Career Growth Milestones to Put on Your Calendar, According to an Engineering Manager

6 minutes

If you’ve got “new year, new me” energy this January and want to invest in your career development in 2024, we’ve got you covered. Whether you’re looking for a new role, gunning for a promotion, or have more holistic learning goals in mind, now’s a great time to start putting some tangible to-dos on your calendar while you’re feeling motivated. This way, you can plan to work consistently towards your goals throughout the year (even after your new-year resolve wears off). Ahead, we’ve gathered some realistic career growth milestones for you to work towards.

Learn about your company’s career development framework

If a promotion is top of your goals list, the first step is to find out if your company has a career development framework or matrix of requirements for the next level, according to Jeff Warner, Senior Engineering Manager of the Collaboration team at Upwork, who has been managing teams for nearly three decades. “One of the most important things about helping people to grow is to make sure that you are on the same page and helping them to address the areas where they need to grow,” Jeff says. Your company’s employee handbook should point you in the right direction, but if you don’t have one you can ask your HR or people ops team for the career development framework for your role.

“As an engineering manager, I will usually walk through the framework with a junior engineer to make sure they understand each requirement, and then I give them a chance to score themselves,” Jeff says. Of course, your company might not have a formal framework for your career development, or your team leader might not initiate that conversation. In this case you’ll have to take matters into your own hands.

What’s a career development framework?

A career development framework clearly outlines and roadmaps the responsibilities and expectations of specific roles. That way, you can assess your strengths and weaknesses and plan to advance to the next level. Dropbox actually has its engineering career development framework publicly available. Check it out and get a sense of what’s expected of engineers.

Start a career conversation with your team leader

In your next one-on-one, ask your manager what it would take for you to get to the next level and what success looks like to them. “Software engineering isn’t just about cranking out code and going on to your next task. It can be close to a 50/50 ratio of communication and technical work,” Jeff says. “Understanding what’s important in your department and building alignment on it with your manager is the starting point.”

Once you and your team leader are on the same page, you’ll want to capture your career growth plan in writing. “I’m a huge fan of having a shared document between the manager and the engineer that lays out the requirements and expectations for the role transparently,” Jeff says. “Once you start writing things down, they become a lot clearer. It’s also a place to go back to in a few weeks or months to review together.”

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Set up regular career check-ins

Jeff also advises agreeing on an explicit cadence specifically for career check-in convos. “Sometimes you can cover the career conversation in your regular one-on-one, but I really recommend having a monthly check-in where you can discuss how you’re progressing on your goals,” he says.

If you rely on having time to discuss the bigger picture with your manager in your regular meetings, you might find that discussion gets pushed back, week after week, in favor of more urgent topics. “Career discussions can be stressful for both you and your manager. It’s human nature to put them off, so you can end up having a brief, five-minute conversation instead of giving the subject the attention it deserves,” Jeff says. “Having dedicated time for those career conversations is really helpful.” If you wait until your annual performance review to have this type of conversation, you won’t have an opportunity to work on any areas of improvement ahead of time.

Career growth isn’t only about promotions though. There are many other ways to develop your skills and domain knowledge on your own. While these individual pursuits take a bit more initiative from you, unlike with promotions you are in full control over how and when you meet them. (If you’re looking to build out your technical skillset for work or a personal project, consider upgrading to a Codecademy Plus membership. You’ll get access to all our self-guided courses and paths as well as extra features.)

Build your network

Showing a bit of interest in what other teams are working on can help you to understand more about the bigger picture of your company. “Get to know people in marketing, get to know people in sales and customer service, get to know people in other teams,” Jeff says. Connecting your work to higher-level business goals is definitely something that managers care about when it comes to promotions. Another bonus? On a more personal level, it can help you to feel more motivated and connected to the people you work with.

A diverse network is also an asset if you find yourself job hunting in the future. “Getting to know other people in the company and finding ways to expand your network goes a long way. You never know how that might lead to your next job,” Jeff says. To make this goal tangible, you could set yourself targets to arrange informal get-to-know-you calls with people in other departments or attend some meetings hosted by other teams.

Software engineering isn’t just about cranking out code and going on to your next task. It can be close to a 50/50 ratio of communication and technical work.

Jeff Warner
Senior Engineering Manager of the Collaboration team at Upwork

Get to know your customers

In a similar vein, “understanding and having empathy for your customer is important,” Jeff says. Taking some time to learn about your company’s customers and the problems they’re trying to solve can be a huge boost to your growth. “As a manager, finding people who are excited about the problems you’re trying to solve makes for a great team,” he says.

Some companies even require all team members to do a stint in customer support, but even if yours doesn’t, you can take some time to read through support tickets or ask your customer support team members about their experiences. You can also find insights by seeing what people are saying about your product or industry on social media or in communities on Hacker News or Discord. A lot of tech companies now record their sales calls, which can also offer insight into what people are looking for when they try out your product. Or reach out to the UX research team to see if they can share findings from recent customer surveys. You might just get inspired to apply something in your own role.

Actively work on your soft skills

Setting aside time to upskill is a worthy goal, but we don’t always prioritize developing soft skills in the way we do hard skills. We have a lot of ideas for working on your soft skills, so consider setting goals to tackle a few areas throughout the year. For example, getting better at sharing your work with others is a great way to improve your communication skills and confidence. You could find out if your company blog accepts submissions and challenge yourself to write about something you’re working on. Or volunteer to talk about a recent project you completed at your next company all hands meeting — not only will you get to practice public speaking, but you’ll also raise your profile and create opportunities to discuss your work with other teams.

Make a habit of applying and interviewing for jobs

We know that applying and interviewing for jobs can be scary — that’s why it’s helpful to practice it when the stakes are low. Even if you’re happy in your role or have your heart set on a promotion at your current company, Jeff says it’s important to be aware of what the job market looks like and the types of skills that are in demand for similar roles. For example, if you get a message from a recruiter on LinkedIn about an open role, consider taking the phone call just to learn more. “Seeing what’s listed on job descriptions and requirements can help you bring your skills back in line,” he says.

Going through the process of interviewing when you’re already employed can also affirm whether you are where you want to be. “Exercising that decision cycle — thinking about why you’re staying where you are versus why you might go work somewhere else — is a really healthy experience,” Jeff says.

If you still find the idea intimidating, consider framing a goal around how many rejections you receive rather than targeting a number of interviews or job offers. You can’t fully control how many successes you have, but you can pat yourself on the back for putting yourself out there.

Most new developers have more agency over their career than they realize. Having a mix of ambitious and achievable goals will help you stay motivated throughout the year.

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