Friday, August 9, 2019

From Individual Contributors to Collaborative Learners

Look at any career ladder model out there, and you see some form of two tracks that run deep in our industry: the individual contributors and the managers.

Managers are the people who amplify or enable other people. Individual contributors are the one who do the work of creating.

The ideas of needing a manager run deep in our rhetorics. Someone needs to be responsible - like we all weren't. Someone needs to lead - like we all didn't. Someone needs to decide - like we all were not cut out for it. And my biggest pet peeve of all: Someone needs to ensure career growth - like our own careers were not things we own and work on. Like we needed a specially assigned role for that, instead of realizing that we learn well peer to peer as long as kindness and empathy are in place.

For years, I was a tester not a manager. And this was important to me. And in my role as a feedback fairy, I came to realize that as an individual contributor, there was always a balance of two forms of value I would generate.
With some of my actions, I was productive. I was performing tasks, that contributed directly to getting the work done. With some of my actions, I was generative. I was doing things that ended up making other people more productive.

One of my favorite ways of contributing became holding space for testing to happen. Just a look at me, and some of my developer colleagues transformed into great testers. I loved testing (still do) and radiated the idea that spending time on testing was a worthwhile way of using one's time.

As an individual contributor, I learned that:

  • My career was too valuable to be left on the whims of a random manager
  • Managing up was necessary as an individual contributor so that random managers would be of help, not of hindrance
  • Seeking inspiration from peers and sharing that inspiration helped us all grow further
  • The manager was often the person least in position to enable me to learn

In most perspectives, it became irrelevant who was an individual contributor and who was a manager. The worst organizations were the ones that made an effort to keep those two separate by denying me work I needed to make the impact I was after as a tester because that work belonged to manager.


Any of the impactful senior individual contributors were more of connected contributors - working with other folks to create systems that were too big for one person alone.

As I grow in career age, I realize that the nature of software creation is not a series of tasks of execution but a sequence of learning. Learning isn't passed in handoffs, with a specialist doing their bit telling others to take it from there. Learning is something each and every one of us chipped away a layer at a time, and it takes time for things to sink in to an actionable level. Instead of individual contributors, we're collaborative learners.


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