Levels of Engineering (Management) Focus
Ok, here's another way to think about going back and forth between engineering management and IC engineering.
Obligatory reminder: engineering management is not a promotion, it's a totally different role that requires a different set of skills. More companies have figured this part out, and senior engineers can level up into tech leads, staff engineers, OR engineering managers. If things are done well, staff engineer and eng manager should have roughly the same compensation bands, so that the management path does not automatically mean more money, and it's not the only way to make more money.
I've been thinking about going back to building things myself. And I'm not the first to argue that folks with management experience make great engineers, and vice versa!
So here's the thing. As an engineering leader, you can focus on different levels in your company. Each level requires a different set of skills and (fresh) experience:
- Narrow: focus on supporting and growing your team, and working on a specific set of problems with your team.
- Wide: as you become a senior engineering manager or a director, the best way to support multiple teams is to talk to the other orgs in the company, figure out what is happening, and how to best help them hit the company goals, then guide your eng managers towards that.
- IC: there's nothing stopping you from hyper-focusing on a narrow, specific problem as an individual software engineer. Your experience deteriorates with time, and as you get more senior, switching between the different roles of software engineer and a manager becomes harder. But if you have a strong internal support network in your org, and if you're OK moving laterally or down level, it's totally fine to switch back to IC.
Onboarding as a manager, or a senior engineer, takes a rather long time. To be productive in a role and to grow, you would need about two years at a single gig. Which means that you don't really have that many switch opportunities in your career.
Choosing to switch back to building software also means that you're likely giving away becoming a VP. But going into exective leadership is a deliberate choice. Just like continuing to build software yourself. And to be a great engineering leader, you do need to work on your skills as an engineer, so maaaaybe switching your focus to a full-time IC role is a good tool, as long as it's deliberate, and you have the opportunity.