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The tech world is going flat, which has a lot to do with the experiences of your former employer. In this new (but not really that new) model, the hierarchy is flatter, people managers are fewer and have lots of reports, while experienced/skilled individual contributors (ICs) are expected to provide more of the leadership missing from the fewer managers (who are better at providing that anyways). When each manager has 20 reports, you don't need many of them. Even Microsoft is moving this way, and has always focused on a lot of strong ICs; distinguished engineer is a partner level position (I think).

I would be quite surprised if the real product direction power wasn't held by the principal engineers at Google. I mean, ya, the managers get to manage, and they provide some leadership, but they have those pesky management tasks and politics (all necessary) getting in the way of that. In that situation, there are also probably plenty of managers who have to manage peers (i.e. people who have equal or even more influence in the company), and the concept of "underling who reports back" is a bit of a stretch!

Look at how many distinguished engineers, or other very high level individual contributors who have actual real power there are compared to Directors and VP's who manage large groups of people.

The individual contributor path is exponentially more difficult to climb. I argue that you both have to win the lottery with the right projects and get in early at a company, and have all of the necessary skills.

I believe it is a story that is told to individual contributors by people with real power to keep them motivated.

The only theory that I've heard of where a flat org could be actually beneficial to individual contributors is the parents theory on open allocation. Otherwise it's just management kicking out the ladder once they've climbed it.

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