Transitioning From Manager to Individual Contributor

by Jarie Bolander on August 9, 2010

How’s this for a twist? Managers moving into individual contributor roles. Sounds kinda whacky but it’s starting to happen more and more. This is actually common in engineering and the sciences where the value of a manager is wedged somewhere between “engineers can manage themselves” and “management is just overhead.” Throw a decaying economy in the mix and a lot of managers find themselves going after individual contributor roles just to pay the bills. In some cases, it’s not even an economic decision. You may have been doing management for a while a realize that your real value add is on the technical side. Making this transition can be a lot harder than jumping to management. The single biggest gravitates around doing as opposed to managing/thinking. The key to getting back into the worker saddle is to tackle these issues in a manageable way while leveraging your managerial skills to give you an edge.

Reasons To Move Back

Most technical managers always carry a little bit of nostalgia for their days as an individual contributors. Some even continue to do side projects to keep their technical skills sharp while others just love to sit in on design reviews and poke holes. Surprisingly, the reasons to move back to being an individual contributor are numerous and include:

  • Ground floor opportunity: You might stumble across a new startup that just so happens to need workers instead of mangers

  • New industry: Changing industries usually means a lot of learning and the best way is to get in and do the work.

  • Management burn-out: You come to a point where management is just not fun anymore. The dealing with people and assorted administrative tasks just grind on you.

  • Promise of advancement: The company may not need a manager right away but the growth potential is there and getting in now will set you up for success later.

  • Really don’t like management: This is for those new mangers who made the switch and are now regretting it. Good for them. It’s far better to find out sooner rather than later.

  • Realize Your Value Add is as a Contributor: Some people just can’t manage. They think they need to go down the management track to be successful but that’s a dilution. You should cater to your strengths and seek a truly objective review of your management skill.

The decision to switch back to an individual contributor is a personal one. Make sure that you consider all the options before jumping back in. The road will be tough but doable.

Overcoming Rusty Technical Skills

Probably the single biggest challenge you will face is the sharpness of your technical skill. Technical skill does go away and if you plan on moving to an individual contributor, within a technical field (like engineering or science or graphic design), you will need to refresh those skills. The amount of brush up will depend a lot on how long it has been since you last performed at a contributor level. Some of the methods you can use to get your technical skills back on track include:

  • Take classes: Classes are a good way to get overviews and network. Classes show that you are committed but don’t solely rely on them.

  • Do side projects: Working on an actual project is a great way to come up to speed on new technology and methods.

  • Provide support: Sometimes just supporting an individual contributor by way of testing or documenting or clean up, can add a lot of value and help you learn.

  • Work on essential but non-critical tasks: All projects have essential tasks that must get done. Some of those tasks can be mundane or even boring. As a new contributor, you can add a lot of value and learn by taking on these tasks.

  • Contribute to Open Source: Open source projects are wonderful ways to both give back and show that you can still do stuff.

  • Volunteer: Similar to open source but maybe at a non-profit that needs certain services. Non-profits are forgiving when it comes to volunteers and the experience will not only help them but you as well.

Making the switch to contributor takes more time than moving to management because of the ability to get work done. You will not be as efficient as someone who is doing the work day in and day out. Keep this in mind when you start to feel the frustration that you are not as efficient as you used to be.

Leveraging Legacy Knowledge

At some point, we all did some sort of individual contributor work. This knowledge may be 20 years old but the fundamentals can always be applied to even the most exotic technology or situation. The trick with leveraging your past knowledge is to use as a foundation not as the endpoint. Try and put whatever new you are learning into the context of something you already know. For example, if you used to write software code 20 years ago, consider that you still have to compile code, debug it and create functions to achieve results. Sure, the entire object oriented, multi-tasking, threaded stuff is all new but fundamentally, software engineers still write code, compile it, debug and repeat until they get the desired function. If you could learn Fortran then chances are Python, Java or C++ will come in time. Even architecting a solution has not changed much. There’s the inputs, outputs, dependencies, specifications and performance criteria. This applies to other professions as well. The skills may be rusty but they were sharp at one point and that knowledge base can be used to regroup and become a contributor once again.

Convincing Others You Can Still Do Work

Contributors tend to fear mangers. For some reason, they think that if a former manager is hired as a contributor, that they will have to do less work or end up managing them. Anxiety like this is rational and must be dealt with by showing and doing rather than talking. The best way to deal with this is to show them you can do the work. Talk only gets you so far. Get out there and do something you can point too. By doing, you quickly overcome the skepticism that you are just another dud buying time till the next management gig. If you can’t point to something you have done, then describe in detail what you have done and why you want to go back to doing. It’s important that your new colleagues trust that you will contribute to the group and not just boss them around.

Dealing With Your Own Performance Anxiety

Doing is hard. Management is also hard but in a different way. The actual doing of work will cause you sleepless nights wondering why on earth did I switch back. Embrace this anxiety. Use it to challenge yourself to do better. It’s perfectly natural to feel stressed out that you are not getting up to speed faster, contributing more, being more productive or solving complex problems. As time goes on, you will get the hang of it and your performance will improve. Just be honest with yourself and your new boss about what you can and can’t do. Ask for help if you need it and try as hard as you can to contribute. Pressuring ourselves to perform is healthy until it starts to make you loose sleep. Rather than descend into a emotional mess, relax and set micro-goals for yourself. That way, you can celebrate the small wins. This will build up your confidence and reduce your anxiety.

Leveraging Your Management Skills

The nice thing about management skills is that even an individual contributor needs some management knowledge to be successful. For the manager turned contributor, this is where you can really shine. Your new team and job will heavily leverage your management knowledge even if you are not considered a manager. A couple of management skills that find direct applications to an individual contributor role include:

  • Organizational skills: Being organized is paramount to being successful. As a contributor, the more organized you are, the less your boss will worry about you.

  • Status reporting: As a boss, you remember how you liked clean, crisp status reports that were actionable. That knowledge as a contributor is golden since your new boss wants just want you wanted — clear, actionable status reports.

  • Strategic thinking: Understanding the big picture is a skill that most contributors don’t exercise enough. As a former manager, you know the value of strategic thinking and can use that to help your new group succeed.

  • Knowing what the boss is really saying: Boss speak can sometimes to hard to understand. Luckily, you are fluent in it and this is a big asset when things start to get stressful or tasks need to get done fast.

  • Understanding management pressures: Managers are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Being aware of these pressures will allow you to help you boss instead of adding to them.

  • Mentoring fellow workers: As a former leader, your insights will be sought after by your colleagues. Use these opportunities to teach, mentor and coach them. They will appreciate and respect this.

  • Helping your boss: Sometimes your boss will need help on some management task. It may be a schedule, budget or presentation. Having you around will allow your boss to bounce ideas around and have you give your valuable managerial input.

  • Be the employee you want to manage: All managers know who there star employees are and who are the real pains. This insider knowledge will allow you to be the employee you wanted to manage. Doing this will also reduce some of the management burden that your new boss may feel.

Remember that self-management as an individual contributor will help you boss immensely. Just remember that she is the boss and not you. Strive to support, not dominate, your boss and group. This will sometimes be a challenge since the desire to manage a situation is hard to control. If you do step out of bounds, quickly apologize and move on.

Setting A Positive Tone

There will be times where you will be lost, feel alone and question your decision to take on an individual contributor roll. Fret not. As long as you have a positive attitude, want to learn, get things done and contribute to the team, you will be fine. Your boss knows that it will take some time to get you to a level where you contribute like everyone else. She hired you knowing that and will continue to support you as long as you are making progress.

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