Volume 32 Number 10
The Engineer's Path: 2 Decisions That Define a Career
By Krishnan Rangachari | October 2017
Engineers face a host of unique career challenges. In this column, I deal with two specific ones: The choice between the technical track and management track, and a more fundamental decision about how to "show up" at work.
For some engineers, the opportunity to transition into management comes up as they grow and, often, they feel conflicted about it. Those who do make the switch may find they're still haunted by self-doubt, prompting them to regularly consider a return to engineering. Here are five questions you can ask yourself to know if management is a good fit for you:
Do I seek growth through external interactions or internal struggles? Management is a special opportunity to experience conflicts with others. This serves as a mirror into your own strengths and blind spots, and accelerates your personal growth.
Engineering, being more contemplative, demands that you grow through internal struggles—unlocking your personal productivity, developing a single-minded focus on technical problems and demanding a deep desire for self-driven growth.
Do I enjoy technical depth or strategic breadth? Managers are "good enough" experts in many areas. They're OK with having just passing knowledge of other areas. They learn to make good decisions with bad data.
Engineers deliver their best value with mastery and expertise. They enjoy the patience and endurance it takes to dive deeper into one or two areas, for weeks or months at a time.
Do I have my act together? As a manager, you're responsible for the careers of many engineers, not just your own. If you feel helpless or out of control in your own career, you can't help but propagate chaos to those you manage.
Engineering, on the other hand, is the perfect opportunity to work through your inner conflicts by yourself. This will help make you a better manager when the time is right.
Do I enjoy discovering calm amidst chaos, or finding beauty in complexity? As a manager, you're hit with demands from all sides. Good managers enjoy fulfilling the right requests and sidestepping the wrong ones. The best managers know that mastering this dance is a lifelong art.
As an engineer, you're responsible for solving open-ended, complex and highly technical problems. You may not even know what the problem is, so relishing the scientific method is key.
What would I do if I'm paid the same? You might be driven by a desire for money or status without even knowing it. Yet, externally, you might justify your choices by mentioning anything but these things. Ask yourself, "How can I contribute the most to the world with my skills and abilities right now, regardless of how much recognition or money I get? Which option plays to my strengths while helping me deepen my personal growth?"
A Question of Courage
Once you decide which path to take, you might feel some anxiety, inadequacy or fear. For engineers, this feeling might be so intense that there's a temptation to hide and try to be invisible. But invisibility only hinders your ability to contribute at work. So you have a choice: Do you choose to be a timid engineer who becomes invisible in the face of a challenge, or a brave engineer who stays visible despite the risk?
A brave engineer recognizes her own nervousness and thinks, "I want to tap this energy and turn it into enthusiasm!" A timid engineer sees his own nervousness and thinks, "Ugh, I'm so nervous. I'll put this off until I feel better." Brave engineers experience the feelings and emotions that timid engineers do—they've just practiced interpreting them differently.
Bravery also recognizes the universal nature of humanity. Brave engineers understand that managers have many of the same fears and personal insecurities as a junior engineer. By contrast, timid engineers ascribe super-human qualities to their superiors, imagining them to be perfect while considering themselves to be deeply flawed.
Brave engineers know that the fastest path to success is to commit to embracing and transcending their own imperfections. They view work interactions as fun games they design themselves, whereas timid engineers see work interactions as a maze from which they must escape.
Here's the good news: Timid engineers can become brave engineers quickly, just by making their next action a tiny act of courage. It's possible to undo a decade of fear with just six months of constant practice. That's what I did.
Krishnan Rangachari is a leadership coach to CTOs and technical leaders. Visit RadicalShifts.com for his free courses for engineers.