Career Nav #50: Moving Into Management or Staying an Individual Contributor

Career Nav #50: Moving Into Management or Staying an Individual Contributor

Written by Ei-Nyung Choi


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Ei-Nyung Choi, Technical Advisor & Engineering Leader, shares her talk, “Deciding Between Moving Into Management & Staying on the Technical Individual Contributor Path.” She discusses four areas to consider when thinking about moving into management and how for her, she is more fulfilled in her IC role.

This is a topic that’s really close to my heart because I’ve consciously made this choice at several different points in my thriving 25-year career in the tech industry. In that time, I’ve been in nearly every single role, from the most junior engineer early in my career to the most senior engineer in my teams at multiple companies. I’ve been an engineering manager, and later a co-founder of my own startup. I’ve worked across the tech industry covering casual mobile games, social media apps, and enterprise SaaS. In the last five years, it’s been an incredible joy to have helped over 50 engineers and managers, mostly from underrepresented backgrounds, to accelerate their technical careers through one-on-one mentorship.

The question of going into management is something that comes up all the time. Every single person talks to me about this at some point. Right now with so many people impacted by layoffs, I think this question is pressing more heavily on people than usual. People come to me asking, does switching into management help protect my career more or is this a terrible time for a switch? Current managers are asking, because of the job market. Should I switch back to a role where I’m writing code instead of managing people? There’s just a lot of anxiety and urgency about career decisions right now. One of the common things I’ve heard from people about why they’re thinking about making the switch to management is that it is the next logical step. Some people talk about more intrinsic value reasons such as, I love when I help someone learn a new concept or support them through a difficult situation at work. Some people say they love helping organize a group of people to do more and better together than they can as one.

One of my favorite managers lit up when I asked her why she became a manager. She said, “I love helping other people succeed.” Some other reasons that some people give are due to frustrations that they’re feeling. They might say things like, “I feel like I’m already doing my manager’s job, and I do it better than they do.” Or, “I feel like I don’t have any agency over team decisions. I’m just told what to do and I’m so tired of it. Maybe if I become a manager, I’ll have a better say in what I do and what my team does.” When people know they’re not ready to switch, they say things like,  “I really like to create with my hands. I really love coding. I feel like I wouldn’t get to do that as a manager.” Some say, “I’m still learning how to be a good engineer, and I want to get better at it before switching.” There’s the funny because it’s true reason, “ I don’t want to spend all my time in meetings. I hate meetings.”

As engineers, we may have a tendency to want to make a list of pros and cons going into management. I’ll call this my management decision-making framework. There are four parts. The first part is looking at yourself. Second is looking at your leadership team, who you report to, and your management. Third is looking at the peers in your network or at your company. Fourth is looking at the team you will support if you decide to switch into management, whether it’s at your own company or in a team you’re interviewing at. What do you currently love about the work you do? What fills up your metaphorical cup? When I asked that question, I’m not saying specific things like running the scrum meetings, which you might love, but you have to think about what about running the scrum meetings you love. Do you love helping your team understand what they should be working on, removing ambiguity so everyone can focus without distraction?

When you dive into what things you love, I want you to get at the deep reasons why you love those things. Think about the spans of your day when you feel energized or content. Think about the spans of your day when you feel tired, but in a good way, because you’ve put in good effort toward progress that you care about. Think about the times when you feel drained in that really bad way that you know is leading to burnout. Think about what skills you want to build. Honestly, you might even be sure you want to go into management in a couple of years, but right now, you want to focus on becoming a better technician, and writing better code. You can know that’s your long-term goal but know that currently, it’s not what you want.

Look up at your manager team, at your leadership team. If you are thinking about making that transition, you likely have two different paths, depending on your situation. Path one is that you might move into management in the company you already work for. Path two is that you apply for a management position in a new company. Given the current state of things, I would assume that path one is a little bit easier than path two. There have been times in the industry when I’ve heard from peers and from my network said path two is easier. Both paths can be pretty hard, but it’s fairly easy to evaluate path one. You most likely already know who your manager will be. If you become a manager, it might be your current manager. You know if you respect your executive team, how they make decisions, and communicate with the team’s lower levels.

If you’re someone who’s thinking about that transition because you’re already doing your manager’s job or you find them to be a terrible manager to you, I want you to think about something. Your manager isn’t going to be magically better because you also became a manager reporting to them. If your own manager isn’t great, maybe you respect the other leaders in the company and you know there are people you can learn from and get advice from. Management is such a different set of skills than you are used to being good at, which is the technical skills. Having someone around you who can help you navigate that transition is so important. If you’re interviewing for a new company to make the management transition, you’re going to have less information. You ask a lot of questions about how experienced the senior leadership team is, what your hiring manager’s management philosophy is, how they grow managers under them, and what they expect of you.

The third part is to look at your peers, look at your community. Having fellow managers who understand where you are as a new manager is crucial. You’ll run into situations where only another manager will understand and be able to help. You might know managers in your company, managers from your prior networks, or be a part of a new manager community on Slack or Discord. Whatever it is, make sure you find that community. If you’re interviewing for a new role, ask about how many managers they have at your level and what the career support looks like for them at that new company. Ask to meet fellow early career managers in that team and see if they feel supported.

The final piece is to look at the team that will potentially report to you. If you’re moving from being a teammate to the manager of the same team you work in, there are special considerations. One great thing is that you’ll go in knowing a lot about the strengths and growth areas of each teammate. You’ll know the product, you know the engineering work, and you know how complex each upcoming project is going to be. There’s also an incredible awkwardness when you go from a peer to a boss. You’ll have to give constructive, timely, and actionable feedback to people you’re friendly with. People who were previously just your friend, it’s very hard to give that kind of feedback to. It’s a very sudden shift. You won’t be able to join social events the same ways that you were able to do before. You’ll have to maintain a little bit of professional distance. You’ll have to work hard to make sure you aren’t being more social with some teammates and less with others because your team needs to trust that you’re acting without bias.

Many teammates are actually happy when this happens, because they’re glad to have someone that knows their daily pain and grind, be the boss. It is also true that some teammates may feel uncomfortable or jealous. These are all normal things and things you have to learn to navigate. I want you to see a future where you are that director, that VP, that CTO that creates that kind of team where real belonging and real inclusion is celebrated where entire teams of people have their lives impacted for the better. Could your switch to management take you down this path? Envision being a high-level engineer and not a manager.

I experienced being a team because my manager created that space as a leader. I got to do so many things I care about. Here are some extracurriculars that I got involved in. A lot of people call it glue work. On top of shipping some satisfying projects, I always tried to center the experiences of the underrepresented folks and always tried to create committees and working groups, which put them or us front and center. I started two recurring mentorship programs within the company. I mentored over 30 engineers focusing on women of color. I got involved in the program to hire folks post-incarceration.

I’m so proud of that work. I revamped the onboarding exercises for a large portion of engineering, so it accommodated people with different engineering backgrounds. I revamped interview exercises to be less biased and to be fairer, I organized and participated in panels and conferences. I started a textbook workshop. I organized offsites and social events to make sure that we did things that were inclusive to people of different personalities and abilities. We started a casual launch meetup for engineers. This was pre-covid so that new people could feel like they were pulled in immediately into the team and the culture. I held office hours to help people who are struggling with their work. I met with the director and VPs of engineering leaders to talk to them about how they can do better and how they can advocate for less visible folks from marginalized backgrounds. I wouldn’t have had time to do all that if I were a manager. In that opportunity, I looked within and I looked at the leadership around me and the peers around me and understood that this was a place where I could do these things. For those reasons, I could be an IC and thrive.


Guest: Ei-Nyung Choi, Technical Advisor & Engineering Leader
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Women Who Code