Navigating the Tech Career Jungle GymFeatured

Watching my son climb up, down, and around the jungle gym to reach the top, I finally see parallels to my 10-year career in tech through software development, management, and, now, advocacy.

Just like climbing a straight-up ladder is less enjoyable to a child than a climbing frame with twists and turns, a fulfilling career is full of twists, turns, and challenges. But it’s often not until you look back that you remember how much you’ve enjoyed and accomplished.

Taking the First Step

Like many before me, I started working in tech fresh out of university. Upon graduation, I had the misapprehension that careers are a horizontal ladder that you need to climb up through a series of promotions to be successful. Just like how my son initially climbs up onto the first jungle gym platform.

This assumption in our industry builds the misapprehension that you need to be on the promo list in your target year or you are a failure. In some industries, such as banking – where I started – promotions are spaced years apart. Celebrating only those wins leaves long periods of disappointment and lack of recognition in between. That can be a very demoralizing experience.

Finding Your Feet

The early years of my career were spent building expertise, learning technologies, and responsibilities. Being ineligible for promotion for several years meant I progressed sideways through roles without questioning my status. Exactly like how my son walks sideways across platforms or horizontal segments to find a good way to progress up to the top.

My way of moving left and right was slightly different from his. I tinkered with new technologies. A brief stint as a Business Analyst helped me realize I miss coding and want it to always be a part of what I do. Mentorship and teaching developers coming in the door afterward gave me a glimpse of how to lead in a non-managing way. Working as a front-end web developer and learning new technologies ignited my passion for UI. I was able to learn and be successful in a different way.

While there is a difference in the skills we are learning, both my son and I are building mastery to serve as a foundation for us to ascend when we are ready.

“Conquering” the Next Level

When I got promoted after 6 years I was thrown into the crazy world of team management and leadership roles. These were enjoyable for a while. I loved growing engineers, and still do. I got to learn so much about the finance domain and interact with users of our software to solve their problems and reduce the time they took to perform key tasks.

But when I returned to work after having my first son, I found this role didn’t align with the tasks I enjoyed doing or the learning-focused leadership style I wanted to present. Having a full day of meetings while working from home during a pandemic with an infant crawling around my feet was not sustainable. Neither was the endless admin and hygiene management I had to perform or the juggling of competing expectations.

The Fall?

It was not surprising when I burned out. Self-care for me at this time was to decide to go back to development and rebuild my confidence in coding again after an almost 2-year hiatus. Almost like my son climbing down a tier as his current route didn’t quite work out. Or that he wasn’t quite confident enough to take the next jump without slipping down.

When I moved back to being an engineer I felt a sense of loss and disappointment in myself. My status as manager was gone. I realized that my perception of leadership as managing people is extremely narrow and inauthentic to me. Management of people and deliverables is not leadership.

Instead, I found a love of leading through mentorship and sharing knowledge and experience. That led me to an amazing role in developer advocacy. I get to share, speak, mentor, and support engineers as a technical leader and role model every day.

When my son makes it to the top of the frame with a huge smile of achievement on his face, the other kids will see they can do it too. Role models like us show us that we too can achieve these same heights. I beam with pride not only when my son makes it to the jungle gym summit, but when I see others I know progress in their careers and also share their journey and expertise.

Reaching My Next Summit

Don’t assume you need to manage to lead. Or progress up the metaphorical vertical career ladder one step at a time. Your career is a jungle gym. You need to experience achievements, promotions and setbacks to develop yourself as a well-rounded individual within your field.

Use guidance from others along with your own instincts to shift left, right, up, and down to find the career you want and the sense of achievement you deserve.

Thank you for sharing! I’m curious. How do you engage and get quality feedback from developers? I’m designing an app for back end engineers, but can’t get regular engagement to improve their user experience.
That's a really good question! It would depend on what connections you have to developers in question. Do you have a subset of pilot users, or is the app open source or freely available? In my prior role as a lead/software engineer regular reviews, support tickets and techniques such as observation at the user's desk was how I went about getting feedback.In my current role as an advocate getting feedback from developers using our products is a big part of the job. It comes from a variety of places:1. Discussion forums where developers as questions on how to use apps. Not only does that help you find gaps in documentation and tutorials it helps you build a community around your app.2. Talking to engineers at conferences and meetups and also presenting talks on how to use the app to solve everyday problems. Both are great ways to validate the app solves that problem and that it's a relevant problem to solve 3. Pilot user feedback is also a relevant thing to collect as well.Hope that helps!
Thank you for sharing this with us, Carly! Your words stayed with me so much that I wanted to come back with a comment a couple of days after reading the post.I relate to a lot of what you shared. I have a digital marketing background and that decade-long chapter of my career was a jungle gym not too different from yours: building foundational skills, stepping up in a management role, the fallout. My “next summit” after burnout was following the drive to learn, build, challenge myself: I started to learn Javascript in my spare time and enjoyed it so much that 18 months after I’m looking for my first tech role.Being a career changer in 2023 feels like a completely new jungle gym. Sometimes fulfilling and fun, equally often scary and filled with doubt. I’m trying to remind myself that I'm not starting from scratch and that this new career step is a continuation of what came before. I’m building mastery again, yes, and also counting on the skills I have previously developed with hard work and dedication.Reading your post reminded me we’re all figuring it out and that setbacks are opportunities to learn, course-correct, and grow. Even someone like you, with a remarkable tech career, is constantly re-evaluating what “new height” it makes sense to reach and how to stay true to yourself along the way. Thanks again for an inspiring read!
Thanks you @alessandramaffei for sharing your experience! You make an excellent point that our prior roles give us skills and experiences relevant to the new challenges we undertake. It took me a long time to figure that out! It is incredible to hear about your own career journey to date. I wish you luck with your search for your next tech role and the new heights you're climbing to in your next adventure. You've got this!
Thank you, Carly! Please keep on sharing your story and views here, whenever you feel like it—I’m sure many of us will draw energy and inspiration from it.Would it be ok if I asked you to connect on LinkedIn? Some of the online/in-person events you post about are right up my alley!