Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On the Virtues of Being an Individual Contributor!

My Previous Role...

Eight months ago, I left a leadership position in Information Technology at GE Healthcare and took a new role as an "individual contributor" on the Enterprise Architecture Team, also within Information Technology.  I had reached my bullshit limit, the tank was full and it was time to figure out how to empty it out.

My former title was Director, Global IT Operations.  My new title is Principal Technologist, Managed Solutions / ASP.  I moved from the management career track to the technical career track, and I've never been happier.  My passion at work is not Powerpoint or meetings or awards or any of that crap.  It's problem solving.  It's helping the business succeed with new opportunities and ideas.  So much of my creativity was stifled by the managerial straitjacket that you're forced to wear, especially in big companies.

"Let me tell you something about TPS reports..."

My New Role!

Yes, I did get the memo.  Yes I read it.  And frankly, I stopped giving a shit.  As the Director of Operations, I was, quite literally, on-call 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week, 52 weeks-a-year.  I did that job for three years before I realized how miserable I was.  Worse yet, how miserable I was making my wife, my friends, colleagues and co-workers.  And my employees were miserable too.  I stopped caring about them a good 6 months before I finally switched jobs.  And that was totally unfair to them.  Fortunately, they have a new manager who's totally into the role (although she is starting to show cracks in her plaster too, it's a very, very hard job).

I learned early on in my career as a manager / director is that people really are different.  They each require a different mix of hands-on / hands-off management.  It became increasingly tiresome to try and balance the needs of each individual against the needs of the team.  I'm much more comfortable with the self-directed employees who are given long-term goals and let go to work their way to the solution.  Unfortunately, those employees are few and far between.  In my experience, it's about 1 in 15 employees who are able to work this way.

One approach I've seen my colleagues use is the "I don't care, get it done" style of management.  This is a favorite among type-A hyper achievers who step on people on their way up the corporate ladder.  Personally, I can't work that way (as much as I might want to).  The other approach is "super-nanny," always protecting the employees from the evil executives and nefarious customers.  Unfortunately, I can't work that way, either.  Throughout my career as a manager / director, I tried to strike a balance somewhere between the two and was constantly getting dinged from below and above for not setting / meeting expectations.  Driving down the middle of the road can get you killed.

Clearly, I was doing it wrong.  And I was miserable.

So I sat down with Amy and we talked.  And I realized that what made her job (as a social worker) so successful was that she had a legally binding negotiated relationship with her employer.  She's an AFSCME member and her role is defined by a contract.  Mine was not.  It was very "fuzzy."  I was expected to do what I was expected to do, even if I didn't know what that was.  And I was "measured" on these fuzzy requirements.  As everyone should know, fuzzy and contract make for a combustable mixture.  After 5 years of getting dinged for things I could not anticipate or control, I needed a change.  I needed a role that would allow me to clearly demarcate the boundaries of my own job with clear, concise measures of success.

Luckily, I have a very good relationship with the executive who runs my department.  Working for him directly gave me the opportunity to "create" my own job.  He recognized my situation was untenable and he was remarkably sympathetic.  Although the process took longer than I wanted it to, once the transition was complete, my working relationship with him and with my colleagues became infinately better.  I was no longer a miserable manager, I was a happy individual contributor (albeit a senior one).

20 things that are awesome about being an reborn individual contributor:
  1. No employees to manage
  2. No performance reviews to write
  3. No performance reviews to deliver
  4. No senior staff meetings
  5. No staff meetings of my own (I have no staff!)
  6. NO STAFF!
  7. 95% reduction in time spent doing Powerpoint
  8. 50% increase in time spent in Excel doing actual analysis of data
  9. I get to spend lots of time with product development teams
  10. People listen to what I have to say about technology
  11. I got a Mac
  12. I got an iPad
  13. My relationship with my old boss (the CTO) is much improved
  14. My new boss is awesome
  15. No more on-call duty
  16. I don't have to manage projects
  17. I get kudos for doing things I love doing
  18. I don't have to fire people -and-
  19. I don't have to lay people off (yes, there's a difference)
  20. Working from home
Things I miss about being a manager
  1. The inside management gossip track
My transition from manager to individual contributor was much easier than I expected.  I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that what I'm doing now has a direct impact on the quality of care patients receive at our customer's facilities.  I truly love what I'm doing now.

So when I look back on my own career, I can, hopefully, provide guidance to the younger folks coming into Information Technology and Engineering.  Follow your passion and the success will come.


  1. I'm very envious of you. I'm in a entry-level management role right now and I would love to go into an individual contributor role. It's not that I hate being a manager. It's more that I miss programming and doing problem solving on bugs and the management role now gets in the way of that. Unfortunately, I may have to take a pay cut as jobs at the same level are few and far between at my company. Did you have to take a pay cut?

    1. Because it was a senior technology role at the same band level, I didn't have to take a pay cut. So I was lucky in that.