Moving On Up
Is it what you really want?
Back in December of 2022 I was taking part in this good thread on Twitter (I’m trying to spend less time there as the site appears to get worse). We will always have Substack.
In this thread I took a somewhat cynical view of the management track, and I think one fundamental flaw in my thinking over the past 15 years has been that promotion ultimately leads to management of people and teams. This doesn’t have to be the case, but I think we tend to view promotions in a very linear and narrow paths in the science and engineering fields.
Management is Not ALWAYS the Way
The typical path a scientist views as one to success is usually BS → Junior Scientist role → PhD → Independent Scientist role in industry/academia → Management of other scientists → happiness, money, respect, honors, and success —> Nirvana.
This has been my view since 2009 when I had a BS in chemistry, but I think this view is just too narrow. Why is it that we primarily see management as a pathway towards success and why does management get paid a lot of money?
Anne Helen Peterson and Charlie Warzel wrote about this management role in their book Out Of Office (part of my summer reading list). The relevant stuff I took from Out of Office around this is that management tends to get paid marginally better and has access to better promotions, more money, visibility to the executives, and more work flexibility. The path towards management is doing well in your role and Warzel and Peterson discuss this phenomenon of good individual contributors being promoted to management roles with little to no training on how to be a manager much less be a good one. Your excellence at science or engineering doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be excellent at managing a team of scientists and engineers.
A feeling of inadequacy or being in the deep end of the pool tends to make me want to thrash around quite violently and try to “work” my way to competence. This tends to be a good strategy when your work is just some molecules in a flask in a hood, but when your work is the management of others it can lead to micromanagement, and just overall poor outcomes. As one manager told me early on in my career, “you get promoted to your level of incompetence.” If your level of incompetence is being the CEO of a company or a senior leadership role at the “top of the ladder,” then it can be quite lucrative.
If the management of others, especially a team comprised of others just like you, sounds like a nightmare scenario I think we need to think about other pathways and maybe examine the ideas around what makes us happy at work and happy in life?
A Myriad of Paths to Take
Over the summer I also read and finished The Pathless Path by Paul Millerd on the recommendation of a reader (thank you vgr). The book is at a minimum thought provoking and accurately describes how the majority of us are on pre-determined paths. Scientists and engineers might be on either a management path or a highly valued individual contributor path with the thought that you will provide value to the shareholders of your company. The outcomes in these paths are predictable and usually secure, at least until the next recession anyway, and traveling them can be a really great way to learn new skills, meet people, and try new things.
I think being an early career scientist or engineer is all about exploring and figuring out which paths feel right for you at the time and then re-evaluating and changing things up if you want. It’s about exploring while you still have minimal responsibilities (e.g., young children, sick parents, a house that needs $200k of investment to not fall down).
I was on the product development path from 2009-2022 and while on that path I took a slight detour to get a PhD with the thought that it would make me better at developing products from a first principles perspective. It definitely helped and by the time I was getting ready to jump off this path I was leading co-leading a team towards launching a re-engineered product out into the world. You can buy it at a lumber yard or Home Depot near you. I was on the precipice of being some sort of manager of people at some point and yet I decided to step off from that path and go join the FDA.
How long will I stay on this regulatory path? I have no idea, but it’s been fun over the last 6 months.
Tactical Advice for Promotions
I was getting coffee with an old coworker from 10+ years ago just before Christmas Eve and we talked for two hours about work, life, and what it might take to succeed in this ever-changing world. One thing that really stuck with me after that coffee was thinking of your coworkers as your clients and wanting to do the best for your client.
Keep your clients happy
Your manager, the CEO of the company, the technician you are mentoring, the operator you are reworking a batch with are all your clients and you are their consultant. Each of your clients have different wants and needs, but you need think about how to prioritize each of those clients. Sometimes the lowest level employee that you work with (e.g., the technician with a high school degree, maybe a BS in chemistry) is the most important too because are likely doing the tasks you don’t have time for and a mistake on their part means a failure in your own role. Learning how to manage the expectations and needs of your clients will ultimately set you up for the next part.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ve tried to show you that a promotion will not necessarily lead to happiness. There are plenty of depressed millionaires out there and money isn’t necessarily the key to happiness, but it can be a lynchpin. Figure out how much money you might need to be happy and factor in all of the kids, vacations, housing prices, and car maintenance. This might take a while. I’ll wait…
Ok, so now that you have that number you need to ask yourself, “can you get to that?”
You might find that due to cost of living, location of your employer, and all of your wants in life that you need to become an executive, not necessarily a CEO, but maybe a VP or a Director. If that sounds like a life worth living, then ask for how you can get there with your current employer. If you think, “I’d be happy making $175,000/year managing a small team of scientists,” then I’d say that sounds very possible.
If I have an aspiration for the new year, it’s to be forthright in asking for what I want professionally. I hope that you can figure this out for yourself too. What happens if we just ask for what we really want and try to be honest while keeping in mind the needs of our clients?
Taking the view of your coworkers as your clients is critical and this piece didn’t fall into place for me until a few weeks ago. If you can understand and anticipate the needs of your managers or executives, then you ultimately know a little bit of what it means to be one.
Promotions are a combination of reward and responsibility to retain talent within a corporation. If you are valued and your employer thinks you can do more then you get promoted and you can facilitate this by just asking and being direct. This sounds simple, but it’s really difficult. If you aren’t sure what you want to do, then see above about different paths.
If you aren’t good at your job or it’s just not a good fit, then I’d encourage you to move on until you find a place that clicks.
I’ve been moving around for over a decade, but I think I’ve maybe found a place that works for me. I guess I’ll really know in another year or two.
Not only does being an effective manager (not just a "boss" or "instruction-giver") require training, but also a certain kind of aptitude that is IMO hard to teach. The training can help provide language or tools to guide the management process, but it can't replace things like empathy, strategic thinking, etc., and in the worst case (without careful attention) there is a risk of the manager becoming a slave to those tools.
At the same time, it seems that in many cases recognition for really talented individual contributors just isn't there -- in many companies the Principal Scientist or Fellow role (or similar non-managerial high-level scientific track) no longer exists, in practice if not also in theory, and so the promotional track just ends. Frustrated people in those roles may end up in management, which is not necessarily the best place for them -- either for their own personalities or for the company.
I do agree with you that moving to find a place that "clicks" is important, and that it is even more important to look for that "click" when you can (when other aspects of life are more flexible).