Individual Contributor vs Manager: What’s Your Preference?

In roughly 30 years of full-time employment, I have been both a manager and an individual contributor.  Through the years of experience I’ve developed my own preference, of course. While I’ve come to my own conclusion on the matter, some of you are just beginning to explore both options as possibilities. Let’s talk a little bit about what is attractive – and what is not – about both types of jobs.


What is attractive?

  • A manager title tends to carry with it an air of importance or significance in the workplace.  This is just a fact of life.  Certainly, the level of significance between managing and individually contributing has diminished over the years due to the increased importance of specialization.
  • There is much more interaction with people, whether it be the people that you manage, or with other managers.  Some may not consider this an attractive aspect of managing, but going in a manager certainly understands that this will be the case.
  • More $$$.  The pay scale, at most companies, tends to be higher for a manager.  Not always, but more often than not.
  • As a manager you can delegate responsibilities thereby displacing some of the mundane tasks that your job title entails.
  • Opportunities will exist for you to go to seminars to help make you a better manager and to develop personally.  Some of these seminars may be “Dealing with controversy”, “Time Management”, or “Effective Public Speaking”.

What is not?

  • Managers have to deal with the many personal issues related to the employees who work for them.  This could take up an exorbitant amount of time in the life of a manager.
  • Pressure.  You will be asked to give presentations at various meetings or seminars.  If you are not comfortable with public speaking this could be a major headache.
  • You will have to guide the employees that work for you to grow as effective employees.
  • As a manager, you will be responsible for annual reviews which, depending on the number of workers you have, could be a large part of your job.

Individual Contributor

What is attractive?

  • You can focus more on the job at hand without the distractions that could come with a manager’s position.
  • You are only responsible only for yourself and your own actions.
  • You can much more easily become an “expert” in a particular area at your workplace.  If you are a PC technician you can concentrate solely on that expertise.  If you are a manager of PC technicians, you may have to service computers in the event of one of your workers is on vacation.  But you won’t become an expert by constantly building, servicing, and upgrading personal computers on a regular basis.
  • If you can specialize in a particular area of expertise, such as a database administrator, your pay may match or exceed that of other managers in your company.
  • Depending on your job, it is much more probable that you are able to telecommute since you don’t have to manage people who are at the office.

What is not?

  • You may not be taken as seriously in the workplace as a manager. 
  • You cannot delegate anything you don’t want to do, to an underling.  On the other hand, your manager may delegate mundane tasks to you, leaving you less time to work on your area of expertise.
  • Your manager can dictate areas of development in which may not be interested.  Perhaps your manager wants you to handle all oral presentations for your group and you have no interest in public speaking.  You basically have no control over what your manager wants for you, even if your manager is guiding you to develop public speaking skills for selfish reasons.
  • Stuck in the office.  Managers typically have more access to travel in the workplace, whether it be to training classes, seminars, symposiums, or to sister offices.  As an individual contributor you may not have as many opportunities of getting out of the office as a manager may have.

As stated above, managing and individual contributing have their positives and their negatives.  In my own personal experience, my preference is as an individual contributor, which is my current job type.  I think the ability to become proficient in one particular area of expertise, is extremely important to me.  Today, specialization in a desired area of technology translates to job security.  As an individual contributor, I can focus.  As a manager, I always had to be aware of the people who worked for me and whether or not they were doing their jobs.  That is a responsibility that I simply did not relish.

Obviously your personality type has a lot to do with whether you will be happy in either role.  For me, there is no “individual contributor vs manager” competition.  I am happy to be responsible for myself – because I know that is one person I can always count on.

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