Best Practices

Individual Contributor vs Manager: Which is the Right Path for You?

Madison Schott
Madison Schott April 26, 2023

Madison is an analytics engineer with a passion for data, entrepreneurship, writing, and education. Her goal is to teach in a way that everyone can understand – whether you're just starting out in your career or you've been working in engineering for 20 years.

Struggling with where you should go next in your data career? Trust me; I’ve been there.

In every data professional’s career, there comes a time when you reach a fork in the road; one path leads you toward management, and the other leads you to continue as an individual contributor. 🛣️

Many companies view management as “the next step” when moving up in your career, but it’s not that cut-and-dry. Maybe someone is a fluent coder or efficient at regular, daily tasks. It’s commendable, don’t get me wrong. But none of those skills necessarily indicate they’ll make a good manager. 

If the transition to management truly was easy and the job itself was simple, we'd never have national stats showing that 70% of employees aren’t working as hard as they could be, while roughly 60% of managers underperform in their first two years on the job. 😬

The skillsets are almost entirely different.

Individual contributors are subject-matter specialists who concentrate on honing their technical abilities and completing specific tasks. Managers, on the other hand, manage their team members, give support, and concentrate on strategic vision rather than technical details.

It’s no surprise that the transition can be bumpy.

But knowing whether you should move on to management or remain as an individual contributor requires a lot of self-reflection on who you are, what you’re good at, and what makes you happy. What do you really want out of your career?

Let’s start by diving into the differences between individual contributors and managers. 

What is an individual contributor?

An individual contributor is someone who contributes to technical projects and performs duties specific to the goals and output of the team. Unlike managers, they do not have any direct reports. Their sole responsibility is to focus on their own skill development and how they contribute to the company as a whole.

I like to frame individual contributors in the context of just starting out in your career. When you first start a new role, you’re a novice. You learn new things on the job every day. The goal, at that point, is simply to acquire more skills and become better at the ones you already possess. Just complete your tasks by your deadlines, learn, and support the larger business outcomes.

An individual contributor essentially does this but at a more advanced stage. They are no longer a novice – they’re subject-matter experts with deep knowledge that they’ve gained from years of experience in their specific role. 🧠 That might mean one of two things: 

  1. They’re more specialized in a certain area
  2. They’re good at a little bit of everything. 

Individual contributors take on more responsibility and complex projects as they grow their careers. Instead of focusing on leadership skills and helping others grow in their careers, they are continuously sharpening their technical chops. 

These focus areas are distinctly different from those of a manager.

What is a manager? 

A manager is someone who has direct reports. They are responsible for guiding the careers of others and ensuring their team members have what they need to succeed. They are often less involved in the technicalities of a project and more in charge of the overall strategic vision. After all, they’re on the hook for ensuring their reports complete their technical tasks on time and on budget. 👀

As a manager, someone else’s career development is in your hands. You’re no longer just thinking about your own skills and career – you have to think about your direct reports’ skills and careers, too. 

This requires clear, open communication and the ability to lead others in their own goals and ambitions. You’ll often advocate on behalf of your reports, so you can’t be afraid to speak up to managers above you. 📣

Sadly, good managers are hard to find. I’ve found – in my own career as a data and analytics engineer – that companies tend to promote people to be a manager as the “default next stage” in career growth, rather than narrowing in on good candidates and nurturing them to be even better. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Being a good engineer does not make you a good manager. 👏

The difference between good and bad management: A personal tale

Once upon a time, in one of my first data engineering roles, I had a manager who was brilliant at his job. He knew the answer to almost any question – AWS, Python, Bash, it didn’t matter. He knew it all.

However, what he didn't know was how to give me what I needed in order to stay engaged with the team. I needed more challenges aligned with the direction I wanted to go in my career. Unfortunately, he often lacked the emotional intelligence I needed as a young woman navigating the beginning of her career in tech. At that point, I started questioning my own decisions in my career. Where was I supposed to turn next? 🤷‍♀️

By contrast, a year ago I had the opportunity to work with the best manager I’ve had in my career thus far. And, luckily, it came at a pivotal time – right when I was transitioning from data engineering to analytics engineering. 

He showed he cared about my development by involving me in projects that I wanted to learn more about. By going out of his way to point out my “areas for improvement, he made me a better engineer. As an added bonus, he showed me he paid attention to the small details by sending me my favorite tea and cookies for my birthday. 

Being a manager is tough. No one’s questioning that. But it requires a special kind of skillset and humanity. Because at the end of the day, managers are supposed to do what they can to make you better at your job and show that they care. 

Are you at that critical moment in your career, trying to decide whether to continue on as an individual contributor or pivot over to management? Follow this simple framework.

How to determine which career path is right for you

Get a journal and pen, or just pull up the notes app on your phone! It’s time to reflect. 💭

1. List out the things you enjoy most about your career.

What do you enjoy most about your current job? Is it the people you work with? Is it the tools you get to use every day? Is it the fact that you get to make so many pivotal choices for the company? Whatever it is, write it down.

I love being an analytics engineer because there’s always something new to learn. The data space is ever-evolving and allows me to always discover new tools and unique ways of solving problems. I can exercise my creativity in the code I write and how I craft modern data stacks while simultaneously using my analytical brain in the tools I use. 

2. List out your strengths and weaknesses.

What are you good at? What are you bad at? Think about the things people compliment you on and where you may fall short. It’s important to be aware of both of these things in order to get a holistic view of what you succeed at.

My technical strengths include writing, documentation, dbt, data warehousing, and data quality. The personal qualities that make me good at what I do are my passion for learning, genuine curiosity, and humility. 

My weaknesses mainly lie in my ability to communicate effectively. I am not the most organized at times and have a harder time speaking up about things I don’t know very well. I, like many others, also suffer from imposter syndrome. 

3. Think about where you see yourself in 1, 5, and 10 years. 

How do you want to feel? What do you want to be doing every day? How will you be different from where you are today?

Rather than narrowly thinking about what brings you joy and what you are good at today only, it’s important to look into the future. Do you still want the same things you have now a few years from now? Think about where you will be in your personal life as well and how you want your career to mesh with that. 

I know I want to have the freedom to be where I want when I want. I like dictating my own schedule, and I want to continue to do so when I have a family. I recognize that this may be harder to do when I have others who depend on me, but I still want to be learning new skills every day. I love learning and teaching, so I always want to do that.

👆 This is just a high-level overview of what I want my future to look like, but I recommend being as specific as possible for 1, 5, and 10 years. Get detailed!

4. Categorize the things you enjoy, your strengths, and your weaknesses.

Ask yourself: Do the things I’ve listed above fit the role of an individual contributor or a manager? If you have to, go back and read the descriptions of each. Be honest with yourself about where each of these fall.

When I look at my love of learning, I see this as a key characteristic of an individual contributor. Individual contributors are always learning and implementing new things in the work that they are doing. 

In contrast, my weakness in communication makes me unfit for the role of a manager. In order to be an effective manager, you need to properly communicate with your team and advocate for them to your superiors. 

5. Reflect on each of these. Think about how they are categorized and how that role relates to what you want your future to look like. 

What do your strengths and favorite parts of your current job say about you? Are they telling you that one path may be better than another? What are your weaknesses saying you should steer clear from? 

Because I love to learn new things, contribute to projects, and dread constant communication, it makes more sense for me to pursue the role of an individual contributor. This role aligns with my goals not only a year from now but 5-10 years down the line as well.

Just because there’s a societal model that pushes management as the logical next step in your advancing career, I promise it’s not the only option. You can become amazing at what you do by continuing on the path as an individual contributor. 

It’s time to reflect… 🪞

Self-awareness and reflection require a lot of honesty about what you want and what you’re good at. You don’t need to become a manager to increase your salary and climb the corporate ladder. And becoming a manager doesn’t mean you’re more advanced or better at your job (although that’s often the preconceived notion).

Don’t be pressured into management because others express that it has to be the next step for you. Stay true to yourself and recognize your strengths as an employee. 

Individual contributors are just as valuable to a company as managers – and they can do just as well in their careers! Not everyone is meant to be a manager, and it’s time that companies recognize that and reward those who are aware enough to know where they don’t want to go within a company. 

✨ Want to join more conversations like this one? Need more data career advice? Head on over and join The OA Club to chat with like-minded data folks like Madison.