A Manager’s Incentives

Last Friday, I had a random coffee chat at work with an engineering lead (meaning they are a manager of managers). I regularly do these chats because I enjoy meeting new colleagues and learning about their work. But I got an unexpectedly profound insight into how a manager differs from an IC.

“ICs grow upwards, but managers grow downwards,” he said. He explained that an engineer grows by generalizing their work. They’d start by building a custom UI component, then create a shared component library for their team, and, eventually, tackle how UIs built in the industry (not everyone gets here).

On the contrary, a manager grows by going deeper into their domains. As their team proves its impact, the team will get more investments. Once their team grows enough to warrant a split, the manager can then add more layers and headcounts under them. This is a typical pattern at fast-growing companies. He said it is unusual for a manager to grow by inheriting new domains unless their own manager somehow leaves.

There is another important distinction, according to him. A feedback cycle for a manager is longer and less direct than that for an IC, which means that a manager’s org size is often deemed as a proxy to their scope and impact. Thus, while an IC has the incentives to collaborate on the most impactful projects, a manager has the incentives to protect their headcounts regardless of actual impact.

I didn’t fully agree with his second point because an engineer is often incentivized to take on the most visible project/role instead of the most impactful, and because a manager can work on impactful projects outside their organization. But both his points gave me a new perspective on the darkside into which other managers and I could fall.

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