When Management Isn’t for You: How to Advance in Your Career as an IC

Otavio Santana

Software Engineer, Architect, and Open Source Committer at Eclipse Foundation


The Management Track Isn’t for Everyone

A while ago I was promoted to a management position. It took me one year to realize that it wasn’t the right career move for me. It also wasn’t the right decision for the company. While I tried my best to fulfill my role as an engineering manager, it didn’t work out. It was a loss-loss situation: the company lost its best engineer and got a terrible manager instead.  

I enjoy the flexibility of being an individual contributor. I love being closer to the code– it’s what I’m passionate about. I’m now a distinguished engineer. I spend most of my time coding, while still being an influential person in my organization.

Many software engineers think that the next step in their career is moving on to a managerial role. This is not always the case. It doesn’t have to be.

Becoming a manager is just one way to progress. If you want to move on in your career but have doubts about whether you want a managerial role, consider an alternative path. Getting promoted as an IC is entirely viable; look into becoming a staff, principal, and ultimately, distinguished engineer.

How to Get Promoted as an Individual Contributor

The IC Career Ladder for Software Engineers

STAFF ENGINEER: A staff engineer is focused primarily on coding and software architecture, but his position in the company is more strategic compared to an engineer.  

The occupation is still relatively young– it has been around for nearly 10 years. There are also different guides and specializations, such as front-end or back-end. When I had realized that being a manager wasn't a good fit for me, I resigned from that role and became a staff engineer instead.

I work at a software company; the software aspect is always interlaced with the business perspective. You can't have one without the other. So there needs to be a bridge between the executive team and the engineers. That's where I come in as a staff engineer.

PRINCIPAL ENGINEER: The second step up from being a staff engineer is getting promoted to a principal engineer.

I worked closely with directors. I had less time to code and was more focused on the organization's strategic point of view. I began to lead the whole area as opposed to just one team. I was responsible for guiding the teams and ensuring their success.

DISTINGUISHED ENGINEER: Being a distinguished engineer is the highest level you can reach as an IC.

As a distinguished engineer, I help make decisions that influence the entire company from a technology perspective. I still code; I'm still a highly technical person. However, I also need to effectively communicate with the executive and engineering teams.

This role requires you to improve your soft skills, especially communication.

Overall, I'm happier in this role than I could ever be as a manager. And I know that my work matters to the company.

4 Steps to Pave Your Way

  1. Read the book Staff Engineer: Leadership Beyond the Management Track by Will Larson. Larson is a software engineer who describes his own technical leadership path.

  2. Identify which staff engineer archetype you are; then, identify which you want to be. Usually, there are four types:

  • “The Tech Lead” guides people more than codes.
  • “The Solver” spends most of his time coding and rarely frequents meetings.
  • “The Architect” drives the technology team and is responsible for the quality of the code in his area.
  • “The Right-Hand” is a mix between an executive and a technical person.
  1. Find a mentor who has gone through this path. While you can advance on your own, it’s going to be much faster with the help of someone who can tell you what to expect.

  2. Check with your company to see if they provide this career track. If not, try to have a discussion to explore whether this is something they would consider implementing. If not, it may be time to change companies.

Becoming a Distinguished Engineer

  • Not everyone is cut out to be a manager, and that’s okay. You need to find a path that will make you happy. If you’re happier when you’re close to the code, this track is likely for you.
  • Read the book and identify your current and goal archetypes– you can combine two types if that suits you better.
  • A mentor can guide you in your technical leadership path and help you progress faster.

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Otavio Santana

Software Engineer, Architect, and Open Source Committer at Eclipse Foundation

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementTechnical ExpertiseTechnical SkillsProgramming

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