I wish I could tell you that I had a flowchart to show you precisely when you should switch to management. There’s no simple answer — in my career, I’ve transitioned between roles as an individual contributor (IC) and a manager four — four! — times. Yep, that’s IC to management to IC to management to IC. (Let’s just say that it’s been a fun 12 years. 😅) But maybe my path — the why, the how, and the “aha!” moments — can help you make sense of your own.
I was just a couple years out of school working as a UI Developer when I was offered the opportunity to manage half of my team. I was enormously excited about it, but I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t also terrified at the thought of having half a dozen of my teammates, many with more experience than me, reporting to me. What could I teach them? Will they even respect me? Will they all just quit? What if they ask me something I don’t know the answer to? These were just a few of the questions that would run through my mind on a daily basis.
But after the first couple of months, I realized that I had the interpersonal skills to ensure the health of my team. They felt heard. They worked on exciting projects. They were happy. And they were not planning on all quitting the same day. I was relieved.
Still, I knew I hadn’t been able to grow their skills or offer advice based on my experience the way I had hoped to. I had the soft skills to manage a team, but lacked the hard skills to grow the careers of the individual members of the team. I felt like the parent who steps up to coach the Li’l Kickers soccer practice: I was just there to ensure no one got hurt and everyone was having a good time.
As you consider the appropriate time to switch to management, ask yourself this: Would I be able to raise the quality bar for the team?
As you consider the appropriate time to switch to management, ask yourself this: Would I be able to raise the quality bar for the team? Do I have the experience that, when combined with their potential, will help them become more successful than you? At the time, my answer was no, so I decided to move back into an IC role.
Getting back into the work was fresh and exciting, and I felt right at home. I continued learning, growing, and fine-tuning my design craft without a single thought about going back to management. I fully committed to growing myself into a well-rounded product designer, taking jobs at companies like Palm, Beats Music, Apple, and Uber. It was at the latter—after eight years of designing and shipping experiences—where I finally started thinking again about management.
When I reflected on the moments in my career that I’d enjoyed the most, a common theme emerged: I liked leading a group of designers through mentorship and fostering genuine relationships. At Uber, I had been volunteering as an intern mentor every summer; it brought me immense joy to teach, share stories, and support junior designers as they grew. My manager at the time found an opportunity for me to transition to management with a small team.
Just like when I returned to designing after my first management role, being a manager again felt fresh, exciting, and comfortable. This time around, I asked myself a different set of questions: What type of manager do I want to be? How can I maximize my team’s efforts when they work together? And most importantly, Am I getting more satisfaction out of supporting someone else’s success than I would be producing something myself? My answer—at this point, anyway—was a resounding yes.
Now let’s explore the second part of your question. Sure, you might regret staying on the IC path as you advance your career. But if you do, it probably won’t be for the reasons you think.
Two main reasons people switch into management (and probably why you’re considering it now!): the money and the title. It’s true, managers can get paid more, and they might have more prestigious titles. But these days, more and more companies are creating parallel IC and management tracks. They recognize that not everyone wants to be a manager — and more importantly, not everyone should be a manager. When compensation and recognition are removed from the equation, I’ve seen this approach allow ICs to continue to flourish without the pressure of leadership, leaving the management track open for people who want to switch because they actually want to manage.
Think of your career as a book. When do you want to write the next chapter? Will this chapter be focused on building products or building people?
People also sometimes move into management roles too early because they worry that staying on the IC track too long could mean getting overlooked for management opportunities down the line. But as someone who has gone through the transition at different companies, I can tell you that while higher-level ICs and managers tackle different kinds of problems, both leverage creative problem solving — they just focus on different users. Even if you stay on the IC track, you’re still gaining extremely valuable experience in solving problems and building relationships. When you’re ready to make the switch, even if it’s down the line, you’ll still have gained the skills and experience necessary to be an effective manager—the ICs you manage may even appreciate your insight all the more because you spent more time in their shoes..
Think of your career as a book. When do you want to write the next chapter? Will this chapter be focused on building products or building people? (It could be both, if you get an opportunity for a hybrid role — I’ve done this and it’s hard!) Reflect on the moments in your personal and professional life where you had immense joy. What were you doing? Who were you doing it with? And remember, it’s okay to change your mind. I’ll leave you with a line from one of my son’s favorite books: If you make a wrong turn, circle back. 😊
Additional Resources (I’ve personally found helpful):
The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo
Design Leadership Fundamentals workshop through Design Dept
Adil Dhanani is a Staff Product Designer at Slack and a proud dad of two toddlers. He’s previously designed products at Uber, Apple, Beats Music, and Palm/HP.