Manager or Individual Contributor

Are you questioning which track to take as a Product Designer - Manager or Individual Contributor (IC)? Are you managing someone who is questioning which track to take? Throughout my career, I've had to make this decision personally, as well as work with colleagues that were making this decision. I've tried to support mentees, reports, and colleagues, and let me tell you, the context surrounding the decision is never the same twice.

In an ADP List mentee session, I was asked for some support with the following situation:

[...] I've been working as both a product designer and a design manager. However, the scope of the product I'm working on is too big, and I can't work effectively with my team. As a result, I've had to cancel my 1:1 meetings with my direct reports and can't help them when they need my assistance. This situation is frustrating for me. I recently discussed this with my manager, and they asked me what my choice would be if the company gave me the opportunity to continue working as a design manager/lead or as an individual contributor/product designer.

My goal with in that meeting, and with this post is to provide, two significant pieces of information that might help with thinking through this topic.

Do Consider

Are you comfortable making decisions that directly affect people's lives?

The role of a manager varies, but one thing is clear: your decisions directly impact people's lives. You decide which projects they'll work on, their salary, and even their employment status.

Of course being a manager has its joys: helping people develop new skills, setting them up for success, and creating opportunities are just part of the fun. However, being a manager also means making tough decisions and giving feedback.

A good manager is emotionally available, able to handle difficult situations, resolve conflicts, and address issues face-to-face. If you're uncomfortable telling someone they're not performing well, reassigning them from a beloved project, or in the extreme letting them go, then being a manager may not be for you.

While I don't want to focus solely on the challenges, it's important to recognize that you can't be a good manager if you're not willing to make decisions that directly affect people's lives.

Do Not Consider

Do you love using your technical skills?

Many people claim that as a manager, you no longer need to use your technical design skills. However, it's not about using the same skills, but rather leveraging your expertise and applying your technical abilities to new areas of responsibility. Don't think of switching tracks as a waste of your acquired skills. If someone tells you that you're wasting your skills, they're only looking at the outcomes you've delivered, not considering your true potential.

Moreover, if you feel that you lack the technical skills to progress in your current track, take a moment to reflect. Are you experiencing imposter syndrome, lacking motivation, or simply not ready to invest in your career? It's alright if you're not prepared to develop new skills in your current path.

However, if that's the case, now may not be the right time to explore a new track. First, ensure that you understand what is inhibiting your desire to invest in yourself. Simply changing tracks isn't always reliable inspiration. In fact, it can often backfire and further hinder progress, as immediate wins may become even more scarce.


whether you're deciding between a Manager or Individual Contributor (IC) track or supporting someone in this decision, consider the unique context of each situation. But two things to remember; 1) if you don't want to make decisions that affect people lives directly, don't be a manager, and 2) if you're worried about wasting your technical skills, don't be.