How Do You Decide Whether an Individual Contributor (IC) or Engineering Manager Role is Right for You?
Are you at a junction where you ask “Should I pursue a role as an Engineering Manager (EM), or continue on the path of a sleeves-rolled-up code-writing Individual Contributor (IC)?”
Then this article is for YOU!
It is a common misconception that being a manager is just a higher-level version of what you were already doing. It’s definitely not! It’s a different mindset and a different set of problems that you will be working on. Some people believe the transition is a default step. They simply feel like it’s time. Some feel technical ladder is not easy to climb so they shift to managerial path. While others feel they are doing very good in technical role so they would automatically do better in a manager role. Unfortunately, all of the above are NOT true indicators. 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. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to work as both, and learned a great deal about how and what you value in your day to day work life. Please note — an upwards of 60% of Engineers in most of the organizations leave because of their manager. And yes, the adage is often true: people leave managers, not companies. As you begin to forge your way ahead in either path, consider the following questions to determine what it is you really want out of your career.
- Do you like SOLVING PROBLEMS or HELP OTHERS solve problems?
“Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them.” — Paul Hawken.
IC is usually the go to person / trouble shooter / problem solver / the ultimate POC to look up to for answers to tough situations or challenges or for complex solutions and situations resolver. But a manager is someone who understands the strengths of her/his team, listens to their problem, resolves conflicts and helps solve them — big or small. A manager is someone who genuinely finds pleasure and satisfaction in helping others solve problems and reach their goals, although the manager can solve the problem by herself/himself or knows who can solve it easier. Manager assesses the opportunity, risk and assigns the problems accordingly to the team members and provides them the right support to solve the problems.
2. Where can you make the most IMPACT?
“What you do has far greater impact than what you say.” — Stephen Covey
ICs enjoy building large projects or organizations efficient and effective mainly from the design/architecture, resilience and reliability standpoint. They find it more fulfilling writing, managing and scaling code. On the other hand, managers gravitate more on grooming and coaching others. More importantly, they concentrate on understanding the key metrics behind the work being done and then help their team understand the WHY part better. Managers cognitively make a choice and focus more on the direct contributions of others over oneself. One such example from my own personal journey — when we launched a product by sitting in a war room for 3–4 months straight! We brainstormed multiple ideas together, ran multiple parallel threads and got the work done in the same amount of time as it would take for finishing one idea. Through this, I learnt that making an impact by yourself is anytime lesser than making an impact together.
3. Can you SWITCH CONTEXT easily?
“For me context is the key — from that comes the understanding of everything.” — Kenneth Nolanda
ICs primarily focus on getting it done with perfection, move on to other things and repeat it. They often have liberty in requesting for the time to finish the existing priority before moving to the other, should there be a request from the team or the manager. Whereas a manager, dealing with team and competing priorities, often would end up with juggling around multiple things at once. So, for a manager, switching context and focusing on the intent of the task being done, is paramount. Often times, team thinks their problems would be solved by their manager. Dealing with different personalities, maturity levels, with the same enthusiasm and zeal, truly makes one a manager. One such example from my own personal journey is, you are in calls/meetings almost all through the day — one could be a high intensity system discussion, followed by one-on-one’s or skip level meetings, followed by interviews etc. Few techniques that helped me with context switching are focusing on one task at a time, participate in a discussion only when you feel you can do 100% justice and preparing in advance — be it is only for a quick 2–5 minutes. Other important tool that helped plan my day better is following “The Eisenhower Decision Matrix” to distinguish between urgent and important tasks.
4. Can you be TOUGH and SOFT?
“When your team is winning, be ready to be tough, because winning can make you soft. On the other hand, when your team is losing, stick by them. Keep believing.” — Bo Schembechler
ICs can be tough in most of the scenarios as she/he is very passionate about the solution and the applicability of that solution in the ecosystem. A lot of times, this involves hardship of convincing multiple teams. The solutions might result in more work for few teams leading to arguments. This is where ICs take a tough stand (could sound rude/harsh) as they are razor sharp focused on quality & time. But for a manager, it is THE key quality to know when to be tough and when to be soft with her/his team. Managers often are soft when they feel good and tough when they feel stressed. Perhaps you are soft with yourself and need to learn to be tough when the situation calls for it with the team — even vice versa. But softness and toughness should be seen as tools that one uses depending on what the team needs most, not what one feels in the moment. Personally, from my experience, it is all about understanding, sensing the current situation and knowing when to be tough with your team members and when to be soft — situation is controlled by various parameters, to name a few, impact, urgency etc.
5. Are you willing to LEAD?
“If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really well, then you did it.” — Bear Bryant
ICs usually take responsibility of the design/solution. But a manager takes responsibility of team results. As a manager, you are often the one providing recognition and celebrating the team’s wins. The manager will also take ownership and, most importantly, take blame when something goes wrong, on behalf of the team. Leading a team mainly revolves around four things –
One, seeing the potential in every team member. Always be mindful of pushing your teams so they see full potential in themselves to increase their performance. Talk to them about their strengths or find an efficient process they’re more likely to love it.
Two, thinking ahead and not losing composure when things go wrong. Managers spend time thinking about future scenarios of the team — they think about how bad it can get — then they aim for the good outcomes.
Three, comfortable in giving feedback to others. Performance management, both positive and constructive, is key to your team’s success. While ICs also give feedback to others, often than rarely, they assume managers need to take care of it, but this is always not true. Feedback can and must be given by ICs too. Relatively, managers believe more strongly that feedback is an essential tool to make the environment and team culture better.
Four, selflessness. Undoubtedly, this is a critical quality both for ICs and Managers but with a little more inclination/expectation from managers. ICs are selfless from an architecture standpoint, whereas managers are comfortable with others receiving the credit and public praise.
“Great managers are selfless leaders that want the unit to succeed together” — Kenny Nguyen.
ICs tend to think from the lens of I/Me and managers, We/Us. Being selfless is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do as a leader, and it requires competence and willingness to sacrifice. One of the best leaders I’ve had the privilege to follow once told me: “To lead is to serve selflessly; nothing more, nothing less.”
6. Are you willing to develop BROADER or DEEPER set of skills?
“Knowledge is happiness, because to have knowledge — broad, deep knowledge — is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low.” — Helen Keller
ICs tend to develop deeper skillset in every technology they pick, be it Hadoop or Scala etc. They tend to know everything deeply and find it very uncomforting with shallow knowledge. On the other hand, managers might still have the initial fantasy of staying up to date on all the technical aspects, but they soon realize that is not practical. Instead of constantly learning every new development in your field, managers develop broader skillset just enough to understand the demography and architecture — it is important to note that ICs also experience this as they reach senior levels. The truth is, managers don’t have time to stay as technical as ICs. Often, effective managers are open to hone the skills such as ability to lead by example, communicate critical information clearly, succinctly in a timely way, respond quickly and decisively based on situation demand, listen to fellow team members up and down the chain of command, get along with others and display good will and humor, walk the talk (your actions and talk should match) and motivate others to work effectively both as a team and independently. Understanding when to go deep and when to stay shallow, is important for both senior ICs and managers.
7. What is real YOU?
“All wonders you seek are within yourself’” — Sir Thomas Browne
Do you feel like extended team meetings are a bore? Do you rather feel more productive putting your head down and solving the problem than discussing with others? Do you feel the other’s conversations are immature and that these are making you less productive? If the answers to any of these questions are a yes, then you are more inclined towards an IC. One should have an internal motivation to become a manager. This motivation usually comes in the form of a vision for your team or an urge to improve a process within the company. But how do you know you got that? Answer yourself what occupies your thoughts while at work. If you regularly find yourself thinking, “There’s a better way to do this,” then you may be mentally ready for a managerial position. Another important thing is, please be sure of why you are taking this decision? Is it because of the ecosystem or team? ICs in few teams play a combination of technical & managerial role and this makes one think “Oh, I am already doing this, so it should be cake walk” — it isn’t necessarily so. It is always better for you to take a deeper look into yourself and even consult few others who have stayed as senior ICs and also those who have converted into manager role.
8. How strongly do you believe in RELATIONSHIP building?
“Building a healthy, stable relationship is like building a stable house. You want to be sure that the foundation is sound and that it is built to weather the storms.” — Unknown
ICs, being technical experts and problem solvers, often get approached by members within the team or from outside the team. This is because they understand the system very deeply and can give accurate, non-sugarcoated information about the ground happenings. But managers are often on the other side of the table i.e., they are strong believers in recognizing the right person to talk to in order to get a team member unblocked. This essentially enables managers traverse through the situations with speed and efficiency. While relationship building can be viewed by some as office politics, building the right relationships over lunch, coffee or drinks with other leaders is super valuable. Having good relationships across the company and industry will allow you to add value to your team in many situations. Managers belief in building connections is generally on a higher side than the ICs.
Remember, this is a crucial decision that could impact you as well as the people surrounding you. So please do not shy away to prepare these set of questions and answer them over a period of time honestly and quickly, from your bottom of the heart and assess. Be relaxed and focused while answering the questionnaire. Sometimes you might have just got out of an unpleasant design review or an unpleasant team building discussion — those could impact your answers!
Also, a very important point to remember, while you are an IC, you can still look to take on management work. You don’t need the title of manager to start acting like a leader. Giving thoughtful peer praise and constructive feedback, keeping the team motivated, networking across the company and helping build your team’s culture are all things you can (and should) do as a senior IC. Thinking about how much you enjoy these types of activities after you’ve had a chance to do some of them will be a great indicator of your interest in management. A final consideration is that an official change to management doesn’t have to be a permanent switch. I’ve known a few folks who have gone through the management route for a period of time and really missed the hands-on part of the job enough that they decided to go back to a senior IC role. They wound up building some crucial leadership skills and perspective that helped them be even better at their IC job. Careers are long and exploring options can be a great way to grow and stay excited about your work!
That’s a wrap folks!!!
— written by Naga (Nagaraja Rao Daivam). Director — WalmartLabs. A Practical Leadership Guy.