IC (Individual contributor) vs Manager

When I was in the mid stages of my career (4 or 5 years into what I did), a common question I pondered was what route to take – IC vs Manager. Life took me on a different path as a founder. But I’ve been an employee for the past two and a half years. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the same question. 

In this post, I’ll share my thoughts and experience with both roles that might help you decide the route you want to take. 

While there are multiple factors to consider when making this decision, here are a few that were important to me (and maybe to you).

A good manager is the best work perk.

Having a good manager is genuinely a blessing and can do many great things for your career. I’ve had the privilege of working with great managers. Can you be that person to someone else?

I’ve genuinely enjoyed helping people at work and helping them accelerate their careers. But, like anything else, you need to be committed to it. There is no room to slack off; people are at stake. 

Optimising for your own time

Being an IC is easy on your schedule. I’m a big advocate of async work, and currently, I average less than five hours per week in meetings. I manage a team of 2 developers, a project manager and a designer that we hired via an agency. Technically I’m an IC who does some management work. My calendar looks drastically different compared to when I was managing people. 

When you manage people, you have to put them first. Weekly 1:1s with all your direct reports are one of your primary tasks. That can take up a lot of time on your calendar.

When you are a manager, you are helping others solve their problem. This also involves a lot of context-switching. If you love deep work, it might not be for you. 

Shallow vs Deep nature of work

As mentioned above, you are basically helping others solve their problems as a manager. It also required broader skills rather than in-depth knowledge in specific areas.

At times managing people can feel shallow compared to going deep on a technical topic. Although you might have deep technical expertise in specific issues, you might not get to use that daily (or ever). While managing people requires a deep understanding of human behaviour, if you are someone with a hacker mindset, you might not be satisfied with it. Sometimes the initiatives you implement to improve your team’s life can feel superficial.

If you are a person who gains energy from talking to people and spending time with them, you might thrive as a manager. This is the reason why genuinely great managers exist. 

People, communication and building relationships

When you deal with people, obviously, you have more stakeholders. You are supposed to be the caretaker. You must get comfortable giving credit and getting none most of the time. You will also run into more organisational problems than technical ones. Solving them looks vastly different. Sometimes, organisation problems can be annoying because it is beyond your control or you are at the mercy of someone else’s decision. 

While this is partially true for technical things, you can always roll up your sleeves, come up with a technical solution, present it to the stakeholders and convince them. 

When dealing with people, you need to understand and play the game. It’s not just numbers. 

You can be a leader without being a manager

This is an important lesson I learned that acted as a catalyst in my move towards becoming an IC.

Hold a high level of ethics. 

Raise good questions, take the initiative and set examples for others. 

Do things, don’t just talk about doing things. 

Don’t start running the organisational rat race. 

Boost the team’s morale by being the person they are comfortable coming to.

Have different, strong and genuine opinions. Hold them loosely, but uphold the value you believe in. 

At the end of the day, you can look in the mirror and feel good about yourself.

What’s in the future?

I’m keeping an open mind. If I feel I can do impactful work by managing people, I will take that route again. But I will always choose the IC route when given a choice with equal impact. 

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