The Disillusionment of the Early Career Engineer

Pumpkin carving

Credit : flickr / Kenny Louie

You’re brilliant! You have so many options! You graduate, start work… and now you’re at the bottom of the food chain. There’s a game on, and from what you understand of it, you’re not sure you want to play.

Sometimes people ask me for advice. I have no idea why; I’m not sure what I’m doing either. I’ve noticed a trend, though, of being disillusioned after the first thrill of “I graduated! I have a real job!”, and some people feel disillusioned… others feel disillusioned and trapped.

Disillusionment mostly comes from a feeling of “is this it? I thought I was going to [change the world]”.

Trapped comes from things like: career not going how you thought/hoped it would, not feeling like you are learning enough, not feeling appreciated, not being clear on what you need to do differently to progress.

I can’t offer anything to the disillusioned (I think this is why people join startups instead of working for The Man), but I do have some thoughts on being trapped.

Always have a plan B. The time to find your next thing is not when your confidence is shot – it’s something you should always have. And then you activate it when you’re in a situation that is sapping your confidence.

Even a good manager is not a forever. Yeah your manager helped you with that thing, it doesn’t mean they are going to be 100% good for you, all the time. Another situation they might let you down really badly, or just not be able to help you (e.g. your last promo, they had a plan. For the next it seems like something of a crap shoot). A good manager will see developing your career as part of their job, but even if they do (or say they do – not the same thing), your career is not going to be built on blind loyalty to them. Stay whilst they are offering the things you want, that will help you move forward, but remember: your manager is human, and sometimes as a human they are going to suck – that is their right as a human, and your responsibility as a decent human is not to hold it against them. The question is, is what they are currently sucking at important to you? Will it stop you from feeling fulfilled or moving forwards? If it is, then it’s time to go. If it’s not important, don’t be a jerk, let it go.

Find something you can be excited about on your project. Or find a new project. I don’t think you need to be a passionate user of whatever you are building. A career regret of mine is that I didn’t spend longer working on email, the hatred I have for it was motivating to improve it. I get excited by great user experience, by building things that I think real people will use – which actually gives me a pretty broad set of things to be excited about. But read the launch announcement and feel “meh, nothing new here” – that’s not a place for you.

If you are 100% your job, when your job sucks, your life sucks. And even when you get free meals and all the rest of that stuff, sometimes your job is going to suck. Work on a side project – you’d be amazed at how much you can get done if you set aside half a day at the weekend, or carve out time to write in the evenings. I conducted an experiment in working Saturdays earlier this year. After a few months I declared it a failure and started spending that time on personal projects instead. My happiness improved dramatically, and I started getting some external validation that was a huge – and much needed – boost to my confidence. Perhaps most importantly, I started feeling empowered to challenge and change things I was unhappy about.

Have an idea what you want to do in the medium term. Then make a list. Here’s my medium term plan – I want to be able to run a cross-platform mobile team. Am I ready to do that yet? Not quite. Do I have a plan to get there? Not exactly. What I do have, is a list of things I need to achieve and skills I need to master so that I can do that. And so when I look to my next move, I focus on crossing something off the list – my last move? Two checks – build an iOS app from scratch, and run a small (sub-)team. My next – more web development experience. Currently my side project is building an Android app from scratch. I know that my short term choices build a medium term plan – and that’s my responsibility (if you’re lucky, you get a manager who will support your short term and your medium term goals, but short term can be good enough).

Sometimes you make a choice between values and skills – i.e. “we want someone to focus on <area>” vs “we want someone to build X”. File this under – career choice I didn’t realise I was making at the time. Build X is more concrete, and good to show your value, but what happens post-X? Is it just going to be a short term thing? Focus on area might be better, but why is no-one currently focused on that? Are you really going to be able to? Is your work going to be recognised, and rewarded?

Beware of boring. Why is no-one else doing that? I could make a list of things I find frustrating about the typical nerd. Here’s something that would be… ooh, top five. The logic that goes “if it was important, I would be interested in it, and I’m not, so therefore this is not important”. I have been amazed by the things that get de-prioritised this way. And then the people that work on these things have their work diminished in complexity, just because it is perceived as boring. If you work on something that no-one else wants to, do people recognise it’s importance? Or are you working on something that no-one else wants to… and doesn’t see the value of. That’s a dead end. How people perceive your value and achievements is important, and it’s worth being aware of this, and learning to communicate the value of things that you are doing.

Say something. So many times, I’ve had conversations where someone sets a deadline for things being better without telling anyone who actually has the power to change things. It helps to tell people what you want. They may, or may not give it to you, but at least you will know you tried. If you don’t feel you can, that’s a whole other problem.

Don’t underestimate the importance of your manager/tech-lead. Work hard and good things happen is bullshit. The missing bit – have someone who can advocate for you notice. And advocate for you. This is how you get opportunities – projects, promotions. This is the good situation. In the bad situation, beware of people who need to inflict their insecurities on you, especially if they are the people you need on side to get ahead.

Some Final Thoughts

A lot of this centres on who your manager is. There are a lot of bad managers in the tech industry, hence the drive to do without them, which just creates a different structure (extensively written about elsewhere, but why not start with this). I think it’s really hard to evaluate your first few managers, and only later can we see what they did well, and what they didn’t do so well. In the end, we can’t expect too much, or much at all – our careers are up to us. If we are lucky we get people who help us make good choices along the way, and if we get really lucky, we find people who also support us when we don’t. These people are not necessarily formally your manager, but they can have a tremendous impact on your career none the less.

For women and other minorities, it’s even harder – the manager who gaslights a woman, might be the best manager the dudebro on his team ever had. And you know, lucky for the dudebro. Unlucky for the woman. Whilst tech companies look for women in a limited pool, the women I know look for the limited pool of managers that are good for women (or at least will be good for them – not all men who have sponsored a woman are enlightened and educated about sexism, look at Larry Summers and Sheryl Sandberg) – and it can be hard to tell whether that particular manager has no women on their team because it just happened that way (maybe they work on very low level stuff, where women fall even below the 15% graduation rate) or if there is a reason for that. You can’t always know – but find out if you can. It’s easy to talk good game, but actually given that people who think they are meritocratic exhibit higher levels of cognitive bias, maybe talking good game should worry us more.

In the end, I can’t tell you anything about finding a good manager. I’ve got lucky, and I’ve got unlucky, and if at some point if I figure it out, I’ll let you know. The only thing that I know is that statistically, men whose wives have jobs treat their female colleagues better. So if you’re a woman, prefer the male manager whose wife has a job (if they are in a male dominated field, all the better). Otherwise, here is a handy list (associated article) – as a metric, the more of these that make you laugh in relation to your manager… the more you need that Plan B.



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