The term individual contributor goes beyond someone who produces value through their technical ability alone. Yes, an individual's competency in their craft is very important but craftsmanship is just one of the pillars needed for someone to be successful as an individual contributor.
Let's Start With an Individual Contributor Definition:
An individual contributor is someone who is able to create positive business impact through their technical expertise, leadership and vision.
People who are individual contributors use their technical expertise as a lever to create positive outcomes for their company. Technical managers also have technical knowledge in a domain and usually had IC roles in the past, but managers rely heavily on their organizational/people skills to train and motivate a team of individual contributors to deliver better results. A Manager's technical experience and their connection to the technical stack their team uses is extremely important but a managers' main focus is on delivering results through their team, not on their own.
The career growth track for an individual contributor (IC) is often compared to a managerial track. There are major differences between an individual contributor track and a Manager track but there are also some overlaps, especially for more senior ICs.
What are the Growth Areas for Individual Contributors?
Many companies define a career track that outlines how an individual contributor can grow in their career. Even though expectations for an IC rely heavily on technical expertise in an area, as ICs get more senior, expectations in areas other than domain expertise will also grow.
Senior individual contributors are expected to lead complex and cross-functional projects that depend on communication and leadership skills. They must level-up junior engineers, make sound decisions for the company that are align with company's goals and more importantly be a senior leader that other engineers look up to. Let's walk through areas where individual contributors are expected to grow themselves to achieve better results for their company.
Technical Expertise in an Area:
ICs are expected to develop domain expertise / depth of knowledge in an area (i.e. IOS development, distributed build and deployment systems, big data processing, complex product features) which allow individual contributors to help identify and resolve problems quickly as well as to create unique solutions in that area. Individual contributors usually become the go-to person in their organization when there is a question or need for consult.
Leadership & Mentorship
Senior individual contributors are role models for engineers in the organization: Senior individual contributors pragmatically use their expertise in an area for solving business problems. They show that they make decisions to optimize the output for their organization rather than their local team/project. They are able to level-up their team and organization through influence, setting a good example and good direction. As they become more senior an ICs impact is usually directly aligned with their ability to influence others in the organization.
Scope and Impact:
Individual contributors are expected to drive complex and cross-team projects to success as they grow in their careers. Projects will require an IC to make tough trade-offs that optimize results for the company rather than the team. The scope and complexity of these projects are usually measured by a combination of time, business impact, and organizational complexity. Senior ICs need to build a track record that shows they can take on such projects.
Senior ICs are not expected to be told what to do. They have built expertise in a domain so they can figure out where opportunities and gaps are. Not only do they do practical experiments to test their ideas but they also encourage other engineers in their teams and organizations to do practical experimentation to find good solutions for their customers.
A discussion about individual contributors is not complete unless we also talk about the managerial track. How is that different from the individual contributor track?
As we discussed above, ICs mainly use their technical expertise to create an impact for an organization. Managers on the other hand use their organizational/ people management skills to create an impact for the organization. Managers develop technical talent by training, motivating and setting expectations for them. Managers build a culture that encourages and motivates ICs to bring their best to work every day. Great managers play to their team members' strengths and motivations. They align team members with the right projects.
What is common between a great manager and a great individual contributor is that great managers and great engineers both understand how important it is to develop their team members. That is why they both devote their time and energy to growing the talent at their organizations.