Are You Stuck as an Individual Contributor?
July 19, 2021

Are You Stuck as an Individual Contributor?

by Brian de Haaff

Ask an eight-year-old what they want to be when they grow up. You will hear the classics. Athlete. Teacher. Veterinarian. Maybe a superhero or two. But I bet you will not hear "manager." It is not surprising that a career in management does not captivate a child's imagination. Kids care about adventure, exploration, or the chance to help somebody. Plenty of adults feel the same.

True career fulfillment is about doing what you love while financially supporting yourself and making a difference — you do not need to be on a management track to do that.

Yes, pathways for professional development are important. It is natural to want to grow in your career. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting to achieve at a high level. But that requires you to tune in to what you really want before you take the next step and set some bold career goals.

For many, the next best challenge is leading a team. It is a great responsibility to align a team's work with strategy and help people reach their potential. But not everyone wants to be a people manager. Maybe you specialize in design or development — a move into a manager role would take you further away from doing the work that you love most. Yet it is also the most common narrative for how to grow your career — start managing people.

Unfortunately, most conversations and organizations do not consider an alternative path. Growth opportunities are limited to moving to a management track or plateauing as an individual contributor. The problem is that people can stagnate or lose motivation if it is not clear how they can keep growing in an organization. It is difficult to retain the best people if you do not allow them to be their best.

This is something I think about frequently because everyone we hire at Aha! is ambitious and wants to make an impact.

So it is important to us to identify real opportunities for individual contributors to continually be challenged and increase their responsibility and influence. It is one of the reasons that Aha! introduced a principal software engineer role. These are technical leaders who manage some of our most complex projects and own major areas of functionality in our codebase. Their deep expertise helps the rest of the teams broaden their knowledge and uncover the optimal way to solve problems. We have also recently brought the same thinking and type of role to our Customer Success team.

We are considering expanding it to other teams too over time. Here are just a few of the benefits that I see:

Deep focus

Principal contributors have an innate eagerness to solve really hard problems. And because they are not sidelined by management or administrative tasks, they can hone in on thorny challenges and keep working on them until they have been resolved. It is a continuous cycle of deep thinking and value delivery.

Knowledge sharing

To develop a culture of learning, you need to continuously push beyond the comfortable. The best principal contributors bring their expertise and deep knowledge to the team — motivating everyone around them to improve their own understanding of complex subjects and get creative. Principals who show a strong emphasis on collective growth help everyone accomplish more.

Happiness at work

We all want to find sustainable happiness and be engaged in our work. When you are in a role that fits your skills and interests, you will naturally continue to thrive. The reality is that many people do not want to grow up to manage others — they want to develop other skills that lead to great outcomes for themselves and their teammates. It is the job of people managers to recognize this in individual contributors.

Part of building an excellent team is making room for people to serve the organization in new ways.

Today the Aha! team is more than 100 people and growing. As we look to the future, the roles and opportunities that we offer will evolve too. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to see that we continue to attract intrinsically motivated people who care about pursuing meaningful work — both as individual contributors and team leads.

What is the next step in your career?

Work anywhere and be happy. Aha! is hiring right now.

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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