Scott Hanselman

Best Practices for Individual Contribution

July 23, 2009 Comment on this post [27] Posted in Musings
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I just got an email from a GM (General Manager) at Microsoft who is giving a presentation soon about "How to be an effective IC (Individual Contributor)" and he's collecting best practices. He wanted a brain dump from me and others on tips.

Here's my exact email.

NOTE: Dear Reader, you may have heard some of these from earlier blog posts.

Hm, not sure I have enough context from your email to help, but I’ll try, assuming I understand the question. Let me know if I can help in/during your presentation.

  • Consciously manage your personal brand.
    • You work here to help the company, but also yourself. No one will manage your “personal brand” except you. How are you perceived? Do you know? Take negative feedback gracefully, and implement change. Rinse, repeat.
  • Push the Limits
    • Chris Sells told me once, If you’re not getting in trouble with your boss at least twice a year, you’re likely not pushing the envelope hard enough. Two slaps a year might be the cost for 10 successes. If you’re not moving forward, well, you’re not moving forward.
  • Conserve your keystrokes.
    • When you’re emailing a single person or a reasonably sized cc: list, ask yourself, are you wasting your time? Is this a message that 10 people need to see, or 10,000? Is email where you should be spending your time. Actively be aware of the number of people you communicate with , and the relative level of influence. Is a blog post seen by 50,000 more or less valuable than a single email to your skip-level? Only you can answer, but only if you’re consciously trying to conserve your keystrokes. Your fingers DO have an expiration date; there’s a finite number of keystrokes left, use them wisely.
  • Don’t give bile a permalink.
    • While you’re on the clock, think about what you tweet and FB. It only takes one bad link to undo a year’s work. Same goes for tweeting product launches before they’ve launched.
  • Write down what you’re trying to accomplish and hang it on the wall.
    • Make T-Shirts. Tell your spouse and kids. If you’re working towards a goal, tell people. It’ll keep you honest and it’ll motivate you. Saying things out loud help make them reality.
  • Manage Up
    • Are your commitments aligned with your boss and your bosses boss? Do you have visibility into their commitments? If not, ask for them. Make sure your accomplishments are making yourself, and your boss, look good.
  • Have a System to Manage Information Flow
    • If you’ve got 1000 emails in your Inbox, it’s not an Inbox. It’s a pile of crap. Have a system, any system, to triage your work. Any item in your inbox should be processed: Do it, drop it, defer it, delegate it. There are no other actions to take. Are you effectively managing your information flow? Try scheduling time for email on your calendar.

What would YOU send him? What are you Best Practices for Individual Contribution? I'll pass them on if they're awesome.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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July 23, 2009 0:46
Just because you are an individual contributor doesn't mean you should be wearing blinders. Know something about the other team member's jobs. I.e. if your a software developer, do some reading about project management, marketing, sales, etc. This way you can communicate with a common vocabulary and at least recognize basic techniques of other disciplines.
July 23, 2009 0:54
While you should push the limits, don't go overboard and spread yourself too thinly.
A project can't be successful if it never reaches fruition - hence its better to have a few completed, than many incomplete.
July 23, 2009 1:02
not sure how much of this makes sense, but here's my 2 paise..

1. Self-sufficient: Everytime you are assigned with a task, make sure you understand the context completely, are clear on exactly what is needed, and once equiped with enough information, do it wihtout pinging your bosses continously. keep a reputation that, once a task is assigned, you get back with the results pro-actively, w/o much spoon feeding.

2. Manage your time: you may be so keen on technology/extra knowledge, that you might want to sleep for just 3 hours, and do all the things under the sun in the 21 hours. but your office time is your office's time. ensure that, all your knowledge is applied to get tangible outputs in this time frame. be it specific items, helping out colleagues or just relaxing the mood a little bit.

3. Frequently Share your Work: you don't remember what you did yesterday, be it a good coding pattern/effective communication/a great project plan/a good visionary idea. and for all that, you might have done an awesome thing. ensure that you share your ideas by means of presentation, demos/blogs/file shares anything that spreads the good word.

4. utilize the smart brains around: as much as contributing individually, the contributions of other individuals around you also help. every day, you read blogs/ideas/ about people who got up and did something new/refreshing. be aware of such things, and infuse them in your work culture..

5. keep your head down, when needed: you maybe one of the famous people in your group, but when the situation demands, just keep your head down, slog it out and do what you gotta do, to finish the task. not every plan is executed as planned. during those times, nothing works like the results of the extra mile which sets things straight sometimes.
July 23, 2009 1:23
Fix your bonus plan. So many of the lesser corporate evils are done in the name of individual bonus plans. This assumes you work towards a bonus.
July 23, 2009 2:17
Might seem cynical - learn the politics of your organization to stay away from "bad" topics. no matter how good you are if you touch on a hot issue, you're black balled. Speaking from experience across 4 different orgs.
July 23, 2009 2:23
Don't cc someone's boss when you ask someone for help, do something for you, etc. It's passive aggressive and says, "Don't ignore me, your boss knows about this."

July 23, 2009 2:57
KevDog makes a great point. In addition to that I would say that a key to being a successful individual contributor is to network. Seek out other top ICs and get to know them, and when someone does you a favor THEN email their boss & copy them and let them know how much they've helped you.

Being an individual contributor doesn't mean you can't lead a team to drive solutions for your business.
July 23, 2009 5:53
Out of curiosity, what does Microsoft mean by "Individual Contributor?". As I understand the term, it can mean either:
- An employee with zero direct reports
- An employee who is the only direct report of their immediate supervisor

Both definitions are widely in use... which one is this particular GM referring to?

July 23, 2009 7:00
In addition to your (useful) comments:

* you have weaknesses. Know those weaknesses and find workarounds for them, rather than trying to fix them. Self-help hype aside, you are who you are.

* you have strengths. Know those strengths and find ways to use them (see Manage Up, above). What you have that is uniquely you will provide the basis for your contributions.
July 23, 2009 7:04
Definitely Short Term Pain for Long Term Gain. I am frequently surprised by how many people take the short and quick route, which ends up costing a great deal more in the long run, when they should take a little extra time to do things right, and everyone benefits from the proper solution.
July 23, 2009 7:23
Portman - In this case, it means someone with no direct reports. I have a team of 4 now, so I guess I'm not an IC, but I like to think I am.
July 23, 2009 8:19 "individual contributor" is a euphemism for "no one beneath me to blame". Got it.

July 23, 2009 11:22
I have a few things I suggest around managing your brand, work and becoming a 'goto' person.

1) Use a task management system -- if you don't have one go and learn "Getting Things Done". This also forces you to manage others expectations as well as your time.

2) Create Weekly reports for your manager and other stakeholders. (I wrote about it at

3) Share information and help others are much as possible

4) Keep learning and developing your knowledge
July 23, 2009 12:12
Dont let others take advantage of your weakness: Everybody has some special quality that makes him/her unique from others. Show what is special in you rather showing your weaknes. No body will trust you if you will cry after what you can not do. They will follow you only if you cherish your success and strive for more in your life.

Be Respectful: Always listen to others when they want to share something. Think about how would you feel if you will not be appriciated for sharing your precious ideas/knowledge.
July 23, 2009 13:01
Scott, maybe you want to link the last point (about managing email) to Inbox Zero? :-)
July 23, 2009 13:25
Morals And Ethics:

It's about ALWAYS doing and saying what you believe is right and appropriate, REGARDLESS of the perception, political fall-out, consequences, etc.

Yes, corporations are full of crappy individuals who will always play games and are ultimately "false". So what?

If you really want to be effective, Morals and Ethics is what I stand by. At least people can take you at face value, know they can take your position with confidence, and know that you will do what is right without being compromised.

Maybe Morals And Ethics make you more "effective" in today's world?
July 23, 2009 14:03
I would like to second the Raja's comment about frequently sharing your work. More generally, I think it's important to regularly share your knowledge in a way that's easily accessible by others both in and outside your team.

By sharing such knowledge in a persisted way you are not only contributing to team productivity, but you are also improving your personal productivity by removing yourself as a bottleneck for questions and answers.

One problem with blogging and social networking for knowledge sharing is that information necessarily can't be always shared outside the company. But I think one good solution instead is to regularly contribute to an internal team wiki (I have blogged about it recently here:
July 23, 2009 17:20
Always try to imagine you are your boss, the owner of the company, etc. and ask yourself, "What is important to these people?"

This shift in perspective gets you asking questions and setting priorities that you may not have thought of before. As a result you often execute better and before your superiors ask.
July 23, 2009 20:29
Feedback: early, often, good or bad.

You need to communicate with the people around you so they know what's happening, no one can read your mind. No feedback = bad feedback, if you have people who report to you you need to communicate with them daily. If you have people you report to then you need to communicate with them multiple times a day. While some may be concerned about annoying people, those whom you are communicating with will greatly appreciate it.
July 23, 2009 21:39
The one thing I can add is quote I like:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.
Eliel Saarinen

Think about how this project/object/structure fits in the whole scheme of things. How can it be modified (easily) for future use?
July 24, 2009 1:06
"Don't get so busy working for a living that you forget to live!"

THe biggest complaint I've ever gotten is from the home front. I've walked away from 2 jobs just because they wanted 100+ hours per week work all of the time. Not only is this exhausting but it sends a couple of messages:
1) You are not worth your wage at 40 hours so we will whittle it down by 2-3 times by demanding you work all the time.
2) Anyone else that you know is not worth anything - we are the total worth to your life.

I'm sorry, but I married my wife for a reason. I've never married a company. Bosses don't like this attitude so much. However, as I said, I married my wife, not my boss. In today's economic decline too many companies are taking the stance of "it's me or the highway, so buckle down, do twice the work, and get half the rewards".
July 24, 2009 17:44

Spot on, mate!
July 27, 2009 3:52
Only amateurs present one idea: If you are only considering a single solution or design, you are likely considering a suboptimal solution. Present many solutions for any problem, even the craziest may have value.

The lone genius is a myth: Your teammates will have great ideas, involve them. Don't just disappear off and arrive like Moses with the truth from on high. Get lots of ideas together from many different people and different perspectives.

Ignore limits: How would you design your feature or solve the problem if you had unlimited funds? Start with the grandest vision first.

Escape the box: Understand that you are thinking in a box: What assumptions are you making? What if those assumptions were false? Perhaps you've been told by your bosses that something must be done, but what if that wasn't true?

Know the customer better than anyone: Ultimately, if you want to have influence, you must present real information, not your opinion. If you say something, say it because you know it is true and you have real data, not because you think so. To this end, get out of your office, answer questions on blogs and forums, find folks you know who use your product or product like it and watch them.

Use your product, know it inside and out: Yes, its true, very often, the folks working on a product will not have ever used it, at least in any more than a simplistic way. For example, for dev tools, folks will write a simple application or two. If that. Push the boundaries, write a real app, feel the pain.

Use your competitors' products: Yup, your competitors are likely as smart as you, some are smarter, some will have been in the game for much longer than your product team. They'll have done things you haven't thought of, or done things you've thought of and gone through the pain of understanding what works. And of course, you can learn from their failures as much as from their success.

Watch for and understand trends and developments: What does cloud computing mean for you? What about virtualization? The proliferation of mobile devices? What about a combination of all of the above? What is the next big thing that your customers will need to deal with?

Watch for and understand the present and the past: What are your customers dealing with today? What are their systems like? Are you offering them something they won't be able to adopt because it requires new developer skills and systems and your customers have their hands full just keeping up with their current systems? Can you get adoption in both brownfield and greenfield scenarios?

Listen and be humble: Never write anyone off, never cut anyone off, work hard to make other people succeed. Just be careful that their success drives your customers' success. The rest will come naturally.

Know the priority order: First the customer. Then your company. Then your team. If you're not doing right by your customers, nothing else will work in the long term.
July 27, 2009 16:38
Scott -

I don't have anything more to add except to say KUDDOS! This is one reason I love reading your blog. You not only have great nerd content, but also have outlets like this to share the softer side of nerd-dom (which can/should be applied to non-nerd disciplines as well).

Thanks again! Yours and many of the responses have been plastered all over my office wall. Take care!
July 28, 2009 22:34
Three words:

Completed Staff Work

I learned about this more than 25 years ago ... and it's something I haven't see enough of in most of the places I've worked.

Google it ... grok it ... live it ... it works.

July 29, 2009 6:46
"Be so good they can't ignore you." --Steve Martin
August 06, 2009 18:37
As per my belief Its one word that sums it all.. TIME MANAGER...

If you respect what you do and in what manner then you are honest to yourself.
Time is one thing that is equal for all, the best way you manage it make you more
efficient. You must know how to manage between your personal and preofessional life.
The equiliribrium should not be left unbalanced which entails in efficiency.

To me who respect his time know the importance of others time too.

Hope I am on right track...


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.