Below is an article originally written by John Pfeiffer, Senior Manager of Engineering at PowerToFly Partner Helix, and published on May 28, 2019. Go to Helix's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.
As a manager, it can be unclear where someone's career was before they met you and how they view their long term ambitions. And when the work is getting done now, it is easy to understand why continued career development is one of the overlooked aspects of management.
When you understand their ambitions you can more effectively align their interests with those of the company. This has the positive effect of engaging the employee and may be more important to them than a simple "salary focused" career discussion.
Hopefully the following ideas provide some topics to cover during your next career development discussion.
When and why to discuss career development
One of the best tools for building relationships between employees and their managers is the one-on-one. (To learn more about one-on-ones, I recommend "Manager Tools," one of the longest running and most informative management podcasts.)
At least once a quarter, a 1:1 session should cover career development (i.e., a regular opportunity to align company, or team, objectives with the individual's career goals before they drift too far apart).
Great managers grow careers, even when it leads the individual to another team or organization.
One of the first questions I generally ask is, "Where do you want to be in two years?" Two years is just long enough to be aspirational but near enough that we should be planning for it.
"Where" should not be reductively just about salary—instead, it should encompass talent, experience, and direction. After a certain point, people need more than money to achieve happiness (as described by Daniel Pink in "Drive" and studied by Kahneman and Deaton). From this perspective, a career can be thought of as the arc of daily work aggregated into some meaningful vector.
As a caveat, no company, not even the largest ones, can have every possible role. A good manager will provide guidance about what is immediately available, help them research future possibilities, and find ways to expand their current role.
Career development is not just about getting the next position, it should also be about discussing and developing the qualitative skills that lead to success. By proactively discussing the following "soft skills" with your direct report, you will ensure they have the right tools to succeed in their current and future roles.
- Listening: Hearing what others (users, stakeholders, teammates, etc.) are saying is one of the most important parts of identifying the right problems and finding a way to solve them.
- Communication: Proposing good solutions, asking hard questions, raising concerns, writing in a clear and compelling way—these are all important forms of communication that often lead to learning opportunities.
- Time Management: Being able to prioritize individual deadlines can lead to both personal and team success.
- Interviewing: Being an interviewer is a completely different specialization, yet hiring cannot succeed without good technical interviewers.
- Business: Understanding the impact, and its potential outcomes, of any given role can go a long way towards informing a person's daily decisions.
- Teamwork: A rising tide raises all ships. Learning how to multiply the efforts of our coworkers can go a long way towards advancing each of our careers.
An incomplete list of technology roles
So, what other topics can you discuss with your direct report in a career development conversation?
One major focus area is their role in the organization, identifying what they are doing now and what they would like to do next. Sometimes growth isn't about moving up the "vertical" org chart but instead specializing in a specific kind of work or moving laterally into a different domain.
Software engineering gradations
These levels/titles are generalizations (since every company is different) for the progression ("vertical") a person goes through as they mature and grow:
- Junior: Focused on implementation under supervision
- Senior: Able to independently gather requirements and run a project from start to finish
- Principal: Influence at the organizational level
There are too many roles related to technology to list them all, but here are some important specialization titles related to Software Engineering.
- Mobile Engineer: Sort of a specialist front end engineer (assuming you agree that the focus is on users), ideally having experience with both iOS and Android but usually specialized in one.
- Full Stack Engineer: Someone who can write/fix front-end and back-end code, often a generalist given the necessity of context switching between so many frameworks.
- Backend Engineer: Specializing in APIs, services, and often data storage (such as databases, files, etc.)—areas less focused on users.
These are common examples of technology roles supporting the running of software and services:
- Site Reliability Engineers (SREs): Automating monitoring and stability as applied expertise via code. (More on this here)
- DevOps: Automating the operations of systems and services (including monitoring, scripts and code writing, and so on), leveraging Dev skills with Ops experience. (This wiki page has some good info on this)
- Operations: Maintaining services/systems (hopefully still using automation and ideally transitioning to DevOps due to increased scale).
- System Administrator: A manual job of maintaining a small number of virtual or physical machines/systems.
Information has to be stored somewhere, which is where data roles come into play. This specialization has become even more prevalent with the exponential growth of "big data."
- Data Scientist: Someone who uses mathematical tools like statistics, in conjunction with software and "big data," to answer questions (or discover insights).
- Data Engineer: Someone who builds infrastructure and tools that enable "Data Science"—pipelines and warehouses, for example.
- Database Administrator (DBA): Someone who manages the data for an organization, often an expert in the tooling and optimization.
Sometimes, besides all the levels and specializations, there are changes in a Software Engineer's career track (significantly different responsibilities and focus) that are large enough to be considered a "lateral move." These can include:
- Architect: Larger systems are inherently complex and designing and communicating the interfaces, especially across multiple teams/services, is an essential "big picture" role. Having engineering experiences leads to designs with fast and effective implementations and prevents "ivory tower".
- Engineering Manager: People are non-deterministic—they cannot be debugged, and yet they are a part of every successful organization. Engineering Managers are individuals who take care of people, help build and keep a team running smoothly, and achieve company outcomes. This is a potential first step towards becoming a Director and eventually a Vice-President. Having engineering experience vastly increases credibility and the ability to estimate and deliver projects.
- Quality: Someone who methodically thinks outside the box and regularly breaks boxes, ideally the most valuable boxes first. Having engineering experience means awareness of common shortcomings in frameworks/code, certain boundary conditions, or real world scenarios (i.e. load).
- Security: Someone who thinks outside of the box, way outside, and finds ways to get inside of locked boxes. Having engineering experience allows for familiarity with architecture/framework/code flaws and automation of exploits.
- Product Manager: Someone with passion and organizational skills who drives a product forward into the world. Having engineering experience allows for clearer and faster scope/timing discussions, and the ability to help the team with design or debugging.
- Designer: Someone who champions the User and delivers highly desirable features and products through UI/UX. Having engineering experience allows for more effective collaboration and reduced time to market.
Having engineering experiences leads to designs with fast and effective implementations
Open conversations with direct reports about their direction and interests allows management to find ways to accomplish the company's goals while simultaneously develop their people.
If one of your direct reports is interested in learning more about cloud or serverless architectures, look for upcoming projects where they can work to gain experience leveraging AWS (or Azure, or Google Cloud). Having them not only code, but also contribute to internal documentation on the subject allows the organization to be productive, enhance capabilities, and pave the way for future engineering efforts.
And, maybe someone on your team wants to learn more about interviewing, which is an important skill for leading and scaling a team. You can facilitate this by: Providing your direct report with materials on best interviewing practices (from both within your organization and from external sources); doing a role play interviewing session with them; having them silently observe ("shadow") existing interviews; and having them start pairing on resume screens, phone screens, and on-site interviews. Visibility into, or participation in the interviewing panel and the post-interview debriefs is also a valuable learning opportunity. Finally, use your 1:1s to review the new skills they have learned and how this contributes to the company's success.
Visibility into the interviewing process is a valuable learning opportunity
In an extreme example where an individual is pushing for a lateral move into a product management role, there are more than a few ways to help them. Here are some common and simple steps you can take: Set them up with opportunities to shadow an existing PM, have them run a meeting, get them to write up a project proposal (focusing on the value propositions over the engineering implementation), or simply have them practice public speaking by presenting to a larger, cross functional audience from the company. Remember: Their contributions, even outside of writing code, are still valuable to the success of the company.
Opportunities are not about guaranteeing success, but instead about providing value to the employee that they cannot buy or potentially find elsewhere.
Focusing on people is the most important aspect of management. Understanding how they fit into an organization and aligning how their individual careers (and skills) weave together to create a sustainable team requires investment. Spending dedicated time and having a shared vocabulary and a shared understanding is crucial to keeping good talent.
Developing your people creates a "stickiness"—a unique bond that creates a "win-win" environment—where their career progresses and the company has more skillful and motivated employees.
If you've ever bought a car, you know how stressful the experience can be – not least of all because of the fear that you'll be ripped off by a salesperson.
Automotive fintech company Fair is striving to put an end to all of that by allowing you to shop, get approved, and pay for your next car – all on your phone.
But Fair aims to do more than just bring fairness to the car-buying experience: they want to treat their employees fairly as well. Actually, more than fairly.
In their words: "The way we see it, better to be more than fair than not to live up to our name."
We sat down with software engineer Layla Habahbeh to learn more about Fair's more-than-fair work culture and open roles.
Layla is a software engineer with a non-traditional background. A tech activist who wants to use her skills to help remedy social issues, she's found room to do so at Fair.
Read on to learn about her path into tech and her experience at Fair – from lunches by the Santa Monica Pier to evenings bowling with her colleagues. And be sure to check out Fair's open roles here.
What do you do at Fair?
I'm a backend software engineer. I'm part of a pretty big team of engineers that are rapidly building the infrastructure because the business is expanding so aggressively. Right now I'm focusing on streamlining some of the accounts logic for a couple million user accounts.
Where are you based? And how does that affect your workflow?
Our office is by the beach in Santa Monica, California – actually only a block away from the pier. It's nice to be so close to the water to be able to unplug and get some fresh air on my breaks.
What makes you proud to work at Fair?
Fair is a really exciting place to work and I absolutely love our product. Working here means working on something that people will look back on and say "how was this not already a thing?" – so that's cool to me.
I often think of how difficult it was to get around before Uber was around. - I would go out for drinks and wouldn't have a reliable way to get home.
Fair is changing how people think about getting a car. Most people don't like going to the dealership, and they prefer an easier way of getting a car without all the hassle – without having to go into debt or doing a bunch of research and not knowing whether you're getting a good deal or not. This option has really revolutionized the way people live their lives.
Specifically for my job, I'm passionate about learning new things and building innovative products, so focusing on that and collaborating with my team are the best parts of my day.
Fair has some of the smartest people I've ever met in the industry, and some of them have become my lifelong friends and mentors. That's what makes me excited about coming to work everyday: working with them and building something that will make a difference in people's lives.
How does it feel to have other women engineers on the team?
It's great to have other women on my team. It means there's a better chance that my voice will be heard, my ideas will be noticed, and it means I have more allies. So it really makes a difference for me day to day. I'm glad I've found that support at Fair. I love the idea of taking people from diverse backgrounds and experiences and bringing them together. That's the best way to have a team that can change things.
Why did you decide to become an engineer?
For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to do something where I was helping and impacting people. I decided to get a degree in Psychology, followed by a Masters in Human Development. The goal was to help improve people's quality of life. I did that for many years and had a realization that technology could be used as a catalyst to help reach a wider audience.
I was always interested in tech – I was even in the robotics club in high school. It wasn't until I was out in the world and working that I got the spark! So I went back to school for a Masters in Computer Science and just loved it!
Engineering is an amazing creative outlet and that's something I was really surprised by! I enjoy dreaming up an idea, taking a concept from ideation to reality, and coming up with elegant solutions to solve problems along the way.
What do you recommend people look for when they're applying to software engineering roles?
One thing to look for is the company's size. Typically the smaller it is, the more of an opportunity you'll have to make a bigger impact and have ownership over things you're working on. When you work for a bigger company, you have more resources in terms of mentorship and knowledge as well as lifestyle perks; some companies offer gym memberships and lunch catering, for example.
Even though my title has been the same, my role as a Software Engineer has been vastly different from company to company. I've worked at some places where I was able to pitch an idea and say "hey, this thing is broken, we can make it better by doing this", and then getting the approval to make it and getting to architect the whole thing, test it myself, and send it out to production.
At other places, the majority of my time was spent handling pre-written tickets that someone else higher up on the totem would spell out for me. In that case, I was a very small piece of a much larger puzzle.
What do you look for when you're interviewing at a company?
The number one thing I look for now is how diverse that team is – as well as the organization. Are there women in senior and executive level positions? Because a lot of companies will say they care about diversity, but if you look at the makeup of the organization, you'll see that isn't the reality.
An interview is a two-way thing. So try to figure out what an organization's like and if it's a good fit for where you are right now in your life.
I know you care about using tech to address social issues. What's something that you would love to build?
I'd love to do something to tackle resource allocation. So many problems in this world are because we have all the resources available, but they're just not as distributed as optimally as they could or should be, so some people go hungry or others can't get a decent education just because they don't have access to those resources. Technology is such a powerful tool that can help solve that problem.
Since you like to build things, what's one of the coolest things you've built in your career?
I built an Alphabet Wall inspired by the Netflix Series, Stranger Things.
I wanted to recreate the Christmas lights scene from Stranger Things where Winona Ryder received communication from the Upside Down through lights that she strung up on her living room wall, alongside the alphabet that she painted. I recruited a team of four friends and with the help of a Raspberry Pi, individually addressable LED lights, Twilio API, & the Neopixels library, users were able to text the "Demogorgon" a message, and it would display it letter by letter on the alphabet wall.
Ok, back to business. What does your day-to-day look like at Fair? How do you maintain balance?
Fair makes it pretty easy to find balance. Honestly, it's the first company I've worked for that makes sure you're super comfortable so that you can focus on your job.
There's a fully stocked kitchen, so on a typical day, I'll pick up a snack and then catch up on emails and messages. Then I sit down and outline what I'm doing for the day. Much of my day is collaborating with other engineers and getting context from other teams to make sure I understand what I'm working on.
It's ideal because I have people here that I get to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from. We get catered lunches, so during lunch time I like to sit outside, catch up with my coworkers, and get some vitamin D. And, like I said, we're right by the pier, so it's nice outside all the time, which is perfect. I like to take a 15 to 20-minute walk in the afternoon to break up my day and refocus.
There's also a lot of social activities available to participate in. Right now, for instance, I'm in a bowling league. We get to compete with some of the other companies in Santa Monica for bragging rights. It's really fun!
Bowling? Are you all undefeated?
We are currently tied for second place in the league and on track to be in the playoffs.
Who is someone you admire and respect a lot?
I'm a huge proponent of diversity of thought. At a company, it's the foundation of building strong, innovative teams. As a person, the more you step out of your comfort zone and gain different perspectives, the more you grow. Ada Lovelace, often referred to as the first programmer, spent her life bringing together the fields of arts and sciences – she called it "poetical science." She dreamt up the most interesting things, from a steam-powered flying machine in the shape of a horse to a computation machine that could produce music. This was unheard of in her time, but she was a visionary who saw past the number-crunching capabilities of computational machines and realized their creative potential as being tools to create art.
Want to join this webinar and learn more? Email us at email@example.com to be considered for an invite.
PowerToFly is thrilled to partner with DigitalOcean (a dynamic, fast-growing startup that serves a robust and passionate community of developers, teams, and businesses around the world) to present a virtual tech talk and audience Q&A with several of their women tech leaders.
The webinar will take place on Tuesday, May 7th at 1:00pm EST / 10:00am PST.
After the tech talk, PowerToFly Cofounder and President Katharine Zaleski will lead a brief panel discussion with several of DigitalOcean's women engineering leaders, discussing their career journeys, current projects, and what it's like working for a mostly remote company.
- Limor Bergman Gross, Director, Engineering
- Alexis Bruemmer, Senior Manager, Engineering
- Swati Gaikwad, Engineer II
- Jenni Griesmann, Senior Engineer I
Tech Talk Speaker:
- Sneha Inguva, Engineer II
Although you don't need to be looking for new job opportunities to attend the webinar, DigitalOcean does have a number of open remote roles. In fact, about 70% of DigitalOcean's engineering team works remotely! Their competitive benefits include monthly gym reimbursements, monthly commute allowances, and a 401k with up to a 4% employer match. To learn more about DigitalOcean's open roles, visit their page on PowerToFly.
About our webinars: All RSVP'd attendees are welcome, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity, pregnancy, physical or mental disability, or age.
Women in Tech Share Their Experiences Working at WW (Formerly Weight Watchers)
Back on March 14th, PowerToFly partnered with WW (formerly Weight Watchers) to present an evening of tech talks and discussions lead by their women tech leaders who are building the future of wellness.
Hosted by PowerToFly's CoFounder & CEO Milena Berry, the evening kicked off with a welcome address by WW's CTO Michael Lysaght, who then stuck around to answer questions during our networking session. Michel then passed the mic to Kayley Seder, Manager, Agile Project Management who dived a bit deeper into WW's platform and latest tools.
Next, Milena moderated a panel discussion featuring four of WW's women tech leaders who shared their own career journeys, spoke about the work that WW is doing in the Android and conversational AI fields and about the employee resource groups that WW offers to help their women engineers take their careers to the next level. Our panel included:
- Veronica Brown, Scrum Master
- Laure Price, Manager, Marketing Technology
- Ifeoma Okereke, Software Engineer
- Chao Dong, Software Engineer
After our panel discussion, audience members had a chance to ask their own questions before we moved back into networking, with more chances to enjoy the wonderful food and drinks that WW provided.
WW is hiring! To learn more about WW and their open positions, visit their page on PowerToFly.
Networking at WW!
Welcome to WW!
CTO Michael Lysaght welcome our capacity crowd.
CTO Michael Lysaght
Kayley Seder, Manager, Agile Project Management leads the night's tech talk
A packed house during our tech talk
Our panel of WW women tech leaders
A great panel and audience Q&A
Attendees had a chance to try out the WW platform (and some yummy goodies too)
Another look at the WW office