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For most of the past 15 years I have been working at the "higher" end of the technical spectrum, in both permanent and contracting roles such as tech lead, information architect, product architect, development manager and various senior contract roles.

I'm finding that the work/life balance has started to become totally skewed and I feel the need to pull back down to a less stressful level (and a corresponding lower income of course) into a stable permanent role. I'm going through some personal changes in my life right now and it means being able to spend more time with my kids over the next few years. As an aside, the jobs are slightly closer to where I live but not by a significant distance. It would however mean that I have less traffic in the commute.

The problem I am having is that prospective employers are questioning my capacity to work in a lower level job and not feel that it's "beneath" me. I've assured them that no, I don't particularly have an ego about it and it's about wanting to regain work/life balance by being less stressed, but they are still skeptical and seem concerned that I am overqualified and could be a flight risk to take another high end job in short order.

My question is, how can I convince a prospective employer that my priorities have changed, I just want to be able to come to work and do my job (very, very well I might add!) and don't feel the need to sit at the top of the ladder anymore?

[Edit]

In response to many good questions in the comments below, this is one option I am considering of several. My question is simply asking how to approach it if I take this option. :)

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    Did your work priorities really change? To me it sounds you just want to have a better work/life balance, not necessarily a lower level job. There actually are companies where team leads/architects/... have a more than decent work life balance. – KillianDS Jun 16 '15 at 8:47
  • Suppose the work-life balance issue was equal for the two roles. Focus on what advantage you bring to the company in your target role. For example, you may be fully capable of serving as product architect, but can you convince them that you can bring more value, put your talents to better use and bring more "passion" to work in the role of _____? – Brandin Jun 16 '15 at 10:03
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    @KillianDS It's a tough one to separate out, but yes my priorities have changed. To stay at the level I am now takes considerable commitment to stay current and informed. For years this was something that I did willingly. I simply do not have the interest in this to keep expending so much energy when there are other things that I would prefer to concentrate on. – Jane S Jun 16 '15 at 10:32
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    Seems to me to be a bit of a false assumption that a lower rank would require less commitment. Why would an employer want to hire you rather than someone on their way up who will work the extra hours? You have to think about how to explain it in terms of how it could benefit them rather than in terms of your own situation. – JamesRyan Jun 16 '15 at 11:15
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    @JamesRyan That occurred to me also. However when I was at that level, I kept up to date with the required tech with ease. But I am not so naive as to ignore that it may simply have been because I had the commitment at that point in my career. – Jane S Jun 16 '15 at 11:20
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I don't think you can do much more than explain your motivations, as you have done in your question. It might help to try to tune how you deliver your explanation. Some ideas:

  • As mentioned by Blam, do not talk too much about stress - that may look like you easily carve in under stress. Just explain that you prefer to focus on other things.
  • Explain that you prioritize an easier commute and regular working hours over higher pay - that should not count against you.
  • Don't even phrase it as "going down" - rather explain that you prefer to change focus, and work on technical problems in more depth, while mostly leaving planning and organization work to others (or whatever applies to your situation). The key is to make it more a "sideway" thing than a "down thing".

Caveat:

While you can phrase things as best as you can, some employers may have a fixed notion of "Once you pop, you can't stop", and may just not believe you could ever be happy with the change you are planning. In that case there's probably nothing you can do. However, not everyone is like that.

Finally, a closing thought:

Are you certain that you must leave an architect / manager role to have a better quality of life?

I find that quality of life depends more on the company culture (death march vs. sustainable pace) than on the role. In many companies I have known, architects and managers regularly leave at 4.30pm and get vacations, just like developers. They do have special responsibilities, but overall responsibility is still shared, and most roles are shared, so things do not hang on a single person.

Maybe you want to stay in the "higher end of the spectrum", as you put it, but find a company that respects your work-life balance better?

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    @JaneS I understand, but I'm unconvinced. I mean, I believe you when you say that your specific role may require too much commitment, but maybe there are some other roles at the same level that allow you to have a life, without necessarily being demoted. Obviously, without knowing the details… – o0'. Jun 16 '15 at 12:30
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    @JaneS I can say that in my company there are definitely higher-level people who get all the work-life balance they need. The company even has a work-life balance budget for each employee (allows you to do things like fly your family out with you on a business trip). It's more about the culture than the role, as others have mentioned, and the company has offices in Australia so I know it applies to that culture as well. – thanby Jun 16 '15 at 16:18
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    +1 for the closing thought. I just want to point out that in addition to what you've said - there are a lot of consulting roles where you can even work 2-3 days a week or roles - those roles are high end but typically have a much more flexible work schedule. – Benjamin Gruenbaum Jun 16 '15 at 18:22
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    @Lohoris Yes, I am considering this option as well. – Jane S Jun 16 '15 at 21:09
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    @thanby There is an element of that, but it seems to have been the past few organisations at this level that have been similar. Nonetheless, I certainly haven't discounted looking for another role at level that may offer a better work/life balance. – Jane S Jun 16 '15 at 21:10
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My question is, how can I convince a prospective employer that my priorities have changed, I just want to be able to come to work and do my job (very, very well I might add!) and don't feel the need to sit at the top of the ladder anymore?

Don't focus on the negatives as to why you don't want the other roles. "Oh, being a manager is too much work and I want to have a more laid back life and not work hard" will not go over well as you are finding out. That's not what you mean, but it is probably what a fair number of people hear.

It's much better to approach interviews from a position of "what does this new role have for me and how can I best fulfill it?" Coming from a "I want work life balance as my number one priority" is not necessarily wrong but more difficult to convince someone to hire you. Especially in combination with "I want a lower responsibility position."

Focus on why you want to take lower positions. There are plenty of senior positions for individual contributors, too.

When asked why you want a "lower" role, focus on what about being a pure individual contributor appeals. On why you would be good for the role you want - not why you are not good for the role you could get.

  • "You know, I've done some of the architect or management types of roles but I really am passionate about developing. I have felt like something was missing over the past years and while I am good at those roles, my passions lie with being an individual contributor."
  • "I don't really see it as a demotion, I see it as having finally identified what my passions are. I would much rather do a job I am excited to show up for work every day than commuting further for a higher ranked or paying one which is 'just a job.'

Something like that is a much better way to address this than "I want better work life balance."

Do take time to be very curious about work-life balance in the interview though. It's important to you, so make sure you focus on this too!

As a speculative note, this approach won't work everywhere. But... it's likely the places it doesn't work are places which would be difficult to have good work life balance anyways.

  • I sat an interview today, and I did actually approach it much as you say here. I also made it very clear that I have a passion for the tech involved and spent nearly all of my 20 years working with it at various levels. Oh, and the linked answer asks some interesting questions! :) – Jane S Jun 16 '15 at 11:26
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If trying to get a lower ranked technical job is so challenging, you might consider expanding your range of options and look for positions that involve less stress for more money, such as a management position.

I am not sure that more junior technical positions have a better life/work balance than the more senior ones. Looking back at my own career, my sense is that the level of misery is the same, except that the type of misery is different.

I'd be looking for the type of jobs where I can set more of my own priorities and where I can delegate tasks to others. As well as reorder priorities if necessary. Having more control over your time and how you can spend it it is probably more realistic than looking for something that you think is less demanding of your time. Because what you think may not necessarily turn out to be true. In fact, if they KNOW that you are the one who can put their fat out of the fire, you KNOW that they will make a beeline for you regardless of how junior your technical position is. Remember what Al Pacino, playing Michael Corleone, said in the movie "Godfather II": "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in"

It's probably easier for you to get a management job and then argue your way back to a technical position than get a top technical position and argue your way down from that top technical position to a lower ranked technical position.

I have never even considered arguing my way from a top technical position to a lower ranked technical position because not even my own current employer, who knew me best, would buy my argument. And I could see for myself than those in the lower technical ranks were being pushed pretty hard, too.

Aside from looking for positions where I can set my own priorities, I'd look for/ask for a remote commuting component, too. And flexibility in the sense that I don't have to put in face time for the full day every day and where I can go home early, with the understanding that I will finish my task there.

I'd say, ask your current employer first, because they know you best and most likely, value you more than some random prospective employer because you are a known quantity to your current employer and that they are more likely to accommodate you on that basis.

  • I'm currently a contractor, so my current employer has hired me for a specific role. There isn't really the opportunity to move otherwise there. I have done management roles before and they didn't overly appeal. However, there is considerable common sense in your answer and very much food for thought, thank you :) – Jane S Jun 16 '15 at 10:44
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    As a contractor, you are already in trouble as the typical reaction to contractors is to squeeze the juice out of them, like lemons. Going full-time is probably the better option, (very) generally speaking. Especially full-time in a government job. Be careful, though - there are plenty of government jobs where they burn the midnight oil :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Jun 16 '15 at 10:49
  • Yes, I know that from experience (my current contract is... government!) :) As it turns out, the jobs I am applying for are permanent for exactly the reasons you outline :) – Jane S Jun 16 '15 at 10:51

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