Which Engineering Pathway Is Right for You?

While not all engineering organizations are the same, they usually have some variation of the two types of pathways in the software engineering world: the IC and the EM. But there is a third, lesser-known option.
Headshot of author Mark Kinsella
Mark Kinsella
Expert Contributor
January 31, 2022
Headshot of author Mark Kinsella
Mark Kinsella
Expert Contributor
January 31, 2022

Finding yourself at a career crossroads? You’re not alone. 

As an engineer, choosing between an individual contributor (IC) and an engineering manager (EM) can be difficult. I went through a similar process many years ago myself. Here, I’ll share a few tips to help you navigate your options and make the best decision for yourself.

Note: This is the third article in a three-part series on career development for software engineers. Catch the first two installments here:

 

Typical Career Pathways for Engineers

While not all engineering organizations are the same, they usually have some variation of the two types of pathways in the software engineering world: the IC and the EM.

ICs are engineers who are not on a management track, nor are they responsible for managing a team of people. They are, however, responsible for managing themselves. They are focused on delivering high-quality, impactful projects for their customers and the business through technical innovation. ICs are strong communicators as they share details and updates, collaborate with their cross-functional partners and mentor other ICs.

3 Career Pathways for Software Engineers

  1. Individual contributor (IC): A role for engineers who are not on a management track, nor are they responsible for managing a team of people.
  2. Engineering manager (EM): A role that’s responsible for people management, effectively delegating responsibilities to ICs and making sure key projects and duties are fulfilled from start to finish. 
  3. Individual contributor manager (ICM): A role that allows an engineer to act as both an individual contributor and a manager for their team.

Engineering managers are essentially the opposite. EMs are responsible for people management, effectively delegating responsibilities to ICs, and making sure key projects and duties are fulfilled from start to finish. This means EMs are strong problem solvers, and they know how to help steer teams in the right direction. They are responsible for ensuring teams have the appropriate resources to be successful, from managing budgets to hiring the right people. Lastly, EMs coach, uplevel and provide career direction for their direct reports. 

Read More From Mark KinsellaThe 4 Elements of a Strong Engineering Culture

 

A Third, Lesser-Known Engineering Pathway

I’ve seen over time that engineers — especially ICs — can feel trapped by these binary career paths. ICs feel that, in order to grow their careers and therefore earn a higher salary, they must move to management. As a result, many strong tech-minded engineers stop focusing on their technical work and shift to the people component. These are two different jobs that activate two different sides of the brain. And in my opinion, it only hinders the business if technical ICs feel they have to become an EM for a promotion and raise. Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore. 

Enter: the individual contributor manager (ICM). It’s a third pathway in software engineering that’s becoming more popular. 

The ICM role allows an engineer to act as both an individual contributor and a manager for their team. An ICM has the same responsibilities as an engineering IC — in addition to some extra engineering manager responsibilities. 

Over the years, I’ve found two things to be true. First, it’s extremely difficult to “dip your toe” into the EM role. You must fully commit. This means going through a learning curve for six to 12 months with the chance of ultimately realizing it’s not the path for you. Or perhaps you don’t go down that road and simply decide to remain an IC. The ICM is the best of both worlds: You have the opportunity to learn the EM ropes while still leveraging your existing skills and expertise as an IC. It’s better for you, and it’s better for your team. 

Second, many ICs want to transition to the EM role but don’t know if they’ll be any good at it — or if they’ll be excited by it. The ICM role is an opportunity to test it out. At Opendoor, any ICs who want to become an EM must go through the ICM transitional phase first. However, an ICM can also be a permanent career pathway. It also comes with growth opportunities for the engineers who want to be 50-percent technical and 50-percent managerial.

Read More From Mark KinsellaWhy You Should Strive to Be an Entrepreneurial Engineer

 

What to Think About When Choosing a Career Pathway in Software Engineering

When figuring out which engineering trajectory is right for you, I recommend thinking about where you want to have the most impact. Are you energized by coding and delivering technical features? Or do you feel fulfilled by mentoring, managing and training others to help them better their careers? Both are equally important responsibilities.

If you aspire to become a people manager, there’s a level of patience required. The feedback loop on success is very short as an IC. You come up with an idea, open a pull request, deploy that day and see metrics move. As an EM, on the other hand, you evaluate, hire, onboard and mentor someone. It’s a process that can take months until you see any objective positive outcomes. Figure out if you are comfortable with that level of ambiguity over a longer period of time. 

The third consideration is knowing you can move back to a career path once you’ve transitioned away. It’s never a failure to transition back to an IC. There’s a misconception that an engineering career path has only one direction. If you aren’t fulfilling your career aspirations as an EM, or if you find out you’re not best suited to manage people, move back to the IC pathway. In fact, I know several engineers who have returned to the IC pathway and are excelling. They have more confidence in their strengths and the value they bring to the team.

Choosing the right career path as a software engineer doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck in one trajectory forever, but it does require you to think about what your strengths are, what you want to learn, how you want to grow and what kind of impact you want to make on the business. Start with what you’re passionate about; it can never steer you wrong.

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