Time to Shine: 9 Individual Contributors on Leading from Within

Getting great work done requires the leadership of individual contributors, not just managers.
Written by Brigid Hogan
June 9, 2022Updated: June 9, 2022

“Remaining an individual contributor while dipping your toes in the leadership water is a luxury,” said Rongyao Huang, a lead data scientist at CB Insights.

Huang isn’t alone in recognizing the opportunities for both leadership and personal growth offered by an individual contributor (IC) role.

Brian Tan, a Javascript developer at Jackpocket, shares Huang’s commitment to growth in his own role. “To me, responsibility does not just mean completing a task but also completing it in the best way you possibly can,” he said.

Perhaps without knowing it, both Huang and Tan are echoing Peter Drucker, the influential 20th-century management consultant.

In a 1999 essay for Harvard Business Review, Drucker asserted that the best way to contribute in the workplace is by developing one’s own skills and looking for places to grow. “Successful careers … develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values,” Drucker wrote.

Without direct reports to manage, individual contributors are particularly well placed to shine as leaders by recognizing and refining their own abilities while managing projects, launching products and mentoring colleagues.

To learn more about how to lead in the workplace as an IC, Built In New York spoke with nine tech professionals about how they are thriving while managing projects, launching products and mentoring colleagues.

 

Noelia Acosta
Global Talent Acquisition Program Specialist

 

Contentsquare is a marketing analytics company focused on helping companies build trust with their customers.

 

Describe your role at Contentsquare and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

As a program specialist, my role is focused around supporting the development of the program and project management of our global talent acquisition (TA) team. I advocate for new initiatives using research, data and business metrics to shape and measure the impact of those initiatives. I also build out global programs such as an enablement series, internal and external referral promotions, internship programs and more. The most exciting project I am working on right now is developing and executing on a change management plan designed to improve and ensure the standard usage of our applicant tracking system and the team’s data accuracy within the system. One key component and deliverable for me as part of that change management plan is to create playbooks for each role within the TA team in order to help guide team members on how to better use the tool. 

Having a few cooks in the kitchen is beneficial as it allows more innovation, creativity and unique ideas to come to fruition.”

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

We have grown tremendously in the past year, having tripled the size of the TA team and introduced a new team structure and operating model. As the only program specialist within my department, I am tasked with executing on different initiatives and projects that are intended to positively impact the workflows, duties, and experience of our team members. My role has been critical as we’ve onboarded, trained and continuously enabled new team members while also building out and improving on our TA processes and programs.

I have particularly shown leadership and initiative in my role by delegating and giving the opportunity to different team members to contribute to some of the projects, meetings and key decisions that will affect their day-to-day tasks and workflows. Since these changes primarily affect our team, I feel strongly that the team should have a voice and be part of the changes and transformation taking place and directly impacting them. This experience has taught me that having a few cooks in the kitchen is beneficial as it allows more innovation, creativity and unique ideas to come to fruition, which are three of the five values Contentsquare esteems the most. 

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

Contentsquare has provided me with tremendous opportunities for growth over the past two years as I had the opportunity of joining as a talent acquisition intern two years ago, then transitioned to a full time, permanent employee as a recruiter and soon after, discovered my true passion for project management. In the near future, I see myself coaching, mentoring and leading a team of individuals and empowering them in their own career growth while transferring and paying forward all of the knowledge and lessons I have learned from my current manager and mentor, Yanilda Gonzalez. I believe that remaining passionate, dedicated, being a forever learner, welcoming any opportunity to be challenged, pushing myself and being comfortable with being uncomfortable is what will get me to the next level.

 

 

CB Insights team members having lunch together in the office
CB Insights

 

Rongyao Huang
Lead Data Scientist

 

CB Insights uses machine learning, algorithms, and data and visualization to provide information services to large enterprises.

 

Describe your role at your company and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

I’m a lead data scientist in CB Insights’ research and development function. We’re embedded in the engineering organization and work to push ideas into the production end to end. I just wrapped up a natural language processing project that identifies funding signals in the news across eleven different languages. In the project, high accuracy and multilingual capability are achieved through fine-tuning transformers. I’m also helping establish a set of key product metrics that align efforts across the organization. Seeing data translating into actionable insights is highly rewarding.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

It strikes me that leadership is more of a mindset than a position. It involves higher-level problem solving and people empowerment. Apart from staying hungry and putting my best foot forward in IC projects, I think of myself as a thought partner and a coding peer to my teammates. I also noodle on deliberate culture building, and I am always on the lookout for tooling upgrades.

Leadership is more of a mindset than a position.”

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

CB Insights provides the opportunity to take on leadership while in an IC role. The time trade-off always exists — spending more time outside your IC project means you’ll need to be more efficient. Working smart involves mindsets and techniques that one needs to keep on honing, be it time management or workflow automation.

I look forward to staying on the battlefront of my field and helping build a better organization.

 

 

Daphne Ben-Gurion
Senior Account Manager

 

Yotpo is an eCommerce marketing platform.

 

Describe your role at Yotpo and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

My role is to collaborate with our multi-product client success managers and their portfolio of brands, as an added resource from a platform strategy perspective. I consult existing Yotpo brands using two or more Yotpo products on overall strategy with existing Yotpo products while also finding ways to expand their product offering within the Yotpo suite in ways that align with their growth goals. 

I’m currently working on a training initiative across multiple departments to help them understand how to best speak to our products, particularly SMS, contextualize how the functionality can help alleviate major pain points for brands and also consult on common use cases.

I find that investing in relationships  has allowed us to unlock better achievement of our overall goals.”

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

I believe I’ve always led by example, my role is very people-oriented and has a major need for cross-departmental collaboration to get the job done. I’ve been at Yotpo for almost six years on the client side and have walked through many scenarios with our client success and account management team. I not only guide them in different situations but help them tackle challenges by sharing what I have learned through experience. Although these situations are outside of my day to day goals, these shared learnings have allowed us to understand market trends more readily and be better equipped to serve our customers in a more strategic fashion. 

I find that investing in relationships with the people I work with has allowed us to unlock better achievement of our overall goals.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

I’ve had the fortune of having many compounding roles on the client side during my time at Yotpo. As we continue to scale products, and our service model gets even more complex, I’d love to manage a team in my existing role or perhaps create a new role that’s geared more towards a broader client success and account management strategy to ensure that scaling internally, as well as scaling products with our brands, doesn’t come at a price of our service level or platform acumen.

 

 

Lev Capital team members at a restaurant together
Lev Capital

 

Phoebe Gao
Senior Frontend Engineer

 

Lev Capital is a fintech company providing insights and services to real estate owners and investors.

 

Describe your role at Lev Capital and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

I’m a senior frontend software engineer at Lev, working on the lending engineering team and helping mentor our more junior frontend engineers. The most exciting project I’m working on right now is our engineering-wide project to migrate our apps between application interface languages, from REST APIs to GraphQL. It’s exciting because it will greatly improve the performance of our apps and help us move faster when building new features in the future.

A small team can have a huge impact on the engineering organization as a whole if we’re motivated and have passion for what we’re building.”

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

I recently led an effort to consolidate shared React components across our apps by creating a unified design system and component library using Tailwind CSS. It was an amazing step towards the right direction in our frontend vision - not only helping optimize development efforts, but also allowing us to have a single source of truth when modifying existing designs. I learned that a small team can have a huge impact on the engineering organization as a whole if we’re motivated and have passion for what we’re building.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

I’d really love to continue mentoring and developing junior developers, so that we all can perform at the highest levels and to continue to help lead engineering efforts that will allow us to grow and succeed in the future. The continued support I receive from my team and leaders is what will help get me to the next level.

 

 

Ruslan Rusu
Lead Software Engineer

 

Lively provides personalized care to people experiencing hearing loss.

 

Describe your role at Lively and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

It’s a great opportunity to join a growing company that is contributing to a terrific cause. Personally, as a lead backend engineer, it is a blessing to work with smart people and get important things done the right way from the beginning.

I am currently working on our referral program project. We never had one before, so this is exciting! I will own the technical aspect from the beginning to the end, including prototyping, initial demo and feedback, design and architecture decisions, which I’ll review with our architecture guild, and all the way through development, QA, deployment and monitoring.

It is the kind of work which makes my heart sing. Each decision is based on business constraints, ethics or customer feedback. The work stays true to our core to help more people and clients to enjoy life out there.

It is a blessing to work with smart people and get important things done the right way from the beginning.”

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role, whether that’s heading up a project, serving as a mentor or bringing new perspectives to a big company goal? What did you learn from that experience?

The beauty of small companies is that there is always something to lead. The opportunities are all over. For example, as a part of our business we run a set of backend services. In the beginning, when I joined, not all of them had good logs and monitoring. As I was the one on support, I made the case to my manager and got monitoring and logging enabled. Now, we have visibility and awareness of emerging problems before they happen.

Nothing brings me more joy than working along with my colleagues. I always learn something new. The other day I was on a video call with a frontend engineer, helping him debug an authentication issue. Watching him using developer tools in the browser reminded me that I can use REPL to run ad-hoc javascript without code changes. And then, guess what – in the referral program project, it helped me do my prototyping faster as I was able to defer the UX work. It’s always a two-way street. I was on a mission to help my colleague but learned something myself. A win-win.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

I see myself growing with Lively, partly because we have an awesome and diverse culture and partly because I get to work along with professionals who bring great experience from top companies across the US.

My biggest opportunity for growth is in championing challenging opportunities. Sometimes a difficult integration requires creative solutions, whether to figure out how or why something is broken, put a design document together or set up the support process and resources for someone on duty.

All of the above contribute daily to my skills and experience. I have no doubt I will get to the next level and my skills will be even more valuable to Lively as I grow.

 

 

Charlie OConor
Staff Software Engineer

 

Ocrolus is a document automation platform serving financial services companies.

 

Describe your role at Ocrolus and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

The majority of my job is split into four main areas: building system work, back-end engineering, site reliability engineering work, and supporting the machine learning (ML) training pipeline.

When I first started at Ocrolus, I wrote the mono repository’s first back-end service. It held the business logic in the font of the ML inference engine, linking models together and adding caching layers. This required creating new paradigms in our monorepo to allow for service development, and we have been working to maintain and expand our build system ever since. As part of my role, I work around ensuring that we have great utilities for each language and reduce the boilerplate of creating a new application. It is now so effective for the back-end application that any engineer can now hop into any service and immediately know how to run tests, build executables, and build Docker images. We can now help other teams or debug issues with very little friction.

I’m most excited about my work on the new version of a product which will allow customers to send in the document and data verification requests that humans will not touch as the normal flow does and help triad speed for accuracy.

A good mentorship session enables us to enjoy the process of building something great with like-minded people.”

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role, whether that’s heading up a project, serving as a mentor or bringing new perspectives to a big company goal? What did you learn from that experience?

I take the initiative to do sessions on topics that we are trying to get the team up to speed on to have a strong foundation of knowledge among all team members. Conducting mentorship sessions helps me see growth points in our development strategy and allows us to stay on top of the latest industry trends. A good mentorship session enables us to enjoy the process of building something great with like-minded people and come up with a development plan and appropriate learning activities. The most recent team-wide mentorship sessions were on Prometheus, our metrics platform, and MyPy, a type system that sits on top of Python.

I’ve gotten better at communicating and understanding people, foreseeing where people may not understand a particular topic, and delving deeper. I now have the sense to grasp what kind of topic would need more explanations as people, in general, are sometimes hesitant to ask questions. So I’ve learned that pausing after every subtopic brings up potential questions that the team might have and then moves on. This style of mentorship has made me more approachable to the team.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

I want to continue building cool things and learning new pieces of technology. That is where you find growth as an engineer. There will be more extensive systems and optimizations to write as the company grows. Especially as we scale up the team, there will be new challenges, and I am excited to keep taking these challenges to keep building something new and delivering the best solutions for our customers.

 

 

Christina Yeung
senior sales engineer

 

OpenX builds digital advertising markets and technologies.

 

Describe your role at OpenX and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

I consult with the OpenX sales team for publisher and demand partner in-market pitches, including showcasing OpenX offerings and researching market opportunities. In tandem, I partner with product and technical solutions teams to advocate for OpenX products, set priorities, and road map. I also work with product marketing to create OpenX collateral and in-market documentation. Right now, I’m working on identifying gaps and market opportunities to drive optimization for bespoke products with retail media networks, consumer packaged goods, and pharma clients.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role, whether that’s heading up a project, serving as a mentor or bringing new perspectives to a big company goal? What did you learn from that experience?

I advocate for my stakeholders to help with support and provide input, specifically where there are gray areas with selling products and services. In turn, I manage stakeholders by providing support with implementation and collecting feedback, which is key to instill confidence for the sales team while they’re in market. 

I add new perspectives to my team and company by researching and building business cases to share with core teams. I keep up to date with industry trade news and join working groups like the IAB to help inform my team and stay relevant. I advocate for best practices based on client needs and industry standards.

Constructively taking feedback and applying it to changes is quite challenging, especially when there is no collective alignment. My biggest take away from these experiences is primarily learning how to communicate effectively to achieve deadlines. 

I want to build a collective to support BIPOC and women-led teams and founders.”

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

I see myself consulting as an operator and advisor for hyper-growth startups in the venture capital space. I want to build a collective to support BIPOC and women-led teams and founders. Building a network with business leaders, founders, and strategic thinkers will help me grow and learn from their experiences. I am passionate about building strong relationships and advocating for others, especially uplifting my peers and counterparts (their success is my success).

 

 

Brian Tan
Javascript Developer

 

Jackpocket is a third-party application for players to order lottery tickets.

 

Describe your role at Jackpocket and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

I am a developer on the recently released Jackpocket web application. I would say working together with the team to build the web application from the ground up has been my most exciting project. Going into work with a strong vision for the application while coming face to face with the countless ways to go about it is incredibly nerve-wrecking and exhilarating. Will I construct this funding screen in the most efficient way possible? Or did I make sure to handle all the possible errors that can occur on the payout screen? A large part of the excitement is making an educated decision on a solution but also understanding that the application will change and improve over time.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role, whether that’s heading up a project, serving as a mentor or bringing new perspectives to a big company goal? What did you learn from that experience?

One way I have shown leadership is taking responsibility for larger tasks. While doing so, I discovered that most of the time it becomes a balancing act of relying on your existing expertise and being open-minded and receptive to new solutions. I try to abide by this way of thinking because it has been a common strand among the leaders I have enjoyed working with the most. If the person at the top feels this way and makes it evident to the team, I think that is a one-way ticket to a happy and collaborative environment and ultimately the best end product.

A little attention to detail can go a long way for your team.”

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

I would love to see the development team for the web application grow and be a part of that. Whether that means taking on more responsibility on new features and managing a team or just working one on one with a mentee, I look forward to it all. To do so, I will definitely lean on my experiences working with the leaders I’ve had on various teams. Working with my current teammate Patrick, a senior software engineer, has given me the opportunity to observe the pace and decisiveness required to build a large application from the ground up. A while ago when I was on the backend team, I got to work with developers like TJ, an engineering manager; and Javier, a lead backend engineer; who stressed maintaining the integrity of your codebase and how a little attention to detail can go a long way for your team. These strong characteristics are no doubt the reason they are thriving in their leadership roles today.

 

 

Two Canoe team members working on laptops in the office
Canoe

 

Mark Ferri
Enterprise Solutions Consultant

 

Canoe Software automates document and data workflow processes around alternative investment data.

 

Describe your role at Canoe and the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

I’m an enterprise solutions consultant at Canoe. I work with some of our largest and most sophisticated clients to ensure Canoe is providing value and fully integrated into their daily workflow. 

An important project we’re working on is increasing transparency of our client’s adoption of our software. There are many moving parts. From technical synchronization to training of our machine learning models, it’s a lot to track. We’re migrating to a new project management tool which will help our clients know exactly what they can expect at every stage of the partnership. Our clients can view progress in real time and anticipate upcoming tasks and goals as they utilize Canoe. I’m definitely excited that we’ll be able provide further visibility into our implementation progress and product development items for all key stakeholders.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role, whether that’s heading up a project, serving as a mentor or bringing new perspectives to a big company goal? What did you learn from that experience?

We’ve been blessed to have tremendous success over the past few years. A large part of that is due to the many new team members that have joined Canoe. I love teaching them the technical knowledge of our platform and making them experts. In fact, one of our company values is “Win Together.” I always try to emphasize that before we can help our clients, we need to become experts ourselves. Instilling domain and technical knowledge in each new employee has helped us become trusted advisors for our clients. I’ve certainly learned that everyone benefits from this elevated standard of work ethic.

I always try to emphasize that before we can help our clients, we need to become experts ourselves.”

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future, and who or what will help you get to your next level?

I’ve always enjoyed solving complex problems, which is what attracted me to Canoe in the first place. Over my last few years at Canoe, a large part of our success has come from reevaluating our current processes. Like many others, we’ve had to adapt to a changing world and growing client base.

I enjoy working at the intersection of our operations and product development organizations. I see myself continuing to streamline our internal operations as we scale and mature as an organization. This will allow us to be more efficient and provide value to our clients even quicker. Luckily, I have great guidance by some of our industry’s sharpest minds. The new talent we continue to attract helps provide fresh perspectives and experiences. We’re always willing to try new things as a firm, so I’ll continue to gain cross-team exposure over the next few months.

 

 

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