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Not All Leaders Are Managers


Most developer jobs can be placed into one of two buckets:

  • Managers: those who do manage people as part of their job
  • Individual contributors: those who do not manage people as part of their job

But, contrary to opinion, moving to management is not the only way to progress in your career - development and management are two different skill sets. It doesn’t always make sense to take your most skilled developers and make them the least skilled managers. There should be other options.

Some stages of procession for Individual Contributors (IC) in developer roles.

Staff IC: shouldn’t need to be managed anymore, there may be course corrections but you understand your teams needs, you are a trusted advisor to team-mates and people seek out your opinion.

Principle IC: forced multiplier, trusted advisor to teammates. You have a deep understanding of the business and wider industry. You have the technical ability and experience to develop and execute initiatives that impact the entire organization. You break down silos and have a macro viewpoint, you can identify cross-team collaboration.

Distinguished IC: impact not just felt in the company but the entire industry. You do not just work for the good of the company but for the good of the industry as a whole.

So what is the difference between community and company-wide impact?

  • Paul Buchheit was the 23rd employee at Google. He is credited as introducing the company-wide motto ‘don’t be evil’. This had an impact on how the company operated as a whole - but not an industry or community-level impact.
  • Paul Buchheit then went on to develop Gmail, which has an industry-wide impact. He opposed a subscription-based model and instead argues for an ad-based model, which then became adsense. Once again, this had an industry-level impact.

How can you continue to make an impact as a Senior IC?

  • Lead people - be the force multiplier, get to know everybody in your team. Get to know their strengths and special interests. Can you help them improve and where can you guide them to have a company-wide impact and develop their careers?
  • Get to know other teams and what they are working on. Are there overlaps? Where are the opportunities for collaboration? How do you remove knowledge silos, including your own? Be prudent with how you share your knowledge and experience. 
  • Lead on projects - have a deep understanding of the business leads and goals, be self-directing. Be able to identify a need, create a plan and execute it. Think about how to build a project so it can continue without you. 
  • Lead on culture - this may be more difficult for people who face barriers in work due to systematic oppression. If you can, embody the culture you want to see, this may mean fighting battles for those who may not be able to speak up themselves. As a Senior IC you can fight battles for Juniors. Ask questions publicly and liable. Be loud, persistent and use your platform.

Become a manager because you want to, not because you feel like you have to.