engineering manager or individual contributor

Do I Want to Be an Engineering Individual Contributor or Manager? Answer 4 Questions

The age-old engineering career development question rings as true at NatureBox as everywhere else: should I pursue a role as an engineering manager, or continue on the path of a sleeves-rolled-up code-writing individual contributor? In my career, I’ve been fortunate to work as both and learned a great deal about how what you value in your day-to-day work life and aspire to in your career ought to drive your decision-making. As you begin to forge your way down either path, consider the following four questions to determine what it is you really want out of your career.

1. Where Can I Make the Most Impact?

I strive to spend my day where I think it can have the biggest impact on company goals. As I was starting my career, the people I looked up to were primarily in engineering management positions. Personally, I wanted to help my teammates develop, be successful, and understand the connection their contributions were making to high-level team and business goals. Over time, however, you start to realize that in most organizations, being a leader and influencer doesn’t mean you have to be a manager. Many engineers gravitate towards the traditional career ladder because it’s the obvious, expected means of progression. On the IC side, however, senior engineers, principal engineers, and architects make massive contributions to the business. They often wind up being mentors and leaders in their teams, and still get to do what they love–code.

2. What Business Aspect Do I Value Most?

The biggest question you should ask yourself when you’re trying to figure out where you fall on the spectrum of roles is what do you personally value the most.  Many people who gravitate toward engineering management enjoy growing and mentoring others, while some prefer making large projects or organizations efficient and effective. Choosing engineering management is a choice that says you want to focus on the direct contributions of others over yourself. This resonates well with some, but others find it less fulfilling than the joy of personal creation that comes with writing, managing, and scaling code.

3. How Are My Responsibilities Contributing to My Growth as an Engineering Individual Contributor?

In most engineering organizations, roles are what you make of them.  The question I tell people to ask themselves is whether the experience they are getting as an engineering individual contributor is helping them grow.  It’s fairly common to end up on projects where the team needs someone to contribute more from an organizational side. While most engineering individual contributors might not want to transition to being a project manager, experience filling the role gives a taste of the management side of things. It also increases your qualifications for that career track if you choose.

Testing is intrinsic to engineering

In this example, you can personally grow while testing the waters of other career paths. On the other hand, if you sidestep into this function and aren’t enjoying it, then you need to have a conversation about re-orienting your day-to-day so it’s helping you grow in the way you want to. Asking yourself what you’re learning in your current role is a great way to assess what path you may accidentally be trodding along, and gives you the opportunity to recalibrate.

4. Do I Have to Choose Right Now?

OK, granted, this one is rhetorical. No, you don’t have to choose right away. As noted above, there are ways to suss out which direction is for you before you accept a slew of new responsibilities.  In most technical discussions, the opinion with the most weight is the person with direct experience in the code. In order to maximize that, you should find a set of responsibilities with visibility into more than just the code you’re writing.  

Options for growing engineering management skills

That may be as an architect or a dev lead where you spend a good portion of your time doing design and code reviews, or if you’re just getting started, offer to do more code reviews for peers.  There are a lot of agile teams where the process management/organization responsibilities are shared on the team. Those kinds of opportunities can show your coworkers where your strengths are, and help you decide whether you prefer determining the direction of your company’s tech, or helping your peers grow and succeed and in so doing build a finely-tuned engineering machine.

For more insight into the difference between Engineering Individual Contributors and Engineering Management, check out Engineering Manager or IC? Which Tech Career is Best for Me? (Video)

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