A vintage office pool with people hard at work at their individual desks. Photo from the US National Archives.

So you don't want to be a manager

Straight talk to a senior engineer wanting to stay on an IC track.

I’ve heard it a thousand times from a thousand engineers: “I don’t want to be a manager.” A lot of senior engineers think this, but I’m not sure many of them understand what it will mean to them and their career. Here it is:

This will be a long, hard and lonely journey.

Your career progression will slow to a crawl. You'll watch your peers move up in the company before you. You'll wonder why. There are a few good reasons, and they're all hard to hear.

1. Your organization does not need very many senior (Staff+ level) ICs

Most teams are fairly autonomous. They have reasonably good to very good engineers on them who understand the systems they use. They have managers who are talking to one another, filling in the blanks. There's only so much need for a Super Engineer who knows how everything across teams works. Most of that work is already getting done.

When you have one, it can be hard to find Super Engineer-level work for them to do, and it's really easy for management to start wondering what Super Engineer is doing to justify their very expensive salary.

So there's not a lot of need for really senior pure ICs, not a lot of demand for them, and not a lot of seats for them. Take a look around: most likely your org has somewhere around five engineering managers for every IC-track Principal Engineer. That's not to say you can't do IC work. It's to say that if you only want to do IC work, the demand can be thin. There's almost always demand for another team lead.

If you want one of those Principal seats, you're going to have to show a lot of value, and you're still likely to be stuck because there just isn't a seat open. Meanwhile, the folks on the management track have a much easier time finding openings. People are messy and everyone mostly agrees they need managing.

2. It's really hard to show impact as a very senior IC

From here on out, your career progression is mostly about creating larger and larger impact zones. As an IC it can be be hard to even create opportunities for impact, let alone have people recognize it. Let me break it down:

As a Senior Software Engineer, you've mastered at least one and probably more than one of the systems your teams use. That's awesome. Your impact zone is that system.

If you become a Team Lead, in addition to caring for your team, you'll also be building relationships beyond the borders of your team. Similarly, as a Staff Software Engineer (on an IC track) you'll be looking at the systems beyond the borders of your team. That's the impact zone at this level: one team, looking to create impact beyond the borders of that team.

And so it goes: as a Principal Engineer you'll be expected to have mastered most systems and have an impact zone beyond the walls of the department. Or even outside of the organization. At some point, you'll be expected to uncover whole new lines of work or create mass efficiencies across the organization. That's hard.

3. You'll be mostly alone

This ties back to the first point, but it's worth calling out separately. If you take this path, you'll be largely on your own. Especially as you go higher there are fewer and fewer people on the path with you. You'll have fewer people to bounce technical ideas off of and you'll have to figure more out by yourself.

But I don't want to be a manager, you say.

Hey I get it. You've got to do what feels right for you, and going into management can just feel wrong for a lot of engineers. You're not alone. You're not even uncommon. People are messy and complicated and they make funny noises and they want things. Ick.

And it feels like you're leaving behind everything you're good at. You are. You're taking on an all-new thing and the odds are that you'll probably be terrible at it at first. Most new managers are, until you figure it out. The world is full of lousy managers and new managers tend to swell those numbers. Especially if they don't have a great manager themselves to guide them.

That's a bitter pill when you've fought to reach a stage in your career where you're respected and are just beginning to feel like an expert. It’s even harder if you’re prone to feelings of Imposter Syndrome.

This is one reason why a lot of engineers swing back and forth on the pendulum.

I get it. I do.

I completely understand why you feel the way you do. People who follow and succeed on an IC path can be transformative. They can make highly technical (and potentially highly profitable) things happen that no one else can even see as possibilities.

Senior-level ICs can wander from team to team making the hardest problems just disappear. They have real, visceral, quantifiable impact. There’s no denying the appeal in that.

And they're building on their strengths rather than riding the "I'm not sure I'm good at any of this" rollercoaster that leaves pits in the stomach of new managers.

But at the same time, some folks find that squishy people-problems are intricate and fascinating in a way that technical problems rarely are, and they find great satisfaction in that.

There are also a lot of people who find that becoming a manager unleashes their super-powers. These are the folks who may have been under-recognized and under-valued throughout their career because they excel at glue work and were seen as "not technical enough". Now, as a manager, those skills they've honed are suddenly incredibly valuable. Critical, even. They have, finally, met their moment.

After all of that, you still don't want to manage?

Good. You do what feels right for you, just do it with open eyes. For some folks, even knowing all of this, the IC track still feels right. If that’s you, awesome. Go forth and do great things. I just want you to know what you're getting into. And that you can change paths if you change your mind. Good luck!

Edited later 3/7 to clarify a few points people had raised. Thank you, people!