Alternatives to programming
October 26, 2015 10:06 AM   Subscribe

I've come to realize that while I enjoy solving interesting problems in software, I am not really very good at programming and never will be. What are my career options given that realization?

I think I would be happier and more useful in a support role, not as the main gunner churning out code. I work in a small tech company now, and the parts of my job that I like best are: a) planning out the high-level components of a system in an architect-like role, b) helping to organize a project by splitting up work into manageable pieces and then triaging who should do it and in what order, c) presenting findings via charts/graphs/etc., d) keeping everyone calm during times of crisis by being the voice of reason, e) advocating for the right way of doing things; ex: I'm usually the guy who is making spreadsheets and making sure we tested properly and that we have a plan for when X goes wrong.

Does this roughly correspond to a discrete role in software companies today? I've been working in smaller companies where we often have no clear role, so I don't exactly know what's out there. I would prefer to work in a larger, more established company but startups are an option. My goal is, I guess, to do less programming work that depends on being an expert at Language X or Platform Y, and to do more work requiring soft skills – experience, writing tactfully worded emails, doing high-level planning, and general leadership ability. As a follow up, what should I do to sharped those skills in my current role, which is more of an intermediate engineer position? Are there conferences or courses you would recommend?

posted by deathpanels to Work & Money (16 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
What you're describing sounds a lot like what my company calls a "Technical Product Manager".
posted by The Notorious B.F.G. at 10:17 AM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Depending on whether you want to focus on the thing that you're building or on the team and process of building the (or multiple) things, then the job title that you're looking for is: Product Manager for the former, and Project Manager for the latter.

Product Managers consider the list of features or capabilities that an application should have to be successful in the market place and is much more about the a) and c) of your list, but also includes a lot of b), d) and e) depending on the level of support that you get from others. Their emphasis is thinking about what the product should be and getting other colleagues to help make that real.

Project Managers focus very much on b) and c), do a lot of d) by default, and also either become e) or heavily support the others who do e). They're all about looking at what can hold up a project or process and clearing out the obstacles, or lining people up so that they can be more effective by working together. A really good Project Manager can help a Product Manager (and developers and IT and everyone else) do more of their job by making them not worry about b), d), or e); which are all vitally important duties but rarely ever anyone's given focus.
posted by bl1nk at 10:18 AM on October 26, 2015

Project Manager, or in the Agile world, Product Owner. I transitioned from Senior Software Engineer with 15 years experience to Product Owner over a year ago and am really happy.
posted by matildaben at 10:21 AM on October 26, 2015

Thirding Product Manager for sure. I work with them regularly and it jumped out at me right away from your description. There is a big beautiful world of product management out there for you!
posted by bleep at 10:21 AM on October 26, 2015

Product managers are not architects and should not be. Non-coding architects in general are kind of a joke IMHO. They are authority figures but without any wualifications (skills very rapidly vanish) though often they fail to perceive that.

There are *solution* architects; solution engineers etc. but they do not have authority over anyone; they are closest to sales engineers.

Going to go out on a limb and suggest sales engineer. It is a great career - or can be - for people oriented and highly technical people who for whatever reason are not great R&D fit. They are critical employees and close to the flow of money. They evolve gradually into solution architects. Some programming skill - scripting, integration, data loading/etc. are great skills to have.
posted by rr at 10:36 AM on October 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

I hadn't thought about sales engineering. I know quite a few people who do that professionally so I will talk to them about it. Thanks!
posted by deathpanels at 10:53 AM on October 26, 2015

Another non-PM role that exists in some organizations and I think matches your description is computer systems analyst.
posted by meinvt at 11:07 AM on October 26, 2015

What about something involved with electronic medical records? (Big) Hospitals have staff specifically devoted to answering calls from doctors and nurses with problems, and to train doctors users and secretaries in how to use the software.

Generally this requires specialized training in the specific EMR application but they like to hire people with a technical background.

At my organization these are computer analyst positions.
posted by MadMadam at 11:32 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are a million places you could thrive. Sales engineer (sometimes also titled as solution architects/engineers), product manager, project manager, QA engineer, support engineer, technical account manager, deployment engineer/manager, management, in general, technical product marketing, etc. This part:

I'm usually the guy who is making spreadsheets and making sure we tested properly and that we have a plan for when X goes wrong.

...unfortunately doesn't really exist in software (which is telling). In aerospace (where people die or really expensive satellites blow up if you get it wrong) this person not only exists, but often has a team reporting to them and is often affectionately referred to as "The Nope." As in, "nope, we're not launching today." From your description, I'd say QA Manager - but only in orgs where that role actually has the power to stop ship.

This really depends on what kind of software on which you're working, however. If you don't really talk to your customers (or your customers are advertisers, not users) then you might consider something like data science as sometimes this stuff goes through those guys in those kinds of businesses.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 1:05 PM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Software Test/QA Lead or Manager. Hits most of your list, and is why I enjoy the test side of the engineering process. I don't want to make the product, I want to ensure the right product gets made.
posted by Diddly at 1:59 PM on October 26, 2015

Project managers do many of the things you mention enjoying. All but the high-level decision making.
posted by irisclara at 9:25 PM on October 26, 2015

Got to say, I've been a professional software engineer for 8 years and it's only in the last couple years that I've begun to be pretty confident I can code my way out of a paper bag most days. I don't know how long you've practiced to reach the conclusion that you "never will be" good at this work, but I definitely expected to feel like I knew what the hell I was doing on a much shorter timeline.

If you don't like doing it, that's one thing. But if you don't like it because you don't like sucking at your job but actually like doing the work, maybe give it a couple more years just in case?
posted by town of cats at 12:15 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm a product manager, and that's basically what I do.
posted by hrj at 7:36 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here at the iTunes Store part of Apple, we call that job an Engineering Program Manager (EPM). The best ones are those who started out as some sort of developer before transitioning into more of a planning role.
posted by sideshow at 3:54 PM on October 27, 2015

unfortunately doesn't really exist in software

This is not true. We absolutely do contingency planning; I seen that delegated to solutions engineering, project management, and QA.

That said, there's a huge difference between contingency planning and Friday. There is a set of people for whom this role becomes an excuse for their lack of perspective and self-control to go really wrong.

Having read the rest of this thread, I think the best thing the asker could do would be to reach out to some people who actually work in the industry on a one-to-one basis and have coffee with them to talk it through. I detect a certain kind of misapprehension as to what the industry looks like.
posted by rr at 3:18 PM on October 28, 2015

Yep, PM/BA/BSA/etc. These are likely good fits for you.

Also, check your MeFi Mail.
posted by Doleful Creature at 12:19 PM on March 23, 2016

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