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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Career and Leadership Advice for Engineers and Technical Professionals

Career and Leadership Advice for Engineers and Technical Professionals

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In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Jeff Perry about the important leadership and people skills that technologists are often not trained in, why career coaching can be valuable, being deliberate about career choices and advice for technical leaders

Key Takeaways

  • Technologists have a bias towards trying to learn new skills through self-study, which can be very effective for technical skills.  It is not particularly effective for interpersonal and leadership skills.
  • A true coaching relationship is someone who's helping you discover things for yourself and helping you move through your own goal setting and goal achievement processes, and really personalizing that process to you.
  • The pandemic has forced people to think a more deeply about what's important to them, the things that they value and the career choices they make
  • Before shifting from one organization to another, consider the growth opportunities and role changes within the organization you are currently with
  • When considering a shift, be sure deliberate about the characteristics of the role you want, rather than just moving away from things you don’t enjoy

 

Transcript

Shane Hastie: Hello, everyone, just to let you know our online software development conference QCon plus is back this November 1st to 12th, you can expect curated learning on the topics that matter right now in software development, Qcon Plus, a practical conference, laser focused on learning from the successes and failures of domain experts, early adopter companies. If you enjoy the conversations we have on this podcast, you'll get a lot out of QCon. Plus to learn more about the conference, head to qcon.plus.

Shane Hastie: Good Day Folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. I'm sitting down today with Jeff Perry.

Jeff, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Jeff Perry: So glad to be here with you Shane. I'm excited about this.

Shane Hastie: Jeff, you describe yourself as a leadership and career coach for engineers and technical professionals. Maybe we can just dive straight into that one. Why would I need a career coach or a leadership coach if I'm an engineer or tech professional, I'm a smart person. I can read books. I can find this stuff out for myself.

Why career coaching for engineers and technical professionals? [01:22]

Jeff Perry: Yeah. Well, you certainly can Shane and so can so many other people and that's how engineers have kind of stake their claim in so many things in the skills that they've built over time. They're very intelligent and driven people that are building their careers. Now I've seen over and over with a lot of the people in the organizations that I've worked with, that it's extremely helpful for a lot of people to get a secondary perspective, because another thing that engineers can do is to get outside of their own head. And there's a couple of different angles to this. There's a coach or mentor who might share with you a process to move through something, to build a skill, but a true coaching relationship is someone who's helping you discover things for yourself and helping you move through your own goal setting and goal achievement processes, and really personalizing that process to you.

And it builds in accountability. It builds in a structure of learning and development, and it can help you move beyond just tackling a new technical change or challenge. Learning a new technology or software or whatever that is something you can take a course and learn something. But a lot of the changes that we're often trying to make personally and professionally go beyond just, I need to learn something new, but change who we are becoming, how we're thinking, who we are as people. And that's where I think that really human element to moving through that process is extremely helpful. And I find that with myself and working with coaches and myself and many of the people that I get the pleasure and opportunity to work with.

Shane Hastie: Stepping back a bit, what brought you to becoming a leadership and career coach?

Jeff’s own journey from developing products to developing people [03:09]

Jeff Perry: Yeah, great question. It's been a journey for me. I actually started my career, got trained and got my degree in mechanical engineering, but then actually immediately moved into software development and engineering for some mechanical engineering software to large car manufacturer, realized that writing code all day, wasn't my gig, but I gravitated towards some of the team management business analytics stuff really loved. My early understandings of agile went into a smaller company where I got to wear a lot of different hats. But one of the things I got to do about four, four and a half years ago was we were moving through a cultural shift and I got to be trained and facilitate then more training for the entire company on mindset principles, where we were training. Hey, how do we see how we're working with each other? Not talking about just a process of like here's the SOP or the process of work, right?

But let's talk about the really human element of am I seeing the people that I'm working with as people that matter, like I matter, or am I seeing them as objects? You know, that I just want to get something out of them or they're in my way, or I just don't care about them, those sorts of things. And that played a lot of shifts in me around what work meant and working on teams meant. I learned a lot and it had a lot of realizations of where I was not being a great team member or a leader in different circumstances. And it also unlocked for me a love of that sort of work, helping people move through some of the challenges and struggles they were moving through. So it's been two years since I made that shift then out of that role and on this journey of being a leadership and career coach. And so I like to say, I went from developing products to developing people now in the work that I do.

Shane Hastie: On that developing people mindset attitude, this is the culture podcast, these are things that are incredibly nebulous, how do we put them into concrete elements that engineers can actually work with and say, okay, how do I choose to show up?

Making mindset visible [05:22]

Jeff Perry: There's a number of different aspects here. So I think that there are some really well done assessments out there that can be done one by a researcher that I really love. I'll always attribute to that. His name is Ryan Gottfredson and he has an assessment that does four different I'll call them mindset, pairs or continuum. Probably the one that most people are familiar with or have heard is the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. But that's just one of the multiple different layers of these mindsets that he considers in this assessment. And so that's the one way that, Hey, engineers can take something nebulous, like a mindset and turn that into a number and say, oh, maybe there's some improvement or maybe there's some shifts that I can make here, but really in the end, what engineers and organizations care about is outcomes and results, right?

And so when we start talking about, we have some outcomes that I might need to make, or maybe there's an organizational change that needs to happen and are found over and over. And there's research that shows that mindsets need to shift along with just prescribed behaviors. In fact, there's a McKinsey study a few years back that said that organizations that consider the mindset shift in addition to the behavior shifts, when moving through an organizational change are four times more likely to be successful in those organizational change efforts than those who neglect the mindset aspects, because we don't change how our thinking that lens, that filter through which we are considering what we're doing. Then we revert back to what we've always been doing. You know, the people as an individual or collectively as an organization, don't move with the prescribed change. So we need to address it because if we don't, we're much more likely to set ourselves up for failure.

Shane Hastie: All too often, we see us adopting some sort of new framework process approach, and all that really happens is job titles or labels change.

Jeff Perry: It happens all too often. Every company likes to make these shifts, it seems, and let's do another reorg. That'll solve all the problems and it may organizationally help with the structure, but the shift of how people are thinking about their work needs to shift rather than just the titles and the lines that are connecting who's working or reporting to who is critical.

Shane Hastie: So we're September, October, 2021, looking back over the last 18 months, there has been huge shifts that have been forced upon people in organizations. Some parts of the world started to come out of the pandemic. We're seeing a lot of talk about new ways of working, what's going to be the new norm. Something that there's a lot of hype about is the great resignation we're hearing about. What's driven this and where are we going?

Shifting priorities due to the impacts of the pandemic [08:07]

Jeff Perry: Well, I don't know exactly where we're going. I certainly don't have a crystal ball, Shane. If I did, I'd probably be a lot richer or be able to solve even more problems, but I'm seeing this on both sides because I work with some organizations and individuals who are kind of moving through cultural changes or individuals moving through career changes. And what I see on a number of different levels is it comes down to people have been shaken out of their normal life, just driving the career. And the pandemic has forced people to think a little bit more deeply about what's important to them, the things that they value and some of the flexibility that's been forced upon companies in people for better or worse. In some circumstances, some people love it. Some people hate it, but people are recognizing that there's a different then how it was year and a half, two years ago and recognizing, Hey, I want to figure out and go after what I want to do, rather than just sort of taking what comes moving through the pandemic.

A lot of people got it. You know, we physically went on lockdown, but many people mentally went on lockdown. Like I'm just going to huddle down and get through this. Some people are now it's been enough time that they're starting to emerge mentally and think about, okay, now I have the courage and the confidence to think about what would a change even mean? And what would I want in that change as we move through that. And when it comes to employment and people deciding, should I stay, or should I go, that needs to be a mutually beneficial relationship. You know, someone gets fired or let go when either the company can't keep them on, or they're not delivering value in excess of what their compensation is for one reason or another, but for someone to stay, they need to believe and see that there's a path of growth and development or stability, depending on what each person values.

And that's really what it comes down to is people are getting closer and more in tune perhaps with their values. And what's most important to them and companies in some cases are still in survival mode, kind of just trying to manage and keep all the balls in the air and have neglected in many cases to take care of the individual who in the end, it's the people that do the work and deliver the value for clients and the great products that you build, or whatever your particular businesses is. And if we neglect those individuals, those individuals are going to find what they're looking for somewhere else. And they're seeing that as more hiring comes back up, that there's other opportunities that have what they're looking for that might not be where they're at right now. And so a lot of people trying to make those what I call intentional career transitions.

Shane Hastie: If I'm a technical influence or technical leader in an organization, and I've got a team that I'm tasked with looking after, what are the things I should be doing, particularly if I'm new to this leadership space?

Advice for technical leaders [11:08]

Jeff Perry: I think you need to get really clear and understand who each person on your team is and what they're looking to grow and what they actually love. There's a nice framework in the Radical Candor book by Kim Scott. And I know you've shared some of that stuff before, but there's a framework inside of there for a new leader of a team, talks about a series of three meetings that you can have with each member of your team, not talk about here's all the tasks you need to do, but get to know the individual who they are, what they care about and where they want to take their career, because you're tasked with growing these people and taking care of them. And they're going to really value and be seen and heard and care about, have more loyalty. If they feel like you really have their interests in mind, not just, I got to get my stuff done for the business.

Yes, we need to get that done too, but they're going to do a better job of that if they feel heard and seen as an individual. So I think it really comes down to, do I know each person, what they want, what they care about, how they best like to receive praise or feedback, and being able to personalize that with each person through all the different modes of interaction, digital in-person or otherwise, so that I can build each person as an individual is really what it comes down to because not everyone wants to be led and interacted with in the exact same way.

Shane Hastie: So that's a new muscle that I've got to build if I'm coming up as a technologist. What are some of the important things that I need to focus on for myself to be able to do this?

Skills for self-development as a leader [12:37]

Jeff Perry: Yeah. Great question. So there's a number of things. And again, I think this is another piece that could be individual to you because there've been times where just to use myself as an example, a few years back as a relatively new leader, I went through one of those 360 reviews and got a lot of feedback from the team I was leading and my peers and my superiors. And I got a lot of feedback that said, Hey, Jeff does a lot of good things and XYZ. I wish you would listen better. I wish he actually heard and considered what I was trying to say instead of just driving his own ideas. So that was feedback that I needed to hear, but that may be different from someone else who maybe what their struggle is, is delegation and really trusting people to do the work. Because I mean, that is a common struggle.

I see with many technical people, they've become such great technical experts that giving up some of that and trusting a team member or someone else can be quite difficult to kind of give up the reigns and do that. So that may be a struggle for someone else. So these are just categories of things that we might need to consider that these are technical changes and shifts in who we are and how we think about challenges and opportunities, which are difficult to just say, here's a list of actions to take that I'm going to prescribe for you, which we need to change our fundamental beliefs around. Why is it important to delegate? And you can even go so far as like essentially run tests that challenge your previous beliefs or assumptions that are making it hard for you to give that up. Because sometimes we can choose an analogy.

We say, we want to just for example, delegate, but my behaviors aren't spelling that out because I have these beliefs that are kind of putting the breaks. Even if I say I'm trying to delegate better. So I have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes at the same time with this change effort. And that's that mindset shift of challenging these beliefs and assumptions that we have. We need to move through that. Having some help to do that from a great mentor or coach can help us do that because often it's because we need to uncover things that are inside of us, that we can't see ourselves the whole point.

Shane Hastie: Circling back around onto that coaching relationship, how is it leadership career coach stance different from a consultant? Who's just going to tell me what to do.

The difference between coaching and consulting [15:04]

Jeff Perry: We talked about this a little bit earlier. A consultant is that, that consultant is a domain expert often in a particular function or process that is going to teach you those skills, maybe run through a project with you as an individual or a company to implement something. A coach is more of a guide on the side or has a number of different roles. Sometimes a coach is a mirror that's going to help you see things and actually see the reality. And sometimes a coach is going to help you uncover some of the filters that might be on that mirror so that you can see reality rather than just see what you want to see. Okay. So a coach is really helping you uncover and reach your defined goals rather than help setting the goals that you have. And then actually implementing that for you.

Shane Hastie: If I'm working with a coach, I'm doing the work.

Jeff Perry: Yes. Which is great because you have this opportunity to really take ownership of that, which for engineers, as we talked about before, they're smart, capable, hardworking people. They want to own that. And the great thing is the coach can't own necessarily and say, Hey, look, I got this person to do this thing. Aren't I wonderful as a coach? Well, okay. But that person is what really moved through that change, that process, that transformation. And so they get to own that and have belief in that, that that's something that they were able to do. The coach assisted there. And so that's really, I would use the words honor and privilege that I get to be a part of that change in that process.

As I work intimately with people, people sharing some of their big challenges and fears and the things that are really important to them, it really is an honor and privilege to help people and just be a part of, and watch, the change in transformation as they put in that work that I've just assisted helping them move through. But in the end, it's a change that they're making. And I just get to be a part of that. And moving through that process with them, it's really an honor.

Shane Hastie: Jeff if I'm in the position where I'm exploring, where do I go? What do I want? And there's growth opportunities. I'm looking for, how do I open up the conversation perhaps with my leader, with my manager or where do I go? What do I do?

Opening up growth conversations [17:21]

Jeff Perry: Yeah. So there's a lot of different pieces here. I think when someone makes that decision or thinks, Hey, I need to get a new opportunity or explore what else is out there. They immediately start jumping right to what's on the job boards, what's on LinkedIn. Or maybe I need to like refresh the resume or something like that. And I think that's the wrong step to take. I think if you want to explore this with your current company and see if there's an opportunity to make some sort of shift or change, having a really candid discussion, hopefully you are with the manager and leader that there's that good level of psychological safety where you feel safe to share whatever is important to you that you feel like you're not getting right now out of your current situation, whether you don't see a growth path, some people are feeling underpaid for one reason or another based on market conditions and changes, or you want to explore trying a different role because there's been some things that kind of an interesting to you, whatever that is.

I think having that candid conversation, seeing maybe are there some experiments, some things we can try, can I spend maybe a portion of my time doing that? I think of careers as a series of prototypes and experiments that we move through and we learn, we grow, we get data on what we like and what we enjoy. And so we're just always trying to answer new questions, getting curious about what we do and trying to seek for that place where we really feel that state of flow. Right? And so then you can kind of look forward, but then you can look back and say, Hey, when have I felt that whenever I felt really fulfilled in my work, what was I doing? Have I ever felt in flow those times where you feel like you almost don't feel time passing because you're losing yourself and you have that combination of some skills or expertise, but there's also a challenge that's really kind of pushing you.

The need to find a sense of joy in the work we do [19:10]

Jeff Perry: You're not just kind of on autopilot and getting bored. It's this nice combination there. And you know, that's a really brilliant and wonderful place to be. And one of the places that I think the word joy would come to mind when people are experiencing that in their lives or their careers, you can think about that if there's things in your personal life and in your career life as well now, do you need to find all of your sense of joy just from your career now, or hope people outside of just our jobs. And so considering that in all those different aspects of what are those things that are most important to us that really get us to light up and can we identify ways that we can organize our work that is more in line with that because that's going to allow us to do our best work for an organization, get ourselves in the right positions to succeed.

It's going to be great for them. And then it's going to be great for us because we're going to be learning, growing, developing, and really enjoying ourselves. If that's available in the organization that you're at, then you can have that conversation and see if there's an adjustment, if not, then starting to kind of use what you've learned and kind of identified there. That's important to you as a filter and a foundation to consider what you want to do and kind of getting clarity on what does that next role actually look like? Is it industry? Is it the culture of the organization? That's most important to me, size,  some people that's location. Like they just feel alive in a certain spot, work life balance because there's other things they want to make sure they want to do again, it's different for every individual, but getting clear on what that is.

So you're moving towards something that you really want and trying to craft that, being intentional or proactive about it, rather than just trying to run away from something that we don't like, or just waiting for it to fall on our lap and being reactionary. That's really what I think is most important. And you're not going to find that just to show up most likely on a job board, like you need to do some internal work to kind of explore that. I've got some free resources I can share on career clarity that help people move through that, if people think that would be helpful here.

Shane Hastie: Thank you. And on the other side of that conversation, as the leader who wants to provide these new opportunities for, for people in these growth opportunities and don't want to lose these great folks, what's the conversation I need to be having? What do I need to be putting in place?

 

Advice for leaders to retain people [21:32]

Jeff Perry: I don't think we need to necessarily be rigid with having a perfectly designed set of engineering career paths. And this is what it's going to look like for everyone as they go from level one, level two, level three and beyond, and whatever that looks like that can be helpful as maybe a base framework. But again, it really comes down to understanding the individual and what they're looking for. And if they want to go on an engineering path, great, maybe they want to go on a project management path. Maybe they want to go on a leadership path. Maybe they want to go on a product path or maybe they don't know, and they want to try something, but giving people opportunities to try something maybe at first in their new roles, but people need challenge. They need some form of autonomy and they need an opportunity to experience growth and mastery. And a leader's job is to try and help facilitate that in the work that intellectual stimulation and opportunities that they give those people at an individual level.

Shane Hastie: Thanks very much. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Jeff Perry: I'm pretty active on LinkedIn. That's probably the best place to see what I'm doing and find me can look me up, Jeff Perry, I've got a podcast that I host myself where people are listening to podcasts called the Engineering Career Coach Podcast that I do in partnership with the Engineering Management Institute. And then probably that resource that we talked about earlier around Career Clarity, people can grab that at engineeringcareeraccelerator.com/career-clarity. And so I've got a bunch of other resources, depending on people are looking for that management transition or other things. If people reach out to me, we'll make sure to get the right thing for them.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Jeff Perry: It's been a pleasure, Shane. Thanks so much for having me.

Mentioned

Learn how to solve complex software engineering and leadership challenges. Attend in-person at QCon London, (April 4-6) or attend online at QCon Plus (May 10-20).

QCon brings together the world's most innovative senior software engineers across multiple domains to share their real-world implementation of emerging trends and practices. Find practical inspiration (not product pitches) from software leaders deep in the trenches creating software, scaling architectures and fine-tuning their technical leadership to help you make the right decisions. Save your spot now!

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