Manager vs. IC

My thoughts on the differences between manager and IC roles.

I’ve gone back and forth between individual contributor (IC) and management/lead roles a few times in my career.  There are things I like about both.  Occasionally I’m asked to share my thoughts on the differences between the two roles, especially by people who are wondering if the management path is for them.

I would like to start by pointing out a few things:

  1. There doesn’t have to be a “management path.” Like me, you do not need to exclusively do one or the other.
  2. You can advance in your career without ever becoming a manager.
  3. Management and leadership are two separate things. You can be a leader without managing people.  Leadership is just making things happen. But I should probably write about that another day.
  4. I’m specifically talking about my experience in software engineering, though a lot of this is probably universal.

Otherwise, here are my thoughts!

Management is a support role*

I wrote a whole article about what a manager’s job is, here: What does a manager DO, anyway? But the summary of all of that is that your job is to keep the rest of the team pointed in the right direction, and as productive and happy as possible.

A lead doesn’t need to “get things done,” they need to keep their team doing the things.  And in fact getting too involved in the execution of your team’s work can distract you from the things that you, as lead, are uniquely responsible for.  I’ve personally done best as a lead when I in fact was the worst one on the team at jumping in to do the work – because it kept me from being tempted to.  I understood enough about the subject matter and had enough skills that in theory I knew what to do, and could get some stuff done, but I was always the slowest option, and IMO that’s the sweet spot.  Understanding what your team is doing is good.  Staying out of it is also good.

(* credit to mipsytipsy on this saying, it’s from the article linked here –>) This is why management is not a promotion.  It’s a totally different job.  It’s a peer role where you are supporting the people who are getting things done.

Focus vs. scatter

One of the biggest things I’ve noticed in myself as I moved between lead and IC roles, is the amount of focus time I got.  As a lead, you cannot afford to take on any technical tasks that require long periods of focus.  You must delegate these to the people on your team.  You spend your time on quick tasks that keep the team moving.  At times, as a manager, I’ve found myself in a mode where it almost “hurt” to have to sit and focus on a technical task.  Reading a long document, yikes!

Meanwhile, as an IC, you spend so much time focusing on technical tasks, it almost “hurts” to stop and handle all the little side tasks you have to do to keep the big picture moving. You know, getting that meeting scheduled, writing up the results of a decision, reminding someone they are overdue to do something for you, sending off that question you need an answer to. These things feel harder to do because they’re not “meaty.” You want to get things done and these tasks get in the way. The better you do at handling the random tasks plus the meaty stuff, the more impact you’ll have. But it certainly takes discipline and it depletes your energy tanks.

So when I transition between IC and lead roles, I have to mentally adjust that speedometer. As a lead, I’m going fast-fast-fast and have to delegate anything that requires focus and time investment. As an IC, I’m going slow-and-deep, while trying not to lose track of the (smaller number of) quick side things that also need to happen.

Constantly thinking about delegation

The “focus vs. scatter” discussion above may leave you thinking: a lead should do all the little things that ICs have trouble doing. But no, that’s the lead becoming a crutch. A lead needs to be watching to make sure those things happen, but they should be the backup option, not the primary. There are too many little things, and everyone on the team needs to learn those leadership skills of making things happen.

When I’m a lead, I find myself constantly monitoring my balance of doing things vs. handing them off. Doing things can free up your team’s time to focus, and keep the project moving. It can also eat up all of your time, take your attention away from the “big picture,” and rob your team of opportunities to learn and grow and become leaders.

I’m talking about questions like,

  • Should I go to this meeting, or ask someone from my team to take charge of it?
  • Should I ask/answer this question, wait to see if my team speak up, or approach someone from my team on the side and prompt them to jump in?

You may very well see the people on your team dropping balls. You know that meeting needs to get scheduled, that writeup needs to happen, that question needs an answer. You have to constantly ask yourself whether to fill in the cracks there, leave your team space to naturally get to it when they get to it, or push them to get to it now.

As an IC, the more you keep things covered, the more your manager can turn their attention away and trust you to handle your area. The more senior you are, the more you’re expected to do this. Just do it!

As a manager, a light touch is best. It’s your job to keep the project moving, but the best way to scale is to grow your team into making the motion happen themselves. Getting involved feels good – you made things happen, you took the burden off your team. But if they depend on you for everything, you become a bottleneck, and you can never take a break. Your team should be able to operate successfully without you for weeks. If they can’t, you’re not succeeding as a manager.

Patience, playing the long game

When you’re an IC, and you think something needs to be done, you can just do it. You get immediate satisfaction.

When you’re a manager, and you think something needs to be done, you have to work it into the plan for your team. You’ll have to wait days or weeks or months to see it get done. I’ve heard that as you move up the tree, this pattern continues – as a manager of managers, you have to wait months or years to see the things you want take shape. The higher you go, the more patience you need to have, to see the mark you’ve made on the direction of the product.

Deriving satisfaction

Similarly, one of the very large differences in what it feels like to be an IC vs. being a manger, is the way you derive satisfaction from your contributions. As an IC you get that “instant fix” from completing a piece of work: you did that! As a manager, you get a more muted level of satisfaction from seeing your team make progress. The first time you move from being an IC to being a manager, it takes a lot of time – months at minimum – to start feeling satisfaction in new ways. To recognize those points where you gently nudged your team’s direction, resolved something that was annoying someone, or taught someone to work a bit better, as meaningful contribution. You have to re-learn how to feel good about yourself. It’s harder to feel like you’re doing a good job, as a manager, because your contributions are smaller and more spread out.

As an analogy: being a manager is very much like being a parent. There is no “right” way to be a manager, just like there is no “right” way to be a parent. You’re constantly questioning yourself, and it can be stressful. But you derive little nuggets of joy from watching others grow, improve, succeed. And from the gratitude they give you.

Stress and being responsible for others’ careers

There is no getting around it: a manager is responsible for other people’s careers. This shows up in hiring decisions and in performance evaluations. But it also shows up in how work is assigned, in holding regular career discussions, in providing feedback and guidance. If someone on your team is failing, it’s not just your job to do the right thing for the team (e.g. fire them), it’s also your job to do the right thing for them: have you done all you can to help them succeed? Ultimately you are a mentor and advisor to each person on your team. You have to “debug” what is holding people back, and what people want, when they may not even know themselves. I am a soft-hearted person; I want everyone to succeed. It hurts me to tell someone they’re not succeeding, or to decide they’re a bad candidate for an open position. But it’s the only truly fair way to treat them. My wishes can’t make things happen: only the truth can.

You hear stories of managers who can come in to a mediocre team and turn them into a high-performing team. Heck if I know how to do that, but it scares me to think I might have to. All I can do is try to pay attention, listen, think, and do my best. That responsibility weighs on you. It can be stressful. Moving from manager to IC, dropping that responsibility is an instant relief.

Keeping an eye on the big picture

Everyone on the team is responsible for the success of the product. But a manager is especially responsible for raising their attention above the day-to-day details, and making sure (1) you’re building the right thing for your business and customers, (2) you’ve thought of all the risks and covered all the gaps, (3) you’re going to finish on time, (4) your team is working in an optimal way. Again, everyone should be thinking about these things. But it’s easy to focus so much on your immediate work and forget to look at the big picture. The leaders of the team, including the manager, cannot let that be forgotten. Rather than a binary “managers do this and ICs don’t,” the difference here is the degree to which a manager should spend their time vs. ICs. A manager should be mostly thinking big-picture and a smaller amount details; an IC should be mostly thinking details and a smaller amount big-picture. The more senior the IC, the more they share responsibility for the big picture.

Just like I mentioned I find myself constantly thinking about delegation, I also find myself constantly thinking about “how.” Are our processes right? Is the team working together well? Is this meeting necessary?

With great responsibility comes great power. As a manager, you are the one that information is coming down to from above. You are the default person getting involved in planning and decision-making. You get to see the product, the market, and the wider team at a greater scope than you have the time to get involved with as an IC. You get to be part of many things without doing all the dirty work. Of course, it’s your job not to abuse this power, rather to share it with your team. But it can feel good to be part of so much.

The buck stops here

As a manager, I felt like my “training wheels” had been removed. The manager is the backup for everyone on the team. As a manager, you don’t always feel like you have any backup. The team is really your backup, especially the more senior members of the team. But you’re the primary person who was responsible for preventing breakdowns. You should have asked the right questions, known in detail what was going on, communicated, whatever it was. You have to take the primary responsibility for breakdowns, and that responsibility can add stress and anxiety to your life. Even when a breakdown hasn’t happened, fear of one can weigh heavily on your shoulders.

Wrapping it up

If you were looking for a succinct list of pro’s and con’s, you’re not going to find it here. Not everybody likes the same things, or likes them the same amounts. It’s up to you to decide whether the things I’ve said add up to more pro’s than con’s for you. Even more than that, sometimes your best role on one team might not be your best role on another. Personally, there are things I like about both roles, and in different situations I see myself making the best contribution in different roles. Best wishes finding your own best path!

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