Individual contributors are skilled workers who do not have management responsibilities. Contrary to their name, they can also work in teams.
These roles are rising within the tech industry, often coming with an agile approach to work – or more flat hierarchies, where there are less management roles and more senior technical roles.
I for one am currently on the individual contributor track, though I'm still a junior. In this blog post I'd like to examine what more senior individual contributors do – and look at a possible fate for my future self.
What Being an Individual Contributor Means
At its simplest, individual contributors (ICs) are people who contribute their technical skills to the work at hand, and have nobody reporting to them. They're not supervisors, nor people managers.
Though ICs can also be team leaders, or "dev leads." Instead of directly managing a team, they are embedded within a team to give technical direction to juniors, answering questions and mentoring them on technical skills. The team usually still has a manager, unless the dev lead is a "technical manager."
Just as well, ICs can be solitary – acting like a one-person team, doing everything from self-managing to collaborating. More on that later!
The individual contributor promotion track has emerged as an alternative to the people management track for technical people to gain recognition and rewards for their skill. It's becoming more common in agile and tech companies, and roughly speaking the number of product features that can be produced is correlated to the number of individual contributors a company has.
You can see why ICs are so valuable then: they're the stars who do a lot of the work that turns a profit.
At my workplace, the various tiers of individual contributors achieve the same compensation as their equivalent tiers of managers. It's like living the dream for those introverted and shy tech-boffins – success can come if you keep your head down in your work.
Individual Contributor Role and Skills
Individual contributors are a lot like a self-sufficient team wrapped up in a single person. To pick apart what that means, we need to look at their skills and expectations.
First and foremost is that ICs are self-organising. They plan projects for themselves, estimate times to completion, hold themselves to schedules, and resolve problems that come up.
ICs are also deeply technical. They are constantly learning about industry trends, developing their skills, and designing architectures for projects. ICs generally become subject matter experts.
Next is that ICs are collaborative across teams. This is a distinguishing factor between a technical team member that stays within their narrow confines of a team, and an individual contributor that has to interact with wildly varied teams and people.
Thus interpersonal skills are the next big thing for ICs. Dealing with that many collaborators entails strong communication, empathy, perception, and so on. They need to understand what is said and left unsaid, articulate their technical plans, know which people or teams to rely on for different portions of projects, and more.
Finally, ICs are responsible for driving projects to completion. Getting 80% of the way done is relatively easy, and workplaces need champions that will keep working to finish off that final 20% of hard work that gets the project out into reality.
Senior individual contributors aren't supposed to get "stuck." That's a thing that happens to juniors, but seniors know how to unblock themselves. That can entail finding the right person to help them, or working through a frustrating problem regardless of feelings. They get the job done.
Individual Contributor vs. Manager
Managers are responsible for keeping a team on track, much like how individual contributors that are their own one-person team need to self-direct. Therefore there's significant overlap in the skills managers and ICs use.
In my workplace, I've watched my manager attend all sorts of meetings with other teams to collaborate on behalf of our team. He serves as the face and representative of our team to the company at large, insulating us technical team members from time-consuming meetings and politics.
My manager also helps us prioritise and schedule tasks, based on the team's goals. Ultimately, he's accountable for the team vision and reports our feature progress to higher up management. There's a lot of strategy that is handled by my manager.
Individual contributors often do that on their own behalf, advocating for themselves.
However, there's some major differences between ICs and managers as well.
Most obviously is that managers have direct reports and managerial tasks. Managers are responsible for growing their team members, holding one-on-ones, quantifying compensation, and holding team members to schedules.
All these duties distract from a good technical leader's work. An IC should be focused on driving their projects to completion, and anything else going on detracts from their ability to do so.
Engineering managers are also responsible for developing a broad understanding of their industry, whereas individual contributors are expected to be "T-shaped." T-shaped people have a broad understanding as well as a deep expertise in specific subjects. ICs are responsible for staying up to date on the latest industry trends and technologies, whereas managers don't have the time to learn those new skills.
Early on in my journey I expected that I would become a technical manager. However, the varying muddied definitions of engineering manager, technical manager, dev-lead, and individual contributor have blurred together. It's hard to tell which path I should take to achieve my original goal.
For now I am content to develop my technical skills on the individual contributor path, but in the long run I know that I need team members – whether I'm embedded as a technical leader, or with them as direct reports in some form of managerial position.
I love to use my leadership to help others, and I look forward to any future opportunities that arise to lead.