21 Oct 22


This may come as a shock, but some engineers don’t want to be promoted. They’re happy being an engineer. They want to focus on code and building, not on leading, or mentoring, or helping define process.

I’m speaking from experience. As an engineering manager, I’ve been surprised many times by engineers bluntly stating they “are happy with their current role”. Some proactively. Some during career growth discussions. I was impressed every single time. There was an undeniable clarity.

Key thoughts:

  • don’t force people into it, they won’t stay in the role long
  • having to pull people back from a promoted role is bad business practice, be 99% certain
  • don’t promote just to retain

This may speak more to the lack of individual contributor careers paths available in the software engineering industry, or the maturity of these engineers to see a long career ahead. Either way, these engineers made it clear. They weren’t interested in Tech Lead positions, or Staff Engineer positions. They wanted to be an Engineer on a team of engineers spending time in their editors building things. Refreshing!

As the manager, I was lucky. These engineers were straight forward and honest with me about what they wanted. I didn’t have to worry about them leaving to get promoted. I didn’t have to even think about promoting them to make them happy. I did however need to provide them opportunities to engineer things. That’s another post entirely. Many times engineers feel like all they do is attend meetings, maintain what has already been built, and improve agile ceremonies. Providing a roadmap and well curated backlog of engineering tasks is the ultimate gift to these core engineers. That and shielding them from an endless parade of meetings.

Some of the engineers that were happy in the current role would have excelled as a Tech Lead or higher, but pushing them into it when they were so clear about what they wanted would have been a mistake. I routinely asked one engineer if they were interested in a Principal Engineer position because I thought they would be great in the position. They would have been valuable to the organization in the role, but they weren’t interested. They knew the number of meetings they’d be asked to attend would increase. They knew they would spend less time in their editor. They graciously declined in every conversation. I encourage managers to listen very carefully and hear what their engineers are saying. Listen to what they really want to be doing. If that is the current role, then great. There are plenty of years for career growth or change if they change their mind. Ultimately it is about what they really engage in and if being in their editor is it, then hear that. This Harvard Business Review post from 2010 covers engagement as the ultimate determining factor in job satisfaction leading to retention.

Forcing team members into roles they aren’t interested in will never go well. Their engagement will drop. They’ll shed responsibilities quickly. Things will get missed and pushed aside. The entire team will now feel the burden. Pulling people back from a role is challenging. It is a practice that should be avoid whenever possible. Animosity and morale can take a hit.

Promoting just to retain can have similar outcomes from my experience. If a team member isn’t ready for the next role, promoting them into it just to keep them on the team isn’t the answer. Promoting just to retain sends the wrong message. It eats roles and headcount. I believe engineers can be retained by providing them meaningful work. Some may really want a title for whatever reason, but again, assign the title when it makes sense, not just too retain. Promotion to retain is an overused technique in my experience. Googling “promoting to retain” yields lots of results. It is clearly a popular technique. I think most times it is not addressing the real desires of the employee. It is a short term band-aid. Not always, but a lot of times.

Engineer career paths have been made complex by a multitude of factors. The industry has some sorting out to do in that regard, but as an engineering manager, don’t make the mistake of changing someone’s path when they aren’t ready or don’t want it. Having meaningful conversations during 1:1s are a great way to hear what team members want and what excites them. During those conversations you may just be surprised that people are happy with what they are currently doing and really want to stay in that role. It is a special rarity, but it does happen. Throw your assumptions aside and hear it when an engineer expresses it. Focus on what they really engage in.

Food for thought, does your organization have clear career paths that allow engineers to stay engineers?