Swinging the Pendulum - Becoming an Engineer Again

The pendulum is swinging again, and it is swinging a lot faster this time than it has previously. I asked on Twitter whether people would be interested in some posts as I work through this change and the answer was yes. So here we are…

Not My First Rodeo

First things first - I like to remind myself that I have done this before, though a lot less deliberately. While working at MongoDB I was a manager for 2 years, eventually burned out in that role, and then made the shift back to engineering work (Solutions Engineering, then Consulting Engineering). The most obvious difference that time around was that I made the shift while staying in the same company.

However, it was even more different than it appears - I was still a lot closer to the work at that point (I was still quite hands on as a manager and had only been one for 2 years). I burned out in my manager role in MongoDB - that is not the case in Riot (to be clear, this is a positive difference). While making the change in MongoDB I was also learning to be a parent for the first time. I don’t think that was exactly an ideal set of conditions, nor were the conditions in MongoDB particularly well suited for what I was trying to do (long story).

Big Differences

This previous pendulum swing back to engineering started in MongoDB and completed in Riot (where I joined as a Senior Systems Engineer) over the course of two years. This time I need to greatly accelerate that process - weeks would be better than months this time around, the quicker the better. There are several factors that make me believe this is achievable:

  1. I am not burnt out this time - I loved working at Riot, I was about to become a Senior Manager and go with the ladder rather than the pendulum. I was managing a high performing team of awesome engineers, and working on products that I believed in. Life was good in Riot, basically. I am making this change because I think the opportunity in Vela is even better than what I am leaving behind - this is a choice, not a change made from necessity or desperation, and that matters.

  2. I have grown and learned a lot in the 7 years since I last tried to do this, and I believe that will allow me to be more deliberate, structured in my approach. The idea is to leverage that increased self-awareness along with increased experience so that the switch is faster and more successful this time around

  3. I am not a sleep-deprived first-time parent. This is huge, you need your brain to be well rested, and you need to have the energy (mental, emotional, physical) to tackle new things, absorb new ideas, focus and concentrate for longer periods of time. Anyone that has become a parent knows that this is essentially impossible during those first weeks and months.

It’s not all perfect, of course, I am attempting this change during a global pandemic. I will be onboarding onto a new team and a new company while working from home. I have already had the odd situation of having our CEO drop off my new laptop to my house while not being able to invite him in. It will be an interesting challenge for sure.

Swinging that Pendulum

On to the real topic - making the shift to engineering after 3+ years as a manager. Not only have I done this previously, I have actually done some thinking (and talking) about it during my time as a manager. The pendulum post resonated with me when Charity wrote it, so when she visited Dublin last year I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Engineer/Manager Pendulum Skillshare event that Charity organised (thanks to Intercom for hosting). There were round table discussions, sharing of thoughts, experiences and generally it gave me a lot to think about.

Shifting Mindset

With all of that bouncing around in my head, and with a more abrupt changeover this time I believe that of all things I can focus on, a mindset shift is key.

To explain: as a manager in Riot I effectively spent 3 years actively trying not to be an engineer. My job was to delegate, empower others. Rather than “solutioning”, the best way to have engineers on your team solve a problem is to have them truly own the solution. Interestingly enough, this starts as a choice but eventually becomes a necessity - your skills atrophy the longer you stay as a manager and in particular as your teams get bigger. I now need to completely reverse that shift in a couple of weeks. I will be the one that needs to own the solution, I will need to prioritise appropriately, and meet deadlines. It is going to be interesting :)

Of course, I also need to brush the rust off my tech skills, but despite the usual imposter syndrome (yes, still there after 20+ years), I am going to trust that I will get there on the technical side - my track record there is solid, and in my experience engineers are generally pretty good at knowing what their gaps are technically, we tend to have a harder time with the non-tech.

More to Come

I will outline the steps I have been taking on both fronts in future posts (part the second is now live). I have outlines done and am actually partially through the process already. Suggestions or requests are more than welcome though - by all means get in touch if there is something specific you would like me to write about, explore or clarify. Twitter is probably the easiest way to reach me, but regardless of your preferred method I am relatively easy to find.