How to land the manager-to-IC pivot

The conventional metaphor for career success is a ladder, but there are a lot of problems with this narrative.

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Credit: Alexandra Francis

The conventional metaphor for career success is a ladder: you start as a humble individual contributor and gradually climb the rungs until you’re managing a team of junior folks gripping the rungs below you. There’s only one trajectory (up!) and no detours.

There are a lot of problems with this narrative, but one of them is that not everyone finds themselves happier or more satisfied in a role that makes them directly responsible for others’ success and productivity.

Some people who become managers or even find themselves in the C-suite realize that something’s not clicking. It might be the stress of managing others’ performance, the recognition that being a manager requires a wholly distinct skillset from being an engineer, or simply more time spent in meetings and less on the kinds of projects that most interest them.

More people in tech are making the manager-to-IC shift, largely because they think it will make them happier at work. People “now rank feeling energized and having a sense of purpose as more important than compensation when it comes to professional happiness,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

Mitchell Hashimoto, cofounder of HashiCorp, was on our podcast last year to talk about his experience returning to an IC role after serving as founder-CEO and CTO. Our former director of product design, Kristina Lustig, traded her management role for one as an IC software developer. Based on our conversations with them and some other folks who’ve moved from manager to IC, here are some things to keep in mind if you’re considering a similar move.

From director of product design to software engineer

As she wrote on our blog, Stack Overflow’s own Kristina Lustig went from running the product design team as director of design to working as a software engineer on our public platform.

Despite an early interest in math and computer science, Kristina ended up pursuing a career in UX. Being surrounded by some of the world’s best developers, first at Facebook (now Meta) and then at Stack Overflow, encouraged Kristina to keep coding firmly in the “hobby” category, rather than giving it serious consideration as a career path. “I genuinely think that my problem, for years, has been confidence,” she said. “I was just a UX person, not a coder.” Finally, she told her manager she would be leaving Stack Overflow to pursue her dream of becoming a developer. Her manager’s answer surprised her: Why not do that here?

Kristina’s manager put together a series of projects designed to build her skills in back-end development. “We used Flask as the basis for my projects, as the barrier to entry is low and I already felt pretty confident with Python,” she explained.

After that, it was time for Kristina to wade into .NET and the Stack Overflow codebase. “The hardest part for me has been working on code that lots of other people have worked on,” she reflected. “With my own personal projects, I knew why each line of code was there… With a codebase so large that I’ll never actually read all of it, I had to start exercising a whole new set of skills I didn’t know I’d need.”

Things to consider before making a pivot

You don’t need us to tell you to think carefully before making a major career change. But asking yourself the right questions, reflecting on what’s really motivating you to make a change, and having a clear plan for managing and communicating the pivot can go a long way toward ensuring its success.

Clarify why you want to make a change

For many people, like this manager-turned-product designer, feeling exhausted and suddenly lukewarm about a job they used to love is a sign that something needs to change. The trick is figuring out what.

Ask yourself why you want to make a career change. If you’re unhappy or feeling burned out in your current role, moving from manager to IC may or may not fix that. Do you wish you had more time to work on hands-on projects? Are you anxious about overseeing others’ performance? These are the kinds of issues you can resolve by becoming an IC, whereas a sentiment like, “I don’t even want to be an engineer anymore,” is symptomatic of bigger questions you need to answer for yourself.

Don’t assume the move will tank your career or incur judgment from your colleagues

Plenty of people hesitate to make a career move that could be seen as a demotion because they’re afraid of judgment: afraid they’ll be seen as someone who couldn’t cut it as a manager. But there’s reason to think this unearned stigma might be lifting, as more people make similar shifts or meet colleagues who have.

“The presumed stigma of ‘moving back to an IC role’ is non-existent,” wrote one former people manager who returned to an IC role in product design. In his experience, colleagues were understanding and happy for him.

Becoming an IC isn’t necessarily synonymous with getting demoted, per the Harvard Business Review article You Can Stop Being a Manager Without Sinking Your Career: “In most organizations there are examples of mid-level and senior people who don’t manage others. So it’s worth proposing a formal role or title that reflects the value you bring to the company even if you’re not directly leading a team.”

Even if you do encounter some awkwardness moving from manager to IC, you might find the shift “very much worth it,” according to Philip Su, former CEO of Audere and someone who’s made the manager-to-IC pivot several times in his career.

Communicate with your manager

It might seem counterintuitive, but your current manager might be the perfect ally in helping you map and navigate whatever career change you’re contemplating. Kristina, the designer-turned-developer whose manager encouraged her to pursue her new career at Stack Overflow, advises people who want to make a change at work to be bold.

“Don’t underestimate how much your job wants to keep you around and don’t be afraid to ask for the things you want,” she said. “As I used to tell the folks on the design team, ‘The worst thing that will happen if you ask someone for something is that they’ll say No. And maybe laugh at you.’”

Normalize ditching the ladder

More people are moving freely between manager and IC roles, but this dynamic “isn’t yet a standard in tech,” wrote Gemma Barlow for LeadDev, “but my hope is that this will change in the next decade. Encouraging a commitment to life-long learning and development and a true respect for the difficulties inherent in each position, in my view, will only create healthier workplaces. For managers considering a return to individual contribution work, please be assured that like most other endeavors, with enough time, patience, and planning, this can be a very rewarding switch.”

Empowering employees to make career changes can benefit organizations, too. Managers-turned-ICs are often better at seeing the big picture than their colleagues without management experience, for instance. Su, the former CEO who’s made several manager-to-IC pivots, pointed out that encouraging employees who want to make career changes to do benefits the company, too. “It’s a retention and happiness and performance play for a company to better support them,” he said.

For more insights into how to make a career pivot successful, read our article over at Indeed.

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