There’s a saying in the life insurance industry that goes like this:
“The minute you become successful your first inclination is to stop doing all the things that made you successful. You stop making the phone calls, you stop scheduling the sit downs.”
This dynamic isn’t confined to life insurance. It happens in IT all the time. The moment an engineer gets anywhere close to good at developing code, the next step is an IT career change to management. In fact, for many developers, it’s an aspiration. Sadly most don’t have the skill or experience to make the leap. If I had a hundred dollars for every gifted engineer who went on to be a crappy manager, I’d be moderately well off.
Believe me, I know. I was one those people. Why? For me it was mostly a matter of money and prestige. I succumbed to the perception of being “just a developer.” I wanted to be more than just anything. My need for status needed to be satisfied. And, I wanted the bucks. Maybe if I had a better self-esteem, things would have turned out differently.
So I ended up in management, for a while anyway. What I came to realize is that most activities in middle-management are akin to sitting at the information kiosk at Grand Central Station and directing people to the right train track. But, in addition to providing the platform number and departure time, I had the added responsibility of making sure that everyone got on the train when they were supposed to.
Test the management waters
I had moderate success with my IT career change and foray into management. I actually accomplished to get some stuff out the door, no pun intended. But, after a while I came to realize that I was happier to learn new technology and make things with what I learned. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it took me a long time to come to this point of self-awareness. The lure of the money and prestige that goes with management was hard to resist.
If I had ambitions to work in a bigger software company, maybe things would have turned out differently. Bigger companies understand that to stay viable in the long term, their culture needs to give the same status and compensation to creative talent as it does to management. For example, Microsoft has parallel career tracks for individual contributors and management. A Distinguished Engineer has the same rank and status as a Vice President. The compensation is the same too, and ranges anywhere from $900K to $1.25M a year. Google, Facebook, Apple and other large tech companies all have similar structures. It’s good work, if you can get it.
But, life at Microsoft or one of the FANGs isn’t always a true representation of life in IT. Jobs in technology are mostly about ensuring that the phones work, inventory is maintained, orders are filled and that employees and bills get paid. These companies worry more about an operational digital infrastructure than talent that ascends to the heights of Distinguished Engineer. As a result, the career path for many in IT is to end up in management.
Then one day some of these folks who made the leap to management wake up with a sense of emptiness that can’t be assuaged by directing people about in the IT career change. They started out with a desire to make stuff that made a difference only to end up with HR on their backs about employee reviews. Fortunately, despite episodes of existential angst, many management skills are transferable.
Tech is different. The details count a lot. Some of those in tech that stay true to the creative imperative and continue to make stuff come to a different conclusion in their mid-life. They battle to keep up with new technologies that are, for the most part, reinventions of something that was created a decade ago and are thus unknown to the growing workforce of the twenty-somethings that fill the room. While the younger employee can pull the all-nighter, by the time you hit 45, it’s not that you can’t do the all-nighter, it’s more that you know that there will always be another one, so why set the precedent and cooperate now?
Aging managers might question the value of their work. Aging developers wonder if they made the right decision to stay with hands-on work. At the age of 45-50, many wonder if it would be better to go into management and leave the creative work to the younger generation. They fear the prospect of being old in tech. But being old in tech isn’t something to be ashamed of. It should be worn like a badge of honor. There’s something respectable about continuing to be creative and to write code while many in management have long since retired.