We all have a finite amount of time to live, and within that mortal countdown we devote some fraction towards our work. Even for the most career-focused, your life will be filled by many things beyond work: supporting your family, children, exercise, being a mentor and a mentee, hobbies, and so the list goes on. This is the sign of a rich life, but one side-effect is that time to do your work will become increasingly scarce as you get deeper into your career.
If you’re continuing to advance in your career, then even as your time available for work shrinks, the expectations around your impact will keep growing. For a while you can try sleeping less or depriving yourself of the non-work activities you need to feel whole, but you’ll inevitably find that your work maintains an aloof indifference to your sacrifice rather than rewarding it. Only through pacing your career to your life can you sustain yourself for the long-term.
Indeed, pacing yourself becomes the central challenge of a sustained, successful career: increasingly senior roles require that you accomplish more and more, and do it in less and less time. The ledge between these two constraints gets narrower the further you go, but it remains walkable if you take a deliberate approach.
First a discussion on a few common ways to get tripped up: snacking, preening, and chasing ghosts. Then we’ll get into the good stuff: how do you work on what really matters?
Hunter Walk recommends that folks avoid “snacking” when they prioritize work. If you’re in a well-run organization, at some point you’re going to run out of things that are both high-impact and easy. This leaves you with a choice between shifting right to hard and high-impact or shifting down to easy and low-impact. The latter choice--easy and low-impact--is what Walk refers to as snacking.
When you’re busy, these snacks give a sense of accomplishment that makes them psychologically rewarding but you’re unlikely to learn much from doing them, others are likely equally capable of completing them (and for some of them it might be a good development opportunity), and there’s a tremendous opportunity cost versus doing something higher impact.
It’s ok to spend some of your time on snacks to keep yourself motivated between bigger accomplishments, but you have to keep yourself honest about how much time you’re spending on high-impact work versus low-impact work. In senior roles, you’re more likely to self-determine your work and if you’re not deliberately tracking your work, it’s easy to catch yourself doing little to no high-impact work.
Where “snacking” is the broad category of doing easy and low-impact work, there’s a particularly seductive subset of snacking that I call “preening.” Preening is doing low-impact, high-visibility work. Many companies conflate high-visibility and high-impact so strongly that they can’t distinguish between preening and impact, which is why it’s not uncommon to see some companies’ senior-most engineers spend the majority of their time doing work of dubious value but that is frequently recognized in company meetings.
If you’re taking a short-term look at career growth, then optimizing for your current organization’s pathologies in evaluating impact is the optimal path: go forth and preen gloriously. However, if you’re thinking about developing yourself to succeed as your current role grows in complexity or across multiple organizations, then it’s far more important to strike a balance between valued work and self-growth.
This is also an important factor to consider when choosing a company to work at! Dig into what a company values and ensure it aligns with your intended personal growth. If a company’s leadership is entirely folks who focus their energy on performant urgency or acts of fealty, don’t be surprised when your success in the company depends on those activities.
Worse, to be a successful preener requires a near invulnerability to criticism of your actual impact, and your true work will suffer if your energy is diverted to preening. Typically this means you need to be a vanity hire of a senior leader or to present yourself in the way a company believes leaders look and act. If that isn’t you, then your attempt to exchange your good judgement for company success will end up failing anyway: you’ll get held accountable for the lack of true impact where others who match the company’s expectation of how a leader appears will somehow slip upward.
Stop chasing ghosts
Many folks would assume that companies, rational optimizers that they are, avoid spending much time on low-impact high-effort projects. Unfortunately that isn’t consistently the case. It’s surprisingly common for a new senior leader to join a company and immediately drive a strategy shift that fundamentally misunderstands the challenges at hand. The ghosts of their previous situation hold such a firm grasp on their understanding of the new company that they misjudge the familiar as the essential.
As a senior leader, you have to maintain a hold on your ego to avoid investing into meaningless work at a grand scale. This can be surprisingly challenging when during your hiring process you’ve been repeatedly told that you’ve been hired to fix something deeply broken -- you’re the newly-hired savior, of course your instincts are right! Taking the time to understand the status quo before shifting it will always repay diligence with results.
I had a recent discussion with someone who argued that new senior leaders deliberately push for major changes even though they suspect the efforts will fail. Such changes make the organization increasingly dependent on the new leader, and also ensures anything that does go well gets attributed to the new leader directly rather than their team. If this is your approach to leadership, please know that you’re awful and take the time to work on yourself until the well-being and success of an entire company matters to you more than being perceived as essential.
Now that you’re done snacking, preening and chasing ghosts, the first place to look for work that matters is exploring whether your company is experiencing an existential risk. Companies operate in an eternal iterative elimination tournament, balancing future success against surviving until that future becomes the present. If you’re about to lose one of those rounds, then always focus there.
Running out of money, like my experience at Digg, can be the most obvious issue, but not every existential issue is financial, like Twitter’s fail whale stability challenges or adapting to the shifts caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
If something dire is happening at your company, then that’s the place to be engaged. Nothing else will matter if it doesn’t get addressed.
Work where there’s room and attention
Existential issues are usually not the most efficient place to add your efforts, but efficiency isn’t a priority when the walls are crashing down around you. You should swarm to existential problems, but if a problem isn’t existential then you should be skeptical of adding your efforts where everyone’s already focused. Folks often chase leadership’s top priority, but with so many folks looking to make their impact there, it’s often challenging to have a meaningful impact.
Instead, the most effective places to work are those that matter to your company but still have enough room to actually do work. What are priorities that will become critical in the future, where you can do great work ahead of time? Where are areas that are doing ok but could be doing great with your support?
Sometimes you’ll find work that’s worthy of attention, but which an organization is incapable of paying attention to, usually because its leadership doesn’t value that work. In some companies this is developer tooling work, in others it’s inclusion work, and in most companies it’s glue work.
There is almost always a great deal of room to do this sort of work that no one is paying attention to, so you’ll be able to make rapid initial progress on it, which feels like a good opportunity to invest. At some point, though, you’ll find that the work needs support, and it’s quite challenging to get support for work that a company is built to ignore or devalue. Your early wins will slowly get eroded by indifference and misalignment, and your initial impact will be reclaimed by the sands of time.
Does this mean you shouldn’t do inclusion work? No, that’s not the conclusion I want you to take away from this. Sometimes an area that an organization doesn’t pay attention to is so important that you’re going to want to advocate for it to start paying attention. Teaching a company to value something it doesn’t care about is considerably the hardest sort of work you can do, and it often fails, so you should do as little of it as you can, but no less. As a senior leader, you have an ethical obligation that goes beyond maximizing your company-perceived impact, but it’s important to recognize what you’re up against and time your efforts accordingly.
One area that’s often underinvested in (e.g. lots of room to work in) while also being highly leveraged is growing the team around you. Hiring has a lot of folks involved in it, usually in terms of optimizing the hiring funnel, but onboarding, mentoring and coaching are wholly neglected at many companies despite being at least as impactful as hiring to your company’s engineering velocity.
If you start dedicating even a couple hours a week to developing the team around you, it’s quite likely that will become your legacy long after your tech specs and pull requests are forgotten.
A surprising number of projects are one small change away from succeeding, one quick modification that unlocks a new opportunity, or one conversation away from consensus. I think of making those small changes, quick modifications and short conversations as editing your team’s approach.
With your organizational privilege, relationships you’ve built across the company, and ability to see around corners derived from your experience, you can often shift a project's outcomes by investing the smallest ounce of effort, and this is some of the most valuable work you can do.
It’s particularly valuable because it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s highly motivating for both you and the person you help, and it’s hugely impactful when done well. (Also, it’s highly demotivating when done poorly, so your approach matters!)
One special sort of editing is helping finish a project that just can’t quite close itself out. Often you’ll have a talented engineer earlier in their career who is already doing the work but can’t quite create buy-in or figure out how to rescope their project into finishable work. It’s surprisingly common that coaching a teammate on how to tweak a project into something finishable, and then lending them your privilege to budge the right friction points will transform a six month slog into a two week sprint with almost an identical impact.
We only get value from finishing projects, and getting a project over the finish line is the magical moment it goes from risk to leverage. Time spent getting work finished is always time well spent.
What only you can
The final category of work that matters is the sort that you’re uniquely capable of accomplishing. Sure there’s work that you’re faster at or better at than some other folks, but much more important is the sort of work that simply won’t happen if you don’t do it.
This work is an intersection of what you’re exceptionally good at and what you genuinely care about. It might be writing your company’s technology strategy that folks will actually follow, it might be convincing a great candidate to join, it might be changing your CEO’s mind on how you pay down tech debt, it might be crafting a discerning API.
Whatever it is, things that simply won’t happen if you don’t do them are your biggest opportunity to work on something that matters, and it’s a category that will get both narrower and deeper the further you get into your career.
Why it matters
If you’re interviewing for a new role twenty years into your career, the folks interviewing you won’t know what your real impact was on any given project you worked on, nor will they know your true contribution to any of the companies you worked at. Instead you’ll find yourself judged by a series of surprisingly subjective measures: your prestige, the prestige of the titles you’ve had and companies you’ve worked at, your backchannel reputation, and how you present in your interview process.
If you spend your career snacking, preening or chasing ghosts, it’s possible but relatively unlikely that what you’ve done before will be valued at companies you interview with. Instead, the only viable long-term bet on your career is to do work that matters, work that develops you and to steer towards companies that value genuine expertise.