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Audio: How a VP of Engineering Decided to Become a Software Developer Again
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How a VP of Engineering Decided to Become a Software Developer Again

16 October 2020, by Jomiro Eming

Most software developers have to decide between managerial experience and tech seniority at some point in their careers. Hannes de Jager is a VP of Engineering turned senior software developer. At some point as a manager, he realised there was something missing - his heart was in actually building software. That’s why he made the decision to move back into coding and development.

In this article, he shares how he used psychometric tests and 360 reviews with people in his network to get to know himself better, and make his career move with confidence.

What he enjoyed about being VP of Engineering at his former fintech company was the ability to apply his passion for system building to a team of people: “I realised that not only software needs a system. I was basically designing a social system that has to work together to deliver software. That was the fun part.”

Although he loved coaching and supporting people, the politics of the role often outweighed the ‘good’. “The lots of meetings, the lots of egos involved, and every department pushing their own agenda… Those things were really draining.” He also often struggled to come to terms with letting go of coding and software development: “I felt like I was losing touch of the technical things, which I really didn’t want.”

This translated into doubt. Hannes wasn’t sure if a management role was right for him: “Every job is going to have stuff you don’t like, but I just remember myself feeling not at all in the mood for the next year in that role. At that point, I didn’t have any specific plans to not be there anymore, or change something, but I knew something had to be done.”

Managing at this level also came with many interruptions and ad hoc meetings, that he had little time to do the parts of his job that he was supposed to:

“I just felt like I didn’t have any control over my time anymore. It was just interruptions from everywhere. I think 80% of my time was in this kind of collaborative mode, and I never got to just sit down, without disturbance, to write a jobspec, let alone just code a bit to automate some departemental manual labour.”

At the end of most work days, Hannes felt too drained to code, or even spend much time with his wife or his children.

At first, he felt the pressure of what others would think of him: He had a good role at a good company, and thought that people would say that he’s ‘going backwards’ if he took a development role again; or, that maybe he just wasn’t good enough to be a leader of a dev team.

However, after a few months of reflecting and talking to people he trusts, Hannes was able to let go of the traditional idea of career progression as a dev. By understanding himself better, he realised that his true passion was to improve his skills as a dev. He eventually left his role as VP of Engineering, and found a senior software developer position at bol.com, the largest online retailer in the Netherlands and Belgium.

In order to make that solid step towards a role that he wanted, he decided to first strip himself of his personal and emotional biases, using:

  • Psychometric tests, and
  • 360 reviews with people in his network

Here’s how that worked for him.

Getting ‘unstuck’: Practical ways to know yourself better

Doing a psychometric test to remove emotional bias

In a role or environment that feels stressful and uncomfortable, Hannes says it’s easy to let one’s emotions get the better of you, and start questioning everything about yourself. “My initial response was to doubt everything. You have these questions about inadequacies, and of course about other people — things like, ‘What do other people think? Is this a dumb decision? Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I just push through? Why is this draining me so much?’”

To make sure his emotions didn’t cloud his judgement, Hannes wanted to figure out if it was him, the role, or the company. “Rather than get emotional, I used mechanisms to evaluate things in a structured way.” To do this, he used psychometric tests that helped him to better understand his personality and character traits.

For Hannes, these tests were a valuable way to give himself more data, and more than just his own assumptions about who he is: “It allows me to have a more concrete conversation with myself about what I’m good at, what I’m not good at, and what conditions I thrive in based on my personality.”

The tests he’s used in the past are as follows:

Hannes also hired professional coaches, who helped him with some other aspects of personality testing, as well as talk him through some of his results from the other psychometrics tests.

Important note: Your personality type shouldn’t absolve you from responsibility or agency; it should empower you to stretch yourself further. Hannes says that he tries to see these results as a way to be more aware of how and why he responds in a certain situation, understand what causes that, and use that to respond more skillfully. He explains: “You need to see these things with a certain level of maturity. It’s not a case of, ‘Oh, I’m a type five, so I guess I can’t do type three things’. If you’re in a position where 80% of what you’re doing is not your type, then find someone that can help you, delegate what you’re doing, try work around it — and, only if none of those things work, then maybe you do need to think about changing jobs.”

Using a 360 review to remove personal bias

We all have an opinion about our own strengths and weaknesses, but we tend to be more critical of ourselves than of other people. Thus, we overestimate our weaknesses and underestimate our strengths. For career aptitude, this can heavily impact the roles we think we’re well-suited for. Hannes wanted to get external feedback from other people so that he could remove this personal bias as much as possible:

“You need to know what you’re not good at, but you also need to know what you are good at. If you only ever analyse yourself… there’s always a tendency to list all of your bad points. We’re not very good at reflecting on our positive attributes.”

Hannes started by reaching out to people he knew and trusted. These ranged from people he worked with really closely, to people he worked with only once or twice, so that he got a more accurate picture: “You have to have a mix of relationships”, he says, “because they’ll always have a different perception of you based on how close they are with you, and how much they know about you. You have to blend it all together, and come up with your own growth strategy from that.”

The kinds of questions he asked were intentionally open-ended, as opposed to yes/no. This was to give as much room for specific examples as he could.

The kinds of questions Hannes asked in these 360 reviews were ones like:

  • What are the things should I continue to do?
  • What things do you think I’m particularly good at?
  • What is my strongest characteristic?
  • What is my weakest characteristic?
  • What things should I stop doing?
  • What is one area I could improve in the most?

This helped him gather external feedback that he could consolidate, and then compare to his own opinions about himself.

In the end, no decision is ever as final as it seems

One thing that Hannes has learned about this entire process is that no career move he makes is final. If he wants to, he can always go back to being a tech manager, but the fear of having to make an irreversible decision is something he sees a lot of developers struggle with, and it prevents them from deciding if they should move roles. He says:

“I can always go back to a management position again if I want to. What’s more important is that we don’t have a fear of other people; we shouldn’t live a life that other people want us to live.” He recalls a book he read called Managing the Unmanageable, written by Mickey W. Mantle and Ron Lichty Mantle, where the authors had a similar experience: “I think he was managing Pixar, places like that, where he started off as a dev, got into management — and, I think three or four times, he went back and forth between the two.”

This just further helped Hannes remember that: “It’s never a final decision, and I think that’s a really valuable lesson to remember.”

If you’d like to reach out to Hannes, you can find him on Twitter, LinkedIn and GitHub.


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