Last week I sat for an internal interview about my career progression to high level IC engineer, with a focus on how I've never felt I needed to become a manager to gain influence. I thought I would share some of my career advice for aspiring IC "lifers." Thread!
When asked for IC career advice the first thing I always say is: YOU grow your career and influence. Not management, not the company, YOU. This means constantly advocating for ways to grow: subjects to learn, projects with increased scope, and sometimes new teams or companies.
This also means "managing up" is critical. Don't assume your manager is acting in your best interest. Hopefully they are (when your interests *and theirs* align), but sometimes they aren't, and it's important to recognize that early and correct it, or eject if it's not fixable.
The job market for engineers has never been better. DO stay in a job if you are growing, learning, increasing your scope, and generally happy.
Do NOT stay in a job solely to get a promotion or more money, or if you are hungry for more growth, but finding it difficult to carve out opportunities. In these cases, consider switching jobs as a way to fast track your growth with less politics.
Speaking of promotions, the last time I got one was back in my early 20s. I have never seen a promotion process that is not subjective, political, and biased (I say this as a privileged white male, I shudder to think how others fare).
If you are growing in your abilities and generally happy at a job, and a promotion is a side effect, that's great. If your growth is stalled, consider switching jobs, and you will very likely get a promotion and more money, with less political heartache.
I recognize that not everyone can easily move jobs whether due to finances, visas, health, family, etc. and that it's a privilege to be able to do so. If you do have the ability, it provides a significant amount of flexibility and leverage to keep your career growing.
At higher IC levels, you will generally need to choose between focusing on "breadth" versus "depth." Breadth means having wide influence over the technical direction of a business. This typically requires staying at a company for a long time to build context/relationships.
Depth means working towards becoming an industry expert in a specialized field. I have chosen to become a depth IC. It's what I enjoy and I also think it allows for more job flexibility and leverage per above.
Finally, I will reiterate how critical networking and building relationships on the job is. Every job I have moved to (save 1) has been via previous colleagues. Finding people you like working with and for, and moving through the industry with them can be a great growth tactic.
Let's come back to the original subject of the interview which was influence as an IC vs manager. Influence is poorly defined, and situationally dependent, but to me it boils down to scope of impact.
At the highest levels, having large impact as an IC universally requires excellent technical and communication skills. Breadth ICs achieve large impact via cross org relationship building and technical leadership based on intimate knowledge of a business.
Depth ICs achieve large impact via company or industry leadership in a specialized field, therein advancing the state of the art, and having wide impact via novel technological outcomes.
^ requires finding the right opportunity that lets you visibly demonstrate your technical prowess to a wide audience. Determination and job switching if necessary helps, but luck is also a factor (i.e. I was in the right place at the right time with Envoy and executed well).
One last thing: don't let anyone tell you that the tech/engineering is the easy part. It's not. It's hard. Soft skills are also hard. It's ALL hard, and both are required to succeed.
In summary: focus on personal growth, learning, and relationships. Advocate for yourself relentlessly. Think about impact via breadth versus depth. Stay an IC If you like it. If switching teams or jobs helps realize your goals, and you have the ability to do so, make the leap.
P.S. It seems that "IC" is not a common term everywhere. It means individual contributor. Someone who has no direct reports and is not a people manager.
If you are finding this thread a couple of years later you might be interested in the following 2 podcast episodes where I talk about this topic:
- https://developertea.simplecast.com/episodes/50464d4b-4071c0b8 …
- https://spec.fm/podcasts/developer-tea/301709 …
You can follow @mattklein123.
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