Engineering Endgames: Subject Matter Expertise vs. Management Track

December 3, 2014

Featured in 2015 Guide to Getting an Engineering JobAt some point in your career, you will be faced with a decision: should you stay as an engineer and become an expert in your field, or should you make the transition to a management role?

Many people feel that the only route to success is to become a manager, but that’s not so. Either track can lead to a rewarding, challenging, enjoyable job. Here’s how to decide which is right for you.

They involve different skills & mindsets

Werner Krebs, CEO of Acculation, has recruited hundreds of candidates for both engineering and management roles. He emphasizes that the two roles require very different types of people.

“Major corporations have done psychological studies. Engineers tend to be “analytics”: they think carefully about things and prefer to be right. It’s often more important for them to be right than to get the job done, or for the company to make money. Some managers are like that, but many are motivated more by getting things done than for their opinions or analysis to have been correct, or they might be motivated more by their social standing in the company.”

Engineering Skills & Mindset

To be a great engineer, you need to be careful, detail-oriented, and thorough. Your expertise is in knowing the science, studying papers, technologies, and methods.You don’t like to rush into a decision: you prefer to do in-depth research, design a solution, and come up with the perfect answer that delivers the highest possible quality. You don’t like ambiguity or compromise: you want to find the right solution. You are comfortable with taking responsibility for your work, and you take pride in what you do, but you don’t feel the need to be in control.

Management Skills & Mindset

On the other hand, managers are first and foremost communicators and planners. Your expertise is in getting the best out of other people. You are prepared to make compromises to get the job done, even if it means taking tough decisions on incomplete information and thinking on your feet. You enjoy the control that your role gives you, but you take pride in what the team does, and you are prepared to take responsibility for the success or failure of others.

Krebs nails this down to two specific skills.  “People skills is kind of a generic term that often doesn’t mean much to engineers. If you want to learn people skills, learn sales skills. An engineering manager is always selling ideas or projects to his team and other parts of the company. The other major skillset to know is project management. You’ll need to be prioritizing the time of your team members. Projects either need to get done on time, or you need to push back from the beginning of a potential project and explain to other stakeholders why your team lacks the bandwidth.”

If you’re unsure whether you have the right personality type, don’t worry. As Krebs notes, you can develop the required skills over time. “The jury is still out if there are genetic or environmental factors that might predispose someone to these different personality types, but in my experience it can be learned.”

They offer different rewards: what do you like doing?

“What’s your motivation?” asks Zach Haehn, head of R&D, San Francisco at Bloomberg. “Ask yourself why you’re choosing the path you’re choosing. Do you need a new challenge? Are you doing it for the money, power or prestige? Make sure you’re doing things for the right reasons.”

Kristin Smith, CEO of Code Fellows, emphasizes how your daily life will be affected. “As an engineer, you’re hands on, solving technical problems, and building things. If that’s what you enjoy, then do it. As a manager, you have to enjoy being an administrator, working with people, and negotiating. Focus on what you’re good at.

Haehn explains his motivation for moving into management. “I wanted more control of what we were doing, and to have more influence on projects. I realized that I had an aptitude for it, and it was where I could make the best contribution. I felt valuable. That said, there have many days where I feel like I didn’t achieve anything personally. You have to get used to that.”

Software engineer Jason Bay of Game Industry Careers felt a natural affinity for a management role. “Earlier in my career, I was motivated to organize small areas of the project or to assist my leads and department head with tasks like project planning and scheduling. As I helped out with management-oriented tasks and found that I enjoyed them and was reasonably good at them, I started to realize that I might be able to contribute more as a team lead. Eventually, I learned that I was able to have a bigger impact as an engineering manager than as an engineer. When my department head left the company, he recommended me as his replacement.”

Making the choice

Your decision of which track to follow should be a genuine choice. You shouldn’t feel you have to become a manager in order to pursue your career. Make sure you find a company that will appreciate your worth if you decide not to make the transition.

“Many firms will ensure that engineers can make just as much money staying in that role,” says Krebs. “It’s just an alternate career path. There are separate career ladders for individually contributing scientists and engineers and those that manage them at these firms. The managers may actually be making less than those they manage. Often that extra payment is in the form of stocks or stock options. Some of that extra pay will be intended to keep those engineers from moving to a start-up, where they would presumably be making much more money in part because of their management potential. Essentially, they won’t be able to move into management ranks at these firms because management is so hard to get into, but they’ll still be very well compensated for sticking around.”

Consider also what would happen if things don’t work out.

Bay has helped many engineers step out of management roles. “The structure of the engineering organization has a big impact on this process. When there’s only one career path and it requires a move into management, it can result in strong engineers becoming struggling managers out of necessity,” he notes. “Many engineers consider a move into management as an advancement in their careers, so returning to an individual contributor role can feel like a big step backward.”

Find out whether there would be an opportunity to revert to an engineering role if you decide that management isn’t for you. “It may take many discussions about performance over several months, to make sure it’s a talent problem as opposed to something that can be overcome through training and mentoring. If that’s the case, we help the engineer decide how to message the change to peers, friends and partner. Specifically, that the engineering path offers more opportunity for success because it more closely matches their strengths; that it is a lateral career move and not a demotion; and that the same levels of status and compensation can be had in the engineering path as in the management path.”

Will this opportunity present itself again?

One last thing to consider is whether the opportunity will repeat itself if you decline. If you tell your boss that you don’t feel ready for a management role yet, will they offer you the chance again? Management can be like parenthood: nobody’s ever quite ready, but somehow, most people seem to manage once it’s forced upon them.

Whichever track you select, remember that it’s usually only a stepping stone to the next stage of your career. You may continue to rise up the ranks of management, or you could end up in an entirely new role: perhaps a policy advisor, a consultant, or an educator.

Keep your long-term goals in mind, and decide which path will best help you achieve them.