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Moving from management back to engineering

Management is often seen as the pinnacle of your development career. But what happens when you get to that level and decide it just isn’t for you? 

Take some tips from Jip Moors and his time with Yoast, where he moved up in the ranks, only to decide the trenches were where he felt most at home.

Cal Evans
Cal Evans

Transcript

Cal: Hi, and welcome to the Frontier, the podcast produced by Gun.io. In this episode, we’re going to talk to my friend, Mr. Jip Moors. Did I say that right, Jip?

Jip: Oh, definitely. Very good. Thank you, Cal.

Cal: We’re gonna talk about a sensitive topic–could be, for certain developers–we’re gonna talk about going into, or from going from engineering into management, but more importantly, deciding to take that step back from management and go back into engineering And that’s really gonna be the focus of today’s episode. So without further ado, Jip, why don’t you introduce yourself; tell us a little bit about what you do.

Jip: Oh, hi. Thank you for having me, first of all. Yeah, I’m an engineer. I’m a senior developer at Yoast and I’ve been working there for six years and I’ve been around before. So, I’ve seen my fair share of companies. This is the biggest company yet. And it’s yeah, it’s been growing since I got there and that has something to do with the positions I’ve had and I have at the moment.

Cal: I gotta say, we’re gonna go off on a little bit of a tangent here. You work at Yoast. I love Yoast. I have several WordPress websites and Yoast is the second plugin I install whenever I spin a new one up. The first one is the SiteGround security plugin, but that’s because I’ve gotta keep things secure. But the absolute second thing I install is the Yoast plugin. I love it. But anyhow, enough fanboying. So talk to us a little bit–trying to find my question here–talk to us a little bit before we talk about moving back into engineering, let’s set the stage about how and why you moved into management to begin with.

Jip: All right. Yeah, of course. That makes sense. So I’ve always enjoyed working with people and I like to coach people and to work together. And one of the things that always helped me back before I went into management was the conflicts and conflict resolution. And, you know, if people don’t like each other, or have problems, or, well, I’m a very, yeah, sensitive person. I take things in and sometimes have a hard time keeping things where they should be. And if it’s not my problem, then I, you know, sometimes feel the problem in the air and have a hard time cutting that off. And we had a good training session on how you can, you know, do conflict resolution and set people opposite each other and ask them, ‘How are you doing? What’s the feeling you have? How did you experience this?’ and then resolve that. And after that session, I was really like, okay that was my biggest hurdle in going into a management-like function. And there was a position and a need for somebody to be in that place. So I figured out later that I’m more of a people person and a people manager than a process manager.

Cal: So, did you feel that management was just the next step in your career?

Jip: Not exactly. I’ve been around the company in various roles that weren’t really defined that clearly. And I had a lot of fun just going around and trying to figure out where I fit best. So I saw an opportunity to work with the people that I like to work with, from a broader standpoint of working with all the engineers in our company, instead of just in my team. And I, you know, I’d like to think along and come up with ideas on how we can improve things ‘cause I’m an optimizer by heart. So I’m, I feel very well at home with an SEO company, an optimizing company, and you know, seeing things that can be improved. There’s something that I really like and, and it comes natural to me.

Cal: So now we understand a little bit about how or why you moved into management. Let’s take the sensitive part of this. And, I say ‘it’s sensitive’ because of the way I’m made up. I take all failures personally, and if I feel like I have failed at something, then I get very down on myself and a lot of people would see a move back into engineering from management as ‘you’ve moved from Mount Olympus and your back town amongst the plebes, the software developers.’ Talk to us a little bit about why you moved back down–or back into, I don’t wanna say down ‘cause it’s not necessarily a downward move– but why did you move back into engineering?

Jip: All right. Yes, so I’ve been a manager of 25 people at the high point, if you could say at a high point. It’s a lot of people. And the company was growing and I started to figure out that there are parts of management that come down to planning, a vision, a strategy, looking ahead, and doing a bit more theoretical stuff and analyzing how things are going. That just didn’t come out of me naturally. So that was a big part that was just eating me up. It was just draining away energy and I’m somebody who likes to go all in. If I see something, if I have an opportunity or task, I just bite myself into it and I don’t let go easily. So in that regard, it was so hard to accept and to realize what was going on and that I had to let this go, ‘cause it was not sustainable in any way. And that signal came from a lot of places at the same time, and especially from me. So in that regard, it was a savior for me to go back into engineering because it allows me to bite in and go in and do that stuff that I like and see these improvements and these optimizations on the practical level where I feel most comfortable.

Cal: I’ll be honest. This just took a left turn for me. This is not what I, that was not the answer I was expecting for from that question. So the audience knows you get these questions ahead of time, but I don’t get the answers ahead of time. So it was interesting to me because I expected the answer to be exactly the opposite: that you, you know, you love the engineering aspect of it and you love the forward thinking of it, but it was the people part of it. ‘Cause let’s be honest, it’s the people part of management that’s the messy part to begin with. And so I really just was prepared for you to talk about that. You mentioned that there were several signals, what was some of the signals that, you know, this was the right move for you, to move back into engineering?

Jip: First of all, not be drained at the end of the day.

Cal: Oh…yeah, I get that.

Jip: Getting my jokes back, getting my energy back, getting the enjoyment back in. All right, I maybe have created one PR today, but I made something that I didn’t make last year, or I didn’t think of last month. And I did it because I worked together with the people in my team and we thought about out it and I had a connection somewhere and I created it, and I enjoy it and it’s…it doesn’t add much, but it adds something and it enriches my life and the people around me and it, you know, my enthusiasm on the team is felt, and everybody has more energy and likes it better and feels a bit calmer. And, you know, we all share this on our shoulders together. That’s something that is one of my core values, that I need to work with, you know, the synergies and the working together with people on the same level. I really miss that in management as well. It’s such a pillar, and such islands of people working together as a whole to make a whole ship work. And I really enjoy and need to be with more peer-like people around me.

Cal: Interesting. Now did this, was this decision yours, or did your boss above you recognize the situation and start encouraging you? I don’t wanna say pushing you because I know Yoast doesn’t have that kind of culture, but, you know, was this your decision or was it something that came was directed from above you?

Jip: Well I think they let me make this decision. But if I wasn’t able to make this decision, I would’ve been forced, pushed, helped, saved, by the decision being made for me. But yeah, I did surprise them a little bit with the choice of going all the way back to regular engineering, I think, ‘cause we were talking about some developer–what do you call it? The developer advocate kind of roles. You know, that’s more just outside of development and still a more special role if you’d like to say it that way. But I just felt like I want to go back to my roots, back into a team. And, you know, the funny thing is that I was the manager of the wonderful guy that was managing me afterwards. And, you know, he’s, he’s more than 10 years younger than me and I became his–what you call it?

Cal: Direct report.

Jip:Yes. That’s a good political–

Cal: Well, I don’t wanna say employee, but, you know team member.

Jip: Yeah, yeah.

Cal: Well, that’s very interesting and that leads me into my next question. Now, how did the team handle it? ‘Cause I assume you went back to the team that you had previously been managing. How did the team handle your transition?

Jip: Well, very well. I felt very welcome. I like to think that I really had a good rapport with all the 25 people that I managed and I came into a team of six. So I, you know, I knew all them and I think it also had something to do with the way that I approached it. I was a little bit, you know, I had to come back and find my energy again, but, you know, I always like to approach everybody as equally as I can, you know, as peers. So I always have the standpoint that I can learn from everybody else around me. And you know, I can teach everybody around me so everybody can learn from each other, and that just gives a very constructive environment that I think must have helped in feeling as good at this as I could.

Cal: Excellent. Now obviously the culture of Yoast is such that you could make this move and you talked about developer relations earlier, and I’ve done developer advocacy for a good chunk of my career. So I know what you mean when you say it’s a special role. But yeah, it is a–to me, it was a very rewarding role, but I made similar decisions to you. I floated in, back in and back out of engineering roles. Matter of fact, I just came off of a two year contract with a company where I was, you know, just heads down coding the entire time and really enjoyed that re-immersion into that world. But do you think that if the culture of Yoast had been different, do you think you would’ve been able to make this move or do you think this was just gonna happen no matter what?

Jip: I think it’s a very hard question ‘cause I know the culture and the people that I work with and I have a lot of trust and confidence in them. If people would’ve had a problem power-wise or, you know, you’ve been in management, you know how things have been run and we don’t get all that information. And ‘I don’t like you, I don’t trust you’ kind of vibes. If I had those, I think I might have considered going somewhere else just because I think that’s a very hard wall to break down.

And if you come from a management situation like I came from, where I really needed to get my energy back and take my time and say no to a lot of things that came at me in people that are still enthusiastic and still see things that I can do, but I shouldn’t do for myself at that point. I really had to manage my energy and start on a basis and get the foundations back and move step by step upwards from there in the directions that I find. So yeah, I really, when I stepped back I was like, ‘okay, I’m gonna try this. I have confidence that it can succeed,’ but there is an opportunity or a possibility that it won’t succeed, and that I feel uncomfortable, and then a good decision would be to go away, I think.

Cal: Now, a question that you’re not prepared for. How long have you been at Yoast?

Jip: Well February 1st–it was like two days ago–I was celebrating my six year anniversary.

Cal: Wow. And see that, that’s what I thought. Thinking back over the time that I’ve known you, you know, it’s been five, six years and ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been at Yoast. So it says a lot to me about the culture of Yoast that you feel comfortable enough to do this and you’ve been there that long. You know, I was with a company where, while I was there, somebody celebrated–a developer–celebrated their 22nd anniversary with the company and you know, that’s unheard of in our industry. So you know, it’s always fascinating to me when I see hints of a good culture, to start looking at how long people are staying, and if when I see people like you who I, since I know you, you know, I know you to be a talented individual who could go just about anywhere you wanted, and you’re staying at Yoast for long periods of time. That says a lot about the culture. And you’re right, the ability to make this move to management and then back to engineering can only happen if you are in a culture of trust and respect.

Hey, I wanna thank you, Jip, for taking the time to be with us today. It’s been fascinating to hear your answers and to hear your story. Audience, I wanted to thank you for joining us today on the Frontier. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you saw. Do me a favor. If you liked what you saw, go out to your favorite podcasting tool and leave us a rating, five stars, five thumbs up, whatever they use. If you see a way that we can serve you better do me a favor, drop me an email [email protected] I would love to hear your thoughts on the podcast and how we can make it more relevant to you. So I’ll see you next week. Thank you so much for being here. Buh-bye.