I cut my teeth in the Melbourne .NET scene through the mid-2000’s and if you were doing that you knew who Readify were. They were the Microsoft developers. If you had a problem they’d know how to fix it. If you were at a Microsoft User Group, they were running it and presenting the content. If you went to a Microsoft conference, they were giving the talks. My goal was always to join them, but I didn’t know when or how, I was just an unknown dev writing some ASP.NET, I wasn’t this awe inspiring consultant. I joined Readify as a Senior Developer in September 2009 and in July of 2016 I achieved a goal I’d set out for myself, to become a Principal Consultant. It’s been a long journey with many learnings along the way so I thought I’d share that for anyone else looking to embark on the same sort of career path.
Where it all began
When I joined Readify in ‘09 I had one goal, to be the best developer in Readify. I’d just come out of a few years of working in digital agencies which are great environments to learn but it comes at a cost, a cost of quality, a cost of maintainability, a cost of good practice. So I saw Readify as an opportunity to take all the things I thought I could do better in software, I wanted to take that opportunity and get even better. But there was one thing that I was sure I didn’t want from my career, and that was management, which is exactly what I saw the SC and PC roles being (back then we had no LC role). When the conversation came up with the HR team of the time I was adamant that I wasn’t interested in SC (or beyond), but I didn’t want ‘Senior Developer’ to be the pinnacle of my career, I’d be a Senior Developer at 3 different companies now and for around 5 years. I was sure there had to be “more”. But there was a problem, I didn’t know what this “more” was, what it’d look like or how we’d sell the role, I was just sure it had to exist.
A change in goals and going for SC
As you’re probably aware I did make SC, but given the opinion I mention above you might be wondering why? Well after 2 years or so I started to think what my long term career goals were and whether Readify was the right place if there was nothing beyond the SD role for me there. This got me thinking about what was keeping me at Readify and I came to a realisation, writing software wasn’t what I was passionate about, solving problems is. At the same time I was approached by another company trying to lure me in, I went for some interviews with them, talked through what I was wanting and ultimately I was describing a team lead role to them; somewhat a management role. So I decided to strike up the conversation within Readify as well and that I could see SC in my future. I ended up being offered the team lead role for one of the products at this other company but I (obviously) turned it down in the end, it was one of the hardest I’ve made but I think it was the right one (and still think that, even if it’s with a twinge of regret :P). So it was full steam ahead for SC, I received feedback on where my gaps were, and one of the pieces of feedback I received I still remember, Be less Aaron.
Be less Aaron?
On the surface this is pretty weird a piece of feedback and having talked to a number of people about it they also agree it’s weird and some people have said that it was pretty crappy feedback. At the time I was completely confused and thought it was crappy, but the more I explored it the more I understood what it mean, even if it was poorly provided. People who know me know that I can often be an agreeable person; I like making people happy. Well this is one of the hard truths that I had to learn, you can’t always be someone’s best friend, sometimes you have to be the bad guy. Now I’m not saying you need to be an arse to people (although that’s sometimes warranted), but the truth can hurt and you need to be honest to people. This was the crux of the feedback, that sometimes you have to go from friend to manager and make tough decisions, give honest feedback, even if it means being the bad guy. It’s something that I can struggle with to this day, my approach is to try and identify early, rather than to have to be brutal at a later point. This is really how I deal with the concept of ‘fight or flight’, I know I’m more likely to want to ‘flight’ so instead I’ll aim to identify early and address the problem before it gets to that situation.
Becoming an SC
I was promoted to SC in October 2013 which was about 4 years after I started at Readify and over 12 months since I had decided to go for SC. What I found was when I was promoted to SC nothing really changed, I’d been doing some leadership on small teams before and I continued to do it. I was a little be less code focused and that was ok with me, the code was less interesting to me than the problem needing to be solved was. And now I was content, I wasn’t that keen in being a PC, I saw them as being very process heavy (we had the likes of Steve Godbold, Richard Banks and Tatham Oddie as PC’s then), spending all their time in kanban boards and managing backlogs. I wanted to step away from the code but not that far away. At least so I thought. As I said nothing really changed, back then we were a much smaller team, so I’d been doing a lot of SC activities anyway. What I found was that I was still not really satisfied still but was unsure what I wanted next.
To LC and beyond
It was time to be introspective again and really look where I wanted to go. You know that interview question “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” and we all laugh at the absurdity of it? Well sometimes it’s really worthwhile to think about it. So it’s time to look at what I’m enjoying most about Readify and I came to the conclusion that I really like understanding problems and looking at solutions, but the specifics of implementation is less appealing. I sat down with Bria, our People Manager (what we call HR) and talked about my goals, that I wanted to focus on:
- Leading client solutions
And this is more what a PC role is about, not card shuffling. So I made a resolve, I was going to be a PC at Readify. But there was a slight hiccup, I wasn’t an LC, so I had that to get first. I do remember saying to someone at the time that I wasn’t really interested in being an LC, but to become a PC it was a notch in the belt I’d have to get.
The long road
When I started the journey to PC I really didn’t grasp just how big a gap there was between SC and PC (which is partially why the LC role was introduced) and even between SC and LC. For LC you really need to start looking beyond technology and into the business. It’s not just about the how of a solution, but also the why. In fact the first time I thought I was ready for promotion to LC I was turned down (more accurately I was advised to not apply at all as I wasn’t ready). I thought I was ready, having come off a successful large (for the time) engagement. I had gaps to fill around business understanding and scrum (at that point in time I hadn’t done PSM or PSPO I’d only learnt on the job so didn’t necessarily get it). At the end of 2014 I was given an opportunity to lead an IoT project and this was my “big project” that helped me really grow from a SC to LC. I did a lot of learning about just why we were doing that project, what did it mean in their overall business objectives and how do other projects they are looking at fit into it? I learnt quite a bit about effective communication as well, one particular insight was after a fairly heated discussion with a client’s tech lead in which we both got a bit too emotionally invested in our perspective. I also pushed harder to get into presales. This was a good way for me to really expand my understanding of how different businesses work, the kinds of problems they come to Readify to try and solve and how we can do it. It’s also a great way to work on communication.
Who’s your audience?
Effective communication is really important in the LC and PC role. As someone who has some literacy problems (I struggle quite a bit with reading, writing and spelling) I knew this is something I’d want to work on.
Once aspect of effective communication is knowing your audience and framing your communication appropriately. Say you’re in a sales meeting, there’s going to be a mix of technical and non-technical, and you’re talking about whether you’d use Angular, React or another web framework. Do you a) go into talking about the differences in mutability, two way data binding and bringing in redux or do you b) ask about what they already use/have tried and where the dev teams pain points currently are?
The technical person in me wants to launch into the difference between
$scope and redux state, but I know the non-technical members of the audience are going to glaze over and really, it’s not important, it’s important that you’re focusing on the why.
The next is knowing how to get to a point (yes, I’m appreciating the irony of that being so far down this post). In written communications this can be in the form of putting the important information up front, an executive summary if you will, but remembering that time is limited so people are going to read as little as they can, so make sure your most important points are front and centre.
I got put onto a book called Brilliant Business Writing which I’ve found very useful in helping me understand how to construct written documents for different audiences.
Another aspect that I worked on as I went for LC was getting to understand business, both Readify and clients. In an LC role you move away from a single project delivery, instead it’s starting to look at delivery across multiple projects within a client and multiple clients. Going back to IoT project on this, as we started to build the project out we started conversations on post-MVP, where it could be taken, other tools they had that we could integrate with that already existed in their business and so on. Some of these opportunities ultimately fizzled out, it was still an opportunity to look wider. This comes down to what I refer to as peripheral listening. The more you hear about what’s going on around you the more chances you’ve got to pick up on what’s happening. This is how we managed to get 3 additional people on board at my current client, I overheard a conversation, brought myself into it and opened a lead. But business knowledge isn’t just our clients, it’s also Readify, how do we operate, why are decisions made as they are made, etc. For me this started with looking at how to better ‘give back’ to the state. I wanted to help “fix” issues that I saw in our culture, in our processes, the way we engaged with each other. This coincided with what others were thinking at the time and saw the birth of the leadership group. While starting a new LG isn’t really viable for people currently targeting LC, what it really gave me was a forum to raise and discuss ideas, because prior to the LG there really wasn’t any way to do that. Now it’s a lot easier as there’s somewhere you can go for people to facilitate activities that you want to undertake.
Hunting down PC
I was more confident the second time I applied for LC, but still had lingering doubts. I had done a lot of work with Bria and Steve Godbold on the gaps I needed to fill, I had regular catch ups with other people to talk through where I was at and what they saw as gaps, but still doubt lingered. Ultimately the hard work paid off and in July 2015 I was promoted to LC, but ultimately I wasn’t done, I wanted to be a PC not an LC, LC was just a stepping stone (I’d actually said to someone prior to getting LC that I was going to be the next PC in NSW, we’d just lost Ducas from the role, Steve had moved to Deliver Manager so we only had a single PC, we needed more PC’s, and I was going to be one). I set myself a realistic goal of 18 months for PC, but I had a stretch goal of 12 months. I knew it’d be hard work to achieve in 12 months (it was nearly 5 years work to get to LC), but I was going to go for it. My son was born at the end of July 2015 which meant that I had some time off to plan (in amongst the whole ‘learning to be a dad thing’!) and I was looking at if I was to be a PC what would that look like? I didn’t want to be Richard but with a glorious head of hair, I wanted to have my own identity as a PC. If you look around the country at the other PC’s they all have their own slant to the role, bringing different things to it and that makes it a very hard role to truly quantify.
What would Aaron the PC look like?
Process isn’t my passion, and as I said above that was my original perception of a PC, they were focused on process. Now this isn’t entirely true, sure you may do a bit of that on a client, but it’s more higher level discussions than that, both technical and non-technical. Technical is my strong suite so I knew that I’d always be a technical focused PC, but I couldn’t just rely on that as I didn’t want to have a single facet to my PC role. Well there’s another area that I’m passionate about, that’s leadership. Lastly I wanted to expand my business knowledge even further and to do this I wanted more presales experience. Luckily this fitted in nicely when I got back from paternity leave so that while I waited for a project to kick off I got to do quite a lot of presales and workshops (for a few months my average engagement length was 2 days).
Leadership is one of the hardest things to grow and not just within Readify. For me I saw that we had this LG but for the most part we weren’t doing anything, we’d catch up for dinner once a month (if we were lucky) and we didn’t collaborate with other LG’s around the country. First step was to get our house in order, I chucked a calendar event in for the 2nd Monday of every month for the LG to meet. I took the approach of ‘beg for forgiveness’ over ‘asking for permission’ when sending it out as we’d talked about more frequent meetings but never really done it. And this is how the monthly LG meeting was born, the week before I’d chase people for some agenda points (and there were months where we didn’t really have much), we’d have a meeting chair and some notes taken, etc. With the state LG working better it was time to look national. Based on an off-hand comment by Rob Moore I stuck a bi-monthly skype call in the calendar of all LG members in Readify for us to chat about whatever. On client site I started to press companies to think more about delivery as a whole and tried to get myself involved much earlier on in their decision making. With my current client I started doing brown bags to upskill their developers while talking to the CTO and dev manager around wider changes that could be made. And this is where I see the leadership growth in a PC over an LC, being able to work with execs on change.
Getting down to business
I was getting a better idea on how Readify as a business works but there was still an area that was a real gap for me, finance. I really didn’t get how we make money. I took an opportunity while I was down in Melbourne to sit with Fraser, our CFO, and get a ‘finance 101’ talk from him, and wow, was it useful! It gave me a better understanding of our ability to scale the business and different ways we are looking to expand rather than just “hire more people” (and the challenges that itself poses). Getting an understanding of this helped me better appreciate the behind the scenes work that goes on to make our day to day better, why we’re constantly hounded to do timesheets (without them there’s no way to know how much we’re earning!), pulling the entire state out for an event is something that’s feasible but needs to be planned for, etc. Also while I was in Melbourne I spoke to a few other members of the exec team to better understand their spheres of influence and how I (as a PC) would work with them. For example I know we have a Managed Services team, we’ve had one for most of the time I’ve been at Readify, but I’ve never really understood what they do or how they work. So I spent time with the head of that department to understand the team better and from this I believe there’s a perception issue with Managed Services in NSW, given the amount of opportunities we see in that space it’s something that could be valuable to have locally. We talked about things such as how it works in QLD, what was learnt through setting them up, and so on. The other reason I met with many of the execs was to grow my brand with them. While I’ve known people like Steve and Tatham since before I started at Readify but to be a PC I really needed them to see “Aaron the PC”, not “Aaron the dev”, which is how they’ve known them for my career. From my perspective this is really important as a PC, that you’re known to the exec team, that they know what you can do and can also see you as not just a technical person but as someone who understands the whole of the Readify business. It was also an opportunity to grow my relationship with those who I don’t know as well, who I haven’t really spent much time with over the years.
Every Monday the LC’s (and PC) were all non-billable and we’d sit in the sales meeting/state of play before heading out to visit the teams that we worked with. Ultimately this was not the best use of our time, the meeting could drag on and we’d have fairly minimal input. The valuable part of it for me was hearing from the other LC’s about our projects, looking at overlaps between the challenges we were experiencing and looking at how to learn from each other’s approach. I suggested to the other LC’s that we have a separate meeting at the same time as the sales meeting to talk about our engagements, rather than sit in the sales one, and thus we started catching up weekly to share our experiences, ask each other for ideas on how to approach challenges that we were having and ultimately operate as a collective across the state. There was no core agenda, no notes taken, just a chance to talk, or vent, and to learn.
To PC or not to PC
As May rolled around I had to make a decision on whether I’d target my stretch goal of applying for PC after 12 months or push back to my original goal. As you can probably guess I decided to go for it, which meant that I needed to really get the ball rolling in terms of writing the promotion proposal. Before putting pen to paper (metaphorically speaking) I spent time looking at how I wanted to put my proposal together and importantly what evidence I had to support my application. I decided to speak to Michelle, our head of HR, because I wanted to get an idea of what she looks for (in a People sense), because as I mentioned above every PC is different. We talked through how to provide evidence when a lot of what I’d done had been solo and that I hadn’t worked with any PC for at least 12 months. Out of this I decided to use the ‘Request Feedback’ feature of MyCareer (our performance management system), setup a few questions that I thought would give me most value and sent it out to a broad spectrum of people, those who were on engagements I was LC’ing, LG members, sales, etc. My goal was to how gather feedback on how I’m seen across different departments and through different types of interactions. With everything gathered I put together a promotion proposal, looked back over my LC one to compare/contrast what I put in there. Once I was happy with the first draft I contacted a few people to ask them to review it so I could fill any gaps they saw (this included my wife who’s very good at picking up on my spelling/grammar issues :P).
The final milestone met
As you are already aware I made PC. I won’t say I wasn’t a little surprised but by the time I submitted I was highly confident that I’d done everything that I could think of to do to get there. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights, weekends, cursing people and processes. It’s been a about 2 months now that I can have my signature looking all pretty and I’d like to say that things are amazingly clear, that I’ve now got insight into how to solve problems that I didn’t know how to solve before, but the reality is it’s business as usual. Clients are still clients, projects are still projects and delivery still has to happen. I’ve got things to learn and hope that this isn’t the end of the story.
And that’s a wrap
Recently a friend invited me to interview for a role on their team they were trying to fill and during the interview I was asked “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” and this caused me to pause because, well, I honestly don’t know, this is the first time in years when I haven’t been working towards PC and don’t have an immediate plan for what’s next. But it got me thinking about how I got here, got to PC at Readify and what I did along the way. So I decided to write it down as a bit of a retrospective on myself and how I have grown over and change over the years; what I’ve ultimately learnt. This story has been 6 years in the making and 1 month in the authoring, and probably the most I’ve put into a single blog post ever. What where do I see myself in 5 years? I honestly have no idea. 5 years ago I didn’t really think I’d be a PC, so trying to predict anything again seems like a pretty bad idea! What I do know is that I’m excited to be in the PC role here at Readify and am looking how to make the most out of it. I’ve written this as much for me as I have for anyone else, it’s been a chance to brain dump and reflect, but if you made it this far, kudos for sticking through ~4000 words and countless grammatical errors!