If you want to be an individual contributor, don’t waste your time in management. Take the Antifragile perspective with your career — meaning, follow the advice of author Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestselling book — says Phillip Su. Namely: Don’t wait for your company to give you permission to do what you desire, and just make the move from manager to individual contributor.
“Many people start in technology because they love to code and they love to build things. They find once you manage, you’re no longer building things. You’re sort of adjusting and tweaking,” Su said. “You spend more of your time in Microsoft Office than you do in front of code.”
“Once people have made the transition, they usually will tell you that they are so relieved.”
Now the CEO of Audere, a Seattle-based global health nonprofit funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Su has switched from a manager to an individual contributor four times in his career. He’s not alone. Michael Sealy, for example, made the move early in his career, and has never looked back. Collin Park likewise transitioned from manager to individual contributor about 40 years ago, and has stayed in the same position since.
“I find people have a lot more fear about that move than is warranted,” Su said. “Once people have made the transition, they usually will tell you that they are so relieved and they’re a lot happier now.”
We talked to Su, Sealy and Park about how and why they moved from manager to individual contributor.
Not everyone moves for the same reason. Some make the move from manager to individual contributor because they prefer the solo, focused work style. Others enjoy solving technical — rather than managerial — problems. Still others just love coding.
Individual contributors can face raised eyebrows, lower pay. Managers who choose to move to individual contributors might find themselves surrounded by surprised developers much younger than them. They also may have to take a pay cut.
Navigate the change in title and expectations with your manager. Talking with your manager before the move can help calibrate expectations, and ease any awkwardness about the change in power dynamic.
Keep your technical chops sharp. For individual contributors who plan to stay in the role long-term, staying up-to-date on software trends is key.
Supporting the move pays for itself. Companies can support those who make the move by not cutting their pay and training junior engineers how to manage those more senior than them. This support drives employee happiness and retention.
How they moved from manager to IC
Su switched from manager to individual contributor three times at Microsoft and once at Facebook.
“What eventually happens is, on teams, people ask me to manage, and it usually is said to be a temporary thing,” Su said. “I do it for a while and then I start missing being an individual contributor. So I switch back.”
In his last move at Microsoft, after about 12 years at the company, Su had risen to a managerial level just below partner. But on the weekends, he still built random websites and iPhone apps for fun. Going back to coding full-time presented a challenge, however, since the only individual contributor roles available in the company were those at the partner level, he said, people who were “industry luminaries, you tend to get there because you’ve been working in SQL for like 25 years and you give conference talks globally about SQL.”
“A lot of people would be much happier making this transition.”
Su was a generalist when it came to programming, and knew he could not make the transition within a large firm like Microsoft. He decided to take an individual contributor role at Facebook in 2010, which was at the time a fairly small company.
“A lot of people would be much happier making this transition,” Su said.
Sealy’s move from manager to individual contributor also ended with him leaving his firm. In the early 2000s, a multinational corporation purchased the family-owned vitamin manufacturer where Sealy worked. The new corporate owners told Sealy that his and other developers’ role would transition from writing code to managing the implementation and configuration of Oracle solutions with company vendors — not developing new features. Sealy missed writing code, and left after four years to become a mobile application developer at SportsEngine, a New York-based sports relationship management firm.
“Most of that [four-year period] was, I don’t know, maybe hoping things would change,” Sealy said. “They never did.”
“[My boss] thought that the transition from solving software and electronics problems would transfer better to solving budgets, schedules and evaluation problems.”
Collin Park, meanwhile, was promoted to a managerial role at HP in the early 1980s. After nearly a year on the job, Park knew management wasn’t for him. He stepped down from the role, and went back to his previous position as an individual contributor at the software firm. Park hasn’t looked back since, and now works as a senior engineer at NetApp, a San Francisco area data management firm.
“My boss at the time, I guess he thought I had a higher ability to adapt my thinking skills to solving management kinds of problems,” Park said. “He thought that the transition from solving software and electronics problems would transfer better to solving budgets, schedules and evaluation problems.”
Three reasons they made the move
Su identifies as an introvert. When he worked as a manager, spending all day in meetings zapped his energy, he said. He also found that, as he managed larger and larger teams, the decisions he made became more strategic but abstract, and the timeline for their implementation moved farther out. Because of this, he found it harder to evaluate their effectiveness.
“I think for many engineers, who tend to be strong introverts, that transition into a very extroverted role, that largely squishy stuff as opposed to concrete stuff, is just not that durably engaging,” Su said.
While Park was a manager, he found out that an individual contributor below him received a raise, which meant the man was making more money than Park. When Park learned the news, he felt jealous the man received a boost in pay but got to stay an individual contributor. Management was making Park more miserable than ever.
“If you have that voice in your head saying, ‘I should be doing something else,’ that’s your heart speaking to you.”
“It was either stop being a manager or become addicted to Valium,” Park said. When Sealy’s company announced he would transition into a project management role, Sealy said he went through the seven stages of grief. At first he denied that his role had changed. But eventually, he realized he had to come to terms with his new job, and found that managing employee schedules and projects left him unfulfilled. Sealy thought his love for software had died.
“If you have that voice in your head saying, ‘I should be doing something else,’ that’s your heart speaking to you,” Sealy said. “When you allow it, it will lead you down the right path.”
Roadblocks facing senior IC engineers
An age difference presented an initial barrier for Su as he moved from management at Microsoft to individual contributor at Facebook, where he found himself surrounded by coworkers who were younger than him.
At first, he thought their enthusiasm for trying new programming techniques was naive.
“I thought, ‘Oh, these jokers, they don’t have any idea what they’re doing from a software and engineering perspective,’” Su said.
Over time, however, Su said he realized the lessons he learned at a large, legacy organization like Microsoft didn’t necessarily translate to a smaller company like Facebook.
“It turns out that if you’re a lot more open to the possibility of smart people achieving seemingly impossible things, then they sometimes do.”
“It turns out that if you’re a lot more open to the possibility of smart people achieving seemingly impossible things, then they sometimes do,” Su said.
When making the move, he said accepting his work would have a smaller scope was important too.
“It can be very empowering to make decisions for hundreds of people, have people laugh louder at your jokes,” Su said. “Being able to take a step back and say, ‘Hey, maybe I will be judged by the output of my hand as opposed to the title I have,’ I think that can be a hard reduction for many people.”
Park said the move could also violate cultural norms in countries like India, where he said there are firm expectations from family and society that one should always be moving forward in their career. He added that individual contributors might receive a salary cut if they step down from managing.
After serving as a manager, Park said he’s a better coworker. Now when he reflects on projects, he said, he thinks “what are all the pieces that need to happen for this to come together.” Whereas, before, he didn’t think about much beyond his individual assignment.
“There’s also sometimes ‘OK, so this is my assignment, but I see this problem over here that is more important than anything else I’m working on.’ I feel less hesitation to just sort of look into something,” Park said.
Sealy agreed that working in a managerial role made him value the business side of the house more. He learned to prioritize developing features customers desired, and realized the best solution was the one that was finished on time.
“Being able to get that appreciation of the hard fact of, ‘Hey we have a campaign, and this campaign is running in three weeks aligned with the Super Bowl, and the perfect solution is the one done then,’” Sealy said.
When Su became an individual contributor at Facebook, he said his new boss had previously been two management levels below him. Su knew and accepted that if he wanted to work as an individual contributor he was going to be managed by someone more junior than him. But his new boss felt awkward about the change in power dynamic, he said. Addressing the issue head on helped smooth the working relationship.
“I talked about the awkwardness directly, and I think that made him feel better.”
“I talked about the awkwardness directly, and I think that made him feel better,” Su said.
Since Su had previously worked above his new manager, he said it was also important to talk about the expectations for his new role. He didn’t want his boss to think that, because he had been at a higher level in the company, Su could walk in and already perform all the tasks required of his new job without any help.
“Being explicit with your up-and-coming manager about his or her expectations for how long it will take to function at the expected level is important,” Su said. “Like, ‘Will you be measuring me on day one against other individual contributors my level or is there an affordance for an amount of time for me to ramp into getting to that performance level?’”
Sealy said making a lateral move — taking on a new job but in the same department of the same company, or a new job but in the same industry as before — can help individuals more easily transition into their new role.
“Make a tangential move where you’re able to do software development but in the same field,” he said. “You become even more valuable when you go into a software position in the same industry because now you’re someone knowledgeable of the industry.”
Su said large companies like Microsoft tend to value specialists disproportionately, and generally have no need for former managers turned individual contributors. Smaller companies like startups, meanwhile, tend to place a greater value on generalists, and can act as a place where senior developers can succeed.
Regardless of whether a company is big or small, he said supporting those who don’t plan to have a linear career path is important from a culture perspective.
“It’s a retention and happiness and performance play for a company to better support them,” Su said.
He said junior managers should be trained on how to manage someone who is more senior than them. Managers turned individual contributors shouldn’t have to take a pay cut, he added.
Sealy agreed that companies should not cut someone’s salary if they’re moving from a management to an individual contributor role. He said these individuals’ management experience helps them give actionable feedback to their coworkers, and improves development overall at the firm.
“You’re not losing something, you’re actually gaining something,” Sealy said.
Working long-term as an individual contributor depends on your ability to adapt to the times, according to Sealy and Park, who have remained individual contributors since their stints in management.
Park said author Peter F. Drucker’s The Effective Executive and author Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma offer valuable insight on how to stay current in a field that is always changing. He also recommended joining the Association for Computing Machinery, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or other industry organization, reading their journals and attending their conferences to stay up on new technology.
“Just take a little initiative,” Park said.
Sealy agreed that staying aware of the latest technology and constantly honing their software skills is important for people who want to be individual contributors long-term. Working remotely has helped Sealy too, since he doesn’t have to feel self-conscious about working alongside colleagues who are much younger than him every day.
“I kind of relate software to artistry,” Sealy said. “An artist has a vision of something in their mind and makes it come to fruition on paper. Software is the same for me. You can see a problem in your head, you can see a path to a solution and it’s just a matter of time that you can see that come to fruition.”