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On January 1, 2023, I started as an engineering manager (EM) after a few years of being an Individual Contributor (IC). You can find some insights if you want to become a manager in my previous blog post, or how to manage your time to keep engineering while managing a team in Tom's blog post.

On November 15, I stepped back from the manager role to an IC role. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I am thankful and happy about the opportunity and the time I spent as an EM. This blog post reveals some learnings I made about how and why I decided to step back into the IC track. You might ask yourself, why is he writing six months later? That's easy, and the reasons are threefold: First, I used the time to get back into my new role/working mode. Second, it took some time to reflect on the past year and be able to sort my thoughts, and third, I became a father in February, which shifted my focus from work to private life drastically.

It was a success - not a fail

The crucial takeaway is that I do not regret anything or see it as a failure. In the eleven months of being a manager, I learned so much about myself, my priorities, my character, how to manage people, and how important it is to have a good relationship with your teammates and with your own manager.
I can truly say that we have a great engineering culture at LeanIX. From day one I got a lot of support from all my colleagues. My director, who played a significant role in my journey, offered me a weekly 1:1. We talked openly about all the issues, struggles, and doubts I had. This helped me a lot to reframe the experience as a win and growth opportunity rather than a failure or setback.

I embraced a new challenge and was able to perform well - I continuously received positive feedback from everyone around me, my team and other managers.
I was able to learn so many things in the company's organized leadership training. It provided me opportunities to connect with many others in the company with whom I might not have interacted otherwise. I got an entirely new view of how things run in a company and how people work together.
Conducting salary negotiations and performance reviews was a wholly new and challenging experience. Hiring new people and being accountable for these hires showed me all the different angles one has to consider when building and leading a team.
Another great learning was the fact that I took over a team with people with whom I worked beforehand, and now, as an individual contributor, I am placed in the same team I managed before. It is a testimony to the people and culture at LeanIX that it feels quite normal not to be the team's manager anymore.

My reasons to step back as manager

I know that I am one of these people who like to push things forward and lead people. Nevertheless, the role of engineering manager does not boil down to only leading people; it also entails managing people. This aspect means it is your job to ensure these people can grow and take the next steps in their career. You arrange tasks, helping your team members achieve new things and tackle new challenges. Your definition of success shifts towards the overall perspective of the company by delivering great features.

I struggled a lot, but, eventually, I managed to help my team achieve many great things throughout the year. Additionally, I supported my director, splitting my team by hiring new people and reorganizing the structure of our engineering tribe. So everyone asked me why I considered stepping back from my role as manager. It took me months to understand my internal feelings. It felt like endless evenings sitting in my chair and reflecting on the day and the week, having hours of discussions with my wife during car trips. Today, with all these reflections and thinking about my future, I can boil it down to the following points:

  1. My burning passion for writing code, solving problems and bringing value to users/customers.
  2. I still have a lot room to grow as a Software Engineer before being a manager
  3. I do not have the same passion for doing the job as a manager, in contrast to being a developer

Developer by heart

Quickly, I realized that being an engineering manager while also making significant contributions as a developer is almost impossible. Of course, you sporadically engage in programming tasks in order to keep in touch with your team's work, but you won't have the time to delve into core functionalities or focus topics.

This reality was frustrating because of my strong desire to immerse myself in these tasks and be part of the process. It was painful to let go of things I used to do every day.

I recall days when I spent hours coding, and the satisfaction it brought me. In the evening, my wife could instantly tell whether I'd had a 'coding' day or not.
This created a daily struggle to distribute tasks to my team, which I would have loved to solve myself.

Additionally, I continuously had the feeling of missing opportunities to improve my own coding skills, which I saw necessary, to live up to my own expectations of a great software developer.

No passion for management

I understood by reflecting on my work with the team. Throughout the year, we did numerous workshops and other sessions. I had many talks with other managers about how they were doing things, and I recognized over time that they had so much passion about these management tasks and skills that I never felt. Here, it is necessary to say that I tried hard to get into this passion, but never managed to find it within myself.
For me, it was always a burden to prepare a workshop or a team session, and in most cases, I did it somehow improvised. In the end, I was always disappointed about the sessions and said I would do it better next time, unsuccessfully.
While some innate aptitude towards managing people allowed me to wing most of the workshops or team sessions, it was never fun, and the lack of enjoyment would have probably led me towards a mediocre performance eventually.

The turning point

Juggling the split between internal unhappiness and external praise brought me close to a dangerous mental level. I lost the inner fire I had for my job before, and it was difficult to get up in the morning for work while trying to repay the trust that was put into me with the promotion.
My entire life, I had one paradigm for work: As soon as I find myself in this daily routine of being unmotivated to start my job and not feeling happy anymore, I have to change something.

It was a nerve-wracking experience to bring up my pinned-up fear of disappointment and communicate openly about my struggles in the next one-on-one meeting. It all vaporized with my manager showing empathy and support by restructuring the entire hiring strategy of the team to accommodate my wish to work as an IC again.

Four weeks later in the context of an internal re-organisation, I was asked if I wanted to switch back immediately. I was so happy about this opportunity and took the chance directly. My director created an impact record, and I went through the official Promotion Board to identify the proper level in the IC track for me. With this, I got promoted from engineering manager to staff engineer at LeanIX. This allows me to do IC work, which is what I love, but additionally sets the right expectation towards me to be a leader as well.

The announcement - the relief

Two weeks after the planning (everything was under the hood, due to reasons), the announcement of the organizational restructuring took place on November 15. I did not expect the impact of this event or the day. From one moment to the next, it felt like rocks fell off my shoulders. I could sleep again. I woke up and was burning to go to work and achieve things.

At the end

In retrospect, those eleven months were a roller-coaster ride of learning, frustration, fun, mental issues, and understanding how much it is worth it to work in an environment where individual people count and everyone is valued.
Despite my tough journey, I want to encourage everyone who is willing to try out management to do the step, and to not feel bad if you figure out it is not how you intend to work. I think you cannot judge or finally decide if you don't try it yourself. It is important to take this step with the right people, but you should give yourself time to step into this role and see how it goes for you. I hope you have a similar great working environment as I had, which allowed me to take this journey, learn a lot and finally return to my most favorite job.

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Published by Nikolas Rist

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