Contrary to popular belief, becoming an engineering manager is not just a higher-level version of being an independent contributor, a default step to transition to management, or an easier path to advancement. It requires a distinct mindset, a unique leadership skill set, and commitment. It’s a responsibility that demands careful consideration, as it entails navigating more complex challenges, and not everyone is cut out for this type of work, even if they aspire to it.
In this article, we will compare individual contributor vs. engineer manager roles, explore their differences, and discuss what factors to consider when deciding which role is right for you.
What Are the Differences Between an Engineer Manager and an Individual Contributor?
While both individual contributors (ICs) and engineering managers (EMs) play important roles in the success of engineering projects, their responsibilities and focus differ significantly.
We outline below the key differences between these two roles.
Nature of work
- Engineering managers: EMs have a mix of technical leadership and project management skills. This means they are responsible for technical guidance, conducting code reviews, and coaching team members on new technologies. They may also be responsible for hiring new team members, making technical decisions, acting as servant leaders to the ICs on their team, and implementing agile methodologies.
- Individual contributors: In contrast, ICs are responsible for hands-on development or engineering tasks and are usually not decision-makers in the team. They may be given a set of guidelines or specific tasks to follow and may collaborate with other ICs or managers to achieve their goals. Examples of IC roles in the engineering field include senior software engineer, front-end developer, back-end developer, systems analyst, DevOps engineer, data scientist, and UX/UI designer.
- Engineering manager: EMs must possess a technical background and leadership and organizational skills to manage team dynamics and ensure that all members work effectively toward common goals. EMs have most likely acted as technical leaders or managers before and developed project management, conflict resolution, and communication skills. They are proactive problem-solvers who can think on their feet, making decisions quickly and confidently without guidance.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Being an Engineer Manager vs. An Individual Contributor?
According to a recent report, only about one-third of engineers said they wanted to advance to a managerial role rather than remain an individual contributor, demonstrating that it’s not for everyone. As with most things, both positions have pros and cons, so neither is an obvious better choice.
We outline below the pros and cons of both roles.
Engineering manager role
- Technical leadership. EMs are highly experienced with deep expertise in their field. They get to use their knowledge to act as technical leaders for their teams, guiding and mentoring less experienced individual contributors. They also provide valuable support and opportunities for skill development, helping team members improve their technical skills, which can lead to job satisfaction.
- Higher compensation. The salary is usually higher than ICs due to the additional responsibilities, leadership skills, and expertise required for the role.
- Disconnection from hands-on coding. The role requires allocating more time and energy toward strategic planning, team coordination, and decision-making rather than writing code directly, which may lead to a decrease in their technical skills over time.
- Limited knowledge of the latest technologies. EMs who have been in management positions for a long time may not have the same level of familiarity with the latest versions of programming languages, frameworks, or emerging technologies as ICs. Their focus shifts toward managing people, processes, and projects, which may result in a lack of exposure to the cutting-edge tools and technologies that individual contributors actively work with.
Individual contributor role
- Hands-on technical roles. ICs can focus on the technical aspect of the job and are responsible for designing, developing, testing, and maintaining code. They have the opportunity to work on complex technical problems and create innovative solutions, which many may find rewarding.
- There are senior or junior roles. Depending on the technical aspects and requirements of the job, as well as the company’s budget, ICs can be hired at a senior or junior level. This provides opportunities for individuals with varying levels of experience and programming skills to join the company and contribute to its success.
- 9 to 5 hours. ICs typically work during regular business hours and don’t have to work overtime unless there are pressing deadlines or urgent issues to address.
- Additional training or guidance. IC roles often focus on technical expertise, which means there may be fewer opportunities to develop or showcase non-technical skills such as leadership, project management, or stakeholder communication. This means that they may need additional training or guidance from senior employees or those in a management position, which can take up valuable time and resources and slow down the development process.
How To Decide if You Should Be an Engineering Manager or an Individual Contributor?
Deciding between an engineering manager or an individual contributor role can be daunting. Consider these key factors when making your decision:
Amount of experience
For an engineering manager, most companies will want to see previous experience in leading a team, but this doesn’t mean you have to have held an official managerial role before. They will also usually be looking for a career track record of 7–8 years in the industry.
These prerequisites ensure candidates have gained comprehensive technical expertise and a deep understanding of industry dynamics before taking on managerial responsibilities. If you lack this kind of experience, you may need to pursue an individual contributor role initially to gain the required skills and leadership acumen.
If you are aspiring to become an engineering manager, you must enjoy leading a team and making technical decisions that impact the success of the project and the company. This means guiding and coaching team members toward achieving technical goals and project deliverables, including solving more complex problems, doing performance reviews, providing constructive feedback, and putting out fires.
You will also need to coordinate with other stakeholders, including executives, project managers, and other teams, to ensure the teams’ work and tasks align with the overall company and team goals.
The EM role is not the type of role where you can work 9 to 5 and then log off. So you will also need to be available outside of working hours in case of emergencies.
(If you’re looking for EM or IC roles, consult this list of firms specializing in the software engineering industry.)
While a strong technical background is still valuable, engineering managers focus more on overseeing and guiding technical aspects of projects and people management rather than hands-on coding. They still have opportunities to contribute to technical discussions and help guide team members on technical decisions; however, if you prefer to focus exclusively on coding and technical work, a senior individual contributor role might be a better fit.
Engineering managers typically enjoy higher salaries compared to individual contributors. This is primarily due to the increased responsibility and leadership required in an EM role. According to PayScale, the average salary for engineering managers working in the US is $119,187 per year, whereas for individual contributors it is $90,753 per year.
However, it’s important to note that with higher compensation, engineering managers face more demanding responsibilities. They are accountable for team performance, project success, and stakeholder management. EMs often have to navigate challenging situations, resolve conflicts, and handle multiple priorities simultaneously. The additional workload and managerial responsibilities may require longer working hours and a higher level of commitment.
Although some candidates might prefer to chase the bigger challenges, many developers we’ve been in touch with have stepped down from management roles to pursue individual contributor roles that allow for a better work-life balance.
A fair compensation package for remote EMs or ICs will depend on many factors, such as base salary, benefits, and local taxes. If you’re a company looking for ways to come up with the right package or an employee curious about the compensation US companies might offer, you might want to check out our previous article on compensation strategies.
When deciding between an engineering manager or individual contributor role, consider factors such as your experience, leadership responsibilities, coding preferences, and salary expectations.
EMs require previous leadership experience and a willingness to manage teams and make technical decisions, while ICs can focus on technical work without the added management responsibilities. It’s also important to recognize that EM roles often come with higher salaries but also more demanding responsibilities and a potential impact on work-life balance.
Conversely, if you’re a company hiring candidates for one of these two roles, it’s essential to consider the balance between them. Hiring ICs allows you to tap into their specialized skills and benefit from their focused contributions to project execution. EMs, on the other hand, bring technical leadership and guidance to your team, ensuring the professional growth of ICs and driving the overall success of your organization.
Ultimately, the decision between ICs or EMs roles depends on the skills, interests, and long-term career objectives of an individual or a company’s specific needs, project requirements, and long-term goals.
If you’re a Latin American-based candidate wanting to get hired for one of these positions, visit Near and explore available positions today.
If you are a US business looking to hire EMs or ICs, Near can help you find highly skilled, pre-vetted candidates from Latin America. Since Latin America has lower living costs, wages are also lower (30–70% below the US market), so you can hire top engineers without breaking the bank. Simply fill out this form today to get started.