Being a self-managing engineer is a great way to own your career path. Not only can self-management insulate you from potentially mediocre management, but it may also free up a good manager to focus on sharing your accomplishments with their peers. This can accelerate your career growth exponentially. For me, being self-managing meant that my leaders saw me as reliable, so I would often come to mind first when opportunities arose. My manager knew well in advance of my being ready that my end goal was a role in management thanks to our regularly scheduled development conversations. When an opportunity arose, I had already ensured that I was the obvious and logical choice for the position. I often get questions from peers and direct reports about how they can take control of their career trajectory, and for tips and tricks that have helped me along the way. I hope that this post will inspire more engineers to improve their self-management skills in the hope that they see the same sort of career acceleration that I experienced.
You may be asking yourself, "If I self-manage, what is my manager going to do?" Let me assure you, we managers have plenty on our plates - and it's not just managing our direct reports and tracking OKRs. Think of self-management tasks as management boilerplate code. It's stuff we as managers need to do to accomplish the basics, and when it's taken care of for us, we have more time to devote to solving bigger, harder problems - like getting you that promotion. Even if you aren't currently looking for a promotion, self-management tools help you have better control over your work. They enable you to build vital skills that can help you grow and make your job easier too. When you self-manage, you are in control of your own work destiny.
Ok I'm Sold. How do I Self-Manage?
Being a self-managing engineer is partly about self-awareness. To understand how to get to where you want to be, you must first know for sure where you are. Take stock of the
information at your disposal - what sort of feedback have you received in annual reviews? Anything you've yet to address? Are you consistently moving work across the board? If not, what's getting in your way? Share these things with your manager. Maybe they’ve already noticed those things, maybe they haven’t. But, by sharing you ensure that they know you're paying attention and that you care.
What wins do you have? Consistently track metrics like features you shipped, libraries you implemented, and crises averted with your help. The format doesn't matter, but you need to have some sort of consolidated list of your greatest hits. Choosing which tool to use for tracking wins could be whichever tool is your favorite. Slack, GitHub, even good old pen and paper if that suits your fancy. Julia Evans has a great writeup on what she calls Brag Docs, including a template to get you started. Internally at Target, we have an optional Git repo template for what we call your “Living Body of Work,” which includes sections for projects, collaboration, and work history. I’m a big fan of my physical planner with daily to-do lists and weekly summaries of what happened. What matters isn't the format, it's the information you save. And, this is not just for annual reviews, but something that should be consistently maintained. It’s much easier to remember every Friday to track the highlights of your week than it is to remember the highlights of your past year every January. When you have a new win to add to the list, share it with your manager! Don't be afraid of highlighting your successes – doing so makes your manager’s job easier.
Once you know how you're doing and have started a brag book, it's time to set goals. Maybe you already set some with your manager - audit them. Throw out the ones that won't get you where you want to be and add in the ones that will. Make them SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related). Share your new goals with your manager as soon as they're ready and work on an action plan together. Find opportunities within your organization to work toward those goals. Even try looking outside engineering if a goal is not specific to technology. Ask for help. Ask your manager, but don't forget about the wealth of knowledge trapped in your peers' heads, so ask them, too, maybe even first. Some of them have already achieved similar goals to yours. Let them point you in the right direction and learn from their mistakes.
Finally, remember that feedback is a gift, so be generous. Tell your manager when their advice really paid off - and when it didn't. The same goes for your peers. If your first instinct is to ask your manager to have a chat with someone you're struggling to work with, try instead coming up with ways to deliver constructive criticism yourself. You can still run it past your manager first to see if they have any suggestions, but you'll generate a lot more goodwill on all fronts if you proactively initiate your own constructive conversations. When you share feedback with management and your peers you demonstrate that you care about more than just your own work. Caring about the bigger picture is a great way to demonstrate that you're ready for the next step, whatever that may be.
I hope this post inspires you to build on the tactics listed here and develop your own version of self-management that works best for you. When you're self-aware about your own performance and set your own goals, you get to decide where your career is headed. When you share feedback about your achievements with your manager you gain more control of the conversation about your performance. And, when you generously share feedback with managers and peers you help those around you get the information they need to continuously improve. With these tactics you'll find your one-on-ones become much more focused and productive which in turn should lead to a better working relationship with your manager and more opportunities for you.
- Self-management frees up your manager to focus on bigger efforts related to your career
- Know your weaknesses, but highlight your strengths
- Have some form of success tracker that works for you
- Set realistic and granular goals, and do the legwork to achieve them
- Be generous with feedback
- You’re in control of your own career destiny!