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.
Years ago I was running Windows XP on my desktop while still in school, and Windows Vista had just come out. Through various programs with Microsoft I'd obtained a legal copy through my school, and was excited to give it a run because of how captivating the UI was to me, like the Zune theme finally won and got some great improvements.
So I installed it, eagerly awaiting new shiny things, and then I found out something:
Those RAM requirements were not really suggestions.
If you knew Vista you knew it was a very hungry OS, and it ate every bit of RAM it could get. That meant that my poor desktop designed to work with Windows XP was near completely unusable.
I tried to find out what I could do about it, as I certainly had no budget to buy RAM, I was in early High School and pretty well broke. I knew I wasn't going backwards, that much was for sure, so I had to find a way to push forwards.
So naturally I asked my dad, who did have money, to buy me more RAM because my computer wasn't working. Oh was I in for it.
He sat me down, tried to understand the problem, and stopped me while I was rattling off various reasons why he should buy more RAM to ask a very important set of questions:
Dad: "Let me get this straight: You installed a new OS, you, and now because of that the computer will not work?"
Me: "Well, yeah, if you put it like that."
Dad: "So this is self-inflicted? You knew the RAM you had, yet you installed something which needed more, and now you need to ask for more. Is this my problem or your problem?"
I wasn't particularly happy to hear this, no, but he was right. It was on me. I oversubscribed my resources and expected to be magically bailed out, and had the audacity to make it out to be 100% his problem. It was no wonder he wasn't too terribly thrilled by my line of reasoning, and he called me on it.
Why bring this up? Because we do it to ourselves all the time at work. We oversubscribe our teams and resources to take on projects which we do not have scoped, act surprised when they cannot possibly be finished on time, and argue for more and more resources and team members.
Executives who see this, much like my dad back then, will call this into question and wonder why you couldn't have made done with the resources you currently have. They're not going to trust you with one year or even six months if you can't deliver on existing commitments in the next few weeks. Heck, any time anyone says one year as a delivery time I inherently do not trust them to deliver unless I see a roadmap explaining how that time will be budgeted that satisfies such an expenditure.
You have to earn that trust, build confidence, and avoid moonshots and other projects which will over-leverage your team far beyond their capacity.
In the mean time we must be responsible and learn to deliver with the resources we have, which perhaps ironically is how you get more resources.
Unsurprisingly this also means getting your teams into such a situation to prove that you have a certain level of scope and influence will also backfire and guarantee promotions will not be coming.
Taking on substantial scope only works if you can also land that project, and doing that requires inspiring confidence in your ability to do so with your team. Failing to do so only demonstrates irresponsibility as a leader in both planning and execution, and will work against you in your career growth.
The higher level we become the more responsibility we have to use our authority wisely and selflessly, and to deliver for a world which exists today rather than one which may or may not exist in the future.
While my dad did eventually relent and help me, it was a valuable lesson, and one that I only really recently started to understand.