Called to Create: Engineers Forging Unique Paths to Leadership

Not everyone wants to be an engineering manager. Three engineers share how they are progressing and excelling as individual contributors.
Written by Brigid Hogan
July 20, 2022Updated: July 26, 2022

Learning what you don’t want to do can be as radically clarifying an experience as finding your passion.

For Lance Gatlin, now a senior software engineer at Rewards Network, his time in the Navy helped him realize that his calling was not as a people manager. But what did that mean for his career after he left the service?

Gatlin told Built In Chicago that remaining an independent contributor allowed him to refine his skills in ways that pushed his own work forward while serving as a leader on his team.

“Becoming a true craftsman means recognizing that teaching, mentoring and open debate are the gateways to inspiration and an ever-deepening relationship with the raw materials of creation,” Gatlin said. “The most compelling leadership is simply embodying the rewards of excellence.”

Enfusion Platform Architect Andy Gustafson thinks a management role may still be an option down the road, but for now they are focused on developing their technical expertise while enjoying the opportunity to work with a committed team of engineers and developers.

“In the end, industry certifications and expertise won’t help you as much as being approachable and willing to work with others,” Gustafson said.

Built In Chicago sat down with Gatlin, Gustafson and a software engineer at CSC Corptax to learn more about how they continue to grow and thrive as independent contributors within their engineering teams.

 

Rewards Network group photo with team members wearing matching t-shirts
Rewards Network

 

Lance Gatlin
Senior Software Engineer

 

Rewards Network provides financial and marketing services to the restaurants that use their dining rewards programs. For Lance Gatlin, senior software engineer, the developers and engineers he works with offer a robust internal network that supports daily creativity and excellence.

 

How did you know you didn’t want to pursue a career in management?

I spent eight years in the Navy as an electronics technician working on radar systems. Because the military embraces leadership at all levels, I had many unchosen opportunities to be in charge of others and be responsible for outcomes. Through those experiences, I realized I did not want my life to be about directly leading others. I am a creator who loves to create with others. Perhaps some are called to lead, but I don’t share this passion for direct leadership. This doesn’t mean however, there are not opportunities for different types of leadership as a creator. Relationships are always critical to the outcome, for both leaders and creators.

I am a creator who loves to create with others.”

 

What’s the best part about being an individual contributor at your company?

The best part is knowing that I am not alone in my efforts. I have a team of highly competent and inspiring developers and engineers around me who embrace excellence and incremental improvement every day. When I have questions, they have answers. When I am stuck, they have solutions. When I need feedback to improve, they have suggestions. We walk together.

 

What advice would you give an engineer who wants to progress in their career but isn’t interested in becoming a manager?

Focus on becoming an expert through teaching and mentoring. Read books, watch presentations, go to conferences, volunteer for the hard tasks and the tasks no one wants and then, for your team, write the documentation, give presentations, write shared libraries, pioneer new methods, stay late helping teammates. Find a mentor, ask for help, be curious, ask questions. Embrace change, embrace improving a little bit each day. Focus on building relationships — they are always more important than the daily objective.

 

 

Enfusion team members working in the office
Enfusion

 

Andy Gustafson
Platform Architect

 

Enfusion offers an investment management SaaS platform for enterprise-wide use. For engineers, their complex systems create opportunities for engineers like Andy Gustafson to work alongside talented teams and grow as individual contributors and build expertise.

 

How did you know you didn’t want to pursue a career in management?

I wouldn’t say I never want to move into management, but I know if I ever do I’m trading technical challenges for what many engineers would see as boring. Running meetings, hiring, forecasting and performance reviews all can make large impacts to an organization, but as a senior engineer with the right management team, the technology you decide to use, projects you tackle and pain points you solve for the business can have an equally large impact.

 

What’s the best part about being an individual contributor at your company?

At Enfusion, I have the privilege to work with talented team leads, Linux and network engineers and software developers. As an individual contributor, I have more time to spend on side projects or researching new technologies to see how they can benefit Enfusion.

As an individual contributor, I have more time to spend on side projects or researching new technologies.”

 

What advice would you give an engineer who wants to progress in their career but isn’t interested in becoming a manager?

Becoming an expert in your field should be a top priority. If you don’t understand something, ask questions and read about the topic until it clicks. That being said, soft skills are critical. Recruiting talented individuals is a challenge for most organizations, especially finding quality engineers you can put in front of upper management or clients. In the end, industry certifications and expertise won’t help you as much as being approachable and willing to work with others.

 

 

Software Engineer
CSC Corptax Employee

 

CSC Corptax has been developing B2B tax solutions for over 45 years. This tradition of innovation and implementation continues today. One expert software engineer, appreciates that individuals are able to tackle projects head on and develop their own solutions — which then become reality for both colleagues and clients.

 

How did you know you didn’t want to pursue a career in management?

I enjoy continually learning about and working with modern technology. I also enjoy delving into the weeds to solve a technical challenge. While I may be interested in pursuing a position in management at some point in the future, it likely won’t be for many years because being an individual contributor allows me to do what I love at this point in my career.

 

What’s the best part about being an individual contributor at your company?

We’re given the freedom to design our own solutions to problems and then actually implement those solutions. Knowing that you worked from beginning to end to implement a solution to a problem allows you to feel a real sense of ownership. We’re also invited to share our designs with our peers and leaders, which is always an exciting experience and allows us to grow as an organization through knowledge transfer.

We’re given the freedom to design our own solutions to problems and then actually implement those solutions.”

 

What advice would you give an engineer who wants to progress in their career but isn’t interested in becoming a manager?

If becoming a manager is not what you want with your career, that is totally fine. There are plenty of opportunities to grow in your career without going the managerial route. Find what excites you, and work to become an expert in that realm. Don’t burn yourself out, and reach out to others when you need help!

 

 

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