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This article was written by Eddie Kim, CTO and co-founder, Gusto.
Conventional industry wisdom often says that the management path is the only long-term growth path available to engineers. Unlike management roles, which typically increase in proportion to the size of the business, individual contributor (IC) roles tend to have a much flatter structure. As a result, IC career paths are often seen as a “dead end” unless you somehow manage to become the technical leader or both of the entire code base.
Traditionally, the epitome of an IC career ends with a title like “Engineering Fellow” or “Chief Architect”. These are usually people with unusual coding skills who make an impact by creating new programming languages, inventing a faster sorting algorithm, and attending technical conferences. In reality, very few CIs are interested in it, and even fewer are doing it.
The two tracks are often presented as a binary choice, leaving the management-oriented ICs stuck in the middle. While it is true that CI and people management require very different skills which can be difficult to do well at the same time, a strong CI could be a strong programmer who also contributes to the organization in a way that is not limited to people management.
To help support engineers interested in contributing in other ways, companies need to redefine what it means to be an individual contributor and create more flexible career paths for engineers as they evolve. Here’s how:
Recognize the hidden power of the integrated circuit to transform something from a zero sum to an infinite sum
In pop culture representations of the company, managers are often seen as the primary intermediaries within an organization. They are seen as those who make decisions about the direction of the business and who decide.
But often managers can only make decisions within the confines of their part of the organization and the strategy dictated from above. They have fixed resources and are forced to play a largely zero-sum game until something new comes along. Compare that to integrated circuits, which can create new opportunities by spreading an idea for a hackathon, find efficiencies by tweaking code, and even create new markets through groundbreaking technical innovations.
Both roles provide opportunities for leadership, although CIs have more of the ability to create leadership opportunities from scratch through the power of technology. Unfortunately, most companies get it wrong and over-recognize people managers instead of CIs. The best teams support and recognize both managers and CIs without limiting the roles of either.
Focus on impact and let flexibility
Growth (whether you are a people manager or IC) depends on impact. Managers and senior CIs need to do things that make a significant contribution to the business.
Outside of coding, there are plenty of ways a senior CI can make an impact. Senior ICs can design a better maintenance process that saves valuable engineering time without sacrificing the maintenance signal. They can lead internal technical guilds that increase developer productivity. They can lead diversity programs that improve team representation. They can invest in development tools that halve the integration time for new engineering. Each of these tasks has a significant impact on the health and long-term success of the engineering organization, and often requires the same level of effort as a coding sprint. A company’s performance and promotion system must both recognize and reward this type of work – these people must also be considered “Engineers”.
At Gusto, we recently redesigned our promotion process to close the impact gap in our performance reviews. Initially, our performance review process relied heavily on the ability of an individual’s direct manager to present a successful “selling” pitch about why their direct report should be promoted. CIs would write a long, multi-page essay about themselves and a committee would discuss it, much like a thesis or thesis defense. The process was too subjective and too behavioral-focused – the “what” of what someone did (action), not the “so what” (impact).
To better measure and reward impact, we have developed a new framework for breaking down the performance of engineers into several axes that can be discussed separately before drawing an overall conclusion. Our four axes are:
- Impact of the project: The main IC work done by the engineer. Often this is the coding that an engineer does to deliver a new feature or improve an existing feature.
- Better engineering: Improve the larger code base or tooling in a way that increases the productivity of the entire engineering team. For example, improving the build / test cycle time or cleaning up legacy code that is difficult to work with.
- Impact on people: Help others to become more effective and the team to become healthier. This includes interviews, mentoring colleagues, onboarding new team members or managing interns.
- Organization contributions: Make the organization in the broad sense healthier, in particular by improving the practices of people, by piloting DCI programs or by representing the company at external events.
The overall career growth of CI is defined by the sum of the impact on the three axes. I sometimes jokingly call it the Pokémon approach to career development.
By developing these axes, we were able to create an expectation of progression for engineers at each level, outlining clear but flexible growth paths that allow them to shine in multiple ways. This flexibility has also allowed engineers to add new management skills and responsibilities to their roles, allowing them to move from a people-focused impact to a technical impact, all without having to be a people manager.
Better for engineers, better for organizations
To develop the strongest engineering organization possible, companies must allow CIs to co-create their own leadership roles and avenues for growth, allowing them to build on their natural strengths and interests. If you force your best engineers to be a manager of people when they don’t want to, it’s not good for the engineer and certainly not good for the organization. If, on the other hand, you allow engineers to focus on what they’re good at, what they love to do, and what impacts the organization, you’ll create more opportunities for everyone. and the organization will grow. Things go from zero sum to infinite sum.
Removing the bogus binary from IC management and engineering tracks can create stronger teams and stronger recruiting pipelines. Engineers want to work for companies with clear and flexible growth paths that reward a range of skills. It means recognizing the contributions that go beyond the traditional and limited perspectives of the CI and manager roles.
Edward Kim is the co-founder and CTO of Gusto. He is responsible for the software development and technical framework of Gusto’s human resources platform, which enables more than 200,000 companies to onboard, pay, insure and support their teams.
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