A fork in the road

I foreshadowed this post almost a year ago when I wondered aloud about what I really liked doing. The thoughts that were starting to form then have melded with a year of experience, and I find myself at a rather definite decision point in my career.

According to my pay grade I've been a middle manager for a few years now, but in reality I've been almost purely technical with the occasional bit of staff & project management thrown in. I moved into my current team 6 months ago because I'm passionate about the work - it's an area I've previously put a lot of energy into and I feel a strong connection with the business. The team is large enough to have a dedicated project manager and a senior tech lead, and the plan of course was that I would be the tech lead. But for various reasons I haven't written any code (at work) for the last 6 months, which is easily the longest period since I finished uni 8 years ago. If I wasn't writing code because I was too busy with deep technical designs maybe this wouldn't be an issue, but in reality I've been spending most of my time on project management. And I have to admit, I've been enjoying it. I've learnt a lot of new skills and have started thinking at a different level, and having the ability to concentrate on what my team needs without worrying about my own technical delivery has been somewhat freeing.

At this point I could go either way: pick up the management thread and see where it takes me; or push back into the technical and try and etch out a career for myself there. I'm only just starting to come to terms with the consequences of each of those options.

On the management side, there's a whole raft of things that worry me:

The inability to create Of course you can be creative, but you don't actually create anything as such. Your primary role is to provide an environment where the people who are actually creating can be productive. I feel a physical withdrawal, a visceral craving, to create. I try and supplement it by more out-of-work activities, particularly photography, blogging and small personal dev projects. But (and this is probably some warped internal viewpoint) they don't hold the same credibility to me as what I do in my day job. Everyone's an artist on the weekend - but it's what you do with the majority of your time that counts.

Skill decay IT moves quickly, and although I'm still 'in the business' and have a good handle on what's happening, I can almost feel the relevance of my skillset withering. In another 6 or 12 months I'll be in a position that's quite hard to recover from. I'll have turned into one of those ex-techo middle managers who talks about the technology they used to use in their day, when they had to switch the whosit to make the whatchamacallit behave correctly.

The risk of sucking I know I'm quite good technically. Not brilliant, but above average. But at management? Well, I can do it. I might even be pretty good at it with a bit more experience. But if I'm not, skill decay will have made it a very hard task to get back into technical work.

Pride Sometimes I think "when Jeremy's older and wants to know what I do at work, will I be proud of my answer?". Or even "could I explain it?". It strikes me that when you try to explain middle management to a kid it sounds pretty lame. Senior management: no problem. Technical expert: also pretty easy. But a middle manager? "Well, my job is to help the creative people make the things that the people in charge want". Wow, inspiring. You can almost hear the "but Daddy, why don't the people in charge just tell the creative people what they want?"

Individuality Middle management doesn't feel like a very niche thing to be doing. I like to be able to think of myself as more than just a cog in the machine, and unfortunately that's generally how I think of middle management.

On the up side there's a clear career path, tons of options to work in tons of interesting places, and potentially tons of money. And pursuing a technical career is not without concerns either:

Indefinite career path This seems to be a problem in a lot of places, particularly in the public service. The strongly hierarchical nature combined with all-of-government role statements for each pay grade doesn't generally leave a whole lot of space to progress a technical career, unless you're happy to stop at the team leader level. Realistically, I could spend the next 35+ years in essentially the same role, with my salary only increasing with the CPI. That feels like I'm running a white flag up the pole and saying "I've achieved everything I could by age 30, now I'm going to cruise". Ugh. I may as well get myself put down.

This is being looked into as a result of the Gershon report, but the outcomes are a long way off. Of course, I could leave the public service, but I'm not entirely sure that would solve the problem either.

Skill stagnation At some stage it seems that most technical people stop being interested in learning new technology. There's some notable exceptions, but, just like my music tastes are stuck in the 90's and early 00's, it seems that a lot of people get technically suck with whatever platform they were using in their late 2o's/early 30's (ie, where I am now). It's appears that at a certain point the new tech becomes so unlike what they're used to that bridging the conceptual gap is very tricky.

Leadership development I've learnt more about leading a team in the last few months than in the 7 previous years. It's no longer something I do alongside my main role, it is my main role. With a technical career I would have to more actively concentrate on developing leadership skills, whereas with management (at least to me) it's par for the course.

Avoiding role creep Almost everyone I've talked to who has taken a tech leader role has told me something that aligns with my experience to date: slowly but surely you get sucked into the management aspect until it consumes all of your time.

On the up side, I'd get to create things. Meaningful, useful things. I'd get to learn new technologies, invent new technologies.

To pull all that together, this is really a crisis of identity. How do I want to view my self, what do I see as a valuable use of my time? I think there is a honor in serving and leading a team, and I honestly enjoy it. I'd like to become really, really good at it. But I'm not sure if I can stomach doing it at the expense of my technical, my creative skill. In theory the "tech leader" role should suit me perfectly: highly technical alongside strong leadership. But so far I haven't been able to make that theory a reality.

If I'm honest with myself, the choice is already made. Promotion, recognition and money mean little to me compared with being fulfilled day to day. Although I enjoy management, I'm a developer: it's what I do. Maybe I'll grow that into an architect-type role, but without a considerable technical aspect I'm just not sure I could enjoy work.

From here my plan is simple: firstly, do everything in my power to shift back into the technical role originally planned, whilst ensuring the project side is taken care of.  Secondly, find one of those rare people who have held on to their technical skill throughout their career and see if they're willing to mentor me.

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