How to Execute a Focused and Thought Driven Plan for Career Success Among Young Engineers

Paul Onakoya

Director of Engineering at Google



Many young engineers who do not know what to talk about in personal feedback meetings generally default to status updates of their projects. This often results in the improper leverage of one-on-one meetings with managers concerning career goals. In my prior experience with Microsoft, along with current reports from Netflix, this problem can arise by placing a heavy focus on technical contributions rather than talking directly about growth, skills needed, and skill strengthening. Netflix, a company that amounts to nearly 5,000 employees, can also fall victim to unfocused one-on-one career growth meetings.

Actions taken

Step 1 - Set expectations for one-on-one meetings. Do so by separating project status update conversations from career growth ones. For example, I hold a project tactical and a one-on-one meeting every week to singularize their importance.

Step 2 - Give the reports "talking points" for the one-on-one meetings. These should focus on skills that are important for their overall growth.

The skills are as follows:

Skill 1: Project Leadership

Skill 2: Engineer Empathy

"Understand the main points from engineers and focus on making their lives easier."

Skill 3: Technical Proficiency

"Go beyond knowing all the features and language of a particular program and prove to be a well-rounded engineer. This can be recognized by way of presenting good architecture, designs, and feedback loops for whatever tools you build, as well as, the ability to adjust and tailor to clients."

Skill 4: Thought Leadership

"Identify opportunities that will have a big impact on the company and apply creative responses to problem-solving."

Skill 5: Execution and Autonomy

Step 3 - Choose between one of two paths that work towards fostering the growth of the 5 skills. Begin by asking the individuals what skills they think they have strengths in and which of those they want to expand on. They can choose to either lean into one or two skills in which they are semi-proficient or choose to accept a cap of growth in several skills and instead, hone in on developing new ones.

Step 4 - Design specific conversations based on the individual's chosen path, such as, "here is how you can lean into a strength" or "here is how you can pick up a new skill". A primary example of a focal point could be, "How do you get better at primary leadership when your scope has increased?".

Step 5 - Assess the established guidelines around the selected approach and its specific focuses. Measure improvement and growth early on through results, whether it be metric or monetary. The more positive feedback that is received signals that a person is trending in the right direction.

Lessons learned

  • The method works regardless of the seniority of the engineer. I have received a lot of positive feedback about the separation of technical versus one-on-one meetings from both junior and senior engineers.
  • This method forces engineers to really reflect on their career. It allows them to shift their mindset to consider more challenging career options that avoid boredom and help with growth.
  • With the correct execution in implementing this method, it can be successfully adopted in other companies. I was able to effectively implement my method a year into being a manager and after a total of five years of use, I have witnessed its inclusion firsthand. There are two people on the XBox team at Microsoft that use my method as well as two of my peers from Netflix who are currently using it to manage their own web teams.
  • Execution is achieved by setting firm boundaries at the first signs of a topic going awry. A simple reminder to "save it for the project tactical meeting" can help drive the success rate of the conversation.

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Paul Onakoya

Director of Engineering at Google

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesTechnical Expertise

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