Where to get career guidance in tech
Where do you get the guidance you need to keep advancing in your career?
You could, of course, get it nowhere. Follow your curiosity, let serendipity be your guide, and wander from job to job as opportunity strikes.
That was me, during the first decade of my career. At first I was so happy to have a tech job, I didn't care. Then I followed my curiosity and opportunity, meandering through scripting languages, compiled languages, moving into web dev, and onward.
It served me well, until it didn't. Sure, I burned myself out in my first 3 jobs, but I also had a lot of fun along the way and was reasonably successful.
But at some point I started to get stuck... and I realized I would do better if I had a bit more guidance.
This post is me sharing what I wish my younger self had known about growth and career guidance.
Who can give you career and growth advice?
I've seen three different places that folks tend to get career and growth advice in a structured way: Manager development coaching, coaching from an experienced peer or mentor, and working with an external coach.
There's also sometimes industry-related ways... some conferences have career focused workshops, or if you're lucky you might find a peer coaching group at a local meetup. But those tend to be more ad-hoc and infrequent.
For purposes of this post, I'll just break down the big three.
Manager development coaching
This is one of the most common ways to get help as grow, especially as you start to grow beyond just technical skills, is to receive coaching from your manager.
Having your manager involved with helping you grow and develop can be great, especially if you have a good relationship with your manager and they are skilled at coaching.
Benefits of manager as coach
Your manager typically has great visibility into your work. They are able to provide very specific context for you, and tune recommendations very precisely.
Adding developmental coaching to an existing manager relationship is logistically simple - it can piggy-back on existing 1:1s or complement them.
Your manager also often has visibility and/or control over work coming down. This means they can help align the work with the areas you are working on.
However, having your manager be your primary source of developmental coaching also has some significant drawbacks.
Drawbacks of manager as coach
Power dynamics can get in the way of you growing the way you want. Suggestions from a manager implicitly carry more weight than from a peer or external coach. Unless the manager is extremely skilled and careful, this can result in them pushing you towards their agenda rather than yours.
The manager also has mixed incentives, which can lead to challenges. They are ultimately responsible to the business for some sort of outcome, and that outcome isn't always aligned with what is best for your growth.
Coaching from an experienced peer
This is possibly the best growth setup you can get - a more experienced peer inside of your organization, but preferably not too closely aligned with your work so they're able to have a little bit of distance from your direct outcomes.
Benefits of an experienced peer as coach
A senior peer in your organization will have great organizational context and can help you with situations tied directly to your work and organization, how to navigate particular individuals and processes.
No Conflict of Interest
Hopefully they're distanced enough from your team or individual outcomes that you don't end up with conflict of interest / mixed incentives, they can be focused on your success. If they're on your team, they do have a little bit of a conflict of interest, but hopefully less than a manager would.
Drawbacks of an experienced peer as coach
Getting coaching from a peer can be logistically challenging. They have their own work, and may well be quite busy, such that it is hard to find the time to set up.
Finding a more experienced peer who is both skilled as a coach and has the time and energy to coach you is extremely uncommon.
Coaching from an external coaching
This is an approach that is less commonly used for engineering ICs, but much more common as you go up the promotions ladder. Executive coaching has become extremely common, and large organizations increasingly offer coaching as a benefit for directors and managers.
Benefits of an external coach
Focus on you
While a manager or even a peer has their own incentives within the organization, a hired coach is focused entirely on you and helping you achieve your goals.
Expertise in coaching
An external coach is someone who has particular experience and inclination towards coaching. They likely have trained specifically to improve their coaching skills, and have chosen coaching as a profession.
While you may not get to choose your manager, or have a great candidate for peer coaching, you can try out different coaches until you find one who's experience, style, and skills are a good match for your needs.
Drawbacks of an external coaching
Lack of context
Compared to working with someone inside of your company, an external coach will not have specific organizational context or knowledge of the individuals you are working with.
Unlike working with someone inside of your organization where they only price is your time, working with an external coach costs money. That said, many organizations offer career development benefits that can defray the cost, and most engineers make enough money that hiring a coach is within reach. Hiring a coach is a real investment, but can pay off rapidly if it accelerates your growth towards a promotion or raise.
It's not shameful to look for guidance
The tech industry is filled with independent-minded people who are good at self-guided learning. As a result, there can often be a sense that you "should" be able to figure things out on your own.
There's also a focus on delivery, and on-the-job learning.
These are not bad things. It's good to learn on the job, and to be able to do things on your own. But most of us can also benefit from a little guidance. What should we be learning on our own? How can we better align our work and our longer term goals?
These are things that someone more experienced - whether your manager, an experienced peer, or an external coach - can help with.
And it's not shameful to ask for that guidance. Ask your manager for more guidance. Or look for that experienced peer. Find out if your company offers benefits like BetterUp with internal access to coaches.
Or if you're not getting what you want internally, look for an external coach.
But what you shouldn't do is assume you can't get any guidance. Because that's blantantly false.