Advancement – It’s All Up To You

Recently I’ve been having a lot of conversations with my friends and coworkers about essentially the same thing: how does one get a better role at their company?

How does a junior become a senior level developer? How does a senior developer make the transition over to lead, principal or architect and beyond? Often, these questions are followed by “I’ve been at my company for a while and I still haven’t been promoted to a new position.”

Aha, we gotten down to the root of the problem.

You Must Initiate

In our industry, unlike many others, progress is not usually a formula based on tenure. We should not expect, or rely on, being promoted into a more senior role because of the amount of time we’ve been with a company. That is not to say that tenure doesn’t play a role in advancement, but it is not usually going to be the main factor in deciding whether you are promoted or not.

adv1Whenever I have these conversations, I like to immediately reset the context of the discussion by telling people that we need to stop relying on others to promote us.

In most cases, the only person that cares about the advancement of your career is you! Many employers claim to care about providing opportunities for advancement but usually it is more of a selling point to potential employees than a true desire to see people grow, advance and do better. In most case, upward movement that is initiated by the employer is motivated by some business need and not your personal growth. It is some strategic move intended to satisfy a business objective that benefits your employer more than it does you.

That is why we should not leave this in our employer’s hands. Unlike other fields, ours is one in which we have the opportunity to affect our advancement and growth in dramatic ways. All we have to do is realize that it is in our power to do so…and take the reins.

Grow Your Skillset

First and foremost, you should make sure that your skillset is up to par.

skil1If you intend to get ahead, and move into a new role, you need to start by increasing your worth to your employer. You will need to demonstrate that you have mastered your current responsibilities and have grown beyond the constraints of your current position. This means making sure that you are comfortable with all of the tool, technologies and processes that are used on your project.

Depending on your goals, this might also require that you stay abreast of industry trends and emerging technologies. If you want to move into an architect position, for example, you’ll need to become an authority on all things technology…not just the technologies and tools that you are currently using.

Grow In Maturity

In order to make the jump from your current role into one with more responsibilities, and potentially one that involves managing other developers or projects, you will need to demonstrate a level of maturity that is commensurate with that type of position.

What does this mean? Well, it turns out that developers are quite emotional people. You would think that we’d be very stoic and level-headed because of type of work that we do. This is just not the case.

mat1I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we are used to being treated as magicians and, to some extent, we let it go to our heads. Employers, friends and family have always told us that we are awesome and, at some point, start to believe the hype. When something happens that we don’t agree with, we tend to be very vocal and respond emotionally.

I’m not suggesting that we should just accept everything that we are told. I’m saying that we should not respond as emotionally to situations…especially if we’re looking to move into a position of authority or leadership. Instead, we should object when appropriate, provided data to back up our objections and, whenever possible, offer solutions or alternatives.

Grow In Leadership

Usually, getting promoted means taking on more of leadership role.

If you intend to move into a new position, with more responsibility, you should take every opportunity you have to demonstrate your leadership abilities. This will prove to your employers that you have the necessary chops to take on the extra responsibilities.

This could mean any number of this. It may be that you put in some extra hours during a time crunch. I could also mean that you start mentoring your teammates. Maybe you start volunteering to lead programming efforts or projects. Whatever the case may be, you should start looking for opportunities to showcase your ability to get things done, help your teammates and coordinate development efforts.

What’s Your Special Sauce?

Every one of us has something that makes us unique…our own “special sauce” that sets us apart from everyone else.

spe1Maybe it your ability to get things done. Maybe you work really well under pressure. You might be the type of person that works well with business folks and can translate business requirements into technical specifications. You should try to find whatever it is that you are good at and make every effort to showcase it.

Be careful not to take it too far and come across as bragging, but take every opportunity you have to exercise this special skill of yours and make sure everyone around you is aware of it. Whatever you can do to set yourself apart from the rest of the team, in a positive, way will help you stand out and increase the likelihood of promotion.

You Are In Charge

If you take anything away from this blog post, it should be the idea that you are in charge of your own career.

You, more than anyone, can affect it. If you want to make a move: do it! Whatever the “it” might be for the particular move you’re trying to make. Make it happen. Remember, you always have more option at your disposal; you can always find another job.

If the company you are with doesn’t look like it’s going to allow you to progress like you want, you can always go somewhere else. The only thing that can keep you from advancing is yourself and, luckily, that is under your control. Just do it!

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Mentor word cloud

Follow a mentor to grow – become a mentor to succeed

If you see anyone that has done much with their life they usually have a plan.  And they usually have one or more people they can use to “phone a friend” in a pinch.  I can list a great many of these people that have helped me move along in my world.  Some directly.  Most indirectly. But having someone to follow and coach you is very powerful.

What is a mentor

A mentor is a person or friend who guides a less experienced person by building trust and modeling positive behaviors. An effective mentor understands that his or her role is to be dependable, engaged, authentic, and tuned into the needs of the mentee (yes, that’s a word).

In my first real job, where i was hired to do software development full time not just as one of many non-technical responsibilities, I worked with a guy that was a fire fighter AND a perl developer. He had built his own forum in perl and was busy porting that system to another system.  But no doubt about it, perl was his thing. He would tell you that rather than learn a new language he wanted to be perfect at perl.  At this time we were doing AJAX and Web 2.0 sites but neither of those names existed.  .NET was just starting up.  I was in ASP, ColdFusion, and SQL Server.  JavaScript was not quite yet popular.  IE was broken.

This outlook on technology wasn’t a positive approach and I didn’t look to him to teach me in that way.  But he did teach me quite a lot about all the things that sat on the periphery of the systems I would build going forward.  At that time I had no idea that there was a role for DBA, and a role for web developer, and a role for IT.  See, in that job I was responsible for the membership website.  Not just the writing of code, but from the DNS to the database and everything in between.  This firefighter was my mentor in that he made sure I didn’t focus on just writing code.  He taught me to always look at and try to understand the bigger picture.  The code is one small part in a very big system.

I had various other jobs and eventually landed in an ecommerce company. I learned about security, payment gateways, and various other commerce concepts there.  But my mentor at this company was more in a business role. He taught me business concepts. How to manage people. How to run the business. How to build a business.

This immediately led me to work at one of our biggest competitors. This was a real jump. In this company everyone was smarter than me and all were mentors in their own right. Some directly. Others in directly. At this company I learned that I wanted to be “the architect”.  Little did I know that that term seems to carry some dirt with it!  More on that later. But it was definitely here that I learned I wanted to be the guy that constantly learned how to do new things and see how those new things applied to my current things.  I wanted to be the guy that everyone came to with questions.

The next company was an even bigger commerce company. This for me was the real game changer. I met Jeffrey Palermo. He was virtually consulting with us and making our team better. Watching him, however briefly, pushed me to be better. He had no idea that he was the guy I was going to follow. Eventually I left my summer job to find something closer to home.  And I continued to repeat the pattern of finding someone inspiring to learn from, getting better and better, through examples around me

I continue to do this even today. Find someone better than me. Learn from them. Follow in their path.

Should I only have one mentor

Like all things in our industry, there is no one answer. Look to someone for positive and negative examples. As you learn from others your ability to filter people by what they can provide your career will get very good. I don’t mean for you to walk around filtering people entirely based on what they can provide you. But do learn quickly what you can learn from someone else. If they have nothing to teach you, that is ok. Teach them instead.

Eventually you will find people in your circles that really stand out. Mentors that themselves continue to evolve. Perhaps mentors that you can’t catch. Mentors that themselves are constantly pivoting. The more of these you can locate the better as it just continues to benefit your personal growth.

You can have as many people to look to as you can find. But eventually you might find the one true mentor. That one person that gets you. That you can go to with your questions and always get an honest and respectful assessment of your position. This mentor is the most valuable. And may eventually become a friend as well.

Why should I follow an example

The best reason I can give to you to always have someone to set your sights on as an example of how you could improve is the article we recently wrote about minding the gap between your title and your skills.  I see all to often that someone has been paid a certain amount, and therefore had to be given a certain title to justify the pay, which led that person to believing that they were that title.  However, when it was time to find the next item in their portfolio they found that their capabilities didn’t quite line up with the requirements of the position.

This is hard! A better approach is to always ensure that you are awesome in your required abilities. And that you are always looking to add tools to the tool box. Always set your target for something bigger. Never settle with where you are at. Grow your career with a plan

Having one or many mentors around you is an easy way to travel along your plan. Set goals. Find a mentor that has achieved your goal. Work closely with them until you achieve it too. Set a new goal. Find a new mentor if need be. Continuously work in this manner.

Why should I be a mentor

To master a topic:  The one thing I can tell you about learning, anything, is to teach it. Students retain 30% of what they are being taught.  Teachers retain 90% of what they teach.  You will take one of two approaches when teaching someone else.

  1. You will learn your topic inside and out. You will learn the edge cases. You will prepare a lesson plan. You may put together a slide deck. You will know your topic. And then you will deliver your topic and find out what you don’t know and just how much you don’t know.
  2. You will just deliver your topic. And then you will find out what you don’t know and just how much you don’t know.

But with either approach you will learn. Having someone you mentor gives you a continuous student. Which makes you a continuous teacher. Which means you learn.

To give back to the community: If you used a mentor to build a path and walk down it to where you are now,   why would you not give back to up and comers in the same way? Giving back to the community is a great way to learn. And a great way to continue to grow your career through servant leadership. The audience that you mentor may contain the next opportunity for a goal on your career path.

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Live the company culture every day

There are a few types of company’s to work for when it comes to core values and culture.  A company that shares your core values.  A company that doesn’t share your core values.  A company that is so/so as far as how your core values overlap.  Or a company that hasn’t defined any core values.

You should be sure to interview the company about their core values before you start a job.  And ensure that what you are getting into at least sounds like it is in line with what you are interested in.  And for companies that interest you in others ways, ensure that the core values and culture is something that you can grow in or help direct in a more healthy manner.

Being pure to who you are … will help you become the pied piper of company culture.

No matter what the situation is you need to live your own personal core values every day.  Being pure to who you are, especially if your values overlap with the company’s, will help you become the pied piper of company culture.  Being “that guy” will certainly get you noticed.  A company that stands strong behind their expressed core values is always on the hunt for team members to hold up as examples of AWE-some.

If your company subscribes to the notions of Jack Welch then you may have heard these statements before.

Put the right people in the right place and get out of the way!
–Jack Welch

According to Jack it’s all about having the right people in your team.  The people have to be aligned with the company’s vision and values.  And he is noted for saying this:

You have to focus on it! When they exhibit the value, you make hero’s out of them.
-Jack Welch

You can make it easy for your company to take notice of you by understanding the values that they are interested in.  Then be involved with building the right culture by being the example that everyone sees.  Live these values every single day.  Weigh every action against the vision for the company, the direction the company needs to go today, and the values that they want to build their culture around.  Don’t worry about being reviewed on a schedule.  Never spend time saying “look what I did today”.  Don’t actively seek recognition.  That will happen naturally.  And your place in the world will rise.

So then, how do we ensure that we are living the company culture?  Print out the core values.  Envision what you need to do to be an example of each one of those core values.  Then actively do a couple of those actions every day.

Don’t just direct this type of activity towards your upper levels.  You need to be the example to your peers.  And you need to be an example to people that are unrelated to you or “beneath you” (ugly phrase).

And most importantly, add this to your personal measurements for being awesome.  Keep a log of your activity.  Every time you violate a core value, or you do just enough but don’t go out of your way to be AWE-some…

Deduct a point!

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Servant Leadership

I have the great fortune to work at a company right now where servant leadership is one of the company’s professed core values.  And as it is measured against daily the company and its leaders truly live by this mantra.  If you haven’t worked with or for a leader that really understood what it meant to be a servant leader you will have a hard time grasping how much more effective teams are when the top of the team actually works from the bottom to cultivate the team into an effective cohesive team.

While researching this topic I stumbled across a great graphic that quickly summarizes for me what a great servant leader is.

Image by Great Leaders Serve.

Now let’s dig into the details!


Serving is not necessarily washing the shoes of your coworkers.  Instead, this is more around your willingness to do what ever it takes for your people.  Does your team really believe that you are willing to do what ever it takes for the best interest of the team?  Sometimes this does mean getting down on your teams level and getting your hands dirty – a form of leading from the front.  Other times it may mean going to battle for the team.  And it always means that you take responsibility for the team’s outcomes, but never take the credit.


There are many types of leaders that simply aren’t present.  The only way they know what is going on with their team is by asking someone on the team “what’s up??”  This can be due to being to involved with too many teams.  Or it could be that the leader is a lazy person.  Any number of things can cause a person to not be in tune with the group that they are supposed to be leading.  But we know that in order to always be awesome we never assume the worst of a person!


If you are a leader or want to be a leader – then you are responsible for some aspect of the company and likely several people.  How you treat this responsibility is watched by everyone in the company.  Make sure that you are very careful to act in the most positive and responsible manner possible as you steer your responsibilities for the company in the right direction.  Your team will closely monitor how you manage your responsibilities.


One of my favorite quotes is “Want to be a better communicator?  Shut up and listen!”  This is so very true.  Being perceived as someone who listens is hugely valuable as a leader in general but especially as a servant leader.  The only way to have a constant pulse on the world is by cultivating relationships with everyone in such a manner that people feel confident that they can come to you with their ideas, thoughts, concerns, and problems.  This can be taxing at times but is hugely important that you take the time to keep this channel open.


The power of persuasion is a point covered as a difference between a BOSS and a leader.  Recall that a boss “commands” and a leader “persuades”.  This does at time require you to be politically savvy which you may either have already or need to grow over time.  The best method of persuasion is when you can slowly nudge someone into thinking your idea was their idea.  Nothing gets a person moving faster than when they own the idea, run with it, and see getting the credit for it in their near future.


In the programming industry we have slowly moved towards the idea that “resources” are a liquid resource and that can come and go.  I quoted the word resource because many companies, especially big ones, don’t like to think of their people as people.  As a leader, it is important to your team that you never take this view point.  You need to always be growing your team at a personal level.  Help guide them through their career.  Hopefully this includes staying with you at your company.  But never fear growing someone in a manner that you know they will eventually leave.  This kind of attention to your team’s growth will help you build long lasting relationships that you, your team, and your company will appreciate well into the future.


I think I personally have a hard time with empathy.  I consider myself a fact based logical person and generally look at problems from a clinical point of view.  The notion of men are from mars, women are from venus is important here as men generally want to solve problems and many women like to talk through their problems.  Being a man and a programmer means I really like to SOLVE problems.  My wife hates this of course.

It is important to be seen as a person that other people can not only bring their work problems too, but also their life issues.  Figuring out ahead of time what type of person you are and understanding all the members of your team in this regard will help you when this sorts of situations arise.  If you are the type of person that would normally say “yuck, no way” you will from time to time need to figure out how to do this.  And it is not as important that you solve their issues as it is that you listen to their issues.  Provide a shoulder to cry on so to speak.  Remember to be active and present in the conversation…even if it is tearing you to pieces inside!


This is another thing that the general programmery person will have issues with.  We tend to enjoy having our nose in the details.  Keeping in the context of now is usually more important than looking down the road for ever.  But in the leader world you will need to keep an eye looking around you and an eye looking at where you are going.  Understanding the future and its consequences, and being ready to take responsibility for your future, helps your team trust you and have faith in your ability.

Community Building

If you are always leading from the front, and never directly in the context of your team, you will find it very difficult to build a community amongst your team.  The day you get away from your employees feeling like they “have to go to work today” and instead inspire them to believe “I can’t wait to get back to work” you have won part of the game.  Community at work, work family, call it what you will, this makes the difference in having a team that is ready to go to battle when needed vs. going to the job board to see what’s next.


Healing has a lot to do with empathy, however, from a timeline perspective they can be quite different.  Empathy deals with “I have a problem” and generally requires a more passive role on your part.  Healing deals with “this major thing happened to me which has crushed me” and will require much more from you.  When people come to you with their issues they generally are looking for you to listen.  But when something major happens to someone you may need to be more involved.  You need to be in tune with your people and identify any issues – then inject yourself into it to help the person out.  An active role is required though.  This may be sending the person home for a breather.  Or fund raising to help dig them out of medical bills.  What ever you can possibly do as a community builder to get the stresses and anxiety removed from your team member.


Do others communicate their ideas and vision for the company when you are present?  This usually breaks down when the other points of personal bond are not present.  When people feel comfortable enough around their manager to openly discuss improvements everybody wins.  Even when the ideas are painful topics!

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