First things first, hi there! It’s Tuesday when this post started. One of those middle of the road days that we made it through and considered a win because that’s life. A bunch of random Tuesdays with some high highs and low lows. Hopefully laughter in the middle. But I digress.
This is very much a plateau kinda post, not about the climb. I’d like to talk about the no man’s land that is a mid to senior part of your tech career where you’re not really trying to get in, but working to understand why you’re still there and where you fit. Maybe you have some deferred dreams or you’ve surpassed your own expectations and are like “now what?”. In my relatively young career, I find there is much less guidance for the road with a mirage. It’s the part of the journey where there are not as many steep hills, but there are pebbles everywhere that you keep stepping on and getting blisters from as you try to make it “there”. And you can’t see the top of the hill because it’s all flat, which also means there is no end of the road. The “there” is not a Boys II Men production. At all.
I don’t know if any of that made sense, or if it helps you untangle what’s going on with you, but sharing is caring so here goes everything and nothing
For context, I’m a data professional with eight years of experience who’s worked in small to middle size companies, start-ups and family businesses, research and industry. All the in-between, you get it. Currently, I work in the most technical role I’ve ever had. If you’ve worked with agile teams, there are practices like sprint planning, grooming, picking up work in the form of tickets, and stand-up sessions. These are very prominent in my role. When I joined, I was the only engineer on the team so my curiosity drove the day and mission. Asking questions to gain as much domain and institutional knowledge as possible to start building was a gold mine.
Fast forward six months, I have three more teammates: my manager, an amazing engineer who basically functions as half a staff engineer and a manager; a senior engineer, and a staff engineer. Great for me because there are more people to learn from! The focus shifted from learning about the domain to using that knowledge to build our solutions for the business. While it was valuable to stay curious, making and executing on technical decisions had become a more valuable skill to have. So why am I telling you all this (which by the way if you made it this far, kudos)?
My manager, bless her, is very good at precision and succinctness when it comes to gap analysis. As a hermit, knowing my gaps so I can go back to the corner and work on them instead of overthinking is great. Working with her and the other engineers has helped me identify the following gaps:
- Tendency to go into rabbit holes and stay there: as a nosy Rosie, I can build a tent in the rabbit hole. When everything is new, every angle is interesting. Being in sprints though means you have a finite amount of time to solve problems and pick one timely solution.
- Prioritizing users instead of the team: this I learned courtesy of the senior engineer. It might sound counter-intuitive, but they’re right. Sometimes, I want to make life easier for our data consumers. But my teammate reminds me there is an underlying tradeoff between making your customers’ lives easier and maintaining all the code that makes those lives easier. If it breaks, you’re responsible. But you didn’t have to own the thing - it was a “nice to have”. Effectively, I would end up locked in a cage of my own building.
- Not asking the right questions when asking questions: curiosity is great, but turns out there is an empty calories version of it. Think bloviating - but with questions. When I was learning about things, I would ask all the questions, intake all the information and organize the story in my head. When troubleshooting though, there are time constraints. The answers to the questions you ask should unblock you, not intrigue you into learning more all the time. You gotta save that for no-merge Fridays!
Combine these three factors and you have a person who wants to take on the most interesting (read: challenging) tickets, takes a lot of time on them because they’re curious, and instead of seeking answers to unblock then understand, they’re focused on understanding so they can unblock themselves. Pretty soon, they cause their team to end up with never ending sprints. They are me. I am them. As a subscriber of “small wins add up”, it was disheartening to not make movement on tasks. So we talked about it!
Shout out to people who want you to win a.k.a my teammates. Here are the tips I’m working on to get over this hump from their guidance. Operative phrase is “working on” because this is still a journey.
I told you this is the most technical role I’ve had right? And everyone I work with is at least a senior engineer? Yes. So I have fallen into the trap of wanting to prove myself (actually to myself more than to others sometimes). When I see folks on other teams trying to solve something I may be able to help with, I get engrossed. Recently we had to add Java dependencies to our repository along with incorporating some Java code and guess who went to revisit Angie Jones’ course so they could understand every line of code added by a staff engineer? This girl. Was it interesting? Yes. Did I need to do all that during that sprint? No, not really. Now, if I see a curiosity trap, I look at my checklist, talk to inner Sia about how much time we have, and respond accordingly. If I’m not involved in the original solution, I can revisit it later, ask questions, and maybe even suggest a refactor (rare in my case, but who doesn’t like refactoring!)
Now that we are saying no to things that don’t fit in our priority list e.g. for that sprint, for that problem area, I can spend more time focusing on a few things and do them well. I block out time to work on specific tasks. If I’m blocked, I switch to another one that can also be done or attempted within that time frame. Sometimes, that looks like unblocking other people by reviewing their work so it can be merged to production. It’s like that one Bill Belichick quote (paraphrase) - mental toughness is when you do what helps your team win even if you don’t shine while doing it (yes yes, a broken clock is right twice a day so this is the only time I’m referencing that man).
This is the big one for me. Because you know when you think you’re so close to solving a problem you’ve been dialed in on; so you try that one other thing and pretty soon it’s been five hours? Yeah - my curious self struggles with this one the most. Not only do we block out time to focus, but my manager taught me about timers. Yes - like when you bake (which sidebar - I found a cookie I forgot I had left from the last time I baked in the kitchen and a Sia was SO HAPPY ). She’s used it as a strategy to time tasks AND move on. Even if it’s not done. Why?
- It forces you to be mindful of your choices for how to solve a problem when that’s all the time you have
- If you can’t figure it out in that timeframe, share your progress with others so they can take a shot at it too. It makes you better at communicating what you’ve tried, and you find some knowledge gaps! Worst case scenario, you walk away, work on and make progress on another task, and come back with fresh eyes to help you solve the hard one
- Sometimes, you don’t have to be the one to do the thing. And that’s OK too!
It’s been a month or so, and I can feel the progress of these changes. I’ve been contending with a lot of other circumstances I can’t control so it feels good to see the results starting to show. It doesn’t always feel good to let go in the moment, but almost all the time - it’s been worth it. You have to be ok with asking questions and saying I don’t know (which I acknowledge can also be hard for folks). While this is not my problem, I’ve been learning how to ask better questions. I’m also catching myself more when having conversations and working on tasks with the timeboxing. I’d also recommend having these gap analyses year round with your teammates and manager (if you trust them, again I realize not everyone has this luxury), and not just during performance review seasons. Because we talked about this in 2022, and in 2023, I’m able to track my own progress and get more pointed feedback.
All of this to say, do it scared. Like one of my favorite humans and leaders - Tashay - has taught me, name the slump so you can work through it. And as always, I hope you dance