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Building a Lifelong Technical Career in Software Development

Technical experience matters because it adds to the value chain. In engineering companies, the technical knowledge accumulated by people over many years can provide the basis for the next generation of products and projects. Sven Reimers spoke about building a lifelong technical career in software development at QCon London 2023.

Spotting opportunities to pursue a technical career is typically hard, Reimers mentioned. If you are approached with a task or job, which offers new possibilities or angles on what you are currently doing, try to see beyond the actual assignment and figure out where the road would take you if you stay on it for long enough. If you like what you see, do not be afraid even if it is currently out of your comfort zone - leaving it means learning new things, which in turn makes you a more complete technical expert:

Having been in the same area for about a decade I got an offer to start a new project at another department, so I had to leave friends behind and an environment I knew from the inside out - moving to a domain I was a newbie in, knowing no one and just relying on my own know-how to be successful. I think you get the idea what comfort zone is all about.

To become a primus inter pares, Reimers took the opportunity to openly share his knowledge with his colleagues and learn from their questions. If he couldn’t answer them directly he helped them find an answer or build a solution or even took extra time to improve his knowledge, e.g. reading specs and tutorials for new technologies and trying out stuff by prototyping simple things.

In the end this resulted in a feedback loop, the more questions he answered, the more questions were asked and this increased his technical knowledge and put him into the "primus inter pares" position:

Being in this position increased my visibility in the organisation and opened up new inputs for this learning feedback loop.

If you are really not interested in being a people manager, communicate this clearly in your organisation, Reimers suggested. Show that you are nevertheless interested in taking responsibility for business-critical technical decisions and that you are willing to take the technical lead to realise this:

If you think something is worthwhile to be pursued to be done, e.g. upgrade to a newer version of Java, first get the management onboard. After that, accept that the management gives you the task to make that happen - so accept the responsibility to get this done.

This will show your commitment, your perseverance, your ability to deliver and will give even more influence for upcoming decisions, Reimers concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Sven Reimers about mentoring and leadership in technical careers.

InfoQ: What are the benefits and challenges of mentoring technical people and how can this impact careers?

Sven Reimers: Mentoring people is a rewarding task by itself. Typically you receive positive feedback because mentoring is not a business target, but always a personal interaction. The only challenge I typically see is to have enough time for mentoring. I am always struggling to find the right balance between project/product work and the time budget for mentoring.

Mentoring helps build up your communication skills without being exposed to real world project constraints - it is typically just a one to one communication and you can improve on how you understand other people and even more important on how other people may understand you.

InfoQ: What about leadership skills? Are they needed if someone wants to stay on the technical track?

Reimers: If you want to move beyond a certain level in your career at least basic leadership skills are necessary. There are at least two important reasons for that. Firstly, you are part of a decision process you are shaping with your technical knowledge so you need to reflect on what impact for the business your suggestions will have. Secondly, you will have to communicate your reasoning, so that you can help non technical people better understand the consequences.

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