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Navigating Tech Careers: Engineering Manager vs. Individual Contributor (Interview)

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Posted On Jun 11, 2024 

What are the pros and cons of the Engineering Manager career path versus the Individual Contributor one? Let’s find out!

In this article, we recap a conversation with Prakash Patel, an Engineering Manager. He followed his passion for data engineering and solving complex data problems, spending two years as an Individual Contributor and one year as an Engineering Manager.

According to the latest salary data in our LHH Technology Salary Guide, Engineering Managers currently command an average salary of $80,000 to $130,000. Conventional wisdom says you should not become an Engineering Manager if you…


  • Want dedicated time to focus on specific projects or refine your programming skills.
  • Feel uneasy about managing team dynamics.
  • Prefer to own your own code.
  • Want to rapidly develop new technical skills.
  • Prefer to have your success evaluated based on your individual contributions.


Here’s a quick summary of the conversation with Prakash.

Q: Engineering Managers often don’t get dedicated time to work on a specific project or hone their programming skills. What is your experience with the flip side of this: being focused on supporting your team and making them successful?

A: Based on my time as an IC, I understand the pain points and problems my team faces and will face since I have already experienced it. Engineering Managers are responsible for the smooth execution of projects while minimizing the concerns that arise.

Projects have different phases, but every phase has a challenge. As an Engineering Manager, I support my team's success while minimizing all those concerns. I enjoy focusing on the company's vision and blending it with the personal and professional growth of ICs.

Q: As an Engineering Manager, you’re working with an entire team’s dynamics, meaning you need to resolve conflicts when they arise. What do you think the upside is to managing the dynamics of a team?

A: Conflicts are inevitable, and as an EM, the more you handle them, the better you’ll get. One upside is you help all Individual Contributors on the team succeed. Another upside is eventually, you get better at saying no.

There will be so many things to control as an EM. By managing these dynamics, I see I am helpIng my engineers wholly in their technical competence and project management abilities.

Q: As an Individual Contributor, your code contributed to the codebase, and you could point to what you owned. In your role as a manager, how does your involvement with the codebase change, and how does this impact your team’s work?

A: Well, as an EM I don’t get a lot of opportunities to actively maintain the codebase but I do participate in the code reviews. I can always suggest ways to improve the tech stack and that’s where I help my team adjust the roadmap. WhIle I am not maintaining the codebase, I am motivating my team to participate in constructive code-based reviews to help make them better engineers.

Q: As an EM, you’ll develop tech skills more slowly. You’ll be focused more on macro than learning new languages or libraries. What kind of skills do you build as an Engineering Manager?

A: As an EM, I developed a “think big” and “make it happen” attitude. I also learned to give constructive feedback and negotiate.

Q: When you’re an Engineering Manager, your team’s success determines your success. It can take longer to ship products and code. How is success measured as an EM, and what do you find fulfilling about it?

A: My success is measured by the performance of my team and my individual reports. As an EM, my goal is to develop technical excellence across the company. I enjoy driving project execution, but I make sure my individual reports receive exciting, diverse responsibilities that infuse the company’s culture with our team.

If you’re not sure whether to pursue an IC path or transition into an EM, here’s my advice: if you’re even a little interested in becoming an EM, talk about it with your manager. Ask them to provide you with more responsibilities that will help you become an EM.

From there, you can evaluate whether you enjoy the work and if that role feels like the right fit. If so, request more tasks. If you progress, you can eventually transition into an Engineering Manager role.

Ultimately, the two paths are very different experiences, so it’s all about what you enjoy.

Q: Should you switch to an Engineering Manager role internally or seek out an EM role when looking for a new job?

A: Transitioning within a company is a better and easier decision, especially since you are already familiar with your team. On the other hand, if you are an individual contributor seeking a job as an EM at a different company and do not have that proven experience, it’s harder to make the jump.


For more guidance on your career journey, connect with an LHH recruiter today!