Late 30s. Should I move to management?
June 5, 2021 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I’ve been interviewing for new jobs in tech (as an engineer) after some years at my current place, and it’s striking that all my interviewers, who will also be my teammates, are much younger than me. Should I rethink my career path?

I’m starting to feel a bit too old for this role, especially that I can’t work long hours debugging code anymore, and I don’t think I have either the self promotional ability or the work quality to rise the engineering ranks.

I’ve never seriously considered going into management, but I’m wondering if I should. Almost all of my peer group seems to be headed that way. Much as I try not to care about my image, the idea of being the token middle aged lady working alongside a group of young and enthusiastic folks is not appealing.

If you’ve been in a similar position, how did you think through your career plans?
posted by redlines to Work & Money (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's not clear to me you actually want to make this switch. The best engineers are those that want to be engineers and the worst managers are the ones that don't want to be managers. I don't recommend anyone ever go into management because they feel its necessary to advance their career, especially when they don't have any apparent interest in it.

At the companies I've worked at, low level managers have the worst hours. It's not necessarily the most hours (although that's often the case), it's the emergencies that pop up that they are expected to handle - employees leaving, having emergencies, technical challenges, resolving roadblocks on hours of other countries, etc. On top of that, many companies expect some amount of technical work for low level managers on top of their managerial work, so you end up filling multiple roles. For all of this, at least at the companies I've worked in, you won't even get any significant (or any at all) pay increase.

I am particularly worried about your perceived lack of self-promotional ability. If you are correct about this, management will present two challenges to you:
  1. Self-evaluation - as a manager your value to the company becomes more ambiguous. What did you bring to the team versus the team doing by itself? Management is not an inherent requirement. The company is going to be constantly asking the question, "could we just combine redlines' team with xyz's team, since redlines' team seems highly self-directed?" You will need to be able to answer that question definitively at all times. Further, when you are compared against other managers, you will need to be able to define your value, even though your work becomes more dependent on others than yourself.
  2. Team evaluation - in my opinion, one of your primary goals as a manager should be to support and advance your team members careers. Will you be able to do that for your team? When your team is up for promotion, other managers or HR will be checking your recommendations. Do you think you will be able to/want to stand up to them and advocate for your team members' successes?
Much as I try not to care about my image, the idea of being the token middle aged lady working alongside a group of young and enthusiastic folks is not appealing.

So don't. This seems like your primary concern here. Again, taking you on your word on this, there are much simpler solutions for this. "Tech" is not exclusively young people. There are a large number of engineering companies that attract a wide range of ages, and there are also engineering companies that attract older engineers. Unfortunately, these companies tend to pay a bit less and tend to be less visible to the world, but they definitely exist. There is generally (significantly) less demand for managers than engineers, so there are definitely older engineers that maintain their technical focus. They may simply choose to do so at other companies.
posted by saeculorum at 7:23 AM on June 5, 2021 [6 favorites]

I'm a 40something female software developer at a small, non-startup tech company (my title is "senior software engineer") and I've recently been taking on more of a team-lead role. I don't *hate* it but it's reinforced for me that I probably don't want to go into management. I would rather be the wise old lady working amongst a bunch of whippersnappers than manage the aforementioned whippersnappers, for a lot of the reasons saeculorum mentions.

Almost all of the people on my team (the team I lead and our larger team) are men significantly younger than myself. But my boss is a few years older than me, her boss is a few years younger than me, his boss is a few years older than my boss... etc. And we have a few people (men) older than me working in senior non-management positions on adjacent technical teams.

So sure, if you think you would like management, give it a try, but there are companies out there where you can be an individual contributor grownup working among grownups (some of the grownups will be your age and older, but obviously as you get older junior devs are going to tend to stay the same age, and you're probably always going to work with some juniors). Numerical age aside, the key is to find a company that values grown-up-ness. Problem is, I suspect, that these kinds of companies tend to have lower growth and turnover than super-growth-stage startups, so there are going to be many fewer jobs advertised at this kind of company than at the kind of company that requires a steady influx of young bootcamp/CS grad blood. As for salaries, I can't speak to "grownup" companies in general but at my company, at least, I feel like I'm very fairly compensated (I haven't done a serious job search in a long time but random recruiter emails that mention a salary range rarely offer enough to merit a second glance, much less a reply or an application).

Oh also FWIW I am not some kind of superstar engineer - I'm fine. I don't have a CS degree and I'm weak on algorithms. I am smart enough, I work hard enough, and I have a lot of domain and product knowledge from having worked at the same place for a long time, but I am not a software genius, I don't work on passion projects in my spare time, and I generally stop thinking about programming no later than 4PM on Friday and don't pick it up again until Monday morning. But as I say, I feel valued at my company, both in terms of my coworkers appreciating what I bring to the team and in terms of my salary and benefits.
posted by mskyle at 8:47 AM on June 5, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I'm also a 40something female who made the switch. I'm a pretty good developer, and half-decent at building relationships. About 6 or so years ago I got nudged into management... and have spent the last 3 or 4 trying to get out of it!

Managing people and a team takes a completely different skill set than being a developer, and its not one we've been taught in CS courses! I've worked and managed some great developers, but I pretty quickly learned that being responsible for what I affectionately call "the care and feeding of snowflake developers" (Not an insult - this is a really good book: Leading Snowflakes) is not what I want to do with the rest of my life. The challenge, at least in my experience, is that union of people who are strong technically and strong at (or want to be strong at) management and leadership is small, so there's always more people to manage than people capable of managing them! For me, I realized I just didn't want to spend my precious learning time learning how to do this part of the job better - i'd much rather work on my technical chops than my leadership skills.

If leading a team, supporting them, evaluating them, championing their achievements, guiding their careers and protecting them from the business nonsense (I call this being the "shit umbrella"), swapping your IDE for an email client and being the default one in charge who's job it is to solve whatever whacky problem is happening this week sounds like something you'd like to try - go for it!! I didn't know it wasn't for me until after I tried.

But don't do it because you feel it's the only way to advance your career. It's quite easy to end up burnt out and hating life if you let the job take over your life. There are other advancement opportunities in tech that dont involve people management, but admittedly not always quite as obvious. For example there's an entire world of project and program management that require a very strong tech background. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with continuing in the hands-on development path as long as it interests you. If the hours are what's making you question that, then it's the company and its culture you should change (ie find a new job), not what you do for a living!

Myself, I'm slowly working back to a more individual contributor role, one that is part architect, part owning the technical vision of the group, and part being the translation later between product and engineering. But I've been at my current company for a very long time and have paid my dues multiple times, and have finally had the opportunity to craft a role thats right for me.
posted by cgg at 9:26 AM on June 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Broadly, I think there are 4 career paths for engineers at your average tech company, not all companies will have all 4 of these:
  1. Architect/Tech Lead - This is where you would take technical ownership of a complicated system or project as a whole, but probably not be a "manager" in a traditional sense. This is a good path for people with excellent organizational and planning skills, but medium people skills. A lot of this job is in communicating your forward-looking vision
  2. Manager/Producer/Product Manager - This is where you would pivot out of coding somewhat and focus on people and product management. This job is more reactive to the specific people and problems that pop up on your project/team
  3. Principal Engineer - This is where you would focus on solving specific difficult technical problems and build expertise as an engineer. This is for the all star coders who like 12 hour debug sessions, but doesn't really need people skills
  4. Subject Matter Expert (no real title) - This is where you specialize on something specific to the industry or type of product area you are working with, and often turns into a half coder, half research position. This can be great if you have other interests outside coding but can make it a bit tricky to switch industries
From your question it's clear that you don't see yourself heading towards Principal Engineer, but Manager isn't the only other option at most companies. Job titles are all over the place at tech companies so at smaller/medium companies these roles can get merged together, but it's still helpful to think about what you're good at and what you want to do going forward. Personally I'm somewhere between a tech lead and a subject matter expert and that mix works well for me. What you do NOT want to be is a "generic engineer" who isn't great at anything in particular and seen as disposable
posted by JZig at 9:29 AM on June 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

the idea of being the token middle aged lady working alongside a group of young and enthusiastic folks is not appealing

I'm not saying you don't get treated like a bit of an odd duck, but that's often the worst of it and there are advantages too. If that's the only reason for going into management, you're not going to enjoy that either.

You could try it out and see. If you land in a place that isn't just looking to exploit younger workers so you're not considered undesirable on those grounds, you might end up really satisfied with the situation.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:39 AM on June 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’m a woman in my upper 30’s and moved from IC to manager about 6 months ago, with a lot of consideration and conversation with my VP about what the role would look like and what would happen if I hated it after a year (I’d move back to the IC role, either Senior or Staff Engineer). I am enjoying it way more than I thought I would- I like solving process & people problems, I like mentoring and coaching, I don’t miss writing code most days (writing code was never the most fun part of being an IC for me, though- code was how I solved most problems, & now process and relationships are how I solve problems). If you’re considering pursuing management, I’d recommend reading The Manager’s Path - I think it does a great job of breaking down different managerial roles.
posted by worstname at 9:46 AM on June 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

Your question doesn't indicate what you want to do. What sort of work do you enjoy? If you enjoy engineering work, stick with it. If you enjoy (or think you will enjoy) being a manager, try being a manager. If you want to shift into that you'll be more successful if you do so in an organization that provides training and support to new managers instead of just expecting them to be good at it. There are lots of engineers who get promoted into management because that's how the pay bands work. Some of them do well at management, some of them get training in order to do well at it, and some decide they don't like being managers and ask to go back to being engineers.
posted by fedward at 10:25 AM on June 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm a late 30s woman who does not and has never really wanted to be in management (I have an architect title but consider myself to be tech-adjacent rather than in tech for various reasons). I considered applying for a management role a couple of times only because in my org, there are no 100% dedicated people managers so there's still opportunity to create actual work products, but little about being a manager appeals to me so I have never pulled the trigger. If you have the opportunity, I'd suggest supervising an intern to see whether being a manager is actually something you would enjoy and (grow to) be good at.

Perhaps because I don't work at a tech company, we have a pretty wide age-range in the IC roles.
posted by sm1tten at 11:02 AM on June 5, 2021

If you want to make the switch, if you want to be a manager, go for it. If you aren't sure, though, you can make your own life a lot less pleasant. Get into a role, talk to your manager about what it means to be a manager, ask what your options are. worstname's comment sounds like an excellent way to gently explore being a manager but have regular check-ins to get guidance, and to build in an "out" so that if you find you don't like being a manager, you have a way to step away from that without stepping away from the team or company entirely.
posted by Tailkinker to-Ennien at 2:43 PM on June 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

You can always go for project manager, which is sorta manager.
posted by kschang at 1:00 AM on June 6, 2021

I can’t work long hours debugging code anymore
For the love of all things test-driven! I get that a codebase might have a legacy of poor testing, but there's an approach that mostly eliminates long debugging sessions*. Consider test-driven development: unit testing and building unit tests as scaffolds to the program code you maintain so that the tests provide diagnostic information when stuff goes wrong, that's the way you escape long debugging sessions. I think you'll also up the quality of your work product, too.

Think about it as plumbing data around the system -- do you like modelling what the plumbing should be, and how the data gets transformed? If you like it, how many common patterns do you know and can talk about? Is there a coding guild you can attend to talk and learn with other software developers?

*: concurrency and synchronisation make things harder but there are approaches in capture/replay for replicability and sequence numbering to aid eventual consistency,
posted by k3ninho at 1:32 AM on June 6, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks for all the helpful answers! I should have clarified a few things --

1. I'm relatively senior as an IC, and have tons of experience managing/mentoring interns and junior ICs. I generally do enjoy it, but I also like working on problems hands-on.

And hopefully, I also know how unit tests work :) though there's always things to learn. Debugging is still a necessity in complex systems that span multiple codebases and external dependencies, though, even with the best integration tests, or you wouldn't ever have the concept of on-call. In any case, that's sort of besides the point, which is that my lifestyle with a young child doesn't leave me long hours in the evening, which is often a necessity to get things out of the door.

2. I have no interest in product or project management.
posted by redlines at 7:52 AM on June 7, 2021

Lots of places I've interviewed with recently seem to want managers who are also code contributors (like up to 50% time), so it sounds like that may be the sort of role you're looking for. More established companies are generally better about work hours and work life balance than startups, but also as a manager you'd have some influence on hours for yourself and your team. You may want to give it a shot!
posted by fedward at 8:10 AM on June 7, 2021

Consider working for the government! There is lots of good stuff happening in the software space, and for the most part people work 40 hours a week(except when they are on vacation).
posted by rockindata at 6:16 PM on June 8, 2021

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