When I was younger and more naive, many years ago, I used to believe that one would be promoted in his/her job over time, getting ever bigger salaries and tackling ever more complex and challenging problems as years passed by. I used to think that this would happen, more or less, for any profession that one would choose. Junior doctors would start helping more senior supervisors and, little by little, start adventuring into their own diagnostics, to eventually be brave enough as to prescribe medicines without supervision. After some years, perhaps, they would be able to detect some health issues of patients by expert judgment, using a well-balanced combination of lab tests, on-the-fly checks and gut feeling. Even later, perhaps as a mature person, our doctor would lead a team, supervising junior doctors who would start the cycle again. Until retirement.
Over his/her professional lifetime, our doctor went from being an inexperienced, passionate, almost amateurish youngster, to being a seasoned, has-seen-it-all, hopefully still passionate leader. But always a doctor.
I was wrong.
At least, I was wrong for my profession. I am a software engineer. And, in software engineering, few people close the cycle as our good doctor did. Of the many young software engineers that start their careers in their early twenties, in my experience, most of them leave the profession to become other things. Managers. Salespersons. Whatever.
Of course, this doesn’t happen in research organisations such as universities, because the ivory of which the walls of the tower are made insulates people inside from the maladies of the real world. And I am being only partially sarcastic here; I seriously believe that, in this case, living in an ivory tower is the only way to guarantee that you are kept free from what seems to be one of the stupidest popular beliefs of nowaday’s dumb corporate ethics. Namely, that the best engineers must be promoted to become managers.
Do you remember the Peter Principle? It says that people tend to be promoted up and up until they achieve their level of incompetence. Since excellent engineers are excellent at what they do, upper managers may (and often do) think that they deserve better and promote them to middle managers. This move is, in most corporate cultures, seen as a “good” move. You know, more responsibility, managing people, making real decisions. Writing business requirements. A bigger salary. Wow. A good move.
A good move?
Tayloristic management is based on the idea that some people (the managers) are better at knowing what to do than other people (the managed), and therefore some of us are managers and some are managed. This axiom is arguable, but my point here is that being a manager entails a body of knowledge and skills that not everybody possesses. Like being able to write good C# code or knowing how to differentiate a common cold from the SARS, being able to manage people is something that you learn and can be good or bad at. This management body of knowledge does not materialise into your brain the very moment when your boss says “Morgan, you are our best engineer, so I think you should become the team’s manager”.
Few engineers possess the required knowledge and experience to be good managers, regardless of how good they are at engineering. The skill set is so different that little overlap exists. So, when an excellent engineer is promoted to manager, an excellent engineer is lost and a mediocre manager, at best, is won. Good move? Nope.
In my opinion, excellent engineers should be promoted to senior engineers, and then, if still excellent, to super-senior engineers, or mega-engineers, or engineering gurus, or whatever. But, for Pete’s sake, don’t turn them into managers!
If you need managers, recruit managers. Train people as managers from the very beginning. Educate them and give them the experience that they will need.
Engineering and management should be two different career paths. The appropriate cross-pollination strategies must be applied, of course, to ensure that managers are not oblivious to the engineering world and vice versa. But, still, two different career paths. And so different!