Three Paths: Individual Contributor, People Manager, and Principal Compared

We dive into three very different Software development roles and discuss the differences between Individual Contributors, People Managers, and Principals. This is a great episode for anyone looking to enter the tech field or transition within it!


[00:00:00] All right, we are going to talk about the three different career paths within software engineering.

Welcome to Effectively Human, where we discuss how to close a knowledge gap between technology and the people who use it. Each week, your host Morgan Lopes will share real life practical tools on how to bridge the gap. Let’s jump in.

Organizations may reference them differently, engineers may move differently into these different roles, but three different paths exist. Why it’s important to bring these three different paths to the forefront is because what it looks like to be proficient and to excel in these roles is very different.

The first [00:01:00] is an individual contributor. An individual contributor is someone who is executing the work. They are heads down. Most of their time is spent writing software, writing tests, advancing the sprints or the code base. And they are focused on doing the work of writing software. It’s a long held belief and many organizations might actually still run this way, which is they take great individual contributors and eventually they promote them into people managers. The reality though, and this is something that a lot of organizations are seeing more and more is that path has kind of broken because the skills needed to be a great individual contributor are different than that of a people manager. So, people management is the second path of a software engineer.

People management involves doing one-on-ones and coaching, doing professional development and helping other engineers and technical team members level up. Well a [00:02:00] problem starts to merge. When you take individual contributors and they become people managers, because skills of doing both well are very different.

And so there is an idea that that path of individual contributor to become a people manager actually promotes people into incompetence. You take somebody who could be really good produce high quality code writes code really fast, does a great job of breaking down complex concepts so the team can understand. And you put them in a role where they are interacting a lot with people. They are not getting a lot of time and energy to do the thing that they do best. So, individual contributor is somebody who is heads down working on the work and more and more companies are making that a path that has plenty of room to level up to improve and trying to remove the ceiling that is often placed on individual contributors.

And then people manager, that is one that tends to be a great fit for people with [00:03:00] a conversational skills, interpersonal skills, a desire to lead and to coach and to level up other people. These are people who get most of their work done by working through others, empowering other people to do really great work, but it is very different than an individual contributor.

Some organizations may have those paths linked. But more and more companies are actually separating them out. The final piece that we’re going to talk about, which is the third career path for software engineers that have a principal, a principal is someone who has a level of authority, business acumen, leadership skills, communication interests, and is leveraging all of those things on behalf of the organization.

They may manage people, but that is part of what they do that is not necessarily the core function or the core value that they provide to the business. Is that to say that if you have any hope of a long lasting career in software, that you have to aspire to be a principal. [00:04:00] Absolutely not. I believe great organizations leave room at all three levels: the individual contributor, the people manager, and the principal for people to move up and evolve. Now the nature of the principal, however, is there may not be as many seats at the end of the day there isn’t a right answer. One is not better or worse than the other. There are plenty of trade offs within each.

Your desire might also evolve over time as your experience and expertise of all, as you learn more about yourself and what you like, and don’t like, or as your season of your personal life changes as your family evolves. Each of them has a certain amount of value that it can pour into a software engineer, but also provide a certain amount of challenge or opportunity for someone on their journey.

Every organization needs people to create the plan. But it also needs people to maintain that plan and [00:05:00] rally the people around getting that work done. And then it needs people to execute the plan. The principal is someone who creates the plan. The people manager is the one who maintains the plan and then the individual contributor executes the plan.

They all have value all you in an organization. And within each of them, there are disciplines and habits and behaviors. That help each of them excel independently of one, another, some organizations choose to link them together. Having someone advance from an individual contributor to a people manager and perhaps eventually a principal, but more and more organizations are recognizing the value in treating them independently and allowing them each to advance independently in  finding the best career opportunities that fit the people in those roles.

My final point is leadership. It is pretty common in business to confuse leadership with roles of authority. [00:06:00] I believe that leadership is actually open to everyone within an organization. Individual contributors though, people may not report to them directly have opportunities to step up and to lead.

And there are people within and within organizations that desire leadership, and it feels like they should become people, managers and principals. But leadership is a choice, whether or not a company gives you a title of leadership, there’s opportunity to have influence among your peers and those you work alongside in an organization.

There you have it, the three paths within a software engineers career: the individual contributor, if people manager and the principal. Which path sounds most interesting to you?

Thanks for listening to Effectively Human. Want to join in on the conversation? Submit your questions on to hear them on the show. And of course subscribe so you never miss a beat. [00:07:00]

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