Finding Your Calling as You Specialize in Your Field
Engineering Manager at Netflix
At the beginning of my career, I wanted to learn everything, because knowledge is power, right? I was always trying to pick up the next new thing that I saw in front of me, absorbing everything about the industry that I could. Within my company, I would learn a new skill, and then quickly move on to the next one. Knowing “everything” about a product or field is comfortable in a way. You do the same thing with each new job that you take on, starting over in a new area or domain continuously.
I’ve realized that this is a common thing. Now that I manage people myself, I notice that some junior-level professionals do not know when to stop; they just go and go and go without any real goal in mind for what they eventually would like to master, their ultimate purpose. There is nothing wrong with an uninhibited appetite for learning. Without the perspective that time and experience affords us, however, time that would be put to better use finding ourselves may be spent chasing things that are new and exciting instead of what will sustain us in the long-term.
My intention is not to go back in time and to tell myself to stop searching everywhere for knowledge. When we’re trying to do it on our own, we are seekers, pure and simple. The guidance of somebody who is already doing and has already done the things that we wish to do ourselves can offer their experience, though, which can be helpful. They may have made the exact same mistakes, pointing out paths that may help you to instead advance. That insight can make you think, shortening the iterative nature of the journey, helping you avoid trial and error.
What’s the new, shiny thing? Machine learning? Okay, I’ll go do that. When I notice this type of inclination in my employees, I try to get them thinking about what they’ll do after becoming proficient in this new area that has caught their attention. This gives them pause. They’ve caught the thing that they were after. Now what is there left to do?
They realize that this journey never really ends. Now, they are asking themselves these questions and to reflect more on how they are spending their time. Adding another technical skill should be an afterthought when one already knows plenty. At that point, a better area to invest in is something on a higher-level, like leadership. Skills like this cut across everything. Now, the person is much more valuable to their company. Sometimes I find myself chasing things, even now.
Early in my career, I would look back and regret all of the days that I spent doing little. You don’t care about it at the time, because you have so much life in front of you left to live. Now, every moment becomes much more precious. Now, I take everything into consideration; how much time will I spend here, and how far will I go with the pursuit? What do I want to get out of the endeavor?
- Striking a balance between depth and breadth is something that must be done throughout your career. You don’t have to be too structured about it. Having a plan definitely helps for me, personally.
- Finding a mentor who can advise you as you find yourself professionally should be one of your priorities. A mentor will generally know the landscape of the area that you want to break into. More than one mentor? There’s no shame in that. Learn from everybody. Find your community to bounce your ideas off of. It takes courage to put yourself out there, but you have to be willing to open up about how you are thinking about the path ahead. It’s okay to be wrong. This type of counsel can be found anywhere — in school, in the workplace. Finding yourself alone is not uncommon. There is always somebody new to meet.
- In my own experience, I’ve found that doing “less” can amount to more in the long-term. Focus on the quality of what you learn as opposed to the quantity. When you have one thing going on, focus on that one thing instead of adding more. This concerted effort results in a higher-fidelity outcome. I extract lessons wherever and whenever I can.
- We’ve all got obligations outside of our work. Adding a new skill takes time and should be treated as a deliberate decision; the process takes up space, and other areas of your life will need to be put aside to accommodate it. Your time is so important. You need to make the most out of what you have. An hour spent learning is one hour less that I have for my children.
Connect and Learn with the Best Eng Leaders
We will send you a weekly newsletter with new mentors, circles, peer groups, content, webinars,bounties and free events.