After five years of working as a people manager of several UX teams, I returned to an individual contributor role.
Similar to when I switched from software development to UX design, there will be many questions and surprises about the decision, so let’s tackle them in one place.
Becoming a people manager
To be honest, people management wasn’t on my radar for a long time. Before Google, I worked as a co-owner or an employee in small companies, with an owner being everyone’s boss. Only when I came to Google, I realized there is a whole world of corporate hierarchy and layers of management. I learned here that having a great manager is a personal growth magnifier because your manager can and should act as your mentor, coach, and advisor; a bad manager, the same as a bad owner of a small business, can make your life miserable.
It never really occurred to me that I could do that job (hopefully as a good manager) until one of my former managers left our team and told me in our last conversation that I should try management when I get a chance because I have the needed skills. I took the opportunity offered to me two years later, and that’s how my journey began.
I started with managing several UX designers directly, then moved to managing UX managers a few years later, and eventually, I managed several teams of UX designers and UX writers.
What I loved
- People development and skill building through teaching, coaching, and mentoring when people are willing and able.
- Putting the right group of people behind the right priorities and then seeing incredible results beyond the capability of only one person.
What was hard
Robert Sapolsky, an American neuroendocrinology researcher and author, wrote in Behave:
[…] contemporary studies show that the worst stress-related health typically occurs in middle management, with its killer combo of high work demands but little autonomy—responsibility without control.
A manager is an agent of a company. The manager’s responsibility is to achieve agreed-upon business goals through setting priorities, coordinating people and resources, addressing problems in performance, and nurturing and growing the skills of people in their team. A manager has to accomplish all that using the company’s rules and policies. When the rules and policies were aligned with everyone’s interests and my values, it was easy to apply them; when they weren’t, the enforcement would cause me a lot of stress, and I lost sleep over it when it affected the lives of people I’m responsible for.
Some people don’t agonize over this too much, some disproportionally love the good sides of management, and some navigate this challenge much more gracefully than me. Kudos to them.
The decision to switch back
My and my Zürich UX team members’ managers were all based in the US for several years; I was the first local manager after a while, managing a subset of the whole team. The situation provided plenty of challenges but also many learning opportunities. When COVID-19 and lockdowns hit, it was time to step up and support a broader group of people in working and managing their private lives under general uncertainty and local regulatory peculiarities. The needs of others dwarfed any personal hardship.
The UX team matured during that period. Several local leaders and managers—who I helped grow internally or hire externally—have taken on significant responsibilities, so much so that last year I realized that the team would soon be able to work without me. I have successfully worked myself out of my job, so I started thinking about what would push me out of my comfort zone again. The idea to, at least temporarily, step away from people management and get back into craft and strategic product thinking lifted my spirits in a surprising way. I knew this was something I wanted to pursue soon.
Many months have passed, the waiting prolonged by a few events, but a series of team reorganizations started recently. I caught one of the reorgs and made the switch between roles successfully. I’m still in the same team working with the same people, only my focus area and what’s expected of me changed. I’ll let you know how it goes.