The Recharging of an Engineering Leader

One of the topics often written about is how an engineering leader can stay in tune with current developments and remain sharp technically such as in Joan Gamell’s post: From Engineer to Manager: keeping your technical skills. His take on it is spot-on.

In almost every case, a VP Engineering becomes one because she was good at managing as a director and/or manager. And she got selected for that in part because she was a great engineer. But as technology evolves and changes, the technical knowledge that the VP once relied on to make good judgments can begin to have limited value. Thus the need for the VP to continue learning.

Some learning naturally must take place by reading, watching, observing what others are doing and developing at least a basic understanding of the technology. And it doesn’t always rely on you since you’ve learned to put strong developers as leads on your teams.

But there are limits. How do you know when your lead engineer is making a bad judgment call? You have a couple of leads disagreeing over the best approach. How can you help resolve this? There are many useful techniques for this. But sometimes the best thing is to have some deep understanding yourself that comes from working directly with the technology.

This can be challenging to fit into one’s schedule even if you are able to block a few hours a week out for the task. I personally have found it next to impossible to fit enough coding exercises into my routine to satisfy this need. Perhaps that has more to do with the organizations I’ve worked with. But I’ve heard the same refrain from many of my peers.

Extended time away

One answer to this dilemma is to take some extended time away – time in which you can focus heavily on a technology area to develop a deeper understanding. Call it a sabbatical if you like. It’s impossible to get enough technical understanding to be ready to decide everything. But deep technical understanding can help in specific areas.

For me, the focused sabbatical has another benefit. I love to code. It may not make sense for me to take a permanent coding job; I have learned too much to leave the leadership completely to others. But with a sabbatical, I can satisfy my craving to code and come back to the leadership role refreshed and energized.

I’m not interested in taking a VP role at a company where I’m not passionate about the mission of the organization. Finding the right role can take some time *and* seems to be quite compatible with my extended coding sabbatical. I think of it like this. When I went to college to earn a degree in engineering, I was committed to graduating. But for an amazing opportunity, I might have put it on hold. That’s how I think of this time. My main goal is an extended time to indulge my love of coding and learning. I’m hoping that *amazing* opportunity doesn’t come along too soon. In the meantime, I’ll maximize my learning by writing about it.

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