Career Paths for engineers – Being a Phase 2 IC

When I received my first performance review in as an individual contributor last month, after having been a manager for 7 years before that, it was revealing, to say the least. This prompted me to talk to a few other individual contributors I knew in the company, these discussions were very insightful.

I also reviewed my post last year on Management Track vs. Individual Contributor Track where I had written the following:

“… 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…”

and had received some interesting comments:

“..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?..”

“..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?”..”

“..Management shows that it as a carrier growth for the individual. Irrespective of the individual interest they force to get into management..”

“..It may be different in multi-nationals but I think in most Indian companies the situation [people being forced into thinking management is the only career growth path] is what you have described..”

My second inning as an IC seems to have given me a different perspective on this topic, a perspective that makes the picture more complete. I realize that my first post was about a specific phase in the career of an IC, and not complete. This post is an attempt to make it more complete and generate more discussions on this topic.

Two Phases of an Individual Contributor Role

The most important insight for me is that there are 2 distinct phases of being an IC:

  1. Phase when most of your peers are IC
  2. Phase when most of your peers are managers

These phases exist because the number of ICs and managers in a typical org will look something like this (L1-L6 are just fictitious levels to illustrate the point):

In the above picture, Phase 1 will end somewhere between L3 and L4, and Phase 2 will start. Another way of stating this is that statistically speaking, being a Phase 1 IC is a rule, being a Phase 2 IC is an exception.

A Phase 1 IC is assigned a specific set of tasks and they are expected to complete them in time, with quality, and with limited (sometimes no) interactions with their peers. Therefore the quality of their deliverables is strongly correlated with their performance.

A Phase 2 IC is an expert in their domain and super-specialist. They are assigned complex and broad-scope projects and hence by definition needs to work through many Phase 1 ICs and their manager to deliver results. This means two things:

  1. Phase 1 IC’s deliverables actually include Phase 2 IC’s contribution (though it is hard to separate which is which)
  2. Phase 2 IC’s personal deliverables may be much smaller compared to their overall contribution to the company (if there is a way to add up the contributions to each Phase 1 IC involved in the project)

Performance Review Model is flawed

Performance of any individual in an organization is impacted by every interaction this individual has with others. Simplistically,

  • R = ∑Ri, where Ri is result achieved through a given interaction

There are some interactions that are much more result-impacting than others: Manager, technical lead (mostly this is Phase 2 IC), subject matter experts, etc.

A good performance review, therefore, tries to identify various components of the results for an individual, assigns suitable weights and measures to them, and them attributes them to rightful owner. For example, a Phase 1 IC will have very few interactions other than those with his manager and technical lead. If the value of the manager’s contribution is 20% and Phase 2 IC is 30%, this Phase 1 IC should be credited with only 50% of total value of work. More importantly, the manager’s review should include this 20% contribution (some weighted value of course) as well as other contributions he made to other ICs, in addition to his personal contribution (after subtracting contributions from his manager and other interactions). Exactly same should be done for Phase 2 ICs and others who contribute to others results.

However, typical performance review process in most companies goes like this:

  1. Attribute all visible results to the person. So an IC with strong manager or Phase 2 IC supporting him/her gets disproportionately high credit (and reward)
  2. Manager’s results = sum of results of all his reports. This means a weak manager gets disproportionately high credit (and reward) if he happens to have strong ICs in his team

The biggest impact is on Phase 2 ICs (as well as SMEs and others who contribute to others results) whose contributions are totally forgotten.

Challenges of being a Phase 2 IC

Being a Phase 2 IC is challenging. Here are some of the challenges I saw:

  1. Since leading and working with others becomes key, it becomes hard to define ownership areas and tangible results. This creates problem when performance review is focused on tangible results; results achieved through others become hard to prove
  2. As a super-specialist, you are expected to fight many fires and contribute to long-range discussions (same duties as my peer managers have), which means keeping focus on key deliverables is very hard.

Some other insights gained from discussions with other Phase 2 ICs as well as managers in India and US:

  1. Phase 2 ICs need to be super-specialists in order to command same salary as manager. This came up in every conversation, if you are not a deep expert in your area, consider staying a Phase 1 IC or a management track.
  2. Most organizations perceive a manager to provide more value than IC, so an IC at the same level will mostly be paid less than manager.
  3. Performance reviews in most companies do a poor job in measuring a Phase 2 IC performance. Therefore, most Phase 1 ICs tend to choose management track and hence there are very few Phase 2 ICs in a company, which in turn reduces the need to come up with a better measure anyway; and this chicken and egg problem continues.

Being a successful Phase 2 IC

To be effective, a Phase 2 IC needs to be a leader and communicator (to get the work done through the Phase 1 ICs) as well as influential and persuasive (so that Phase 1 ICs can respect and work well with them even without a reporting relationship). They need to be good at multi-tasking.

It is important to be careful when choosing Phase 2 IC as a career path. As a starter, they will not get competitive salary as managers if they are not super-specialists and deep in their domain. Most Phase 2 ICs I talked to said they love being a Phase 2 IC because:

  1. They are passionate about their area and love being deeply technical and go-to person
  2. They can be very effective, since they don’t have to worry about dealing with people problems
  3. They can have a big impact since they can contribute ideas to others’ work and see it succeed (or fail!), they can’t accomplish so much by being a manager
  4. They care much more about what they are learning and influencing than about how much they are making as salary and bonuses (of course, they want fairness in review system)
  5. They are learning skills that are also required if and when they choose to be a manager, so they aren’t giving up completely on the other career path.

This last point is worth talking more. The core skills a Phase 2 IC needs in order to be successful are leadership, communication, persuasion and influence capabilities. As a super-specialist of their area, they also need to be great at problem solving and multi-tasking. Since it is hard to be successful as a Phase 2 IC (see the performance review section above), this means that if you are successful, you are also ensuring your success as a manager should you choose to be one at some point. This is a key takeaway for me too when I am an IC now.

Also, it is important to note that measure of success is very different for each person. However, a Phase 2 IC has a better chance of success if they choose their measures to be learning and complexity of tasks (things that they control) rather than financial and other measures which are beyond their control. Performance Review process will always be biased against a Phase 2 IC so they need to be an IC in spite of the process (because they have the reasons mentioned above).

This post generated many other questions around performance review models, distinction between Manager and Phase 2 IC responsibilities, organizational strategy to tackle these specific roles, etc. I will attempt to address them in some subsequent posts. If you have comments on these, please let me know.

6 thoughts on “Career Paths for engineers – Being a Phase 2 IC

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