IC (individual contributor) and management careers tend to progress differently.
IC progression is often about the breadth and depth of your skills, not necessarily the introduction of entirely new skills.
- You design a small component as a junior engineer, and the scope / breadth / complexity of your work increases until you're building some new AWS service as a senior principal.
- You influence your team at standup regarding a specific technology decision as a junior employee, and you influence a room of VPs as a senior employee.
- You design a single UX component as a junior designer, and you build workflows across a dozen components as a senior UX employee.
Not to discount the many years of work that growing your career can entail. The point I'm making is that you're building upon a foundation through your career.
I'm certainly not suggesting that an engineering career is easy. The majority of engineers don't build the skills necessary to gain a staff/principal level position. There is a significant breadth and depth of growth necessary to attain these high-level positions. To read more about growing an engineering career, take a look at this article.
I don't think you can point to the moment when an IC's growth will be stalled. It's a continuum, where ICs find their careers stalling at various times due to a situation or personal limitation.
A management career is different.
Why is management different?
There are two major bottlenecks in a management career.
- Individual Contributor to Manager
- Manager to Manager of Managers
Successfully navigating each of these steps takes building skills you haven't necessarily used before.
What do I mean by bottlenecks? In both of those cases, entirely new skills come into play. You'll have some idea of what you're supposed to do, but you can't rely on your years of experience to direct you towards success.
I've seen many individual contributors fail to make the successful leap to manager. I've also seen many managers fail to make the leap into senior management (manager of managers). An IC will become a manager, but become an IC again a year or two later. A manager will end up leading a few teams, but soon enough will be back down to one team. Or worse, might end up getting fired.
I'll take some time now to walk through each of these bottlenecks, and some hints on how to overcome them.
Individual Contributor (IC) to Manager
The move into management. If you're serious about doing management well, you'll find that there's a vast gap between being a senior person on a team, and being the manager of a team. I'll walk through a few areas that can trip people up.
Continue to do your IC job vs. let your team grow
This is the most common mistake new managers make.
When you're moved into management, you'll swiftly recognize many things you're not comfortable doing. You'll be working with a different set of peers, who have different expectations. You'll be writing docs, or creating presentations, or evaluating potential business opportunities.
Everything is stressful, and everything is harder than doing your IC job you were likely good at.
Your temptation will be to lean in on your IC work. You'll help your team do a design review. You'll help review some code. You'll stop in the hallway and join your team in some random technical discussion.
Why are you tempted to do it? Because you'll suddenly feel competent. It'll feel wonderful to confidently contribute again. You'll feel like you accomplished something.
Why is it bad to do your IC tasks? Because of two major things.
- You need to spend your time on manager tasks. There is an infinitely long list of things you should be doing as a manager. Evaluate future projects, meet with peers and stakeholders, write down feedback for team members, review the status of existing projects, or fill out some stupid paperwork that the HR team has asked you to fill out. If there was one thing you don't need to do, it's IC tasks.
- Your team needs to grow. You likely held a position of senior IC. You were the senior engineer, or designer, or project manager, etc. You have stepped into a different job, and you have things to learn. Your team members have a different opportunity in front of them. They need to be able to step up and lead as ICs as well. This means delegating tasks, letting them lead, and perhaps auditing as necessary.