by Chiu-Ki Chan
When I first started working, I was happily learning all kinds of new stuff: source control, working in a team, unit testing, etc, etc. After two years or so, I felt quite comfortable as a software engineer, and decided it was time to step up my career.
No clear path
All through my life my path had been fairly clear: study hard to get admitted to good schools, get good grades to get job offers from good companies. Unfortunately “study hard” does not translate well in the work place. To get my degree, I complete the set of courses designated by the department. But in the work place there is no more syllabus, no clear steps to advance to the next level.
Feeling lost, I turned to the career aisle in the bookstore. I read loads of books on leadership, negotiations, communications, with tons of case studies, strategic advice and grand promises. It took me a while to distill the actionable items out of all those books, but I finally devised my first point of attack: email.
Delete “I think”
Coding alone was not going to advance my career. I needed to make my work known, and email is a great place to start. I audited my emails before sending them, deleting phrases like “I think”, “I believe”, “Maybe we should do it”. I found myself typing these phrases without thinking, softening my tone and dampening my voice. That is a bad habit, and needs to be corrected.
Reply to group emails
Besides removing the softening phrases from my emails, I also started answering more questions on my team mailing list. I used to go off and research for half an hour to come up with the perfect response. I was afraid to make mistakes, so I wanted to be 100% sure before I reply. But it was not the best use of anybody’s time for me to verify the answer. Instead, it is better to outline the steps and the expected outcome. So, say something like, “Try X, with these parameters. If that gave an error, trying changing the parameters to Y. You should also take a look at Z.” This way, they get a diagnosis of the situation, with multiple tools to solve the problem. I get to be more helpful by answering the question right away, rather than half an hour later.
As I answer more questions, people realize I know quite a bit about the system, recognizing my knowledge and contributions.
Sit at the table
Email was a great place to start developing my voice. My next step was to do it in person. I used to hide in the back row during team meetings, burying my head behind my laptop. I was invisible, and I rarely said anything. To rectify that, I started sitting at the table. In fact, I went all the way and sat next to my boss. That took a lot of courage, but the effects were immediate. My boss would often turn around and ask me for my opinion. It was great training to think on my feet, and get my voice heard.
Learn to say no
The career books always recommend that I take on a prominent project to showcase my leadership abilities. But I found myself doing a lot of maintenance work instead. Looking deeper, I realized that I was doing more than my fair share because I never rejected them. So I started to push back.
I declined grunt work, and asked for justifications for everything. Why are we doing this? What is the benefit? Is there something more effective that we could be doing? When I first started saying no, it was really scary. I thought they were going to fire me for not doing my job. But to my surprise, not only I was not fired, I started gaining respect. For now I have an opinion. I do not blindly follow instructions, but scrutinize decisions to make sure they make sense.
Leadership in a nutshell
Developing my voice was not an overnight thing. It probably took a year when I finally notice that the interaction between me and my peers had changed, that they come to me for advice and opinion. As I earn respect from my peers, I suddenly grasped what it means to be a leader. You do not lead by snatching sexy projects and forcing people to be your minions. You lead by having a vision, by standing for what you believe. You need to have a stance, and you need to defend it. Develop your voice, and leadership will follow.
Chui-Ki’s Lightening talk on Developing Your Voice: