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Jacob Herrington (he/him)
Jacob Herrington (he/him)

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Interview with Charity Majors: 6 Key Career Lessons From the CTO of Honeycomb

Late in 2019, I met a person who I had only know through their (fantastic) blog and Twitter feed: Charity Majors.

Charity is the CTO of Honeycomb, building production monitoring tools that champion observability (we use Honeycomb at DEV).

Years ago, when I started following Charity online, it was her willingness to share her opinion with conviction without being insufferable (despite usually being right) that drew me in. Charity's unique perspective on most problems lends itself to uncommon revelations.

Those revelations show up in conversation, as Charity frequently drops subtle wisdom bombs without fanfare. As a result, the second time I listened to this interview was nearly as valuable as the first. Hopefully, that quality shines through in this recording.

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1. The speed of change opens doors

Charity got me excited right out of the gate when she called tech "the one growth industry," and that the speed of change in this industry opens doors and enables possibilities that are not available elsewhere.

It was said in passing, but this is deceptively valuable insight. If you have a nose for sensing which areas of this industry are rapidly undergoing a metamorphosis, you can position yourself to be in the first crowd that steps through those newly opened doors.

That isn't to say you should become preoccupied with new tools and shiny concepts (something Charity talks a bit about later in the interview), but keeping in mind that the pace of this industry can be incredibly rewarding is key to thriving in it.

2. Management is not a promotion

During our conversation, it became evident that Charity is an expert in both engineering operations and people management. I found that this interview was particularly relevant for technologists who are looking to take on management roles or add leadership tasks to their current position.

Charity said that management is not a promotion; it's a job change. I think that this idea is profound and worth remembering. It's tempting to view management as the step after individual contributor, but in reality, it is a whole new discipline.

Compounding on this idea, Charity mentioned that there should be growth avenues for individual contributors that enable leadership and ownership outside of the traditional management career path.

As a software engineer or technologist, it is worth keeping in mind your eventual career goals (which Charity refers to as "what you want to be when you grow up."), and whether or not those goals include learning the skill of management.

3. Agency and ownership

When I asked Charity for advice regarding management skills, she immediately turned to the dual concepts of agency and ownership.

Charity described her relationship with ownership and how it ultimately reflected in her tendency to over-identify with her work.

However, she also described an engineer who took ownership of something a "gift." From a manager's perspective, someone who takes ownership over a task is freeing the manager up to focus efforts elsewhere.

As engineers and technologists, it should be a goal to take ownership of projects and products (each according to their level of comfort; work/life balance is essential). Especially in the case of those who want to grow into leadership or management-oriented roles.

Side-note, I found a great Twitter thread from Charity on this subject:

4. Grow a network of peers

I talk a lot about mentorship, but Charity challenged that idea. She suggested that a network of peers is more valuable than mentors.

Without a doubt, Charity encouraged seeking out peers more experienced and knowledgeable than yourself, but she said friendships are healthier than mentors.

Generally, I agree with this idea, and I've written about my experiences making friends in tech in the past.

For Charity, this takes the form of social gatherings with other technologists and going to conferences for the "hallway track."

Regardless of your methodology for growing a network, this advice is solid: Surrounding yourself with peers will enable career growth, help you find solidarity and friendships, and allow you to invest in others.

5. Don't fight your biology

Charity shared some pretty useful advice later in the interview. Specifically, she talked about fighting your biology.

In Charity's case, she was referring to her relationship with the operations side of engineering. Something about Charity pushes her to seek out the most pragmatic and necessary tasks; those tasks become the most interesting to her.

Therefore, when she's looking to learn new skills and invest in her technical knowledge, it becomes necessary to label that task necessary. Doing this allows Charity to carve out time for growth intentionally.

Many of us have tendencies to gravitate towards certain areas in our careers or shy away from things we don't enjoy. Charity's advice, in this case, is to avoid setting yourself up for failure by fighting your biology. Frame the things that are important to you in a context that fits your predispositions.

6. Celebrate the good things people say about you

Near the end of the interview, we talk about some of Charity's weaknesses.

Specifically, Charity talked about her internal dialogue and relationship with shame. At one point in her career, Charity chose to challenge the way she viewed herself by cataloging all of the kind things people said about her.

Recording the positive feedback and small wins she encountered helped Charity to realize her potential and fight back against the insecurities that we all feel (some more intensely than others).

In my own life, I've made an effort to record wins and positive feedback when I can. Interestingly, I've heard something similar to this in many of my interviews; keeping a record of things that make you feel good (sometimes called a brag sheet) is one of the most effective methods I've encountered for challenging self-doubt.

My conversation with Charity was incredibly encouraging, and I learned a ton from her. These concepts were some of the ones that resonated with me, but the value of her thoughts really can't be overstated. I hope that others get as much from this interview as I did.

play pause devpath.fm

If you're interested in learning from veteran engineers like Charity, subscribe to my newsletter and follow along with the podcast. I have upcoming interviews with engineers all around the world who have built amazing careers for themselves.

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