Sunday, October 10, 2010

Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years? (Blue Pill or Red Pill?)


Until recently, this has always been an easy question for me.

  • In middle school I wanted to be in computers so I obsessed over computers.
  • In high school I wanted to formally study computers so I pursued engineering at OSU.
  • In college I wanted a job in computers so I graduated and pursued a career in computers.
  • In my career in computers I wanted to advance my career to level two.
  • In my career at level two, I wanted to advance to level three.
  • There is no level four (at my current employer)

I’ve always considered myself very lucky to know what I wanted to do with my life—to have a simple, easy plan. And over the last 14 years, that’s the plan I followed, getting slightly more focused and specialized with each step, as represented in the image above.

But now I’m faced with a decision that I suddenly don’t have an easy answer for: I’ve reached the top of the technical ladder and have to choose my next step.

Quite simply, I need to decide if I want to move into management (i.e. manage projects and occasionally design software, but stop coding) or stay technical (i.e. design software and write code, but stop advancing). To code or not to code…

magic8ball1.jpg (316×289)Option 1: The Default Path Into Management and Sales

The path of least external resistance is definitely to follow the management route at my current company. That’s what everyone expects me to do. It’s probably where the money is and provides new growth opportunities. Over time I’d have to give up coding and learn more about project management, people management, and sales—areas that don’t excite me terribly. This is the blue pill option.

Option 2: The Terminal Path of Staying Technical

Another option is to resist the pull into management and remain a senior engineer forever. By deliberately limiting my advancement into management, I’d be able to stay technical and do pretty much what I do now. The money and the work is comfortable, though there’s more travel than I’d like. I’d probably continue leading small teams and working on long-term projects. This is another blue pill option.

Option 3: Something Else Entirely

I think I would love to be a highly technical product manager. I have given myself this role on some internal projects that I probably can’t talk about and have really enjoyed it. Being the human representative of a product that advocates for or against features and changes, and stays deep enough in the technical details that I actually get to code some or most of it is very compelling.

The issue with this approach is that it’s not really compatible with my current employer—we don’t have very many products. Instead, we do projects—consultant work for various companies. Since pursuing this directly would require aggressive career changes and uncertainty, it’s the red pill option.

Decision Time


I can take option 2—stay put, stop advancing—off the table. I didn’t get where I am now by doing things that are comfortable and as wonderful as it sounds, I can’t imagine that working for me. I’m too easily bored, I guess.

Option 3—something else entirely—has some significant issues. While it is extremely compelling for what it could offer—a chance to hand-pick with great precision what I really want to do—the opportunity comes at a price: location. It’s unlikely I’ll find anything like that within commuting distance. Sarah and I are building a well-rooted family and relocating isn’t something I’m willing to entertain.

That leaves me with option 1. The wildcard within option 1 is that I might be able to sneak some of option 3 into it. My manager and I have discussed my product manager goals and concluded that it’s a remote possibility. That basically means that I need to get very lucky—a successful product needs to emerge from the organization (something that very rarely happens, as it’s not our primary business), and I need to be worked into the foundation of it. But if the product management stuff doesn’t work out, I’ll still be in good shape. I’ve done a fair bit of technical sales and have actually found parts of it that I enjoy so there might be a future there.

So that’s what I’m going to do: option 1, management and sales, with an eye out for product management opportunities. This of course means I’ll be more motivated than ever to do side projects like Noodle to scratch my coder itch and stay sharp.

Final Conclusions

Of course this is the five-year plan so who knows what’ll happen?

Also, I am so very fortunate to have the stability and flexibility to grapple with decisions like this (and to have so few of these decisions to make!). Please know that the coziness, wonderfulness of my place in life is not lost on me. My approach to these things is much less about which option I will ungratefully dislike the least and far more about which option I will enthusiastically throw my energy into 100%.