Individual contributor to manager
For all managers there is a point in their career where they were working as an IC (individual contributor) and they made the step across the chasm to a managerial role. Maybe more people came into the company and there needed to be a manager, or someone left the team, or maybe they realized they wanted a change from what they were focused on. This is one of the hardest transitions that people make in their career and critical to get right if you want it to succeed. I’ll spend some time in this post discussing the transition and giving some perspective on how to make the transition successful!
Let’s start by looking at some of the differences between the two roles. As an IC typically the timeline from you seeing the impact of your work is considerably shorter than as a manager. As an IC in the software world you are often able to ship software and see how it impacts the product in the order of minutes to hours. As a manager you typically see a longer timeline. If you hire someone new to your team, you often won’t know how impactful they are until months after the decision. If you choose to prioritize certain projects, you won’t see the project impact until months later. This also makes it considerably harder to get feedback about what is or isn’t working in a timely manner.
Another big difference is how your contribution to the organization is seen. As an IC often it is your direct impact that is measured with some measurement of how you help others. As a manager, almost all of the measure isn’t from your work, but rather from what your team is able to do together. This significantly shifts the focus from your individual output to having your ability to contribute be measured through the work of others. This can be an incredibly uncomfortable shift in the frame of what it means to contribute to the organization as you aren’t in full direct control of your performance. This is one of the reasons why influence and mentorship are so key for managers.
As an IC, if you are looking to transition, I recommend by starting to look for new responsibilities to take on. You can identify these by either looking for gaps on how the team is operating, or talking with your manager about what responsibilities you might be able to take on to help your team out. The role of the manager has a lot of various components that can often be broken up and handed off as need be. At one organization I was at we heavily dismantled the manager role into a few components and distributed the responsibilities to people on the team. This allowed people to focus on supporting the team in ways that they were interested in and also helped foster a shared sense of ownership. You don’t need to go that far, but it’s an example of one fairly extreme approach.
I strongly recommend finding a few books to read. They can help to lay the foundation for some of the key things to think about as a manager. A few recommendations I have are “Managing Humans” and “The Manager’s Path”. Both of these are focused on management in a technical environment and should be helpful in building a critical foundation. Don’t just imitate what other managers are doing. It’s important to understand the landscape and be intentional about how you operate. I’ve seen this mistake happen far too often with new managers. Even if you find this approach to be successful, it won’t likely help you much in your next role or organization. You won’t understand the core mechanics of management and will have difficulty adapting what you did in the past to an entirely new situation.
Because of the longer feedback loop as a manager, it is still critical to learn from others. I’ve found that it is key to find a good mentor to help better navigate situations and understand the fundamentals. Ideally this should be someone with significantly more experience than you and can regularly carve out time to talk with you about challenges you are seeing, approaches to management etc… Take the time to find someone who has an approach that you respect and is a good communicator. Even the most successful managers and leaders in organizations have mentors and coaches helping them to improve their practices. I recommend starting with looking for people within your current organization that represent the kind of manager that you’d like to become. If that doesn’t work you can always go someplace like Plato to find a good mentor. The sooner you are able to establish this the stronger your practice as a manager will be!
One last critical piece to understand in changing roles is how big of a shift it is to be a manager as opposed to an IC. You are really undergoing a significant career shift. As the saying goes “What got you here won’t get you there”. You’ll need to re-orient around what work looks like, how you get feedback on how effective you are being, build new skills and have your impact measured by what your team does and not just in your contributions. It’s a huge shift but IMO a fantastic one if you are interested in it. Take the time to really understand the role and move forward with good support if you want to make the transition and build the right foundation. Best of luck!