Blending People Management and Individual Contribution Skills

At most companies once you reach a certain level of seniority, you’re faced with a choice: will you become a people manager or continue as an individual contributor? You must decide whether to tackle bigger engineering challenges, such as designing non-trivial systems, or to focus on seeking, retaining and developing engineering talent.

What if you’d like to do both?

For young companies it’s easy to follow what the big guys are doing. That’s why most organisations introduce separate managerial and engineering tracks. At Pollen, we take a different approach.

We tried to understand what kind of people work here and what motivates them. We talked about career paths and listened to what the engineers had to say. A bunch of us expressed interest in taking on managerial duties, but also wanted to continue with our current work. So, we started considering ways to merge these career paths.

Here’s how it works in my case, although there may be slight variations from person to person. Currently I am tech leading a team. I’m actively involved in setting quarterly objectives, connecting with the broader business, software design decisions, daily pull requests, code reviews and the team’s wellbeing. I’m also a manager for two bright young ladies who I meet regularly for 1:1s. My goal is to support their mastery, help them grow and suggest when they are ready for a promotion. I myself also get coaching on how to get better at all these things.

It’s challenging balancing both, but it isn’t affecting my productivity. My team is delivering value to the organisation and I’m engaged in all key aspects of our project. At the same time I can harness my passion for mentorship and invest time and effort to help my reports grow and feel challenged. I enjoy the opportunity to do both.

Having the explicit permission to do both and be clear about the boundaries liberates engineers and lets them explore options which might not have been available to them in the past. Of course, all this is optional and nobody is expected to take on split roles if they don’t want to.

As of now we’re a small department of 30+ engineers. We don’t know what will happen in the future once our team expands. Some of us may want to take on more reports and give up some engineering responsibilities, others may prefer to stay where they are or decide people management is not what they want to continue doing. Any of these options will be supported by their manager.

Ultimately if we ever outgrow the current model and decide to redesign the roles at Pollen, we know how to approach it: be observant of people working here and listen to what they say.

Ana Balica is a Staff Software Engineer at Pollen. She also organises events with PyLadies London, volunteers at a local Code Club and regularly speaks at conferences such as EuroPython and DjangoCon.

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