Should You Become A People Manager?

Chris Bee
9 min readNov 1, 2018

A common decision point engineers, designers, data scientists, PMs and many other professionals are eventually faced with is whether to stay on the individual contributor (IC) path or work toward a manager career path. Years ago, the only way to advance your career in most company structures was to become a manager of people. While that is still a very viable option for growth, most modern companies have incorporated a career path for folks who aren’t interested in people management the ability to continue to advance their career. Even if your company doesn’t have a formal ladder for your role beyond the senior level, you still have the option of staying on the IC path while continuing to learn and grow.

The question is: how do you decide what path is right for you? I’ve had the opportunity to coach a number of people through this decision and have assembled some thoughts to help those who may be thinking about the management track. This article may also give some perspective for new managers that are questioning if they are on the right path.

Management Work

The first thing to consider about becoming a people manager is that it is a completely different job than your role as an IC. A common misconception is that being a manager is just a higher-level version of what you were already doing. It’s definitely not. It’s a different mindset and a different set of problems that you will be working on. You are no longer responsible for just your own work, but a group of people’s work. You will start to spend a significant portion of your time in meetings, planning and coordinating with others, conducting 1:1s, recruiting, networking, and giving feedback.

Another misconception is that you will still do a large portion of your IC work. This really isn’t the case if you have a team of 6 or more. In fact, you will likely not be doing much (if any) IC work yourself. When you do pick up a task here or there to keep your skills up or build trust with the team, it should be a lower priority task that is not on the critical path for any project. Any IC work you do as a manager should set an example and rigidly follow agreed upon team process — design and spec reviews, code reviews, testing and release process etc., which can be even more time consuming. However, you should really bias your time towards management work. Your non-meeting time as a manager should be focused on activities like planning the team roadmap, building the resource plan, tweaking the team process, and analyzing business metrics and product performance to help make informed decisions.

Time Allocation

Below is an overview of where ICs and managers spend their time based on my experience. The allocation will vary between specific roles and levels, but this should serve as a decent general overview. For example, an entry level designer or engineer may spend closer to 80%, or even 90% of their time doing IC work. A tech lead may spend more time on team growth than the average IC. PMs are a unique bunch in that a large portion of time will be already spent planning and attending regular meetings. However, regardless of the specific discipline, you’ll notice a couple big shifts when making the jump to management.

  • Core IC work: coding, designing, doc writing, analysis, research
  • Regular meetings: status, team, planning, reviews, issue resolution
  • Planning: goal setting, estimating, resourcing, strategic plan creation
  • Team growth: recruiting, interviewing, feedback, coaching, 1 on 1s
  • Relationship building: team culture, cross-org alignment, networking

Letting Go

One of the biggest challenges many folks who are great ICs struggle with is around letting go. As a manager, you have to be content with letting go of much of the focused problem solving that goes with being a skilled IC. This may be especially difficult in situations where you know more about a problem area than the person on your team. These situations may offer great opportunities to coach and guide someone, but you have to be OK with letting your direct reports own problems end-to-end and sometimes do things very differently than you would have. At times, this may even mean letting someone fail so they can learn from their mistakes, provided there isn’t a significant business impact. You have to embrace your role as a coach and a mentor and resist the urge to micromanage or jump in and do it yourself.

Similarly, depending on how big your team is, you have be ready to let go of many of the day-to-day details of projects and potentially be out of the loop for many decisions, especially as your team grows. I found this personally challenging at times as my teams grew, but you have to trust your team is working towards the goals that are set and making good decisions along the way. Highly-skilled ICs value autonomy. As a leader, you need to be confident in setting the vision and direction for the team, but then get out of the way so team members are empowered to take full ownership of their work.

Growing People and the Team

In order to be a good people manager, you need to genuinely find pleasure and satisfaction in helping others reach their goals. Developing skilled ICs requires a deep understanding of how someone wants to grow as a professional and then giving them the right work and ownership areas to help them get there. The balancing job as a manager is to find opportunities for career growth for your people while ensuring the work your team is doing appropriately contributes to the broader goals of the business.

Being able to motivate people, especially when you need someone to work on something they are less excited about is a key skill to develop to keep your team engaged. I’ve found what can help is to frequently tie back the work someone is doing to the broader contribution your org or company has to its customers and also focusing on the positive side of any given work assignment. As a manager, you are often the one providing recognition and celebrating the team’s wins. You need to be really comfortable with others receiving the credit and public praise that go along with completing projects and not look for it for yourself. Alongside that, you will take ownership and blame when something goes wrong on behalf of the team, regardless of how deeply involved you were with a given issue.

You also need to be comfortable giving feedback to others. Performance management, both positive and constructive, is key to your team’s success. It can be very difficult at times to work with a low performer. While it is tempting to let someone cruise by and just give them a low rating come review time, it is important to set proper performance expectations with the team and work on helping that person improve or eventually terminate them. Your high performers will expect it.

Finally, you will always be recruiting, even if you don’t have open headcount at the moment. This goes beyond participating in interview loops. It includes sourcing your own candidates, and keeping in touch with your network from prior roles and meeting people at industry events. You’ll need to be able to get candidates interested in the team and opportunity, even if they aren’t looking to make a move or you don’t have a role open yet. The growth of the team and recruiting new talent can be very time consuming and you should always have a pipeline of talent.

Relationship Building

As a manager, you will also spend a lot of your time building relationships to network across the org. While relationship building can be viewed by some as office politics, I have learned that building the right relationships over lunch, coffee or drinks with other leaders is super valuable. Having good relationships across the company and industry will allow you to add value to your team in many situations. Knowing the right person to talk to in order to get a team member unblocked or being up to speed on new features your team can leverage are valuable contributions managers make. Additionally, being involved with cross-functional planning and proactively planning for dependency considerations of your team are vital.

Championing Culture

As a team manager, you will be the steward of your team’s culture. The traditions you follow and the pace of the work environment will be influenced heavily by you, whether intentional or not. For example, do you want to have a culture where people are expected to respond to emails late into the evening and on weekends? What is the time off and work from home policy? Do you encourage your team members to share vacation photos when they get back from a trip? How often does the team get lunch together?

You will also likely be the default social chair for the team who coordinates most team outings. With the budget that is allocated, you’ll decide how you celebrate and spend time together outside the office as a team. Welcoming new hires, work anniversaries, product launches or scheduled quarterly outings are all great opportunities for team bonding that you want to make sure happen well. As the team leader, you’ll want to instill a culture that values social interactions in the team beyond the day-to-day work.

Long Term Career Aspirations

Finally, for anyone who is considering the management path, take some time to think about your longer-term career aspirations and what type of work you’ll most enjoy doing. Try to visualize what you’d like to be known for in five years, ten years or longer. Envision the best version of your working self and what you’d be doing. For example, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Do you see yourself being an expert in your field, with publications and project credits or do you want to be a great coach who helps others build their expertise, skills and reputation?
  • Do you want to be the technical, design or customer expert in your company or do you want to be great at pulling together the right experts to make an informed strategic decision?
  • Do you want to be known for being world class at execution or do you want to be the inspiration to get people rallied behind a common goal so they can execute?
  • Do you want to have clear goals set that outline your success or do see yourself as a trusted mentor who helps your team members set their goals?
  • Do you want to be accountable for just your actions and work or an entire team of people’s actions and work?

Of course, it is possible to have some blend of these focuses and qualities regardless of your position, but answering these questions should help guide your thinking around what path to follow. It also is helpful to get some 1:1 time with other managers you respect to understand what their goals and day-to-day work are like. If you are a manager yourself already and trying to figure out if you are on the right path, hopefully this framing could be helpful.

Trying it Out

While you are an IC, you can still look to take on management work. You don’t need the title of manager to start acting like a leader. Giving thoughtful peer praise and constructive feedback, keeping the team motivated, networking across the company and helping build your team’s culture are all things you can (and should) do as a senior IC. Thinking about how much you enjoy these types of activities after you’ve had a chance to do some of them will be a great indicator of your interest in management.

A final consideration is that an official change to management doesn’t have to be a permanent switch. I’ve known a few folks who have gone the management route for a period of time and really missed the hands-on part of the job enough that they decided to go back to a senior IC role. They wound up building some crucial leadership skills and perspective that helped them be even better at their IC job. Careers are long and exploring options can be a great way to grow and stay excited about your work!

Thanks for reading! Feel free to drop me any comments or feedback.



Chris Bee

CTO at Lessen. Former Zillow, Uber, Amazon, Microsoft. Self-starter musing about leadership, product development and motivation.