A Crossroad: Individual Contributor or Engineering Manager?

Tracing my Path Beyond Senior Software Engineer

Stepping up from a senior engineer role often presents a dual pathway with a choice to tread-on deep into the ‘technical’ realm as a Individual Contributor (IC) or venture into the ‘managerial’ world as an Engineering Manager (EM). It’s not uncommon to find oneself at this crossroad with a bit of uncertainty or an imposed decision.

There are those among us who are inherently ‘people-focussed’. Their strength lies in understanding and empathizing, deriving joy from nurturing growth in the people around them. Some, like myself, strive for creating a happy and peaceful ambience.

On the other hand, some are profoundly enamored with technology. If you’re someone who revels in building robust, scalable, and high-quality software products from scratch – just like myself, a die-hard full Stack aficionado persistently seeking opportunities to code for it – then you’re definitely a tech-enthusiast!

Then there are those – like me – who resonate with aspects of both these perspectives, and find themselves at the crux of an important question – which way to go?

Do we actually have to make a choice?

We’ll deliberate on this later. First, let me share my journey through both roles, my experiences with their responsibilities, and peculiar flavor.

A Brief about Myself and My Company

I joined old company as a Full Stack Engineer, concentrating mostly on Web based systems, back in 2018. At that point, my company was in its growth phase, having just rolled out a new web system connecting with their new user bases

Ever since, we’ve toiled together, boosting product development while simultaneously focusing on team scaling. During our initial years, we struggled to form a concrete structure for our software team. We navigated through trials and errors, and as an upshot, I was promoted to Team Leader in late 2019. This was my first experience with the scope of an ‘EM’. Unfortunately, I had to switch around mid-2021 to a new company. As I got a better opportunity with a different business as a Software Engineering Team Lead – my first taste of the ‘IC’ and ‘EM’ responsibilities mixes.

Fast-forward to mid-2022, we reorganized our team structure, demarcating clear roles from junior level (T3) to the senior-most (T9 or T10, presumably). Under this new structure, someone like me – dabbling in both – was expected to ‘choose’ a path for growth…

The IC Path I Chose in 2022 To be frank, despite being a part of every high-level technical discussion since the early days, I was unclear about the distinction between the senior and senior+ software engineer position. My decision to choose IC stemmed from the fact that, being the most seasoned spftware engineer, it seemed apt for me to handle the technical aspects. In a bid to meet the company’s needs, I broadened my abilities in all areas of software engineering, got PSM – Scrum master Certification and even familiarized myself with product management, basics of UX/UI design and some software testing principles.

However, I soon discovered that my blending of roles wasn’t what was expected from senior+ IC software engineers. Early in 2023, we hired an exceptional Software engineer, which led me to question my suitability to the IC path, given his superior technical flair.

Around the same time, a project surfaced that required leadership. Initially, I volunteered for a small role, but the lack of a responsible engineer compelled me to take charge of the big picture. This assignment provided me a glimpse into the expectations from a senior+ IC engineer for the first time.

Venturing Into the EM Path, Mid-2023 Going back a bit, throughout 2022, I directly managed four software engineers and concurred to supervise a QA Engineer until we finally onboarded a QA Manager. By the end of 2022, the software team had been restructured to a squad-based arrangement. Although I hadn’t initially committed to being an EM, I eventually agreed to manage my squad due to the growing necessity to regulate deliverables, team morale, and the process. This transition saw me learning the nuances of coaching – a far cry from problem-solving.

Now, circling back to the big question…

Is there a need to choose?

The answer essentially depends on your individual preference and the company culture. I’ve seen people oscillating between these two paths. Regardless of your choice, the reality is that growth beyond the senior-level always involves people. As you climb the corporate ladder, your role evolves from being individual-centered to involving a wider range of people: earning you a larger ownership of product development and demanding the use of both technical and managerial skills. While you may have to make a choice, it need not be a strict ‘either-or’. You can opt to divide your time between roles, for instance, 40% IC and 60% EM, as long as you and your manager are on board.

I am eager to know your thoughts on this. As a novice post-senior software engineer, I would appreciate insights from seasoned professionals. I hope my narrative benefits someone in a similar predicament, figuring out their path beyond the Senior Engineer role.






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