Individual Contributor or Management track - How to help employees choose

Individual Contributor or Management track - How to help employees choose

The introduction of two separate enginering career ladders is helping engineers immensely across our industry choose the route they enjoy the most and, consequently, improves the quality of people that get promoted. Now that we have multiple options, how do we help senior engineers make a choice? Let's explore an approach I have been using within my team in Babylon for the past year.

The internet is full of articles on how to make this choice. Still, unfortunately, most of them are cookie-cutters because, in truth, what the different roles entail is highly dependent on the company you work for. The first step is to find out what the roles entail and find a way to visualise them.

Career Vectors to the rescue

Last year during LeadDev Together, I watched Meri Williams presenting the concept of  Career Vectors. I immediately loved how quickly it was possible to understand the expectations for a tech leadership role. The idea is to describe a role (and/or your skills) using a radar chart to display how much the role requires expertise across the following aspects (vectors): hands-on and deep technical expertise, tech strategy, delivery skills, organisation/management skills, commercial understanding, domain depth.

Below you can see what an Engineering Manager (EM) role in our Tribe looks like. You are likely not going to be very hands-on but still expected to support and drive the technical strategy and understand very well the domain. In terms of central aspects of the role, delivery and line/team management are critical, while commercial understanding is not as important.

Career vectors for Engineering Managers

Staff Engineer vs Engineering Manager (EM)

A consequence of using such a compact visualisation is that it's very easy to compare roles using it. This is why I started presenting the progression from senior engineer to EM or Staff Engineer using this format (see image below).

The key values I can see with this approach are:

  • It helps highlight the gaps between your current role (Senior engineer) and the two possible career steps. For example, you can see that while progressing from Senior engineer to Staff Engineer is mostly getting better at what you are already doing, becoming an EM will require new sets of expertise: commercial awareness, delivery focus, and line management.
  • It helps visualise how the different roles may interact inside the organisation. From the chart, it’s clear that while delivery is not sole responsibility of the EM, he is expected to support the team significantly. On the other end, it’s clear that while technical strategy is done in partnership with the EM, Staff engineers are expected to contribute to it significantly.
Compare EM, Staff Engineers and Senior Engineers using Career Vectors


Finally, when I discuss the two tracks, I tend to avoid using the term Individual Contributor and instead call it the Technology Leadership track. Talking about IC vs multiplier has originally helped explain the need for separate career tracks; however, the term "Individual" is quite misleading. It doesn't matter which track you choose; it's quite unlikely that your contribution to the company will be solely based on your individual output; the more you grow, the more your contribution will also be a function of how much you have helped other employees/teams express their full potentials.

If you want to want to give a go at mapping your organisation's roles you can clone this excel file and give it a go yourself. Let me know what the shapes of the roles look like. I would be interested in seeing how different organisation engineering roles differ.