Some Challenges I Faced When Growing in My Role

Michael Vanhoutte

SVP Engineering at Ontoforce



Growing in your role comes as an acknowledgment of your hard work and advanced skills. As you are becoming more knowledgeable and confident new challenges start to unravel before you. For engineers who choose a technical career path like myself, a new role can bring a number of challenges, many of which I personally faced. I hope that my experience could help my more junior colleagues to navigate with ease and overcome these challenges successfully.

Actions taken

Four key challenges I unexpectedly faced when growing in my role were:

Dare to let go
People easily become used to being the hotshots who are making all the decisions and who knew everything in and out. Suddenly, as they are climbing up the ranks, other people are taking over their past responsibilities and are starting to run and decide on things that you had acted before. This may be more difficult than you first expected to get used to.

How to deal with it:

  • Build a team of people you could trust and who will make you confident about the decisions they would be making. Be prepared, though, that their decisions may differ from what you would decide. To deal with that you have to...

  • find a way to validate things that would matter to you the most and as quickly as possible (e.g. asking for design diagrams). As the expression states “there’s more than one way to skin a cat”, don’t shoot down a solution simply because it’s not exactly like the solution you would have come up with. Try to find those criteria that really matter (e.g. performance, functionality, supportability, availability…) and evaluate the proposed solutions on these criteria.

Accepting that other people will be better than you
At some point, somebody will come up with a better idea or a better design because they would have a more on-the-ground context, be much closer to technology, etc. Though you may feel like you're losing your technical edge, you actually succeeded in making your team autonomous, encouraging their growth and staying off their way. So what feels like a defeat, may actually be a win!

How to deal with it:

  • Accept it and get over it. The team should continue to grow and strengthen its technical competencies. If you think that the team is not ready to take on your job, you are not delegating enough and not creating enough opportunities for them to grow.
  • Differentiate and focus on the value that you do bring in your new role as opposed to the value that you used to bring. As you level up, most likely you are able to bring more value to the company and should be proud of that accomplishment. You are now giving a direction to the team where there may not have been one in the past. Maybe you used to be the hotshot that everybody turned to for anything, but that’s not scalable. You have succeeded in creating a team that can take over some of your roles which makes your organization much more scalable than it was when you were still the hotshot.

Finding the balance between technical innovation and pursuing a broader perspective
As you grow in your role, you are expected to have a broader perspective on things and to take into account things other than the code, features, or even your team. This means that you will have to start saying no to things that you yourself would have pushed for in the past. For example, your developers may be pushing you to let them do a certain refactoring. Back in the good ol’ days you were still writing the code, you had your nose so deep in it that you could easily assess how necessary this refactoring really was. But now that you don’t have your nose in the code anymore, your developers will be pushing for these changes and you will have to assess whether it really is necessary without knowing all the details.

Not only that, you will have other parameters that you need to take into account that you wouldn’t have done in the past. Yes, you may agree that this code really needs to be refactored, but maybe doing the refactoring now could cause a delay in a project that maybe will jeopardize a sale you really need. Those are things you may not have considered your problem in the past, they are now! Finding this balance was something I found particularly hard and have struggled to explain my decision and tradeoffs to the team.

How to deal with it:

  • Be honest with yourself. Are you saying no because there is a valid business reason for it or are you saying no because you are afraid to let go of things you were an expert in a certain domain?
  • Find a way to stay technical. Even if you don't know all the details, you should be able to assess the validity of the projects your team is working on. It is not a matter of trust, it is a matter of balancing their assessment and their criteria with yours. Your team doesn’t have the full truth, and neither do you. Both perspectives are needed and have to be balanced to come up with the best solution. But you can only find the right balance if you are still technical enough to assess the implications of what your team says.
  • Find a way to give the team a perspective to the refactoring some other way. If you have to say no now, but you do feel that the refactoring is needed, work to always have some capacity on your roadmap to deal with technical debt. It’s much, much easier for a team to accept a No if they can trust there will be a Yes in the future.

Different people require a different communication style
I was used to working with a team of equals who communicated very openly and bluntly with each other. As the team grew, I had to communicate frequently with less experienced people, unaccustomed to our company culture, who I didn’t know for a long time and was reluctant to be open and straightforward. They would require a different communication style than the one I practiced with my peers over the years.

How to deal with it:

  • Ask the people you trust for feedback about how you are perceived and how your communication style lands on people. Use their insights to adjust and improve your communication style.
  • Treat people not how you would want to be treated, but how they would want to be treated. Apply the Golden rule but in reverse.

Lessons learned

  • Different people stumble across different challenges as they grow in their roles. Every step of your career path will be accompanied by new challenges that you will have to overcome as you professionally evolve. These four challenges followed my transition into more senior technical roles, but though I successfully dealt with them, my continual professional growth implies conquering new challenges every day.
  • Be ready to face challenges and accept them as opportunities for your ever-lasting growth.

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Michael Vanhoutte

SVP Engineering at Ontoforce

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