First-time poster here. I’ve searched the forums for something addressing this sort of question, but haven’t found anything addressing it. And I have to believe it comes up often.

BLUF: just as the subject says – I need to get out of management, and I need to manage my career trajectory so that it doesn’t mark me as a failure.

I’ve had formal direct reports for four years, informally a bit longer, and prior to that informally as “team lead.” My job requires me to juggle both acting as a manager and fulfilling duties as “chief engineer” role. This is one of those situations where I got really good at a job and was promoted into management as a “reward.” Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve liked about it is the paycheck. My only mangement training has been the Manager Tools podcasts, and I think I do it as well as I can, but I don’t see myself getting better than mediocre. My network is crummy, I’m poor at motivating others, and “relationship work” doesn’t come naturally to me. There’s also the possibility it’s my company, or my superior, who is the only person I’ve had management roles under, but if I had a natural talent for this I imagine I’d be getting at least some positive vibes that I’m doing the right thing on some level. I tried very earnestly the first few years, but at this point I have to assume the problem isn’t my effort level or my environment, but me, and I need to get out of a non-fitting role, as I’ll have an ulcer if I keep going at it.

I’ve tried looking outside my company to get back to a regular “team lead” engineering role at another company, but have been flummoxed in my job search. This is software engineering, so it isn’t like I’m trying to get hired into a bad market. I suspect that there is a perception that I’m interviewing for non-managerial roles means I’ve struck out in my present role, or that I’m too rusty to do technical work, or that I’m too “expensive.” How do I manage a transition like this, and properly position myself in the job market?

Sibshops's picture

I don’t have any recommendations for you, but this seems to be surprisingly common in software engineering.  My past two managers left management roles to individual contributor roles at other companies, and I know two other individual contributors who left management roles as well. I still keep in contact with my previous managers, and they never regretted the switch. One of them said, “I am actually able to write software again; it provides me with much happiness!” Because this career transition seems so common, I’m interested in hearing what other people have to say about it as well.

nejnna's picture

Hi doughboi,


  1. Look for validation in other places than the vibes you get from your subordinates.
  2. Try to network and make a manager friend so you aren't so isolated.


This is what stuck out to me in your post:

"if I had a natural talent for this I imagine I’d be getting at least some positive vibes that I’m doing the right thing on some level"

I'm extrapolating a lot here so feel free to tell me I'm off base. I think you're not getting any validation that you're a good manager but I also I think you're looking for it in the wrong places. When you're a software engineer, your code either works or doesn't. Your bug is still broken or it's fixed. There's a right answer and if you work, you can get to it. That's the validation you get as a "regular" engineer. 

As a manager, you're not getting any validation because that's not the nature of the job. No one tells their manager "you ran a hell of a meeting!" People come to your meetings, get their info, file out to their regular job. As an authority figure, you're isolated to some degree from your subordinates. It has nothing to do with you or your personality. It's the nature of a relationship like that. That doesn't make you a bad manager. People who have a natural talent for the human side of things fall victim to this same thing. 

To solve it, try to look for other places for the validation that you want and stop looking for vibes. Some ideas: Are you meeting deadlines? Are your meetings well-attended? Are people engaged when you talk? I have a feeling that you're doing better than you think but you're just not picking up the signals that are telling you. There aren't "meeting successful" dialog boxes. 

It might help you to feel less isolated in your managerial role to network and find a manager friend. I'm not suggesting something elaborate here. I just mean someone you can talk to about your job or day or whatever -- just a work friend to talk to around the water cooler. It might help you to find someone else who's struggling with the same things you are the same way that a fellow engineer could comisserate about a difficult bug. 

You're likely doing a fine job as a manager. You might not get positive validation but if you were messing up, you'd surely be getting the negative feedback! Keep looking for another job if that's what you want to do but don't feel that you've failed out as a manager either.

Good luck!

doughboi's picture

Sorry I used the term validation, it isn't really what I meant

After four years, I have to honestly figure - am I succeeding where it counts? I get plenty of negative feedback, but that's not the problem. I'm doing fine as far as meeting dates and hitting targets and meeting objectives, but that's project-manager stuff. The stuff I'm getting dinged on is retention, recruiting, "salesmanship," making connections, the "important stuff." That is what I get evaluated on as a manager, and being in my mid-career, it's too late for me to be dinking around in a role where I'm unsuccessful.

Anyway thanks for the suggestions at any rate!

MichaelP's picture

BLUF: If you don't enjoy what you are doing and don't see how to turn it around, life is too short to feel miserable all day long.

My situation is/was a bit more complicated... I am working for an IT service company, full time on a customer site.

For the past 30 months, I have been holding 3 positions (Senior
System Administrator, Team Lead and Manager) while only being compensated for the technical role as the management part wasn't supposed to last more than 6 months while they were looking for two managers. I accepted the management position to help the customer in a time of change, but the team lead position was forced on me. Those two roles have a direct conflict of interest as the Manager position is "reporting to the customer" while the Team Lead is "reporting to my employer". My employer refuses to acknowledge that there is anything unusual or ineffective about holding the 3 positions at the same time.

The first year's review, I got praised by the customer for turning the teams around, fusing two distinct teams at cross purpose into one effective team, saving millions in OPEX and improving the communications/relations to other teams but was dinged by my employer for focusing too much on the manager position and not communicating enough with my directs or my employer. I was already doing 3Os, feedback and coaching. I was also communicating with my employer daily by email and weekly in person during meetings I organized.

My managers were replaced a month before the second year's review process started (both employer side and customer side). I got praised by my employer for communication and team management but was dinged by the customer (my manager's manager) as I had a very good working relationship with my recently fired manager.

My employer's manager left just as this year's review process started so the reviews were made by someone brand new to the company. I got praised by the customer for the team productivity, team retention and services improvements but dinged by my employer for "only meeting all expectations" and "not looking very motivated".

This winter, I decided to step down as there was no way to do a correct job while keeping the 3 positions. Being put in a situation where there was no way to succeed was also destroying me (and my family life). I accepted to keep some responsibilities (coaching, 3Os, process improvements) until a replacement temporary manager is found but I am now back to individual contributor.

doughboi's picture

That's miserable.

If there's a common thread in all of this, it's that a lot of companies don't think of management as a role with distinct skills and aptitudes requiring, oh, committment of time to such a role. I've been at Fortune 500 companies where it's looked at very seriously, but the smaller companies I've worked with seem to regard management as a very expensive line item - as if they think "well we can't afford to have a manager *and* a technical lead on the payroll, so let's just force both duties on the same person." I can understand why Mark and Mike hate matrix organizations, but one thing I will say about them is they sidestep that sort of nonsense.

jrb3's picture

Heh, I've been looking to get back into a formal management role, this time where I can get a paycheck for it.  Care to swap?   1/2 :-)

Interviewing for software tech leads and individual contributors, I've come across my share of former managers.  The best have openly stated "hey I got into management because it needed to get done, I did okay and I'm shifting because I realize I miss actually doing the work" -- that is, did it, learned life's better when coding, am moving forward with that positive.  If you find you need to address the salary (or any other) concern, hand it matter-of-factly.  It's only as negative as you make it out to be.

Hmm, if you're "chief engineer", and the company really is large enough to have team leads you hire/fire, maybe it's time to fission your job into its constituent roles.  Find/grow your managerial replacement and shift that hat over to him/her.  You can then focus solely on the technical strategic direction, architecting and projecting solutions to customer problems -- or also find your architect/CTO replacement and ease yourself back into a saner posting. :-)

Meantime, find managers or equivalents to network with.  I've found Toastmasters, Rotary International, churches, fraternal organizations (eg Masons or Elks), even the local Chamber of Commerce very good for this.  Track down an experienced manager or officer you can trust to act as a mentor, sounding board, or shoulder to cry on.  (I've been on both sides of all these ....)  In a small enough town, you can even try networking through current and former mayors, city managers, and council members.

And if you're near Atlanta (GA US) I can try connecting you to some folks I know ....