Software Engineers Discuss the Road Less Traveled – Built In Chicago

What if you were told that growth in your career would mean trading in what you love for something that you don’t?
Software engineers who do not want to move into management roles often face challenging career prospects — either remain in their current position with no real opportunity for progression, or accept the transition to management, even if it’s not where their passion lies. But is there a way to climb the software engineering ladder while still focusing on the technical side of the job?
Carving out a fulfilling, long-term career path in any field often involves being open to a range of opportunities as they arise, but if management skills are not in your wheelhouse or area of interest, it is understandable that this may not be a worthwhile compromise. While the linear progression from software engineer to manager is still the most traditional career path in the field, opportunities for software engineers to move forward are growing within the tech industry. 
Increasingly, forward-thinking tech companies are are encouraging their employees to branch out in their professional development aspirations, and the road less travelled is becoming a lot more worn. Built In Chicago sat down with five industry leaders to talk about their career journeys in the software engineering space, and the variety of growth opportunities available at their companies — even for those who don’t want to be managers.
 
Tell us a bit about your career journey thus far. How long have you been working as a software engineer, and what types of roles have you held?
I have been working as a software engineer for around seven years, and it has been quite an interesting journey so far. Like a lot of my colleagues at PEAK6, I started my career right out of college through our campus recruiting program. Over the next few years, I worked in a variety of different areas across our proprietary trading system, ranging from idea generation to execution, which helped me to expand my technical depth and ownership skills. I then joined the newly formed trading tools team, where I helped drive the development of the firm’s new trading platform. Last year, I took on the tech lead position on the applications development team and focused on the technical direction of several key innovative products to enhance and augment our users’ workflow.
 
Management isn’t for everyone, but many engineers feel it can be difficult to progress in their career without making the jump. How have you navigated conversations about career growth with your managers?
As an engineer who very much enjoys spending time solving technical problems, it can be challenging to envision career growth if a management role appears to be the only way to increase your impact — especially if you are unsure whether management is something you would actually like. For me, these conversations came up organically in one-on-ones with my manager and as future goals on review cycles, but there were a couple of things that really helped me move my career forward in a direction that aligned with both my interests and skill set.
Firstly, I participated in a management effectiveness program that focused on building management skills while collaborating with a number of current and future managers from across the PEAK6 businesses. Secondly, our tech organization started leveraging a career framework, which is a set of broad guidelines outlining the skill sets required for various roles and levels within that track. This helped provide some structure to career conversations and the goal-setting process by making it easier to align where I currently stood with areas to work on to progress to the next level.
It can be challenging to envision career growth if a management role appears to be the only way to increase your impact.”
 
What types of growth opportunities exist at your company for software developers who want to remain in an individual contributor role? How have you grown in your time with the company?
At PEAK6, continued learning and growth is highly valued, and there are plenty of growth opportunities for engineers who wish to remain in individual contributor roles. These positions have their own career track and framework that is separate from engineering management, and provide a clear path for career progression and ways to improve overall impact. 
Over the last couple of years, the tech organization has transitioned from a model in which the team lead is responsible for both technical direction and management of the team, to a model in which these responsibilities are shared by a tech lead and an engineering manager. This provides an opportunity to take on a leadership role without also taking on people management responsibilities. Additionally, there are a variety of resources available to accelerate technical as well as nontechnical growth, including access to professional conferences and training, frequent hackathons, tech talks and architecture discussions. I remember my mentor describing software engineering as being part programming and part collaborating. Looking back at my time at the firm, I can undoubtedly say I have significantly grown in both those dimensions.
 
 
 
Tell us a bit about your career journey thus far. How long have you been working as a software engineer, and what types of roles have you held?
I have been in a software engineering role for about eight years now — ever since I graduated from IIT with a degree in computer engineering. Throughout the years, I have worked in various industries, including event planning, travel and real estate. In school, the classes that involved systems programming and other core CS software topics interested me the most, so I started my career as a backend developer. As time went on, ReactJS started to become more popular, and I used that to become familiar with frontend development. As a result, I am now a full-stack developer, which was my entry to a position at DRW.
Even if you are not on a management path, you can still take on leadership or product-ownership tasks that make you a powerful asset to your team.”
 
Management isn’t for everyone, but many engineers feel it can be difficult to progress in their career without making the jump. How have you navigated conversations about career growth with your managers? 
Even though management may not be a path for everyone, I learned that there are roles where you can still lead through your technical expertise. In my group at DRW, our organization structure is a bit flatter, and career growth is driven by your technical knowledge and experience in the industry. This aligned well with my career path, since I did not see myself taking on a management role as I wanted to focus more on solving technical problems. 
In conversations with my managers, I always look for ways to improve both my technical and soft skills. One of the most important things that I continue to do is learn about new technologies and developments in my field. This has been very impactful on my career and helps keep my skills relevant to the roles that I want to work in. In addition to seeking my own professional development, learning from my peers and observing how more senior engineers go about their daily work has helped me enhance my technical skills. The takeaway here is that even if you are not on a management path, you can still take on leadership or product-ownership tasks that make you a powerful asset to your team.
 
What types of growth opportunities exist at your company for software developers who want to remain in an individual contributor role? How have you grown in your time with the company?
As an engineer at DRW, there are many opportunities to grow. DRW has many examples of engineers that have been in the industry for 10-plus years and did not take a management route. As one example, I work with an automation engineer who started with the responsibility of testing our application, but over time he has taken on more responsibility, and now does automation work for our entire group. 
I am surrounded by smart and dedicated engineers that love what they do and continue to push the envelope to achieve new levels of success. The application that we work on here is used by traders to interact with the market in real-time. When I first started, the trading industry was new to me and it was challenging because there was an acronym for just about everything, and the application was the most complex I have worked on in my career thus far. Over time, I picked up on some of DRW’s internal lingo and industry-specific terms, and have become more familiar with our tech stack by designing and implementing features. I plan to continue to grow as an individual contributor by learning more about finance and taking on larger architectural problems to solve within our application.
 
 
Tell us a bit about your career journey thus far. How long have you been working as a software engineer, and what types of roles have you held?
I joined Hudson River Trading (HRT) right after college, having interned at both traditional tech and fintech firms, and I have worked here for the past five years as a software engineer. My team works on integrating field-programmable gate array (FPGA) devices into existing software trading systems, and although the scope of my responsibilities hasn’t changed much, during my time here I’ve worked on everything around FPGAs: How to configure the devices, how to monitor their status, and more importantly, how to make sure the hardware and software stay in sync. For this work, I interact very closely with hardware engineers on the team, and we are in constant communication with HRT’s operations, systems and algorithm development teams as well.
One of the most important aspects about progressing as an individual contributor is that one should still take leadership responsibilities despite having no reports.”
 
Management isn’t for everyone, but many engineers feel it can be difficult to progress in their career without making the jump. How have you navigated conversations about career growth with your managers? 
I think one of the most important aspects about progressing as an individual contributor is that one should still take leadership responsibilities despite having no reports. Here at HRT, we have a lot of projects that require collaboration both within and outside of the team, and during my conversations with my manager I have often offered to take charge of coordinating the deployment of our projects with other teams, and be a point of contact for day-to-day issues. In this way, I have had the opportunity to oversee projects through the finish line, and in the early stages of my career, this helped develop my collaboration skills.
As I grew as an engineer, I also looked for opportunities to take on more responsibilities in shaping the projects themselves and become the domain expert in my field of work. Most engineers start with mostly implementing modules, but as I became more experienced, I got to design subsystems and then even bigger systems, knowing more about our systems and general good practices. This effort never ends, should one aim to stay successful in engineering.
 
What types of growth opportunities exist at your company for software developers who want to remain in an individual contributor role? How have you grown in your time with the company?
HRT has grown a lot since I joined, but it remains a small and collaborative firm at heart. Valuable ideas are shared and discussed widely, often in the form of written RFCs that are open for discussion. Throughout my years here, these conversations have often found their way into important engineering decisions — even entirely new projects — and have helped a lot with my growth technologically.
Additionally, HRT organizes many tech talks for internal and external technologies. HRT’s trading system is growing everyday, but every team has been open to sharing the knowledge of their systems. Although one might not directly work with everything out there, learning about various tech outside my scope of work means I can work with other teams more effectively, and sometimes lead to new ideas or projects.
HRT also has an educational assistance reimbursement program that helps employees take courses related to their work. This past year, I took an advanced operating system course which turned out to be very helpful in later projects.
 
 
 
Tell us a bit about your career journey thus far. How long have you been working as a software engineer, and what types of roles have you held?
I’ve been a software engineer for 10 years, and virtually all or most of that experience has been with 8th Light, working in both the US and UK. Although the organization has changed a great deal during my time, affecting conventions like titling, structure and leveling, it has been a consistently positive experience. I have always had a feeling of connection and community with my peers at 8th Light, and my ability to contribute meaningfully keeps me happy. While I have held many titles, I have always helped our clients by demonstrating a keen ability to excel as an individual contributor, and by supporting my teams for the benefit of the group. I have held roles consistently where my unique contributions can be seen and heard, and I am valued by both clients and my peers.
 
Management isn’t for everyone, but many engineers feel it can be difficult to progress in their career without making the jump. How have you navigated conversations about career growth with your managers?
In broad strokes, I’ve always viewed management roles as being responsible for nurturing people and teams, while engineering leadership roles are responsible for nurturing the software. I find myself most interested in pursuing an engineering leadership role, but many organizations conflate these responsibilities. My personal experience means that while I have attempted to take on both responsibilities out of a perceived notion that this is expected, each time I find it deeply unsatisfying. 8th Light accepts that these paths aren’t intertwined and does not expect team management from me, view my value to the organization as less or limit my potential. I am able to demonstrate organizational influence and take on more responsibility without having to manage others. I am also able to take part in numerous internal initiatives, and I do not feel limited or excluded from doing that because I am not a director. Managers and mentors at 8th Light have helped me find other ways to contribute and grow.
I am also able to take part in numerous internal initiatives, and I do not feel limited or excluded from doing that because I am not a director.”
 
What types of growth opportunities exist at your company for software developers who want to remain in an individual contributor role? How have you grown in your time with the company?
Individual contributors at 8th Light have the opportunity to grow the breadth and depth of their software knowledge through exposure to new technologies via project rotation, communities of practice and a dedicated budget for learning and development. They are given the opportunity to perfect the craft of the work and not necessarily the craft of being a people manager. While management is a path that some follow, for others like me it can feel distracting. I can stay close to the work and craft, which was my first aspiration and is where I maintain the deepest connection. Individual contributors can take part in the values of humanity, education and ownership equally, and are not marginalized since they also fit into the company’s vision and demonstrate their dedication and people skills in other meaningful ways. Some ways to participate and remain engaged include thought leadership, conference participation and content marketing. I feel that I have been able to demonstrate leadership skills without being a people manager.
 
 
 
Tell us a bit about your career journey thus far. How long have you been working as a software engineer, and what types of roles have you held?
Through my ten years working as a software engineer, I’ve had the opportunity to dip my toes into a wide range of areas. Earlier in my career, I worked for smaller companies with few developers, so I was responsible for everything from frontend to backend, including server admin, ops, IT, mobile and even product decisions. It was a lot to take on, but it offered such a diverse, real-world experience that when I moved on to more specialized roles in backend engineering, I knew it was the corner of software development I enjoyed most. Since then I’ve worked primarily as a backend developer, spending the last three years at ReviewTrackers where I’ve progressed from an associate-level developer to lead engineer.
Take opportunities as they come, but be transparent with your manager about where you want your career to go next.”
 
Management isn’t for everyone, but many engineers feel it can be difficult to progress in their career without making the jump. How have you navigated conversations about career growth with your managers? 
I’ve navigated conversations with management about my career growth with flexibility and transparency. Often management positions are offered to developers as the default next step beyond a senior-level position, and it can be beneficial to not immediately turn such an opportunity down, while still being honest and upfront about your career goals if they aren’t in alignment. Good leaders will try to adapt to your aspirations, finding ways to provide beneficial learning opportunities while still addressing the organization’s needs. 
Stay open to these opportunities. Managing one or two developers does not automatically lock you into a management track, nor does it mean you won’t be coding every day. It’s a valuable experience that you may find enjoyable, but if not, you’ve proven to leadership that you’re capable of self-development, adaptability and are worthy of greater trust. Such a move puts you in an easy position to pivot from the weighty responsibility of managing fellow developers back to the weighty responsibility of managing the codebase. 
Take opportunities as they come, but be transparent with your manager about where you want your career to go next.
 
What types of growth opportunities exist at your company for software developers who want to remain in an individual contributor role? How have you grown in your time with the company?
A wide range of opportunities exist for developers at ReviewTrackers. I feel the company is currently in an ideal state of growth, where the organization is large enough for individual contributor roles to exist, but has not become so large as to become calcified. The scope of our product is growing as well, so there’s an increasing amount of applications, features and languages to take ownership over, whether that be from an architecture, solver or tech lead perspective.
More than that, ReviewTrackers excels at leveling developers up from their current role to senior and beyond. Senior developers serve as excellent resources and mentors for junior and associate engineers — it’s a really collaborative environment where one of our key goals is setting one another up for success. That culture helped me grow from an associate-level backend developer into my current role as a lead engineer. At each point along the way, my manager and the product and engineering teams at large made sure I was challenged but not overwhelmed — providing opportunities to develop new skills, take ownership of a greater share of projects and achieving concrete career goals.
 
 

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