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How you can land the manager-to-IC pivot

The conventional metaphor for career success is a ladder: you start as a humble individual contributor and gradually climb the rungs until you’re managing a team of junior folks gripping the rungs below you. There’s only one trajectory (up!) and no detours.

There are a lot of problems with this narrative, but one of them is that not everyone finds themselves happier or more satisfied in a role that makes them directly responsible for others’ success and productivity.

Some people who become managers or even find themselves in the C-suite realize that something’s not clicking. It might be the stress of managing others’ performance, the recognition that being a manager requires a wholly distinct skillset from being an engineer, or simply more time spent in meetings and less on the kinds of projects that most interest them.

More people in tech are making the manager-to-IC shift, largely because they think it will make them happier at work. People “now rank feeling energized and having a sense of purpose as more important than compensation when it comes to professional happiness,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

Mitchell Hashimoto, cofounder of HashiCorp, was on our podcast last year to talk about his experience returning to an IC role after serving as founder-CEO and CTO. Our former director of product design, Kristina Lustig, traded her management role for one as an IC software developer. Based on our conversations with them and some other folks who’ve moved from manager to IC, here are some things to keep in mind if you’re considering a similar move.

As she wrote on our blog, Stack Overflow’s own Kristina Lustig went from running the product design team as director of design to working as a software engineer on our public platform.

Despite an early interest in math and computer science, Kristina ended up pursuing a career in UX. Being surrounded by some of the world’s best developers, first at Facebook (now Meta) and then at Stack Overflow, encouraged Kristina to keep coding firmly in the “hobby” category, rather than giving it serious consideration as a career path. “I genuinely think that my problem, for years, has been confidence,” she said. “I was just a UX person, not a coder.” Finally, she told her manager she would be leaving Stack Overflow to pursue her dream of becoming a developer. Her manager’s answer surprised her: Why not do that here?

Kristina’s manager put together a series of projects designed to build her skills in back-end development. “We used Flask as the basis for my projects, as the barrier to entry is low and I already felt pretty confident with Python,” she explained.

After that, it was time for Kristina to wade into .NET and the Stack Overflow codebase. “The hardest part for me has been working on code that lots of other people have worked on,” she reflected. “With my own personal projects, I knew why each line of code was there… With a codebase so large that I’ll never actually read all of it, I had to start exercising a whole new set of skills I didn’t know I’d need.”

You don’t need us to tell you to think carefully before making a major career change. But asking yourself the right questions, reflecting on what’s really motivating you to make a change, and having a clear plan for managing and communicating the pivot can go a long way toward ensuring its success.

Clarify why you want to make a change

For many individuals, like this manager-turned-product designer, feeling exhausted and instantly lukewarm a few job they used to like is an indication that one thing wants to alter. The trick is determining what.

Ask your self why you need to make a profession change. When you’re sad or feeling burned out in your present position, transferring from supervisor to IC might or might not repair that. Do you would like you had extra time to work on hands-on tasks? Are you anxious about overseeing others’ efficiency? These are the sorts of points you may resolve by changing into an IC, whereas a sentiment like, “I don’t even need to be an engineer anymore,” is symptomatic of larger questions you have to reply for your self.

Don’t assume the move will tank your career or incur judgment from your colleagues

Loads of individuals hesitate to make a profession transfer that could possibly be seen as a demotion as a result of they’re afraid of judgment: afraid they’ll be seen as somebody who couldn’t minimize it as a supervisor. However there’s purpose to suppose this unearned stigma may be lifting, as extra individuals make comparable shifts or meet colleagues who’ve.

“The presumed stigma of ‘transferring again to an IC position’ is non-existent,” wrote one former individuals supervisor who returned to an IC position in product design. In his expertise, colleagues had been understanding and completely happy for him.

Turning into an IC isn’t essentially synonymous with getting demoted, per the Harvard Enterprise Assessment article You Can Cease Being a Supervisor With out Sinking Your Profession: “In most organizations there are examples of mid-level and senior individuals who don’t handle others. So it’s value proposing a proper position or title that displays the worth you convey to the corporate even in the event you’re indirectly main a staff.”

Even in the event you do encounter some awkwardness transferring from supervisor to IC, you may discover the shift “very a lot value it,” based on Philip Su, former CEO of Audere and somebody who’s made the manager-to-IC pivot a number of occasions in his profession.

Communicate with your manager

It might sound counterintuitive, however your present supervisor may be the right ally in serving to you map and navigate no matter profession change you’re considering. Kristina, the designer-turned-developer whose supervisor inspired her to pursue her new profession at Stack Overflow, advises individuals who need to make a change at work to be daring.

“Don’t underestimate how a lot your job needs to maintain you round and don’t be afraid to ask for the belongings you need,” she mentioned. “As I used to inform the oldsters on the design staff, ‘The worst factor that may occur in the event you ask somebody for one thing is that they’ll say No. And perhaps chortle at you.’”

Extra individuals are transferring freely between supervisor and IC roles, however this dynamic “isn’t but a typical in tech,” wrote Gemma Barlow for LeadDev, “however my hope is that this may change within the subsequent decade. Encouraging a dedication to life-long studying and improvement and a real respect for the difficulties inherent in every place, in my opinion, will solely create more healthy workplaces. For managers contemplating a return to particular person contribution work, please be assured that like most different endeavors, with sufficient time, persistence, and planning, this is usually a very rewarding change.”

Empowering staff to make profession modifications can profit organizations, too. Managers-turned-ICs are sometimes higher at seeing the massive image than their colleagues with out administration expertise, as an illustration. Su, the previous CEO who’s made a number of manager-to-IC pivots, identified that encouraging staff who need to make profession modifications to do advantages the corporate, too. “It’s a retention and happiness and efficiency play for an organization to higher assist them,” he mentioned.

In partnership with Certainly, we’re internet hosting a studying and improvement webinar on September 20, 2023 at 10am EST, the place you may hear from our consultants about learn how to strategy your subsequent profession transfer, with examples and classes from Stack Overflow’s tech staff. Register right here.



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