Helping Your Reports Choose The Right Career Path
Director of Engineering at Zillow
I started my career as a software engineer and then climbed up the ladder to become a senior engineer, architect, and system architect. At that point, I found myself at the crossroads where I had to ask myself, “What’s next?” I was torn by the dilemma: should I go into management or follow a more technical path.
My own experience is common for many senior engineers fluctuating between becoming an engineering manager and a technical architect. Having experienced that, I am determined to help my reports choosing the right career path.
Currently, I am responsible for one of my managers and a senior IC who I am trying to guide through the process and help them make the best career decision. The process consists of two main activities:
Understanding the difference between an EM and a technical leader
One of the mistakes most engineers make is to assume that becoming an EM is the next obvious step to get promoted. Though an EM needs to have strong technical execution, they also need to be strong in people management. Most senior engineers seldom understand that they would have to spend 50 to 60 percent of their time in people management, become more hands-off and let go of technical execution. Their expectations and reality often diverge, and in most cases, they are unaware of this discrepancy. The only way for them to fully comprehend their new role would entail experiencing it firsthand.
As a manager, I would create opportunities for my reports to try being an assistant EM or EM in action and experience it firsthand. For six months, they would have an opportunity to try out the new role and see for themselves what it would be like to be an EM. After six months, they are free to decide whether they would like to continue that path or instead go back to their past role and later follow a more technical career.
- Until someone becomes a fully-fledged manager, they shouldn’t be assigned a team; instead, they should have a summer intern reporting to them. That should always be a time-bound responsibility spanning over a few months.
- What struck me as a surprise was that many engineers would decide to go back to their previous job after trying out a manager role. Many would realize that they too much like the technical aspect of their engineering job and would rather follow a technical path. During the probation period of six months, they would be able to acquire sufficient understanding and choose the right career path.
- Your efforts, often formalized as an in-house program, should be known about across the organization. Different functions, such as Design or Product, should be cross-functionally helping an EM in action to gain knowledge outside of their domain. EMs in action should resemble student drivers that are labeled to mark their specific status. When I started the program, I was mainly focused on Engineering without paying much attention to communicating what I was doing to other departments. Therefore, they didn’t know about the program or how they could support our EMs in action.
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