7 Ways to Prove You’re an Exceptional Senior Engineer
By: Ben Weiss (@InfusiveInc)
Over the last two weeks, we’ve released articles explaining how technical talent in the greater New York area can prove exceptional during the onboarding and interview processes.
Let’s take it a step further and examine how senior engineers (whether on the infrastructure or development side) can continue to prove exceptional once established as mature employees.
1)Never Be Comfortable: During initial research for this article series, we originally asked several clients who we’ve helped find technical talent in New York City how they identify “indispensable” senior employees.
Shayaan Faruqi, former Senior Manager of Global Infrastructure at Standard & Poor’s, perhaps put it best when he responded, “Nobody is indispensable. As an IT manager, I would be worried if I got to the point where I neglected documentation and standardization to the point where a single person is too important to a group.”
Takeaway: Few technical positions will stay secure forever based on past merit and just as you did while onboarding, staying proactive and on the cutting edge in your field will be integral in establishing yourself as one of the firm’s most valued senior employees.
2) Always Look to Improve the Environment: If you’ve managed to earn status as a senior engineer, your technical skills have probably been well tested.
What will help you stand apart from other senior employees at your firm with great technical skills is proving a dedication to moving the company forward by proactively proposing solutions that will improve the environment and its production.
One sound strategy to exhibit this enthusiasm is an illustration that you’re thinking about the job when you’re not in the office.
“When talking about rock stars, you’re talking about people who are continually looking to improve the environment,” says Tom Stazzone, Director of Information Technology at Epiq Systems, a global provider of technology services to the legal industry. “People who shoot me an email at midnight and say they were thinking about something work related because they know I’m the guy who’s up at that hour saying let’s bring it up in the morning.”
Takeaway: Exceptional senior engineers are genuinely interested in taking their firm to the next level and enjoy strategizing innovative solutions to make that happen, even when they’re not on the clock.
3) Understand the Best Tools to Use: Exceptional senior IT professionals should understand not only understand all the tools at their disposal but which will maximize the balance between efficiency and output.
For example, while using bleeding edge technologies may offer a unique way to deal with an issue, Frank Fitzgerald - Partner/Director of Technology for quantitative financial management firm O'Shaughnessy Asset Management - explains how greener engineers at times “over engineer.”
“I have seen people spend two days to get a process down from 5 seconds to 1 when it is only going to be used once every month,” says Fitzgerald. “Programmers who have a passion for design are great but building a table saw just to cut a twig is a waste of time."
Takeaway: Sometimes new technologies are the best solution for solving problems and sometimes they’re not. Exceptional senior engineers understand the difference.
4) Embrace Simplicity: By the same token, while exceptional senior engineers will likely be passionate about playing around with all the latest and greatest hard/software, they will simultaneously recognize when their tasks don’t require complex solutions made from scratch.
“I find new programmers often want to reinvent the wheel when it has already been created by someone else,” continues Fitzgerald. “Reusing someone else's code (with their permission) is far better than building it again. This is not school and you are allowed to copy off of your partner as long as it gets the job done and it is tested and works.”
Takeaway: Exceptional senior engineers know when to embrace the Keep It Simple Stupid principle.
5) Engage in Mindshare: If you look at many of the best professional athletes in the world, they’re not only capable of superhuman feats, but elevate the performance of the players around them as well.
That’s why when considering the most exceptional senior engineers at a given firm, they not only take on and execute top flight tasks but are willing to engage in a rich mindshare with all their colleagues and help take their skills to the next level.
By the same token, awesome senior IT professionals are also lifelong learners and won’t be so obstinate to assume they have all the knowledge they need or could discover it all independently but rather enthusiastically consume whatever knowledge they can glean from their coworkers as well (bonus points when that enthusiasm to learn spreads across departments).
Takeaway: Knowledge hoarding is an excellent way to prove insecure while agenda less teamwork and knowledge share are the sign of a confident, A-player.
6) Contribute Beyond IT: “As IT professionals, it may be fairly easy to get by,” writes Ayman El-Ghazali - Senior DBA at The American College of Cardiology – in our collaborative resource How To Avoid a Database Heart Attack. “Nonetheless, it’s far more powerful to consistently step up to new challenges and push forward past the requirements of a job title … [and not] ignore the business side of things – even when you successfully tackle your to do list.”
In this context, while senior engineers may be able to keep their seat as the lowest common denominator, refining business understanding will help establish top tier value.
From one perspective, Fitzgerald explains how business acumen enables his developers to maintain operational efficiencies.
“If a programmer or engineer is removed from the business, or has no interest in the business need they are fulfilling, it is going to be a nightmare of back and forth between the business or project manager and the engineer,” says Fitzgerald. “We sit the programmers directly with the people who are the business owners of the process.”
Similarly, SQL Server MVP Kevin Kline explains how riding the line between business and technology suddenly makes you the most “promotable and the most valuable IT person in the organization because not only do you understand the IT side of things, but you know why that data is so important. You know why choosing NOT to engage in a big, new IT program is going to cost millions of dollars.”
Takeaway: Exceptional senior engineers do not perceive their job to be checking off a series of tasks on a to-do list but rather understand their role in the bigger picture and how their work in the IT department impacts end users, clients and of course the bottom line.
7) Understand Where You Add the Most Value: Being an exceptional senior employee is not necessarily synonymous with grooming to become a manager, director, VP or CIO/CTO.
While many of the tech department’s top senior employees will have the opportunity to progress on that track, your mark on an organization can be secured through subject matter expertise alone.
In fact, Stazzone explains it often isn’t effective to transition one of his rock start senior employees into a managerial role and that such a move could significantly detract from the company’s technical strategy.
“If someone is that good on the technical side, I have no problem giving them more money than the person managing them,” says Stazzone. “You’re as good as what you bring to the company so if the technical side is where you’re looking to go then you’ll be compensated for that.”
Takeaway: Exceptional senior engineers recognize there is more than one way to prove worth to the organization and worry about focusing their energy on those initiatives to which they can add the most value.