After a number of conversations over the past few years with several other engineers who have moved beyond senior levels into staff and principal positions I've come away with a lot of insights, many of which have seen their way to Twitter or other conversations first, but now it's time to start collecting some of those stories into this new series: Beyond Senior.
What does it mean to go beyond the senior level in an engineering organization?
That's the question we're going to be looking at throughout this series.
The more senior you become in your role the you need to self-market and sell people on your ideas. In order to drive consensus, inform decisions of executives, spread information, or otherwise raise awareness of work going on you'll find that communications and politics, especially around sales and marketing, are mandatory to be effective.
Some love it, some hate it, but it's perhaps a bit more complicated than that. Let's explore a few archetypes of this particular type of politicking at scale, and a few examples from my own career of how these roles have worked out.
You know the one. They proudly flaunt, loudly proclaim, demand attention, and overall make a significant amount of noise around anything they're currently doing. They write lavish announcement emails, threads on slack, tag every executive in a five mile radius, and make sure everyone is aware of exactly what they're up to at all times.
Certainly it's very pretty and well formatted, gives a lot of information, and definitely raises awareness but you'll find it very lacking. The information you get tends to be vapid and hollow, lacking in any real substance, and filled to the brim with hyperbole if not outright falsehoods to make them look far grander than they truly are.
When it comes down to it they tell an excellent story, but many will find it hard to trust the peacock as the information they share may or may not be an accurate retelling of events. You'll always be second guessing how much is flowery wordplay versus substantiated information.
Their primary drives are ego and attention, and there are most certainly cases where a peacock can gain the attention and admiration of an executive, catapulting them to upper levels. Problem is eventually hollow words and architecture collapse, masks drop, and the curtain falls.
I've run into several peacocks who got promoted quickly and were put into positions of power, only to fail visibly later once the spin and shine wore off. Near every single time their silver tongues would catch up to them, and people would find out that maybe they didn't get the straight story. Sometimes they'd get away with it for far longer, just to leave the company to start over again with someone who didn't know any better.
The hermit hates the peacock with a burning passion. They refuse to engage in all the politics, and adamantly refuse to play such petty games. They want nothing to do with it, and will defiantly hold to that stance.
Their work speaks for itself, let others discover the value in their own time, because it's obviously the superior product. If anyone doesn't happen to read their source or directly ask them that's their problem, their job is to deliver code, not to flaunt around.
They abhor the entire choreographed dance routine where you have to say the right words to the right people at the right time, and they want out.
People seek them out for wisdom, not the other way around, they're not here to preach or prance. They don't care, only the code matters.
I've seen many a hermit build a substantial amount of expertise, becoming indispensable to the company, and driving along large complicated technical projects. The problem is no one knew what in the world they were up to, and frequently they would have budgets and teams cut for it. Either that, or there would be significant misunderstandings, conflicting timelines, or otherwise general chaos as no one knew what the plan was.
Perhaps unsurprisingly neither of those types sound particularly well-grounded, and indeed both have substantial flaws which prevent them from being effective at any sort of a scale. Both are driven by ego and a sense of self-importance, and both critically miss the point of levels beyond senior.
Enter the counsel, option three. They act as an informational source, an intermediary, to summarize information between the executives in their scope (staff to directors, principal to heads / VPs), and to communicate broader goals down to those working on their localized teams.
They certainly do some amount of marketing and sales, but not for ego, for drawing attention judiciously to that which needs it and seeing those cases through. They're not around to show off, nor do they self-isolate. They exist to inform and bring clarity to their teams.
For them saying nothing is worse because than all that information is lost, and people may not be aware of larger efforts which may concern their teams, making it impossible to move larger projects along safely without collateral damage.
What it comes down to, in the end, is the ability to use marketing and sales to drive clarity in your teams and why you pursue it. Was it all for your own glory, or was it for the betterment of your teams? Many lie to themselves on this, and it'll cost them in the long run.
Engineering never was a solo effort, despite some folks best intentions to make it into one. To be effective at these levels you need to be able to let go of your ego and seek to serve others, to grow them, and to make them more effective over time.
Losing sight of that will make a very brittle engineer, and a high-level liability just waiting to cause damage to the company around them.
I get it. People either love or hate politics at work, but to frame it as such misses the point. They're necessary, like it or not, but how we approach it makes all the difference in the world. In order to be effective you need to seek clear communications for the sake of those communications, not for the sake of some ephemeral promotion or grand recognition.
Beyond senior the path to growth is through others and empowering them to be more effective, because one person cannot ever take on the entire world, no matter how hard they might try to tell you otherwise.