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Dimensions of Engineering Growth

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One of my coaching clients and I developed this framework to help him think about the kind of impact he wanted to have as a Staff+ engineer, and since then I’ve taken it to other clients and direct reports in a way to think about engineering growth outside of any particular job ladder.

The four growth dimensions are:

  • Scope
  • Complexity
  • Output
  • Agenda

Scope

What it means: Scope is the size of the problem or responsibility and is relatively straightforward to quantify in LOC (Lines of Code) or people involved.

  • For ICs, this often goes bug -> small feature -> large feature -> multi-feature project -> …
  • For managers it’s often TLM (Tech Lead Manager) for small team -> manage team -> manage managers -> manage managers of managers …

Failure mode: The failure mode of growing in scope is often need to control. What is possible to control in a small team or project gets progressively harder over time. Everyone reaches some kind of limit there (admittedly some much later than others).

Inflection point: Figure out how to get the outcomes you are responsible for with different mechanisms than that of control (documentation, setting standards, coaching and mentoring, reporting, pro-active checkins etc).

Opportunity: As scope changes, think about how the way in which you work needs to change. Whilst we might fix a bug using a debugger, it’s much harder to develop a complex feature like that, and so that increase in scope is an opportunity to adapt and grow. This continues as you take on more responsibility; you cannot (effectively) manage managers the way you manage ICs. It’s worth noting that sometimes in our careers we might take a decrease in scope – for example when we change jobs and have to onboard through fixing jobs, or go from managing managers to managing ICs in a smaller organization. In these instances we will also have to adjust our approach to our renewed scope in order to be effective.

Complexity

What it means: Complexity is the difficulty of the problem, and more difficult to quantify – sometimes it takes some amount of domain knowledge to know what is challenging.

  • For ICs complexity is in the projects, the complexity of the feature, the problem space, or the code base.
  • For managers complexity is in what is being delivered and how. What is being delivered is the complexity of the product, managing a team building a CRUD app is less complex than managing a team building a more specialized/unique application with a greater variety of client side work. How it is being delivered is the way in which the tean works, for instance a team that has to manage more stakeholders (such as a platform team) may have higher complexity than a product team. 

Failure mode: The failure mode of complexity is the continuous increase in complexity. Effective scaling (of an individual or a team) involves the transformation of complexity, where something that was complex is made simpler in such a way that it can be more sharded.

Inflection point: Complexity is often a point where engineers around senior get stuck. Having worked with continuously increasing complexity, they either make things more complex than they need to be, or persist a high level of complexity that needs to be simplified and sharded.

Opportunity: Take a holistic view of complexity – complexity is not just the code, but also the product and environment it exists within. Focus on outcomes to resolve and reduce complexity in such a way that it allows others to be successful.

Output

What it means: Getting things done, or causing things to get done.

  • For ICs this starts with an initial focus on raw individual output, and progressively shifts to enabling other people over time.
  • For managers this is the output of your team or org, over time. Over time is important, whilst you can create short term output at the expense of things (underlying work, attrition), you will typically pay for those in the form of lower output later. This means being able to balance an increasing amount of disparate work whilst maintaining a good rate of output consistently.

Failure mode: Short term thinking. Individuals who focus on their own effectiveness at the expense of the team, managers who push short term output at the expense of longer term team functioning.

Inflection point: Recognizing when output needs to happen through other people rather than individually. Balancing short term pressures with longer term impact.

Opportunity: Take a broader view of output, identify where you can overall increase output outside your own individual efforts (through other people, via processes, tooling, architecture etc).

Agenda

What it means: The driving force of what you’re trying to get done. As you progress through an organization you will have to balance a broader agenda, ultimately driving the agenda of the entire organization, and navigating conflicts between that and the agenda of individuals or teams.

  • ICs often focus on their own work or team, but at Staff and above typically need to hold a larger agenda around an area or domain.
  • Managers need to fit the agenda of the team within the overall agenda of an organization, tying it to work that impacts the business.

Failure mode: Taking too narrow an agenda that conflicts with bigger agendas. Such as the IC who pursues their own interest at the expense of the overall team, or a manager who is too focused on the team they manage versus taking a “first team” (peer) mindset.

Inflection point: Moments of conflict between an individual or team agenda and an organizational agenda.

Opportunity: Look for places where there is an opportunity to tap into a broader agenda, whether it’s focusing on the team’s needs rather than your individual needs, or the goals of an overall initiative rather than the pressures of the project.

Making it Actionable

When working within a job ladder framework it can be a challenge to 1) separate out evaluative feedback from developmental feedback and 2) truly focus on growth rather than trying to check a box. As such, I hope this can be a neutral tool you can use to consider how you can grow, and what kind of growth would support your actual career goals. It’s fine to enjoy scope more than complexity (and vice versa), the main thing is not to allow something to hold you back by becoming a controlling weakness.

The first step is to identify one of these to actively work on, bring awareness to it, and execute on a plan to deliberately try to improve (whether through stretch assignments or deliberate practice).

Good luck! Let me know how you get on.

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