How to accelerate an engineer’s experience

No CTO in the world would pass on a magic wand that would magically make their engineers more senior and accelerate their experience. It seems like experience, even in well-balanced teams, is something we always want more of.

To get more experience in the team, until recently, startups relied on ever-increasing headcounts. That strategy, alas, doesn’t seem like it will work for many companies in the near future. The only remaining option, then, is to speed up how fast engineers gain experience in your team. Elementary, right?

How Experience Is Usually Accumulated

Surely you’ve heard the cliché about someone who worked at the same company doing the same things for a few years: They didn’t have eight years of experience, but one year of experience repeated eight times. Seniority requires more effort to accumulate than, say, how wine gets better with time. While the latter simply needs to be left alone quietly for a few years and the vintage on the label tells you all there is to know, professional experience is vastly more intricate.

One does not get better without deliberate practice, which requires stepping out of our comfort zones and taking on more and more responsibility. Doing the same sort of tasks repeatedly means we might get better in those tasks, but not more senior. The problem is that too many IC career ladders neglect the importance of inducing “maturity.” Especially for companies that have rigidly decided it should take at least X months between rungs on the ladder, which often means your most ambitious people are punished for moving too quickly.

Limiting Beliefs to accelerate experience

Sometimes, it is our own beliefs, as leaders in the company, that hold people back. That’s because we hold off on giving some people the responsibility to perform different tasks or take on certain roles in projects until “they are experienced enough.” However, such experience is not likely to manifest spontaneously. Therefore, people get stuck.

Just as with apprentices in hospitals or interns in law firms, people learn best by doing things themselves and working very closely with a more experienced superior who actively coaches them. In the early days of space travel, the average age of engineers in NASA control rooms was less than 25. If they could be in charge of such extraordinary feats at such a young age, surely your engineers can take ownership of more significant features.

Inducing Experience

So, the first thing that has to happen is for you and your managers to realize that gatekeeping seniority (even unintentionally) is harming everyone. There’s no use in getting people with lots of potential if we never let that potential come to fruition. Then, it’s a simple matter of a three-step process to help your organization “floor” the gas pedal.

First, address what has been stopping you from providing ICs with more growth opportunities. This often boils down to beliefs about “how things should be,” “the right way to move on,” or the good-ol’ “back in my day, we had to X.” Merely saying things will be different from now on isn’t enough. We must get to the root of issues and discuss them so that managers and other senior staff will genuinely participate.

Debugging this with clients, we frequently uncover two more aspects. One is a lack of safety. People think there’s no room for errors or setbacks, no matter how small, and therefore cannot allow for a learning environment. Find out what’s giving off these toxic vibes and address that. It’s not uncommon for this to be a language barrier: deadlines don’t mean the same thing to everyone. And if you are always working at 100% capacity, then you’re doomed to fail whenever there’s a mistake, and there is always another one coming. The other part is that some people feel this is a zero-sum game. They think they are harming themselves by letting less senior people take on more responsibility. Laying out what seniority looks like in your organization is crucial for real collaboration.

Second, provide opportunities to accelerate experience. It’s that simple. With the obstacles out of the way in the previous step, now is the time to let people learn by doing. But don’t just throw them in the deep end in a sink-or-swim mentality. Each growth experience should include basic planning and expectation setting. Who is in charge of mentoring, what is the scope of the responsibility, and what will be defined as success. For the mentors, this is part of their newfound seniority role.

Third and last step, improve and repeat. Each such experiment to accelerate experience should be wrapped up properly with a healthy dose of retrospection and feedback to ensure maximal learning. Then, decide what should be the next step. Is this still hard but doable, and therefore a similar experience is needed? Perhaps it’s time to step it up or go back a bit? Too many companies skip this last step of the process, which means that people feel like they’re operating in a vacuum. No one provides them with clear feedback and steps forward, making it feel like the work isn’t worthwhile. Invest the time into doing this properly. This is probably the best investment you can make in your journey to triple impact-per-engineer.

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