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Impact: Growing as an Engineer – Iris Schaffer, React Summit 2022


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Talk: Impact: Growing as an Engineer Becoming a web engineer is not easy, but there are tons of resources out there to help you on your journey. But where do you go from there? What do you do to keep growing, and to keep expanding the value you bring to your company? In this talk we’ll look at the different kinds of impact you can have as a web engineer. We’ll walk through what it means to take on bigger, more complex projects, and how to scale yourself, and grow the community around you. By driving our own development we can all grow our impact, and in this talk, we’ll discuss how to go about this.
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Hello, everybody. Can you hear me? Awesome. How excited are we all to be here? Good conference so far. That's there we go. Nice. And hello also to everybody who's joining remotely. Super awesome to have you all. And like you already were told, this is actually my second time here, because that is just how excited I am to be sharing this with you. Do you think we can make it even better than yesterday? Yeah. There we go. Nice. Yesterday I received a really interesting question, and it was, what's the difference between a good engineer and a great engineer? And I didn't really have an answer, but I reflected a little bit, and I came to this conclusion. Good engineers can tell you what's possible and what isn't. But great engineers find out how to make the impossible possible. And what I mean by that is there's this mindset of nothing cannot be achieved if you just try and work on it, you can probably make it. I did not have that mindset when I joined Spotify four years ago, and I've grown so much and learned so much over that time. And that is why I'm talking to you today. That is like my experience bundled up that I want to share with you. And I couldn't have done it alone either. It was really important to have the relentless support of my managers, the people around me, the rituals and tools that we have in place at Spotify. So if anything in this talk catches your attention, that's why you can have in case you want to get a job. We are on a hiring spree this year, and for this specific talk, I also have to thank a couple of people. It is based on my experience, but I wanted to also validate, is it just me? Do other people feel the same way? So I actually interviewed a couple of people. I interviewed two managers, Linda and Nafista, and also a staff engineer called Aaron, as well as Tajus, who's actually on the other stage speaking right now. So thank you all for coming here and missing out on his amazing talk. Sorry. Yeah. So this talk is kind of structured into two parts. First, we'll talk about what is impact, what kind of impact does a company care about? And then we'll look into how to grow. The very first thing I need to do is clean up this myth. To continue growing as an engineer, you need to go into management. Not true. A lot of companies, including Spotify, actually have dual career tracks. That means if you're a senior engineer or senior engineering manager, those are equivalent oftentimes also in terms of salary. And you don't have to stay on one track. You can change between them. It's going to help you, but you don't have to. But now what's the difference between an engineer too, and, say, a staff engineer? I think it's their sphere of impact. So as a more junior developer. Maybe you're actually just focusing on making yourself better so that in the future you can provide more value. Maybe you're only working on a couple of files or that one little application, but over time that sphere will grow and grow until you maybe having impact on entire department or you're designing interfaces between different domains or different systems. Right. And how do you grow this? As engineers, I think we have several impact levers that I'm going to talk about, as well as core skills that play into this. And the levers are these pillars of impact. I've looked at a couple of different frameworks that I found online career frameworks. They call them different things, but in essence it's usually a combination of these three. The first one I want to talk about is Mastery. You can call this Tech Excellence instead, or Craft. And the reason why I'm mentioning it first is because this is the very first thing we usually assess in, say, an interview process. This is kind of what enables you to deliver Impact. Right, and we'll talk about that in a bit. This does not only mean writing code, and that's really important. The more senior you get, the less code you will likely be writing day to day. But you're still doing incredibly important engineering work because you'll be, for example, designing the interfaces between different systems. But you can't do that directly in code. You first have to plan it in a different way. The next one is oh, sorry. This is a pillar where underrepresented groups usually have to do a little bit more work to prove that they got what it needs. So while if you're a white dude and you say I'm an awesome engineer, people likely believe that that's true. Right. I had to prove that a little bit more. What I heard was I'm not technical enough. If that happens to you, don't listen to me. Head over there and watch Tanya Riley's talk on being blue. It's changed my life. The next one to talk about is Business Impact. And I already mentioned that Mastery is kind of an enabler, right. Mastery can only get you so far because if you're just using your tech know how to rebuild the same application over and over again, you're not actually providing any value. And that is what your company is actually paying you to do. So instead, if you use that to say, I don't know, improve the conversion flow, improve conversion by 3%, or maybe you are, I don't know, removing this repetitive task and by that saving $10,000, that is Business Impact. And to be really good at this, you need to understand your business problems. You need to understand what problems your business is facing over time. You need to understand the product vision and the business vision. And if you can do that, the great thing is that we oftentimes have these really hard decisions to make between a little quick hack and the super scalable system that will live for years and years to come. How do you know which one you should go for? Knowing what problems the company is actually facing can help you decide. And the last one is culture. And this is really hard to quantify, but if you have a good culture at a company, you'll probably feel safe, you'll feel good there, you want to stay there for a longer time, right? And there's so much that goes into culture. I'm only going to focus on two things for now collaboration and innovation. Why collaboration? Well, I'm just one engineer, right? So, like, even if I was the best engineer on the planet, I could still achieve more if I could level up other people to my level. And then innovation, my innovation. We all work for companies that depend on creativity and innovation to stay ahead of their competition. So if we can, for example, help as engineers to foster an environment where people feel safe to be their true self, come up with that stupid idea, try it, fail, learn from it, try again. Until you succeed, you can actually foster innovation. And this might look different at your company. So it's really important that if you want to make a career at that specific company, you talk to the people you have to talk to, figure out what matters to them. And we said it's not only these levers of impact that are important, there's also core skills. What are those? I don't like the word soft skills, although you've usually heard them referred to as before. This is basically what enables you to do that work, right? To work on those pillars, you need that to work with other people. Basically, that's what it's going to enable. And in my interviews with the people at work sorry, do you want to take the photo? There we go. The people I talked to at work, they kept pointing out these three, so that's why I figured I'd trust them rather than coming up with something myself. The first one is communication. By communication, I mean both written and verbal communication. This is your most important tool if you're working across teams, especially. But even within a team, it's going to help you a lot. You will use it to negotiate, to persuade, to build consensus. And the one thing that I see go wrong here most often is that we don't target our message to the person on the other end, especially if they're not technical. The next one is accountability. And this one is even trickier because a lot of languages don't even have a word for this concept. So what does it mean if you're accountable? It means you take responsibility for your actions and your inactions. And rather than say, blame somebody else or sweep your mistake under the rug, you'll actually stand up and say, look, I messed up, but here's how I'm going to make sure it never happens again or this is how I'm going to fix it. That is being accountable. And that will help you in whatever you try to achieve. Because if you actually feel accountable, you will make it happen, right? And you can't only hold yourself accountable. You can also do that with other people, for example, through feedback. The last one I want to mention is decision making. And this is going to bring everything in like a little nice circle. The bigger your scope, the bigger your sphere of impact, the bigger decisions that you will be making. That will require all of your tech skills, working on the right problem and all of that. It will require communication between teams, building that alignment, that this is actually the right solution. But in many cases, you have several options and there is no clear winner and you'll just have to call the shots. But if you are accountable, people will trust you with that decision. Now let's look at how we can grow. The first thing I want to mention is we're all engineers, right? Yes. Yes. There we go. We literally solve problems for a living. That is our job. It's no different with growth. We have somewhere that we want to be. We have somewhere where we are today. We need to figure out where those are, but then it's kind of easy to build the steps to get there. Let's start with where even as this be, where do we want to go? You might be thinking, I know my goals. I want that race, I want that promotion. Right? Unfortunately, science tells us that that's a really poor motivator over a long period of time. So for long term goals, you need to tap into that motivation, into that inner purpose. And how do you find that? I'm really bad at this? Straight out, I don't have these lofty goals. I'm not like, I want to be an astronaut, right? I don't have that. So instead, what I did was I looked around myself and I looked up to all of these amazing people that I work with and I asked myself, what is it that inspires me about them? Why is this project, not that project, that I'm drawn to? And through that, I've kind of built this vision for myself of where I want to be in a couple of years. And it's not changed that much over the last three or four years. I do change it up a little bit. Of course, the next thing, once you know where to go and I can't stress this enough, it's just if I couldn't help it. Sorry. Find your sponsors. You need to communicate your goals to the people who can help you achieve them. That might be your manager. That might be your manager's manager. That might be that project manager over there who can put you on that project that you need to work on right and it's really important that we do that, even if your company doesn't have the rituals in place at Spotify, luckily, we do have development talks twice a year where we talk about these things. If you don't have that in place, you need to do more of the work yourself. But the beautiful thing is most people really like helping others. So don't only look for people who can mentor you, who can help you create those skills that you need. Also look for people who can advocate for you, get you in that room that you need to be in to actually get that next project. And the bigger your network, the easier that will be. Right? And the pro tip I learned from Erin is don't just approach somebody. You'd be like, hey, can you help me with Ex? Go to them and be like, I know you're an expert in X. You yeah, exactly. Is there anything that I can do to take something off your plate and help you? The next thing? Obviously, if I don't understand where I'm today feedback can really help you with that. And that sleep is super terrifying, right? The first time I heard that Spotify has two development cycles a year, and you have to gather feedback from all of your peers anonymous. I was like, Shit, like, what am I going to do? Right? But there's three things that happened where, number one, my imposter syndrome disappeared because all of a sudden, all of these people are telling me I was doing much better than I thought myself. Number two, I actually understood that I had made progress because that feedback that I received six months ago didn't show up anymore. And the third thing that happened is I actually did get those pointers of other areas that I might want to improve. And on top of all of that, having those really honest but personal and good conversations with each other actually builds a mutual trust between you and your colleagues. Cool. We now understand where we are. We understand where we want to go. Now it's about figuring out that way there. And obviously you can't all do it in one go, right? You'll have to slice this into several milestones or smaller goals. I usually try to look for goals that are maybe three, maybe six months out, something like that. And this is kind of my formula for those. So the most important thing here is that I have the reason of why I wanted to do this on there. That means if for some reason this goal didn't work out, I still know what I actually wanted to achieve and I can do something else instead. I don't also have a metric. How do I know if I succeeded or not? Actions, concrete, smaller steps that I can take in my day to day and super important support. Do I need to find a project where I can practice that skill? Or do I need to be sent to a conference for this. Can I expense another book? Right? And speaking of expensing books, I'm sure you're all thinking, we're all at a conference here, right? So you're like, I'm here to learn. Unfortunately, bad news 70% of learning happens on the job, 20% in social settings, and only 10% at these formal educational events such as this conference. That doesn't mean that this conference is not super, super valuable. It just means if we really want to grow, we have to do it in our day to day. And how do we go about that? Well, we can marry up our personal development goals with something that the company actually needs to do, needs to succeed at Spotify, this is usually fairly easy because I go to my manager and say, hey, I want to go into back end. And they probably tell me, well, actually, there's this project that you could be working on. You could embed with this team. There's a lot of stuff that they already do for you. I also brought a couple of examples of what you can do to pair these things up. One co worker of mine wanted to improve his communication skills. So what he did was he offered to run sprint demos and write stakeholder updates, the most boring thing in the world. My manager was like, yes, please take it away. Right? But it helped him, and that's the important part. Another example is a friend of mine wanted to get into this new platform, and he knew that his team was going to use that platform fairly soon. So it was an easy sell to go and embed with that team for three months to figure out how it actually works inside out. And yet another friend of mine wanted to get into backend development, so his engineering manager suggested, how about you pair up with this other engineer from a different team for 4 hours every week and get that skill going so you can practice what you've learned in theory, in courses. The other thing that I need to say about these actions that you can take is, although it's super nice to stay inside of our comfort zone, outside is where the real magic happens. And that's scary, right? That's really scary. I was absolutely terrified when my manager asked, hey, Iris, do you want to lead this huge company wide back end, heavy initiative? I'm like, I'm a web engineer. Do I really have to? But I did it anyways, and it worked out. And I've never grown as much in such a short period of time as in those three months. And now I'm hooked. Now I'm like, is this initiative uncomfortable enough? Can I find something that's even worse? And it really helps. But also, pro tip, my manager paired me up with somebody else, with a staff engineer to make it less scary for me, somebody who would not directly be responsible for it. But who has my back in case anything happens, who can mentor me a bit? And that just took my fear. All right, we now kind of know where we are. We know how to get to our goal. Now. It's just doing it right? That's easy. Or is it? This has happened to me so many times, I just forget about my goals until two weeks before the death talk shit. Well, we've learned from it, though. So my manager and I now check in on our goals once a month in our weekly one on one. And on top of that, I, for myself, have created this little ritual of in the beginning of the week, checking in on my goals, understanding how can I make progress towards them this week in my day to day, and what other priorities do I have this week? The other part is that at the end of the week, I reflect on how it went. I think about, do I need any support? Are there any small wins that I can write down? Any learnings, anything that I can share with other people to make them grow? And another thing that took me way too long to realize is this. Does anybody else's calendar look something like this? A couple of hands. I feel you. My manager is now based in New York, so this is what happened to my calendar. All of our team events moved to the afternoon, and I moved all of my other recurring meetings for the afternoon as well. I just don't accept meetings in the mornings anymore. And all of a sudden, I have, like, a good four to 5 hours of focus time every single day to work on whatever needs doing. All right. We've now kind of wrapped this thing up, right? Like, we understand what kind of impact we want to have, what core skills to grow, and we know how to plan our goals. There's one more really important thing that I need to say. This was all about helping yourself grow, but there are almost definitely also things that you can do to help others. Share what you've learned at this conference with your colleagues, right? Reach out to them to offer them help. If you're in a position to sponsor somebody else, do that. Growth compounds. It always takes longer than we think it does. It's not a thing you do once it's ongoing and it's constant. But like any investment, a small change today can make a huge difference tomorrow. And I firmly believe that if we just get in the driver's seat and take responsibility for our own growth, there really isn't much that we can't achieve. Thank you.