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  1. Blog
  2. Advancement

Up Isn’t the Only Way: Creating an Alternative to the Managerial Career Path

When to pass on people management

Woman with colorful hair
Photo courtesy of Dan

This article is part of InHerSight's Techsplorer series. Women in tech face distinct challenges. Learn how to build a successful career in this male-dominated industry without sacrificing what you want.

Not all employees want to become managers. This is especially true in tech, where moving into a managerial position distances you from actually building things.

You can grow your career successfully without leading a team or department. We look at why some employees choose paths other than management, some of the benchmarks they use in those alternative career paths, how they measure growth, and how they find fulfillment.

Read more: Choosing Your Career Path: How to Plan & Pivot Your Way to a Dream Career

Why don’t some employees want to be managers?

The meeting-heavy existence of managers doesn’t attract everyone. As the person responsible for leading others toward common department or company goals and achievements, you are no longer contributing directly to the work itself. Before being the boss, you were in the trenches, coding or writing; once you’re a manager, you direct instead of do.

We asked career success coach Jennifer Brick this question. She tells InHerSight: “It’s funny, because a lot of times we talk like everyone aspires to reach the highest level of leadership, but that isn’t the reality for most people. While people leadership is rewarding, it is a totally different skill set and set of pressures that not everyone wants. While my clients skew to wanting to climb the career ladder, I frequently speak with people who want to advance their careers but don’t want to manage people.”

Read more: Ask a Recruiter: I’m a Mom, and the Pandemic Altered My Career. How Do I Move Forward?

A discussion on reddit provides a good example of why people don’t want these leadership jobs. It was started by a senior systems engineer, who’d turned down management offers from a couple of companies. His reasons for declining them were first that he was happy with the freedom of his job and with the money he was making. Secondly, there were just too many negatives associated with being the boss, including the number of “pointless meetings” (back-to-back meeting days, anyone?) late night calls, dealing with personnel issues, and some loss of technical skills.

Marcelo Calbucci, chief technology officer at voice performance platform Hiya, says “the change from an individual contributor to a people manager is full of myths, pitfalls, and hidden traps.” In fact, he’s got 17 reasons why software engineers should not become engineering managers, with the first being it’s not a career progression, but a career change. “It’s more closely related to going from an engineering role to a product manager role,” he explains. “You’ll need to develop a bunch of new skills you didn’t know even existed.”

Read more: 6 Signs a Job Is Not Right For You

And it’s not just engineers who turn down management jobs.

Jayde Young has been in marketing management for four years. “Being a manager, it’s okay,” she says. “But it affords me nothing. I don’t have any real additional perks that my direct reports don’t have. My salary is a little higher, fine, but I have to work a lot longer. Honestly, the title is all fluff at the end of the day. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’ve had a great career. But there’s a sense of disillusionment when you actually get there.”

Read more: The Big 5: How These Personality Traits Affect Your Career & What You Can Do About It

So, how do you plan out other career paths?

If you’re already a manager and want out, you can always demote yourself.

That’s what Sarah Goff-Dupont, formerly a developer and a content and communications lead at Atlassian, did. She’s still with the software development company, but now as principal writer. 

“I... voluntarily demoted myself a few years ago,” she says. “Admittedly, I was a reluctant manager from the beginning but took the gig because it allowed me a chance to grow. As it turns out, I’m a writer at heart and leading a team took me too far away from that. So I eventually asked to step back into an individual contributor role where I could write full-time.” 

Read more: 8 Career Quizzes Made to Help You Choose a New Path

And if you’re being groomed to take over a leadership position that you don’t want, turn it down. That may be easier said than done, but executive coach Anne Sugar, who works with senior leaders in technology, marketing, and pharmaceutical companies, gives an example of what this might look like in a meeting with your boss:

“I was hoping we could use some of this time to discuss my career path here at [company]. I want to make sure I’m being transparent about how I think I can best contribute as I grow. I’m primarily interested in improving my technical expertise within the department and think that’s where my skills can be best utilized. I don’t have as much of an interest in managing people. Focusing on my expertise and craft—that excites me.”

Read more: Disappointed at Work? That Might Be a Good Thing

Define success: benchmarks and goals

Before making any kind of move, you need to figure out what career success means for you.

If your goal is to excel in your current role, do that by continuing to learn. For example, says Brick, if you’re in digital marketing, attend webinars to keep on top of technical advancements, or learn how to write SQL queries to dig into your data in new ways.

If your goal is to transition laterally, take steps to make that happen. That first means finding out the expectations and performance benchmarks required at that position, and then filling any skill gaps that exist. Talk to your current manager and HR about your career goals. You may be able to set up a mentor relationship or obtain job experience in addition to taking certification courses.

Read more: 25+ Short-Term Goals to Strive for Right Now

Strategies to grow your career without management titles

You’ll likely need some further education and upskilling to grow your career, especially if you’re moving along a lattice instead of climbing the standard corporate ladder. Some companies have in-house programs specifically to retain and promote employees.

Large tech companies like Google or Salesforce typically have paths that provide career progression, says Brick. “This is great because you have a promotion path doing the job you love, and you get better titles, more responsibility, and higher pay as you grow.”

If you’re in a smaller company that doesn’t have that kind of career path established, she says you can still collaborate, and if necessary negotiate, with your manager about moving up. When you are performing above and beyond your peers or your job description, you will likely find a lot of support.

Read more: How to Set a Really Good SMART Goal

You can also consider transitioning to a different, although related, role. 

For example, a graphic designer who is not interested in becoming a creative director or art director, might specialize as an illustrator, become a mentor, or instructor at a local college or online.

Similarly, a software developer can add technical writing to their skill set or become a “developer relations professional.” Also known as “developer advocates, developer evangelists, community managers, or ‘DevRels,’ [these professionals] help establish and build a community around their company's software, writes Karl Hughes, former startup CTO, now a tech writer. 

“They are often involved in creating demo applications, writing blog posts, speaking at conferences, and managing social media accounts for tech-focused companies,” he explains. “Many of the big-name tech companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc.) hire teams of developer relations professionals.”

Another example is moving from professional services into sales, Brick notes. “The skillset is transferable, and if you are working on a professional services team in a SaaS company, you may even be involved to some level pre-sale; however, sales salaries tend to be more lucrative, giving you the opportunity for income growth. This also allows you to develop new skill sets, perspectives, and take on new challenges to keep work exciting.”

Read more: What Does an Account Executive Do?

About our source

Jennifer Brick is a career success coach dedicated to helping women in male-dominated industries get the pay, promotion, and praise they deserve. Through her YouTube channel, speaking, workshops, programs, and social media presence, she has served millions of career success seekers.

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