At Meta, we’ve always viewed being an individual contributor (IC) and being a manager as 2 equally important and parallel career paths. Within our teams, it’s common for people’s career journeys to take them back and forth between managing and making, depending on what’s strengthening to each individual at a given stage of their careers. There are many ways to be a leader and to influence the direction of product teams — without having to directly manage people to do it. In fact, many of our most senior design leaders use the word “director” in their titles, but they do not manage people. Yet we know from internal research that our senior individual contributors sometimes think the only way to advance is to take on management responsibilities.
To help debunk this myth, we gathered together a panel of senior design leaders from across our company to talk about how they’ve navigated their careers and found success and growth as individual contributors. What follows is a slightly edited and condensed version of our conversation. Panelists included:
Erin S., Content Design Director for Portal
Austin C., Product Design Director working on experiences that span Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp
Holly H., Product Design Director working on privacy experiences
Laura J., Product Design Director on Instagram
We wanted to share the conversation to spark inspiration for more people pursuing career growth as experienced individual contributors.
Now, on to the first question I posed to our panelists.
Leading as an individual contributor is about setting the foundation and working to improve a product and practice for a team. I learned this, in part, through switching from being a manager to being an IC. During a career conversation with my manager, I was asked if I was interested in becoming an IC. I initially thought: “No, I’m not. That’s a failure.” There is a misconception that if you go from managing to simply contributing, you’re dropping down or you’re giving up.
However, upon reflection, I determined I was most energized as a product leader, not as a people manager. So I moved over to the Meta Portal team and became the first content designer on that team. My leadership style is informed by the UX lead role I had at a few digital agencies before joining Meta. I applied what I learned from that world to my work on Meta Portal: thinking through design principles, setting expectations and establishing the fundamental content design. In addition, as an IC leader, part of what you contribute is opening doors for other team members in your practice, whether it’s helping to increase the impact of your team or by mentoring and making the case for more discipline-specific roles.
There are parallel career paths because we need leadership in product thinking and design execution, which is different from managing people. I’ve found myself really happy at Meta because I’ve realized that my best strengths are not on the management side. So, my short answer on what it means to lead as an IC is to partner with a good manager and help them build teams, all while leading the work. Doing this lets you focus on the juicy design stuff.
I ground my leadership in making and doing. I operate in the weeds, understanding how things actually work, because that’s where I can focus. I’ve seen that as a manager grows, they become more distant from what they’re actually doing, day-to-day. As an IC, I can continue to stay close to the work and evolve it. I don’t necessarily have to do all of the work, but being familiar with all of the projects, the problems and the processes, I can make connections across different projects or problem spaces.
Over the years, we’ve had this saying at Meta : “Data wins arguments.” When the company was very small, we could debate in theory for a long time, but the best way of closing out an argument was to try it out and see how it worked. This proving method translates to the design space: Design artifacts also win arguments, and it’s ICs creating those artifacts. You get to “put your money where your mouth is” and try to do it better than any other company. That’s why this path has always been attractive to me. And it’s worth repeating that choosing to lead as an IC, rather than as a manager, at this company absolutely does not exclude you from working at a higher strategic level.
Do good work and be nice to the people with whom you work and repeat that for a long period of time. Think about the things that you like or love in your life like a favorite pair of jeans — there’s nothing special about them other than the fact that they’re good jeans. They fit well, they’re reliable and they are something you use every day. That’s how I think about how to progress as a teammate on all of my teams. Just do good work, be nice to people and be consistent. Then, credibility will accrue over time. There’s no need to put on a flashy hat or have some trick to show.
Get accustomed to showing whether something is working or not working. More often than not, the work I’m doing shows things not working — that helps define where we’re not supposed to go. Most of what I would count as my successes here are instances in which I’ve failed. And that’s OK because Meta values that — we just do it quickly and set the right expectations so stakeholders can anticipate the risks. But when you thoughtfully fail in front of colleagues, you show the credibility of your contribution. By starting with a small contribution and growing your impact, people begin to understand that you’re going to have something to say in the room, something they’re going to learn from. And all of a sudden you have credibility. For me, it’s all based on the work that I’m doing and the fact that I can show it off and talk about it.
In hardware, where our timelines are longer, I gain credibility through building and investing in long-term senior functional lead relationships. Gaining credibility with the larger team also means asking hard questions and connecting the dots to move faster. I often remind people of our goals by asking: “How does this ladder up to our team mission and to Meta’s overarching mission?” I may sound like a broken record, but these reminders help people work toward the right goals.
For credibility, I think you need to nail follow-through. Never underestimate the value of saying you’re going to do something and then doing it, on time, extremely well. This may sound a little impersonal, but think about yourself as an investment: You want to be the type of investment that costs the people you work with 10 percent but pays back 150 percent. If you act in this way, people will want to keep working with you. Another way to build credibility is to create a mutual understanding of what makes your team members tick. What does each discipline value at its core, and what point of view are they on the hook for representing throughout the product development process? Designers naturally feel responsible for classic craft considerations and user experience, but make sure you deeply understand and appreciate what things your partners feel responsible for. Then you can meet them where they are and work together effectively.
Within Meta, our levels are not known among colleagues until one attains director-level status. It can be particularly lonely at the level under director because you can only guess who the other few like you might be. But that knowledge depends upon the dynamics of your relationships — you can share your level with someone or not. For a while, I would only share my level if somebody shared theirs first. As a director, I feel better now that my level is public within the company, and I know who the other directors are. We can troubleshoot together and build a support network. I can ask, “What’s working for you? What obstacles do you face at this level?” It can be hard to calibrate yourself with others whose work is very different. You’re on different teams solving different problems. It can also be challenging to figure out who you want to model yourself after and how you want to grow your career. At the upper levels, you’re creating your own path. That’s why creating a community and support network of other senior ICs is essential to grow and assess your path along the way.
I’m an only child and am naturally introverted, so I’m OK with loneliness. My title and level are one of those things I don’t like saying out loud. I didn’t use my title for 2 years until another director gave me a hard time, and I switched it back. I just want to focus on the work and collaborate with all the awesome people here. So whichever team I’m on, I focus on what needs to be done and do it. My style is to think about what the team needs and try to become that thing. I don’t really think about the team’s levels or what’s involved or how to get support. I just focus on the work and relationships, and the rest tends to take care of itself.
The level issue was easier for me because I started at the company when the design team was smaller — levels were more obvious. Many of the senior ICs are scattered around (there aren’t a lot of us), so it feels like a lone-wolf place as you talk about your career. I don’t feel like that when I’m contributing to my team, but I’m constantly looking for engineers and project managers at my level because they’re closer to me than another product designer. Over time, I’ve learned to lean on my one-on-one relationships. With these people, I can share my aspirations and the way I work through regular meetups or regular coaching circles. It takes work. But it didn’t happen until I talked about it out loud. When I did, my manager told me I should talk to so-and-so because they had a similar problem. Once I embraced that, it got a little easier. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but it’s definitely less challenging than it was.
The hidden levels are a double-edged sword sometimes. On the one hand, hidden levels are great because all conversations feel more democratic and culturally make the whole company feel more “flat.” On the other hand, if you’re looking to grow in your career and you subscribe to the “if you can see it, you can be it” philosophy, it can become an opaque guessing game. About isolation: It’s been helpful in the past to gather together with people who are at the same level as you across the company on a monthly basis to just casually talk. That was invaluable to me because I think people assume that at some level you’ll magically become this influential senior personality who never feels lonely. It was great to have a totally unstructured space to say, “Are you feeling this? OK, cool, I’m feeling that, too.”
As a senior IC, a space of ambiguity emerges around how you’re perceived by other functional leads on the team. In my case, part of this confusion may be because I was a manager who transitioned to IC. What I’ve experienced is that other partners will speak to me as a manager of my function. This creates a bit of an imbalance because there are 3 other content designers who work on the team, and I am their peer in our flat structure. When you have tight relationships with senior leaders on the team, they don’t really know how to act with you as a senior IC. They’re used to working with managers, so they treat you the same way. As a result, I had to define who I was within the team as a senior IC.
A number of years ago, I was focused on the Facebook app for the Japanese market. In early research, one of our subjects told us that in their feed they saw that a friend had liked something, and that this scared them. This person was now afraid to like things because they didn’t want to burden others with having to see their preferences — that’s how culturally different Japan is. So, I tried to solve every little problem on Facebook to make it better for Japan. We ticked off one problem after another, and at one point, we were basically creating an app like Instagram within Facebook instead of acknowledging that we had an app called Instagram that worked great.
So, when I think back on the technologies that I’ve worked on that have failed, the biggest one is that we, as problem-solvers, want to get in the weeds and conquer the next thing. But occasionally we need to step back and ask, “What are we doing here? What’s the big picture?”
My challenge has been scaling myself as I’ve grown. I have only so much time to contribute to work, people, mentoring and coaching. I used to understand only one way of mentoring and coaching, but I had to grow in a different way because I couldn’t meet with 30 people in one week. Mentoring wasn’t and isn’t my full-time job, but I want to give back. So I had to figure out how to do that, and it was a challenge. When I started at Meta, the design team was much smaller, so I knew who to connect with. But often, I still felt alone, not knowing if there were other people at my level. I didn’t know who to reach out to, so I went outside of the design community to ask, “What do you do to grow in your space?” I tried out a lot of things. Honestly, I didn’t know how to prioritize career development because I’d never thought about it. I never thought of my career as a project in my portfolio, but all of a sudden, I had to — in performance reviews I was asked to explain my influence. I had to figure out a scalable way to grow. It was difficult.
Two challenges come to mind. First, I came to Meta from design school and was surrounded by amazing designers. I felt like a teenager who fell in love for the first time. “This is the project! This is my big thing! I’ve gotta put my stamp on it, and it has to be amazing!” Over time, you realize you’re going to have 50 of those projects, so don’t be emotionally precious with them. It helps you make better objective decisions. The second challenge is about making mistakes — I’ve come to learn from them and be honest about them.
To find meaty work, I talk to functional leads, prioritize with them and pass that information on to my fellow content designers. For my contribution, I hone in on the riskiest issues. With Meta Portal, I knew that privacy was going to be a big focus because of the login on Facebook and concern people would have with a camera and a microphone in their home. Another way to uncover meaty problems is by gaining credibility with senior product leaders. As a senior IC, a shortcut to this can actually be exposing your level to them so they know where you’re coming from and let you in on the product priorities. This also helps them know where you and your team fit in and gives you visibility as a senior product leader.
In design, when you dig deep into something, you only realize how complex it is over time. What sometimes looks, on the surface, to be the smallest optimization takes tons and tons of work to make simple. For example, it took months to get essentially what ended up being a single screen just right. But the entire system started out being something much, much more complicated. The meatiness was in reducing the meatiness, in a way. Examples of this abound. If you’re willing to dig, but unwilling to compromise on the solution, problems naturally become meaty. They come to you.
Someone once told me I was stretching myself too thin. I was working on 5 different things. Over a course of events, I began to realize I had a particular superpower and that I should employ it and not work on things that other people can. That’s how I see everything I work on: If the work doesn’t invite me to use my superpower, then I move on to something else. So right now, I focus on privacy.
Look for problems and questions that feel threatening — people tend to drop these. Look for things that threaten the existence of an organization or a team. People are not incentivized to ask these kinds of questions, but they can unlock answers to why we’re not providing the best experience for people who use Meta technologies at any given moment. For example, we once investigated opening Facebook to a camera to support visual messaging, and we spent a lot of time doing the due diligence to make that an acceptable experience. But at the end of the day, what turned the tide was the team saying, “This doesn’t make sense. We shouldn’t exist.” Maybe pieces of our work should continue to exist elsewhere in the app, but we accepted we shouldn’t have been building another messaging product within Facebook. The conclusion was threatening to our team, but in the end the line of inquiry was the right one.
Your work is never solo. One of the myths about working at a higher level is that you’re superhuman — you figure everything out on your own, and you’re able to drop in and solve the problem immediately. The opposite is true. As you get more senior, you have to maintain tighter relationships with people, and your work is increasingly less solo. You collaborate more and bring people together to solve problems. You bring in people who others didn’t think to bring in, and you interconnect pieces to help the team move forward. Someone once gave me this advice: “Once you get to a certain point, your career just goes in a zigzag, and depending on the opportunity and depending on what you want, you choose your path.” I thought that felt wishy-washy then, but now I feel like it makes sense. So, embrace the ambiguity!
I agree. I’ve had to learn over and over again that you can’t go it alone. These days I’m communicating with people a lot and working in teams. The biggest trick I’ve learned about communication at work is that it’s not about self-expression: It’s about starting where another person is and figuring out how to communicate in a style that suits the audience. What works in a room full of engineers is very different from what works in a room full of project managers. You have to be a chameleon who can speak the language and connect the dots across a lot of different types of people. It’s a valuable skill set. If you find yourself at the point where you’re able to communicate in high fidelity with a lot of different groups who are maybe not able to communicate directly with each other, that’s a strong leverage point. But I also think being a chameleon is a satisfying role for a designer to play. A lot of us like to find connections and patterns in the work we’re doing. It’s a fascinating and (an) important role when you find yourself on a team and you’re the one who’s able to act as the connective tissue between different disciplines.
I wish someone had told me that communication at work, especially writing, is really important. If you think of all the writing you do throughout the day — emails, internal posts and any other written communication or casual conversation — you know it’s core to how we function as designers. It seems so obvious, but I didn’t know it was going to be the core of my job, so that’s usually what I tell recent university graduates. Another thing, which I’ll echo from the other panelists, is that you cannot do this alone. The moment I embraced that, I was able to use the strengths of the engineers, project managers and everyone else. You can do so much more because your team is doing so much more. It’s not just you carrying this. Success, to me, in a product team is not that an idea or design went out there and people said it was Holly’s idea. I could give that idea to anyone and as long as we’re doing it, I’m fine with that. I empower everyone else to shepherd things along, and that’s real strength. You have to be able to give up some control and learn to rely on and trust your team.
Don’t ignore that little voice in your gut. When you’re in design school, you’re in a community of people all speaking the same language. You share the same values, and then you argue within a shared knowledge set over the details. When you come to Meta, you’re suddenly thrown into a mix of people with strong opinions and different viewpoints, and it’s easy for that loud rationality to overwhelm that little design feeling in your gut. There were a few mistakes I probably could’ve avoided if I had just “bucked up” and realized: “This looks bad. Can we all agree that this sucks and that it shouldn’t suck?” When I was a newer designer, I didn’t feel like I could do that. At least, not until I was in a room with people like those on this panel — designers who were able to pause the room and say: “Are we proud of this?” It was important for me to learn how to address these difficult moments and that there is a valid way to do so. So don’t let your gut instinct get drowned out by the very rational arguments from the very smart people.
Disclaimer: This piece has been updated since its original publish date.
Grow your design career as an individual contributor, part 2
Grow your design career as an individual contributor, part 3
Whether you’re a product designer, writer, creative strategist, researcher, project manager, team leader or all-around systems-thinker, there’s something here for you.