Becoming a Senior Engineer, The Third and Final Article
Read to learn the three big questions you need to ask and answer if you want to become a successful senior engineer.
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It has been years since I last updated my series on career growth for engineers. You can view the two original parts here and here, but I’ll summarize each as part of this third, and I think the final article on the subject (though I reserve the right to later change my mind).
These previous articles represented my own journey to date, and in attempting to summarize my observations and successes I found a large audience of people looking to do the same. This article is both a summary and extension, a synopsis and synthesis of my new experiences, now almost four years after I published the original article.
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The first article is really about what motivated me to quantize the subject of engineering career growth and the output of that endeavor in the form of career rubrics. When working for DataXu (now Roku post-acquisition), I had discovered that there were technical aspects, communication components, as well as interpersonal characteristics that are important to one’s career growth.
This carried over smoothly into the way I ran teams at PCH. I think now that this extends to any field and profession, and while the technologies might change, I suspect my rubrics will not need updating beyond the context of your technical stack.
It is a testament to the utility of these rubrics that they remain online today, more than two years after I left PCH. I have received notes from recruiters and managers regarding the rubrics as something they use for hiring and performance reviews, and I continue to look back to it as a guidepost for my expectations of engineers on my teams.
The second article dives into the (inter)personal facets of career growth, mostly because it is the most difficult to quantize and as engineers, we want to be able to measure everything when it comes to anything, including our own abilities. This is a very “squishy” subject-matter-area, and ultimately it depends on the culture of your business and your team to meter and enforce these qualities.
I do not back down from naming them as necessary for growth: it is rare that one is a lone soldier on the field, that the weight of a product or team or business would fall on an individual. A business does not need “heroes,” it needs collaborators and builders. As I started thinking more about this, about what a business needs, and how that marries with career growth, I developed a framework outside of the rubrics.
The rubrics are tactical and intended for use at particular times (like engineer onboarding, performance reviews, SMART goal definition, etc.), while the framework is strategic, and can be used at any time and at any level.
Three Big Questions
There are three important questions to ask yourself regardless of your role, three questions that will always apply to your career from start to finish. In answering these questions, you will find you have discovered if your role is a good fit for you if the expectations of you are reasonable, and you will be able to identify those opportunities necessary to grow into a larger role. It is important to answer these questions as honestly and factually as possible.
What Is My Role as Written?
Answering the question of what your role looks like on paper, often with the help of your manager, can help establish a set of expectations and boundaries that pave the way for your success in your current role. I would argue that this alone is not often clear for individual contributors.
The needs of a team are often flexible, job descriptions are written to encompass an ideal candidate for work that exists in the present, and most developers will confess to working on things that are very different than what they were originally hired for.
In clarifying what the written responsibilities of your role are you can answer the question, “What am I supposed to be doing?” This is what makes you successful in your current role, specifically, meeting and exceeding those expectations. I have personally been in a position where this (at least felt like) a moving target with my manager. Every day I would come in and try to meet their expectations, but every day the expectations seemed to be different.
I tried frank conversation, I tried documentation, and eventually, I fit into the position they expected and our relationship grew (though not without considerable tension). The end result was not exactly what either of us had expected of my position when I first joined, but the result was a healthy working dynamic.
What Does the Business Need?
I hope for you that this isn’t too different an answer from the question above, but odds are it creates a Venn diagram that only mostly overlaps. The delta between your role as written and what the business needs is important to understand, for your development, or to articulate concerns to your manager and the business.
If what the business needs and the expectations of any person in your position are too different, you are going to face significant obstacles in your career, as you are effectively being asked (by your manager, the business, or whomever) to do things outside of your experience and abilities.
I spoke to someone recently who was a Scrum master for a very large team (much larger than Agile would typically recommend as ideal), and who struggled with the role because they were doing things outside of the expectations of a typical Scrum master (like writing all the stories and maintaining the backlog independently).
They had overloaded themselves with work that the business needed, but not work they wanted to do, or perhaps they were not capable of doing this work given the circumstances. They were unable to work with their management to reduce the onus and eventually asked to move the responsibility to another engineer. They saw this as a failing of Agile itself, instead of as a failure to communicate their needs adequately, or perhaps as a non-fulfillment of the responsibilities of the business to support its employees.
Really, this was something the business needed that this person was not able to satisfy while carrying out their current responsibilities, and that disconnect could not be bridged for one reason or another.
I prefer to see this as an opportunity, in many cases, to grow into a role with additional responsibilities, and identifying these opportunities can enable your future success. Displaying your tractability and versatility in key moments that aid the business can help you obtain additional skills, overcome new challenges, help shape your perception of different kinds of work, and offer visibility for your accomplishments.
What Do You Want to Do?
This last question is important to ask yourself. Perhaps you’ve recently taken on the mantle of Scrum master and do not find it to your liking (as above), or are thinking about a move to management. Years ago I spoke to someone who had returned to being an IC after a couple of years in management. They were good at being a manager, but found the politics uncomfortable and frequently felt pangs of regret at missing out on creating something that people would use.
What had originally lured them was the possibility of making more money and having more say in the decision-making process of the business. What they found in their organization was the same amount of money, politics in place of logical discourse, and a lack of accessible career progression. When they asked themselves, "Is this what I want to do, given this new information?" the answer was a resounding "no," and so they quit.
This is an extreme example, and depending on the size of your business you may be able to take on your original responsibilities or find like opportunities on another team. Perhaps what you want to do is neither your role on paper, or what the business currently needs, and at that point, it is likely time to venture outside of the business in your quest for career progression.
A Final Thought
For those of you who are career-minded, specifically looking for your next opportunity, I want you to write down these three questions, right now, and try to answer them. Are they what you expected? If not, what can you do about it? I have loved hearing from you all on LinkedIn and Quora, please continue to reach out, and as always, I am happy to help.
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