Is My Career a Dead End?
February 14, 2018 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I've been in IT for over twenty years. I've been either a full time developer or a developer/manager hybrid for about fifteen. I don't want to write code, but I'm finding it impossible to get real interest from recruiters and hiring managers for roles that are leadership only without hands-on involvement, and the coding experience I have isn't shiny or trendy enough to be considered for current hybrid roles. What do I do now? Snowflake class instances within.

One difference between me and this asker is that I'm not even out for a thrill anymore. Coding stopped being fun for me two or three jobs ago, since most of what I get asked to do is the same thing I've done before, only I can't just copy and paste the code I wrote at a previous job (yay, work for hire).

Complicating matters for me is that I feel like I've lost a step compared to younger me. Sometimes I look at a problem and fail to see a solution that would have been really obvious to me ten years ago, and then when I do figure it out I feel like I should have been faster, that the solution I struggled to figure out was obvious in retrospect. I don't think this is why I got burned out; rather, I think it happened after the burnout really took hold, and that lack of edge is really because my heart isn't in it like it used to be. I'm too old for this shit.

This week's indignity was a leadership role somewhere they still expect their managers to contribute "up to 30-40% of the time" so they have an online skills assessment in your choice of five languages. Of the five the one I'd worked in most recently was still something I hadn't really touched in 2½ years, and as I took the timed assessment I could feel that it wasn't going well, and inevitably they're moving forward with candidates who are a better fit.

At this point I feel like I'm in a no man's land, because I don't want to be writing code and I'm not up to date on all the latest trendy JavaScript frameworks, but my background is too sprawling to tell a clear tale that I was a coder, but then I became a manager, and that's where I am now. In fact my last transition was from manager back to senior developer — based on a promise, subsequently broken, that I'd be able to take a leadership role on a migration project where I was the one person in the company with extensive experience in both the language being migrated away from and the one used for the replacement. As a result of that, what could have been an obvious instance of more growth now looks like a step back.

So really, what do I do now? I'm not interested in hands-on work, but it sure seems like the market has decided that's what I do. Even places that want managers and not hybrid roles seem to want managers who are more, um, developer-y than I want to be. Or they're looking for people with "more" management experience, and they're thrown because I never stayed on that track when I got on it. I enjoyed mentoring junior programmers, and I believe strongly that companies should be trying to develop senior programmers rather than hire them fully formed. I also think diverse teams are stronger than monocultures, and I'm not really interested in moving to the San Francisco Bay where people reinforce all the worst behaviors of the tech world.

Since I don't want to do any hands-on coding, and I'm not getting any traction right now for software development manager, devops manager, product manager, or software architect sorts of roles, what sort of jobs should I be applying for? This job hunt is starting to feel really discouraging. Hope me!

(NB I'm not really looking for resume help now, at least not until I figure out what roles I actually need to be applying for instead of what I've been doing, but here's me on LinkedIn if it helps anybody with a lightbulb).
posted by fedward to Work & Money (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Software development project manager or scrum master might be good roles for you, given your experience. You would probably get more traction looking for positions with those titles. If you aren't certified already, do certified scrum master training and get that on your LinkedIn. Alternately, do certified scrum product owner training and look for product manager roles as well. This might be a useful article to read.
posted by limeonaire at 12:03 PM on February 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to thread sit, but my experience with certified scrum™ people is that those jobs are one of the few things I'd hate more than coding. It's the worst sort of cargo cult implementation of interval focused development.
posted by fedward at 12:27 PM on February 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

I can't actually tell from this post what you think you are good at, so it seems like it might be a useful exercise to sit down and think about what you are looking for in a job and what you can bring to that job (if you're managing, how big a team; what kinds of day-to-day work you expect to be doing - architecture? project management? mentoring? cross-team coordination?). If you do that, and have a reasonable idea, then it seems like the next step might be to just go and ask around and try to find that job.

There are a pretty wide variety of tech "manager" roles (assuming you don't try to switch sideways into some kind of PM role) that range from "does some coding and also picks what framework the rest of the team uses" to "knows only enough tech stuff to have a feel for BS and spends most of their time working with other teams to set priorities". It is possible that some of the jobs that are actually the latter have interviews as though they're the former (although if a company says 30-40% of time coding - which, to be clear, is not an indignity, just a preference - then they might mean 20% but they probably don't mean 0%), in which case you'll just have to skip those jobs or study for them.

I imagine partly you're mad because you're scared, which is understandable if you feel like you're getting out of touch. I think the way to get a handle on that is to sit down and figure out which of your skills are still useful and relevant and then find a place that wants those skills, instead of trying to fit into something you're not and feeling rejected. This is totally doable but part of the deal with getting a good job is you have to go in with a good attitude, even if you have to fake it til you make it.
posted by inkyz at 12:32 PM on February 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Any interest in the Business Analyst role? That's one way some of my coder friends have backed away from the console. My experience is that it's a less rigid hierarchy than programming; might be easier to work up to a manager role there.
posted by sapere aude at 1:08 PM on February 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was where you are and just won a job as a Digital Services Product Manager for a local city. Because it's government, everything is outsourced and the internal IT team is mostly management. They do not manage a codebase in-house, but my experience in the trenches is extremely valuable.

I suggest you find somewhere that has a very clear delineation between management and production, which might require that production is largely or entirely outsourced.
posted by Wossname at 1:23 PM on February 14, 2018

Response by poster: Oh, good question. What I think I'm good at is in my answer to the linked AskMe, but I'll paste it here as useful clarification:
I've been trying to talk about what I want to do in terms of the work and not the job title. To me the responsibilities of "software development manager," "software architect," and "product manager" are an overlapping Venn diagram, and I personally want to be where they overlap, not where "software development manager" overlaps with "head down coder." I want to help set requirements and design the solution at the top level, but not be in the trenches writing code. I enjoyed mentoring junior programmers so I'd be happy to help them write better code, but I'd rather be helping than writing the code myself.
I see myself making major software design choices and guiding team members on specific implementations, but not doing implementation myself. I think at least part of my difficulty in this job hunt is from different understandings people have for the roles in that Venn diagram. I haven't really done much front end work and I haven't ever really enjoyed it, but a lot of people seem to think that "Software Architect" involves designing mockups in Photoshop, the same way they also seem to think that a "Director of IT" should be doing desktop support (actual thing I've seen on LinkedIn) and a "Software Development Manager" should be managing implementation at the granular line of code level (why not have your team reimplement a sorting algorithm from first principles and write a string class from the ground up while you're at it).

And the indignity wasn't the work or the balance between leadership and contribution, it was taking a timed test I knew I was failing. I don't write code without the benefit of a shelf full of books and a tab or two open to Google and Stack Overflow, but there I was being asked very specific implementation questions I once knew the answer to but have long since forgotten because it's been a couple years of different languages and execution models. Like, drop me back in that environment and I'll refresh those skills enough to be able to review code and resolve merge conflicts, but I think that sort of screening is misguided for a leadership role. I'd be OK with some code contribution, but to me the number for a manager should be more like the 10-20% range at a maximum, not 30-40% as a starting point. I feel like if you say you're expecting 40% of your managers' time to be contributing code, you're not setting them up to be successful managers, you're just calling developers by another name and adding a different way for them to fail.

I think I'm not so much mad or scared as I am exasperated and frustrated. It feels a bit like I'm getting pigeonholed as a developer instead of being considered as a leader. I've been around long enough to know how the work actually gets done, but so far I seem to be applying for the wrong jobs. "Product manager" seems like it might be the best fit of all, but I don't seem to be getting any traction for it.
posted by fedward at 1:32 PM on February 14, 2018

To clarify, you don't necessarily have to go the scrum route for project manager, product owner, or product manager to be roles that could work well for you. Your description of what you want to do overlaps a lot with product owner, even if scrum isn't your cup of tea. I know job searches can be frustrating, so I'd say just keep an open mind and check out postings you don't necessarily think are a precise fit, 'cause one of them might be the right role for you, just worded poorly.
posted by limeonaire at 2:09 PM on February 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I see myself making major software design choices and guiding team members on specific implementations

This sounds more like an "architect" role than a "manager" or "product manager" role to me.
posted by mskyle at 2:35 PM on February 14, 2018

This sounds more like an "architect" role than a "manager" or "product manager" role to me.
Me too, except that most companies don't directly hire that many new architects, as they are an easy area for move-up promotions as you certainly aren't the first person to get tired of coding. So you are working against a smaller base than most other more broad roles.

Your blanket dismisal of scrum (there are lots of implementations of it and making it work for their group/company is what managers do) seems like a dealbreaker for mgmt roles too. I'd keep that real quiet.

If you can deal with it, I'd add requirements engineer/scrum product owner and work your way up the management chain to an architect or dev manager role.
posted by The_Vegetables at 3:29 PM on February 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

Sorry forgot to add: the role of requirements engineer/product owner is a different payband than senior developer, so expect to be paid less or expect no raises if you get your asked salary, and the move to architect would take a few years.
posted by The_Vegetables at 3:32 PM on February 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, (sorry I need to consolidate my thoughts here) don't get too discouraged. I'd call a dev group manager who is expected to code even 30% of the time out of the ordinary. Dev managers spend their time reviewing & gathering estimates, managing resources, and promoting new systems to their leadership team. If the company you work for expects dev team managers to spend 30% of their time coding, there are probably actual leadership functions being done by other teams or neglected, and you could emphasize that you can do those activities.
posted by The_Vegetables at 3:38 PM on February 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's reassuring to have several of you say that sounds like a software architect sort of role, because that's honestly where I thought I should be years ago. Sadly the market in DC seems to cough those roles up mostly on the sales side and I'd kind of given up on looking for internal roles. Also I feel like it lacks the mentoring component I think is vital for a healthy organization (hence the comment about the overlap between SA and SDM) but I'm glad I wasn't entirely on the wrong track.

And yeah, I'd like to stay in my pay band, what with the mortgage and all. IME "product owner" isn't a title in the same range (the non-disparagement part of my severance agreement prevents me from saying more).

Also at the risk of getting too back-and-forth-y here I don't have a blanket opposition to scrum, I just don't like the "let's hire scrum consultants to solve all our problems" sort of implementation I've encountered, where it's presented as a magic bullet for dev when dev isn't actually the problem. Self-organizing scrum teams with people rotating into the master role for a sprint at a time are cool, but IME that's not when or how Certified Scrum™ people are called in.
posted by fedward at 4:25 PM on February 14, 2018

FWIW, nobody I've worked with has actually implemented Scrum™ exactly as written, even the people who were Certified Scrum Masters. That's the whole point of it, really, that you can adapt it to make it work for your team. My team once bastardized scrum to the point where we assigned tasks to engineers directly rather than letting them self-organize from a ranked backlog, because they didn't want to self-organize, which is baffling to me personally but that's what they preferred, so that's what we did.
posted by Xany at 9:52 PM on February 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

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