Career Nav #70: How to Accelerate Career Growth Regardless of Educational Background
Sarah Healy, Digital Design Manager at Women Who Code, interviews Dagna Bieda, Career (&Life) Coach for Devs & Engineers in Tech at The Mindful Dev. They discuss soft skills for moving into management roles, handling imposter syndrome, and the relationship between alignment and burnout.
What was it about robotics and automation engineering that first made you want to study it?
In terms of my career, I was following my curiosity. When I was a teenager, I wanted to create the future. It sounded vague and big. In reality, the thing that sounded most futuristic when I was selecting my college was robotics. I thought building robots would be cool. I decided to build the robots that are self-driving cars or help land on Mars. I could assist in building robots that save people's lives in automated surgeries. There were so many topics coming up in the robotics world. As I was studying in college, I got a robotics engineering job. I quickly realized that building robots takes time and is boring. I wanted to get into something faster, where I could see results and have more impact.
Tell us about your transition from software engineering to a career coach for software engineers.
Building robots was too slow for what I needed early in my career. I wanted to go fast. I wanted to iterate quickly. I wanted to learn as much as I could and have an impact. Creating apps and building programs is a much easier way of creating impact. When you're a software engineer, you create a feature or update a bug. Then, your deployment pipeline can potentially release the app you're working on to millions of users.
The impact is completely different from the robot that only 10 PhD students might ever touch. The reason I went through this particular career transition, going from robotics engineer to software engineer, was falling in love. I fell in love with my husband, whom I met at a hostel, and he convinced me to move from Poland to the United States. I became a software engineer. I hated coding when I was in college. The learning curve was steep, and there was so much to learn.
What is your advice for accelerating your career growth regardless of your educational level?
I've worked with all kinds of engineers, whether they had their actual CS degree, went through a boot camp, or were self-taught devs. Everybody has different qualities, but the truth is that whenever you become an engineer, you always learn. It never stops. There's always something new that comes up that you need to know. I put a lot of emphasis on technical foundation, and that's a mistake I see a lot of engineers that come to me also make. What we work on is building confidence because what you need in software engineering is the attitude that you can solve the problem, whatever comes your way.
For people with the individual contributor role but want to get into a more managerial career path, what are some of the soft skills required to advance that?
I would focus on clear communication. In my world, that is setting expectations, realizing hidden dependencies, setting boundaries, and asking clarifying questions. It is also active listening, participating in a conversation and paying attention to what the other person is saying, to ask questions that are deeply meaningful and can bring both people on the same page. The second one is collaboration. Collaboration goes beyond just communication because whenever you communicate with people, a lot of the time, you're on the same page, and then you dive into your own thing.
Collaborating is really when you're doing things together. That might require you to reach out to people or maybe find some hidden processes or dependencies across teams or departments that you work with to unblock the process. The third would be proactivity and ownership. Proactivity is leading initiatives. It could be as simple as organizing a meetup or getting all the engineers on your team to go to a conference together. Ownership is admitting if you made a mistake. Then there's business acumen, which is understanding how you, as an engineer, work within the big machinery of business and how you and your daily job are contributing to whatever the business is trying to achieve. The last one is marketing yourself with integrity.
How could engineers market themselves to accelerate their career growth? What are some tips for someone who's struggling with that part?
Engineers that I work with want to be able to talk about themselves in a way that feels good but also feels integrity. Marketing is often associated with selling people stuff that they don't need or convincing them to do something they don't want to do. You have to dive deeper into the limiting beliefs that you have behind self-marketing yourself. Is it the marketing itself or something you believe about yourself making you hide? A lot of the time, those limiting beliefs tell us, for example, that we're not going to be safe if we speak up.
From personal experience, how would you overcome imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a term that is being overused. Imposter syndrome, in my book, is this feeling that stops you, halts your progress and makes you unable to do what it is that you're doing. It makes you unable to apply for jobs, speak with your manager about a promotion, or promote yourself. My clients are going through this growth period, and they feel discomfort, but they still keep at it. They still keep going. They still keep moving. They're putting in the hours, and even though it feels uncomfortable, they're going through those growing pains. That is not imposter syndrome, although people confuse the two.
With imposter syndrome, I passed it in my engineering career. I got to a point where I understood what engineering is about. I was creating maintainable code for other people and then collaborating to increase the impact. Once I had that frame of mind, I felt good about my contributions. The second thing I did was get a lot of feedback. As I was growing, I was just pursuing feedback everywhere. Whenever you're clear about what's important and what are metrics you should be optimizing for as you're growing your career, it becomes easy to execute because it's clear.
Do you see a common ground among all educational backgrounds of imposter syndrome?
Absolutely, yes, and in various roles.
What advice would you give to women in leadership roles?
As women, we keep getting this cultural message that you must be strong and independent if you're ambitious about your career. This message has been taken out of context. Whenever you're growing in your career, something that's critical is to, instead of being strong and independent, be kind to yourself and acknowledge the growth that you're going through. It's about enjoying the journey that you're on and recognizing that getting into leadership is going to be a never-ending growth that will allow you an amazing impact but will also be challenging.
What advice do you have for people who either are experiencing burnout or they're teetering the burnout road?
Burnout is a sign that you're overworking yourself and working without alignment with what you care about your values. Whenever you realize what you care about, and you start working on those things, you tap into flow states and unending motivation because what you're doing is just intrinsically motivating. It makes life enjoyable, and it makes you wake up in the morning and have the energy to go after that goal that you have set for yourself. Burnout is a sign that you're forcing yourself to do something you don't want to be doing.