Forget the common wisdom about the skills you need to be a good manager or individual contributor. Instead, ask yourself two questions:
Do you enjoy helping others fulfill their potential?
Are you willing to do what it takes to build high-performing teams?
I came up against the individual contributor (IC) vs. manager choice early in my career.
I was a senior software engineer who just loved building software. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was a tech lead of a small team when my boss offered me a great promotion opportunity.
“Do you want to become an engineering manager or a software architect?” he asked.
I was unsure, but ultimately my boss discouraged me from choosing management, saying it was a waste of my technical skills. He recommended I become an architect. With my technical skills and love of building software, he thought I’d make a solid one.
Fast-forward to today. I’m a Senior Engineering Director at a fast-growing software company and I manage a team of four managers who together lead a total of 70 engineers. Everyday, I leverage both my technical skills and my ability to help others grow in their careers and do their best work.
If I’d taken it as absolute truth that my technical skills would be wasted in management, I may have missed out on critical growth and opportunities in my own career. So, how do you make the right decision for yourself?
Skill gaps: The false dilemma
There are a lot of misconceptions about what it takes to be successful in IC vs. manager roles.
The most glaring? That you should become an IC if you lack the confidence to take on a leadership role, and conversely, that you should consider management if you aren’t deeply technical and aren’t good at solving challenging technical problems.
In my experience, this mutually exclusive outlook isn’t accurate, and can lead engineers to stray from the path that would actually bring them the most joy.
Data backs up the argument against mutual exclusivity, too — take this 2017 report on root causes of worker well-being.
Report authors surveyed 35,000 employees about what factors most impacted their happiness levels at work. Choices ranged from salary, to tenure, to the specific field in which they worked.
As it turned out, though, the researchers found that the number one indicator of happiness was none of these things.
It was ‘the boss tech competency.’
Aka, your boss is capable of doing your job.
This gets right to the heart of the most common misconception about engineering managers: that they choose this path because they’re not good programmers. If anything, this survey shows that engineers who are skilled programmers make better managers. This is a truth I experienced firsthand when I embedded directly with our engineers before officially starting my new role at HubSpot as Director of Engineering in 2019.
When you dig deep enough, you find that the skills required to be a stellar IC and those that make you a remarkable manager are much closer to each other than you think: tech competency, leadership, high-level thinking, problem solving.
The reality is, a lot of these skills are necessary as you progress in both career tracks, and if you want to advance in both careers you absolutely need to demonstrate some elements of all of these skills. None of them is unique to either path.
Does that mean that both paths are the same? Of course not!
Does it mean that if you can do one you can do the other? Also no.
They are different specializations and will require you to work in different ways. However, making your choice based on what skills you may or may not have at the moment isn’t the way to choose.
So, how to choose? It’s all about knowing what questions to ask.
Career growth questions
First, start with two prerequisite questions:
- Are you a strong performer in your current role?
Before anything else, if you are not a strong performer at your current role, then the question of career progression is irrelevant. If you are struggling with your current role as a software engineer then your first course is to ask for feedback from your manager and address any existing skill and performance gaps.
- Are you ready to take on bigger responsibilities?
If the answer to this question is no, then it’s too early to think about career progression right now. Whatever path you choose will likely require you to take on bigger projects with higher impact as a first step, so if the idea of taking on more responsibilities makes you uncomfortable right now, then it’s fine to wait.
However, consider carefully whether your hesitation is coming from a lack of confidence or imposter syndrome. If so, I recommend you find a mentor who can support you on your journey as you build up your confidence. A day will come when you feel more ready to dive in.
It’s also worth noting that at many companies, trying out a management role is not a one-way street (this is certainly true at HubSpot). It's common for people at HubSpot to transition from management to IC roles and back again over the course of their career.
If you can answer both of these questions with a clear yes, then you’re ready to move onto the next set of questions.
'Are you ready to be a manager?' questions
||Do you enjoy helping others grow and find it just as rewarding or even more rewarding than doing the work yourself? This is a key question to consider and a definite requirement for being a manager. If you haven’t tried mentoring others before, you may not know the answer to this, so it’s worth taking on some mentoring opportunities for more junior engineers to find out.|
||Are you willing to make hard decisions, deliver tough or awkward feedback and be emotionally available to support your team? Are you willing to do what it takes to build and maintain a high-performing team? No one enjoys having to fire someone, but are you willing to do it if it’s the right thing to do for your team?|
How you answer this set of questions will show you which career path would be more fulfilling for you. Some example answer combinations, and what they might mean for your preferences, are below:
- If your answer to both questions is YES, you have the potential to be successful as a manager. If you’re unsure if you would prefer it to an IC role, I recommend you give management a try and see if you enjoy it. You can always switch back if you don't. There are career levels that run in parallel between management and IC tracks, so there is actually no risk in going to either career path and then switching to a different one later. It’s even a good idea to experiment a bit in the beginning to see what suits you best. At HubSpot, we expect our engineers to switch back and forth between management and IC roles to find what they enjoy the most. A lot of people think they need to be in management to have a big impact or make big decisions, but that’s not true! At the right company you can have just as big of an impact in the senior IC track as in management.
- If you enjoy helping others fulfill their potential but you are not willing or interested in taking on the direct responsibility of maintaining a high performing team, then I recommend you take on mentoring other engineers (ask your manager for mentoring opportunities and they can find you opportunities even outside the team). Use your mentoring talent to step up your influence and impact as an IC and grow in that career track.
- If you are willing to do what it takes to build a high performing team but don’t enjoy helping others fulfill their potential and grow, then I would stay away from management roles. It wouldn’t be fair to you or your future team. However, you can leverage your candor and willingness to do what it takes even if it is difficult in your IC work and projects to grow your impact.
- If your answer is NO to both questions, then the management role isn’t a good fit for you. However, you can have the potential to grow in the IC track as long as you continue to grow your technical skills over time and increase the scope of your projects and their technical complexity. The actions I recommend in the next section also apply to you growing in the IC track.
- If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, perhaps you need a bit more time to build more experience, get motivated, and find good role models for the types of roles you're interested in. You need to find your passion first before considering career progression.
Taking action on next steps
Once you decide on a career path, what comes next? No matter which path you eventually choose, the recommended steps here are the same.
- Make your intention clear to your manager. Don’t assume your manager can read your mind. If you have decided to try and grow in a certain direction, make your intention clear to your boss. They are there to help you achieve it. Give them heads up before the conversation that you plan to talk to them about growth so that they can prepare their advice. Ask them to help you identify the areas where you need to work for progression, and ask them for feedback regularly. I suggest scheduling a regular career-focused 1:1 on at least a quarterly basis, maybe even monthly. Work with your manager to create a long-term plan to reach your goals.
- Take on bigger project ownership and responsibility. No matter what career path you choose, you almost always need to take on bigger projects to progress further. This doesn’t mean you need to work longer hours. It means that the type of projects you are taking on require bigger responsibilities from you. Maybe the project requires working with other teams or solving difficult technical challenges. Or maybe it has a bigger impact or scope. Ask your manager for the type of projects that will help you with your career target.
- Share your learnings with others. Give talks to your teammates or to other teams about lessons learned, and how your takeaways can be valuable to them, too. Write posts, answer questions, etc. Of course the first benefit of a practice like this is that you’re helping others on their journey, which is amazing. The other hidden benefit is that by sharing your learning you are also making your progression and work more visible to a wider network, including your manager, and increasing your value and impact by helping others. Help others, help yourself.
Your career checklist:
- Are you ready?
- Are you willing to do what it takes for each path?
- To progress:
- State intention,
- Take bigger responsibilities,
- Share learning.
Implement these practices, and you can break a complex process down into manageable chunks that allow you to make it to the next level in your role, no matter what you want that to look like.
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