As you transition back from manager to individual contributor, there are plenty of transferable skills that will be useful in your new role.
My short six-month stint as a manager was a whirlwind experience. I tried my hand at management when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, and instead of just dipping a few toes into my new position, I was thrown into the deep end. I had to learn how to stay afloat while keeping the rest of my team above water, too. I ended up burnt out, and I left that role and company to take some extended time off.
When I recently started my new role as a senior individual contributor, I wondered what it would be like to swing back to the IC track after my experience on the manager track. Even though I was excited to get back to writing code and learning about the new system and architecture of the organization I was joining, I still had some doubts floating around in my mind. Would I be able to have an influence on the IC track? Could I still make an impact and be challenged in ways that would grow my career? And what of the work I had done as a new manager? Would all the effort I had spent on honing my leadership skills at my last job be a complete waste and inapplicable to my new role?
But after a few months back on the IC train, I’ve seen that nothing could be further from the truth. Just because you’ve hopped away from management doesn’t mean that you can’t have influence. In fact, I have observed quite the opposite: the exact skillset you nurtured as a manager can transfer over quite nicely to your new role as a senior individual contributor.
Making the switch from manager to IC is a career swing that many folks take throughout their careers in tech; some may even find themselves jumping back and forth between the tracks over the years. If you’ve recently made the switch back to being an individual contributor after trying out management – or even if you are thinking about making that jump in the near future – I have good news for you: there are plenty of transferable skills that will be extremely useful as you transition back from manager to individual contributor.
Moving the needle on projects
Engineering managers are tasked with ensuring that a team can deliver projects and provide business value. This is often accomplished through developing efficient processes, defining the scope of projects, and fostering collaboration – all of which are helpful skills for your new IC role. While managers are focused on moving the needle by amplifying and unblocking the individuals in the team, as a senior IC you can move the needle by unblocking the team from a technical perspective.
Say that you join a team as a new IC and notice that the build times or the development process are painfully slow; you can work towards speeding things up or automating repetitive tasks that will empower individual developers and entire teams to ship faster and more painlessly than they did before. Perhaps your team has been tasked with a new project in an unfamiliar part of the codebase that lacks documentation; you can document new learnings as you find them and lead the way when it comes to knowledge-sharing, which will ultimately make it easier for everyone else on your team to do their work.
You can also be a powerful counterpart to your team’s manager, working together to keep projects on track. Your management experience will have given you a different perspective on teams, processes, and structure, so make sure that you share any red flags or concerns with your manager early and often.
As former and current managers can attest, building consensus is a large part of the job. When you’re leading a team, you’re always trying to communicate the ‘why’ behind what you’re doing and your vision (sometimes repeating it many, many times!) in an effort to get the team excited about what you’re all collectively working towards.
When you’re back to being an IC, you will still need those same consensus-building skills. Senior ICs need to foster a different kind of consensus – namely, agreement around technologies, rewrites, best practices, and paying off technical debt. You will have to convince others that these are milestones worth rallying around and investing in. You may even have to repeat yourself to get buy-in from stakeholders from different parts of the organization in order to move the technical needle forward.
Progress of any kind requires strong communication skills. As a manager, you probably find that a large percentage of your communication happens verbally, through 1:1s with your direct reports, your director, or your skip-level. As an IC, those communication skills will likely evolve into a predominantly written format. You might find that you are flexing your communication skills when writing RFCs, tech specs, or documentation. But even if you’re writing more things down, you will still need to be able to explain technical concepts and tradeoffs clearly and effectively to every stakeholder you talk to, so those verbal skills won’t go to waste.
One of the most important parts of being a manager is growing the talent on your team. As an engineering manager, this means advocating for your reports, helping them define and achieve their career goals, and finding ways to marry business needs with career aspirations. But senior ICs can be force multipliers in their own right.
You can schedule a 1:1 with that senior engineer who wants to learn about the organization’s infrastructure and introduce them to new concepts. Or you can share your knowledge with those newer engineers who are about to work on a part of the codebase you’re intimately familiar with. Mentorship is a crucial piece of being a senior leader, regardless of whether you are on the manager or IC track. People will look up to you, and your voice carries an inherent influence, even if you aren’t leading a team of your own.
As a manager, you spend plenty of time talking to people, establishing connections, and practicing the art of active listening. When your job is so people-centric, you become adept at listening to the pain points of your team, other teams, and upper leadership so that you can effectively distill and disseminate that information to the folks that need to hear it.
While you might have fewer 1:1 conversations with folks as an IC, you still have to be an active listener. It’s important to keep an ear to the ground when it comes to technical and procedural pain points that are making it harder for the engineering organization to ship code. For example, you might discover through conversations or code review that one part of the codebase is painful to work with because of outdated frameworks or dependencies. Or, perhaps through your conversations with other engineers, you learn that the current on-call rotation is unsustainable.
As an IC, you can reapply your managerial skills and distill the pain points you hear from other developers into actionable items that can help you fix large, systemic problems the organization faces. While engineering managers marry business and people needs, senior ICs do the same with business needs and technical requirements. Even when you shift away from management, you can unblock foreseen business needs down the road by solving technical problems in the present moment.
Ultimately, both managers and senior individual contributors need a high degree of empathy in order to be successful. Whether you are a manager or a senior IC, your success depends on cultivating empathy towards folks on your team, other teams, and non-technical stakeholders within the company. The difference lies in how that empathy is directed; whereas a manager fosters progress through organizational structure and projects, ICs do the same through a technical and infrastructure lens.
As an engineering manager, understanding and appreciating the different points of view on your team is a central part of your role in unifying the team and rallying everyone together in the same direction. When you return to the IC track, the skills you cultivated around empathy will serve you well; you can listen to other people on your team, put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and take differing viewpoints into account – all of which will help you to make sound and informed decisions around technical projects, codebases, workflows, and tooling. The muscles you formed as an empathetic manager will help you approach even the most technical of decisions with a human touch.
Regardless of whether you stick to the IC track in the long term or jump back to management in the future, know that you will always have room to make an impact on either path. The skills you picked up as a manager will make you a more capable and compassionate individual contributor for years to come.