Dangerous Career Advice for IT Professionals
Mar 11, 2020
4 minute read

Mentor - yes, Career Advice - Not So Sure

A large part of my current job involves mentoring, training and coaching less experienced engineers and engineering managers. Most of the time it’s about cloud-native technology, professional mastery, healthy engineering practices and tech blogging/speaking. But sometimes they also come to me for career advice. And I’m definitely the wrong person to come to with that! My career as an employee in tech was far from amazing - rather filled with stress and despair. I never climbed higher than middle management on the rank ladder. And when I did - I suffered one of the worst burnouts in my life. Makes my stomach turn even now when I recall that dark-dark age.

But If You Still Ask

Nevertheless - yesterday I got a career question again. A very talented engineer on the team I work with asked to speak confidentially. Took me to a meeting room behind a closed door to tell the story. (BTW - when you see folks at work speaking confidentially behind closed doors, or even when you’re part of it - it’s a big red warning sign of a broken culture. I don’t mean work discussions with slides and whiteboards or regular one-on-ones. I mean those grim-faced meetings where people shut up awkwardly when someone accidentally opens the door. )

So we’re sitting there behind closed doors and here’s what he tells me:

There’s a reorg about to be announced. An engineering team is being split in two distinct functional units. And he’s been offered to lead one of the teams. For him that would mean giving up proficiency in a part of the tech stack (previously the united team was taking care of the whole stack) and also giving up some of the hands-on tech work in order to deal with management tasks. He initially agreed to the promotion but is now having doubts - not willing to give up hands-on work on one hand, but afraid to get locked in to a narrow professional function on the other.

To me this seems pretty clear. “If you’re having concerns” I say - “go and talk to your management - explain what it is you want to do and let them try and adapt the role to your aspirations.”

“But then they won’t give me the job” - he says. “They will see I’m not motivated enough. They don’t want to see someone in doubt. And that means I’ll have to leave - because I don’t want to be cornered to a specific technology at this stage of my career”

That’s when I told him that it is much better to leave than to do something you don’t enjoy. And that the fact that he’s afraid of voicing his doubts to his manager mainly says that the management sucks. Because it’s only natural for a thinking person to have doubts. Especially when a career change is on the horizon. And the task of the manager is to help their people grow, not to force them into decisions they may later regret.

The Gist of It

“Screw it” I say - “let them know what you want to do and if you do want to be a team leader - explain how you see that role. You’re a valuable employee, you’re talented and you always strive for excellence. They have to fight for you. And if they don’t - it’s their loss. Then you better leave all doubt behind and start looking for a new job. In fact - you should always be looking. Don’t ever buy into that bullshit of the company being your family. I’ve seen that disproved too many times.Your professional skills are a product. You’re selling it to your employer. But it comes bundled with something much more valuable - the time of your life. This is the cost that you incur. And if you can sell your product at a better price and a lower cost - that’s what you should do. So never forget there’s a market out there and if you want your product to stay marketable - you need to keep in touch with the market. Even when you’re happily employed - make sure to interview for new positions once every couple of months. This will keep your interviewing skills sharp, provide a good picture of what the market needs and what it can offer. ”

An Obligatory Disclaimer

I know every company is different. There are companies out there that are much more human-focused. That’s also how I try to build things at Otomato. And still - I always tell my employees - if you can find a place where you think you’ll feel more appreciated, motivated and happy - go and check it out. If you come back - it’s my win. If you don’t - it’s my lesson.

So this is my dangerous advice. It may cost you your current job, but in the end it’ll help you grow - both professionally and personally. And is there anything more important than that?

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