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Lessons learned from being promoted from distinguished engineer to fellow, including what the title means and what it is that I do.

Innovating and advancing technology are core elements of software engineering, and why I got into the industry in the first place. Though these principles hold true in any position you’re in – whether it’s more junior or senior – the blast radius of your innovation is far greater as a fellow.

What is a fellow in engineering?

At my company, the individual contributor (IC) path is designed to mirror the management path in so far as the “distinguished” title is analogous to a senior director and the “fellow” title is analogous to a Vice President (VP). I find framing it this way starts to help some people understand the breadth of impact and influence these roles have. Over the course of my 20 years in the software engineering industry I worked my way from a junior engineer all the way to fellow.

What does your day look like as a fellow? 

Fellows are leaders, instrumental in leading your company’s strategy. And the responsibility is twofold. Not only is it important that you know what’s going on with your immediate teams, but you also have to be aware of the company’s broader vision and goals for individual products and processes. Fellow’s have to be focused on today, but also on the next year, two years, or even five years.

One thing that often differentiates fellows from other IC positions is the lack of day-to-day coding. This is the case because most of your time is spent focusing on the wider company strategy, or on coaching others to step into positions being left open. In this way, fellows are often force multipliers, concentrating on longer-term strategy, while also growing the next generation of distinguished engineers (DE) and fellows.

Another focus for DE and fellows is broadening impact outside of the company through publications, public speaking, and volunteering. Not only does this give back to the tech community, but it also helps to grow your personal brand and act as an ambassador for your employer.

I find that my days as a fellow are often filled with meetings. Meetings with peers such as VPs and other fellows about today’s problems and tomorrow’s solutions. Meetings with mentees and engineering teams to explain long-term tech strategies and vision. 

What do you need to learn to grow into a successful fellow?

You don’t get to be a DE or fellow without already being at the top of your field – being an expert in your coding language, code base, or network of systems and platforms. By the time you are looking at the role of DE or fellow there really isn’t much more you can learn to improve your subject matter expertise. The skills needed to be an accomplished fellow often fall outside of engineers’ comfort zones.

When I moved into the role of DE and now fellow, I quickly learned I needed to acquire more knowledge around business acumen. This included understanding more of how our business operates and how to create solutions that aren’t only world-class, but impactful to our bottom line. Where once I didn’t need to understand the business drivers to build a product, this aspect has now become a major part of my role to understand the motivations of the business and the market in order to develop solutions that can keep us profitable.

Another skill which is important to a fellow is the ability to discuss very technical topics with non-technical audiences. As you move into the executive position of DE and fellow you will be having conversations that are cross-domain, cross-division, and cross-technology. Being a strong communicator is key. 

Learning not to get too into the weeds with audiences that want a very high-level summary can be hard, because at one point in your careers your job was specifically to get very into the weeds on how to solve problems. Showing off the nitty gritty details was often one of the fun parts of the job. Now, you will have to get very familiar with the art of the elevator pitch

Challenges of being a fellow 

The biggest obstacle for me has been missing the feeling of accomplishment when I could call something done. One of the things that I loved about being a software engineer was that the problems I was trying to solve earlier in my career had a beginning and more importantly an end. There was a satisfaction of being able to push or merge code, or of being able to mark a bug as closed. There was a sense of achievement in being able to quantify and visualize my contributions in lines of code and the number of closed tasks.

Working on larger projects with long-term strategic goals means never really feeling that sense of closure.

It’s not to say that the work isn’t satisfying – but it does take some getting used to a new sense of satisfaction. For me, I love seeing the smaller achievements that are met by the members of my team. It is part of my role now to facilitate their joy in completed tasks in a way that I once did.

Final thoughts 

Choosing this career path has allowed me to travel the world, sharing my journey and learning from others.

This community fosters a wonderful camaraderie, where members share a true passion for knowledge and personal growth. As a black woman in this role, I take great pride in demonstrating to aspiring young black women in STEAM that they too can succeed in their chosen careers.