The Rise of the Individual Contributor

Leigh Kellogg
4 min readFeb 21, 2023


Edvard Alexander Rølvaag

A recent CareerBuilder study found that 6 in 10 managers never receive proper management training. They were promoted because they were good at their job, and the next step was to give them a managerial role. Unfortunately, this creates a problem I call the “manager craft gap”. As more and more employees and especially those with niche and specialized skill sets are promoted out of their day to day craft, many who excelled there are forced into new management and bureaucratic territories. For some this new splintering of responsibility lacks the same purpose once held before. And for many companies this leads to a tangled web of managers, many without the proper training or natural ability.

But for as long as I’ve been working (nearly 20 years now), I’ve been taught that growth and career progression were synonymous with “management.” It was assumed that as you grew in your career you became a manager and that your new craft became managing the people doing your old craft. But herein lies a critical problem. When managers lose daily access to performing their craft, they experience skills atrophy. Making time to educate themselves and keep up with the shifting nature of any industry takes time and intentionality. Usually this is deprioritized.

I see this realization happening in the tech industry although it’s not being discussed like this. When Elon Musk took over Twitter, he asked why 50% of the engineering team hadn’t touched code in over 6 months. Apparently Twitter’s culture was one where managers weren’t expected to touch the work. This isn’t abnormal. As he’s cut significant portions of the staff the platform is still up and running. This was surprising to many. And now, other companies like Meta, Salesforce, and Amazon are making similar cuts. And while I do think a large portion of the layoffs are driven by pandemic over hiring, I think another reason for this is the “manager craft gap” I called out above. We are simply creating too many layers of managers in companies and eventually this leads to necessary streamlining.

In practice, this looks like people managing people managing people managing people doing the work. It’s a waterfall of delegation and that can get really messy. In some instances, provocative shifts are happening where companies are hiring AIs to do the craft at the bottom tiers of the workplace. But even still, this requires managerial craft expertise to guide the AIs. Hmm.. I see a long term problem here.

So what’s the solution?

  1. Identify Your ICs

Companies should be evaluating employees and identifying who wants to grow through the path of management and who wants to grow as an individual contributor or an IC. IC’s are employees that don’t manage but contribute to organizational goals and objectives. Oftentimes, they help drive key business initiatives including innovation. In any company, these kinds of workers should be afforded the same growth and opportunities as managers.

When ICs are placed into managerial roles, they are expected to continue to innovate and execute as they did when they were in their non managerial role. But managing operations puts such a squeeze on them that company leadership begins to look at this innovation and execution deficit as a new gap despite their ability. It’s really a matter of time and focus.

For me, this IC realization culminated in 2019 where for a year of my career I stepped in to manage a large team of analysts (about 25) across several analytics disciplines and across two different offices. I’ll tell you right now that it was a taxing year. I found myself drowning in org charts and scoping conversations desperately craving the connection to the craft and innovation I no longer had time for. I realized 15 years into my career, that being an IC made me infinitely happier than being a manager.

2. Set A Growth Path For ICs At Your Company

Taking a step back, there are natural solutions here. A path could look like owning and building toward specific company goals like productization or growing emerging markets. The possibilities are endless. Their personal success metrics should be tied to hitting these company wide goals and they should provide role guidance and purpose.

Create a network of IC’s at your company and provide ways for them to collaborate together. They shouldn’t be working in isolation. Many individual contributors are natural mentors and thought leaders and really enjoy working and collaborating with others.

3. Identify Other Streams of ICs to Support Your Needs

One of the greatest parts of the last few years during the pandemic was the rise of freelancing. More and more employees found themselves craving more flexibility and autonomy. This has created massive opportunities for ICs.

And the freelance economy is ripe with talent right now. In fact, 36% of Americans performed freelance work in 2021. This is a vast pool of IC talent waiting to be leveraged. This network can function as a cost effective solution that helps meet critical business needs and supplements a cramped market when many companies are downsizing and current employees are feeling the squeeze.

Management Isn’t Always Leadership

It’s important to reset how we think about growth and advancement alongside employee skill sets and desires. As with most things, how we’ve always done it isn’t always the way we should keep doing it. As it relates to employees with nuanced and specialized skill sets that aren’t impassioned by management, we should take stock and make sure that these folks are getting what they need. It will help your business in the long run. And remember that management isn’t the same thing as leadership. These are brilliant minds, makers, thinkers, and builders. They just may not be likely to shout it from the rooftops.

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Leigh Kellogg

Passions include momming, learning, making, and writing. Life motto: Question everything. Website: Social: