What Path do you Choose, Senior?

Jul 27, 2017

What are the main challenges of the mature and established senior’s career growth? The salary seems to be fine, there are heartbreaking tasks at work, but there’s still something missing. Often, they feel the lack of clarity in professional and career advancement. This is the main uncertainty the majority of senior engineers face, especially the ones who don’t want to claim the mantle of a manager or a lead. This career stage is known as the “career Plateau”.

In this article we’ll try to expand the subject matter of the engineer’s career Plateau and, first of all, to focus on problems and solutions, regarding this phenomenon.

The main principle of any career growth can be described the following way: the more senior the engineers become, the slower their career growth is.
It happens because of professional workers dedicate less time to their self-development. Here, it’s important to indicate that self-development means obtaining new skills, useful for the project, as the engineers might be constantly practicing in pyrotechnics, however, this skill is absolutely inapplicable for the project of crediting system.

So, what should seniors do, being “on top of the Plateau”?
This is a frequent question, but it has no answer. Let’s eat this elephant one bite at a time.

The escalator effect

To have a better picture of the situation, let’s have a look at it with the engineer’s eyes.
Once upon a time, an employee comes to work as a young “Junior”, is getting his/her fingers rapped, is raising bumps and learning. In some time, he/she feels better as a respected middle-developer, being the main project engine together with the colleagues. However, it’s not enough: reading “clever” books, consulting with more experienced engineers, the engineer is promoted to a senior. Now he/she raps fingers of freshers, undertakes responsibility for the system’s parts, plays with design and architecture, and in a couple of years, he/she is the same senior, with no streamline salary anymore.

Why is it happening? The reason is that at a certain stage, a senior is able to solve 95% of project tasks, and spends all the time on it. He/she has a high productivity and high salary, though the zones for self-development are dramatically narrowing, and there’s no vision of challenge left and no career prospects are seen.
We can call it the Escalator effect. Everything used to be clear: “Juniors” became “Middles”, and “Middles” became “Seniors”. The escalator was moving up. Some employees were faster than others, but all of them were moving “upstairs”. And here our “Plateau” comes! Having reached a certain stage, the escalator stops. When the engineer realizes this fact, he/she starts missing two habitual things.
At first, a specific motion vector disappears. Instead of one direction “upstairs” (June-Mid-Senior), there appears a wide range of options and opportunities. The escalator lifts the engineer to the platform letting him/her moving anywhere. What’s left, is to understand where to go. Secondly, there’s no any more self-lifting power left. The employee used to have to move forward because of the project’s challenges: inevitable mistakes, new practices to learn, and desire of personal growth. Now the main project requirement is just to focus on the project and to do the job. Any growth is a personal option. As it’s said, the main thing is not to spoil the work.

In reality, as soon as the escalator delivers us on top, we choose the direction and walk by means of our own forces. However, in the world of career prospects, it doesn’t work. The problem is that humans are lazy, but we prefer to say – efficient. We make extra efforts when understanding that they will be rewarded. If the reward is not clear, the efforts will be just normal activity.


One might think, why on earth we should bring up the Plateau issue? Should we leave it as it is? Well, the engineer has reached the top of the escalator. Well, he/she doesn’t know what direction to choose, then leave him/her working on top of the platform.
Alas, it’s not that easy. The engineer is a creative person, used to complicated tasks. Moreover, during the entire career lifecycle, he/she faces more and more complicated and difficult tasks and has a self-perception according to the ability to cope with them. Now about the Plateau. The level of tasks is almost the same, the challenge might be in the number. Thus, just an increased amount of work cannot be motivative, and in case it is, it’s just for a while.
So, what is a creative human being to do in this case? More often, another job can help. A different project and slight salary increase might work. Anyway, there are some other ways:

1. If everything runs smoothly, we should create problems! And solve them! It often looks quite sound. For example, “Let’s change the framework, this one is outdated”. (Really?)
2. On the other hand, the engineer can just feel the lack of interest towards the project and starts working at the Middle level (with Senior’s salary, for sure).
3. The most unpleasant case is, when having lost interest, the engineer neither grows, nor lets grow the team members. “Don’t touch anything! You have no clue about it”. Then nobody knows how it might work, or has already forgotten.

So, if as a manager, you ignore the career Plateau issue, you would probably have to deal with other challenges:

• How to keep/substitute a valuable employee?
• How to return the team’s productivity to the previous level?
• How to improve the working environment and improve the team’s work?
Do you think we overreact? Not at all. Sure, if the environment inside your team is positive, you are likely to face the first problem only. However, if you lose the moment, you can catch the second point and the third. To avoid all the indicated problems, you should focus on the moment in order not to miss when your seniors are reaching the Plateau, and help them move forward.
To be allegoric, you need to explore the ground, to analyze the engineer’s personal resources, and to understand where the wind is blowing from, then find the engineers’ personal “action point” and push them. Any further scenario is in the hands of the employee.

Helping hand

So, we managed to identify the problem. At some point, the engineer reaches a certain level and is left frustrated, looking for the direction (both in the professional and material sense). Even in case he/she wants to grow more, any lack of information can seriously be an issue. That is the moment for the manager to help. In particular, to show the direction and indicate the efforts that should be made.
Fortunately, the manager is capable to do it, as these are his/her responsibilities to have a complex vision of the situation.

1. Specifically, the manager has to realize, where exactly the “ready-to-fly” senior wants to move.
2. The manager is to correctly evaluate the real professional level of the employee: understand the value of his/her hard and soft skills.
3. The manager must realize potential requirements for the project
4. The manager should understand the company’s needs.
We’ll come back to it later.

In other words, he/she should see how exactly the senior’s efforts deliver extra value to the project or to the company, what benefits the engineer gets. Here are a few typical examples.
( Each company is unique and might have its own development paths.)

Growth into a lead/PM
So the easiest variation is to grow a lead out of a senior. This is a natural next step for the engineer. Leads bring extra values to managers, letting them invest time into other activities. The leads’ role involves a new range of complex tasks and higher compensation. This is clear.

New Expertise
The next example is an investment into potential needs of the project. A person can independently develop the area, which will bring the project to the new level of quality. For example, implementing automated or load testing. It may assist to expand the project by recruiting new professionals.

A senior engineer can be an expert in specific technologies at the company’s level. He can participate in other projects on mutually agreed conditions. It will broaden the engineer’s vision, will put a range of various tasks and will increase his/her value in the company.

Presale activity
In fact, presale is the next step in consulting. However, here the expert doesn’t just help with the project but takes an active part negotiating with new clients, promoting the company. New projects mean business expansion, which should be financially rewarded. Moreover, there are two more indirect benefits: Seniors can choose a project and stay there, and it will let the manager enhance his/her projects portfolio.

Trainings and conferences are a big area for professional growth too. By teaching others, the engineers enhance self-expertise and the company’s expertise in general. In addition, the company is advertised among developers and, maybe, even clients.

These are the most evident ways of development for seniors, though each organization might have its own. The main thing is to know peculiarities and mind them. This knowledge and skills are an important part of manager’s work. The work that allows raising a professional and successful team.

Instead of output, here we present one more analogy. Let’s compare a development team with a fruit garden and the manager with a gardener. When a young tree appears in the garden (a trainee), it needs care but brings little value at first. After a while, the first fruit appears (Junior). Then there grow more fruit in the garden (Middle) and at some point their number excesses (Senior).
This is the time for the gardener to make a choice either to leave everything as it is and to hope that the overripen apples will not break the plants, or to figure out how to use them.
Maybe it’s the time to export the excess fruit? Or to start making juice? Or wine?:)

Anyway, it’s up to you… We wish you fewer tricky projects and more happy moments at work.

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