Career Trends: Which Software Engineering Pathway is Right for You?

5 min read

Edition: February 10th, 2022
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS

As a software engineer, choosing between being an Individual Contributor and an Engineering Manager can be difficult. (Image Credit: Bigstock)
  • Excerpts from article by Mark Kinsella, published on

Finding yourself at a career crossroads as a software engineer? You’re not alone. Deciding whether you want to pursue the path of being an Individual Contributor (IC) or that of an Engineering Manager (EM) can be difficult choice to make — one with multiple considerations.

It requires you to think about what your strengths are, what you want to learn, how you want to grow and what kind of impact you want to make on the business.

Start with what you’re passionate about. It is usually a good starting point.

Also, you should know that choosing a career path as a software engineer doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck in one trajectory forever.

Typical Career Pathways for Software Engineers

While not all engineering organisations are the same, they usually have some variation of the two types of pathways in the software engineering world: the IC and the EM.

But there is a third lesser known pathway that people don’t know much about.

1. Individual Contributor (IC)

  • ICs are engineers who are not on a management track, nor are they responsible for managing a team of people.
  • They are responsible for managing themselves.
  • They are focused on delivering high-quality, impactful projects for their customers and the business through technical innovation.
  • ICs are strong communicators as they share details and updates, collaborate with their cross-functional partners and mentor other ICs.

2. Engineering Manager (EM)

  • Engineering managers are essentially the opposite.
  • EMs are responsible for people management, effectively delegating responsibilities to ICs, and making sure key projects and duties are fulfilled from start to finish.
  • This means EMs are strong problem solvers, and they know how to help steer teams in the right direction.
  • They are responsible for ensuring teams have the appropriate resources to be successful, from managing budgets to hiring the right people.
  • EMs coach and provide career direction to those who report to them. 

3. Individual Contributor Manager (ICM)

  • Over time software engineers can feel trapped by these binary career paths.
  • As a result, many strong tech-minded engineers stop focusing on their technical work and shift to the people component.
  • These are two different jobs that activate two different sides of the brain.
  • The individual contributor manager (ICM) is a third pathway in software engineering that’s becoming more popular. 
  • The ICM role allows an engineer to act as both an individual contributor and a manager for their team.
  • An ICM has the same responsibilities as an engineering IC — in addition to some extra EM responsibilities. 

Benefits of Choosing the ICM Pathway

1. Best of both worlds

  • It is challenging to move from the IC role into the EM role.
  • You must fully commit. This means going through a learning curve for six to 12 months with the chance of ultimately realising it’s not the path for you.
  • Or perhaps you don’t go down that road and simply decide to remain an IC.
  • The ICM can be the best of both worlds: You have the opportunity to learn the EM ropes while still leveraging your existing skills and expertise as an IC.
  • This can be beneficial for both you and your team. 

2. A safe way to transition

  • Many ICs want to transition to the EM role but don’t know if they’ll be any good at it — or if they’ll be excited by it.
  • The ICM role is an opportunity to test it out.
  • It also comes with growth opportunities for the engineers who want to be 50% technical & 50% managerial.

Tips to Help You Navigate Your Options

1. Think about the impact you want to make

  • When figuring out which engineering trajectory is right for you, think about where you want to have the most impact.
  • Whether you are energised by coding and delivering technical features or do you feel fulfilled by mentoring, managing and training others to help them better their careers.
  • Both are equally important responsibilities.

2. Have patience

  • If you aspire to become a people manager, there’s a level of patience required.
  • The feedback loop on success is very short as an IC. You come up with an idea, open a pull request, deploy that day and see metrics move.
  • As an EM, on the other hand, you evaluate, hire, onboard and mentor someone. It’s a process that can take months until you see any objective positive outcomes.
  • Figure out if you are comfortable with that level of ambiguity over a longer period of time. 

3. You can always reverse your decision.

  • The third consideration is knowing you can move back to a career path once you’ve transitioned away.
  • It’s never a failure to transition back to an IC. There’s a misconception that an engineering career path has only one direction.
  • If you aren’t fulfilling your career aspirations as an EM, or if you find out you’re not best suited to manage people, move back to the IC pathway.


Education & Career Trends: 5 Benefits of Reading Books

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

Like this post? For more such helpful articles, click on the button below and subscribe FREE to our blog.

Download our mobile app, ICS Career GPS, a one-stop career guidance platform.

One Reply to “Career Trends: Which Software Engineering Pathway is Right for You?”

Leave a Reply