Saturday, February 22, 2020

Career Development for Senior Engineers on the technical ladder

As part of the yearly performance review process, we are supposed to describe what we do and how we add value to the organization.

I am a software engineer by training and once prided myself on being a pretty decent programmer. At this point in my career, I am in a fairly senior position on the technical ladder at one of the large innovation drive tech companies, which means that I now write a lot less code than most people in my team. The dual-ladder career system allows for formal career advancement for technical talent without having to necessarily change into management roles but still expects similar levels of strategic impact.

So what do I actually do?

When moving through levels of seniority my focus has shifted from writing code, to more reviewing code, from writing design documents to commenting on other people's design docs. I still remember succinctly the advice of a more senior colleague, that the key to getting promoted to the next level would be by becoming comfortable with taking credit for other people's work. Even as an "individual contributor". While sounding snarky, this is very solid advice, specially as this does not come natural to many engineers who idealize self-reliance and who think they could do everything by themselves if they just had enough time.

While critiquing, guiding and mentoring others - and ultimately taking some credit for their accomplishments helped me to get to the current level, it won't be enough for the next level.

So what do I actually do?

Maybe my most impactful contribution these days is actually in storytelling. Developing narratives, analogies, metaphors and mental models to describe things that are abstract, unobvious and don't yet exist. Creating the vocabulary to help an organization to talk about what it is that we should be doing and how we could get there.

After years of honing the skills and craft of software and systems development, it comes down to the oldest cultural competence - the one that makes us the most distinctively human: the ability to imagine and talk about things that don't exist and maybe through that make them happen...