A safe pair of hands

| categories: career, work, thoughts

A lot of ink has been spilled about progressing from one "level" of engineering to the next: junior to intermediate; intermediate to senior; and recently we see more about senior to staff.

There's an important common factor in all of these career steps: being seen as a safe pair of hands. This becomes central as you become more senior.

Yonatan Zunger presented a great talk at LeadDev last year that I find myself referencing a lot: Role and Influence: the IC trajectory beyond Staff.

Zunger's framing made sense of my roles over the last decade in a way that staff archetypes didn't. Rather than wondering about what archetype I fit in any particular quarter, it's much easier to think about the mix of technical, people, product, and project disciplines I'm applying.

The hidden fifth discipline is "adult supervision", and I think that's really what I'm talking about here.

A thing I love to see - and experience! - in my colleagues is where they take something on and I know it'll be done right. Not exactly like I would do it; not some kind of ideal that stands independent of our working context; but right.

The problem is solved; the crisis is handled; the relevant people are informed and involved; risks are surfaced early and when shit goes wrong - as it will! - no-one is caught out.

This is level-independent! It's perfectly possible for someone to do this in a level-appropriate way. The problems and relationships you're handling may get a lot hairier as you step up in seniority, but the basic ideas don't change much.

How trustworthy are you with your work? Do you often surprise people? Can I expect you to be accountable1 or do I need to rely on someone else for that?

If you can answer well - no matter where you are in your career - then you're building a solid foundation for your next step. You're a safe pair of hands.


1. I've heard the word "accountable" thrown around a lot in industry, often without definition. Here's mine:

Being accountable for an effort as an engineering leader has two components: ownership, and communication.

  1. Ownership: the effort is "yours", and you act that way. There may be sub-components spread across people and teams, but overall you're the one who's on the hook. Your performance is assessed against the results of the efforts you lead. Judiciously - not every effort will succeed, and that's OK.
  2. Communication: you can tell the detailed story of why we're doing it, how it relates to other efforts, how it is progressing. You actively raise blocking issues or risks and get the necessary people together to address them. Where you can't, you escalate effectively.