Always be an individual contributor as well

Most of the entrepreneurs I meet and share thoughts with, tend not to be engineers. Or at least not practicing developers, marketers, sales people or business development individuals. This is consistent with the anatomy of the Indian technology entrepreneur, who is typically male, between the ages of 29 and 40, has about 2-10+ years of experience and had been an individual contributor “several years ago”.

I read the quotes by multiple folks in the piece shelf life of an engineer in technology . They consistent theme is one of constant learning, which most of us are probably aware of. Ignore the age bias that’s blatantly obvious in the piece for a few minutes, which is what most of the 250+ comments are focused on.

Two things stand out: (1) Ferose’s quote on “I can’t be just a manager, I have to be technically hands-on.” and

Ravi ” In the first five years, the employee is a technical contributor. In the next five, he or she moves on to become a team leader or an architect , understanding the P&L (profit & loss) requirements of the company. Subsequently , the employee takes on much stronger leadership responsibilities”.

From what I have learned, there’ no choice but for every level of individual to be “hands-on” and play the role of an individual contributor as well at a startup.

If you are an engineer, you cant just be focused on hiring and managing your engineering team (however small or large it is). You have to pick up a few pieces of the puzzle and solve them yourself. Which might mean deploying, developing and shipping parts of your software.

If you are a marketer, then not copy writing or doing your own SEO, or running your ad campaigns is a disaster in the making.

If you are a sales person, and if you are not doing cold calls or opening new doors to customers each week, you will find it extremely hard to direct and motivate the team.

Most founders who come from larger companies have not been been doing any individual contributor roles for several years. So the reorientation is very hard on them. They find it hard to do things they did a few years ago and since in most every area the specifics have changed so dramatically over the last few years, the adjustments are hard.

The best way to do this is to keep 30% of your time each week to have a personal accomplishment.

What I have found is the the FIRST thing I do each Monday on my weekly to-do list is to identify one deliverable that I will work on to complete without anyone else’s help.

Over the last few weeks  it was working on website copy and mockups for the new design. Over the next few weeks it is cold calling multiple prospects for making some inroads for a few of our startups. The weeks of Dec 15-30 is mostly going to be spent on writing new pieces of our Borg’s UI using Twitter bootstrap (which is surprisingly easy to pickup).

So on your quest to be a leader and entrepreneur dont forget to be a doer as well.

9 thoughts on “Always be an individual contributor as well”

  1. Your example though centered on IT/start-ups is equally true for established 20th century industries, unfortunately in lot of these “well established” companies growth is stunted when the management is disengaged from the real work to be done to achieve the growth as they have no have no clue on what it takes. You always know the managers who know their “sh*t” vs. others.Typically they are the ones familiar with the ground/skunk work, unfortunately they always are the one who get sidelined due to politics etc, I guess in start-ups/IT due the lean nature of the organization individual performance has a higher probability to lead to organization success and also the individual gets rewarded/recognized, at least I hope so!

  2. Very True. I see good value for founder being individual contributor. I work 1st half in most of the days out of home and mainly to spend time in coding or reviewing code; this helped me in contributing meaningfully to …

    BTW Mukund, the old wordpress theme was better 🙂

  3. I would say the top reasons for being hands-on in a start-up tech firm are:
    * De-risking
    * Excuse elimination

    Seeing the founders be hands-on also motivates the team to have the right mind-set. Engineering folks don’t start thinking on the lines :”I should be managing others now that I am 2 years into the organization”. Instead they think: “Wow. The founder is still coding! This is how I want to be!”

  4. Absolutely. Founder must be hands on in any activity. Individual contribution is a must and only then you can lead by example. Only Managing people is job of manager not of an entrepreneur.

  5. Couldn’t agree more!

    One more benefit of being an IC is the confidence it gives + the team around also looks upto you with more respect as they know/see you as a hands on person. The team also raises it’s performance bar as the IC is all about performance and this rubs off on the team as well.

    So, it’s a win-win situation by being a solid IC — both for you personally, as a manager, your team & their own growth.

  6. Agree but be careful of a few things (software tech specific atleast) :
    – You are not a bottleneck. Do not take the most crucial juicy part of the project / product. You will have conflicting priorities.
    – But at the same time it has to be meaningful – code reviews, testing, detail design reviews.
    – Ensure you are and known to be available as the help of last resort in your area of expertise. Demonstrate that strength about once or twice a month.

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