Looking back on my switch from IC to management

Rich Sun

Sr Technical Director, Game Studio at Netflix



I started leading teams in 2005 in a previous company. I had been an IC for quite some time, but after observing another manager I started to wonder if I could do that job as well or better by applying lessons from my previous long-time mentor. I talked with our CTO at the time and we found a way to make it possible. He believed in my potential, but I knew I still had a lot to learn. I felt excited but very uncertain.

Actions taken

I believe transitioning from IC to manager can be quite a change, as you need to adopt a totally different mindset and radically shift your priorities. I've seen many managers make the first mistake of not accepting the most basic element of that change - that is, giving up your role as an individual contributor. If you're an engineer, this means that coding is no longer your primary unit of work, and you must be able to accept that. Your priority becomes the team, and the output of your team. Even if you manage to continue to produce great individual contributions, if the team's productivity wanes, you are failing. Luckily, I recognized this from the start thanks to a great manager I had had in the past, so I was able to stay mindful of this. I only kept less critical hands-on tasks for myself and instead focused my energy on making sure the team was working well. The second thing that I did was to start from the assumption that I don't know what I'm doing as it relates to management until I was able to show myself otherwise. Asking for continued mentorship from any mentors you may be lucky enough to have in your professional life is invaluable. As is discussing topics with other (preferably more experienced) managers. I also found great literature on the topic, and there are some key books that the management community often cites. Finally, learn some building blocks of management and learn to apply them in a way that works with your individual style and teams. There are skills, tools and good practices that you should know and I recommend not skipping them. Here's a few that I strongly believe in:

  • Having regular one-on-ones with a focus on the IC
  • Setting goals for each IC and yourself, which you revisit and evaluate regularly
  • Keeping yourself off of "the critical path" of development as much as possible as it relates to IC tasks
  • Finding mentors and role models to help you along the way

Lessons learned

Switching from IC to manager is not just a change in role, but a major switch in perspective and priority as well. Recognize that management is a skill, not a talent, and requires dedication and learning. This is as important as the hard-won skills you earned that made you a great individual contributor. Learn some skills and tools for management and make them your own. Take what you've seen managers and mentors that you had before do, and apply the best parts of those to your own role as a manager. Accept that the rest is all a struggle you must embrace and dive into to succeed at your new challenge.

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Rich Sun

Sr Technical Director, Game Studio at Netflix

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyMentorship ProgramsPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesIndividual Contributor RolesStaff EngineerLeadership RolesEngineering Manager

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