You can bring a lot of value to a company, and gain as much recognition, by becoming a technical expert. This is what this article will focus on by taking a look at the role of the individual contributor in tech.
The 4 ICs we interviewed:
- Guillaume Guerra, who has about 15 years of experience, is one of 3 Principal Engineers at Younited Credit, which has a technical team of 160 people.
- Renaud Cousin, who has about 10 years of experience, is a Principal Engineer at GoPro where he has been working on mobile apps for the past four years.
- Jean-Christophe Delmas is the only Principal Engineer at the Upflow startup, which has a staff of about 50, including 15 technical staff.
- Thierry Mège, who has twenty years of experience, is an R&D Software Engineer at Naval Group.
1. What does an IC’s career path look like?
Let’s start with some good news: the possible routes a tech career can take are much more diverse today than they were just a decade ago.
The idea of the Individual Contributor (or IC) has gained a lot of popularity in the industry. To help you understand the scope of this role, let’s start by defining the general principles.
"When I started my career, it was clear that if I wanted to progress, I had to get into management... even though I didn't want to do that at all!
Renaud Cousin (GoPro)
Not everyone can (or wants to) become a manager
In general, at the beginning of a tech career, you start as a junior developer and then, after a few years, depending on circumstances and your progress, you become a senior developer.
Traditionally, experienced developers were almost automatically promoted to manager, as if it was the only way up. But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea!
In his article "Management is not the future of the engineer", Charles Gorintin, co-founder and CTO of Alan lays out this paradox: "You are good, or even the best in your field, you keep abreast of the latest advances, you master the state of the art in the sector and as a reward, you are told to change jobs".
This often leads to the Peter Principle: every person who climbs the hierarchical ladder in his or her company ends up reaching, at some point, his or her level of incompetence.
"When I started my career, it was clear that if I wanted to progress, I had to get into management... even though I didn't want to do that at all! I felt like my professional development had hit a wall," says Renaud Cousin, now Principal Engineer at GoPro.
Far from us the idea of belittling the managerial path, but it is nevertheless important to point out that another route is possible! Sometimes this alternative route is already built into the company’s organisation itself, and sometimes it will take some work to put it into place.
In this online meetup on the subject, Caroline Therwath-Chavier, CEO of the recruitment and tech coaching firm The Allyance noted: "Companies are realising that offering a clear career path to their ICs is a way of securing their talent; and they are also realising that these people are crucial to making quality software which you can’t do if you only have managers".
In fact, 60% of our users at talent.io stated in a survey that, if the salaries were equivalent, they would rather be IC than manager!
Staff Engineer, Principal Engineer, Distinguished / Fellow Engineer... What's the difference?
In a previous article, we discussed the standard career path for managers, including Engineering Manager, Head of Engineering and VP of Engineering. The IC path is not as common, at least in Europe. If we go by the American standard, you move up from Staff Engineer to Principal Engineer to Distinguished or Fellow Engineer.
"Quite frankly, I had not even heard of this job title before I arrived at Younited", admits Guillaume Guerra, Principal Engineer of the instant credit company. This observation is shared by all the ICs we interviewed, which shows that there is still some work to be done to make people aware of this career path!
Managers progress alongside their teams, but how does it work for ICs who, by definition, do not manage anyone? Advancement is achieved by extending their area of intervention and, therefore, their impact.
For example, at the recent Devoxx conference in 2021, Dimitri Baeli and Hugo Lassiège presented this diagram showing the scope of the different roles of ICs, namely:
- Junior: individual impact
- Confirmed: squad-level
- Senior: chapter-level
- Staff: product-wide
- Principal: company-wide
- Distinguished / Fellow: industry-wide
In Europe, Distinguished or Fellow Engineers are still rare. However, on the other side of the Atlantic, there are considerably more people whose innovations are acknowledged by their peers.
Some who come to mind are, for instance, Kent Beck, the inventor of extreme programming, Jeff Dean, creator of MapReduce, BigTable and Spanner, now director of Google AI, or Parag Agrawal, who went from distinguished engineer at Twitter to CTO and then CEO!
"Going from IC to manager is not a promotion. It's a job change", Ludovic Galibert (Netflix)
Is it possible to be a manager and an IC?
Yes... but not at the same time! According to the American engineering manager Charity Majors, quoted by Dimitri Baeli in his conference, it is advisable to explore both paths during one's career. "The best technical leaders in the world are often those who do both, moving back and forth. Like a pendulum", she writes in her article The Engineer/manager pendulum.
This shows us that :
1) Bridges exist between these two career paths. Choosing one or the other is not an irrevocable choice (which is reassuring).
2) The qualities needed to be a technical leader are necessary in both paths. This is illustrated by engineer Josh Tyler in the graph below:
This brings us to an important point: managers and ICs are on the same level in the hierarchy: "Going from IC to manager is not a promotion. It's a job change," confirms Ludovic Galibert, Senior Software Engineer at Netflix, in this podcast. When you are a manager you can bring a lot to the table but being offered the role does not constitute recognition in itself. As an IC you can have as much impact as a manager.
Engineer Sarah Mei defended this point in a popular 2017 Twitter thread: 'Becoming a manager is a lateral move on a parallel track. You revert to a junior level on a lot of skills."
2. What does an IC do?
Now that we have a general idea of the IC’s general place within the hierarchy of an organisation, in particular relative to managers, let’s now focus on what an IC actually does on a daily basis.
An IC’s duties will of course vary from company to company, depending for instance on the company’s size but generally, there engage in three main types of activities:
"We manage projects, not people or schedules"
Guillaume Guerra (Younited)
The first thing that comes to mind when talking about ICs is their technical expertise. "Above all, these are people who actually build things. In terms of tangible added value and ROI, I'm convinced that Principal Engineers have a greater impact than VPs of engineering," says Cyrille Alleg, himself VP of Software Engineering at Concord and then Ornikar. "We manage projects, not people or schedules," says Guillaume Guerra of Younited.
In other words, ICs are still very much involved in operations. Except that the accumulation of their experience and knowledge leads them to work on the company's most specialised or complex problems. "We sometimes call on their skills because they are the only people who know how to develop certain areas," says Christine Métaillier, Lead Tech Recruiters & Sourcers at talent.io.
"I know the payment logic well. When a new activity around this topic was launched at Younited, I was the one they called. We have another Principal Engineer who specialises in customer acquisition and conversion for example," explains Guillaume Guerra.
It's not always a matter of technology," says Renaud Cousin, iOS specialist at GoPro. “It can also be a way of approaching a problem, a certain maturity in your way of thinking, or a position of influence within the teams beyond your area of expertise."
"This is not a solitary role, you have to guide others".
Christine Métaillier (talent.io)
2. Coaching and internal skills development
"As advisers, ICs impact the improvement of teams' overall standard", adds Caroline Therwath-Chavier. Coaching, mentoring, training or onboarding... there are many ways they can do this. "It's not a solitary role, you have to guide others," insists Christine Métaillier.
"I can help with training on specific issues or answer questions in a very reactive way," points out Jean-Christophe Delmas, from Upflow. "There is an educational aspect to this role: I am ensuring that skills are passed on, particularly to the youngest members of the team," continues Thierry Mège of Naval Group.
3. Improving technical quality and organisation
This last mission is perhaps lesser known, but is nevertheless the most important. ICs need to take on leadership, influence, and outreach to improve the internal workings of an organisation. This has several aspects:
Depending on the organisation, ICs may have a say in aspects of technical strategy like anticipating production issues, infrastructure scalability issues, tooling requirements, etc. In this regard, the role can resemble that of an architect. "I don't see much difference between the two at GoPro," says Renaud Cousin.
"Having people who remain on the technical side of things and who have a detailed understanding of certain constraints helps the managers make the right decisions," confides Jean-Christophe Delmas.
As experts in their field, ICs do a lot of technical monitoring and also participate in the company's R&D projects or in incremental innovations that do not fit into the squads' roadmaps, due to lack of time. "We are free agents who can help out where necessary on a one-off basis," confirms Guillaume Guerra.
- Human resources
They are often referred to as the CTO's strong arm or liaison. Because of their experience, ICs often have the ear and trust of top management. Their proximity to the teams on a daily basis also enables them to pick up on the team’s general vibe. "We need to feel the team’s temperature and detect problems at an early stage," adds Guerra.
- Project management
Finally, ICs can also act as advisors to some of the company's stakeholders, for instance to product managers, or as part of certain types of projects. "During the launch of the payment feature, I was a technical advisor to the project manager," Guillaume Guerra explains.
He had to define and deal with various technical aspects of the project – the documents which needed to be collected, the payment page, the person's debit, the API for banking partners, which functionality could be added to the product, how it should be coded,the team that could do it, etc. – to maximise the initiative’s chances of success.
3. How do you become an IC?
Hopefully by now, we have clarified what is involved in the role. Now let’s look at how to get there.
Who is it for?
All the ICs we interviewed started by telling us it is for people who don't like management roles. But that’s not all: becoming an IC should not be your choice by default. Here are some additional attributes:
"We are not the ones who are making the decisions but we can make arguments and exert influence"
Jean-Christophe Delmas (Upflow)
1) A love of tech
"This is a role for people who are passionate about tech because you have to constantly keep yourself up to date to remain legitimate in the eyes of the rest of the team," says Thierry Mège. Although, it is worth noting, ICs are not the ones who do the most coding in the company, given their other responsibilities.
2) Being influential
Contrary to popular belief, managers are not the only ones who lead. ICs can and should be leaders too."We are not the ones making the decisions but we can make arguments and exert influence," says Jean-Christophe Delmas.
In other words, the nerd expert who has no communication skills is not suited to this position. "It takes genuine teaching skills to run meetings, talk to different teams, understand their misgivings, reassure them and convince them. Otherwise, things can rapidly devolve into trench warfare between different squads”, says Guillaume Guerra.
Having pedagogical skills can also help pass on knowledge to the younger generations.
3) Strategic thinking
As a junior developer, you are often asked to do things without having a say in the decisions involved in a particular feature. This is no longer true as an IC: “You can act as a technical right-hand man or woman for those who design the product by influencing functional choices,” says Guillaume Guerra.
4.What are the main steps to get there?
The simple (and somewhat simplistic) answer is to deepen your expertise to become a reference in your field, or at least in your company. How do you do this? By writing articles, going to conferences, monitoring, working on complex subjects…
This isn’t wrong, but in view of everything that has been said before, there is more to it. In his talk at Devoxx, Dimitri Baeli adds two further elements: you need to get better acquainted with the business side of things (in particular with product) and with people (i.e., the whole leadership aspect we have already mentioned).
How? Baeli and his colleague Hugo Lassiège list some concrete steps you can take to develop these skills:
- Go and meet the users
- Take time to understand the company's problems
- Proactively measure company data in order to form your own opinion on a situation
- Take part in defining the company’s objectives
- Work on your ability to win over both tech and non-tech people
In short, this is a big step up from senior engineer. It’s not just about technical skills. You also need to learn how to adopt the right attitude and how to make an impact.
In other words, you need to become a proactive problem solver, hence the high level of experience and maturity required.
Conclusion: The advantages and disadvantages of becoming an IC
To give you a full picture of the role, here is a summary of what the interviewees had to say about being an IC.
The fulfilling sides
- Daily contact with development (rather than with budgets, roadmaps, or admin, as is the case for managers, for example)
- Autonomy and the ability to influence technical decisions
- Moving up the chain by getting closer to product, users, and business issues
- Feeling useful by helping the teams in a concrete way (increasing their skills, solving production problems, launching complex projects, etc.)
- Over-solicitation: because ICs are technical advisors who are not affiliated with a particular team, they are sometimes seen as always available to lend a hand.
- Lack of internal recognition, some might even question whether you are busy enough.
- Lower prestige than managers and sometimes lower salaries for equivalent experience.
- You have a lot of influence but you don’t make the final decision.
- You have to always be seen as a reference in your field because this is the source of your legitimacy.
The last downside our interviewees mentioned was that there are fewer IC positions on the market than there are management positions, mainly due to companies’ lack of awareness about this career path. We hope this article will contribute, in its own way, to solving this issue!
To take things further:
- Engineering Career development from GitLab
- Staff Engineer stories on StaffEng
- Career path inspirations on Progression.fyi
- The engineer/manager Pendulum
Main takeaways from this article
- If you don't want to become a manager, you can still advance your career by taking the IC route
- Manager and IC are not mutually exclusive. Rather, both enhance a career as a tech leader
- ICs are technical experts who don't just code. They are responsible for increasing the skill level of their teams and improving overall quality
- Becoming an IC means changing your attitude by being more proactive in solving the company's problems
- It's a fulfilling path, but it's still far from having the prestige and recognition that managers have