Episode 529: Jeff Perry on Career Management for Software Engineers

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Jeff Perry, a career coach with experience in multiple engineering and technology fields, discusses career management for software engineers. Host Kanchan Shringi speaks with him about how software engineers can be intentional and proactive in evaluating and pursuing career options. Perry shares examples of how engineers have made shifts to opportunities that took advantage of their skill sets. The conversation then tackles the importance of building a personal brand and the role of mentors and coaches.

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Kanchan Shringi 00:00:17 Hi, all. Welcome to Software Engineering Radio. This is your host, Kanchan Shringi. Today we welcome Jeff Perry to our show. Jeff is a career coach with experience in many engineering and technology fields. Prior to being a career coach, Jeff has worked on designing and building products and processes as a software engineer, a mechanical engineer, and a manufacturing engineer. Jeff now aims to help software engineers make intentional career transitions while leveling up their skills and also balancing their lifestyle desires. Welcome to the show, Jeff. Is there anything else you’d like to highlight in your bio?

Jeff Perry 00:00:56 You know, you shared a lot of great stuff there, Kanchan. I’m just excited to dive into our conversation, and maybe we can share more of the stories we go along. I’m excited here.

Kanchan Shringi 00:01:04 Absolutely. As we are going to talk today, the focus is going to be on how we as engineers can be intentional and proactive when evaluating and pursuing our career options. Like you said, we hope to discuss examples as well. In the show notes, I will link to many episodes that we have done on this topic in the past or related topics that’ll be useful to listen to as well. So, jumping right into it Jeff, the first question would be, what do you evaluate? Meaning what are the career options for a software engineer?

Jeff Perry 00:01:43 Well, that’s such a broad thing because software engineers can be so versatile in the areas that they can take their careers. Right? So think about just the different types of technology they can be involved in: different languages, different sorts of architecture, different applications, if they want to work on products or services, security, quality, all sorts of different things. Then we can talk about different paths that they might take within that if they want to go a deep technical path going towards architecture or principal engineer, or maybe they want to go on a leadership direction, being a software lead, a manager, director, CTO, CIOs, something like that. There’s also options for people to go from into sales or solutions engineering, really working very closely with customers and solutions and different things like this, and be in product management using the knowledge that they have of the technology, but getting closer to creating products.

Jeff Perry 00:02:44 There’s so many different options here, which is part of what I think makes engineers so excited, but also can sometimes get them scared about how do I make that decision with so many options in front of me, and how do we move through all of that uncertainty with where technologies and opportunities and different things are going to go. There’s a lot in front of us, so we need to figure out what’s right for me as an individual. And I hope that’s a lot of the things that we can flesh out as far as how do we move through that process as we go through our conversation today.

Kanchan Shringi 00:03:14 That makes a lot of sense. And I was just thinking that this would be most confusing to someone that’s right out of school. How would you advise someone in that category to evaluate? Perhaps they start with evaluating the internships and other offers that they have?

Jeff Perry 00:03:32 Yeah. Well, first of all, if they have options and internships, that’s great. The fact that they have options is fabulous. Now coming right out of school, recognize that there’s so much that you don’t know. And even if you’re 5, 10, 20 years into your career, there’s still so much that you don’t know. You will never know all the things because all the things continue to grow and expand. So someone who’s coming right out of school, it’s really, first of all, just saying, how can I get experience, get exposure, get growth opportunities that I can learn things faster. You’ve gone through the whole school experience. Maybe you’ve gone through a university. There are plenty of people entering the software world from boot camps and other situations, or maybe they’re self-taught as well in different respects. No matter what, but we need to sink our teeth into something. And so evaluating the options that may or may not pay the very best, but what opportunity is going to give you the most exposure to different opportunities, to different technologies and different methodologies, so that you can learn the fastest. Cause that’s probably the most important thing early on your career and something you want to establish early on and continue on throughout your career is how can I learn, learn, learn, and grow at this stage. So if you have multiple options, some may pay differently than others, but don’t make that the only factor — that you consider the experience and the value and what you are going to learn through that process, as you’re looking at the different options in front of you.

Kanchan Shringi 00:05:04 How does that change as you proceed on your journey? So, let’s say I am somebody with say seven years of experience. How should my approach change at this point?

Jeff Perry 00:05:15 Yeah. So at this point I find that a lot of people are starting to look at, okay, I’ve had multiple experiences — usually you’ve been touching multiple different types of technologies over the years, and you’ve maybe gone into leading projects if not people at this point and taking the lead technically in various circumstances. But now people at this stage a few years into their career, they’re starting to think deeper as far as where they want to go in terms of the type of roles that are important to them. Do they want to go deeper into the technological expertise? Do they want to go into that principle engineer route or architecture route type thing, or do they want to consider leading teams? Do they like those experiences leading teams and projects, mentoring other engineers, and having those sorts of growth experiences? Do they want to perhaps shift towards products?

Jeff Perry 00:06:14 So this is a lot of times a defining point, and it doesn’t need to be the only one, but it’s one of those periods where you’ve got a little bit of experience under your belt. You’ve worked on multiple teams, if not multiple companies on multiple products and services at this time. And so you’ve got a lot more to bring to the table and things that can inform your decisions at this point, as far as which direction might be the best fit for you. And so, trying to chart that path and go deeper in a particular area of focus and the path that you want to take at this point.

Kanchan Shringi 00:06:47 So you did talk about, you might probably worked in multiple teams. How does that play a role versus you as an individual and you being part of a team?

Jeff Perry 00:06:58 Yeah. So it plays a role. Obviously everyone’s experience is different, but even if someone has been in the same company for the first five, seven years of their experience, there’s no way these days that the team that they worked on and the products and the technology that they worked on is exactly the same for that entire time because things continue to grow, progress. There’s new projects and people come in and out of teams, or maybe you might get shifted to a team. People have different feelings about reorganizations that happen at organizations. So even if you’re in the same company, you’re going to work on different teams. And really what that does is it gives you different pieces of exposure and you have different opportunities to take on different levels of responsibility for how you move through projects. So those early years, you’re probably really taking a lot as far as other people assigning the work that you’re doing. And you’re maybe a lot more reactive in terms of the type of work that you’re doing. But later on, as you develop expertise and you have different experiences, you may be raising your hand and seeking out different sorts of experiences where you can apply your unique skill set to the betterment of the team and the organization so that everyone can benefit from that better.

Kanchan Shringi 00:08:20 So far, your recommendation was focus on gaining experience, learning, getting more responsibility, working on different kind of projects, interacting with different kind of people. But now let’s say I’m somebody with close to 15, maybe more than 15 years experience. What should I do now? Do I start to have some kind of a plan, or should I already have had a plan? What about building a reputation for myself? What about compensation? What about work-life balance?

Jeff Perry 00:08:54 Yeah. So all those factors that you mentioned, absolutely. We should consider those at every step along the way. And it’s this weird balance between trying to be what I’d say intentional or proactive or deliberate versus also letting things emerge and letting opportunities come your way. Because at no point, whether you’re at the beginning of your career or five to seven years in or 15 years in, are you going to have this crystal ball moment where you have everything mapped out in front of you where it’s like this magical treasure map of X mark the spot, and you have every step along the way. I mean, people ask all the time, where do you want to be in five years? You can answer that with the best of your knowledge today, but whether or not that turns out to be exactly where you’re at, you know, that may or may not be true, right?

Jeff Perry 00:09:48 Even if you are giving the best answer you possibly can. So later in your career, though, again, it’s another sort of mental, emotional, strategic shift from how do I broaden exposure to how do I expand influence, right? And this influence that people are trying to have, again, can happen in multiple different angles, where if they went the deep technical path, a lot of times they’re trying to expand, influence in how I deliver high level, deep technological expertise on the architecture principal engineer type roles, where I can really be the leader on the technology side, be able to put things together and lead teams to that success. On the other side, it may be more strategic, connecting more with the business and the technology on the leadership side, as far as do I want to be a director of engineering, go towards the CTO type role or VP of engineering — all sorts of titles that that could look like, right?

Jeff Perry 00:10:52 But do I really want to go on that and build those teams and either scale that in a startup or obviously companies and the types of things they’re going to be working on can be vastly different. But in any case, a lot of times a shift is towards how do I expand my influence? How do I protect the compensation? How do I deliver the value that is this combination of all the experiences that I’ve had so far? And how do I find ways that I can apply that in unique ways, but that are still going to give me growth opportunities. Like, you still don’t want to be complacent and content with, Hey, I’ve learned everything and now I know everything, and now I can just operate, operate. Still continue to have that drive to be curious, to learn and grow, because technology will continue to change. But you are at this point where you can kind of have this influence and stewardship and really grow other people and give that experience to others and help grow them along the path, along with you.

Kanchan Shringi 00:11:54 So a couple of follow-up questions, you very rightly said, I don’t have anything to debate that as my experience, but you said, you know, even if you answered what you would like to do in five years, that most likely will not hold true. But should you even try to answer that? Is there a benefit in trying to think through it?

Jeff Perry 00:12:14 Yeah. So here’s how I think about this. I work with engineers all the time on career clarity ideas, as far as like, what’s really important to them, where do they want to take their careers? Now, a couple different things. Again, it’s not like this magical treasure map, but what we can think of as far as those things that are really important to us is maybe we can map out a north star, right? A direction that we want to take, a guiding light. And these can take the forms of, the types of companies, the types of environments we want to be in the types of technologies, also answering questions: What do I want to learn, right? At every stage, but it can also take a form. Maybe another analogy that people can relate with is like a set of filters. So you have some things that might be really important to you.

Jeff Perry 00:13:02 Can you use those items, whether that’s compensation, work-life balance, types of technologies, what does the role look like? What’s the depth of technology versus the leadership opportunities I’m going to have? All those different things that you map out as far as that are important to you. And when opportunities come your way, recruiters are reaching out, or you’re reaching out to companies that you might be interested in, can you use that set of criteria that you’ve established as far as these are the things that I’m really interested in that I want to try, that I want to learn, these things that are important to me. Can I use that as filters so that when I’m evaluating opportunities I can say, Hey, does this meet those criteria? If so, great, let’s continue to explore that. If not, well, then don’t waste your time or anyone else’s time. Let’s continue forward without that.

Jeff Perry 00:13:52 But I find a lot of people, instead of even trying to define anything, they say, I can’t see the future. So we don’t try and do anything. And so we just kind of let our careers come to us. And what that means is we are fully reactive to what’s going to happen. And so, if we don’t chart our path and someone else will chart it for us, right? But what I like to say or use the old story, maybe people are familiar with Alice in Wonderland, right? The old movie and book at one point, Alice is lost in the Wonderland in the dark forest, and she comes to a fork in the road and she finds this other character, the Cheshire cat, right? And the cat, and she are talking, she asks the cat, which path should I take? Cause there’s multiple paths to take there.

Jeff Perry 00:14:35 And the cat asks, well, where are you trying to go? And Alice says, well, I don’t know. And to which the cat replies, well, if you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there. Right? So if we at least have an idea of where we’re trying to go and who we’re trying to become, then in the moments, you know, today in the present, we can take steps and take actions in accordance with where we’re trying to go. And also another way I’d put it is who we’re trying to become as a person, as a professional, right? The traits that we want to build and the skills we want to build along the way,

Kanchan Shringi 00:15:12 Sometimes there are some other constraints, you know, for example, immigration processing. So in your experience, has that changed how people approach their careers?

Jeff Perry 00:15:24 It has. I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve dealt with that. They’re trying to work through visa constraints and trying to go through the green card process here in the US and different things. And it does constrain options because not all companies and opportunities are willing to sponsor and things like that, which means that a lot of times, people need to focus on, in some cases, larger companies. They’re the ones who often have those processes for immigration and sponsorship and things figured out. And so, it is a constraint. It it’s a hard reality and it’s something we need to work through, but that doesn’t mean that we need to throw all options and those other questions and things that are important to us out the window. They’ve still found that people can still grow great careers and have great opportunities, even perhaps within a limited scope for a while.

Jeff Perry 00:16:17 And then finally, eventually, get that green card process. And, you know, the shackles are sort of off and they can do whatever they want professionally. And that opens up opportunities of even entrepreneurship or some startups and things, which might not have been possible before. But all the way along, it’s still asking those questions, even within the role that I’m at, even if you’re not changing the actual job or company that you’re in, how can you even take micro steps to take on some new challenges, try a new project, learn a new technology, raise your hand and take on a new responsibility, see a need that the organization has and see if you can fill it in a new way to grow those skills, those capabilities that you want to have now and in the future, along the way.

Kanchan Shringi 00:17:07 Thanks, Jeff. So you did bring up everybody’s unique proposition. You mentioned that. Why is that important? And as you’ve talked to people, do you have examples on when that became important and how did someone develop it?

Jeff Perry 00:17:25 Yeah. These, unique value propositions are important. And by the way, we’re talking a lot here and there’s a lot to go through. And so I want to share for the Software Engineering Radio listeners, I’ve got a whole set of resources on some of the topics that we’re talking about here that people can go grab at www.engineeringcareeraccelerator.com/seradio. They can go grab some free resources around some of these topics that we’re talking about here, because they’re anything like me, they’re probably doing something else while they’re listening to a podcast out on a walk or exercising or out on a drive or something like that.

Kanchan Shringi 00:18:00 Weíll put that on the show notes, for sure.

Jeff Perry 00:18:01 Right. So make sure that they get those resources, but going back to this whole idea, like how do we recognize our own unique value proposition? Well, first of all, recognize that it changes and adapts and grows over time. Right? As we have new responsibilities, we have new opportunities. These things grow and develop, but as it stands right now, one of the tools that’s in that resource that I shared there, that I really love pointing people to and helping people, I would say discover for themselves is something called the “genius zone.” Okay? As engineers, there’s a lot of things that people are probably really good at, right? They have a lot of skills, you know, we can talk about all sorts of technical skills, but maybe they have soft skills and things like this. Like, these are things that they’re very good at. They can lead projects, they can develop websites that can create apps, like whatever that is, where they have these great skills. But a genius zone is something that perhaps is a little bit more unique to you.

Jeff Perry 00:19:05 You can look at it as a combination of skills. So maybe you’ve worked on certain types of technologies in a combination that perhaps few people have. And so, that gives you a unique approach to how you approach these problems. Maybe worked across different industries that combine in a unique way. I’ve had some people worked on finance side, finance technology and real estate technology and bringing that together. And so some of the ways that the technologies are trying to use those things, they have a unique perspective on the technology side and perhaps on the user side. And so they have a unique perspective in their ability to bring value to a company that’s trying to do some of those things, right? But in any case, what we’d call this is like a personal brand. It’s, really being able to communicate who you are, what you can do, and how that maps to potential needs of an employer, or if you’re an entrepreneur, a client or potential clients or group of people, so that you can map and show them and communicate how you deliver value as you understand what their needs are.

Jeff Perry 00:20:15 Right? And this is kind of the essence of what a personal brand is like, who are you? What can you do? What are you kind of known for that, that people can really utilize that value in a unique way?

Kanchan Shringi 00:20:24 Do you have any examples of how you might have helped someone communicate this or even realize it for themselves, and how did it change their options?

Jeff Perry 00:20:33 Absolutely. So here’s a couple examples. One is a client I was working with where she was an experience-level engineer, a PhD-level engineer. She went deep in technology and she was in a consulting company that people were coming to them. And she was deep in the tech with all the client projects that they were working on, but she recognized that she had some opportunities to get involved in leadership and managing the projects and interacting with clients. And she recognized that she loved doing that work more so than just being deep, deep, deep in the technology all the time, all day, every day. And she had some real skills in that. And so, she started exploring what are these things? You know, how do I map these things? Because she had the deep technology expertise, but she also had some broad technological expertise, and so she started thinking of what are some of the different ways that I could apply this?

Jeff Perry 00:21:27 She didn’t consider for a long time until we had some conversations and she had some conversations with other people, that technical project management and program management might be a potential fit for her. Where she could really connect the technological experience that she had with the project management and working with the people and bringing teams together and those resources in a really effective way where that really lit her up, where she really enjoyed that. And so she went on that path and eventually did that and, and started working in a national lab doing some of that work. Right? So, that’s one experience. Another experience is someone who experienced software engineer probably 15 to 20 years into his career, but he’d had some troubling times along the way. And so what he said to me is he said, I’m trying to find my happy place in my career.

Jeff Perry 00:22:24 And he didn’t know what that meant. It was pretty vague. It was, it was really interesting, but he said, I’m trying to find a way that I can really enjoy where I’m at. And he thought originally that what that meant was that he needed to make a career shift to a new job. Okay? But actually what that meant is he needed to connect with his genius zone, which he realized was more on the taking really ambiguous projects — green field projects, brand new, not a lot of definition around that — and building the technology and the business processes around that to be successful from beginning to end, rather than a lot of the experiences that he had had where he wasn’t really thriving when he was just kind of in a quality maintenance mode: there’s a challenge, there’s a ticket that comes in, needs to fix that. That wasn’t anything that really excited him and something that he found a lot of fulfillment in.

Jeff Perry 00:23:19 But he had some unique skills and he’d been able to see that over the course of his career and working on those green field ambiguous projects, putting definition around them and helping them kick off successfully. And so he was able to find those opportunities within his current role in ways that he could do that and build some more rigor into that process. And then eventually did actually make a career transition to a new company where he could do even more of that and continue to ask this question, how do I deliver the greatest value in my organization, into my team? He shifted some of his mindset around that.

Kanchan Shringi 00:23:59 So a couple of follow up there. When do you actually start thinking in this way of what is your personal brand? Are there specific events that trigger that introspection? That’s one question. And the second one is when you call it personal brand, a lot of software development is collaborative. You had the example of the engineer who was actually thinking of becoming a technical program manager, so there’s a lot of collaboration involved — scrum, DevOps, you know, work on the success of the team as opposed to of the individual. So what does that mean to have a personal brand where a lot of your work and impact is really performed in teams?

Jeff Perry 00:24:40 Yeah. Great question. So as far as, is there a catalyst that gets people thinking about personal brand? Well, perhaps listening to a podcast episode like this, and anytime the idea comes up, maybe it gets you thinking, what is my personal brand? Do I even know? Can I communicate that to anyone right now? And so, if the answer is no, then that should be a catalyst that maybe there’s some work that you need to do, and you can spend as much or as little time on this as you want to, but I’d invite you to spend some time because it’s answers worth having for you at every stage of your career. And at every stage, I like to think of the analogy of building our careers, kind of like we’re building a product or service in technology. Like, we move through iterations, right? Prototypes, MVPs, and all these different stages.

Jeff Perry 00:25:35 We’re never quite done with becoming who we’re going to be as a professional, but if we consider, Hey, I’m not a finished product yet, but what’s the next experiment? What’s the next set of data I can collect? What’s the next thing I want to try? And what’s the next prototype I want to build in my career? Can I think about that next iteration, then that can help us, you know, sort of define some of these paths along the way. And then I’m trying to remember, you asked two questions in there. We were talking about catalyst for personal branding. I’m trying to remember what that second one was.

Kanchan Shringi 00:26:05 The second one was just, what does it mean to have a personal brand where so much of the work is done as part of a team?

Jeff Perry 00:26:12 Yeah. Great question. So within that, I think there could potentially be a branding as a team and as an individual, because you don’t want to necessarily say, Hey, I’m the awesome person on the team that did this, this, and this, but we also need to recognize that every person in the team is an individual and brings unique value and skills and abilities so that the whole team can be successful. And so, the collaboration and the personal brand may be internally to your team is, like, what are you known for, as you think about optimizing the skills on your team? Whereas a lot of software teams can be kind of inter-operational. They can cross paths and they can share a lot of the workload and different sorts of tasks that they can do. But there may still be areas that some people specialize or take on certain responsibilities and sort of take on this is my role, because this is where I’m doing my best work for the team.

Jeff Perry 00:27:11 So even within the team, you may have a personal brand or maybe within just your company or organization at large, thinking about how do people describe you? What do people come to you for? How do you deliver your highest value to the organization? If you can answer those questions kind of internally? And so, it’s not making you separate from the team. It’s like, how can I actually contribute best to the team, given the experience and the skills that I bring to the table? And the things that I really enjoy doing, because if you’re enjoying doing more of your work, then you’re probably going to be doing better work.

Kanchan Shringi 00:27:48 That brings me to my next question. You talked about how you’re known in the company versus the industry. So what’s more important? Like, do you pick and choose, or do you figure out how to do both?

Jeff Perry 00:28:02 I think you can do both. Absolutely. And I love the concept of, yeah, we should be growing and developing and nourishing relationships internal to our companies, but also continue to grow and see what’s outside of there because people outside of your current organization are doing things differently. There’s different technologies that are being used and developed. There’s different people that you can learn from. And so, both internal and external to your organization, you should be connecting, learning, finding mentors and people that we can learn from along the way. And as far as the personal branding aspect, hopefully we can find ways to both deliver value internal to our organization, absolutely — with their paying our paycheck and delivering our compensation, we need to be delivering appropriate value there — but there’s ways you can do that in the industry at large, whether that’s sharing resources, coming on podcasts, blogging, sharing things, engaging on social media, LinkedIn, other things, creating other projects. Maybe you have side projects and things that you’re really interested in. I see amazing things that software engineers are doing all the time outside of perhaps their main mode of employment to deliver value to the industry at large, and to share things about that help other people in various respects

Kanchan Shringi 00:29:20 So some of this was covered in episodes 281 and 245. As I mentioned earlier, I will put that in the show notes, the links to these other episodes, but especially with respect to the last few years, and especially with a lot more remote working, do you see that the means of achieving this has changed in some ways?

Jeff Perry 00:29:42 I would say it’s only accelerated, right? So, going through COVID and expanding remote options to deliver value for people and organizations, and the way that people are more and more willing to connect, no matter where you are in the country or around the world, right? I think it’s only accelerated some of these things where you don’t necessarily need to be on-site with the people that you might be collaborating with or connecting with. I think the expansion of social media platforms, and the one that I’m most connected with and used the most in the professional context, which I think is what we’re mostly talking about here, is LinkedIn. LinkedIn continues to grow in the engagement that people are having on there and how people are finding new opportunities, collaboration partners, and all sorts of things, but your ability to share and be — I don’t want to necessarily use the word influencer, but a creator and someone who shares and contributes to the community — is amazing because only 1% of people who have LinkedIn accounts actually share content on a weekly basis. So if you share just something a few times a month, suddenly you’re in the top 1%. It doesn’t take that much, right? And so, all sorts of different ways that we can find ways to share. And so I think the modes of operation maybe haven’t necessarily changed, but I think they’ve just accelerated in many cases.

Kanchan Shringi 00:31:08 Thanks, Jeff. So I wanted to talk now more about some more catalysts in terms of thinking about brand or skills. So, you had an example where, you know, talking to this engineer where he was thinking of a career shift initially, and you kind of guided him towards what his genius zone was and what he could potentially contribute within his company itself. But there must be a time where you start thinking about what’s the best way to grow? You know, is it towards leadership positions, or is it a completely, you know, horizontal shift in a different area or acquiring different skills? So, do you have examples where people have struggle with this? You know, in terms of, has someone asked the question, Hey, should you know, I’ve done reasonably well at being a software engineer. I have done lots of projects. I’ve led projects. And now I like to figure out if I should become a manager or should I do something else because I do want to keep making progress. Do you have any such examples of a struggle?

Jeff Perry 00:32:13 Yeah, absolutely. Because, I mean, even just that question alone: should I stay closer to technology or should I go deeper into management and leadership and things? That’s a big question that a lot of engineers have, and trying to figure out, not just if I should do that, but also there’s a component of timing, right? Because any path could be right for you, but sometimes the timing isn’t necessarily right for either your organization or for you personally as well. And so, there’s a lot of different things to consider. So, some of those questions, you might start asking yourself, especially if you’re considering management or leadership, is recognizing that a shift to a role like that is a complete shift as far as your focus of the value that you deliver in your role, right? Because as a technological engineer, an individual contributor, your main value is delivered with the technology that you deliver, whether the code that you write, the products that you’re creating and collaborating with your team.

Jeff Perry 00:33:12 As a leader, you deliver value as you enable others to deliver that technological value. You need to be willing to step away from a lot of the hands-on work. And sometimes there are perhaps lead roles and other things where you’re sort of in a hybrid role where you’re still, you know, deep into the technology but taking on some of those management and leadership responsibilities as well. Different companies structure that in different ways and call those different names, so we don’t need to get too much into the semantics there, but it’s always asking yourself the question at these crossroads, whether that’s an opportunity that is placed in front of you, or as you feel like I think of in terms of you’re asking about a catalyst, think of different stages of our career as kind of like an inverted S curve where we get into a new opportunity, there’s sort of a steep growth phase. Then eventually we start to plateau out where we feel like, Hey, I’ve learned, I now feel like I’m operating at a high level, but I don’t feel like I’m being pushed and grown anymore.

Jeff Perry 00:34:13 So feeling that plateau feeling is a great catalyst and indicator that, Hey, perhaps there’s something there that I need to explore, try something new, whether that’s in my current role, organization, or something else. And again, a lot of times we’re just trying to experiment and see, get some data along the way, to see what might fit before perhaps we do a full commitment to a new path.

Kanchan Shringi 00:34:50 So, there’s certainly the impact and intrinsic desire as well to have greater impact, greater influence, but compensation has to play a role in this as well. Can we chat a little bit about that?

Jeff Perry 00:35:04 Absolutely, but everyone values compensation a little bit differently at different stages of their life as well. One of the big things that people are doing is, I mean, it can be easy to compare what I’m hearing that my peers and my same company or other companies are making in different things, but compensation across roles is not equal if roles are not equal, in terms of the value that you’re delivering and also what is that taking from your life, right? So you could be making an astronomical amount of money, but if you literally have zero time to be with your friends, family loved ones, and work on other things that are really important to you, or maybe it’s suffering in your health, is that increased compensation really worth that. Right? And so, each person is going to be a little bit different there, but absolutely when we’re trying to consider compensation, I’m big though on everyone being able to be paid fairly for where they’re at.

Jeff Perry 00:36:02 And we can think about how do we negotiate appropriately, whether in our current role that we’re at — if you’ve been at your role and you’re seeing other people come in and you’re hearing maybe of inflated salaries, absolutely you should be asking yourself, Hey, can I get up to that same level too or beyond. If I’ve been around for a while, a few years, someone gets hired at a compensation level above me, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be asking those questions on whether or not you can get that same pay bump too, as we’ve seen compensations increase across the software engineering industry the last couple years, especially. But you may think about, Hey, if this company that I’m at just doesn’t have the ability to compensate you for the level of impact and value that you bring to the table, then you may need to find another organization that has the capabilities to compensate you in a different way as well. So absolutely we should be considering and balancing the compensation that we want to take care and live the lifestyle that we want, balanced with actually living that lifestyle instead of only living for work. Right.

Kanchan Shringi 00:37:07 So how do you evaluate that though? You don’t know, you can guess potential trade-offs, but you don’t really know. So how much of it is really fear of the unknown, and how do you overcome that?

Jeff Perry 00:37:20 Yeah, so uncertainty can be a huge factors. People are trying to make decisions. I love this quote from psychologists by the name of Virginia Satir. She says that people often prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty, right? And so, as we’re evaluating potential options, if we wanted to take on a new role or things like this, yes, there are things about that that we won’t fully know until we get into it, right? That’s just the nature of it. And it’s the nature of life. Like, we will not be able to map out what everything is going to look like. If we did, life would be a lot less challenging, but also probably a lot more boring if that were the true, if we actually had a crystal ball and could see the future, but as we are moving through this process and trying to say, how do we make these decisions?

Jeff Perry 00:38:13 We just have to have a little bit of, for lack of a better word, faith, that we can make the best decision based on the information that we have right now. Now, if we’re considering other companies and things, we can collect more data online. If we’re talking about compensation, there’s all sorts of compensation. datalevels.fyi is a great place for software engineers to compare different companies and different roles. And what that looks like as far as what compensation levels are these days, total compensation, other things, salary.com, Glassdoor, all sorts of other places that you can compare on the compensation level data, but also asking those questions, it might not be quite as quantitative, but more qualitative as far as quality of life and different things that we consider. Having those opportunities, whether you’re interviewing in the company, or you can reach out to a few people in a potential company or in a different organization, you’re existing company, whatever that transition that you’re considering making right now, can you have a few of those conversations with people who understand and know and hear and talk about those considerations at the same time as you go into a new situation, can you set up your approach to working in that with setting boundaries and things that are appropriate to you and the things that are important to you rather than just getting swept up and caught up in saying yes to every single thing that you do?

Jeff Perry 00:39:36 I think even within the same role or opportunity at your company, two people can have a vastly different experience depending on how they approach their work and setting up those relationships and those processes and the way that they go about doing that with people. So, we get to control some of that. And also we need to collect data as much as we can about those things that we’re trying to make decisions about.

Kanchan Shringi 00:39:59 So, in talking to people, software engineers, you know, I can think of few key transitions — you know, senior to lead, or when you go to a manager role from an initial contributor, or even from lead to architect — it’s more than just technical skills at this point. There’s a lot of communication skills involved. There’s new things that you wouldn’t even know are going to be expected of you. So, do you have any examples of people who have navigated these key transitions or some other key transitions?

Jeff Perry 00:40:31 Yeah, absolutely. So, these sorts of roles, there was one person who I was working with, who he was an experienced engineer, about five years into his career. And he’d found himself really taking on that lead technical role. And he wasn’t even necessarily looking for it, but a few months into us doing some work together, as he was trying to improve how he balanced his work and life and the things that are important to him, he had the position opportunity come to him to become that engineering manager for the first time, moving from that senior engineer to engineering manager for the first time. And so, suddenly now he was taking on a responsibility for, I think it was six other engineers and the team and the responsibilities on a global team, right? But the truth is that he’d already been doing a lot of that similar work already.

Jeff Perry 00:41:22 And I think that internal to companies, a lot of times when these new opportunities come our way, it’s because people get those opportunities when they’re already sort of filling that role. They’ve already sort of taken on, Hey, I’m willing to go the extra mile, help the other people when they need it, show that I can deliver that increased technical value and mentor the people around me. So, they’ve already sort of taken on that role, that increased responsibility for the projects and raising their hands when something new needs to get done and there’s a new responsibility that someone needs to take. They’re already looking for and taking those responsibilities. And this was absolutely true of him. And so, the formal process of him going through that, which by the way, he still needed to negotiate as he got this new opportunity and increased responsibility, still needed to negotiate the compensation level to go back to that topic, which was a hard thing because sometimes internally companies don’t always value those shifts as much as if they were bringing in.

Jeff Perry 00:42:26 And I find that very interesting that that can often be the case, but he had to fight for an increase in compensation in this case, even though he was taking on additional responsibility. But the process of him actually functionally moving through that process really was a process of clarifying, what is this new role, right? Like, what does he still need to own from maybe what his previous responsibilities were, but he needed to fill out and understand from his leaders and others, what were the key areas of value that he needed to deliver? And I think so much of that process is just a process of clarifying the roles and responsibilities that we have, and also helping our teams do the same, which sometimes we just get thrown in and say, yeah, go figure it out without really clarifying what those responsibilities are. It took him a little while, and he didn’t always have the support to do that and still had to take on and finish projects from his old role that he was dealing with, and all sorts of things. So, that transition process can be difficult, but he had built the skills necessary because of the ways that he was operating before with his teams, so that he was able to be successful. Even though perhaps there was a period of stress through that transition that he needed to get through before everything was fully transitioned into the new role.

Kanchan Shringi 00:43:50 That’s useful to know because what you’re really highlighting is, of course, even just understanding what the new role entails and understanding what are the different steps needed to transition into it. But what about interviewing even when you are moving maybe internally, it’s still a new role, whether you are moving vertically or to a different team horizontally there, in my experience, there’s always some level of interviewing involved because you are working with different people who may or may not know enough about you and your skills. How does one approach the interview preparation?

Jeff Perry 00:44:30 Yeah. And sadly, this is one area that I find that people don’t spend much time on because they think, Hey, I’ve kind of been there, done that and whatever they throw at me, I can answer those questions. I think there’s a lot of opportunity though, for appropriate interview preparation. And again, you said maybe that’s internal to the company and that interview may be a little bit different because people already kind of know you and your work, and that’s going to be a little bit more focused on, on those things and how that applies to the new role. But the process of appropriate interview preparation is to go back to some of those personal branding principles we were talking about earlier, how can you connect who you are and what you bring to the table, with really considering what are the needs of the organization or the team that you might be starting to work for?

Jeff Perry 00:45:24 Right. So how can you connect? What are they trying to accomplish? What are they trying to solve? Or I love the way of thinking if there’s an opportunity, a job opportunity or a job role or requisition out there that’s open, then that means that there’s a problem that needs to be solved, right? How can you understand that problem and through the process of the interview, frame yourself as the solution to that problem? Okay? Whether that’s you showing that you have the technical chop to do that, you’ve worked on similar projects, you’ve delivered similar types of value and results that they’re looking for, but the more you can understand about what they’re trying to accomplish and what that problem is that they’re trying to solve the better you can do that. Now, as far as pragmatically, how do we answer those questions? On the technical side, we can’t even get into all the different types of technical questions that software engineers can be asked and the different ways that those interviews are structured.

Jeff Perry 00:46:24 But on the other side, behavioral interviewing still maintains or continues to be a very, very common interviewing practice. These are those questions that are like, tell me about a time when, and you have this opportunity to tell a story when you have done something and help them move through that process of seeing how you operate in the situation or the type of situation that they’re asking about. And so far and away, the most effective way to answer behavioral interview questions is called the star method, S-T-A-R for situation, task, action and result. And it’s just a process of you being able to share this situation. How can you show the context? What’s the situation you were in? What’s the project, the company you were working in, and what’s the criticality of what was going on in this situation that you’re about to share, then the T, the task.

Jeff Perry 00:47:24 How can you show, what was your responsibility? What were you tasked with and how did you start moving through that? Then that leads to A, which is action. What are the steps you and the team moved through? What are the problems that you needed to solve, the barriers you needed to break down to solve this problem or move through this situation? And then finally, R is what’s the final result? And ideally I would love to see things that are quantitative. Can you show, we save this much money, we increased quality or uptime or whatever the metrics are that you’re measuring on. We were able to improve by this much or decreased the problems by this much and show that you deliver quantitative value in this situation. And those are the things that an interviewer is going to remember. And all along the way we can weave in kind of our personal brand and characteristic traits and things that we can weave in along the way, as far as the types of skills you want them to remember that you have, the type of person, the team member you are all along the way, we can sort of weave those in.

Jeff Perry 00:48:30 And there’s some tactics we could talk about and get into that I coach people on all the time to do that effectively, but you want to be memorable and you want to connect and show them that you can do what they need to do in order to solve the problems and deliver the value that they need to have happen.

Kanchan Shringi 00:48:46 Thanks, Jeff. So I wanted to now start talking about the role of mentors as well as coaches. So in our earlier conversation, we talked a little bit about how do you get over the fear of the unknown or the unknown. You mentioned, you know, seeking out people who have done it before and talking to them. And some of this was covered in episode 281, but we’d like to discuss that with your perspective, as well as expand this discussion to professional coaches. How do people find mentors — career transitions are a good point; what other catalysts exist when you feel a need for a mentor or a coach?

Jeff Perry 00:49:28 Yeah, so hopefully I hope people always have some form of mentor or multiple mentors that they have in their career and in their lives, because you can have mentors in your career situation. But I have people that I sort of lean on as mentors, as a father, trying to raise a young family, right. And different. I sometimes have mentors in my physical health that people who have done things or know things that I don’t know. So I consider medical professionals to be mentors in some way, right? So hopefully we have multiple different types of mentors at every stage of our life. But a career is a big part of our life. So we should absolutely always have mentors in our career. So we’ll talk mentors for a second here, but I’m a big believer in having mentors, both internal and external to the organizations that we’re involved in.

Jeff Perry 00:50:16 And so, internal to an organization that can take a lot of forms from a lot of organizations will have formal mentorship programs where they’ll pair you up with someone, or you can kind of put your name in the hat and then they’ll help you connect. Or maybe they just have networking events with the intent to try and help perhaps younger engineers find older, more experienced mentors. And those are great to have those formal things, but you can always ask the question who is doing things that I’m interested in, that I want to learn about, and can I reach out to them and connect with them, right? And so you don’t necessarily need to wait for a formal thing. If you see someone that’s doing some interesting things, that you see someone that you want to learn from, you can always take the initiative to reach out and connect with him internally. Right?

Jeff Perry 00:51:06 You can do the same thing externally, whether that’s through outside organizations and those can be professional organizations or could be volunteer organizations, whatever those look like, or just people in other parts of the industry that you see, Hey, this person’s interesting. How can I learn from them? Can I reach out to them and connect with them, learn more about what they’re up to and ask questions. What those mentorship relationships can look like can be totally different across the board, as far as they can be really formal, you can have regular meetings or phone calls or interactions. You can just correspond via email or other digital communication. They can be as formal or as informal as both of you agree. But that’s one of the key things with having meaningful mentorship relationships is that those expectations are clarified for both of you so you can get the most out of it.

Jeff Perry 00:51:58 But that’s one more final thing on the mentor side is I also hope that while we’re seeking for mentors to try and learn and grow personally, we’re not just trying to be takers from those relationships. I hope that all relationships that we build in this case for mentors as well is we want to be think transformational in those relationships that what can I give, not just what can I get out of this relationship? And sometimes what you’re giving as a mentee is just the fact that you are engaging, that you’re following up, that you’re caring and sharing value and really building that person as a mentor, which helps them feel good and feel like they’re giving back. And the fact that you’re valuing the time that they’re spending and not just showing up and then not doing anything with that, that’s a way that you can really give, and they’re going to enjoy that. And you will as well.

Jeff Perry 00:52:50 So don’t feel like you have to have all the context or things to give to them. I mean, obviously there’s a disparity there. They’re more experienced and have more connections there, but you still want to be contributing to those relationships. Now separate just for a moment, coaches often are paid, okay? And these can be paid by your organization. Some organizations will actually pay for coaches to coach people in the organization, whether those are leaders or technology people, people they’re trying to groom. They recognize that potential. Or maybe they just really care about this person that, but there are areas that they want to grow in, or the individual could say, Hey, I want to pay a coach to help me work on this particular skill, move through a career transition, level up my leadership capabilities, improve my communication skills…

Jeff Perry 00:53:43 Whatever those things are, coaches are often, there’s often a financial investment that’s involved here, right? And I think that changes the relationship in a little bit, but it’s often positive because the fact that a person is financially invested often gets them being that much more committed to the process. And it also helps the coach side of things where the coach is also invested because a coach wins when their client wins, right? And so they are invested in how can I do everything I can to be helpful and help this person be successful. Whereas a mentor is often, most often unpaid, and they’re just doing it kind of volunteer because they want to give back, but they’re often going to be a lot more reactive or passive in their approach to the mentee-mentor relationship. Whereas a coach will be a lot more active because there’s an investment and a process that they’re working through that. So it’s just a little bit of the differences there, from my perspective.

Kanchan Shringi 00:54:41 And even being a mentor, it could be just a specific area of advice that somebody approached you for. Like we just one off as well. Those are valuable too.

Jeff Perry 00:54:51 Absolutely. Absolutely. Sometimes it’s just one conversation. And any time, you know, as a mentor or mentee, like, Hey, can we share things and deliver value for people? And so if you’re an at a one time event and someone, you, some questions at that event, and you’re able to share your experience and expertise, and that can be helpful, that’s you serving as a mentor, if they want to continue that conversation and you have bandwidth to be able to do that, then great. But if you don’t, you don’t have to say yes to every single person who wants to ask you to be their mentor, right? But the people who you can tell who are really willing to give to that relationship, and they’re hungry for information advice, and you feel like you have a connection with, and those are maybe the people that you want to focus your time on, right? As a mentor.

Kanchan Shringi 00:55:37 What’s the role of managers in this, in your experience?

Jeff Perry 00:55:42 So managers can be mentors and sometimes take a little bit of a coaching role in this. And I hope, more and more, can do more of that because even beyond just like a formal coach, the coaching methodology and idea is a coach is trying to help build a person to become the best version of themselves in many respects, right? So a manager who really recognizes that they have a responsibility to help and have a stewardship with the people that they lead and support, then they might take a little bit more of a coaching approach rather than a dictation approach — really helping build the people along the way. So managers often can serve as a mentor to people on their teams, but I would also encourage a manager to encourage others to find mentors outside of themselves because their team is only one perspective of the types of technologies and the things that they’re working on.

Jeff Perry 00:56:49 So getting those different perspectives and other teams in the organization again, or external is going to be helpful for them. Because a manager also only has limited bandwidth and also is so closely tied to what that person’s doing with regards to what the manager is trying to accomplish in the team and the projects they’re working on and different things that they may be in some cases too emotionally invested in the outcomes and the things that that person’s working on. Whereas an outside mentor or coach might be a little bit more third party and only consider what’s best for that person. So manager absolutely plays a role, but it shouldn’t be the only person who’s serving as a mentor along the way.

Kanchan Shringi 00:57:31 That makes sense. And is that also your experience on people that approached you with career coaching, that they wanted somebody who was not involved with the situation?

Jeff Perry 00:57:41 100%. A lot of times that’s one of the things that they will say explicitly. I want to talk to someone who can give me these outside perspectives and see things that I can’t see or is not closely tied to wanting to keep me around or anything here, but is just involved in trying to make the best decision for me, right? And so, absolutely that’s one of the great values that an outside mentor or coach can serve is they have a completely unbiased outside perspective to try and just help that person succeed for what’s best for them without any tie to results of an organization or a team or anything like that. Now, obviously I will want, if someone’s trying to make a career transition, I will want that person to not just, you know, leave their previous organization high and dry. Right? I want to help them also move through that transition gracefully and set the team up for success if they are leaving. But you know, we still need to consider what’s best for me and where I want to take my career at this point.

Kanchan Shringi 00:58:42 So Jeff, why did you become a career coach? What was your catalyst for this?

Jeff Perry 00:58:47 Yeah, so there’s a long story to it. But about five years ago on top of the engineering and engineering leadership work that I was doing, I had opportunities to get into training and coaching kind of internal to the company I was working at. And a lot of the things that are basis of the work that I do are based around mindsets and are shifting not just the pragmatic things that we do, but how we do that and how we think about ourselves and the people that we interact. And that was because of that work that I got to do that training and that coaching work that I got to do internal into the company because I recognized as I would start opportunities to do some of that work. It was about five or 10% of the work that I was doing. I loved it. And I loved those days that I was involved in that. I found a lot of fulfillment around doing that sort of work.

Jeff Perry 00:59:35 And so I started thinking for myself, Hey, I recognize that I’m really excited about this stuff. How can I find ways to do more of this? So this is something that I raised my hand and I said, Hey, I can do this. I tried it out as a thing on top of my normal responsibilities and it gave me exposure to a new way of working. And so then a couple years later I got to one of those kind of career plateaus for me, where I recognized that I was a point where I needed a change. I wasn’t necessarily delivering my best value for the organization and it wasn’t necessarily the best place for me to continue to learn and grow. And so we explored some different options, but eventually got to the decision where I decided that it was time for me to go.

Jeff Perry 01:00:19 There wasn’t really a perfect place for me in that organization anymore. Even though I didn’t know what was going to be on the other side yet. And so I spent a lot of time in reflection and introspection to try and figure out what this was going to look like, what was my next step going to be? And eventually had one of these days where I was journaling and I was writing all sorts of ideas of what the next step in my career could look like. And I started connecting principles of engineering and technology that I had been involved in and also how that connected with personal and career development work and how these different principles really connected in really fun ways. And I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t stop coming up with ideas. And so, that was a little bit of a sign for me that I said, Hey, maybe there’s more to this. And so, I started iterating and ideating on that even more and eventually decided to take the leap and start what has become more than engineering and doing this work really combining that pretty broad engineering experience that I had with this desire to get closer to helping people. So I like to say that I moved from this process of developing products and processes to developing people now. And it’s really a joy and an honor to help people in the work that I get to do.

Kanchan Shringi 01:01:34 How can people contact you?

Jeff Perry 01:01:37 Great question. So again, we’ll share that resource that I had talked about earlier and they’d stay connected with me there at www.engineeringcareeraccelerator.com/se radio and stay connected there. And by the way, they do need to put those Ws in so that it’ll work right. And then also I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. That’s the best place to find me Jeff Perry and engineering career coach. I also host the engineering career coach podcast. So for other podcast listeners, they want to explore that host that in partnership with the Engineering Management Institute, if they want to check out that podcast.

Kanchan Shringi 01:02:11 Thank you. We’ll add that to our show notes. It’s been awesome to have you here today. Thank you so much for coming on.

Jeff Perry 01:02:17 Thanks so much. Kanchan it’s been a great conversation, and hope this was an added value to the SE Radio listeners. Thanks so much.

Kanchan Shringi 01:02:24 Thanks all for listening. [End of Audio]


SE Radio theme: “Broken Reality” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com — Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0)

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