In this article I would like to explore the idea of Individual contributors and various notes and references I was able to collect so far. Continuing my observations from Richard Hamming’s “You and Your Research” . There is a section where a specific personality defect is explained termed “ego assertion“.
This is an interesting section which effectively concludes a few points for me
1. “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way” and you should “use the system” in your benefit if that means keeping ego aside thats important.
2. Another interesting section is : “Be clear, when you fight the system and struggle with it, what you are doing, how far to go out of amusement, and how much to waste your effort fighting the system. My advice is to let somebody else do it and you get on with becoming a first-class scientist. Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist.”
The second conclusion is very important to understand that there are going to be path’s that you will have to pick in your a career: “do you want to make a deep impact in one single pin point focused area” or “do you want to make larger overall impact”. Mostly people can do 1 of the two not both. It takes exceptional talent to be able to do both. The needs demands and expectations for both the situation are different and outcomes achieved are also different. Even though this was presented in 1986 the situation has not changed much and we still have simmilar situation. an interesting observation would be to look at Maker’s schedule and manager’s schedule and that would throw some light on the different ways how both sides would have to handle the environment.
This brings me to an interesting observation around the increasing focus on having individual contributor role and making it your career and life. I am not here judging what is good an what is bad however when people focus on IC / management path some items that they dont realize is what i would like to expand on here.
- As a manager you are expected to work in manager schedule and you are not expected to make laser focused impact in one specific area rather you are required to stir a larger ship and sail through choppy waters with help on IC’s.
- As an IC you can leave some larger group level activities with your manager (support system) but you will still be required to take ownership of the work you are suppose to work on.
Often I have seen following excuses
- Individual contributor roles are not that big in the industry.
- Even at IC role i am required to interact with multiple people.
- I am resource choked in IC role.
For point 1 yes the IC path is very new and a lot of organizations are trying to find their own path around this to see how IC roles can be made largely available. If you are someone who is either interested in becoming IC or want to make that IC path possible in your environment refer https://buffer.com/resources/career-framework/ as your stepping stone.
For point 2 and 3: I would draw your attention to the first conclusion drawn by hamming.
“The appearance of conforming gets you a long way” and you should “use the system” in your benefit if that means keeping ego aside thats important.
This is a key area, You want to focus on your specific area that can be worked in the system but you will have to focus on some key skills which can be considered as essential life skills.
When an individual doesn’t make effort in growing themselves in these areas that’s when the IC dreams come to a stand still. Lets be honest with ourselves for one minute and accept a clear fact we live in a capitalist world and hence no one is giving you freebies. If organization pays you X they expect manifold in return from you so that your cost is justified. However as an IC who would not want to co-ordinate and lead the projects would not have much growth even in say for example the buffer career level. at advanced level i.e. level 4 (levels are 1 to 6) the requirement is to supervise projects.
However even if the IC doesn’t want to focus on organizational skills they might still be able to hold on their own if they can be “brent” of The Phoenix project However if I am your manager I would start getting red flags by that and would prefer having some resilliancy in your job role which will eventually bring us circling to the same old position where you are stagnated. I am not the only one with this thought reference here and here.
That being said if the prospective IC’s take a careful look at what is it that they are looking for and what level of work would be expected, it can surely be a sweet spot for a lot of folks.
1 thought on “Individual Contributors in corporate world: my observations”
Finished reading it. Your blog post is on the very problem every ICs face when they want to transition into a leadership/managerial role. I’m in that phase, so this post resonates with me well. I think it also aligns well with reductionist thinking vs. systems thinking. ICs are required to do reductionist thinking – they focus on an individual part of the system and try to improve them. On the other hand, a leader who oversees ICs needs to think at the systems level, know what is best for the system, and convert them to reductionist goals so that ICs can focus on their expert areas.
At schools and at home, we are trained to a reductionist approach. We divide big problems into small chunks and solve them. We are also taught to win individually – earn big scores, get ranks, score maximum goals, jump as high as possible, etc. Leading a team, coaching people, stepping aside and looking at the big picture are rarely taught by academia. Organizations do not teach these to employees. Instead, they will pick a great IC and promote them to leadership positions, a recipe for disaster. Why it will become a disaster – because of Peter principle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle). A great IC would be a master of reductionist approach, making them fail in leadership. As Hamming puts it, “Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist.”