Lately I've been thinking a lot about my future and where I want my career to go. Part of this is just normal wondering about the future (which is very common when you're of the age when society tells you you're supposed to have your life in order and you don't), but part of it is also my circumstances. When I started my current job, I wanted to get promoted within my first year. Being told that I wasn't eligible for a promotion during that first year (which I have a lot of thoughts about) really made me wonder whether I should make plans for my future at all or if it's entirely outside of my control. Based on the number of emails I get from recruiters about senior-level positions that they know I'm a great fit for (umm ... not so much yet), I think there is a future as a more advanced level engineer out there for me, but I need to understand what I want the future of my career to look like before I start pursuing it (whether at my current company or elsewhere).
Right now I know more about what I don't want my future to look like than what I do want my future to look like. I know that I'm not interested in management. I like to see others succeed (and do what I can to get them there), but management requires a level of people skills that I will never achieve. And honestly, even if I had the people skills, I still don't think I'd want to be a manager. I'd rather do than manage. I do want some level of responsibility (and the opportunity to mentor and guide others), so I think I might be interested in a tech lead role, and I think I'd be happiest in a position where I'm mostly an individual contributor with some opportunity to guide my team.
Part of my struggle with figuring out my path comes from trying to find the balance between what I enjoy doing and what is expected of me in my career. There was a decent chunk of my life where I tried (and more often than not failed) to do what others expected of me. The popular path is popular for a reason - it works for many people. It didn't work for me. I am glad that I tried to do what I felt was expected of me, because even though I failed, it led me to a place where I trust my own choices over the choices others make for me. I know that within the scope and responsibility of my current position (and any potential future positions) there are some tasks that I just don't enjoy doing. I would like to focus my career on the things I enjoy doing, and I need to figure out how to advocate for myself in a way that allows me to focus on the tasks I enjoy the most while not neglecting the other responsibilities of my position. I do sometimes feel like I am pushed into doing things that aren't what I want to do because it's "expected" of me, and if I want to grow into a career where I am truly able to thrive, I need to change what is expected of me so that I am focused on the work that will most help me grow. I know that I don't want to be a generalist, I want to focus on frontend development, so I need to reframe my teammates' view of me so that they see me as a frontend person who understands what is going on in the backend (and can do some work there if necessary) and not someone who is equally comfortable working in the frontend or backend (which is how I think my company may want me to be seen).
As I think about my future, I have some fears and doubts. I've bounced around between careers in my life, and I've been in engineering long enough that it's starting to feel wrong. I've never been in a career this long (or at least not full-time employed in a career for this long), and sometimes I wonder if the fact that I feel so out of place is my brain looking for an escape hatch. I'm three years into my engineering career and have been at my current position for over a year, and I'm still not sure that this career was the right decision (although honestly I didn't really have many other options). I don't know if this is impostor syndrome or just early career jitters or if engineering really isn't the right field for me, but I do know that I don't want to feel this way forever and I'm afraid of choosing a career path that will always feel wrong.
I'm also afraid of getting bored. I'd like to advance in my career at a decent pace, but since my primary area of interest is not something that really has an individual contributor growth path beyond senior engineer (most staff and principal engineers focus on architecture and backend things, which is not something I want to do at all), there's a chance I'll hit the peak of my career before I turn 40 (although I'm not as far from there as I used to be), and I don't know that I'll be happy doing the same thing with no opportunity for advancement for 25 years (assuming I retire at 65 ... I have no idea what retirement age will be when I get there or when I'll want to retire). I know that this has more to do with my lack of interest in management than my particular career path, but I do still wonder whether I'll struggle with choosing a path that has limited growth opportunities.
As I think about my career path, I have to acknowledge that I have considered paths that don't involve continuing as an engineer. One area I've thought about pursuing is product management. I'm very organized and enjoy solving problems and figuring out how to put all of the various pieces of a project together. While I'm not quite ready to make the shift from engineering into product management, I do know that it's not an uncommon path, and with my engineering background, I would likely be a good fit for a technical product management position. I do like writing code, though, so I don't know if I would be happy with a switch to product management or if I'd regret leaving engineering behind. I've also thought about potentially transitioning into technical writing (as the blogging would indicate, I like writing), but I think I'd need to take a few writing classes before I was comfortable enough with my writing to attempt to make a profession out of it. Another potential career path that has been mentioned to me is teaching. I was never interested in teaching as a profession as a child, but I have found that I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others, and a few people have asked me if teaching is something I'd consider as a future path. Right now it's not something I want to do, but I'm not ruling out the idea of trying teaching in the future to see if it's a fit for me. If I try teaching and it doesn't work out (and I have limited patience for people sometimes so it likely would not), I can always go back to engineering. I'm also not ruling out the possibility of eventually going into management. Right now (and for the foreseeable future), it's not something I'm the least bit interested in. But people change and circumstances change, and I'm not going to sit here and say that I'll never be interested in management, because I don't know if that's true. I do know that I'm not interested in it right now, but I don't know what the future holds.
While sitting down to write this did give me some ideas, I'm still nowhere near sure what my future career path will look like. I plan to pursue the things I already know that I enjoy, and while I know I will have to take on some tickets that are not my favorite, I want the majority of my tickets to be frontend work or other tasks that I know I enjoy (such as writing). If in a few months I don't have a better idea of where I want to go, I may take the time to speak to one of the product managers at my company to see if potentially I would be interested in making that switch (there are 2 awesome PMs at my company that I've worked with and would probably be comfortable talking to about this). I'm also considering possibly finding a career mentor to help me discover and build my path. I wouldn't even know where to start with a mentor (I had previously had a mentorship relationship with a senior engineer at my company and I never really found a way to optimize our time together), but I think that if I could figure out what I wanted to learn from a mentor and what questions to start asking, I could possibly benefit from talking through my career thoughts and questions with someone who has already been down that road. I don't know where my career is headed (or where I want it to go), but I do know that it's important for me to sit down and figure out what I want before it's too late and I find myself following someone else's path instead of my own.