After 2.5 years as a team lead (manager), I have shifted back to an individual contributor (IC) role. I'd like to talk about that path and transition.
I've worked at MongoDB for over 6 years at this point. The first 3.5 years I worked as a senior engineer on performance testing, during which we as a company figured out what we really wanted from performance testing. We had some false starts and redirections along the way. After 3 years, we had developed something useful and we were starting to (re)build up the team to grow on that base. Of note, we did not have a true manager for the team at that point and it was time to add one. Two of us on the team had been around long enough to plausibly step into the lead role. We did not want a new lead coming in from outside lacking the context and experience we had gained. I was excited at the prospect of taking on the role and talked to my colleague about it. When we spoke, I found out that not only did he support me, but that he was going to suggest I push for the role even if I hadn’t brought it up. I took on an informal lead responsibility and after a while I was named team lead.
I immediately put a lot of energy into being the best manager I could be. From previous work experience, I have strong opinions on what constitutes a good manager and I worked on being that good manager. I'm a strong learner, accustomed to trying new things and getting better at them. I did a lot of reading, learning, and trying things. I made sure to put my people first, putting them in good situations in which they could succeed and be happy. I paid attention to what worked and what didn't work and iterated. Sometimes things went well, sometimes they didn't.
I am incredibly proud of what we did as a team since I became lead. We solidified and built up our infrastructure. We changed how things were done internally and we built some really cool stuff (see here, here, here, and here from my recent publications). MongoDB is faster and more stable for the work we did. Which brings us to the present: I'm really proud of what my team did while I was it's lead, but I'm no longer the lead (and that's a good thing). Allow me a short digression in order to explain why.
As part of my love of learning, I'm always picking up better ways to do things. One of the things I've picked up over the years is tracking the things that make me happy. Or that do the opposite. I've been doing that ever since, and I feed it into my regular reflections and planning. It's an eye opening exercise to do, showing you what really makes you happy, rather than what you think makes you happy. When I look back and review those notes, they are striking. I have a lot of entries around solving a technical problem, or doing/sharing things with other people (cookie club!), or getting a large project done or published. What was missing from the happiness notes was anything related to managing people. Not one case showed up that would qualify as people management.
I loved certain parts of the job, but managing other people did not bring me joy. In fact it drained my energy. Soon after becoming lead I scheduled a team meeting; We had some stuff to sort out in order to be a better team. We were a distributed team, so we got everyone together in one place. During that week I also took my daughter to see Mean Girls on Broadway. The show was great, but I found myself regularly losing focus on it. Instead I would catch my mind racing about what happened during the past day and thinking through upcoming meetings. I didn’t sleep well that week — work had never impacted my sleep before becoming team lead. That week set the stage for a lot of good things for our team. I am proud of what we did that week, but I did not enjoy that week. Still, I was new to the lead role, so maybe I would grow into it. Things did get better, but I never found myself looking forward to the people management parts of the job or getting energy from them: Giving feedback; Listening to complaints and trying to address interpersonal issues. At most I got relief from them, never elation or joy.
While I am glad to return to IC status, I do not regret my 2.5 years as team lead in any way. I challenged myself, learned new things (skills and about myself), grew, and accomplished things. It required stepping out of my comfort zone, which we must do in order to grow. Ideally, when we step outside our comfort zone, our comfort zone expands to eventually include the new space. When it does not, it is time to re-evaluate. I am lucky to have had a good manager (and management) who supported me in that re-evaluation.
Now I’m working to keep the parts of my role that did bring me energy, and remove the parts that did not. I absolutely love the impact I've had on how we test performance. I love all the things that we built, including our structure and processes. I love having insight into so many parts of the engineering organization and helping drive the big picture on performance testing. I love helping junior colleagues learn and grow, sharing learnings with them (so long as I don't also have to evaluate them). I think I'm in a place to continue doing those things. Time will tell. Either way, I will keep learning, trying things, and adjusting based on what I learn.