The Power of Introspection in Career Growth
15 May, 2020
I had an engineer set up an emergency one-on-one because he did not get promoted to technical lead manager (TLM) position over somebody else. I was surprised that he was upset about the situation, but he expressed much disappointment, especially because this new position would provide him with more career development opportunities. Furthermore, he might need to report to one of these new TLMs.
As a company, we announced the names of the people who received the TLM positions and described their accomplishments along with their new responsibilities. This was a time to celebrate these individuals in their new roles.
However, this one engineer came to me and expressed that he thought this was unfair. He did not believe the individual chosen over him was a poor engineer; Still, in his opinion, he felt that he was a better candidate to take the position because of his previous technical lead position at another company, and he had been with our organization for a longer time.
I recognized that I needed to wholeheartedly listen to this individual. You have to attempt to understand where the person is coming from because he was emotional, and had sincerely believed there is an injustice that has happened to him.
This engineer was by all intents and purposes doing everything right, and their accomplishments were significant. He improved site performance tremendously, shipped X number of features, and helped streamline the onboarding process. On paper, he seemed to check multiple boxes required for the new position.
To keep the conversation productive, I repeated the engineer's claims back to him to make sure I fully understood. I said, "Okay, so you feel you are more technical than XYZ? Noted. And then you feel you are entitled to this promotion? Okay. And now you feel that there are no more growth opportunities or a role for yourself?"
This situation was new for me, so I looked at it as an opportunity to learn as well, so we kept having conversations.
In our discussions, I tried to help this engineer become more self-aware and identify what he had control over. For example, we are in control of our careers. We should be sure to focus inwards in terms of where we want to take our careers. We need to ask questions like:
- What do I need to do to get there?
- What are the opportunities or possibilities for me to explore in my career path?
The moment he focused on the other engineer and not himself, he showed that he did not completely understand his situation. It is not apples to apples. “Your career prospects are mutually exclusive and completely independent of the person’s growth who got promoted. Your career is not a chance game, and you, as an individual, are in the driver seat of your career”. This mindset was incredibly important for me to explain.
I told him, by being in the driver's seat, you need to dedicate time and energy to have clarity on how we can move on and proceed with your career growth. It is essential to have productive conversations around this topic. I reassured him that I wasn’t neglecting his career by any means.
Next, to address his valid concerns about whether this other engineer deserves the position, let us answer that question.
A technical lead is not just about being one of the best engineers. Tech leads excel in communication, leadership, mentorship, helping shape engineering roadmap, building industry-standard engineering best practices in the team, and project management.
I then brought up his past performance review, where we discussed that communication and project management were not his best competencies. He certainly contributed exceedingly well on some complex projects, and those projects had fantastic positive impacts on our business and customers. There have also been a few projects where the dates have slipped because of a lack of efficient estimation and breakdown of tasks. The value of his contributions was not overlooked or forgotten.
However, we are now talking about a very different role here, and for that role, do you believe you have the strengths? The expectations from a TLM are much more than technical contributions alone and they will be evaluated accordingly.
After giving this engineer enough context about TLM and providing a career path for more senior IC roles, I wanted him to think about how he wished to drive his career. Based on my observation so far, his career path is likely headed more towards a senior individual contributor. Despite this, if he wished to pursue a career on the management side, I was ready to provide opportunities where he can get a taste of people's side of things.
However, in facilitating that, he needed to work on improving certain skills which are mandatory. Overall, these discussions happened over a series of conversations.
One of the biggest lessons I learned is that when a person is emotional and wants to vent out their frustration, it's best to listen patiently without any interruptions. After the emotions settle down, you can reflect back and start an objective conversation.
Asking open-ended questions, providing guidance on choosing the right career path, and giving honest feedback on performance, strengths, and learning opportunities really shows that you are the team’s champion in helping them advance their careers.
I have also learnt that setting aside 1 hour each month completely for career path/goals was necessary to avoid any surprises during performance reviews. I can now be more proactive in helping to identify growth opportunities based on each person’s motivation and interests. As a leader, I have understood the importance of improving the self-awareness of the engineers in my teams.
Another positive side effect of such a culture is it encourages everyone to celebrate each other's positive outcomes. Promotions, change in roles, new positions are indications of success and growth. By building this mindset into our company, there are no longer gaps in culture due to the lack of self-awareness and introspection.
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