Thoughts on What’s Next Career Wise

Her majesty (the wife) got promoted a few months ago to Senior Manager, what Individual Contributors would call Lead Engineer; effectively a manager of many teams which includes IC contributions as well. Despite my Staff Engineer title I had for a year, she’s now higher than me.

She did this with a 3-4 career hiatus to be at home with the kids. Getting back in the game was brutal, but she did it. I’ve always felt for the first part of her career, and mine, we were learning a ton, and belonged as n00bs.

Fast forward to manager/master engineer years, and I felt she was hired below her capabilities, and some days/weeks, I felt the same about me. Fast forward to now, and I’m unclear what’s next for us both.

For her, the move to Director, at least in Design @ C1, feels nebulous to me as various designers I’ve met/worked with were varied. Hard for me to pin down “how I see her as a Director” because it’s hard for me to see any comparison role models. Do I believe she has the potential? Sure, it’s just completely unclear compared to 5 years ago when it was like “Dude, you’re already a Manager level, and have been for years”.

For me, same thing; horrible tech economy aside, despite flirting with management roles multiple times in my career, my heart has always been an IC. IC’s, at least in tech, have the worst track record for for clear requirements to get to the next level. That, or I’ve just been promoted to my level of incompetence years ago.

I think both of us, for now, are just trying to survive teenagers (like, day by day, not long term, literately “get through today”) and feel we’ve reached a level where we can hang for awhile, learn, but NOT stress about the next level.

I remember about 12 years ago reading some in the ColdFusion community I knew who had reached what they considered “the end” of their career, and were all curious what was “next”. No one talked about “Individual Contributors” back then, and there weren’t tech career paths all over blogs and social media. Despite that lack of clear path, she and I both have significantly grown in our careers, AND changed in what we focus on, not just because we’ve leveled up.

Speaking for her, and she’s wayyyyyy more tactful than I am fyi, but I feel her and I have a much lower tolerance for people who don’t get it; meaning they don’t respect the other disciplines. If you are a n00b, she’s cool with teaching them, and y’all know that’s my jam, teaching others & being taught by others. But when someone from tech starts designing, or when I encounter tech expert beginners who cause all kinds of team/project havoc, we both have way less tolerance for that compared to when we were in our 20’s or even 30’s.

This makes “talking about work” hard sometimes as our buckets that hold the patience we use to tolerate bs towards tech work are quite empty end of the day, so both of us have to dig deep to listen to the other, and be proactive in listening. It’s important, we know it’s important, it’s just the bad tradeoff of us both being in tech.

I feel like she’s continuing to utilize her vast experience in Design/Tech, but also her previous research into all the various design areas to help various teams, at least as much as Design can. Unlike other disciplines, Design is one of those things you need other teams to get. For example, long time UI engineers know a good Designer is god’s gift to your project. A clear design, with a Designer who can understand your technical challenges, and who can quickly modify comps just makes the entire thing go so much smoother, better, and helps you pivot easily. Conversely, some Product/Business gets that good design results in good products. It’s not like Tech where we can basically hold the other disciplines hostage by just not coding a thing, or disrespect them by taking Design’s “advice”, or building what we think the user needs vs. Product.

The n00bs think Design is the advisor, but those who get it know they’re providing the blueprints. How we mesh those with what Product/Business says is always fun.

I feel like she’s got a lot of potential to continue not just helping various teams, but growing young designers to make a huge impact at the large company she’s at.

Me, on the other hand, has lost patience again. Last time I had this happen was back in 2006. It might have been consulting burn out; seeing so many clients do dumb things despite my team and I doing our best to help them NOT do those things. Repeatedly. Given my past 3 years experience in growing my CICD skills, I’m at the point where I want to call the shots again, and take sole responsibility for any problems caused. I’m slowly wanting to get back into the startup scene.

I’ve dabbled the past 2 years, going from a huge Enterprise to a small scale up, then again to an even smaller scale up. Briefly had 2 side projects with smaller start ups who were still figuring out product market fit. Given the current investment climate, it’s been rough because many seem to have gone from “here’s enough money for 3 years, good luck getting a profit if any” to now “here’s enough money for 6 months, and you better by profitable by month 5”. That’s super harsh. That said, anyone brave/foolish enough to attempt that, I want to throw my lot in with them.

My current contract will carry me till then end of 2023, but the way things look in tech, it appears it’ll be bloody till the end of 2024. Based on this being my 3rd tech downturn, that means there should be a longer runway for tech startups since they often manifest a lot more in downturns. So that’s got me pretty positive about the outlook of finding one. I should point out I’ve done zero marketing in looking for one since last year. What little networking I did resulted in a ton of opportunities, which was awesome. I figure in another month or so, I’ll do it again.

Career wise, though, I still wonder what the next level is. Her majesty has enough role models that both her and I can see, talk about, and do some delta comparisons to our skills. For tech? No.

Reading all the IC career paths, none of them make sense after Master Engineer level. They talk about influence, but the only actual tactical evidence I’ve found, and that seems to jive with watching real-world Staff Engineers at work is providing tooling that borders on Platform Engineering.

For Ops & IT, that’s pretty straightforward; build a CICD pipeline, or an AWS IAM Role builder for your company, etc. For a back-end dev, that’s building an API Gateway for internal company API’s which includes all the UI & API’s for internal developer self-service.

Most of those initiatives, though, are typically either at scale ups that have reached a certain size & funding level, or at enterprises who’ve either pivoted to a “you build it, you own it” style of dev where they’ve got the leadership to build a series of Platform Engineering initiatives that help the larger company iterate from what they have (or don’t have). You don’t get that at smaller Scale Ups or Start Ups. You’re often too busy busting out code and infra to verify your product even works for your theoretical customer.

All I know is, her majesty seems blessed with “she’s smart, she researches, it pays dividends in her career. Whereas with me, my research & practice makes me better, and I feel some of my teams better, but I’m unclear if I’m progressing career wise. Ability to deliver wise, hell yes, and I’ve yet to see that to slow down, which is awesome. I know a lot of older engineers who either get bored, or just don’t see the same compounding benefits of all the learning of new things and practice like I do, so I feel good about that. Where I get confused is this confusing void about next level.

I don’t stress it too much because I always ask “Am I better than last year?” and the answer is always yes. I then ask, “Am I better than 2 years ago?” and the answer is always a resounding “Hell yeah!” so I know I’m continually improving. It’s just hard to find role models in tech. The ones I saw at Accenture and Capital One helped a lot, but when you look at circumstances and context of how they got where they were, there was never a commonality beyond them just liking their job. Each had their own unique, and vast experiences, some were hired into the position, others were just lucky. It’s too hard for me to convert that to a tactical plan of “Do these 5 things”.

So instead, I do what I always do: “That looks like fun, I’ll go learn that”. That strategy has yet to fail me in tech. There’s always that itch, though, that makes me wonder if I should head to Engineering Management because I may have a bigger impact on a variety of things. I don’t mind sucking at it for 3 years until I blast past the J-Curveā€¦ I just feel I’m good at what I do, and struggle to see how that’d translate. I’ve seen a few great EM’s, but their work is so bloody invisible; all you end up seeing is the IC’s doing the good work they enabled. Hard for me to model career ideals on invisible actions.

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