93hf983hks371hd in  
Software Engineer a year ago

Why take an IC path to Staff+ Engineer?

I'm a senior software engineer and my boss is a senior director. My boss used to work at Google. I've never worked in software, rather in other industries but as a software engineer. My boss really likes my work and I'm probably being promoted soon to staff software engineer. While that's nice, I'd much rather be a manager. In my past companies, senior software engineer was the pinnacle of the IC route, and the route upward was engineer -> manager -> director -> VP. So my boss, who's clearly embraced the managerial route himself, tries to convince me that there's more prestige in the IC route... as was the culture at Google (and I suspect it's similar at similar companies), and that's what I should want for myself. I find it patronizing and hypocritical when managers discourage management. Why do they do that though? I've also encountered this in the past. It's like I need to be protected from something dirty and I'll hate. Sure, but I just want the best career I can get. I don't think it's through increasing levels of IC. To me those jobs are an anomaly unique to software companies, and a distinguished engineer at Google could only hope to be a senior software engineer at my last company, while any of the dozens of engineering VPs at Google could walk into the CTO job. What am I missing and why should I be happy with my progression to staff software engineer?

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CXO0987Data Engineer a year ago
First of all, you are free to pursue whichever path you want and think will make you happy. If your current manager is not supportive, it’s time to find one that would be. Could be a lateral move within the company or moving to another company altogether. That said, having been on both the IC and manager tracks, I’ll give you some things to think about.

Regarding IC vs. management it’s very common and was my experience, before actually being in the role, to think it was the only way to progress financially and make more money, which seems your main concern and a very valid one for most of us, myself included. Who doesn’t want to maximize their value received per output of work? And the reality is that in most non software product companies (as you say in industries other than software products) you are correct. There’s a limit to how much ICs are valued and past a certain point unless you’re in the management track, you’ll be stuck compensation wise.

Now here’s a couple of truths about management. Those skills that make you good at being an engineer can make you bad at being a manager. As an engineer there’s usually absolute precise answers that are correct or not. The code compiles or it doesn’t. The software meets the requirements and passes the test cases or it doesn’t. It’s very black and white and the pursuit of that certainty is what makes one a good engineer. In management, particularly the higher up you get, the less black and white it is. The more it is about dealing in ambiguity and nuance because you’re dealing with people and orchestrating them to achieve your direct goals. The higher you get, the more it’s about being a great politician also. It’s altogether a different game requiring a very different set of skills. With that also comes being the one that hears all the complains particularly when your directs are not performing. And, in most cases, you didn’t get to build the team and replacing them in mass is impossible, so you’re for the most part stuck with that team composition.

Management is a function constantly being looked at for efficiency, read constantly in the chopping block. It’s a pyramid structure for a reason, with much less room for people in it the higher you go. Management is a cost to be minimized.
One of the reasons for the higher comp is as a way to pay for the added stress of the pressure. Forget about work life balance. You’re always on call and will be ringed at anytime when there’s a problem in your unit. You’re responsible for meeting direct targets that you have no direct control over, your direct reports do. Being a great influencer of others (your directs) is the key. The added money is like sugar. Makes you feel great and able to deal at first but its effects wear off over time.

Don’t think that the management track moves faster towards progression. Most folks spend a lifetime in middle management. You have a higher chance of being downsized than of making it to VP, SVP or above.

You owe it to yourself to try the management track regardless of what I or anyone else says. You maybe great at it or now and you won’t find out until you try. The reality is that the reason some people keep moving up is because they are very good at what they do and consistently deliver great results. If you’re an engineer and great at that, a company where software is the product is where you’ll have the chance to maximize your earnings as IC. Depending on your non technical/soft skills this could be in engineering, product management, or pre/post sales. Otherwise management track, and all above mentioned that comes with it would be the way to maximize earnings. Good luck!
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93hf983hks371hdSoftware Engineer a year ago
Again I don’t understand this notion that I can just waive a wand and declare myself a manager. No, my manager makes me a manager. Not anyone else including me. Oh I can go somewhere else and declare myself a manager? Says who? No management experience, sorry, you’re not hired.

I’m not young by the way. I have a job now, I want to keep it at all costs. The job search for aging engineers … sucks. Despite my whining, I love my job. I definitely don’t think that the grass is greener anywhere else. 

I appreciate the perspective though. I guess I’ll accept any step forward, even if it’s IC. I have confirmed that higher IC people can in fact manage a team at my company, and that I can progress from Staff Engineer to Director. I have yet to see an example but it’s encouraging to hear.

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