Let’s do a quick exercise. Say you’ve been working professionally as a developer for more than five years. You’ve gained hands-on experience through dozens of projects and kept your skillset sharp by learning about new techniques, tools, and frameworks. You contribute to different libraries, routinely refactor the code you write, and periodically exchange code reviews with your colleagues.
But then someone comes up and asks you that one question you haven’t had the chance to figure out: Where do you see yourself, ten years from now?
You might be worried about the idea that if you continue down the same road, you’ll simply be an older developer who codes a bit better and a bit faster. Some developers are happy with this thought and simply can’t wait to continue down that road. But others might realize that this rollercoaster of lessons and growth you’ve been through is quickly shifting to cruise-control mode.
Once you feel you’re in complete control of your role as a developer, you start feeling the itch to do more. Not more of the same, but more personal growth instead. Maybe something different.
During the past few years of my career, I’ve been looking for answers. I got the chance to work with (and learn from) many successful developers who managed to transition into highly influential roles in which they make the most out of their technical background. Each of them explored a different path in which they were able to make an organic transition, based on a balance between their core skills and their complementary skills.
Where Can We Go From Here?
There are some new paths we can explore, that can force us to grow beyond our comfort zones and at the same time benefit from the skillset we’ve worked so hard to cultivate.
As developers, most of the articles we read, the programming books, and even the advice from our peers, are all tailored to help us to only focus on writing better code. Other than that, we’re not really taught how to work better or, to put it in a more philosophical perspective, how to evolve.
We usually have no clue about what comes after achieving the goals we set out for ourselves when we started our careers or if there’s even something we want to do other than coding eight hours a day, for the rest of our lives. It’s common to even underestimate our possible contribution to the team if we were to be doing something other than writing code in the near future. We’re not sure how we can make a bigger impact, even though our perspective and skills are definitely needed in more influencing positions.
Listen To The Industry
Back in 2008, when I started my career as a frontend developer, there wasn’t a person in the world who hadn’t heard of Mark Zuckerberg, the young programmer that became a millionaire while changing the way people communicate. Millennials began to romanticize the idea of legally getting rich while wearing a hoodie. Suddenly, almost every person from my generation wanted to become a developer.
Now, over a decade later, we’re starting to feel the true impact of this boom of coders. Through this year’s Stack Overflow Survey, we learned that more than two-thirds of respondents have less than ten years of professional coding experience.
We can clearly see that experienced developers with leadership skills are scarce, so now companies have to find creative ways to book their best talent in a way that they can oversee more junior developers and maintain the quality of work. This creates an organic leadership structure within growing teams.
The industry continues to grow at a rapid pace and so are our roles as developers. It has become more common to find directors and managers that started out as programmers, and companies are now opening up more leadership positions that require development backgrounds.
It’s safe to say that, even though programming was considered as the next blue-collar job, the role of the developer is growing into highly influential positions within organizations. But there is no written roadmap or proven formula to guide us through that transition.
What Are Some Of Our Options?
There came a point in my career in which I was asked the dreaded question about the future I envision for myself. I had no answer. In fact, it triggered even more questions that hadn’t crossed my mind.
I was already working as frontend lead so I had been given more and more responsibilities apart from writing code, which made me think of a possible future in which I probably wouldn’t be programming. The possibility of having more impact across different projects was definitely appealing.
So I set out to research what options could be interesting for my future. I looked at the path that some colleagues had taken in which they had successfully transitioned from the role of developers to important positions within the company. Most of the cases consisted of taking small steps and being in the right place at the right time. But overall, they all ended up involving themselves in these three main groups of activities:
- Managing teams and projects
Leading a group of people into greatness sounds exciting, but it’s not easy. As seasoned developers, there are many options of growth that involve either managing a group of fellow developers as a team or managing projects across multi-disciplinary teams. Although it’s a highly rewarding option, it requires stepping away from the keyboard and learning to delegate, which can be very tricky for developers that are used to personally solving all of their problems.
Moving on to a position in which we are in more control of the process and the team involved around it will most likely lead for the need of sacrificing the control we’re used to having when it comes to code.
- Mentoring and developing talent
How many bosses have fantasized about cloning their top developers? In the real world, this is still not likely to happen, so smart bosses do the next best thing: they set up processes in which the savviest coders can actively pass along their knowledge to their peers.
We have to keep in mind that even though some developers do this naturally in their day-to-day, it’s always more effective if senior developers are given a more formal role in which they can routinely allocate their time to work on the growth of their teams. This can be done with code reviews, workshops, and individual assessments with some colleagues.
- Being in the business of technology
It’s very common to hear developers complain about how projects were pitched or defined when they were sold to clients. And, in most cases, it’s usually too late to complain.
In my experience, I found myself happier working on projects in which developers had been involved during the sale. It’s always great to have a logical-minded ally flagging potential technical issues in a room where nobody else had a clue.
The roles of consultants and technical directors are crucial in large digital projects. The involvement of developers in client workshops and drafting technical documentation at the start of any project can potentially be game-changers for the lifecycle of a project.
Working On A New Set Of Tools
Let’s say we want to continue to grow and want to embark on a future where we want to do more than just writing code. Once we have an idea about where we’re headed, it’s very likely that we may not yet be prepared for the leap. After all, we’ve just been focusing on acquiring skills that make us better developers.
Once we realize we have a lot to learn, we need to start working on the right set of skills. This time it will be different: we won’t be learning new languages, frameworks, or libraries. We’re going to need to stock up on skills that might have not felt important in the past, but are crucial for taking the next steps in these uncertain territories.
For anybody who has a job at any company, this would be a no-brainer. Communication is known to be the core of collaboration within any type of organization. Unfortunately, programmers have been given a free pass in this area for many years. The need to find logical-minded, hard-working, passionate individuals has allowed us to thrive without the need to really have great communication skills and even be a very socially awkward bunch.
If we have any aspirations to work with different teams and clients, it’s very clear that we will have to work on improving all aspects of our communication. One-on-one meetings, presentations, and important emails will all need to be carefully polished from now on.
Having logical mindsets has impacted on the way we organize our work. As developers, we usually have a black-and-white sense of where our work begins and where it ends. This is positive when it allows us to have a clear understanding of the work that needs to be done by us, but sometimes prevents us from pushing our boundaries and working outside of our comfort zones.
The first order of business is to start taking ownership of all aspects of the work we’re involved in. By blurring the line that defines where a developer’s work ends, we’re able to take on new responsibilities and eventually transition into different roles.
Wherever we’re headed in our careers, we’re going to need for our teammates to trust us. We’ll need them to know we’re headed in the right direction, even if for a moment it’s not totally clear.
In order to achieve this, we’ll need to be able to prove our knowledge, we’ll need to be confident in our decisions, and we will definitely need to be able to acknowledge our mistakes and quickly learn from them.
This is not a simple task and it’s not something you will be able to check off a list. It’s going to require our dedication for as long as we wish to continue growing outside the development bubble.
Get To Work
Once we’re sure we want to take a leap in our career, we have to start moving in the right direction. The first step would be to explore the options, decide which path you want to pursue, and see how that path aligns with your current role.
Does your company offer a space in which you could be a mentor or a manager? Do you think that there’s a chance of making it happen there or do you think you will need to continue your growth elsewhere? These are just some of the questions you have to ask yourself and will also lead to a conversation with some of your teammates and managers.
Taking a step in a new direction will require putting in the hard work, having an open mind, and being resilient enough to fail and try again, as many times as it takes.