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The career progression ladder problem with choosing EM vs IC track in engineering
How the culture of perceived (and actual) growth opportunities in engineering management makes our tech industry lose great individual contributors
A dynamic that I have seen often in US/EU tech companies (which we look up to an admire as pioneers) but absolutely doesn't exist in Indian tech startups is -
Engineering Managers having teams with the most senior ICs being paid more than them.
This automatically means, the EM track, compensation wise is a few standard deviations above the IC track.
Which ofcourse means, the IC track has a ceiling, and people who get there, move out of your company (the ones who do not want to become an EM)
There are multiple org-level as well as individual-level toxic fallout of this dynamic.
At an org-level, because this is the dynamic you have seen, grown with, and understand, you tend to always try to make your most solid IC a Team Lead, and then am EM, regardless of ...
... whether or not they would make good people managers, or even if they are inclined to
At an-individual level, some of your senior ICs, even if they were honest to themselves, do not want to become an EM, grudgingly move over to this track, knowing that's the only way to 💰💰
At a team-dynamic level, again because this culture keeps getting ingrained, and this is the only dynamic folks have seen - another toxic fallout happens
EMs doing appraisals of their own team members, get uncomfortable when they have to bring an ICs comp near their own
That's more of a basic human psychology thing. I have worked with EMs who have been trained, coached, and structurally supported to get over this bias.
I have seen EM with $150K, go to bat for, and carve out budget to pay their lead $200K (up from $180K)
This is not something, someone new to management will innately get. And here in our tech industry, EMs get 0 coaching, ofcourse.
Bumping someone's comp to above your own, if the only thing you've seen in life is comps follow reporting structure hierarchy.
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Yet another fallout of this dynamic is developing flab in EM/PM layer.
Often, as a result of the above dynamics, some of your mission-critical ICs will go to CTO/Founder, negotiate a do-or-I-leave comp ⬆️ directly, because of course, they're burnt with the other above fallouts
Since that turns into a non-negotiable situation, it has to be followed through, but to keep the rest of 'hierarchy' in balance, EMs (and surprisingly enough, recently PMs) also get across-the-board comp boosts so the original dynamic of managers earning more remain
These comps now are more for 'hierarchical parity' rather than anything to do with perf/responsibility/actual work parity.
When the FY closes and your CFO asks why the salary sheets are starting to look so lopsided, you start seeing news articles of PM layoffs at startups 🤷🏻♂️
The hard truth is - if we want to evolve as better engineering organisations, these dynamics need to go away.
It is like losing all your your top research scientists at an R&D firm just because your want the manager of the Lab to be the salary cap for everyone working in lab.
The solutions are pretty much looking right up at your face too.
There is enough literature out there from top tech companies who have public docs on what their engineering ladders (IC, EM both) look like, what expectations are, and what comps are.
There's enough data available on places like levels.fyi for comps, and progression.fyi on detailed career ladders with role descriptions, expectations - all the info you need to design a proper ladder.
The only real effort you'll need to do is invest into coaching EMs.
Engineering Management, done the right way (not just a tech lead + HR interface for other engineers) is a lot of project management, and a LOT like running a funded SaaS startup.
You eke out a budget (your VC funding), and you deliver SaaS product to clients (biz/prod teams).
Quick detour: Don't take that ^ 100% in letter (but in spirit). Because in product engineering teams, the engineers should not 'provide services', they should totally be involved in conceptualizing the products too.
But the dynamics of funding and clients are there.
Anyway coming back, that means you are like startup founder, who has a budget, has to deliver products, in the best possible way.
If part of your budget is best used on hiring a top-dog IC as the lynchpin of the team, you need to invest into that.
That has no bearing on what your salary is. Instead, when what you set out to build, gets built, those who need to use it, appreciate it, and your team feels they have grown while building it - you succeeded and you use that as metric to negotiate your own comp.
But your IC salaries is cost-of-production. Much like AWS, Slack, JIRA, Github bills. Whatever you need to do to build what you have been asked to build
This is business administration. This is economics. This is project-management
EMs have to be coached this. Isn't intrinsic knowledge