I understood what it meant to level up to management when, at my first startup job, I witnessed my Lead UX become Head of UX. I remember how all of a sudden, her touchpoints with design work plummeted, as did the number of days she had a smile on her face. That's when I started questioning this quest for higher roles in the org chart.
When we think about growth in careers, it seems like all jobs eventually lead to management where you distance yourself from the craft. Why chase that?
I understand that management itself can be a craft, but that just proves my point. I didn't get into design to eventually switch to the craft of managing people. I got into design for the craft of design.
This ladder makes it so that craft focused jobs, or individual contributor roles, are always left for earlier career stages. Can't it be looked up to to just be a really experienced designer? Why do we have to become managers to reach new salary levels? I didn't sign up to deal with people. I'm a designer to deal with design. To craft digital interactions. What's so bad about being a pixel-pusher? Can we kill that term already? My solution for that has been to make it a point to remain a consultant. That way, there's only so much politics that are appropriate for you to get involved in. You just show up, solve design problems, and deliver good work.
If there was such a thing as a tech lead for design, that's what I'd be after. But in design, we only have the equivalent of a dev lead (leader of developers). Not everyone who wants to grow in design wants to lead designers. We want to lead design. The decisions, the rationale, the processes and strategies. Those are big shoes to expect to be filled by someone who also has to manage people.
And what if it wasn't a definitive switch, what if contributor and management roles came and went like waves throughout one's career?
"The best frontline engineer managers in the world are the ones that are never more than 2–3 years removed from hands-on work, full time down in the trenches. The best individual contributors are the ones who have done time in management. And the best technical leaders in the world are often the ones who do both. Back and forth. Like a pendulum.”
— Aly Blenkin, Returning to Craft, for DOC (UX Collective)