Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Individual Contributor (IC)?

Which path should you target in your career???

So LinkedIn just released a mentorship feature where they pair mentors with mentees through the app. I signed up as a mentor and got flooded with requests from young software engineers and surprisingly many young data scientists. The most common thing these young engineers want advice on is which direction to take their career.

Here’s a request from one such data scientist, let’s call him Ralph:
“I’ve been a data scientist for less than 2 years and would love to hear your advice on focusing as an individual contributor or growing as a leader towards the CTO path.”

I would love to help Ralph on a one-to-one basis, but unfortunately don’t have time in my life right now to meet and mentor with every young engineer and scientist that comes my way looking for mentorship, so I will point them here, and to this response:
“Hi [Ralph], unfortunately I can’t make time anytime soon to meet you, but I get this question a lot so let me give my advice here.

There is a lot of leadership you can explore without explicitly going down the managerial track. You can own projects, you can be the tech lead, you can volunteer more at work, you can start projects on the side, and you can mentor people. All of these things will help you figure out if you actually like dealing with people as part of your job, because the fact of the matter is that the higher up in the managerial chain you go, the more it is about managing people.

The other thing that I’d like to point out is there are a lot of great end games out there besides just IC or CTO. A lot of companies, including Coffee Meets Bagel, have an architect track for people who know they’re not interested in managing people and just want to immerse themselves deeper in code and architecture. End game for this track would be Chief Architect.

We also have our data science organization as a completely separate, high-level, organization from engineering which reports directly to the CEO. So, at some point, we will have a Chief Data Officer or a Chief Algorithm Officer. Now, those positions would still be very heavy on people management, but probably a little more specialized and more hands on than a CTO role.

I hope that helps. Happy to answer any other questions or dive deeper!”

And I hope some other young engineers stumble across this as well and get some value out of it!