“Optimize Your Potential: Planning For Senior IC Vs. Manager Career Tracks”: Chelsea Zhou with Chainalisys (Video + Transcript)

March 26, 2024

Chelsea Zhou (Chainalisys Product Design Manager) believes choosing the right career path starts with deep and honest inward assessment of yourself and your motivations. She will discuss the realistic day-to-day of a senior IC vs. manager at work, and how to realistically intuit what works for you.


In this ELEVATE session, Chelsea Zhou, product design manager at Chainalysis, provides insights and guidance for individuals considering the individual contributor (IC) or manager track, highlighting the key differences and qualities required for each role.

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Chelsea Zhou ELEVATE quote choosing career path starts with deep honest inward assessment of yourself and your motivations

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Chelsea Zhou:

Morning, good afternoon, good evening to you depending on where you are. My name is Chelsea, I’m a design manager at Chainalysis. Today I wanted to give a talk on, “Optimize your potential, planning for senior IC versus manager tracks”. Today’s talk, this is the agenda. We’ll go over some of the context. I’ll talk a little bit about my own background and then my incentives to give this talk. Then we’ll cover why you want to hear about this talk.

Whether you’re considering manager track or senior staff IC track, we’ll then dive into a realistic week of a senior staff IC versus a manager so you know what to expect. And then after that we’ll go over what makes a great manager. And lastly, we’ll talk about how to get there if you do want to move forward with the manager track.

So first of all, a bit of intro about myself. I currently work at Chainalysis. Chainalysis’ mission is to solve world’s most complex crypto crime using data as a data product. At Chainalysis, we are currently at a Series F. It’s a pretty late stage startup with employee headcounts over 800 distributed all across the globe. I lead designers in teams across compliance, risk, and core services products. The designers on my team are in Canada, Brazil, and Denmark. All over the place. I have retained and inherited designers. I have also hired and scaled the teams across product design, user research and design technologists functions in the past, both in person and remote in companies across Series A, all the way to Series F. I’m also a best rated manager and quoting an upward review from one of my direct reports here. It’s a little bit of a marketing slide for myself.

Besides some of the qualifications I put down here, on a weekly basis, I was asked by designers across different levels, what is it like to be a manager? If you have read Julie Zhuo’s book, Making of a Manager, you will see that it is very common that almost no companies, no matter how big or small they are, no companies actually prepare how someone should become a manager.

I see there is a huge knowledge gap here and I want to share with you all with my own thinking, learning over the years, and my readings on scaling team and developing talent.

The next point I want to make here is that I know a lot of the audience have engineering and product backgrounds, but some of the takeaways really apply to any functions, such as product design, data science, operations, and much more. I put a asterisk next to mid to senior level in your career because, although choosing IC versus manager track will become more of a pressing topic once you rise up to mid to senior level, it’s actually never too early or too late to think about this no matter where you are in your career.

In fact, I am approached by many college students who are considering a career in tech and they asked me this question, “How do I become a manager,” very early on. Now let’s talk about the motivations behind why you’re trying to become a manager. I have heard people assuming that managers get to boss people around, or managers must make a lot more money.

In many cases it is super common that someone is just asked to be a manager because there isn’t one on the team and the company is growing. However, none of these reasons seem to be a great reason to become a manager. My question back to you is think about this. Why do you want to be a manager?

Many of the staff level people, engineers or designers or PMs I work with actually have been managers before. I’m always curious about the decisions to come back to become a senior staff person after being a manager for a little bit. After my conversations with these people actually, things aside, what I have learned from their experiences and listed down some of the differentiating qualities in two buckets to you.

I want you to really be honest with yourself here when you read through this two lists and feel free to take some time to think through them too. But generally if you…senior staff people, focus on the problem, and the managers are more focused on the people. If you love the time and space to solve a complex puzzle or think through a problem deeply, you’ll probably find a senior staff IC track more energizing. If you’re more interested in other people’s growth and interpersonal and dynamics among the team and beyond the team, you’ll probably find a manager track more interesting.

Now we’ll look at a typical senior staff IC schedule of the week and see how she spends her time. This is actually a schedule I took from one of the staff designers on my team. Let’s look at her schedule. So she starts her off into a sync with the design team on design system. Then she launches into some of the design review that she leads for her future, rest of the Monday, she just has down design until Tuesday midday, where design team all-hands happen on Tuesday. And after that she has some weekly catch up with a PM where she’s a pair with, follow up with the one-on-one with her manager.

The rest of the day she just catches up on Slack and documentation. On Wednesday she attends company all-hands. She has a one-on-one with the designer. Then she has another one-on-one with the PM where she’s co-leading another project. Then she has more time to do heads-down work before joining a design team critique where designers working on adjacent product areas get together. Then, on Thursday she has more time for hands down work and joins a design review for Project A and another one-on-one with another designer she mentors. On Friday, she has more time to design and work. And then the final Project B project review.

On this next slide we’ll be looking at a realistic schedule of a manager. I actually took it from my schedule for the last week where you can see that the manager launching to the same design system meeting similar to the staff designer. Right after she has a sync with a PM where they meet with a solution architecture team on selling a POC and making it a scalable solution. Then she runs weekly execution meeting with a whole design team.

She has an hour or so of deep focus work where she prepares for important meetings coming up in the rest of the week, and she has one-on-ones with her peer user research manager leads a meeting between front end and design and a bunch of other meetings. I’m not going to go over every single meeting she has, but take a minute to look at the difference between a realistic schedule of a manager versus senior IC, except for a few common design team meetings, both of the design staff person and the manager, both of them attend. Their schedules are vastly different. The staff person actually has one-on-ones PMs with designers. But you see that manager spends most of the time in very different types of meetings. There is one-on-one with her reports, her peers, like managers in other functions, cross-functional folks in sales and go-to-market.

There’s almost limited or no time throughout the day for more than maybe an hour or an hour and a half for deep focused work. This means if you are the type of people that enjoy solving a problem really deeply, a manager schedule probably will take your energy from you. I’ll pause here quickly and check the chat and see if there’s any questions. Everybody just mostly intros. All right, moving on. Now you probably have an idea of which path might suit you better.

I want to spend some time actually talking about the qualities of a good senior IC person and a good manager.

Both of the senior IC person and a good manager need to have really great communication and collaboration skills at the core. The main difference is senior IC person has a space to go really deep in solving a problem and gaining that technical expertise in certain areas. They’re often seen as the experts where people go to them and with consult with them to solve a problem.

Versus manager, they may not have the space to go super deep in one technical area. Their job is being able to multitask. They prioritize tasks really quickly and they knock through the most important ones to unblock others. They have the ability to see the big picture and they rally the team that have different opinions and resolve the tensions among the team.

Now you might have this question. Well, the senior IC track seem to have tangible deliverables. They’re technical experts and I can understand what they bring to the table. What exactly does a manager do? Don’t worry. I get this question a lot even from people who work in engineering and product development for years. There’s some principles I want to go through of what a good manager exhibits.

Principle number one from a conscious leader, a good manager is they protect their time really well. You can see that more than other roles, a manager’s day is made of extremely tight time blocks that are called meetings. The manager’s value is directly translated into the time blocks in these meetings. The benefit of this manager working beyond 12 hours every day is at this point deceiving. You tend to lose energy, focus and clarity.

And because many of the manager’s output is directly in meetings, a good manager always think about how to best translate the values into the time and shine these meetings. Maybe they need strict time scheduled to take care of the family right before a very important meeting. Maybe they put time on the calendar for small breaks or exercises like a walk to make sure that they’re consistently calm and focused throughout the day, whatever they need to do to show the best version of yourself. The best managers are the masters of energy. That leads to organization culture that is alive, engaged on purpose, creative, visionary, and playful and refreshed.

The second principle touches on a common dilemma that I see many newer managers have encountered. Many newbie managers in addition to supporting others, cannot let go of doing work themselves. So a lot of the newer managers often assume that it’s a fine arrangement, they could handle it. They don’t want to stop doing actual IC work. And if they do stop doing IC work, they might lose their skills, which will make them harder to be an effective leader.

Unfortunately, that is a mistake I made myself too, and I see virtually every newer manager make, which is continuing to do a lot of individual contributor work past the point that is sustainable. When you pass the point when it’s sustainable, go back to principal one, you’ll lose your energy, you’ll lose your focus, which is bad for the entire team.

The third principle is actually getting to the core of a manager job, which is be a good coach. Time usually reveals the truth. You’ll see the best employees usually don’t tend to stick around for years and years under a boss who treats them poorly or they don’t respect, and vice versa. If a manager don’t really truly respect or care for her reports, there’s no faking either.

The closest analogy I can come up with for the manager role is usually a sports coach. Managers in some way are very similar to sports coach. They use every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate and coach their team members. A good manager always sees the big picture. They evaluate all the time and they make sure that the right people are doing the right job and they support and advise for those who are doing a great job and they move people around who are not doing a good job.

The fourth principle here, and the last principle, is actually showing as much candor as possible. A lot of people probably heard of Kim Scott book, Radical Candor, is a manager must-read. Even if those of you who are not really considering manager track it helps you reflect on what type of leader you are because you’re senior and a lot of your job is to give feedback. And this book forces you to really reflect on what type of feedback you tend to give that are often masked behind superficial niceness.

In fact, being truthful and delivering the timely feedback, both positive and constructive feedback, is the best form of love you can have for the team. This means you take opportunity to inject self-confidence in those that really earn it. Use ample praise, the more specific the better. It also means delivering constructive feedback timely. And finally, when you’re in the one-on-ones, spend more time listening to your team rather than speaking. One of the greatest gifts we give one another is to listen deeply what other people really want. And this will come through when you give the team the comfort and space really speak and communicate with you what they really want. I’m going to take a quick pause here and see if there’s anything in the chat.

Are a lot of managers about to get a review code? I think there’s some good questions here. I’ll try to follow up, but if we run out of time, you can always reach me later. Now we’re launching to the next part of this presentation, which is how do I get started? How do I find my leadership style? Whether we want to venture into the manager track or senior IC track at this point, both type of roles require you to figure out the leadership style you have. So this is actually applying to both. It’s like a little exercise or thinking access, you could probably do.

If you take any formal leadership training courses, this is a common framework or diagram that helps frame six types of leadership, from affiliate, democratic, commanding, pace setting, visionary, to coaching. Most of the people are probably a mixer of one or two among the six. It’s really important to be super honest about who you are, and what leadership style can really bring out the truest form of yourself.

You really got to be real. Best managers are true to themselves. And earlier in my management years, I made a mistake to only think that there’s that one strong commander type of a leader where I faked my personality to try to be someone who I’m truly not. And now I really show up at work and being the true self, which is a mix of pace setting and affiliate, where my strength shines through by being goofy and yet forthcoming at the same time for the people on my team to do their best work.

I think the next step is just to try it. Building leadership skills is not that hard, you can start anytime. Opposite to many people assumption, leadership is a skill that is not about bossing people around. It is about speaking the uncomfortable truth when other peoples are really scared to do that. Leadership is about standing up for the team in crisis and letting team take credits when really good things happen.

Leadership is about letting go too. It’s liberating to let go of your own agenda and how things should be done and see how other people come up with how they resolve things. An easy exercise you could start today is probably starting a lot of one-on-ones with your fellow IC or peers and try mentoring and see how you like it. And then back to the exercise I gave.

Do the punch list of whether you like it or not and how you want to actually manage your time and schedule, and see whether your energy really spikes in these one-on-one sessions, or you actually prefer the deep dive and deep work. So lastly, management is really a journey.

I think the biggest takeaway here is to reflect as much as possible and be true to your motivations, your personality, and your true self. As we wrap up here, I think… this is my contact info if you want to follow up with more questions. I probably don’t have time to get to all the questions here, but good luck to you and enjoy the rest of the conference.

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