8 Practical Career Tips
4 min read
No vague advice, just hands-on recommendations
Here are a few things I’ve starting doing throughout the years that I’ve found had a real effect on my job performance in a big corporation.
At least half of these I’ve learned through others and a good amount of them seem more like common-sense than big revelations now, but hindsight is 20/20.
I hope that some of these might be useful to you, even if it’s just one!
- Make sure you’re always learning something. Especially in corporate environments, where any project is at constant risk of being cancelled or changed up significantly. Make sure you never have to ask yourself: did I just waste the last x months? For developing technical skills, Developer Roadmap is good resource, for more “soft” skills this awesome list on leadership is a goldmine (even if you’re not a manager).
- Speak up. This was career changing for me. While I’m naturally a talker, early in my career I was often in listening mode because I was worried about saying/asking something dumb. This changed after someone told me: “People typically don’t remember or care about the times you were wrong” or in its one-liner form: “Fake it, until you make it”. Speak up, it might be uncomfortable at first, but pretty soon you’ll start noticing people approach you differently.
- Maintain your Top of Mind. What are your most important work-streams, what’s keeping your mind busy? Write it down. Just Do it! Maintain it, revisit it, at least once a week. It’s useful to make sure you’ve not forgetting something and to help you keep the bigger picture in mind. Almost every time I’m working on my Top of Mind, I take some action as a result. I’ve also lost count how many times I’ve used Top of Mind notes as the basis for some status report or other update.
- Embrace Ambiguity. Arguably the biggest defining factor of seniority is the ability to deal with unclear circumstances, goals or context and still perform. Even more so how well you can lead others through that environment. More tactically: given a vague problem, how do you split that up in smaller tasks and execute on them even if you’re not sure what is two steps ahead. If you don’t know the solution, know the plan. Actively seek for opportunities to develop this skill by taking on projects that are just beyond what your comfortable with. Don’t get paralyzed by doubt or perfectionism (Analysis-Paralysis).
- Prepare for meetings with your manager. When meeting with any superior (not just your direct manager), think before hand about what you want out of the meeting. Then think “What is it that (s)he wants out of this meeting?”. Take this advice literally. Spend 15 min noting down the answers to these questions before meeting. Spend another 30 min prior to the meeting setting in motion the things that you’ve overlooked up until that point. Not only does it make for a good impression, you’re also thinking in terms of what will make your boss successful - that’s almost always directly tied to your success. In general, learn to manage your manager.
- Take control of your career.
- Nobody’s going to do it for you. Don’t expect your manager to tell you what you need to do to get to the next step. Good managers will absolutely do this and mentor you in other ways too, but it’s ultimately still your responsibility. One of the most common mistakes people make is thinking that their manager or the company owes them something.
- Make sure you understand how compensation works and accept that changing organizations (internally or externally) is often the only way to progress significantly in this regard. Conversely, while internal organizational change brings uncertainty, it typically also brings the biggest opportunity for advancement within the same organization. Especially for making a transition into a leadership role (technical or management).
- Finally, don’t get stuck in the same role for too long. In my experience, job cycles in big tech companies last 18-24 months. Make a mental note of that when starting a new role and remind yourself every 3 months how much time is left, this way it won’t catch you off-guard. When starting in a new job or role, actively prepare for your first 90 days and take a deliberate approach.
- Write concisely. Before hitting send, don’t just proofread but re-read and remove as many words as you can. Bulletize and use formatting. Put summaries at the top of write-ups and emails. Ask questions that have 3 word answers. Ask people to pick from pre-defined options: A) B) or C). If you can’t do this, then you probably should be talking instead of writing.
Some of the most brilliant engineers I know have challenges with this. Truth is, in the age of social media and information overload, people don’t have the time or patience to read long texts. Writing concisely requires practice: it’s actually harder than writing long form. Start practising with your next email.
- Start a side-project This allows you to develop skills you might not be able to at work. It’s also often more visible than what you do at work; it allows you to build a portfolio that is attached to you and not your current job or employer. The best thing you can do for your career has nothing to do with your job. I definitely believe that getting my last few roles was directly influenced by some things I did outside of work. Do make sure you pick something you have fun doing. If it feels like work outside of work, you’ll just burn out.