Career Path for engineers – Management Track vs. Individual Contributor Track

I read the article “Indian IT firms redefine career path for engineers” on www.livemint.com with interest:

“Indian information technology (IT) service providers such as Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, Infosys Technologies Ltd and Wipro Ltd are following multinational firms such as International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) in building a technical career path for senior engineers opting out of managerial roles.

This is a shift from their traditional focus on promoting employees for managerial roles as they seek more complex projects from customers that need highly skilled people to execute them.

Now, employees can opt to be a designer or an architect and climb the ladder conceiving or building large projects.”

Having worked in product development companies in India (2000-2006), I can attest to the need to develop strong individual contributor (IC) track of growth; we struggled a lot to get our bright ICs to stay IC and not opt for management career path. However, it is always a challenge in India to get people to stay IC since managing people is considered to be a symbol of power (possibly because of our feudalistic mentality from the past) and no one wants to give it up, even when they are certain to be bad at it. Product development companies need ICs much more since their work relies so much on technical brilliance and depth of domain knowledge. It is good to see that services companies now feel the same need; it shows they are moving up the food chain:

“To give an indication of the shift in the complexity of work for Indian IT firms, Infosys in 2000 earned 72% of its revenue from application, development and maintainence (ADM) services—vanilla projects that are increasingly getting commodotized. In 2009, its revenue from such services decreased to 41.6%.

For TCS, India’s largest technology vendor, revenue from such services has reduced to 48.5% in fiscal 2009, from 58.2% in fiscal 2006, the first year it began classifying ADM figures.”

From a career growth perspective, most multinationals offer enough opportunities in management as well as technical (IC) tracks. However, skills needed to succeed and measures of success for each track are very different and sometimes unclear. To succeed in management track, one needs to be good at dealing with ambiguities, taking decisions based on partial data, and be able to deal to managing regular management challenges; measure of success most of the time is very indirect (mostly through the success of the team members) and hence can be very subjective and debatable. To succeed in IC track, one needs to have deep technical and domain expertise, should be good at solving complex technical problems, and be able to provide technical and thought leadership; measure of success is very direct and objective and mostly based on visible results of the individual.

Given the lack of clarity around these 2 tracks, people do what they do best in India when career choice is concerned: they take default career choices (what peers tend to do, what family and friends recommend, what the ‘in-thing’ is, etc) rather than being thoughtful about it. They forget that they need to choose what gives them better return on their talent investment over the entire career, which is a 40 year game (for interested readers, more of my thoughts on this topic are here and here).

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About Mrityunjay Kumar

I am a native of Bokaro Steel City, Jharkhand, India which is home to one of the largest steel plants in the world. I am an alumni of DPS Bokaro, IIT-D and Foster School of Business, UW. I am married and have 2 daughters (8 and 4 yrs old) who teach me so much about how to live life and enjoy it fully.
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21 Responses to Career Path for engineers – Management Track vs. Individual Contributor Track

  1. Sameer says:

    Mrityunjay,

    Nice blog. I came across it a few months ago and have enjoyed reading many of your posts.

    In India, apart from peer-pressure or canned career path offered by IT companies, does salary play a role in why people opt for management as against continuing in IC role? If they want a better salary, is moving into management their only option?

    Sameer

    • Mrityunjay Kumar says:

      I don’t think salary plays that important role; my experience has been that companies are willing to pay a lot to their IC if they are valuable. Even when they differ, the difference is not that great, and so someone who wants to be an IC doesn’t need to have that as a deterrent. Of course, CEOs always get paid more than anyone else, but that is because it is a leadership position (which is different than management).

  2. Very well reaction post!

  3. As you said well, its more of Indian mentality that one wants to go into a career in management. The path obviously in Indian IT company goes like this … Junior engineer > Software Eng > Senior Software Eng > Team Lead > Product Lead > Associate Manager > Manager > …

    Also, there is no good appreciation for IC’s to stay longer in their position. Its kind of peer pressure and moment of embarrassment when someone in family or friend ask “Are you still a software engineer?”

    • Sameer says:

      Vishnu,

      This is exactly what I was thinking when I wrote my first comment. It may be different in multi-nationals but I think in most Indian companies the situation is what you have described.

      Sameer

      • Mrityunjay Kumar says:

        Agree that multi-nationals may have a different mindset than an Indian company. Also, the differences may exist between product companies (where a strong IC can be exponentially more useful than a weak one) vs. services companies (where most money is based on count of people rather than calibre of people). It may also depend on maturity level of the company and the software environment as a whole.
        As a perspective, I am working in a multinational, product-based company in China right now, and we have the same problem here: no one wants to be an IC, they want to be a manager as soon as they can.

  4. Mantesh says:

    I am in a process to develop IC career path for a It company which supports its own finance division. The fuzziness exist in terms of managing people. Even the IC manages few people for their projects and hence it makes their job somewhat similar to managers. Any suggestion how can we build the career path for these ICs.

    • Mrityunjay Kumar says:

      I think you can start by focusing on what these ICs do when they ‘manage people’ for the projects. A critical difference between ‘real’ managers and ‘project’ managers is who owns the performance reviews and career growth of indivuals. ‘real’ managers own resources (people’s time, performance and careers), while ‘project’ managers own delivery of projects as final outcome. In your case, it seems like these ICs are really technical leads who manage the resources assigned to them for delivering the projects. Such technical leads should be responsible for contributing to performance reviews of these individuals (by providing clear feedback to their managers) and for assigning these people to right parts of the projects based on their skills and interests. In addition, they need to display project management skills. These technical leads can continue to grow into an IC career path which gets them deliver complex and large projects (architect, senior architect, etc.) or they can move laterally to be ‘real’ manager – own performance and careers of these people working with them. The trade-off between these 2 roles should be highlighted in the career path definition: one of them measures your ability to manage resources to deliver increasingly complex technical projects, another measures your ability to grow people and measure their performance as they work on projects handled by technical leads – they require very different skill set to succeed and same person many not be equipped to do both for a sustained period of time.

  5. Srinivas says:

    This is absolutely true when it comes with Indian companies, the management force their staff to get into management rather than development. Management shows that it as a carrier growth for the individual. Irrespective of the individual interest they force to get into management.

  6. goodblog says:

    Nice blog and well written!

  7. Pingback: Career Paths for engineers – Being a Phase 2 IC | Perspectives on Career Management

  8. indiaIT says:

    Deciding between being an IC and Management should be a very thoughtful process, with emphasis on long term career interests rather than the glamor (if I may say so) of one or the other.

    Deciding which way to go, also becomes challenging when the reporting management identifies that individual to be potentially capable of both. This is a very difficult position to be in and requires tremendous amount of self-realization and soul searching to take a decision. You have to know yourself.
    I had the opportunity to be in this position and I have learnt quite a lot. The first question to ask yourself is “What is that I can’t do or I can’t have now that I can do or have in that position??” and be dead honest with the answer. The answers could be Salary, Power and all that comes with it, technical challenges, increased domain knowledge, security that comes with higher domain knowledge with long term interests in mind.

    I guess there are no rights or wrongs here, if somebody interested in power and all that comes with it for example so called respect in family and relatives, if that is what keeps someone going that that is fine.

    Some of the pros and cons that I realized were as follows

    Pros Manager
    Power (and all that you can derive from it)
    Depending on how you want to play it, this is also an opportunity to bring about changes, be
    Recognized as a change agent.
    Cons Manager
    The first to get affected in an organization restructuring are Managers at least that has been
    My experience in my organization which is one of the biggest MNC.
    You would have to take decisions based on the situation in the organization that would be
    Perfectly legal and in line with the organization goals but morally wrong. I might be sounding
    Little blunt here but believe being in a senior technical position, I was witness to some of
    The decisions that were taken that were morally wrong, as a person did not like it and would
    not have taken myself.

    Pros IC
    If you have a very good domain knowledge and a very astute understanding of the
    product, you will be very valuable , too valuable to mess around with, in certain situation
    enjoy more power and respect.
    Better from a long term career interest.
    Least affected during organizational restructuring.

    Cons IC
    Expectations on complex problem solving are high (not a con if you relish it)
    Even if you are a valuable IC , you would be still reporting to a Manager, and in some cases
    the reporting Manager may be younger to you(you don’t see a lot in India but things are
    catching up)
    One more thing that I have observed is that as an IC you should not so much expect credit
    and accolades on company notice boards, because usually it is the managers who seem
    to get the credit.

    Finally if I have to draw a good analogy based on my personal experience I would say Management VS IC is like Politician vs. a soldier.

  9. Bhushan says:

    We have heard a lot about IC and Management career path for IT.
    Is this true for manufacturing sector as well???

    • Mrityunjay Kumar says:

      I can’t really comment specifically on manufacturing sector, but I am sure this difference between management and IC path exists everywhere because this is more about general management, performance focus, and career goals, and less about a particular industry. IT may have this problem more acutely felt than others because it is a new industry (less than 50 years old) and still is figuring this out. At least in India, management is always viewed as a prestigious assignment, and that mentality will always have a mark in an industry.

  10. Rajesh R says:

    This is a good post. Many of the IT professionals are not in a position to decide which path to go..
    They go by the Wind. this is what is happening.
    I am 12 yrs exp professional still want to stick to technology.
    But where can i get a career path and if i go in that path …. my resume should be hot in the market.
    Can any one give a career path in IC. I am still doing hands on in Ab initio.
    Service based companies (INDIAN companies) are glad to replace higher exp resource with freshers due to cost (especially who are still developers)
    They don;t have the actual career path unlike Product based companies.
    I am doing 40% PM and 60% hands on.
    If i am going to do 100% tech and there are 99% probability that i will get removed from the position.
    Going fwds down the line we will definitely see more exp resources and the ratio between juniors and seniors won;t be maintained.
    My question here is till retirement age…
    we have to get the correct career path where we can surely bet on.
    Please give me a solution for it or if you can point me some where i can look at it.

    • Mrityunjay Kumar says:

      If you haven’t read my subsequent post on this topic, please do so: http://wp.me/p7P9J-57.
      I agree with you that it is not easy to find an IC path in a company, especially in a services company. However, it is important to note (as I describe in my post referred above about Phase 2 IC) that as you grow in experience, IC roles don’t remain 100% tech/hands-on, and start resembling more and more like a manager’s. Senior ICs carry lots of influence and impact lots of projects and revenue for the company, just like a manager. This is the reason that sometimes you will find that an IC career path is disguised as a management role; I know of some of my friends who have a small team to manage, but they get involved in many large-scale projects as an IC and influence much bigger teams than their own. You may want to look into roles that have ‘technology lead’, ‘strategy’, ‘architect’ in their role names.

  11. coldfire says:

    Hey
    What is good – SDE 2 at Microsoft or Engineering manager at VMware?

    • Mrityunjay Kumar says:

      Well, interesting question: goodness depends on the goal, ability and interest of the person who needs to make the choice; there can’t be absolute right or wrong answer about goodness of a role. Both companies in question here place a strong emphasis on deep technical knowledge, irrespective of track; a manager in these companies can’t succeed without having been a strong individual contributor. Also, if this is a first-time management role, it is best done in the current company (where people know your technical competency) rather than joining a new company as a manager. If you have further details to discuss, you can drop me a note and I would love to comment in detail.

  12. BB says:

    Nice post.. still pretty valid! :)
    I am in this dilemma for a while. Currently doing more of mgmt – real & project, as well as leading on technical things. Seems in long run i will move/lean towards mgmt positions, but these days i’m a bit keen to have a long term onsite opportunity (1-2) yrs somewhere. Is it something possible if i get completely into mgmt role? Should I be an IC? Any thoughts…
    Cheers!

    • Mrityunjay Kumar says:

      I don’t know you or your company to provide targeted comments, but here are a few points:

      • Long onsite opportunity (at least once) is a good addition to the career path, so it should definitely be explored. At the same time, a challenging job in India is much better than a miserable stay in US. So be careful.
      • When you are in management cadre, you tend to travel more, but stay shorter each time. It still gives good experience of work, something to consider in your career choice (if staying here for a year gives you better shot at good management position, think about it).
      • You do get long onsite opportunity in management role, but roles are much less. On the other hand, if you go to US, such opportunities come with L1-A (management visa), and it gives you hugely improved odds to get green card quickly.

      Generally, work quality is more important than location these days, onsite is losing its charm because typical onsite opportunities waste your time (though you do earn much more than in India typically).

  13. AnIC says:

    I think there is only one answer to this question, at least in Indian perspective.
    Let me give you my own example on this.
    “After my last appraisal results were out, I got a promotion in the IC ladder. I enthusiastically called my mom and told her about my new designation (some weird name), told her about my new salary, bonus and all. After I stopped talking she took a pause and asked me just one question…
    “So are you a manager now?”
    I was completely deflated.
    I have seen people in European/american counties working their entire life as IC, and its by choice. They enjoyed it that way. But in India we don’t have a completely different mindset. “Promotion = Manager” That’s what the equation is.
    I doubt that in India anybody would decline if they are offered a role in management.
    Frankly speaking if you are working as an IC you don’t have much options in switching jobs and getting better pay cheques. You would never earn any respect being in IC in Indian companies.

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