What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?management
A few weeks ago, as part of my regular 121s with the team, I decided to ask them the question “What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself trying to get to where you are today in half the time?”. Now, this is typically a question that I would ask a mentor of mine, not that my mentor would ask me. However, I decided to try this question as a self-reflecting question for a change, and the results were pretty amazing as you will see.
Ultimately, I think this exercise is not something most of us would normally do on our own. So I gave it a go for you, with my team 💙 I hope you like it.
These are not to be blindly followed, but rather, I hope most of these (if not all) will resonate with you, and you will take them as food for thought.
Ask, ask, ask and then ask a bit more
Asking is the fastest way to learn new things. Especially when you find yourself in a new environment or working on a new domain. Having the conversation has the additional benefit of bringing people together. Human interaction is sometimes underestimated. Reading something on a wiki is efficient, having a chat is insightful, and opens the possibility of a deeper conversation about the subject.
In an environment with the right culture, I’ve never really heard something like “John asks too much”, so generally speaking, don’t be afraid to ask. But if you feel that you can’t ask freely, then ask yourself “is this the right environment for me”.
Sometimes it makes sense to try for yourself first, of course. But there is no need to bang your head against the wall for too long if you’re not making enough progress, particularly if a quick hint from someone else can go a long way.
Get a mentor and become one
Getting a mentor early on in your career is hugely beneficial, yet most junior professionals wait for a few years before even considering formal mentorship as an option. In fact, having more than one mentor for different things is also an option. Think of a mentor dedicated to career growth, another one to soft skills and a third one for technical competencies. This can definitely boost your progress. Don’t be afraid of “wasting” people’s time. Mentoring is a two-way street, and mentors get as much from the relationship as you do.
Which is also why you should consider becoming a mentor yourself as soon as you are (reasonably) comfortable with the idea.
Seek feedback like there’s no tomorrow
Biases are real, and they are everywhere. Some examples are overconfidence bias, self-serving bias (good things are due to skill, bad things are due to environment), confirmation bias (seeking out information that confirms pre-existing ideas). A simple step towards overcoming biases is to increase awareness. And nothing like good old constructive feedback to open your eyes.
Asking for feedback regularly is one of the most common traits of high performing individuals, and it shows and invested interest in self-development. You want to understand how your actions and behaviours are perceived by others, so that you can improve.
Don’t get too comfortable
This is the typical “get out of your comfort zone”. But what does that mean? If you know basically everything that there is to know about something, it’s time to start expanding your horizons. You can start by teaching others what you know for instance.
Seek for opportunities that are aligned with your career goals. Ask for help finding opportunities if you get stuck.
A reasonable amount of discomfort with your tasks is good, because it keeps you on your toes, and it pushes you to think outside of the box.
There are probably opportunities around you at the reach of the hand, like joining a project that uses a technology you’ve never used before, assuming a different set of responsibilities within your team, or swap teams to get exposure to an unfamiliar area of your business.
Ultimately, if you feel too comfortable for too long, and there are no opportunities that catch you eye in your environment, it’s probably time to start considering changing jobs, and that is actually ok.
Learn beyond what’s in your hands at a given moment. Read what’s new in your industry. Expand your knowledge by proactively seeking opportunities, like hackathons, meetups or conferences. Don’t take anything for granted and always keep an eye on future trends.
But at the same time, Stay focused
Looking outwards helps to find new opportunities, generate a (healthy) discomfort and expand our knowledge. However, it’s also crucial to stay in the moment, and balance out that explorer mindset we talked about earlier, with laser focus.
Once you’ve identified an opportunity, or an area of interest, you’ll need to invest enough time to really get the grasp of it and understand it inside out, to the point that you could teach it to others maybe, that’s a good benchmark usually. Setting uninterrupted time aside, to get in the flow, working on something, is the best way to make the most of your efforts and really master that one thing before moving on to something else.
Changing careers slows you down but it may be worth it
At some point, most of us face a dilemma. And that is whether we should stay in the track that we are in, or we should change. A classical example is IC vs management. But by no means it’s the only one, think back-end vs front-end, integration vs data, machine learning vs distributed systems, or even just changing sectors like healthcare vs travel (like in my case). The good news is that usually these decisions are reversible, and a career change will teach you loads regardless, so it won’t necessarily be wasted time if things don’t work out. However, be aware that every time you change paths significantly, it’ll take some time to go over the learning curve and master your new skillset. So you want to give it a serious thought before making a career move like this, and definitely consider your context and personal circumstances. But remember change is not bad per se, it’s just scary, and it may be worth it.
Pay attention to impact (at scale)
A very common motivator between software engineers is to be able to work on things that make a somewhat big impact. It’s very rewarding knowing that your contributions made the life of others a bit better, or more interesting or simply more fun. Therefore, when choosing your opportunities, it’s generally a good idea to consider the impact and scale of the problem you are trying to solve. Please note this doesn’t mean you should disregard any work that is not high impact / high scale, it just means you should be mindful. On a daily basis, there are things you can do too, even if your feature or task has a relatively low impact at first glance. You can share learnings with a wider audience, you can think about what it would take to expand beyond the current scope and maybe make a proposal, you can tweak aspects of it so that it can scale virtually indefinitely if needs be. In any case, the definition of impact in the context of a career conversation is not always obvious. So that is also something to keep in mind.
Work towards your next job
An interesting way to keep you on the right path is to think about your future on a regular basis and make investments on things that are aligned with your mid-term to long-term goals.
For example, even though at Skyscanner this is more of hat that you wear, let’s say you are looking to become an architect one day, sign up for opportunities that will allow you to work on architectural designs, stay closer to senior architects within your organisation and learn from them, stay informed about the latest developments in the field and bring in those learnings so that they become part of your current job as much as possible.
Politics are part of the job
Some places are more “political” than others but in all companies, it is possible to promote yourself and your cause without compromising your values or those of your organisation by playing the office politics correctly (and positively).
This is not (or shouldn’t be) about backstabbing, it’s about understanding the organigram and the informal networks, building connections and developing “people” skills. By leveraging your circle of influence, you can increase your impact and promote win-win situations.
The bad, the good and the ugly, all of it is worth it
It is important to learn from the bad things as much as the good things. Nothing tells as much about ourselves as how we reacted to adversity. Using misses as learning opportunities is also hugely beneficial because it gives us the opportunity to have somewhat awkward and difficult conversations that can push us forward when done correctly.
There are also lessons to be learned from the tedious work (ugly) that we must do from time to time, even if it just how to automate it for next time it comes our way.