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Managing vs. Contributing as an IC: The Train/Canoe Mindset

Salary / Work Conditions
Coaching / Training / Mentorship
New Manager

18 May, 2021

Jonathan Eldridge
Jonathan Eldridge

Head of Product at NexHealth

Jonathan Eldridge, Head of Product at NexHealth, explores the difference between two opposite mentalities: the individual driven to build, and the leader orchestrating the efforts of many at once.

Problem

A former manager shared with me their thoughts on what it means to contribute to a company larger than what one would be able to instate and to sustain on their own. They taught me to consider the work as either train work or canoe work. When working as an IC, thinking from the perspective of a manager may be difficult and abstract. They might become frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of progress despite putting in a lot of work, not realizing how a larger and more complex company actually operates. If A plus B equals C right here, why wouldn’t they add up accordingly everywhere else?

In train work, a lot of work must be invested initially before you ever see the train moving to begin with. For example, you need to lay down a lot of track; many people will be involved in this task. You’ll need people to shovel coal into the engine. At first, progress will be slow, but, eventually, this big, heavy thing will take on speed and take everybody aboard very far. You have a lot of resources all pushing in the same direction.

In contrast, somebody in a canoe is all by themselves. They can gain speed right away but will inevitably be limited by their own arm strength.This person will never end up going as fast as the train.

Actions taken

This way of thinking can be helpful when considering the differences between a big company and a small company. In a big company, you need to spend a lot more of your time getting alignment over where the tracks being laid down will go and in which direction they should be taking the train. All of these different people will need to be coordinated in order to get them involved and to get the train going. If you can’t do this, you end up with this big, heavy train that’s just going to sit there and do nothing.

One of the quasi-metrics that I share with Product Managers trying to define their own preferences in terms of this way of thinking: “How much of your time do you spend in meetings with other PMs?”. Generally, the “building” work does not happen during these types of meetings. When you’re talking about building work, you’re talking about Engineers and Designers, the people within your team who you’re working on building stuff together with. This is sort of a hallmark of the “train” end of the spectrum.

In many ways, as an IC, you’re sort of always in your own canoe, driving your contribution forward using only your own power and volition. When managing, your job becomes more like train work as you use your skills to lay down the track and to get the train moving with the help of others.

Lessons learned

  • A lot of managers in product started out as ICs who were really good at doing canoe work. This analogy can give people just moving into a higher-level position their first conscious articulation of what it means to be doing something on a higher level.
  • Initially when one begins a job that involves more train work, they are not used to the latency in the results that they see that can be directly attributed to the part that they are playing. They may worry that they’re doing something wrong. Why is the endeavor not going anywhere? Setting expectations that are realistic will be necessary.
  • If you’re considering moving toward a career in management, it is important to remember that your day-to-day will be very different than what it is now. If you love canoe work, you may actually not end up being very happy.
  • Your preferences may change over type. As a manager, even I harbor canoe-like tendencies despite my conversion to being a train person. Canoe people who want to become train people should try focusing on the excitement of how fast the train has the potential to go when all is said and done.
  • Canoe work is energizing; giving yourself some tasks that are geared more toward building will make your role more dynamic and engaging. The twenty percent of my week that I devote to canoe work deliberately is empowering; I get a chance to drive something forward on my own.
  • All in all, the type of person that you become will ultimately be a matter of your motivation. If you’re most motivated by the craft, you’re probably going to want to stay in canoe land. Train work is not building; it requires a much more deliberate way of thinking, and you will not have as much of an opportunity to exercise those muscles. If your real motivation is the amount of impact that you may potentially be able to have, you’ll have to put in your dues as a train person before really seeing those longer-term results. You must first articulate that vision, laying down the tracks, and then coordinating the talents and efforts of those on your crew to make the train go.

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