First, Chris May, who has over 25 years’ experience in the tech industry, picked the top five questions that come up in conversations about career progression.
1. Can you progress your career whilst writing code?
Yes! There are many examples of leading professionals who have risen to the very top of the profession without giving up their love for coding. But it’s important to figure out what “career progression” means to you. It might mean making lots of money, or taking responsibility for major projects, or being the boss. These are all worthy goals – but they take up time and you can’t do them all.
Deciding what success looks like for you will help you sharpen your focus so you can pursue the opportunities that will get you ahead. You might not hit on the right answer straight away and it’s perfectly okay to change your mind as you go along.
2. Is a tech career all about the product?
It’s helpful to keep a distinction between your current role – where the product you’re developing is your focus – and your career. Your career will span many products and organisations. Don’t let your attachment to your current product hold you back. There’s a huge variety of opportunities, technologies and organisations out there.
3. What does it take to be a nurturing leader?
In a word: time. You need to invest time in your people – listening to them and guiding them. Resist the temptation to take over a problem from a junior person even if you’re itching to solve it yourself. As a leader in tech, you have twin responsibilities: building a product and building the capabilities of your team members. If you have a strong preference for dealing with one side of the equation rather than the other, be clear about that with yourself and your organisation.
4. Is there a best practice for communication?
There are lots of great communications tools, but the most important thing about communicating successfully is understanding other peoples’ perspectives. When communication fails, it’s usually because the person with the message didn’t consider their audience’s existing knowledge, aims, preferences or values. You’ll communicate more successfully if you seek to understand as clearly as possible what your audience is thinking and why they’re thinking that way.
“Listening to people and understanding where they’re coming from is a key skill.” – Chris May
5. How do I guide the people around me?
New team leaders often ask this question. In tech, you’re going to be surrounded by smart, curious people who like to solve problems. That means you can’t just tell them exactly what to do. It’s better to take a coaching approach, encouraging your people to be confident in their abilities to make smart choices. You might sometimes need to warn them of potential pitfalls but generally you can be non-directive.
It’s good to remember that if someone thinks their problem is big enough to bring to you in the first place, it’s probably a question only they can answer. This is particularly true of career decisions. In these situations, help them explore the question so they find the answer that’s right for them.
Leveraging Into Leading
Next, Chris Sewart chose the leading career progression themes from his experience working in tech organisations from start-ups to established multinationals.
1. Imposter syndrome and pattern transfer
It’s normal to feel some anxiety at the start of a new role or project – along with the excitement. Manage this situation by asking yourself what your current abilities are and what you might need help with. Seek feedback on your performance and you’ll be able to grow into the role while performing from day one.
When moving from a purely technical role to a tech leadership role, know that leadership and management are problem-solving activities. What you’ve learned as an engineer can often be applied to your new responsibilities. For example, architecture patterns such as Amdahl’s Law can help you improve workflows in your team.
“A new engagement will make you feel fear. This will happen throughout your career, so accept it and experience it.” – Chris Sewart
2. Acting indirectly and breaking problems down
Change is best managed incrementally, and this is especially true when it comes to developing your people and enhancing their capabilities. The principle of breaking complex problems down into manageable chunks applies everywhere in business. In addition, look for ways of linking changes that you want to make to other events, especially mandatory activities. In that way you can dovetail your longer-term leadership goals with the wider needs of the organisation.
3. See beyond the technical
Sometimes problems that occur in technical projects are not themselves technical in nature. The classic example is unclear requirements. No amount of technical excellence can deliver a successful product if “success” for that product has not been defined. Senior tech people can add enormous value by recognising the limitations of certain technologies – and working with their peers in other disciplines to ensure the right tech is applied effectively.
Many people in tech come from a STEM background and are used to thinking there is one right answer to every problem. This is very rarely the case in the real world, which is full of shades of grey. Different interpretations abound – and they matter.
“Not all problems are technical problems. In fact, none of them are.” – Chris Sewart, quoting one of his mentors
4. Money and job titles are not the only motivators
As you develop your career, make sure you’re achieving the goals that matter to you. For example, a role in a tech start-up may not come with big-company titles or perks, but it might offer you real empowerment and respect for what you achieve. As you progress your career, motivate your people by encouraging them to live by their goals and values, too.
5. Autonomy, control and not being the expert
Developing your career is about finding your happy place. Don’t be afraid to try something new – or to admit that what you tried isn’t for you. You may get used to being the technical expert in a group, but you don’t have to have the biggest brain in the room to be an effective leader. Often, good leadership is about letting go and trusting your people’s expertise and experience. At BJSS, we’re aware that a lot of the impact we have is rooted in achieving through others. That’s how our business grows, and it’s how our people grow.
Want to learn more?
If you want to hear more advice and industry stories from the two Chrises, you can watch the full video of the webinar here. This includes an extended Q&A session where you’ll learn, among other things, the one non-tech skill that all tech professionals lack.
Alternatively, you can listen to the full audio of the discussion on BJSS Deployed Podcast below…