An engineer's journey from a junior to a lead is full of learnings and requires frequent adaption and agility to succeed. But, as this Tweet mentions, what ends up needing most of the time and focus at each engineering level tends to be different.
What got you here will not get you there.
The best and most successful engineers realize this and adapt to meet the need at the moment rather than clinging to what got them so far. They are what Liz Wiseman calls Impact Players — a book and a mental model I highly recommend.
In this post, I will take you through a mental model of thinking about your growth as an engineer, techniques to advocate for yourself, and advice on organizing your thoughts and communicating well.
The Rigor/Relevance Framework®
So the first question that you may have is, how should I operate? How do I know when to focus on learning, building, or something else?
Here comes a structured tool you can leverage called The Rigor/Relevance Framework®, developed by the International Center for Leadership in Education to examine curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
As you might guess, they typically use this framework in education settings to chart a student's growth of knowledge and how they apply it. It is an excellent lens to view an engineer's growth because great engineers are lifelong learners who follow a similar trajectory!
You can use this framework as a guide to track where you are now and where you might go next as a software engineer. We can examine the expectations at each level and how you can grow your impact and reach the next one.
Quadrant A (Acquisition) — Junior Engineer
You are an early stage engineer as an intern, your first job out of school, or switching industries.
Your manager will probably expect you to gather and store bits of knowledge and information. They will also expect you to remember or understand this acquired knowledge. Your team mentor, manager, or tech lead will guide you in completing your tasks.
You can exceed expectations if you understand and leverage existing patterns & practices, as well as execute tasks with minimal guidance. For more, see Samuel Taylor’s brilliant advice on how to join a team and learn a codebase.
Quadrant B (Application) — Mid-Level Engineer
You are a mid-career engineer with a few years of experience and maybe in your second or third job as an engineer.
Your manager will expect you to use acquired knowledge to solve problems, design solutions, and complete work more or less independently.
You can exceed expectations if you can quickly ramp up and contribute to a new team/domain and apply your knowledge to new and unpredictable situations.
Quadrant C (Assimilation) — Senior Engineer
You are a veteran engineer who has worked in the industry for about a decade. You are the driver of your work streams and a mentor to others.
Your manager will expect you to extend and refine your acquired knowledge to expertly and routinely analyze and solve problems and create unique solutions.
You can exceed expectations by consistently stepping into a leadership role and helping your team take complex projects to the finish line by working closely with stakeholders, identifying solutions, defining the scope, estimating timelines, and measuring success. You know how to be what Keith Rabois calls a Barrel.
Quadrant D (Adaptation) — Staff+ Engineer
You are a technical craftsperson and have been in leadership roles in the industry. You typically lead teams and companies on strategic and mission-critical initiatives. In addition, you are a compassionate mentor that can guide individuals and teams to achieve greater success.
Your manager will expect you to think in complex ways and apply your acquired knowledge and skills. However, even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, you can use your experience to create solutions and take action that further develops your skills.
You can exceed expectations by practicing imagination, prioritizing the right things at the right time, and executing your vision by inspiring and leading others. See Will Larson's guides for reaching and succeeding at Staff-plus roles for a deep dive.
The map is not the territory.
Organizations essentially split those four quadrants above into different levels at varying granularity, but the core concepts usually remain the same. Therefore, you can think of the above levels as a map for your career progression.
Although these leveling guides are helpful, it is essential to remember that even the best maps are imperfect. In mathematician Alfred Korzybski's words, the map is not the territory. That's because they are reductions of what they represent. If a map were to describe the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be helpful to us.
That is all to say, don't read the leveling guides too literally or get fixated on ticking the boxes. Instead, take the time to explore your interests, learn and savor the journey. Personally, I took several detours along the way, such as pursuing entrepreneurship and switching back and forth from IC to management to maximize my learnings & impact rather than worrying about titles or showing linear growth on my resume. For more, see Charity Majors' thoughts on engineering levels.
Also, it’s essential to remember that titles are usually a byproduct of all your achievements. They are a lagging indicator of your impact. Therefore, you should never wait for titles to work on your skills and find your flow state. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the flow state as:
a constant balancing act between anxiety, where the difficulty is too high for the person’s skill, and boredom, where the difficulty is too low
Do you have the right opportunities, mindsets, and support to achieve that flow state and create a greater impact? If not, what needs to change?
Be your advocate
Following and meeting the expectations of a leveling guide alone sometimes is not enough. It's also crucial that you become your advocate and authentically tell your story. For one, make sure you have a way to remember, celebrate, share, and learn from all your accomplishments.
Reflecting on your journey will help you spot trends, key strengths, and areas of improvement. I've found it easier to jot down my thoughts right after passing a milestone, such as at the end of the quarter or after completing a project. I've also found it helpful to track my time using tools like Toggl, RescueTime, etc., to understand and visualize my time pie.
You can use those reflections as a springboard to share your achievements & insights more broadly. I know that may not always come naturally to some engineers, but putting yourself out there will help others, amplify your work and unlock new opportunities. It is also a great opportunity to practice gratitude and recognize others around you.
Another critical skill often overlooked is an engineer's ability to write and communicate. Make sure you invest in that skill as early as possible in your career. It will pay long-term dividends unlike any other. In fact, your ability to advocate for yourself hinges on your ability to communicate well.
Clear and concise communication will also help you think through complex concepts more clearly. It is also a huge plus when working at a company that values written communication, such as Amazon's, with a culture of six-page memos, which Jeff Bezos talked about in one of their shareholder letters.
To build this skill gradually, I’ve used Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) tools, such as Notion, Roam, Remote, etc., to create a daily writing practice and a way to organize thoughts. You can then leverage those raw thoughts and outlines to write polished documents. Set a goal for yourself to write a certain amount of external blog posts or internal memos. Start small, maybe 2 - 3 per year, and slowly increase the cadence.
For more on writing well, check out Heinrich Hartmann's Writing for Engineers guide and Michael A. Covington's presentation on How to Write More Clearly, Think More Clearly, and Learn Complex Material More Easily.
To recap, the core tenets of owning your growth as an engineer covered here were:
- What got you here will not get you there; do the job that's needed of you
- Understand what it'll take to exceed expectations and have a plan to outperform
- Advocate for yourself through storytelling and sharing your work
- Learn to organize your thoughts and communicate articulately
I would love to hear if that resonates and if there is any other advice you've found to be pivotal in your growth journey.
About the Author
Jesal is passionate about applying technology towards meaningful, positive impact. He started writing code for fun in middle school. Since then, he has amassed over a decade of experience in the tech industry ranging from being a co-founder to an engineer. In his free time, he enjoys playing with his son, tinkering on side-projects, and traveling.