M to IC as WoC with My Mentor

In August 2018, I joined Sequoia’s Ascent program, which aims to grow and retain female leadership within its portfolio companies. The first half of the program involves a mentorship between two women, one of whom is an established leader in her environment and the other of whom is aspiring to grow into the same.

As the first portion of the program is finishing, I wanted to write about my experiences with my mentor, Dio Gonzalez, and what I’ve learned from our conversations. Dio is currently a principal software architect at Microsoft Research, with experience at Microsoft, Unity 3D, Pixar and DreamWorks.

During the six months of mentorship, Dio and I both went through job changes. I think the time period right before a job change is when the most introspection happens, as I evaluated what I want to preserve in my current environment and role, and what I’d change. During our conversations, Dio had several pieces of advice that helped me to clarify my thoughts around this and ultimately lead me to a new role at Confluent.

On the Individual Contributor vs. Manager Decision

During her own job search, Dio shared the criteria for her next role. She’d been working as a senior director at Microsoft, and she was clear that she wanted to return to an individual contributor role in her next opportunity. This conversation reassured me that it’s acceptable and healthy to leave management and seek out an individual contributor role. I’d felt some stress about that particular choice, as it always seems like we’re striving to become managers and to remain in that role.

Generally speaking, it is uncommon for professionals to move from a management position to an individual contributor role.  While there are plenty of resources on transitioning from an individual contributor to manager, we found just a handful of guides and articles on the virtues of going back to the individual contributor life.  As pointed out in a LinkedIn article written by a telecommunications professional, the common wisdom is that ‘successfully moving up’ and ‘progressing’ in your career includes a one-way street from individual contributor to manager.  We believe this mentality is reinforced by the somewhat common cases of managers not investing in the growth of their team or not providing them with opportunities to be visible and to showcase their accomplishments to the rest of the company. This can result in poor promotion rates and salary increases for these individual contributors, and the management path can look more attractive in these situations.

As mentioned, Dio and I were facing similar choices, and we spent time discussing the transition. Dio reinforced that management and technical leadership are equally valuable paths. Every company needs both roles, and both roles require a unique set of skills.  Most importantly, we can demonstrate and grow leadership skills in any environment and from any position. A software developer who has gone back and forth the two paths writes: “you might lose the title of a leader, but you will never lose the mindset."

After I heard Dio’s rationale for her own switch from manager to individual contributor and thought about the most exciting parts of work for me, the seemingly huge manager vs. individual contributor decision became less of a worry. Dio emphasized the power in deliberately choosing a path, and taking comfort in that it’s never a permanent choice. Once this was clear for me, I began to deliberate on other aspects of my next, ideal role.

On the Importance of Individual Growth

Dio encouraged me to do what’s best for my career. I’ve been at Sumo Logic for a few years, and I’ve taken part in building an amazing UX culture. I looked forward to seeing my team each day and I loved seeing them progress. However, each of us is responsible for building our own careers, and while I knew that I loved the people at Sumo, I knew that there were other things to I wanted to learn. Before I moved on, I needed to ensure that my team was cared for and would continue to succeed in their own careers.

When it comes to career growth, sometimes staying is not the best option. As managers, Dio and I believe in loyalty and the commitment to lead the company and people on a journey through good and bad. At the same time, being a good leader also includes realizing when our career path diverges from the company’s path, and acting responsibly with that knowledge. It is a difficult realization process, but we know that company priorities change, or an individual’s career goals change, or both happen in tandem.

The point is that as leaders, it is our job to take care of the team and the company’s growth, and it is similarly our job to lead and take care of our own journey.  A leader also guides a successful transition for everyone. There are best practices for leaving as an individual contributor, and there are also considerations when leaving the company as a manager.

Dio shared how she handled her transition:  

“I spent months discussing my concerns and ideas with leadership, so they could understand my point of view and have plenty opportunities to discuss. When I knew I was close to making the decision to move on, I started working with my team to provide each individual with a shared long term vision, clarity, and a sense of his or her own power to move ahead and execute.  Without telling them too early, I made sure they had plenty of information and confidence to continue and progress. After I communicated my decision to leadership, I then met in person with each one of my employees.I thought that this was essential to demonstrate respect and loyalty to my team, and I allowed time for deep discussion with each of them.

When moving on as a manager, one of the most important aspects in taking care of the team is ensuring everyone’s individual careers progress. Individuals on my team expressed concerns that management changes might impact promotions and performance reviews because they would have to start over again and demonstrate value to someone new.  Before leaving, I made sure to document comprehensive performance reviews, including who was on track for promotion in my estimation. I also used the internal feedback tool to document my employees’ contributions, and explicitly told them to contact me if they needed advice or recommendations. I recognized that this kind of change is always difficult, and it’s necessary to provide your team with psychological safety during this time. “

The template above was a perfect checklist for my own experiences as I moved on. I met with leadership consistently during the fall to discuss my thoughts, and once I’d made the decision to move, I met with each researcher and designer on the UX team to tell them the news and to allow time for honest conversation. As much as possible, I left plans for the team, dispensed the knowledge I could, and shared thoughts on individuals’ career growth with my manager.

On Having an External Perspective

Another valuable part of this type of mentorship is Dio’s outside perspective on my team and company. Dio is far removed from Sumo Logic, and her incentives are to share her honest opinion and her experiences. A mentor who is internal to Sumo Logic has different incentives, and is more likely to guide me in ways that will help my company to be successful. Many times, I asked Dio for her thoughts on a specific situation at work, and she was able to reflect on her experiences and tell me how crazy (or normal) it actually was. Dio’s honesty and interpretations of events were invaluable.

On Knowing Your Value

Before the job application process began, I thought that my success at Sumo Logic had been a fluke. I’d been promoted at Sumo Logic but not elsewhere, and I was also worried that the domain knowledge acquired at Sumo Logic was too specific and not easily generalized to other products. I thought I would be lucky to get another job.

I was too embarrassed to even bring this up to Dio before I began speaking with recruiters and applying for jobs, and as it turns out, it would’ve been a silly conversation for a few reasons. Dio knew her value and dove into her own job search with full confidence. I saw how she did this, and even though I had trepidation about my own job search, once I started, it was clear that I do have value and that I would be able to find a job elsewhere.

When we spoke about it afterward, Dio said she had her own moments of doubt as a mentor. She asked herself, “How can I help Bret when I am figuring out my own next steps? Am I terrible for not having all the answers and wisdom? Is my situation negatively affecting the advice I provide her?” She then remembered that good mentors are not themselves perfect, but instead are good listeners and reflect on their experience to help others find their path.   

I’m very glad to have gone through this process with Dio. I was able to learn from both her tactical steps as she stepped away from management, as well as her confidence at all points during the transition. Changing jobs is typically a stressful, uncertain time period, and the hardest parts were cushioned due to this mentorship. For many of us, it’s a rare circumstance to have a mentor, and it’s even rarer to have a mentor who’s going through the same situation at the same time as you are. Many thanks to Dio for the wisdom and patience.