I have been extremely lucky to find myself surrounded by incredibly talented engineers, developers, architects, leaders, managers and mentors. Every place I worked be that GE Capital, AGL, Toyota / Lexus and of course at LAB3 as well as companies I’ve worked alongside such as Microsoft, HashiCorp, and Amazon to name a few, I have been supported by exceptionally talented people who work in functions all across the businesses. Ranging from Engineering and Software Development all the way to Finance and Law.
This post is really about sharing some of those key lessons I’ve learnt in these first 10 or so years of my career, the things I wish I had known of, or exercises that have driven significant change in how I approached my own development and career progression. However, this is definitely more of an ‘art’ than a science.
You will see that at the start of each Lesson is a quote to highlight key lessons or points to think about.
Lesson 1 - I Am Responsible
“I am responsible for my development”
My first real job in the corporate world was on the Service Desk at GE Capital ANZ, bright-eyed, passionate, and naive at 21 years young I was introduced to the reality of the true scale of enterprise technology. Everything from Active Directory to Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), the scale was radically different from the laptop and self-built gaming PC using spare parts from friends I had on my desk at home.
Without a University Degree (a much longer story for another time!), I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Would people teach me the skills that I was expected to know? Would I be given a longer time to adjust to the way things worked in this new environment? Was I going to be doing Service Desk always?
After only a few weeks I was feeling a bit more comfortable on the phone talking to people running into issues, but I wasn’t really able to solve any technical problems. I had a meeting with my team leader later that week so I decided to hold all my questions and ask them in a structured way in that session.
We got into the session and I blurted out all of my questions, in a crazed list, which was not what I had planned to do before the meeting at all. It was the response from my team leader that has stuck with me to this day.
“We have a large number of programs to help you develop, learn and choose a path for your career, but YOU are responsible for your own career development, progression and, learnings. The frameworks and programs we have will help you, but shouldn’t be what you solely depend on for development.”
This quote has been something I have reflected on many times at every place I have ever worked. The frameworks and programs that are offered by employers are undoubtedly valuable resources that should be leveraged to their full potential. But this lesson helped me to use them as a tool, supporting my development rather than something I depend on to develop.
Self-driven learning in conjunction with these frameworks is a balance that demonstrates initiative as well as a commitment to personal growth and can expose you to a number of opportunities outside your employer such as MeetUps, hackathons, and conferences as a few examples.
Lesson 2 - The Why?
“Why do I want this Job?"
This lesson took me a little longer to learn about than the first lesson. I found that the further I developed my career and networked with other people the more jobs or opportunities would present themselves either through conversations, LinkedIn or calls from recruiters.
It took me some time and making a few mistakes to learn the traditional lesson of; “The grass isn’t always greener”. But I would often think to myself, How do I know if it’s worth making a change? Why do I want a change? and What will be different at this job compared to where I am now? These questions eventually morphed into an exercise where If a job, promotion, secondment or opportunity presents itself I always return to the same question “Why do I want this Job”.
Whenever there is an opportunity that piques my interest, be that for a new role, a promotion, or even a different project. I ask myself this “Why do I want this job?” question repeatedly throughout the process of learning about the opportunity.
I’ve found that doing this over a few days provides real clarity on the reasons I’m looking for a change. You would be surprised how often you end up learning about a job where the more you discover about the role’s title, salary and responsibilities the more often they end up not aligned with your reasons for “Why?”.
Some examples of a “Why?” from a development point of view for me have been:
- This opportunity will expose me to many industries, people, problems and solutions in an accelerated time frame, leading to a broader understanding than if I stay where I am today.
- This opportunity aligns with my values and the technologies I am most passionate about developing.
- This opportunity has exciting growth potential that I can be a part of helping develop.
To address the elephant in the room, can my “Why?” be that the salary is a large increase compared to where I am now? In short, of course, it can be. However, personally, the biggest “Why?” has never been money, it has always been a secondary. Considered alongside other development opportunities, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a key driver for your own decisions.
Lesson 3 - The What?
“If I don’t know what I’ll learn, How can I plan for what is next?"
Another lesson that sounds simple, but I’ve found can be quite challenging to answer in a meaningful way is “What will I Learn?”. This is something I would ask myself repeatedly when looking at job advertisements or when fielding recruiter calls earlier in my career. This question enabled me to build a roadmap, effectively mapping out my career’s development against my aspirations, tangible skills, knowledge and experience.
This exercise was critical in enabling me to make informed decisions, through evaluating jobs on multiple dimensions, not just salary, but their potential to contribute to my development, skill set and network. It helped to steer me clear of roles where there may have been little on offer in terms of growth and development.
A secondary, and surprising, benefit to this question was that I started to become much more intelligent when asking questions about roles. I would probe deeper into elements of the role such as technology stacks, engineering management, responsibilities and outcomes across the organization. It really helped me to paint a picture of the type of work I would be doing, but also the environment in which I would be working.
Importantly, ‘The What?’, doesn’t have to be only technology or engineering related. In fact, exposure to other roles, people and structures was a key part of what I looked for when performing this exercise.
In short, it is extremely important for your development to know what you are expecting to learn in the roles you perform and how they do or do not map to your career aspirations and goals. Having a clear picture of what you want to learn helps you guide day-to-day decisions about the work you do.
Lesson 4 - The 80/20 Rule - How Much?
Everyone is familiar with the 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. Loosely, it is a concept that suggests that 80% of the effect comes from 20% of the cause. I’ve leveraged the Pareto Principle to help shape my thinking on a few of what I believe to be the key ratios when looking at roles and organizations.
First Ratio - Reusable skill vs. Company-specific learning
“Are the skills I’m learning reusable or specific to only this job in this company?"
This ratio is one of those things I wish I had known at the start of my career. Taking a step back to look at what I’m learning and whether or not it is reusable and/or relevant across many roles and companies for the future or is it something that is just bespoke and specific to the company I’m at today.
Especially early on in your career, you should have a focus on obtaining deep technical reusable skills across multiple platforms to help define a strong core foundational understanding of technology solutions. Whilst this may feel like you are spending copious amounts of time just scratching the surface it will help you have mobility across your career, whilst also enabling you to find where your passion lies within the broad industry of Technology.
Second Ratio - New Skill vs. Existing Skills
“How much of what I’m learning is new and valuable?"
In the constantly evolving tech landscape, the spectrum of skills to acquire seems endless. As you progress in your career, there come moments when you contemplate making significant leaps and bounds in your role, responsibilities, and daily tasks. A few simple questions, that I’ve found to be endlessly helpful, can really help to clarify whether or not you are in a position to commit to those leaps and bounds.
What is my appetite to learn?
Learning is an intrinsic part of any job, but your appetite to acquire new knowledge and skills may shift as your career unfolds. Understanding your position on exactly how much a job will require you to learn is a key element when thinking about future opportunities or reviewing job adverts.
Early in my career, I leveraged this 80/20 principle to help define how much ‘effort’ I would put into learning new skills. As an example, when I was first asked to work as a Cloud Platform Engineer, I had never worked with Microsoft Azure before. I knew there would be a significantly steep learning curve for me. At this time in my life, I had a greater amount of freedom and time with no real significant time pressures outside of work.
In this job I suspected that my ratio would need to be 90% learning of new skills vs. 10% of existing skills, this ratio helped me mentally prepare for the firehouse of information that would come my way and the amount of effort I was prepared to inject into the role.
You may find throughout your career the ratio swings to the other extreme, where you are looking for jobs that require less investment in the development of new skills or capabilities and more in perfecting skills you possess or simply leveraging your existing capabilities. This question of “How Much? is key to ensuring satisfaction in your role as well as creating a sustainable work/life balance.
Can I do 100% of the job?
Building on this thought, the second question that often comes up when talking to engineers is “I can’t do everything listed in the job advert”. My thoughts on this have always been, that if you are able to 100% of a job then you should be looking at a different job.
This largely comes from my bias to acquire new skills and capabilities, but I have always found that when I’m in a role where the percentage for my learnings of new vs. existing skills drops below 40/60, I start to look at ways within that organization I can stretch to learn something new or look externally for a new role.
Third Ratio - Self-Taught vs. Assisted Learning
“Are there opportunities to learn from others that I feel are unique to this company?"
Having always been self-taught when it comes to technology, I rank the importance of this skill extremely highly, the ability to encounter a problem, find/create a solution and then move that from ideation to reality as you bring others on the journey in my eyes has one of the biggest differentiators I’ve been able to bring to the table in my career.
However, as you progress in your career there is going to be a large benefit in assisted learning, that being through paid course work, or through mentorship. Where the ability to break down more complex skills outside those of just technical engineering may be of more significant value in your career development.
Ultimately, finding the right balance between self-taught and assisted learning is about being adaptable and knowing when to be resourceful on your own and when to tap into the wealth of knowledge that others can offer. This ratio evolves as your career progresses, ensuring that you maximize opportunities as they come.
Lesson 5 - Putting it all together
The last lesson is more of an exercise that leverages elements of the other 4 lessons. It’s something I had used as a mental exercise throughout my career to help make decisions but as I began to mentor graduates, manage engineers and talk to high school and university students about how to map out their careers it dawned on me to put this into something a bit more usable for others.
This exercise is based on the premise that over 10 years the average professional will work about 3 jobs, be this through promotions, career changes or switching companies. This time cap helps to break things up into short, medium and long-term aspirations and remove some of the potential anxiety that comes with some other career planning exercises where you are expected to plan your journey out end-to-end.
The exercise is structured in which for each of the three jobs you simply write a few sentences as answers to:
- Why do I want to do this job? (Lesson 2)
- What do I want to learn from this job? (Lesson 3)
- What do I think the key ratios are for me in this job? (Lesson 4)
Careers are a journey that are ever changing, based on your discovery, aspirations, life situation and interests. Having a simple group of tools that you can use to quickly baseline against and refer back to through that journey has been invaluable to myself and something I can’t recommend highly enough.