To IC, and not to be…a manager

Koun Han
Koun Han
Aug 7, 2017 · 8 min read

No, I don’t want to manage people (at least not right now). But I also don’t want to stunt my career growth. Can we stop conflating management with career progression?

“How big’s your company now? How big’s your team?”

Often, professional success is weighed by the size of the team one manages.Thankfully, in the tech industry, it’s increasingly common for companies to define two separate career tracks: Individual Contributor (IC) & Manager/Leadership (e.g. Google, Facebook, Square, etc.). These distinct paths are most commonly seen in the context of engineering levels, where engineers have the option to choose a track based on their interests and skills. Keeping separate/parallel tracks helps to dispel the perception of people-management as the only path to success. The two track system formally acknowledges that one need not manage a team of people or build an empire in order to advance in one’s career. As an IC, or Individual Contributor, one can climb the same number of rungs…but on a parallel and no less important ladder.

As a Product Manager, I’ve worked closely with many well-respected, senior IC engineers who led by influence, through their technical expertise and who worked on challenging projects with significant scopes and immense complexity. I have seen some senior IC engineers report to junior Engineering Managers (EMs) with far fewer years of work experience. Because the Engineering IC track is well established, people understand that IC and EM are different types of roles, neither one inherently better. Reporting relationships are largely independent of the seniority of IC engineers or engineering managers.

I love the two-track system because it expects that managers deliberately choose to manage. How many of you have colleagues and friends who’ve suffered from bad managers? Have you suffered from a bad manager? Maybe you’ve even been a bad manager. And yes, the adage is often true: people leave managers, not companies. When a manager is assigned exclusively because the person has performed well as an IC or worse, because the person has been at the company for a long time, the team is going to have a bad time.

Many take the responsibility of people management for granted, not fully realizing the necessary skills and commitment required of such a role. Sometimes, even when that gravity is recognized, some are simply not (yet?) cut out to lead even if they wish to be. Finally, some may not desire to be managers even if they have natural talent for it.

By making the decision deliberate, only those who choose to be managers are granted the responsibility. Engineers are expected to perform research to decide which path they want to take — they seek to understand the roles deeply, ensuring that they’re seeking challenges that are aligned to their capabilities and aspirations. Ideally, if they decide to pursue management, they are similarly expected to develop skills necessary to be thoughtful and effective people managers. Managers should be evaluated with criteria that measures and optimizes for behaviors that build and maintain successful teams.

Does the two track system work for Product Managers?

Theoretically, this two-track system can also apply to product management. My understanding is that some larger companies do indeed have very senior IC Product Managers (PMs). However, the path to becoming a senior level “IC” Product Manager seems not to be as well established for the PM discipline. I have not personally witnessed a case where a senior PM maintained his/her IC status without hitting the proverbial glass ceiling. In almost all cases of which I’m aware, senior PMs were eventually made to manage a team of Product Managers — sometimes by choice though more often, by not-so-subtle coaxing.

Up until recently I was the most senior IC Product manager at Square. To get there, I fought a long and arduous battle. Every year, leadership would ask me if I would manage others. People often assumed that the more junior PMs that I worked with and mentored were my direct reports. When I would dispel that assumption, people would look at me sideways and ask, “How are you so senior and have no direct reports?” Even when I interviewed for new PM roles, the interviewers would ask me why I hadn’t yet managed a team of Product Managers. “Grrr..” I would think, “No senior IC engineer would be asked to defend being an IC!”

So….really, why don’t you want to manage a team?

I have never been a 100% dedicated people manager, but for several years I did manage a team of four. I split my time between being a manager and being an IC, which required significant cognitive switching costs. I found that when I worked on products that required my full attention, it was tough to give my best to the products and to simultaneously take good care of my people. I didn’t like choosing between apples and oranges or sacrificing my personal life and sleep in order to do a good job. I told myself that I would only manage a team if the conditions allowed me to be an accessible and available manager who could dedicate ample time to my direct reports (btw this view is corroborated by Google’s Project Oxygen results). And to be honest, even that idealistic scenario never sounded especially appealing compared to the type of products I was product managing at the time, an observation which felt to me like a sound reason NOT to aspire to management at the same time.

What was clear was that I really enjoyed being at the grassroots and in the weeds of projects, working directly with engineers, designers, and cross-functional partners. I thrived when working on new, complex, and increasingly broadly-scoped products that challenged me and allowed me to develop into a stronger product manager. For me, management was not the clearest path to achieving these things.

While not managing (formally), one of my favorite experiences was mentoring several PMs and aspiring PMs when they sought my guidance. I believe that this relationship allowed me to be more genuine and honest, without the complexity of reporting lines. Ironically perhaps, I was in those situations, better positioned than most of the managers to share relevant experiences, best practices, guides/templates, and general career advice with other PMs. Not only having been in their shoes before, but being currently in their shoes seemed to lend my perspective significant credibility.

As a PM, I’ve especially enjoyed working on purpose-organized product teams, where several PMs would come together for a specified duration to work on a large and complex product. Not only did I have a meaty set of goals to run towards, I could also tap into my nurturing side. I wanted to ensure that people could grow and learn while achieving objective success. Being a team player without undue hierarchy allowed me to connect with others on a personal level, and to avoid the politics of career advancement.

Another benefit of being a strategic IC and product owner is that I have the luxury of a bird’s-eye view of what is or is not working on a project. Also, I can exploit a clear vantage into the organizational requirements that when improved, will gain efficiency and allow us to build better products in the future. Having both a macro and micro vantage has allowed me to recommend specific objective improvements — for instance — after a recent project, successful in many rights, I proposed to management that we create two brand-new roles and to add more definition and clarity to the existing roles on the team. These needs hadn’t been obvious to my manager — who though talented, wasn’t privy to the idiosyncrasies of the project.

As a senior IC PM, I’ve enjoyed many aspects of management but without the pressure of having it on my job description. Through self-awareness and self-reflection, I’ve realized that I am gaining more joy doing IC work than by being a manager. My long term career aspiration is to do my part as a leader, in a group of smart and passionate people, and to build something meaningful. This notion of leader doesn’t require having direct reports, and might be complicated or even distracted by it.

Is it possible to remain an IC Product Manager and to have a successful career?

I wish this were more clear. Some aspects of the Product Manager role itself could render it inherently more rare that senior IC PM roles exist in a company. There might not be a project / product area that is big enough in scope, complexity or that requires significant strategic planning, all things that might justify staffing a senior IC PM. But if there are big, complex, and less well-defined projects at companies, here are a few scenarios wherein a senior IC PM might be a good fit:

Often, complex products require more than one PM. You might divide the product into a few areas of ownership, staff multiple PMs, and give the the most challenging area to the senior IC PM. Depending on the circumstances, it may make sense to break the flat structure to make the senior IC PM the “lead PM.” In the lead PM role, the senior PM might be responsible for consistency and cohesiveness but not have people management responsibilities. On the other hand, the lead PM could be the people manager of other PMs on that product. Critically, this should be a an option, not a default. In my view, people management responsibilities can be independent of a ensuring a product’s consistency and cohesiveness. Successful products can be achieved through fluid communication, collaboration, and mentorship.

Although this may sound straightforward, the truth is that currently, the two-track career path is not yet well established for PMs in many tech companies. More likely, your competency as a senior PM may questioned if you don’t have or particularly desire management experience. Risks notwithstanding, I plan to continue pursuing roles as senior IC PM, until and unless I make a deliberate decision to be a PM manager. I honestly don’t know if this plan will stifle my career advancement in the near term, but it’s something that I’m compelled to try, because I’m confident that it can work for the me and others like me, and that it can facilitate the most success for our respective products and companies.

In order for the two-track PM model to work broadly, I implore those of you who are PMs, work with PMs or manage PMs to fight to make sure your individual contributors are not only doing what they do best and want to do, but that they are also advancing in their careers with incrementally meaty and impactful products, compensation and opportunities for leadership.

It’s my sincere hope that before long, it will be far more common for Product Managers and other non-engineering staff to have the same career advancement opportunities that senior engineer individual contributors enjoy today.

I want to hear your thoughts and comments. Do these concepts resonate with you? Do you know of a tech company that has a well-established IC PM track? Are there ways to make this more common?

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