Competency is not the only way you can grow your career.
If that was the case, then every engineering manager would be technically more proficient than their reports, and I can guarantee (from many experiences) this is not only not the case - it's not even the norm.
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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
If you're like me, then you have a plan to keep learning for the rest of your career, for the rest of your life. If you're a software engineer, then you almost certainly have heard that this is necessary. This is a critical part of keeping up in your career. That learning is a non-negotiable activity that you need to participate in. But what exactly does that look like? There's a lot of ambiguity and a lack of clarity when we're talking about lifelong learning. Of course, there's the basic idea that you'll have new tools to learn or new techniques, new services to figure out new problems to solve. But you may have a misguided view of what it means to learn, or more specifically, what it means to progress in your career as it relates to your learning. One of the ways of thinking about this is competency. As you learn new things in your career, you become more competent. If you learn without increasing your competency, then you are essentially learning trivia. You may know something, but if you can't actually apply what you know to your job or to your day-to-day work, then it's not really particularly valuable to your career. Now, it's very hard to know how all of the things that we learn are going to apply. For example, learning history, or learning about different languages. Different things that you may not have direct application for may help you form a good series of mental models. We've talked about that on this show plenty of times before. So learning in general tends to have a positive effect, regardless of what you are learning, because you build better connections. You build better background, what Charlie Munger called a lattice work of mental models. And so it's hard to say whether you're learning is going to have a zero effect on your competency, usually it doesn't. But if we look at our careers in terms of how it matches up to our competency, our intuition says that our competency is directly responsible for our career growth. That is, in order to grow in our careers, we must learn. And that is the only way that we can grow. And that that growth is linearly connected to our competency. Now, I'm going to break down in this episode why this simply isn't true. But first, I want to talk about today's sponsor. This episode is brought to you by Launch Darkly. Launch Darkly is feature management for the modern enterprise, and it's fundamentally changing how you deliver software. Here's how it works. It's pretty simple. Launch Darkly enables development and operations teams to deploy code at any time, even if a feature isn't ready to be released to users. This means that your deployments and your public releases can be totally decoupled from each other. Your app code in feature flags, which gives you the safety to test new features and infrastructure in your production environments without impacting the wrong end users. And when you're ready to actually release to those users, you can update the flag status and the changes are made instantaneously by Launch Darkly's real time streaming architecture. With Launch Darkly, you can innovate faster, deploy fearlessly, and make each release a masterpiece. Go and check it out. Get started for free at launchdarkly.com. That's a totally free account starting today at launchdarkly.com. And thanks again to Launch Darkly for sponsoring today's episode of Go and Continue. I want to be clear about something before we go into this process of debunking the idea that your competency is somehow linearly connected to your career growth. That is, it is connected to your career growth, but it's not linear. In other words, as your competency improves, it's likely that your career will improve as well. But it's not the only factor. The wrong picture that I want to break in your mind is the picture of an engineer that gets better and better and better and better and better at engineering. And more specifically, they become more and more technical. They become more capable of doing highly technical things. The problem is that there's virtually no evidence of this endless competency growth. And you might imagine that your competency to get out of engineering and into some kind of promoted position, unfortunately, oftentimes this is seen as the jump from IC work to management work. This is still seen as a promotion rather than a parallel track. But this is seen as kind of graduating. And it's no surprise. Many of us grew up with some kind of education system where we graduated out of a class and into a new class. I call this Pokemon promotion. The idea is that as you gain more and more experience points, as you get more and more competency in one form, eventually one day you just transform into a new thing. That you were yesterday and an engineer, but you cross that threshold and now suddenly become an engineering manager. But this isn't the picture of how a career progresses. There are so many other factors to take into consideration. One of them is quite simply that when you change from an IC role, for example, to a managing role, these are totally new skill sets. Yes, you will still probably reference or use as background some of your engineering skill set, but a lot of that is going to fade. A lot of it will be replaced with new kinds of responsibility, new kinds of demands. And so your competency is not growing in one direction, it's filling in. It might be growing in a new direction. In some ways, when you switch from being an engineer to an engineering manager, you start over. You have to learn from the start. And the same can actually be said for high level IC roles. If you start out as a kind of junior level engineer, a lot of the code that you're going to be working on is well contained, it's in a single project. You don't really have to worry about reviewing other people's code. But as you begin to expand your career, it's not that you're working on harder problems. That's not the only change that you see. You do see that kind of competency increase, but you also see new competencies. This is the important part. And this is why it's not linear. You begin to change what you do rather than increasing the intensity of what you do. More senior engineers tend to work on broader problems, different systems. They work in collaborative environments. Senior engineers or staff level engineers, even principal engineers, begin to work in more abstract formats. Where the actual implementation of what they're doing is done by somebody else possibly, but the complexity of what they're doing hasn't grown drastically. Certainly it hasn't grown exponentially and arguably it hasn't grown even linearly. Instead of our competencies going in one specific direction for a whole career, they tend to grow. They tend to spread. Rather than growing linearly in one direction, they tend to fill in where the gaps are. But to be clear, we're not talking about skill gaps here. Instead we're talking about context. We're talking about responsibility. All of these kind of softer things where you apply maybe the same skill sets, maybe even elementary skill sets, but in new and dynamic situations. A very important thing to recognize here is that even competency is only one small part of how your career grows. Another time your career growth is going to be influenced by the market, very heavily influenced by your relationships, it'll be influenced by your own soft skills, which the same set of skills might take you through multiple promotions. At the end of the day, this is a huge mixing pot of variables. And of course, increasing your competency probably won't have a negative effect on you, but it's not the only way to grow in your career. Instead of trying to endlessly get better in areas where you are weak or endlessly add information, trying to match up to some unrealistic standard of superstar, extremely academic level engineering talent. Instead of doing that, focus on the things that you're good at and try to find more opportunities to do those things. As you continue to develop in the areas that you're already doing well, your opportunities for growth beyond just increasing your competencies will present themselves to you. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope this was a good challenge to the intuitive model that we have in our heads, that we have to endlessly become better engineers and that the only way to grow in our careers, the top level of our career path is kind of that zen level perfection of engineering that's absolutely not the case and I hope that you can grow in your careers every day by focusing on doing the things that you already do well. Thanks so much for listening to this episode and go again to Launch Darkly for sponsoring today's episode, head over to launchdarkly.com to get started for free today. Thanks so much and until next time, enjoy your tea.