Here's a question candidates NEVER ask during job interviews:

"Is Management the only way up at your company?"

It's a shame, this should be discussed more! Many people simply don't want to become managers.

In fact, most candidates are SO eager to hear companies tell them:

"You don't have to become-a-manager-at-all-costs to succeed here, we love individual contributors!"

Yet it rarely happens. Few companies laid a career path for individual contributors to strive, even fewer have been vocal about it.

Check out those tweets, tons of developers don't want to become managers...

This is also true outside of software development. When I worked at Google, the fastest way to advance your career as a non-developer was to become a manager. Even if you had no interest in leading. Back then (2011) they didn't have a path for individual contributors.

But all hope's not lost!

I came across the excellent article “If Management is the Only Way Up, We’re All F’d”, by Rand Fishkin.

So, what's the difference between an Individual Contributor and the Management/People Wrangling path?

Here's a picture that sums it up, from

As a remote leader, thinking about this more sparked a few questions:

  • What if a contributor doesn't want to become a manager?
  • Can senior Individual Contributors have a great career?
  • How does this play out remotely?

...In other words, how do we create Individual Contributor Paths at Remote startups?

I went down the rabbit hole on Twitter and received interesting answers.

Here are 4 remote startups offering a paths to individual contributors:

  • Balsamiq, a 33-people remote company
  •, a 40-people remote company
  • HelpScout, a 70-people remote company
  • Buffer, a 90-people remote company

Let's dive in together!

1) Individual Contributors at Balsamiq (33 people)

I had a Q&A session with Leon Barnard, Balsamiq's Education Lead.

How large was Balsamiq when you started working on career Path?

We never set out to create career paths for employees. We still don't have any defined paths (even from Junior to Senior, for example). But when we reached about 25 people we realized that our Founder/CEO was no longer able to effectively manage all teams, people, and projects, as he had been doing from the beginning. After a brief discussion about introducing the idea of managers, we settled on the idea of Lead and Organizer roles for each team, in order to reduce the project management burden on our CEO.

Any notable inspiration from other startups?

The idea for being a "flat" (no managers) company came from the concept of Holacracy and companies like Valve and Gore. I believe that some of the inspiration for Team Leads (who aren't managers) came from Basecamp.

Was "being remote" a factor that changed your experience of setting career Paths?

Somewhat. Our company culture has always promoted the idea of self-management and servant leadership rather than hierarchy, so introducing managerial career paths would have been a big shift for us anyway, but the fact that we're remote made it seem even more inappropriate for us.

The Balsamiq team!

Rodolphe's Takeaway on Balsamiq

Even if Balsamiq doesn’t have defined Career Paths yet, they use their values of servant leadership to shape up two routes: Lead and Organizers.

"Those roles aren't assigned on seniority nor performance" as Leon puts it. "They are assigned to the person or people on the team who are the best natural fit for the extra responsibilities."

2) Individual Contributors at Close (40 people)

I asked Phil, Director of Product & Engineering of Close, to share more about his philosophy. Here is what he had to say:

As a fairly small team (15 in Engineering; 40 overall),  what we have today is less of a formal set of Career Path titles and more a culture of  "leadership opportunities" for non-managers, within engineering.
For instance, we assign Project Leads for each of our larger projects. This gives engineers the ability to try out a floating leadership role in 6-week periods.

Read up on Close, they are hiring!
We just intentionally try to have a culture of coequal tracks by communicating this to everyone, starting during the recruiting phase, so nobody ever feels they need to start managing people to keep growing.
We try to give raises ($$) & more responsibility to non-managers who have been excelling, without forcing them into a people management role.
Anyone in the company can (& is encouraged to) take the initiative & champion something they believe could make a difference in the company. Not all ideas come from "the top".
Our CTO (and co-founder) Tom is an example of someone who is highly technical but doesn't manage anyone on the team, but has a lot of responsibilities on the technical side.

Rodolphe's Takeaway on Close

I love to see Close start with "Leadership opportunities", meaning you can lead a project without having to be a manager at all costs. It helps boost initiative within teams.

3) Individual Contributors at HelpScout (70 people)

Are you a Player or a Coach?

Nick Francis, founder of HelpScout, puts it this way:

Players (designers, engineers, writers) are the heart and soul of Help Scout. They embody what we want to be about. A coach’s role is to serve players, to help them seek excellence, and to ensure their team is greater than the sum of its parts. This speaks to the servant leadership we want from our coaches. There’s no room for “command and control” leaders in our company...

Here's more from Nick:

Players and coaches are measured on the same scale, which considers three factors:
- Experience: A combination of excellence in your craft, your velocity, and your ability to contribute new ideas and best practices.
- Impact: Your effect on everyday team productivity, on your peers, and on the business as a whole.
- Leadership: Your level of independence, influence, and how you use your skills to change the course of both your team and the business at large.

To avoid team-mates running into ceilings, HelpScout committed to pay their employees above market salaries...

Rodolphe's Takeaway on HelpScout

I love this player and coach analogy, it helps most people new to career path "get it" really quickly. Make sure you measure both on the same scale to ensure it's fair game to all! Read up about HelpScout over here.

4) Individual Contributors at Buffer (90 people)

Buffer's Career framework

Buffer realised that not everyone can be a manager, especially when the team isn’t expanding. To make up for it, they created their own career path:

"[In the picture above], a newly-promoted Customer Advocate II might be a Maker at Level 2 and Step 1. And if someone is an Engineering Manager, they might be a Manager at Level 4, Step 3."

Inspired by other companies (Radford, Medium, Fog Creek and Rent the Runaway), here is what they came up with:

Buffer's Career framework - see it here in full size.

Rodolphe's Takeaway on Buffer

Buffer has put a lot of thoughts into this. It takes many resources to canvas most roles across all departments, it's a journey that few companies take before reaching the 100 employees milestone. Read up about Buffer over here.

The Era of Individual Contributors

It's exciting to see so many startups taking to heart their employees' yearnings so that they can finally say:

"No, you don't HAVE TO become a manager to do great at a remote startup!"

Are you establishing career paths for individual contributors at your remote company?

Remember that other startups have already done some heavy-lifting for you. For instance, Buffer open-sourced their career framework on this link.

Feel free to reach out to me via Twitter if you have questions!

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