Going back to being an individual contributor, a word on changing roles in IT

I wonder how many of us in IT can plan for their own funeral? i don’t know, but i’m one of them. I decided to stop being a manager and go back to being an individual contributor. Here’s the thing, i’m a very structured person, therefore i can plan in good detail most of the time, which leads to upper management to always ask me to support, lead or manage projects or whole departments. Sometimes i have accepted, sometimes i have declined the offer. The last time i tried to do the latter but circumstances were special (we’re still in the middle of Covid 19, it’s still kind of special), so i couldn’t turn down the offer for the sake of the company, the project and my own.

However, as an engineer who finds joy in solving problems by building stuff or putting together scalable and well-documented solutions, being a manager is just different, is not a promotion as most of the people think, you move to a completely different sphere of work where problems revolve around people’s issues, contracts, grumpy customers, and mastering a poker face to be ready anytime you need to stand a blow. I tried to clear my agenda and make some time to do engineering work with my team but then i got complains from my current customer about not focusing on managing the contract, which of course wasn’t true since our SLAs, KPIs and customer service are the best in years for this specific contract, with only 10 months of me being the manager. This, on top of unnecessary criticism about how my team and i were internally organized, was the final “click” in this very complex system called myself that ended up with a “it’s time to go”.

My own manager and i tried to hire “professional management” last year to allow me to go back into engineering but it didn’t work, unfortunately finding a good manager in IT (and in tech in general) is difficult, first because not all IT managers are cut equal, and because there is a load of book managers out there who can’t or don’t want to think outside the box. This also happened in my previous job where i turned down an offer to be the IT manager and then i helped looking for a new person who in the end was not really suitable, which ended up with me to quitting some time after because i can’t stand half-assed engineering. I don’t want to be THAT guy quoting Steve Jobs, but i will just for today. In this video Jobs conveys the reality of most managers in IT still today.

“(…) They knew how to manage but they didn’t know how to do anything …”

“(…) You know who the best managers are? they’re the great individual contributors who never ever want to be a manager, but decide they have to be a manager because no one else is gonna be able to do as good a job as them …”

I do not consider myself the best manager, but i consider myself a great individual contributor and that’s why these 2 phrases resonate so much to me. I’ve experienced exactly this over the past 10 years, seeing a bunch of these “book managers” to whom Jobs referred as “Bozos” fail, while thinking they are doing a fantastic job, and i have also seen great engineers saying things like “you know what? screw it, i will take the lead of this now or we will sink”, myself included.

But as with everything in life, balance is important, and if i sacrifice my time as an engineer to step up and fix administrative issues as a manager, then i should be compensated accordingly in return (we’re not talking about money here), it’s a win-win right?, until it’s not, and that’s when i personally take action because i’m not a fan of one-way streets.

The Why

Only God knows why, but in our society being a manager is seen as the pinnacle of someone’s career, i guess it’s because of our competitive nature as human beings, and also this irrational necessity of exercising power on other people, most of the time just looking for peer approval and recognition. So why quit being a manger you ask me?

  • I don’t care about social status and i don’t care about other people’s opinion regarding job titles. I will succeed as a manager or as an individual contributor.
  • If i’m not allowed to work with peace of mind and make time for myself to help my own team with their engineering tasks then i’m not a fit for you, and i likewise your company might not be a fit for me.
    • Hire a “book manager” instead, that person can manage your fancy spreadsheets and sit all day long just having online meetings.
  • I’m still single with no kids, this is a luxury i can still afford, saying no to a big paycheck because as an engineer i already earn more than i actually need to live a comfortable life. Money doesn’t drive me.
  • Happiness, i need to feel at least at ease with what i’m doing, feeling it’s useful and seeing positive feedback for my efforts. Right now my efforts provide clear benefit but it’s not valued nor appreciated by my customer, and that’s a red flag to me.
    • Personal accomplishment is much more important to me than money and a big office with my name on the door. If i feel happier by pulling cables, installing servers and writing some code then that’s where i need to be.
  • Going back on-track. Being a manager as i said earlier is a completely different sphere of work, you need high-level knowledge about everything IT-related but it’s not engineering, i’m not put together solutions or doing research which is what i really enjoy, i have side tracked from my own path and i need to get back to it soon.

Challenges (or Cons if you will)

As for any major decision in life, changing jobs regardless of the nature of the position, comes with challenges, i wouldn’t say they are cons unless you are over 50, which i’m not, therefore i don’t see these as blockers but as challenges to sort out.

  • In IT being over 30 is already seen as “being old”. Sad but true, i’m also a hiring manager for my team and i barely look at resumes of people over 30 for more than 15 seconds unless i find the keywords i’m looking for.
  • Recruiters and hiring managers at other companies will always ask why you quit a manager position and if you are really okay with being an individual contributor. Fact, this has happened to me in the past, prospective employers being too worried that i may be looking to lead or manage instead of doing a regular tech job.
  • Your tech skills are kind of lukewarm. Not a surprise, not doing the hardcore daily IT tasks your team does it’s expected that those CLI commands are not so fresh in your memory, some time off is needed just to prepare yourself and warm up for tech interviews.

Repetitive patterns exist for a reason and chances are that in the future i may take again another lead or managerial roles in other companies, but for now i just need to look for something that suits my current self. I will spend the next 2 months handing over things to the new manager, which i will need to hire and train for the job, then i’ll take a well deserved vacation and go back to prepare myself to be a great individual contributor again.

In the end there will always be someone who will see value in your work regardless of the challenges, and there’s nothing wrong in moving away from those who don’t.

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