I’ve had some fantastic managers. The folks I’ve worked for at Google have been especially supportive. They help me reach my goals and also make room for me to be me. Like most of us though, I’ve had a few bad managers as well. One incident, in particular, stands out. It was early in my career, and my manager and I were having a performance check-in. I mentioned to him that I wanted to grow in my career and asked for his help figuring out how to make that happen. He responded, “helping you with your career isn’t my job.” At the time I felt crushed. I’m still disappointed with that interaction, but in retrospect, that painful, blunt conversation changed how I approach my career.
Figure Out Your Goals
Before that conversation, I had broad goals like “move up,” “be respected,” and “make more money”. But those goals weren’t especially actionable. So I took a step back and tried to develop specific goals that I could work on without manager support. I was working as a tester at the time, and I knew that salaries and respect in the community were higher for developers. So my first goal was to move to a development job. That was something I could search out and the next time I had a check-in with my manager I asked about moving to dev. Shortly after that, I moved to backend development. Another goal I made was to do more speaking. I figured that being on the conference circuit would increase respect and eventually lead to new opportunities.
Lots of folks have kind of hazy goals that are roughly, “become more awesome and make more money.” While my manager wasn’t helping me with my career in general, once I had a concrete goal it was easier to get his help. So take your goals and make them more concrete. Maybe your goal is to “move up/forward” in your career. If you work at a company with a clear career trajectory, your goal may be as simple as getting to the next level. If you work at a company without a clear career growth path, you’ll have to get a bit more creative. Maybe “move up” means that you are mentoring someone. Maybe you want to lead a project or architect the solution for a non-trivial project. Perhaps you want to learn a new technology that you think will be helpful.
Once you have your goals, think about if there are substeps on your journey. If you want to become a conference speaker, you can speak at a local meetup as a stepping stone. If you want to architect a large project being the lead on a smaller feature is a good first step. Also, be aware that your goals will change. I didn’t know Developer Relations was a thing until I interviewed for my job at Google so I didn’t have “get a job in DevRel” as a goal anywhere.
Having goals is the first step, but it is hard to achieve your goals without help. Even though my manager hadn’t expressed interest in helping me, I still shared specific goals relevant to him. I also talked to folks in the community about what I type of jobs and speaking gigs I was interested in. Speaking up was scary, and I felt vulnerable asking for help. But I was surprised about how receptive people were to my requests for help, coaching, debugging time, etc.
It may also feel sleazy or sales to talk about your goals, but there are lots of ways to do it naturally. Let your manager know if possible. They may not help you, but it is usually worth trying. If you run into a friend at a local meetup and they ask “how’s it going” or “what are you up to” saying “I’m doing good. I’m working on moving the test to dev.” isn’t as socially awkward and unusually as it sounds. If someone compliments you on a talk, you can politely say “Thanks! I’m trying to get better at speaking, so it is good to know it is working.”
I had assumed that my friends just had their cool jobs, speaking gigs, open source work handed to them and that once I got good enough it would be available to me too. But once I started talking to them, I learned that most of their interesting opportunities came from hard work and being vulnerable enough to share their interests, passions, and goals with others. Healthy communities are full of people helping each other out.
Plan for Benign Neglect
When I asked my manager for help the first time, I was disappointed because I saw my manager as the single person who could help me. As engineers, we know single points of failure are bad. To counteract my desire to lean on the formal chain of leadership I’ve started planning for benign neglect. I know this sounds awful. There are a ton of great managers out there that nurture top performers, inspire their team, and coach people who are struggling. There are several of those managers on my team at Google. But even the best manager is going to have a lot of things competing for their time, and sometimes the folks who are doing okay may not get as much face time as the ones who are struggling.
So I’ve started to plan for benign neglect and reduce single points of failure. Someone once told me that I needed a “personal board of directors.” I dislike the term, but I like the idea. I usually have 3 - 5 folks I trust to give me feedback on career issues. And I try to make sure at least a few don’t work at the same place I do. I don’t usually ask them formally or proactively to be mentors. Instead, I’ll reach out and ask if they’re willing to give me 15 minutes of their time when I want advice on something. I choose these folks from the communities I’m in and from my friend network. I’ve met with a handful of people about career issues in the last few months happily. Talking about these things over a cup of tea is part of nurturing healthy communities and helping folks grow, and I’m happy to do it.
When I plan for benign neglect, I find myself looking for interesting new projects and opportunities instead of hoping that my manager will find projects that will improve my skill. I believe that a manager should be looking for exciting work for their direct reports but if there are more people on the lookout the probability of success goes up. I also make sure that I’m keeping track of my “yay me!” moments. Those moments when I feel I’ve done a good job. That way I have them ready for performance review time or when I need to work on my resume for a job search.
Good managers help people grow and reach their goals. I’ve recently moved into management, and I’m trying to not be like the bad managers I’ve had. But oddly I’m thankful to the manager that said: “helping you with your career isn’t my job.” That interaction triggered my “I’ll show you” contrary streak and encouraged me to show I could be successful without help. Most important though, the skills I’ve developed from having unsupportive management have helped me make the most out of the supportive and caring management chain I have right now.