines, I found that I don’t do well with fuzzy cause and effect. Yes, the team did well with the way I structured the schedule, but maybe they would have done well anyway. They really pushed things at the end and met the deadline, but was that because of things I said, or would they have met the deadline anyway? Maybe I made a really good choice about which project to pursue for the team, but the correct decision seemed obvious, so wouldn’t any manager in my place make the same decision? Because of this, I had a really hard time seeing my value to the team. As an engineer, your value is much more direct — you accomplish a piece of the engineering work that needs to get done to ship the product. You fix a certain number of bugs. It’s very clear what you do and how it impacts the team and the business. Some people are able to share in the success of their team even if it’s less direct, but I really struggled with this.

What drives and excites you?

Finally, it’s also important to understand what drives you. What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you up thinking about how to solve it? This is not only about what motivates you to go above and beyond, but also about what really excites you.

For me, I found that there are a number of things that drive and excite me. I’m excited by deep architectural discussions and figuring out how to solve tricky problems. I get excited when I refactor a particularly hairy piece of code or even when I know I’ve helped a customer by fixing a bug. At the same time, mentoring others and seeing them succeed also excites me. I’m driven to push projects forward and see the team work efficiently to complete things in a timely manor.

I think the big realization moment for me, was when I realized that some of the things about management that excited me are also present on the technical track. I really enjoyed some of the mentorship and leadership aspects of managing. It’s fun to be able to share your experiences, to give people feedback and to see them excel. At Box, we also expect our more senior people on the technical track to serve as both official and unofficial mentors. While helping people grow is more clearly connected to the management track, it’s also an important part of the technical track. The same thing is true of leadership and motivating a team. While this could be seen as a manager trait, senior engineers are also often looked to for inspiring their teams or pushing through new initiatives.

At some point I realized that I really missed the architectural discussions and white boarding sessions and untangling hairy code and the day-to-day coding. I also realized that I could still keep doing most of the things I liked about management on the technical track. For me, the decision became clear.

Picking the management or technical track is a deeply personal decision. I don’t at all regret trying out management, but I also know without a doubt that going back to my technical roots was the right choice for me. I learned a lot about myself in the process and discovered that there are additional things involved in whether a person can thrive on the management track than I originally realized. While everyone has to make their own choice, it’s important to keep in mind what energizes or de-energizes you, how you feel accomplishment and what drives and excites you.

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