Writing a career plan early on in your journey to engineering leadership can feel intimidating. There are a lot of questions to answer at this stage of your career, and it can be difficult to know where to start.
When I finished my undergraduate computer science program, there was a lot that I didn’t know. What part of the tech stack did I prefer? What kinds of products did I want to build? What size organization felt like it would be a good fit for me? As a new grad doing rounds of interviews, I got asked these types of questions frequently, so I began writing down the answers.
After my first year working as a software developer, I realized that I had an interest in engineering leadership. As I tried to figure out how to move toward this goal, I was reminded of the question/answer process I’d used as a new grad and I decided to transfer that structured approach to figure out what I needed to do next. This process of reflecting, writing goals, and using them to determine which next steps I should take became the framework I used for my early career planning. In this article, I’d like to share this framework with you to adapt and use as you set your own career goals and start looking toward developing your engineering leadership skillset.
Types of skillsets
To start your planning process, I'd suggest looking at the following three categories of professional skills: technical, people, and business.
Technical skills encompass the knowledge you need to be a productive developer. Some examples of skills you could include are ‘git flow’, ‘debugging’, and ‘domain mapping’. People skills center around learning to be an effective teammate and improving your communication. Examples of skills here could include ‘leading meetings and discussions’, ‘giving good feedback’, and ‘active listening’. Business skills help you understand and work effectively within your organization and industry. Skills here could include ‘story mapping’, ‘technical writing’, and ‘presentation skills’. At this point in the process, the individual skills can be as general or specific as you like. You’ll refine them into goals later when forming your career plan. You’re also not limited to these three categories and should feel empowered to add or remove categories as is useful to you.
Figuring out and prioritizing which skills you’d like to work on can be tricky. If you find yourself stuck as you try to come up with these, one way to get started is to dedicate some time to mind-mapping. This could be as short as 15 minutes – the important thing is to start jotting down the ideas you have on paper. After you’ve written as many ideas in the time, choose three that seem the most appealing or easiest for you to work on first. This will leave you with a shortlist – just nine skills in total – that you can use in the next step of this career planning exercise.
Goal-setting for skills
Now it is time to take your prioritized skills and come up with a goal for each of them. Goals are most effective when they are actionable; the end result of writing down your goals should work as a to-do list for you to use going forward. For example, if one of your skills is ‘debugging’, the goal could be ‘pair with senior developers on bugs when they happen’. If the skill is ‘technical writing’, the goal could be, ‘attend an online technical writing class ’. If your skill is ‘lead meetings and discussions’, the goal could be, ‘work with the project lead to learn how they lead meetings’. This exercise will help you translate the skills you would like to develop into actions that will lead to your progression.
Your career plan is a living document
Once you’ve completed these three steps, you will have a career plan! From here, you can use it as a starting point for conversations with your manager or mentors so that they can offer insight and guidance going forward – e.g. you can ask to work on projects that relate to specific professional goals. One thing to remember is that your career plan is a living document. As you complete goals on your plan, evaluate and reflect on your progress. This is an opportunity to add new goals and skills or remove ones that are no longer relevant to you. If you feel like a particular skill is progressing slowly, talk about it with a peer and see what advice your professional support network can offer. In the future, this plan can serve as a log you can use to track your professional development and advocate for a raise, promotion, or another opportunity.
Career planning doesn’t have to be stressful. A key part of this planning process is being adaptive and figuring out what you want along the way. Your plan can – and should – change as you progress. If you’re someone who would like to try a lightweight and flexible planning strategy, this may work for you.