Project manager? Technical lead? Code monkey?
July 28, 2009 1:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm happy at the tech company I work for but am increasingly concerned about my career progression. Nearly a year ago, I took on new role as a project manager, moving from a role with a mix of development and client technical liaison/consulting. My company is currently strongly encouraging me to take on even more of a project management role. I think I'd rather move towards working as a technical lead, I'm concerned that getting myself too far removed from technical work now could make it too difficult to move back later. I could really use some advice from Metafilter-ites with experience in tech firms and technical project management!

I'm having a bit of career crisis/confusion and was hoping people out there could help me out. Some background: I'm a 27 year old Engineering graduate working for a small/medium (just under 70 staff, 40 of whom are technical), successful software house. Most of the people here have Computer Science degrees (rather than Engineering). I've been here for 4 years, coming straight out of university. I'm asking anonymously because, well, this is to do with work. I've set up an email account if you'd like to get in touch -

Nearly a year ago I took on a new role as a Project Manager, moving from a role with a mix of development and technical liaison/consulting. My role basically involves overall ownership of a number of our products, along with a team of 5, where I carry the responsibility of Line Management for the team, Technical Lead for the products and Project Management for the medium/long term feature roadmap for the products my team maintains.

Realistically this means spending about 50% of my time planning work (a mixture of technical 'how are we going to actually do this' and 'how long is this going to take' type work, as well as some 'in what order are we going to do this to make our clients happy' etc type work), probably 20% of my time line managing, doing appraisals/1-to-1s/being stuck in meetings etc, 10% ish of my time feeding all this back to senior management, 10% of my time keeping an eye over our Account Management/Technical Account Management teams and ensuring our current and any existing clients are happy and finally 10% of my time coding/getting on with implementing technical stuff.

Looking forward to the next year I've been told that we're looking to increase my Project Management responsibilities in terms of running the team and organising work and that some of my technical responsibilities will naturally fall down to the guys in the team, and that this is basically needed for the next 6 - 12 months for the team to grow etc etc. However, I'm very aware that technical work is something I'm very interested in. I don't think I want to go full steam down the management route - in fact, from a long term career point of view, I think I'd rather head in a technical lead/team management with a lot of technical responsibility route rather than line/project management. I'm concerned that getting myself too far removed from the technical work now could make it difficult to move back across later.

My boss here has told me that he thinks my skills lie more with project delivery in terms of the 'full product lifecycle', i.e. getting business needs out of the client, turning them into technical requirements, managing the different needs of the project and getting it delivered on time and working. He also thinks I'm making a good Project Manager but that, after only a year in the job, have a lot more to learn and that leaving it now might not be the best plan for my career - and that by leaving this role now and coming back to it later in life I'd basically be starting from scratch again. As such they're recommending I carry on with what I'm doing/what they want me to be doing and stay less technical, and move across later if I decide I want to.

There are some other options available to me. I could go into a full development position, although that would probably have to be taking a step backwards and I'm not 100% convinced that I want to spend all my time coding without having wider responsibilities. I certainly enjoy having business/client focussed aspects to my work, but am just getting frustrated at the lack of any implementation in there.

There is also some discussion about having a 'Bespoke Projects' team which would probably entail managing a much smaller team (maybe me + 1 other) on shorter projects but probably re-hashing similar architectures again and again. This sounds like it could be interesting except for the 're-hashing similar tech again and again' side of things.

I feel like I'm at a bit of a crossroads, and that I need more information to make an informed decision. I'm wondering how much of a blocker doing more technical work is likely to be in the future if I move away now, and how that might effect my job prospects in the future. I'm certainly not convinced I want to be a full time manager for the rest of my career!

I've very happy with the company in general but to further complicate matters there is also a possibility that I may move abroad (from the US to Canada) with my girlfriend in the next 12 months or so, and I want to make sure I'm in the best position possible there for getting a technical job (probably in a small -> medium company) if/when I do.

Any advice on how I can best manage my career for the short (~1 year) and long term very much appreciated!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My own experience of being *very* technical since my early 20s is that people (ie, managers) assume you're over the hill as a techie once you hit c. 35. Suddenly, I found I wasn't getting interviews for jobs I would have walked into a few years earlier. I was getting rejections when I was sure I had interviewed well and had the right skills. One of the most depressing times of my life -- I love what I do, I'm good at it, I have achievements I'm very proud of, and suddenly it was being taken away from me for apparently arbitrary reasons.

I'm not qualified to talk about your short term. I think that's very much up to you; at least time is on your side. But I would strongly urge you to develop the management side of what you do, so you can make a smooth transition when you, too, are "over the hill". (I wish I'd made the transition sooner.)

Bear in mind also that the industry trend is for moving data and services "into the cloud" so there's a strong argument to be made that you'll either be working for Google or Amazon or a clever startup, or you'll be a manager of outsourced services, not much in between.

Summary: you're probably moving in broadly the right direction, maybe you need to make small adjustments rather than a major course correction?
posted by BrokenEnglish at 1:21 PM on July 28, 2009

It seems the company is indeed moving you up the career ladder. In business, execution is everything, coupled, of course by ideas and technical skill. There are a zillion people out there with technical skills, but very few with the interpersonal and managerial skills you seem to possess. If career is your first consideration, I would continue moving in the PM direction. If you really love the technical aspect of your work, you may wish to pursue an advanced degree (Masters) which will give you more in-depth (and current) technical knowledge, and will also hopefully help your career down the road.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:35 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Harder to move back (to more hands-on tech) later? I guess that depends on your definition of harder.

Harder in the sense that there's going to be more rank and therefor money to be made in project management. So yes, you could find yourself taking a cut to move somewhere where you're doing more hands on.

Harder in the sense of getting the job? Probably true, but quite frankly that's going to be harder already. When you're interviewing for pure implementation position there's going to be a sizable percentage of people hiring who don't want to bring someone on unless they are already doing that exact thing RIGHT NOW. This is somewhat unreasonable - since coding is coding and a knowledgeable programmer can learn any new language if they have the right foundation - and somewhat reasonable - since new hires take time to come up to speed and anything that slows them down impacts the bottom line.

So you're already at a disadvantage should you try to walk out the door today and get an implementation position. But that's the nature of the field. The thing you need to decide is whether you can be happy hands-off. And it's a hard decision that only you can make.

Personally I've found that I can be okay with little implementation so long as I'm somewhat involved in the design process. I got into programming because I liked solving problems and doing business process analysis and coming up with designs and approaches scratches that itch. Perhaps it wouldn't for everyone.

I've also found that not doing as much implementation at work leaves me with some enthusiasm for doing it on my own time, which I found was not the case when I did it 9-5. If you never have personal projects that interest you then perhaps this is no consolation but it's something to think about.

Lastly, having been on this road a little over a decade longer than you I will tell you what has made my career path easier than anything else, and it has nothing to do with my duties or choices. Once I started living well within my means - arguably notably under them - it became much easier to make decisions to do what made me happy at work. For a lot of years I expended my spending as my rank and spending power increased and it became a constraint, keeping me in jobs I didn't like or doing things I didn't enjoy.

About two years ago, on the other hand, I was able to leave a position that made me decidedly unhappy to go do something that I feel good about being a part of. Doing it required a pay cut close to 10% (though it had a more sizable non-monetary benefit package) but it was an easy move because I had both savings and hadn't committed all those salary dollars.

If you're concerned that your current path might take you down the road where it'll require sacrifice to get back to what you really want to do then that's something you should keep in mind with your savings and living habits.
posted by phearlez at 2:23 PM on July 28, 2009

2 Years of project management experience makes you a more desirable developer. Code monkeys are 10 a penny. I can hire them in India and they'll deliver a technical solution every bit as good as the one you would. That's because delivering technical solutions is easy. Getting people to adopt them, that's the hard part. Be the guy that interfaces with the client, develops the requirements and manages the delivery. There's no reason you can't assign yourself as a technical resource in your projects if you want to stay current. Stretch yourself. Put in extra hours if you have to to keep up to date. You're young, you can take it and your career will thank you later.
posted by IanMorr at 2:44 PM on July 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Now is the time to take a long hard look at yourself and your career desires. You are a person working for small to mid-size software house. This is a very specific kind of company. I would bet that a software company of that size has plenty of people that would make halfway-good tech leads, but fewer that really make good PMs. Now, that being said, you should not force yourself to be a PM if you do not want to be a PM. I could be a fine PM if I put my mind to it but I have consciously chosen to pick a career (both by industry and company-size) that will not force me down that path. But back to you.

So, you're at the kind of company that probably has a lot of people with one skill set you may posses (tech lead) and probably fewer with one we know they believe you to posses (PM). So first, take a good hard look at your technical skills. Compared to your colleagues, are you as good a developer? Do you write quality code as fast or faster? Are people asking you for help in their designs? Are you a thought leader when it comes to the development side of things? If you take an honest evaluation of yourself and find that you are not at least on par with your better colleagues tech-wise, and you want to stay on the technical/implementation side of things, you need to think long and hard about that. To be on a upward-moving career path you need to have some edge over others that might also be suited to that path. In tech paths, you are always going to need to be among the better tech people (design, implementation) of your peers. Not necessarily the BEST, but the better. If you don't honestly see yourself in that top, say, 25%, I think the chances of making a good career as a tech lead in a company of the sort you are working for now are not great, but if you're really serious about wanting to do that, go back to a dev role and work your way up.

Let's say you are in that top 25%, tech-wise. So, you're at a software firm. That means they've probably got a wider talent pool to pull the tech leaders from. Why are they going to want to promote you to a position of technical leadership when, to the company, you have these valuable PM skills that far fewer people at the company have the potential to develop? My guess is that chances are, they would rather promote the stronger technical talent they have into tech lead roles, and if you don't want the PM roles they are suggesting you fit well in, you will be left to stagnate in minor tech roles. You might escape this if instead of being top 25% you are top 10% tech-wise. If you are really a truly valuable developer you can probably write your own ticket because they won't want to lose you.

I'm not trying to discourage you from staying the tech route. If I were at a small to mid-sized software firm I might be facing the same conundrum. But you have other variables you can tweak, if you want to stay tech. For one, you could go to a bigger company, with more diversity of talent. Bigger companies can sometimes have more desire for the management skills in even their senior technical staff, which could work in your favor. You could go to a company that is not a pure software development house, where there is more talent in the PM realm and less in the pure tech realm. You might find yourself not only among the top technical talent, but having to compete with fewer people for those technical leadership positions.

Ultimately, you are young. If you take a year and do PM stuff and hate it, you can work yourself back up as a tech person elsewhere, so long as you don't totally forget how to code. If you take a year to try and work yourself up tech-wise and find it isn't going anywhere, I doubt you will totally lose the skills that made you attractive to this company in a PM role, although you might have to work up to it elsewhere. And seriously, if you are among the better technical people at your company and you love and want to do implementation, fight to stay there. If this company doesn't appreciate it I promise you there are others that will, and I have no doubt whatever makes you good as a PM has the potential to make you an amazing tech lead if you can find the opportunity to do so.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:31 PM on July 28, 2009

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