Moving Up as an Engineer: Should You Become a Manager?

· 4 min read
Moving Up as an Engineer: Should You Become a Manager?

Business Insider reports that OpenAI is actively recruiting top talent from Google and Meta, offering compensation packages worth millions of dollars to entice some of the best researchers. The company has already hired dozens of former employees from these tech giants and is in talks for another employee share sale that could value it at $86 billion.

The race for AI talent has been heating up in Silicon Valley for quite some time. But even if you’re not an AI researcher and don’t work for Google, companies will be willing to pay quite a lucrative salary to get you if you’re an exceptional engineer. There’s a reason headhunters are always trying to poach the top talent from other companies.

This is important to remember if you’re trying to decide whether you should move into management or stay an individual contributor. One of the main arguments for the transition is that managers get paid more. Well, good managers are. But so are good engineers. It’s not a matter of what you do. It’s a matter of how good you are.

How I Moved Into Management

About 8 years ago, my software engineer career reached a crossroads where I had to decide between two paths: continuing as an engineer or transitioning into a management role. This decision was quite challenging because it impacted my daily work and long-term career trajectory.

At the time, I was a senior full-stack software engineer. I was always passionate about coding and problem-solving, but I also loved the business side of things and had a graphics design background. As I progressed to a senior role, I wondered, “What’s next?”.

While getting even deeper into technical details looked very compelling, and the compensation was great, I was intrigued by the strategic decisions and opportunity to do better than the managers I worked with. I didn’t know that becoming a manager would mean no time for coding and a ton of meetings, people problems, and uncertainty.

This decision wasn’t easy as I didn’t want to make the wrong move. I also understood that transitioning into a management role would be more of a career change than a promotion, as the skills required for management are quite different from those I already had. Yet, I decided to give it a try. I miss the coding days, but I find the engineering management role extremely rewarding for many reasons.

The Engineer’s Path

The engineer’s path allows you to advance your career without becoming a manager. This is where technical expertise matters — mastering complex tasks and providing critical guidance on projects based on hard-won experience.

If you thrive on technical challenges, management can feel like an unpleasant pursuit. If you take the engineer’s path, you can leverage the expertise you’ve grown over the years and become a principal engineer or a tech lead. In these positions, you will own critical systems, shape the technology roadmap, and align technical decisions with business needs.

While managers focus on developing their teams, engineers influence through expertise. They mentor colleagues, steer project teams in the right technical direction, provide critical advice during decision-making, and ensure the best practices are followed. The sharp eye of a technical expert helps avoid costly missteps.

With the right opportunities, engineers can lead initiatives, manage budgets, and drive critical partnerships. In this case, career growth comes from ever-increasing technical breadth and its business impact, not expanding headcounts. For engineers, progression means freedom to dig deeper into the work they love.

The Manager’s Path

The manager’s path is often seen as a natural progression for many professionals, but it’s important to understand that it requires a fundamental shift in focus and skills. For engineers who are used to hands-on work, it’s a major transition to a role where your performance is measured not by your individual output, but by the results of the team you manage.

Some people thrive with this change, while others long for the old technical roles. The stereotype of managers being obsessed with bureaucracy is somewhat true. It’s it’s the result of a different perspective — to effectively manage people you need processes and accountability, especially in software development.

Moving into management is a major step that changes your day-to-day reality. Feeling nostalgic for the good old days of digging into technical details is perfectly normal. But, management is deeply rewarding for those who want to focus on the bigger picture and are willing to learn the ropes of a new role. Just know it requires leaving your comfort zone and adopting many new skills. As a result, some technical skills will become obsolete or evaporate entirely if you don’t do any technical work.

Transitioning Between the Two Paths

Switching between management and engineering paths is a significant career move. Before diving in, take time to reflect on your motivations. Are you chasing more prestige and pay? How much will you miss the hands-on work?

Either transition requires compromises. Managers often take a pay cut to regain technical freedom. Engineers wanting to lead teams usually get paid more after transition but have to learn completely new skills and shift focus from individual work to helping others.

One of the ways to approach this choice is to think about it as something reversible. Nothing prevents you from moving back to engineering after working as a manager for a while. Try out a new role without closing doors. Just remember that if you ever want to switch back, you’ll need to update some skills you haven’t practiced for a while. Be honest with your manager. Make sure he or she understands where you lack the skills so that you get enough training and support.

Above all, figure out what you want to do and move in the direction that moves you towards the goals you set, not just titles and salaries. There are many different roles and ways to contribute — find the path where you want to be a top performer.

A Tough Decision to Make

The choice between management and individual contributors is a stressful one. The stakes are high. No wonder we agonize over the trade-offs.

If you code to create beauty, letting go of hands-on work feels like losing a piece of yourself. But leading teams unlocks new meaning if you’re a big-picture thinker like me.

Rather than debating abstract merits, try to understand yourself. What motivates you? Are you willing to retrain skills? How will you measure fulfillment? This soul-searching takes courage. There are no right or wrong answers, only the path where you can thrive.

Our industry needs more managers with strong technical expertise. When technical and people skills converge, powerful things happen. But there’s definitely more than one way to advance an engineer’s career. Choose the one that calls to your heart.

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