Career Lens: A non-prescriptive way to think about your career

This is an adaptation of a post written by Swathi, one of our Engineering Managers, where she shares her personal framework for thinking about career development. Courtesy: SlidesCarnival Many times over the past decade, I have struggled with knowing what strategy I needed to deploy in my career. To be honest, sometimes I had spent […]

This is an adaptation of a post written by Swathi, one of our Engineering Managers, where she shares her personal framework for thinking about career development.

Courtesy: SlidesCarnival

Many times over the past decade, I have struggled with knowing what strategy I needed to deploy in my career. To be honest, sometimes I had spent more time researching how to advance in my career than actually acting upon what I had learnt. I realized the only way I could be disciplined about it is to come up with a framework that I could use as a reference every time I was feeling stuck or clueless about what to do next.

The Career Lens framework is a curation of different thoughts and perspectives from experiences that my peers, mentors, and managers have been gracious enough to share, reflections from the books I have read, lessons from courses and trainings that I have attended and finally, my personal observations of people and technical leaders at companies I have worked with in the past.

The Career Lens framework has 3 phases:

  • Self-Awareness: Knowing how you react to stress in your day-to-day situations, what you are motivated by personally, and which stage of the career you are in helps you internalize how your personal life influences your professional growth.
  • Market Realities: Understanding the market realities helps know the playing field better, and enables you to curate your career in the conscious path you want.
  • Career Roadmap: Do you know what you should do next to optimize for what you want in your career? Having a career roadmap for yourself sets you up for success.

The next few sections will provide different perspectives to consider when you are thinking about progress and growth at work. Please note that none of these are prescribed suggestions — they are just different lenses through which you can look into your career and personalize what works for best you.

Phase 1: Self-Awareness

Self-Awareness means “conscious knowledge of one’s own character and feelings.” You need to develop a strong sense of awareness in both your personal and professional life.

Self-Awareness (Personal)

Since life is a myriad of ups and downs, it is crucial to understand how we react to it.

Courtesy: SlidesCarnival

Life Events
Life goes on. Getting a new job might have been the greatest milestone after graduation. However, adulting only starts after that. There are events that follow — some within our control, some outside of our control — that affect how we think and behave. Everything from finding a partner, buying a car or home, having a child to broken relationships, debt, injury or illness, changes you. Those changes might directly affect your focus in your career. Hence, understanding how you react and respond to stress from an emotional, psychological and behavioral way helps you to channelize your energy in the way that is right for you. When these events happen, ask yourself the following:

  • Can you channel your energy into work?
  • Is work a distraction?
  • Can you be social and interact with others in the office?
  • Do you need your personal space and time off?

I’ve seen people come to work the next day after surgeries or funerals. For them, work was passion. It gave them a great source of distraction, but also a tremendous sense of purpose, meaning, and satisfaction. They were able to channel their personal woes into work and deliver great results. On the other hand, I have seen people take time off and sabbaticals to get a break from work, travel the world, and heal from their pain. Being aware of what works for you will help you manage your time, focus, and energy better.

You can also proactively plan your career according to how events in your life unfolds. For example:

  • Do you have other commitments in life, or can you join an early stage startup where the demands on your work and time is considerably more?
  • Are you planning for a kid? As such, do you need to consider companies that have great benefits for parents and generous parental leave?
  • Are you looking to move into a different role? Does your company provide you access to training or a stipend for pursuing an advanced degree?
  • Are you fighting through an illness or taking care of someone who is? Does that require flexibility in your work schedule?

Consciously planning in advance will help prepare you and set the right expectations on yourself and your performance at work.

Motivation
What energizes you when you think about work? For most of us, a combination of 3–5 factors influences our motivation to work:

  • Recognition: Receiving recognition and praise for the work you do
  • Status: Receiving a position such as a title or a role
  • Responsibility: Being entrusted with important and impactful work
  • Creativity: Having the space to explore different ideas
  • Access: Being included in exclusive circles
  • Inclusion: Having your ideas considered in areas outside of your core responsibilities
  • Impact: Value delivered to the business
  • Growth: Personal improvements and seeing yourself get better in your own eyes
  • Compensation: Monetary rewards
  • Challenge: Working on things that are unknown, hard, or something you haven’t done before
  • Curiosity: Learning new things and perspectives
  • Mastery: Developing expertise in an area
  • Collaboration: Working closely with others
  • Pace: Moving fast
  • Winning: Working in an environment where the team/company keeps winning
  • Mission: Mission of the team/company
  • Autonomy: Discovering your own path as opposed to being told what to do
  • High Pressure: Working on things where the stakes are high
  • Acceptance: Gaining the respect and trust of your peers
  • Influence: Being able to convince and influence others

Knowing what motivates you — to push through those pesky bugs, or coming up with a scalable tech plan for your project in the middle of the night, or fighting fraudsters over the New Year’s Eve — can help you refocus and get the sense of achievement and satisfaction and get you through your dull gray days.

As we keep growing and evolving through time, our motivators can also change as the environments and the situation around us changes.

For me, one of the greatest motivations is fear — fear of becoming irrelevant in the future. It’s the fear that keeps pushing me out of my comfort zone, that forces me to take on new challenges and new roles at work every few years. It helps me to learn and be curious, and motivates me to pick up newer skill sets.

I’ve known people who stay in their current jobs way longer than they should. Keep tabs on how motivated you are at work. Is the environment supportive of your goals, and is it fueling the right motivation for you to grow in your career? If not, it might be a good time to consider shifting to a new team, moving to a new company, changing job roles, or finding a new interesting domain.

Passion or Work
Which category do you belong to?

  • Work is my passion.
  • I have a passion outside of work.
  • I don’t know! I’m still figuring it out..
  • Wait…why not both?

When I worked at Uber, a new manager asked me this in my very first one-on-one. I did not answer immediately, but it prodded me to think through it. It also helped provide clarity on where to focus my thoughts and energy. Am I thinking about a hard problem in the shower, or daydreaming about my next travel destination?

In my early days at Microsoft, I used to judge some of my coworkers who would come in around 8:30am and leave around 4:30pm, and work only on the tasks and projects assigned to them. Whereas, I was slogging myself from 6:30am to 9:30pm during weekdays, and working on weekends too!

Retrospectively, I realized that it’s just a different approach to work. All of them who left early had either a family to care for, or were passionate about something outside of work — woodworking, home renovation, playing board games, or writing Young Adult novels. Some of them were also moonlighting as professional photographers or musicians, and some even competed in international gaming events! So for them, work was just that — work.

So… you do YOU! There’s no right or wrong answer to this. It simply highlights what your modus operandi is. Understanding how you perceive work can help you figure out the right balance to either push through or disconnect from frustrating days at work.

Self-Awareness (Professional)

Stages of Career
Have you heard of the “Conscious Competence Learning Model”? It explains the process and stages of learning a new skill. This can also be widely used to understand where you are in your current role.

Courtesy: Stages of Competence

Another angle to think about this is, which stage are you currently in?

  • Newbie, learning and exploring
  • Fitting in and making progress
  • Built expertise — satisfaction and belonging
  • Veteran

This could correlate to your level in the company — entry level, junior, senior, or it could relate to your time in a new job function, like transitioning from an engineer to a manager. This is because, in each of those transitions, you are now working toward a new set of expectations. Simply doing what you were doing before wouldn’t cut it.

While you reach conscious competence and enjoying your proficiency, watch out for complacency. In other words, are you “coasting” or “resting and vesting”? If you are conscious you are doing that and have a reason for doing so that makes sense to you (e.g. waiting for promotion, focusing your time at home due to major life events, or simply taking time off to reflect), then that’s alright. However, if you are not pushing yourself out of your comfort zone for an indefinitely long period of time, then you might become stagnant in your career. At that time, find the next skill sets, domain, or role that you want to venture into!

Phase 2: Market Realities

Courtesy: gonitsora

The job market keeps evolving, especially with the changing landscape of the global economy. In addition to understanding your motivations, having a grasp of trends in the job market for particular skill sets is equally essential. If you haven’t watched “Humans need not apply,” I would highly recommend it!

Layoffs have almost become a norm today. In 2014, when many Software Development Engineer in Test (SDETs) at Microsoft were let go, it was a rude awakening moment for me personally. When Uber laid off 8% of its total workforce in 2019, it was another nail in the coffin. It went from bad to worse when Covid-19 hit in 2020 and brought a reckoning of layoffs, furloughs, and reduction in pay for many in Silicon Valley. Through these years, I have learnt one important lesson: to always level up and up-skill.

Up-skill

Automation is inevitable. It’s a tool to produce abundance for little effort. We need to start thinking now about what to do when large sections of the population are unemployable — through no fault of their own. What to do in a future where, for most jobs, humans need not apply.

If you are currently a software engineer specializing in a single domain like Frontend or Backend, make sure to build all relevant skills necessary for that role. Today, there is an abundance of options to learn without paying tooth and nail for it: Coursera, Udemy, Pluralsight, O’Reilly Safari Learning, MIT Open Courseware, Khan Academy, and Kanopy are some of the sites I have used in the past. Especially considering that most of these are either subsidized or reimbursable by companies and offered for free by public libraries, there’s no excuse not to make use of it.

Image Courtesy: https://www.3dotsdesign.in/

If you aren’t sure which skills to pick up for your role, looking through the job descriptions from different companies will provide great insights. If you are an expert in your current domain (e.g. frontend engineer), trying different roles like mobile development or backend engineering will help you build different skill sets. You can also try different teams in your current company, which will provide you an opportunity to work in a new environment with new people, new products, and a new codebase.

The experience of working in a bigger enterprise company is very different from working at a consumer-focused start-up. You get exposed to different operating models and different constraints that exist when you work across different companies in varied domains. Be sure to explore them all!

Up-level

Everyone loves a promotion. However, getting promoted needs conscious effort from you as an engineer. It’s crucial to understand leveling systems in companies. Every company should have a career matrix that defines the competencies at your level. If your company doesn’t have one, companies like Square and Carta have made theirs public and accessible to all.

Most companies typically require you to perform at the next level for a minimum of 6 months before you could get promoted. So, if you are aiming for a promotion, make sure to evaluate yourself against the expectations for the next level in your career ladder.

Courtesy: Levels.fyi, shows how levels across companies might be different. Skillset match across the industry is key.

Please note that levels in your company might not map 1:1 to levels in other companies in the industry. On one hand, you might get promoted, but might still not have relevant skills or experience that other companies might be looking for. On the other hand, even if you aren’t getting promoted, you might still be learning a lot of new skill sets that are valued higher and might place you at the next level in some other companies.

Even if you are doing everything you can and still not getting promoted, remember: “There is only so much oxygen at each level.” However, the world is a very giving place and the opportunities are plenty once you start looking around!

Outside of levels, if you are always focusing on impact for the business and keen on growing your skill sets by learning and pushing yourself, you are guaranteed to stay relevant in the industry.

Compensation

The software engineer job market is expected to grow by 30.7% between 2016 and 2026. Currently, the software engineering job market in the US is hot and the compensation packages provided by companies are very competitive. It’s crucial to understand if you are paid on par with the industry for your current role and responsibilities. There are many websites (levels.fyi, Glassdoor) that provide visibility into what the market rate for your role is. It’s prudent to be aware of it and evaluate your current situation against it.

Negotiation is key in any compensation discussion. If the term “negotiate your job offer” makes you squirm or if you aren’t sure how to approach it, then read through this blog. It will help you accept the reality and provide you with guidelines on how to approach a negotiation conversation.

Career Pathways

Leveling up is only one way to success. However, careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.

Career Pathways for Software Engineers

Opportunities come up in different ways: by changing domains or teams, by moving up a level, by reorgs in the company, when people leave the company, when your team grows, following your mentor or manager, etc. So be open and flexible to embrace it.

There is so much to learn from a new sector of the industry like FinTech, BioTech or EdTech. Transitioning from an IC role into a EM/PM/TPM allows you to pick up a whole new set of skills that you couldn’t probably master while being an engineer. Specializing deeply in areas like security or self-driving cars also sets you apart.

Some career changes might seem like a level down initially, but given time it might provide an unexpected opportunity. You can follow any of the paths and directions as shown above. Depending on where you want to reach and what your goal is, some paths might be accelerated.

Develop competitive advantage — combine three puzzle pieces into a coherent whole: your assets, your aspirations, and the market realities. — The Startup of You.

Now that you have an understanding of where you are and what you want to do, we will cover how you can optimize your path to reach your career goal.

Phase 3: Career Roadmap

Courtesy: walkerinfo.com — 5 steps in your Career Roadmap

If you know your long term goal, do you have a roadmap (complete with checkpoints and milestones) to achieve it? Knowing where you are in life and understanding where you are in your career, do you know what next steps to follow? Are you surrounded by the right set of people who can help accelerate your career?

This 5-step plan will help you structure and take action on your own career roadmap. Create a new document and follow through the steps mentioned below. You can use this document to track your progress on a regular cadence.

Step 1 — Motivators

For most of us, a combination of factors influences our motivation at work. These motivators can also change over time — we as humans keep evolving, the environment around us changes, and our personal situations change. Having a good understanding of what motivates you now can help you bring out the best in you, and in turn ensure that you experience positive feelings like joy and satisfaction through your work.

Reflect on what motivates you best and pick your top 3 out of the list above and internalize them.

Step 2 — Long-term Goal

Write down a few sentences that describe how you’d like to develop your career long-term. These could be vague, ambitious, and dreamy! Some examples of this could be: “I’d like to start my own company” or “I’d like to improve my leadership skills” or “I want to keep learning and growing.”

Step 3 — Milestones

Call out a set of milestones that will help you get to your long-term goals. Milestones can be specific to your company’s levels (e.g. Get to L3) or skill-related (e.g. Develop mastery in area X) or anything else you care about.

For example, let’s say you are a new grad engineer and would like to become a senior engineer in a couple of years. Your milestones could look like the following (please note that this is purely an example):

  • Learn the code base and deliver multiple mid-sized projects successfully by end the year.
  • Take courses to dive deep into code and architectural design patterns.
  • Get promoted to the next level.
  • Review others’ code and actively participate in design reviews for your team.
  • Sign up to become the scrum lead or an interviewer for your team.
  • Mentor an intern next summer.
  • Become a tech lead for your team.
  • Get promoted to senior engineer in 24 months.

Step 4 — Roadmap

Create a structured way to track your progress against your milestones. Set explicit dates and timelines for your milestones above. Check your progress against your timelines in a regular cadence, say monthly or quarterly.

Get familiar with your company’s career competency matrix and do a self evaluation against it. This means creating/copying over the expected roles and responsibilities for your level and the next level up, and diligently thinking through multiple examples of your past projects. Be honest with yourself on which dimensions of the matrix you are demonstrating well, and which areas have scope for improvement. Take time to reflect on peer and manager feedback from the past.

Share your personal career plan with your manager in your next 1:1. Talk through the gaps in your skill sets and ask for opportunities to build them over the next few months. Your manager can be your accountability partner for your roadmap. Ask them for feedback on your current plan and incorporate relevant suggestions.

Step 5 — “Board of Directors”

Like with any company, your career needs a “board of directors” — people who can help you influence and shape your career in the right direction. While you own your career, you can rely on your board of directors to gather feedback and make improvements.

Identify a list of technical and non-technical mentors in your company and others outside of your company who can help you build the necessary skills and coach you through them. Reach out to them on a regular cadence and build a relationship.

This is essential because this network of people can potentially refer you to new opportunities, motivate you when you are down, and also provide guidance when you are clueless.

This is the Career Lens framework: self-awareness, market realities, and career roadmap. As a recap, this framework is a non prescriptive way to think about your career. You can use, personalize, or skip any portion of this to what personally makes sense for your career.

If you are thinking of a change and would like to explore a new domain, we are hiring at Benchling!


Career Lens: A non-prescriptive way to think about your career was originally published in Benchling Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Benchling