Focusing on the journey of impact rather than the destinationFeatured

You’re starting your career in technology - or maybe you’re a few years in - and perhaps you’ve gotten the advice, “you need a five-year plan” or, perhaps, you’ve read in a well-intentioned career-oriented book or article, “how to get promoted” advice that involves things out of your control, like trying to get onto high visibility projects.

If these loosely actionable pieces of advice make you uncomfortable, know that you’re not alone. This isn’t actually a productive way of thinking about your development over a long period of time. The technology industry and landscape changes at a very fast pace, and trying to make a concrete plan for the future can feel like trying to hammer a round peg into a square hole. Do I learn another language? Do I focus on front-end or back-end or full-stack? How do I get onto the best project in order to raise my visibility?

I’d like to offer a different approach to thinking about your future, one that is grounded on impact.

Thinking about impact is a way of thinking about how you can become more valuable to your team, and your co-workers, and in doing so, learn how to tackle bigger and more complex problems over time. But let’s start at the beginning.

Impact within your team

You’re in a team and you’re an individual contributor working on features or on tooling or infrastructure - it doesn’t matter what exactly it is. At the early portion of your career, you’re learning how to be a productive member of your team, and being a productive member does involve technical skill, but even more so, it involves communicating blockers and balancing asking for help with figuring it out yourself. It involves trying to understand why you’re building something, how success will be measured, and how to work with others to do so. You also are learning how to deal with changes, accept failures, and celebrate achievements. While the technical skills you are developing are very important, it’s important to start to understand how you contribute to your team’s larger goals and purpose.

A very specific thing you might do is try to understand the metrics by which your team is being measured. You might not understand them at first, so ask the Product Manager, your manager or a more senior person on your team. Maybe even ask them all and see if the answers line up! Understanding the metrics can really help you understand why changes are made, why plans change, and what success for your team (and hence also you) means.

The more you can feel comfortable with the wider context, the more you can be of value to your team – regardless of the code, language, framework, and so on.

Increasing the impact of your growth

As you become a productive member of the team - someone who can take on tasks mostly independently, communicate blockers (a fancy way of saying ask for help!) and contribute towards the team’s goals, you can now look to broaden your impact. How might you now start to help others be more productive or help the team work better?

I think about broadening impact as taking your skills - technical and non-technical - and helping others on the team. A straightforward way of starting this might be onboarding a new member of the team, or helping answer questions that come into the team that are typically handled by a more senior teammate. In doing this, you’re learning to guide and mentor others, which is an important skill regardless of what you hope to achieve in your career.

To further develop this ability to guide, you might now think about expanding your impact to co-ordinating some of the team's work. This will look different on each team, so perhaps you start by assisting with some of the team’s ceremonies or helping to triage and prioritize incoming requests across the team. This kind of work necessarily involves some judgment based on your experience, and it may involve some debate and working through disagreement with the team. (Hopefully in a very productive way with a supportive Manager helping to set the culture and course correct along the way!). You’re now starting to develop the skill of influencing, another important skill that you can carry with you throughout your career.

Over time, this can expand to leading a small group of teammates for a specific project or feature. Now, you’re developing the skills to manage a meaningful group of people toward a goal or initiative. Your impact is now team-wide.

Impact beyond your team

A further expansion of impact can come from working across teams. You may start to think about this when you have some specialized or deeper knowledge of a particular process, component or technology that is used or leveraged elsewhere in the organization.

Let’s make this a bit more tangible: your team develops and maintains a specific service used by others. Once you are competent at that service, and how work is organized within the team, and as you start to be able to influence at the team level, it’s a great opportunity to go and proactively understand how others use your service. This might be other teams, non-technical stakeholders, etc, depending on the situation. Regardless of the exact situation, developing a greater and more broad understanding of your “customers” and their needs opens up opportunities for you to create impact beyond your team.

If you have developed a particular skill set that is shared in the wider technology community, you might also consider participating in community events. Perhaps that starts with listening and understanding the trends and opportunities within the technical community and eventually contributing back if you have stories or ideas to share that you’ve learned along the way. Your impact might now be cross-organizational, which sets you up well for further opportunities that come your way and your reputation within the community.

All of these ways of creating an ever-increasing impact are agnostic to technology, stack, or a specific role. The most concise version of this advice is to focus less on the destination - 5-year plan - and more on the journey of creating impact. To do this, you need to get good at learning, welcoming change, and looking out for opportunities to be involved with initiatives that broaden your thinking.