JVM Advent

The JVM Programming Advent Calendar

6 Actions to take Your Developer Career Beyond Senior Level

Going beyond senior level in your career is an amazing opportunity, it may even offer you a lot of what you may be looking for:

  • Higher salaries and income.
  • Access to great opportunities.
  • Working on the most interesting projects.
  • Be more energized and happy with your work.
  • Amazing connections with other developers and leaders.
  • Respected inside and outside the company.
  • Having a larger impact in your area.

Going beyond senior positions also takes effort, it is not something that happens naturally…

The good news is that most of the effort, if not all, can be done in your current position, inclusive during your normal working hours.

4 Paths to Grow Beyond Senior

Before we dive in into the what to do, let’s examine the 4 main paths for growing beyond senior:

The Path of People

You may see yourself increasing your value and impact by having a team of developers that you manage and direct. That is the management path, and you can grow to become director, a VP and beyond

This is a path for those that prefer to manage people, and is a common desire for many developers. It is also arguably the path that most companies will offer you, because it is a clear, stablished path, that the company probably applies to other areas of the organization.

The Path of Tech

Another possibility is to continue to grow deep in the tech side. There are different names for this path, like individual contributor or staff+. The idea it to become a specialist, an architect, tech lead or similar. You can grow to become a Principal Developer (or Engineer), and later a Distinguished Developer.

This path focus on technical work, with almost no or very limited people management. This path does require a healthy dose of mentoring and tech guidance. Right now this path is not very common, but it is getting a lot of attention lately.

The Path of Independence

Maybe you see yourself with more independence, and being your own boss, looking to make a larger impact by choosing what you will work on. That path will lead you to be independent from a single company. You may become a consultant, instructor or a freelancer, sometimes working for multiple projects and companies.

This requires good skills on acquiring customers and negotiation, and you will need to have lots of visibility in the market. It can be very rewarding, specially in terms of autonomy and independence. It is a great path if you want a diversity of projects to work with, and it can be extremely positive financially.

The Path of Entrepreneurship

This is the path of building your own company to serve others. That can be launching or joining a startup, building products either as full time or as a side project, and trying to work with customers and investors.

This can be very exciting and rewarding. At the same time, it can be tiring and consuming. The risks are big, but if they pay out, the rewards can be astronomical!

All those paths have similar requirements of higher levels of responsibility and autonomy from you. And all of them require that you develop and acquire new skills, some that you may have never needed or even wanted to have.

Most important: all of those paths are very rewarding! Financially for sure, but also in terms of increased impact, more independence and flexibility, and above all, with higher levels of personal realization and self actualization.

6 Actionable Steps that will take you Beyond Senior

If any of those paths seem right for you, here are 6 actionable steps that that will get you to grow beyond senior level.

Focus and Purpose

Those paths are rewarding, but all of them require new skills. Even if you plan to continue mainly on a technical work. This is not easy, and requires a good level of effort.

Also, independence and autonomy are needed, because none of those paths are simply handed to you. You will need to occupy new spaces, and create opportunities. Rarely those are positions that you can just apply to. You may have to create the conditions for those positions to be created in the first place.

Doing this can be even harder if you don’t understand your focus, and specially if you don’t see the purpose for it.

To solve that, identify your career focus. Not the tool or technology you will focus on (those are probably irrelevant), but the problem you are in love of solving, and the impact you want to cause in the world.

Learn to Go Deep

The path of autonomy and independence requires that you become self motivated and willing to pursue the skills needed for excellency.

Although you will work and have support from many people, since those are very collaborative positions, you will build your own path. That requires confidence, capacity of self-assessment, and a deeper understand of who you are and what you are capable of.

And specially, the drive to acquire and go deep in the needed skills.

Once your focus is clear, identify the missing or weak skills. Work on them. Create projects and challenges that will force yourself to acquire and improve the skills. You can do that at your work, or as side projects. Just be careful to closely align those activities with your focus, so you can move in the right direction.

Share, Inspire, Influence

The beyond senior paths all involve a higher impact, that is driven by having a stronger influence on people around you. Practice that.

Share what you know. That is a superpower that will attract to you the people, projects and opportunities that will build your own path.

Sharing is best done by people that listen well, so even if you feel like you are shy and introverted, that is actually a positive thing, not a liability.

Learn to listen, to write, and to speak. That’s the triad of skills that makes sharing extremely powerful. Interestingly enough, those are also the skills that will help you increase your knowledge and your confidence.

Build Communities

Whether they are internal — your team, the developers of your office, or maybe all the devs in your company — or external — user groups, events, meetups — communities are the place where your peers meet and share ideas, tips, tricks, problems, and solutions.

The place where you should be sharing your knowledge.

Being part of communities allow you to have access to information that is not easily available, gives you connection with people that have a diverse set of skills, and promotes trust, recognition and reputation.

The skill of building places like this will increase your influence and push you into leadership positions.

Start by participating in existing communities. They can be user groups, open source projects or any local community that you feel connected to.

Move on to engage your peers, and starting your own group to discuss specific interests and situations.

Take Responsibility

Leadership can be many things, but it is above all, taking responsibility.

The more responsibility you take, the more influence you have, and that (should) reflect in independence and autonomy, more interesting challenges, larger salaries, and higher positions.

There is no question that all paths of growth beyond senior involve high levels of leadership and responsibility.

And there is no scenario where you achieve those higher positions without taking the corresponding level of responsibility.

One caveat: usually responsibility comes first. The benefits follows. Not the other way around.

Make an assesment of your current situation, company, or project. Are you taking the highest level of responsibility that you are capable of? If not, why not? Are there any opportunities for taking some more responsibility? Can you dig a space where you would be even more responsible?

Build Trust and Reputation

Autonomy and independence require trust. All paths of growth beyond senior positions require high levels of trust.

Reputation is what people believe about you. Good reputation and trust are not exactly the same thing, but they are similar concepts.

I can’t trust you or believe good things about you if I don’t know you… Reputation and trust require visibility…

Visibility is a risky business. Your best skills becomes visible, but so do your lack of skills… Trust and reputation also depends on having good skills.

All the beyond senior paths will be more possible and accessible if you start building your reputation right now. Be visible. Share what you know. Participate in communities. Take responsibilities toward others and be helpful. Network with people and peers. And while doing all that, talk about it, and share your ideas and insights.

This is the time, start now!

Those 6 actions will take you towards your next step. Whether you are trying to achieve a senior position, or you are looking to grow beyond senior. Whether you want to continue working for a company in the manager or technical path. Whether you would like to be more independent or have your own business.

One last word about the path to follow: they are not mutually-exclusive nor opposite. It is indeed possible to experiment more than one path in parallel, or even go back and try something different. So, don’t be paralyzed in a decision that may not even need to be taken right now.

Start applying the 6 steps highlighted in this article, and evaluate the opportunities when they show up.

The sooner you start, the faster you will have results.

And if you want some help to think about your career, identify your focus or have more clarity in a path that you want to take, early in 2023 I’ll run a series of conversations focused on building your best career year. To get started, download my Best Developer Year book for free, and you will be the first to know when those live conversations take place.

PS: The image on the top of this post was generated with the DALL-E 2 AI algorithm, using airbrush.ai.

Author: Bruno Souza

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