I'm not sure what to call it. Some might call it agism I suppose, but I'm still struggling to find a word that accurately describes what happens after you've gotten pretty good at doing your job, mostly because you've been around long enough to see how the Matrix works... Maybe if I talk it out I'll get some suggestions or divine inspiration, but one thing is certain; career choices are never easy. They only seem to get harder as life gets more complicated.
I've been alive long enough that I've now been working more years than I haven't been. I've been a Software Engineer for a long time; nearly all of my adult life. I've had a title with various Roman numerals, spanning several employers. I've progressed to simpler titles like "Senior" and eventually prefixed the crowning Senior title with "Lead". Now I've gotten to the point where I have to start adding slashes (/) to append various other titles to my name, aiding in the obfuscation of what it is I actually do from day to day. Manager? Director? Adviser? They all drift dangerously close to me as I bat them away furiously like a beehive that I've just kicked my foot into. It's a product of doing what you love and being recognized for it, but it's also a byproduct of my 9 near tenure at the same studio.
These past couple of years have been an eye opening experience. I've probably written more code outside of work than I have at work. My responsibilities have slowly migrated from the guy doing the work to the guy telling people how to do the work. I've increasingly been attending business meetings that quickly outnumbered my technical meetings. I hear the word "budget" more than "bug" these days. I recall mulling it over with a coworker one day who casually suggested, "maybe you make too much..."
My employer is a contracting company of roughly 50 employees. They live and die by their rates. It never crossed my mind but I think my coworker was right. After nearly 20 years of experience, 9 of those being at this company, it seems that I may have exceeded rates. I'm genuinely worried that years of gracious promotions for what I've done to elevate the company may be hurting my future elsewhere. It would only make sense to transition me to a roll that oversees other, cheaper, staff and offer my knowledge to them. This is what I've always wanted, this is what any young kid out of college might hope to achieve someday; right?!
Part of me enjoys that Director responsibility; that freedom to aid in technical designs, coding functional proofs, getting into it with others in front of the whiteboard. It's a cool position to be in, but it's also a small pool of specialized jobs out there that cover this kind of experience. My entire adult career, I've always had a phobia of being more than just an Engineer. Being jobless sucks. There is always a need for more Engineers, but Management always felt like a position that didn't need a Computer Science degree. The job pool is smaller, the competition is steeper, the skillsets are not as focused, but the pay is comparable and the liability is not nearly as high as the guy actually building the product. I never wanted to lose my skills as an Engineer; it's my reasoning for still coding outside of work.
I suppose I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is a ceiling for Engineers; I've touched the glass, I've seen the clouds on the other side. At the pace that technology changes, I don't know if I'll be able to maintain that intimate knowledge with the exponential growth when I hit my late 40's and 50's, but I'm pretty sure I'll still need a job.
The path to executive roles is paved through tiers of Middle Management. I'm certainly capable of doing those tasks. I've been doing those tasks, but something about management feels like starting over, like I'm not worth the paycheck as much as when I'm building something with my own 2 hands. It terrifies me to walk into a job interview and justify my worth by describing how efficient I am at shuffling workloads, balancing budgets, predicting technology trends, and generating task descriptions. I may as well tell them I make a mean pot of Chai tea as well.
On the other hand, I do enjoy coding but I'm not sure if there will still be a place for me. I do still have a while, but I've seen Software Engineers in their late 40's; the passion is gone and replaced with a devil-may-care attitude and lots of cigarettes. They've seen it all and just don't care. Most of them are just holding on to whatever knowledge and languages they know, riding it out until retirement which is still another 10 years out. To be honest, it makes me question if I want to be like them. I question if that is all there is for a Software Engineer nearing the end of his worth...
Feel free to tell me your thoughts @Ben_Quintero.