A previous coworker linked an article written about effectively elevating the importance of the individual contributor. The key points were to recognizing the importance of the role through increasing the pay scale as opposed to encouraging that type of person into moving into a managerial role, which has been the traditional way one continues to push their career forward. I would like to address this article here and my thoughts as someone who has mostly been an individual contributor type as well as had explored the option of senior management briefly.
First, I think the idea of helping to increase the ways one can develop as an individual contributor in terms of a career path is important. First, I’ve found that I’ve hit a paywall because of how positions for people with the sheer number of years of experience simply flatten out at a certain point. And it really doesn’t make sense because my level of seniority vs another person’s level of seniority differ vastly, even though the job title would remain the same. I’ve seen people who believe they were seniors but make very junior level errors (most of the time it’s poor decisions not necessarily code related). So the disparity of what it means to be at a certain level as an individual contributor vastly differs based on experience and quality.
Yet for someone at my level, I’m effectively at least a director or CTO in terms of experience. I can make those types of decisions but on paper I don’t have the number of years in those positions to be given the next level because I haven’t done the management aspect much. And many of those types of positions really are a variant of the middle level management position, except the CTO which ought to combine that and an individual contributor insight to be at that level. So for myself I’m at a strange place in my career.
But perhaps a problem for me is that I’m simply too good at my job where people don’t want me to move into management. I’m not an ass kisser (which is what I tend to see a lot of people promoted into management as) and I dislike managing people. I’ve stated multiple times that the word “manager” is just a euphemism for the other seven letter word “asshole.” Of course, I do recognize the need for people managers in organizations at a certain point just because you need a point of contact that goes between layers to deal with the political side of things. Generally though, I’ve seen a lot of bad people put into this role because they see it as a way to move from the individual contributor position, which they tend to be lousy at and strive to get more money and recognition.
And I believe that leadership (not necessarily management) is something that should be promoted from within. It shouldn’t happen because some guy suddenly shows up and starts bullying people into doing what they want. Leadership itself is where people look up to an individual to give them guidance because that person knows more and can instruct people who do not have the same level of experience into doing the right things at the right times.
I feel that companies make huge mistakes once they start hiring externally for these kinds of positions, especially if they have capable people within. And that’s where a lot of the trouble starts because the new person most likely will not understand the core business, the people and specifics just so that they can get a title on their resume. In some cases, it helps but I’ve generally seen this type of situation fail especially when companies try to grow and become prestigious. Then they begin filling these spots with people who might have a fancy set of companies and/or degrees (like some MBA) rather than grooming people internally (unless the people inside the company are sheer incompetent or unqualified).
But I’ve gone on ranting about middle or even higher level managerial roles. Let me get back to the individual contributor and where this is going to fit in. The reality about the individual contributor is that I think society needs more of these than managers. And I think with the pandemic, it showed just how useful managers are in a setting where they have no one to directly harass on a daily basis. With the recession hitting us, I feel that middle management are some of the first to go in these settings, which is why I think there’s a huge ongoing battle occurring at the moment in terms of remote vs in office work for a lot of companies.
So how do we correct this issue? I do think some degree of middle management is necessary especially in large organizations where you need an intermediary that can move between groups. And I’m not just talking about a project manager but rather someone who has the capability of negotiating. The way I look at this scenario is in two ways:
- We can increase the value of the individual contributor by creating a better career path for them. As an engineer for instance, I enjoy writing code. But I don’t want to do bugs anymore at a certain point, especially in large corporate settings. I’d love to do more research or have the capability of working on new technologies that interest me. If I can show how those things relate back to what I’m doing, I should be rewarded because my efforts would affect the bottom line.
- De-value middle management and even upper management to a degree. Now, this might be a harder sell to everyone except the CFO and CEO. But the idea is that the management career path might not be as valuable if that person isn’t contributing to some degree. I realize soft skills are probably the most important skills you can develop as they apply anywhere. But I think compared to technical skills that are more specialized, soft skills are generic enough that anyone can do them, thus their value shouldn’t be as emphasized on a pay grade. At least, this should be true when evaluating compensation of a generic engineering manager vs say an actual lead who also codes.
And I emphasize point #2 here because it might be more appealing to the CFO and CEO types looking at the bottom line. But here’s more to this thought process. First, you’re going to weed out career politicians a lot easier by scaling back the pay. Let’s say your senior engineer is making 140-160k. An engineering manager might be making around 155k but depending on the position, all they might truly be doing is talking to some guy in Puerto Rico and telling them what they should work on. Is that really worth 155k? That sounds like 70k at best.
What about simply raising the amount of money an individual contributor can make? We can do that too but realistically part of the issues of tech in the past 15 years has been one of attrition because of salary hikes which has caused places like California to become exorbitantly expensive. If you want a competitive market, you should also have that market be realistic. Seeing the recent wages for some companies being broadcast have demonstrated the sheer ridiculous nature for which certain companies are willing to pay for people.
Another thing is that you increase the importance of the voice of an individual contributor. One of my frustrations as a senior engineer has been being overridden by terrible upper management decisions. Closed door meetings where clueless people sit around discussing how I should do my job have made me quit on numerous occasions. The thing is that companies need to listen to the important individual contributor as well. When I tell my bosses that there’s going to be a disaster, they should listen. If I know that a bad decision has been signed off on and I’m forced to implement it, I should have a say in not being the one to execute it. Things shouldn’t be strictly top down. I don’t need to be the one signing off on every decision, but if something effects my area of expertise and I’m telling people it’s a bad thing, I should be able to push back on my own rather than being stuck with the incompetence of others.
Also, I’ve seen places that claim to be flat in terms of structure. There really is no flatness due to human nature. There always will be groups and people who lead these groups or groups that have group-think type of mentality that will drown out the individual. But if you want to mitigate some of this effect, you increase the importance of that individual contributor such that they aren’t allowed to be drowned out by politics. Somehow corporate structure needs to evolve beyond top down management that’s heavily stratified into one where feedback loops from the bottom, especially where the bottom does a good chunk of heavy lifting, back towards the top.