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What Management Taught Me About Advancing My Engineering Career

Over the year and a half that I was managing, I learned a lot of things about management, myself, and doing well as an engineer. Many of the realizations I came to, seem obvious to me in retrospect, but I never saw them before. People often ask what I learned from being a manager. I learned a lot of little things, but some of the biggest revolve around gaining perspective and understanding how to help my manager work for me.

Where do the opportunities go?

Prior to managing, I had this impression that managers get opportunities and then divide them amongst their people. If they liked me or thought I was performing well, I would get lots of opportunities and if not, then I wouldn’t get any. The reality is that the situation is far more nuanced than that. While I was managing, I was faced with work that needed to get done and I didn’t necessarily see all of that work as opportunities. Furthermore, a task that one person sees as an opportunity, someone else might view as busywork or even as something they would want to avoid at all costs. To compound this, despite trying to dig into my team members’ career goals, I didn’t always have a lot of insight into exactly what an individual wanted opportunity-wise or where they wanted to head with their career. This entire situation gets worse as a manager gets busy and doesn’t have the time to explore who might want a particular task.

This leads to situations where opportunities may be either randomly assigned based on who is around and will be able to complete the task or assigned based on who responds to a request for volunteers. Both of these methods have problems. Random assignment often leads to the most capable team members getting a lot of the opportunities no matter what they might be (which isn’t good for those people or anyone else). Asking for volunteers often leads to either the most outspoken people getting the opportunities or the people most looking to just do anything to help the team (not viewing them as potential growth opportunities). All of this is to say that even the best meaning managers often struggle with always matching their people with the best opportunities to help them grow.

Ask for what you want

Okay, so it’s challenging for managers, but how can you make sure you get interesting opportunities? Ask for what you want. Instead of one of my people just telling me that they want to grow or that they want to get to the next level (who doesn’t?), if they were to tell me that they really want to find more opportunities to speak, this suddenly becomes much easier for me. The next time we need someone to present our project, they will be one of the first ones to come to mind. Similarly, if someone says they really want an opportunity to code in scala, the next time a scala task comes up, they’ll be one of the first ones on the list. The more specific you can be here, the easier for your manager and the more likely you are to get to do what you want. If there’s already an existing group that you think you could really contribute to or learn from, speak up. If there’s a task you see in the backlog that you really want to do or lead, say something. You still may not get to do all of the things you ask for, but by helping your manager see what interests you, you greatly increase the chance of getting what you want. It also becomes much more time effective for your manager to spend time actively seeking out an opportunity for you if they know exactly what you’re looking for.

Define your next role

The next point that often follows is that you might not know what to ask for. Your manager can help you with this, but ultimately this is going to have to come down to you as well. One of the big secrets is that the further up the chain you go, the roles become less and less clearly defined (and that’s not even taking into consideration the management track vs the technical track or even switching out of eng entirely). There are certain aspects that we look for in more senior engineers, but it becomes less and less of a clearly defined checklist for a cookie cutter person. People can successfully fill these roles in very different ways. It becomes important to define the role for yourself: What do you value in someone at that level? What skills does your team need you to fill? What skills would the broader organization benefit from you demonstrating? What are you good at and where can you add the most value? There might be ten different ways for you to demonstrate that you can have broad impact or that you can build for leverage, but unless you can define for yourself how you want to demonstrate that, your manager can only do so much.

You are the main advocate for your career

It is a part of your manager’s job to make sure that their people are growing and advancing in their careers, but at the end of the day, the best advocate for your career is going to be you. Only you know where you ultimately want to get in your career — even if everyone on the team wants to get to the next level, what that next level is and how they get there will likely be different for every single person. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t work with your manager. You should. Managers are great for brainstorming with about how you might demonstrate skills in different ways or to help you get an outside perspective on ways that you already are. They might have new ideas about ways to strengthen your skill set and they can give you feedback about how you’re progressing in various areas. They might even help you identify your blind spots — your weak areas that you weren’t even aware of. This is their job, but at the same time, you shouldn’t sit back and assume they’ll manage your career for you. Only you are in the best position to do that.

When I was a manager, I realized that I really wanted to help my people grow and get to the next level, but I often found myself inadequately equipped to do that. I wanted to match all of my people with their perfect opportunities, but I didn’t always know what those were or didn’t have the time to find the best fits. If each and every one of us defines our career trajectory, asks for what we want and becomes the main advocate and driver for our careers, we can work with our managers and empower them to support us to the best of their ability.

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