or Why I deliberately didn’t want promotion & am learning how to code
When I became a Head in the EDB Strategic Planning team in 2015, I wondered about my career pathway. And by 2018, I was quite clear that I didn’t want to get any promotion.
When I came back to EDB in 2020, I was again very clear that I didn’t want to get any promotion, and I didn’t want to manage people. Eventually, I did become a design manager, but it was really just to help out rather than because I wanted to.
To be clear, it’s not because I can’t manage people: I’m confident enough to invite you to ask anyone who reported to me if I can or cannot manage well.
But I didn’t & don’t want to manage people, and I also don’t want to get promoted in a large organization. I was often asked “why, PJ?”
For many years, I wasn’t able to cleanly articulate the nagging feeling I had whenever I thought about the prospect of me as a senior manager or leader.
The probable truth is that there are multiple reasons behind my reluctance: through my roles in Strategic Planning & my previous roles in EDB, I worked quite closely with EDB senior management, and also with the senior management of various corporates.
It was quite clear to me that many senior managers really suffer a lot. They don’t think they do, for sure. And yes, they are often compensated greatly with money and power.
But it seemed to me that they were often captive to the system, and had a lot less autonomy than most people below them realise. More than once, I’ve heard senior managers express intense frustration at their middle-managers, but they were often unable to do anything because of the huge trade-offs involved if they pushed through their way. And many large organizations have a lot of expertise in the middle, which they cannot afford to lose as the expertise is often relevant to their main money-making business.
More than once, I asked myself if I would have made a different decision from my EDB senior managers if I was in their shoes. And the results of this mental experiment often shocked me: sometimes the answer was yes, but often times I realised I couldn’t have made a different choice or decision. The choices are the result of the context within the system, which is often very constrained.
And I experienced some of this system captivity myself, when I became a manager. I often had to mask my own emotions & feelings from my subordinates (I never lied though!), because as the manager, people were watching and I had to be careful not to accidentally cause cynicism or demoralize people. That pressure to mask yourself only increases, the more senior you become. As you become more senior, it becomes a lot more lonely, because you have nobody else to bitch & bond with.
The other thing to note is that these observations apply actually not just to EDB, but to every large hierarchy. I’ve seen the same phenomenon in India, in the Energy & Chemicals industry, in large tech firms, in other government agencies, in the social sector…
Then in 2019, I discovered coding at CIID, and fell in love with it. It was pretty amazing to be able to make something out of nothing using just my mind & hands. And to see my classmates do stuff like making a geo-located game using p5js (though not recommended by them!) in a week, was nothing short of amazing.
It is something of a paradox for me, because as a human-centred interaction designer & as a Dhamma practitioner, I truly believe that human potential is infinite. Yet, I am trying my best to avoid managing & utilizing the human leverage as far as possible, despite staying in EDB for 13 years.
Then I came across these tweets by Naval Ravikant, which perfectly & concisely articulated why for me:
The concept and idea that coding is permissionless leverage, while human beings are permissioned leverage totally explains & articulates why I have the paradoxical behaviour towards managing humans & being promoted in a large organization.
Because permissions create opportunity cost: permissioned leverage requires a lot more time & energy to obtain, and that same time & energy could instead be utilized on permissionless leverage.
Hence, instead of spending time seeking & winning permission over human leverage, I currently believe that I am better off creating permissionless leverage through code.
I guess we will see how this pans out!