After nearly two decades of focusing on the management side of IT, I've been writing code lately -- and loving it. This wasn't a deliberate, considered career move or a midlife return to the glory days; it was merely a confluence of circumstances. In the course of working on a client's project, it became clear that this particular work needed to be done, and there was no one else around to do it, so I dove in.
When I was less secure as a manager, I would have considered a return to coding a humiliating demotion. Instead, what I experienced felt more like a joyful homecoming. It reminded me of what had drawn me to a technical career in the first place. It also got me thinking about the transformation of the IT work landscape.
We have all read countless laments about the destruction of the traditional career path, which used to lead one steadily higher in the organization. We all know by now that job security is dead, that outsourcing has transformed the work landscape and that loyalty is now the rarest of commodities among both employers and employees. But when I found myself stepping into an old role after years of doing something else, I started to think about the upsides of today's unstructured careers and discovered several benefits that are worth noting:
Variety. It's true that you need focus to excel in your field of choice, whether that's working hands-on with technology or managing the people who do. But occasional excursions are both fun and useful. And if you are primarily a technical manager, a midcareer stint in hands-on work offers the chance to become more intimately familiar with new technologies while refreshing the experience of being on the receiving end of managerial mandates. You can then return to your regular role with renewed vigor and realism.
A sense of accomplishment. Managing other people can be fulfilling work, but your sense of accomplishment can be ambiguous. If a manager looks in the mirror at the end of any given day and asks, "Was I successful today?" the only honest answer is, "I don't know. Check back in a couple of years." Time horizons are long, and clear-cut victories are rare. An occasional return to hands-on work offers the opportunity to feel the rush of immediate feedback that comes with unambiguous success and failure: "It compiled and gave the right answers!"
Flexibility of self-measurement. New managers often struggle with their sense of self-worth. As individual contributors, they could measure themselves by their own production. As new managers, they grapple with the demands of their new role, and it's difficult to let go of what had always been a reliable measuring stick. And their self-esteem can take a tumble when they try to apply it in their new circumstances. They can be burdened by the knowledge that they haven't written a single line of code in months. Not knowing how to evaluate their effectiveness in the new role, they decide that they must be bad at their job because they spend all of their time in meetings. Moving back and forth between roles can help you see how to switch between measuring your own productivity and your effect on the productivity of others.
Too often we make self-limiting assumptions about position, status and the need to rigidly follow an established career path. But there's a lot to be said for enjoying whatever work is right in front of you.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at email@example.com.