From Development to UX, from IC to Manager – and back – with Merlin Rebrovic, Google

Mia Biberovic

Super senior IC roles have been common in Software Engineering, but not in UX. Merlin is ready for this new challenge.

Merlin had more than one pivotal moment in his career. First, he switched from programming to UX Design. Then, Google hired him, meaning he stopped working for smaller European companies and started working for an American Big Tech company after moving to Switzerland. During his 10 years at Google, he transitioned from an individual contributor (IC) to a managerial position and eventually returned to an individual contributor role. And all of that in the same team.

Quite a ride, heh? But let’s drive back to the start.

How a problem-solver solved his problem

“I loved what computers allowed me to do from the first day I saw them in primary school, from playing games to drawing and other kinds of creative expression. I experienced programming for the first time in high school and wasn’t terrible at it, so I decided to pursue technical studies. I found that computer science and software development is more suited to my strengths than electrical and electronic engineering, and that’s how I ended up in my first programming job.”

“But, working as a software developer on customer-facing or business-to-business products means you’ll usually get the specifications (documents, mocks, prototypes) and implement them,” Merlin explains. “Almost everything has been defined by the time you start, and it’s difficult to change it.” 

I found it demotivating to use my skills to solve the wrong problem or solve the right problem in the wrong way.

The only way he could solve problems as a developer is to find a team with a proven process where everyone can share their expertise while outlining the initial solution. And those kinds of teams are very rare. He decided to move up the pipeline, which usually starts with product/project managers and designers following closely. 

“I’ve tried both roles but leaned more towards design because more hands-on work gets done there. The idea worked—since I switched, I’ve been able to outline the right solutions entirely or at least steer them in the right direction.”

And you can guess the reactions from his peers: Why?! (in a bewildered voice).

We all have assumptions about how digital products are used

Merlin has some advice for you if you lack a formal UX background but are considering a career shift from software development to UX. 

“The most important advice is to recognize that we all have assumptions about how digital products are used and that the only way around the assumptions is to regularly talk to customers and end users and learn from that. Everything else — processes, tools, methods — can be easily found online and are not that critical in the long run.”

Merlin Rebrovic at The Geek Gathering Conference

He found many skills and experiences from his software development background valuable in his UX role. Two of them were highly beneficial. 

“First, I can easily understand technical constraints and feasibility, and that reduces the time to create a solution proposal. Second, I have a broad shared vocabulary with people in technical roles, which makes communication efficient and clear.”

Being a manager can be emotionally taxing and rewarding

Other than a cultural shock after he moved and started working for a Big Tech company, a massive moment in Merlin’s career was when he became a manager. He was surprised to see how different the job was from the individual contributor role and how emotionally taxing and rewarding it can be. 

“Even though I heard and acknowledged it before I became a manager, I only truly understood and appreciated the difference when I started doing it. Luckily, Google supports the transition through regular education, coaching, and mentoring.”

Super senior IC role in a UX world

In the end, Merlin recently announced that he’s returning to the individual contributor role. The reactions from his peers were different and mixed this time. But he tried to anticipate his colleagues’ most apparent response, so he sent them a memo with a clear title: No, I wasn’t demoted.

“Some were slightly sad that we wouldn’t work as managers anymore, but others were happy to leverage my strengths and domain knowledge in the additional time freed up with the role change.”

Super senior IC roles have been somewhat common in Software Engineering but not as much in other functions like UX. The industry has been shifting in the past few years to allow for more of these senior contributors, so I’m looking forward to seeing where this path will take me.

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