Free ebook: An engineer’s guide to getting more recognition at work
Everyone wants to do great work. A fulfilling, rewarding, and fast progressing career brings a lot of joy and a sense of purpose in our lives. But many a time we feel stuck in our careers and don’t see much growth.
I have written my first ever ebook to address this exact pain point all engineers face in their career trajectories. I have combined my experience of 10+ years and my learnings from engineers who nail the game of getting recognized for their work to curate 10 actionable insights that young engineers will find useful to do great work, get credit for it and get promoted quicker in their careers.
You can download the PDF version of the ebook or read it (in the form of a long post) below.
Part 1: Doing effective work
Step 1: Know what is effective work
Effective work means working on the right problems and getting the desired results. Often our first reaction to encountering a problem is to start solving it. We don’t pause to ask whether the problem at hand is even the right one to solve or not. We don’t take the time to truly understand it. We quickly try to optimize the solution instead.
We can be super-efficient and still get the wrong results. No optimization works if you are optimizing the wrong thing, to begin with. Having a focus on doing effective work forces us to look for the right problems to solve.
The chart below that explains what a focus on effectiveness and efficiency can do to organizations also applies well to professionals. The takeaway is simple: to thrive in your career, identify what’s effective work first and then optimize for efficiency later.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” - Stephen Covey
Step 2: Define your priorities
A precondition to doing effective work is having clear daily priorities to focus on. Break down your big sprints and large monthly/weekly goals into smaller pieces that can be daily priorities. Adopt any system that works best for you to write these down: a handwritten to-do list, a web app, scheduling tasks on your calendar, etc. To make sure you don’t get distracted from your priority to-dos, also make a not-to-do list to remind you what you shouldn’t be doing.
Another benefit of knowing your own priorities is that it helps you communicate your plans and progress clearly during all team updates. This helps build trust and respect for you among your team members.
This framework (based on the Eisenhower Matrix) from Atlassian's Prioritization Playbook for teams is a wonderful resource to refer to while defining your work priorities.
“In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.” - James Clear
Step 3: Deliver on time
Working only on your priorities sounds quite simple, but it can be difficult to practice. If planning is equivalent to coding in a development environment, sticking to your plan every day is like fixing bugs in a production environment.
Things will break. Unplanned activities will demand your time & attention. You may get stuck with a silly bug that will take a humongous amount of your time. You may fall sick.
Four suggestions that will help you stick to your deadlines:
- Be realistic about the time a task may take you. Always allow for some buffer time when committing to a deadline.
- Under-committing and over-delivering are better than running late on deadlines. Remember you can always take on more tasks if you have time left in your day or week.
- Don’t be shy about asking for help. Once you have searched for solutions online, tried to resolve your problem but still find yourself stuck, ask for help right away & unblock yourself. It will save you a lot of time.
- If you foresee a delay in your delivery, communicate it to your entire team as soon as you know it.
Delivering on time gives your manager confidence in your consistency and reliability - two traits that are highly valuable in a team member.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” - Will Durant
Part 2: Growing as a professional
Step 4: Assess yourself honestly
If you were your boss, would you be happy with your performance?
What about your work ethic and attitude? What are some areas that you would like to see improvements in? Are you being a good team member? Are you proud of your work? What new skills should you learn to grow in your career?
We all ask ourselves such questions but most of us don’t answer these honestly. We either judge ourselves too harshly or too leniently. Being objective about ourselves doesn’t come easy. Start developing the habit of being honest & objective with yourself about yourself.
Regular self-assessment is a free and constant source of feedback that can help you improve your work tremendously. Constantly bettering yourself doesn’t go unnoticed.
Schedule ten minutes in your calendar every week to have an honest chat with yourself. Writing your self-assessment is a great idea too. It brings a lot of clarity in thought.
"Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." - Carl Jung
Step 5: Help your peers
Being a good helpful person goes a long way. If you see a co-worker stuck at something, offer to help them. If you know how to solve a problem that they need help with, don’t just give them a solution; work with them to solve it so they understand the process.
Collaborate with your team on different projects. Partake in peer programming sessions. Help out a new team member settle in and navigate their first few weeks. When you learn something new, share it with your peers. Give constructive feedback and help other engineers improve their craft. You will end up learning a lot yourself while helping your peers.
Everyone looks up to people who set up others for success. Be that person who genuinely helps their peers.
“Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there.” - Virginia Burden
Step 6: Understand your manager’s priorities
Look at your manager as your ally. Learn to understand and empathize with them. Know their priorities. Know what they expect from you. Know how your contribution helps them in fulfilling their priorities. Understand how your work goals align with theirs and adjust for any mismatches.
Share with them what areas you want to learn more about. Tell them where you are stuck and can’t make progress, and ask them for advice. Ask them what they think you need to focus more on to grow to the next level of your career.
Don’t feel any bit of strangeness discussing any of this with your manager. Know that when you grow, your manager gets the credit for helping you grow as well. It is literally a part of their job. And you can do your job well as well as help them do their job well by taking the initiative to develop an open and understanding relationship with them.
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Step 7: Get a mentor
Having a mentor can help you grow a lot in your career. Someone who is a decade ahead of you in the same profession, but not on your team, would make for a great mentor.
Look around in your company, in your professional network or just among people whom you admire for their professional success and ask them to be your mentor. It’s surprisingly easy to find a mentor because most people love giving advice. Tell them what kind of guidance you are looking for and assure them that you are willing to put in the work needed to make their time worthwhile.
Mentors encourage you and pick you up on bad days. They challenge you and give you the advice to help you grow as a professional. They help you see a situation from a fresh and objective perspective. They can keep you focused and accountable. As they have gone through a similar career journey as yours, they can help you with practical and actionable advice.
Great mentors accelerate your career growth tremendously. Go find yourself one.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” - Isaac Newton
Part 3: Making your work visible
Step 8: Document what you do
If your work isn’t visible to your team, your manager and your organization - you are in the soup. Getting your work visible is your responsibility. Regularly document what you are working on. We all do a lot at work but we don’t remember it all.
Most companies have formal review and recognition processes quarterly, semi-annually or annually. There are high chances that just in a few weeks, let alone after six or twelve months, you will not remember everything you did.
Your work needs to be visible for it to be recognized. Every week, take out fifteen minutes to write about all that you worked on. The daily priority list you made will help you while writing this.
Julia Evans’ brag document template is a great resource. Here are six key points from the template to help you start writing:
- List your goals for this quarter/year and next quarter/year.
- For each project, document your contribution to the project and the overall impact of the project. Quantify it as much as you can.
- Write about all the fuzzy work you do. Simply list things done when you can’t quantify.
- Jot down any work done in collaboration with a peer or another team and any team/company building efforts.
- Include any design, documentation & code review efforts.
- Document your learnings and new skills gained.
"Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard." - David McCullough
Step 9: Ask for explicit feedback
Asking for feedback from your manager and your peers is a great way to not only showcase your work but also significantly improve it.
Getting explicit feedback is as much about being open in asking for it as it is about being comfortable receiving it. Develop a mindset to handle criticism positively.
Good communication plays a big role while asking for explicit feedback. Tell people that you want truthfulness and not niceness. Let them know that they are doing you a favor by sharing their honest thoughts. Help them help you give precise feedback by asking direct questions such as “What three things you think went great?”, “What can I improve in future projects?” or “What about my working style do you like and what concerns you?”
When people start talking, listen attentively and without judgment. Don’t explain yourself. Don’t get defensive. This is about you hearing honest thoughts and impressions of your work from your colleagues.
When you ask for feedback and then improve based on that feedback, you not only make your work visible to your team but you also tell them that you are open to learning and improving.
"True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.” - Daniel Kahneman
Step 10: Talk to your manager regularly
You need to communicate with your manager constantly. You must keep them updated about everything you are working on.
If it is not already a practice at your workplace, set up at least one one-on-one meeting with your manager every fortnight. 30-min catchups are great. Use this time to update them on your current work priorities, progress on important projects, your wins and misses, and your current challenges. Ask them how they think you did in the last fortnight.
The weekly documents that you write about what you are working on will come in handy in utilizing this time well.
These regular catch-ups will help you build great visibility for your work on an ongoing basis. It will also help develop a great working relationship with your manager.
"Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity." - Nat Turner
This is it. These 10 simple steps will help you leapfrog in your career. Go get started with some of these right away. May we all do more and more fulfilling & rewarding work in the next year.
Why I wrote this ebook?
I wrote it to answer some of the questions about career growth that every engineer faces at some point in their careers:
- What can I do to get my due recognition in the engineering team?
- Why do some engineers get promoted quicker in their careers as compared to others?
- How do some engineers manage to get salary hikes more regularly than others?
- Why am I not getting to work on impactful projects?
- Am I stuck with the wrong manager?
- How can I make my work more visible to others in my team and in my organization?
I have been a CTO and co-founder of three venture-funded startups. I have been an individual contributor at large and small engineering companies. I have had the chance to work with engineers who nailed the game of getting recognized for their work and got promoted quicker than everyone else. I have also met with many engineering leaders and discussed what makes them pick one engineer over the other for rewards, recognition & promotions.
So, I decided to write about all I have learned from these interactions and my own experience of ten plus years in the software engineering field. There are, of course, no magic answers. Just simple things one can do. I hope you found these learnings useful.
Let me know your thoughts & feedback on this. I am reachable on email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mohanarpit