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The Skills Map of Senior Tech Career Progression

Peter Drucker—the founder of modern management—said in his 1999 article “Managing Oneself” that knowledge workers should plan their second career well ahead of time.

That’s admirable advice.

Except that for the rest of us, planning our first career is already a major life struggle. 

And I can talk at length from my own experience. A little more than ten years ago, back when I was still a naive junior engineer, career progression was a very nebulous concept.

Now that I’m at a point where I’m managing other tech managers, I’ve gained enough perspective on the topic that I can share valuable insights that my younger self would have loved to hear and learn.

In a previous article, I covered why soft skills matter and how they can make your career stagnate if you don’t address them. I also shared what the next job roles are from the senior developer role.

I wanted to create a simple representation to enable anyone with a career in tech to grasp how career progression looks like and what it requires.

In the rest of this article, I’m presenting a skills map of career progression, starting all the way from the senior developer role. This map covers both the individual contributor and managerial career paths.

Unlock Your Soft Skills To Win The Career Game

Have you ever received feedback from your manager that you should improve your communication skills? Or that you should create more visibility for your work? And another one, that you should work on your influencing skills? These are all related to soft skills, and it can be confusing what they mean and how to improve on them.

As a tech manager, I find myself giving that feedback regularly to engineers. About 50% of them get it, however, the other 50% roll their eyes and reply “Soft skills? Pffft, I’m an engineer, I don’t need that. All I gotta do is code harder and learn technologies A and B and I’ll keep on going.”

And that’s where they’re wrong, as sadly, I’ve seen such neglecting of soft skills ending up costing many of them years of stagnation for their tech career. The same could happen to you, or might already be happening to you without you realizing.

I wanted to follow up on my article about career progression for senior developers, by addressing the topic of how to map and learn the skills needed for tech jobs.

Soft skills and teamwork
skills are what’s gluing
hard skills together.

So in this series of three articles, I’ll first be covering what is the difference between hard skills and soft skills, and why soft skills matter even if a great part of your job is purely technical.

Another difficult problem is how to prioritize those skills so you can improve predictably. To address that, in the second article I’ll share a map that I’ve created and which shows how different types of skills relate to different career paths.

Finally, in the third and last article, I’ll cover the top skills you should focus on as a senior engineer or as an engineering manager if you want to see fast progress in your personal growth.

Let’s get started with defining the types of skills and why they matter.

Career Growth: What Paths After Senior Engineer

“I don’t know what’s next in my career” is a sentence I hear frequently from senior engineers.

In fact, I hear this question so frequently that I decided to write this series of articles to address it.

When I ask those senior engineers how they have approached their career planning until now, what I hear is “I thought if I just worked harder and wrote more code, eventually someone would notice and I’d get promoted to staff engineer.” 

Unfortunately for so many senior developers, this type of thinking is a major misconception on so many levels. Just writing more code isn’t going to get anyone promoted. Just waiting to be noticed isn’t going to get anyone promoted. Also, there is more than just the individual contributor or managerial path as possible career paths for engineers. And finally, getting promoted—like other forms of external validation—shouldn’t be the ultimate goal in anyone’s career, because it’s not fulfilling.

In this article, I am making a recap of the most realistic career moves from the senior engineer position. I’m dividing the possible moves into the four categories from the diagram. For each category, I will cover what it’s all about what it would require to get there.

Coach or Mentor: What is the Difference and How To Choose?

“Of course,” said my coach, “that’s because you’re not listening.”

I leaned back in my chair and stayed there, quiet and confused. Trying to grasp what he said, I asked “What do you mean I’m not listening?”

“I’m not saying you’re not hearing,” he replied, “but that you’re not paying attention.” He paused for a few seconds to let that sink in me, as he knew like no one else how to use silence. Then, he continued “You’re not looking to uncover the facts about what really happened. You have to look for the facts.”

That was a total “aha” moment for me. It felt like my brain had expanded right inside my skull and turned upside down. And this is just one example among many that happened during our calls.

This is an illustration I stole from the internet
and on which I added text in an attempt at being funny.

A Complete Overview of Front-End Development in 2021

Wasm, ESLink, Webpack, Serverless. Does this ring a bell? Do you know what these technologies are used for?

There are so many concepts and frameworks used by front-end developers, it’s hard to keep track when you don’t work on it every day.

I recently spent time brushing up my front-end knowledge and skills, and I wanted to share what I learned.

In this article, I give a concise yet complete rundown of all the main technologies used for front-end development, along with resources to dive deeper where needed.

I Invested in Myself: I Hired a Copy Editor to Improve My Writing

I invested in myself.

I hired a copy editor to review a 4,000-word draft I was working on. 48 hours and $180 later, he had left 439 edits and comments on my draft, along with a gold mine of feedback on how to improve my writing skills.

Why care about writing? In these times of continued lockdowns and remote work, more communication happens in written form, whether it’s emails, messaging, or long-format reports and articles. More than ever before, your mastery of the written word can boost your career in unexpected ways.

Besides, writing skills will be useful to you in any job you’ll have in the future, and regardless of industries. It’s one of those skills that’s entirely transferable, like public speaking and negotiating.

Hiring an editor to review your writing and giving you feedback is one of the best gifts to offer yourself.

Here I share my experience doing it along with tips on how to make the process as fruitful as possible, hoping it will help you too.

How to Keep Your Tech Skills Sharp in a Leadership Role

When I became a senior engineering manager three years ago and had multiple teams reporting to me, I was no longer building things on the job myself. This was the first day of the decay of my pure technical skills, and with it came the question of what I was going to do about it.

Fast-forward to March 2020, I’m sprinting through the Sao Paulo airport, hugging my carry-on luggage close to my chest and dodging other travelers as best I can. I was visiting South America when COVID-19 hit Europe and air traffic started shutting down. I was heading back home to Amsterdam and my connecting flight from Buenos Aires had landed an hour late. So I made a run for it. If I didn’t catch this flight, I was going to be stranded 10,000 kilometers away from home.

Fifteen minutes, 40 gates, and a wobbly knee later, I finally reached the boarding area completely out of breath and managed to catch my flight home.

When I got back to work in the following days, most of my colleagues had been working from home via video calls for about a week already. I had missed the early days of the quarantine, but luckily the local supermarkets hadn’t been raided too badly, and I was able to get my hands on toilet paper.

As I started setting up my quarantine routine, I made the decision to tackle the hitch that had been annoying me for a long time, and by this I mean I was determined to catch up with the cutting edge in tech.

My plan was simple: I was going to build a web app as a pretext to learn an entire tech stack end to end. I actually tracked the time I spent on it weekly to hold myself accountable, and it worked!

After more than 100 hours of coding and learning between April and November 2020, I launched the MVP for Sidenote.me, a web app to take time-stamped notes on videos. In the process I learned in-depth about TypeScript, Node.js, and MongoDB, and I performed a high-level refresher on the state of the industry in other tech ecosystems, such as containerized infrastructure, micro frontends, and serverless computing.

Autonomous Peer Learning at Booking.com and How You Can Do it in Your Organization

This article was originally published for Booking.com’s Technology blog on November 23rd, 2016.

Continuous learning on the job is hard. We all see things we want to improve, but maybe we’re missing a few skills to really make an impact. With most days filled with emails and meetings, there’s often not much time left for learning, no matter how much we want to develop our skills.

Although many organizations try to remedy this issue by employing external companies to handle training, they rarely follow-up to ensure such trainings are actually value for money. Not only that, employees are often left to figure out how their new skills can be applied to daily work, and sometimes they are even left wondering if the training taught them anything useful at all.

I work at Booking.com as an engineering manager, and in my job I wanted to learn about a topic for which there was no formal training. I ended up creating a study group that became the blueprint for autonomous peer learning in our Technology department. It’s an initiative that has been scaled to 50 Peer-to-Peer (or P2P) learning groups over the last 18 months.

The premise of P2P groups is that participants take the time to think about what they want to learn and why. This means their learning is tailored from the very beginning, ensuring that it is both relevant to their work and beneficial to their organization.