How to Choose a Career: Technical or Managerial?
Whether you’re in engineering, information technology, or another technical field, at some point in your career, you will come to a fork in the road. Each of these evermore divergent career paths will present to you their own unique set of obstacles and benefits. But the true challenge is in knowing which one to take: technical or managerial.
Whether you come to this junction after five years or 20, how to choose a career that you know is right for you will depend on how – and how honestly – you reflect on what you really love doing, what you really don’t love doing, and what you think you are capable of doing.
The pull of the “people” path
You may discover during your soul searching that the pressure to pick the managerial career path is difficult to defy no matter what. You may love every aspect of being a software developer or a process engineer, and yet you find yourself being lured away by voices in the back of your mind, egging you on like some kid on a schoolyard dare. Or maybe they’re more like siren calls, singing sweet promises of higher pay and prestige.
In either case, the magnetism of the managerial route is to some extent the product of societal indoctrination. For a long time, success in the corporate world has been associated with the number of boxes beneath yours on the company org chart. Those boxes represent, of course, the number of people accountable to you. Typical top-of-the-food-chain stuff.
But is there really more status – and money, for that matter – at the managerial level? Not necessarily, and that’s because many organizations these days are incentivizing those with exceptional technical talents to stay on that track because it’s better both for them and for the bottom line. Some tech companies, such as Facebook, have forthrightly given their employees the option between a technical or managerial career path, either of which can lead to seniority. Allowing technical experts to reach senior levels without having to manage staff (if that’s what they’d prefer) is seen as motivation for innovation.
Still, the stereotype persists that those with technical talents are great with “learnable” skills, yet lack the “transcendent” and “inherent” soft skills that managers need to leverage for success. The stereotype that managers always make more money also persists. Of course, the latter is no truer than the former. What you earn being a technical professional versus being a manager really is contingent on just what kind of technical professional you are. If you work in a lab for a pharmaceutical company, for example, as a highly specialized, top biochemist, you may well make more than your team manager because, in that instance, your knowledge is seen as more valuable to the company than the manager’s people skills.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”
We’ve written a lot on this blog about soft skills, particularly their rising importance in the technical fields. So, it’s not that choosing a technical career path means you get to shun your coworkers. But for a snapshot of the many people skills managers need to master, it’s worth taking a look at our article aimed at newly appointed supervisors to get you thinking about whether the managerial path is something you fear to tread or whether it’s clearly your Yellow Brick Road.
Perhaps the most common challenge technical professionals face when transitioning to a managerial role is letting go of the minutiae of their old jobs. Be it the particulars of a new firewall or the approval of a product proposal, managers have to leave the details to the developers or engineers they manage. Otherwise, not only do you end up neglecting your managerial duties, but you’ll also find yourself micromanaging your team. Not the best way to earn their respect, to say the least.
Of course, continuing up the technical path is not without its hazards either. The road may seem freshly paved, but the climb can be steep. There’s the omnipresent priority of maintaining a relevant skillset in the face of unending technological progress and an unstoppable pipeline of recent graduates who are always already familiar with the latest and greatest developments – and willing to work at entry-level salaries. For some, these challenges are the reason they choose the managerial path.
Ultimately, however, the career path you choose is supremely unique, based not only on what you enjoy to do, but what you feel you need to do to achieve what you want in life both professionally and personally. Think back to when you were first trying to decide what to do for a living. What were your goals, and how have they changed? It’s no easy decision to make, but if you choose to stay in the technical fields, it is inevitable – and only you can figure out the career path to take. That’s why the best advice anyone can give you can be summed up with the directions Major League legend Yogi Berra gave to get to his home, which could be reached by two different roads: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”