Shawn Zeller, principal architect at NatureBox and Plato mentor, gave advice on how to choose between individual contributor and engineering manager positions during the Plato event hosted on August 9, 2017, in San Francisco.
We all know that an IT professional’s knowledge is commonly divided into “hard skills,” such as programming, and “soft skills,” such as communication, management, and leadership. Engineers can choose to develop in either direction, and a common misconception is that getting promoted as a manager yields more rewards while requiring less effort, simply because people believe in the ease of “soft” skills. Shawn Zeller’s experience shows us that this difference might be overemphasized. It also sheds new light on the perception of the rewards that comes with being promoted.
Beginning as an individual contributor — a position where everyone strives for promotion, especially as time passes by — he climbed the ranks through various engineering management roles to a senior position, including Vice President. And he did it all at a very young age. Instead of pushing his career further to executive positions at fast-growing startups, he came back to where he first started. Shawn is now an individual contributor again. Not because he did something bad and was demoted, or because he couldn’t cope with the responsibilities of a manager role, but because that position was more comforting to him than all the managerial roles he had. This move was not just beneficial for him, but also for the company.
Indeed, many of us who are strictly on the tech side and have liked writing code from the earliest days in our careers would struggle with leaving those skills behind if we were promoted to manager positions. Achieving excellence in a programming language or another IT skill requires a high level of dedication.
At a lower EM position, you will notice that there is not much time to code or learn new things to improve your “hard” skills, such as new frameworks or languages. And as you climb the organizational ladder to even higher positions, you will have to cope with the “dark side” of management even more. As a Vice President, Shawn had to find the right fit among many stakeholders and interests, including founders, team members, product, market, competition, and many others.
The flexibility of not being an engineering manager let Shawn focus on more tech things that could make him more useful for his company beyond his managerial competencies. Now as a senior individual contributor, he is actually regarded as a tech expert, and the real source of his authority is his technical knowledge, rather than his formal position within the organization. It gave him more opportunities to effectively use that knowledge through spending more time with the team on everyday development processes. It also allowed him to have more time and prospects of learning coding skills, simply because he is in the code all the time.
As a senior individual contributor, he is actually regarded as a tech expert, and the real source of his authority is his technical knowledge, rather than his formal position within the organization.
This way, managerial experience can be used to provide feedback and give support to other team members in their everyday work, the way managers do. The fact Shawn is not a manager anymore frees him of any concerns and stresses related to “governing people.” Thus, as Shawn’s authority comes merely from his tech knowledge and engineering manager experience, he is able to offer the team the best of both worlds.
Employee roles can be tailored so that they adapt to each employee’s strengths. This requires a flexible approach where a given position does not always rely on the same tasks and fixed schedules, but respects individual differences in a way that makes the employee more productive. A great circumstance is the fact that we can rely largely on constructive feedback. People are seeking constructive feedback, and it can help the organization learn about each employee’s strengths. The final result is a role that emphasizes and maximizes everything that individual is good at.
A good example can also happen inside a single company. Highly ranking EMs can switch back to the individual contributor role if they feel their teams can respect them for their technical skills, and if it will benefit the company more in the long run. Proficiency in technology is something that can be very scarce in many startups, and promoting those proficient into managers would actually result in a loss of knowledge as an asset.
“One of the things that I enjoy is I think the flexibility of not being an engineering manager lets me focus on a daily basis for what I feel like is the best for the company, and it’s across a broad set of stuff”.” — Shawn Zeller
Watch the full video of Shawn’s presentation below, and be sure to check out our YouTube channel to see all the videos from the event.