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Engineering Career Path: Individual Contributor or Manager?

Growth as an engineer is becoming better at building things. Shifting to managerial role represents a change of job rather than growth in the traditional sense
IC and Manager
IC and Manager
Table of contents:

The Misconception of 'Growth'

Often, the concept of 'growth' in an engineer's career is misconstrued as transitioning from an individual contributor (IC) role to a managerial position. However, this isn't necessarily accurate. Growth as an engineer signifies acquiring new knowledge and honing skills to become better at building things. Shifting to a managerial role, on the other hand, represents a change of job rather than growth in the traditional sense. Notably, this transition doesn't always equate to an increase in salary, contrary to popular belief.

The FAANG Perspective

In top tech companies like those in the FAANG group, this transition is often seen as a promotion. But it's essential to note that the cap for ICs tends to be much lower than for managers. A principal engineer at a FAANG company, often considered one of the best engineers globally, is comparable to an engineering director, who has been at the company for a while and excels at acquiring more reports. Hence, the proportion of engineering directors to managers is significantly higher than that of principal engineers to engineers.

Managerial Mobility and Challenges

While it's true that managers have more upward mobility, it doesn't necessarily mean that switching from an IC to a manager is a promotion. The tech industry has seen considerable growth in the managerial roles over the past decade due to the structural needs of an unprecedented tech boom. However, with the industry moving into a 'belt-tightening' mode, managers now face intense scrutiny, and the success of political games often played by early-stage managers may not be as effective as before. Meanwhile, ICs with a sense of product or UX, a willingness to work on 'boring' business applications, and the ability to think beyond their silos continue to be highly valued.

Money vs. Passion

The decision to transition to a managerial role should not be primarily motivated by money. If an engineer loves building, they should continue as an IC. On the other hand, if they have a desire to grow other engineers and further their careers, management may be the suitable path.

Indeed, many engineers enter the field for the financial rewards it offers. They might have other passions or interests that may not be as lucrative, causing them to choose engineering as a 'plan C or D.' If you're in this group, the decision to remain an IC or transition to a managerial role becomes a question of aligning with your financial goals and personal interests.

Company Culture and Structure

The organizational culture and structure also play a vital role in an engineer's career path. Companies with numerous high-level ICs place significant weight on technical direction, making these roles irreplaceable by managers. However, the level of responsibility and complexity in managerial roles often leads individuals to choose one track and stick with it.

Moving from Individual Contributor to Manager
Moving from IC to Manager is probably the most common way to become an engineering manager. Individual contributor is a basic first step.

Career Progression and Levels

Most engineers and managers may not reach the highest levels (such as L8) in their careers. The question then becomes whether you want to end your career as an L6 IC or manager. Some argue that most people can achieve L7 by their mid-40s or even earlier, depending on their willingness to take on more responsibility or change teams for more opportunities. However, others vehemently dispute this notion, arguing that even securing an entry-level position in tech is a herculean task for most individuals.

Career Ladder and Skill Set

Navigating the career ladder can be intimidating, especially in large tech companies. Therequirements spelled out in the career ladder for ICs and managers can seem daunting, and during calibrations, although the ladder might not always be consulted, it could be leveraged at any time, adding to the pressure.

It is also quite clear that those who are part of the group defining the career ladder have a better chance of climbing it. This insight suggests that understanding the organization's dynamics and being involved in decision-making can play a pivotal role in career advancement.

Moreover, advancing in either track—IC or manager—requires a different set of skills at each level. For instance, being an engineer at L8 requires a significantly different skill set than at L7. This difference underlines the idea that 'what got you here won't get you there,' emphasizing the need for continuous learning and adaptation to progress in one's career.


The decision to remain an individual contributor or transition into a managerial role is multifaceted, requiring careful consideration of one's passion, financial goals, company culture, career progression prospects, and readiness to acquire new skills. There's no one-size-fits-all answer, and each engineer must evaluate their unique circumstances and aspirations to make the best decision for their career. After all, growth doesn't always mean becoming a manager; it's about continuously learning, adapting, and becoming better at what you love doing most.