The two tracks of growth

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Management 101

How do we grow?

You have a responsibility to your staff to understand their career aspirations and facilitate their growth in the right direction. But what should they be aiming for, and who is accountable for making it happen?

There is often a stereotype within the technology industry that the only way that growth can occur is via promotion into roles that carry increased people management responsibilities. At best, this can produce excellent leaders who take their teams and companies to the next level. At worst, this can alienate staff who aren’t naturally suited to this role, resulting in them becoming frustrated and leaving the company. Clearly, we don’t want the latter to happen.

I find it more helpful to think about two mutually exclusive tracks for those working in technology: the management track and the individual contributor track. Both are very different growth trajectories, carrying very different responsibilities. However, despite the differences, both can have an incredible weight of influence at senior levels. They just do so via alternate means.

We’ll have a look at both of these tracks today.

The management track

The management track concerns itself with – unsurprisingly – people management. The management track begins, typically, by gaining line management responsibility for some individuals, usually by taking on a team lead role. In my current organization, the size of these teams can vary from 2 to 8 people, depending on the kind of work that the team does.

If you are a new manager with direct reports for the first time, then congratulations: you’ve just begun on the management track. In fact, most of the articles on this site describe in detail the many facets of this role so we won’t dwell on specifics.

As a manager, you’ll be concerned with increasing the speed and efficiency of the work that your organization (i.e. the part of the organization for which you are responsible for) delivers. But how do we measure the growth of an individual along that track? Andy Grove comes to the rescue (again) with this succinct equation:

A manager’s output = the output of their organization + the output of the neighboring organizations under their influence.

Neat, huh?

The output of your organization

Looking at the equation, moving further up the management track is concerned with growing your team’s output and increasing your influence in your organization. Now, that’s interesting because it encompasses all those that report to you plus all those that you work with outside of your lines of reporting.

A natural first step in growth is expanding the number of people, and hence direct reports, on your team. However, once teams get to a certain size, usually around seven, plus or minus two, the overhead of line managing all of those people becomes prohibitive. For example, allowing an hour a week for 1 to 1s with each of your reports, that gives you almost a solid working day in those meetings every week, not including follow ups, day to day work and team meetings. Attention gets scattershot.

Growth in the management track beyond managing one team is to begin managing other team leads as well so that you have multiple teams reporting into you. If you have a small team, you can continue to lead it yourself in addition to managing other leads. You’ll want to make sure you have enough to do; don’t make yourself redundant.

That’s the first half of the above equation covered: get more and more people and make sure that they perform really well. But what about the second half?

The output of neighboring organizations under your influence

Well, in addition to growing the size of your organization, you can also grow your influence in your company by sitting on steering meetings, contributing to strategic decisions, getting involved in hiring new staff, and so on. This half of the equation requires developing a feel for what is going on in your company at any given time, and leaning forward and asking to contribute. In a later article, we’ll talk more about increasing your visibility at work.

The further an individual goes down the management track, the less time that individual has to get involved in the technical details. More emails and meetings, less code. This is an area of frequent tension for many engineers who have been promoted into management roles. I have seen engineers move into management and then become extremely stressed that they cannot predictably get technical work done since they are frequently in meetings and being interrupted. Some begin to panic that their technical skills are not increasing as rapidly as before. This is why moving into this track requires very careful consideration: it’s a different job being judged on very different criteria.

Managing one’s own time better may allow for some continued technical contribution, but I stress that there is also the need to let go of the way things were and fully embrace management: your own personal output is less important than the output of your team.

The individual contributor track

The individual contributor track, widely written about for many years, celebrates the engineers who want to hone their craft and become technical experts rather than going into management. Instead, it is a path where expertise and influence are the currency. A promotion from Junior to Intermediate (or similar) into a Senior Engineer role over time is a clear sequence of steps along this track. Larger organizations have roles like Principal Engineer and Staff Engineer to further allow for progression and recognition for their most senior staff.

Although it doesn’t concern itself with management, progress along this track can still be looked at similarly to the equation above. The output of the individual is very clearly measured: they can work efficiently on complex tasks, often at an increasingly architectural level. They breeze through technical issues and automate most tasks they encounter for the first time. They give crucial advice at the beginning of projects about how technical choices will factor into the cost of a product: from scaling to maintenance to the amount of time and risks involved in building it.

That’s the output of the individual covered, but what about the organization under their influence? For the engineer on this track, they can influence in a number of ways to show progression. For example, they could head up, or strongly steer, a self-organizing group in the company for their skill set (e.g. the Scala group, or Hadoop group) and advise on developments and best practices. They could mentor and train other members of staff. They could review architectural plans for other teams that are not in their usual remit. They can advise on CapEx and OpEx spends through researching different ways of building a new system. Their expertise ensures the right business decisions are made, which can result in the creation of a truly innovative new feature or product. Conversely, their analysis can stop a project from happening altogether, saving many years of wasted time and money.


Ideally, there should be no glass ceilings in either track and no interdependencies. For a technology company, an extremely experienced individual contributor and extremely experienced manager both contribute at a high level. Thus, at a similar level of contribution, they should be rewarded similarly.

In the real world, this may not always be the case, and you can detect senior leadership bias here: a “pure” technology company may lean towards paying Staff Engineers higher than managers. A more corporate environment may value leadership over technical skills, and the higher ends of the average pay bracket may favor those in management positions.

If you have easy access to the senior leadership in your company, then this is an interesting discussion to have with them. What do they value? Which skills are irreplaceable?

Moving between tracks

Many see the movement from the individual contributor track to the management track as a one-way street. I don’t think that this should be true at all. Until one has tried management, how can one be sure that it is right for them?

When promoting staff into a managerial role, a good approach is to set some goals with them over a fixed period of time. Then, after that period of time has passed, both the new manager and their own manager can mutually decide whether the role is working out. If it isn’t, they should be free to move back to the individual contributor track, exactly where they were before. Likewise, managers who wish to move back to the individual contributor track should also be allowed to, assuming they have the correct technical skills.

This leads to an interesting discussion: how should pay be decided when moving from one track to the other? In my eyes, it depends on the value that the individual is contributing to the organization. If an experienced long-time manager wants to move back to the technical track but will take a long time to become a net-positive contributor because of retraining, then I don’t think that it is unreasonable for them to take a pay cut if they are going to be dramatically overpaid compared to the rest of the team.

Conversations around trajectory

If you’ve not had these kinds of conversations about the two tracks with your staff, then it’s highly recommended to begin them as soon as you can. Having them explore their intentions early on means that you’re able to begin supporting them in moving towards their goals. Left undiscussed, your direct reports may not know that there are opportunities to move both upwards (along the same track) and sideways (to a new track) within the current organization, and in the worst case, they may feel that the only way to do so is to get a new job.

I’d advise against going into a full career planning session with them immediately, but instead, begin to weave the conversation into your 1 to 1s. As a manager, what could you delegate to a member of staff interested in learning the ropes of management? This could be a mutually beneficial exercise. Equally, could you begin a mentorship between a junior engineer interested in becoming a senior individual contributor with someone of similar stature in your department?

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