The single biggest mistake every first-time manager makes in tech companies (especially product, design and engg) is in believing that they no longer have to contribute as ICs (individual contributors).
It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum of company size – a handful of people fighting for survival and trying to launch a product or a hyper-large company with established practices and processes. If you become a manager – you hold dual roles.
Your job as a manager is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together (hat-tip Julie Zhuo) but also to keep hitting the ball out of the park as an individual contributor. Congrats – you hold two full-time jobs.
Is it fair? Absolutely not.
Does anyone spell this out for you? Nope.
Shouldn’t we change this? Sure – but the world is not ideal.
I’ve seen phenomenal ICs completely derail their careers after becoming managers. A year into managing two designers – a design manager struggles to be a part of a tiger team trying to build a brand new feature. The best coder in the team hasn’t done a code commit in months.
The most successful managers don’t lose touch with their IC roots. VP of engg with a 300 people team will still do regular code reviews. Director of product at a hyper-large company will still deliver a stellar PRD. A design lead at a company about to go IPO will still be able to run a hands-on design sprint.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t focus on being a good manager. There is a massive dearth of good managers even in the most mature ecosystems. You are responsible to the people you are managing. And a great manager’s team will consistently achieve great outcomes.
But in your early years as a manager, recognise the duality of your role. The expectations have changed. There are more demands on your time. You will have far less time to do deep work. The maker vs manager tussle is real.
Not everyone is suited to being a manager. Not everyone should be a manager. It has sadly become coupled with career growth in many orgs (though things are changing). But there are ways of thriving as a manager.
If you need help as a first-time manager or are thinking about taking up manager responsibilities, do share your thoughts and concerns.