There are virtually infinite paths you can take to have a successful and fulfilling career in the software industry. Then again, many roads can lead to long-term issues and career ratholes.
The world of tech forgives compared to other fields. Just think of the areas of law, medicine, and politics for example, where a weak reputation can follow you around and be a disaster hard to recover from. In tech, you might not risk being blackballed from the industry or losing a professional license. However, you can still waste years of growth by getting stuck in the wrong place or walking the wrong path.
Knowing what career ratholes to watch out for can help you avoid them. In this post, I describe a few of the most common examples I’ve seen. Remember that I am discussing the software engineering industry. It is possible that my observations won’t translate well to other fields, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.
If you recognize yourself in one of the cases discussed below, don’t worry. You can fix the situation by starting to break the pattern that got you where you are. It might take some time, but it is not a death sentence.
The Junior-Senior by Title
A “junior-senior by title” is someone who has little experience, but holds an impressive job title. For example, a fresh CS grad with a couple of years of work history, holding a Principal Software Engineer title, falls into this category.
I’ve seen this happen when a young grad starts a business or gets hired by a buddy who started a business. Titles are cheap and often used to entice people to join risky ventures. It is not rare, and there is nothing wrong with it, but it could put you on a potentially peculiar path that you need to be aware of.
If you are inexperienced and hold a big title, you just need to be open and realistic about its meaning. Avoid latching onto your title for dear life. Try to accept that you probably won’t be able to be hired immediately in a similar role in a mature company. Titles often mean different things in different places, and that is especially true between tiny new startups and a more established organization.
Starting a business and calling yourself the CTO might be right in the context of your new venture. However, if you don’t have much experience, the title is not going to move to other organizations easily. Titles are not transferable college credits.
Being a Junior-Senior by title is not a rathole unless you make it so. When you look for a new job, understand that the title you are going to get should reflect the skill level needed where you are going, and not the skill level that was required where you have been.
The Junior-Senior by Attitude
A “Junior-Senior by attitude” is someone who doesn’t have much experience, but expects a big title and a big comp package. Being a Junior-Senior by attitude is more problematic than being a Junior-Senior by title because it shows lack of awareness.
Junior-Seniors by attitude are people commonly misguided by inadequate information, bad advice, assumptions or ego. In some cases, people who start as Junior-Seniors by title become junior-seniors by attitude. It happens when they fail to realize that their title or paycheck is not aligned with the market.
If you think that you fall into this category, I recommend you ask for candid feedback from someone you trust who is familiar with the industry, your skills, and your experience. You need to understand if your expectations are too high and if the assessment of your skills is misguided.
Even if you were able to get hired with a big title that doesn’t match your skills, you might not be able to keep the job or be happy in it. If you can’t fulfill your role, you know that you stepped in Junior-Senior by attitude territory and it is time to get realistic.
Delusion can be the enemy of a fulfilling career. Keep your eyes and ears open, pay attention to the context in which you operate and market realities.
A Senior-Junior is someone who has been employed at the same company for a long time and has been doing the same narrow job, with the same title, resolving the same problems the entire time. Big companies are notorious for creating Senior-Juniors, and some people love being in that position.
The main issue with being a Senior-Junior is that you are quite literally a junior engineer. However, you come with the expectations of a senior engineer salary, title and job description. It can be a dangerous rathole to crawl if you don’t realize it, but there are ways out.
If you are Senior-Junior, I recommend that you seek change and challenges. Break out of your shell and step outside of your comfort zone. Remember that nobody is going to manage your career for you, so seeking change and challenge is on you.
For example, you can ask your boss to move you to a different department, team or project. Just be specific, and know what you want. Alternatively, you could work on side projects to acquire new skills and keep your knowledge updated and sharp. Do something that seems different and challenging every day, and stop basking in the comfort of habit.
Changing full-time jobs every year or two does not send a good message to employers. A long series of short positions in different companies is a rathole that you want to avoid.
Some people think that changing jobs often is a sign of versatility. I tend to disagree, and I am far from alone. As a hiring manager, I value loyalty and ownership. I also value knowledge and domain experience. Moreover, I appreciate mission-driven people, people that want to be part of a team working on realizing a vision.
Job-hopping is the opposite of all of that. It shows a pattern of leaving companies exactly when it’s time to demonstrate ownership of the work done so far, and lack of loyalty to a mission not yet fulfilled. Bailing when things get interesting also shows a pattern of not taking responsibilities or perseverance toward challenging goals.
To avoid being seen as a job-hopper, I recommend that you choose carefully the companies you work for and that you stay no less than 2 or 3 years. There is nothing wrong with having one job that lasts only one year, as long as it is not a pattern. However, anything less than a year doesn’t smell right, and you should have a decent and truthful explanation for it.
You’ll notice a tension between the issues of being a Senior-Junior and the issues of being a Job-Hopper. The key is to understand that you can be in the same company for a long time and grow, taking new responsibilities and helping an organization succeed in its mission. As long as you are not stagnant, and as long as you keep yourself challenged, being loyal is good for your career.
Burning bridges is almost never a good idea, and there is very rarely a good reason for it. Quitting in a less than professional manner, getting fired in an ugly way or alienating your employer with lousy behavior can do lasting damage to your career.
I have read articles claiming that, sometimes, burning bridges is ok in a situation where you need to stick up for yourself. While I agree that sticking out for yourself is a good thing to do, burning bridges is almost never necessary.
The exception is burning bridges that lead to unlawful or unethical people and places. In that case, you don’t want to have anything to do with what’s on the other side. For example, if you are a woman who was working for Harvey Weinstein, I wouldn’t be concerned about burning that bridge.
In most other cases, mature professionals can stick out for themselves without making a mess. Revenge and retaliation might make you feel good if you are angry, but it won’t help your career, especially in a world where social media is available to all and anyone can be googled. A bad reputation can follow you anywhere and is difficult to erase.
The Peter Principle Climber
The “Peter principle” is a concept formulated in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter. It states that employees stop being promoted once they can no longer perform adequately. In other words, they rise to the level of their incompetence. The Peter principle was initially ideated with management theory in mind, but it can be abstracted to other roles.
When stated as a general rule and without context, I don’t believe this principle holds water very well. Careers are not linear, and not everyone is interested in climbing the ladder indefinitely. However, if you are someone who is interested in climbing the latter but are unable to do so, don’t focus on the promotion. Instead, focus on being very competent in your current job. The two things are very different.
If you are nailing your current role, focusing on the next step is the right thing to do. In that case, I find that operating as if you already had the role you wish to have, is the best way to get there. Just avoid overstepping your boundaries and burning bridges in the process.
However, if you are not performing exceptionally well in your current role based on your manager and peer’s feedback, focusing on promotion is a mistake. The fixation that, “more is better,” regardless if you demonstrated that you could take it or not, is what causes the Peter Principle to manifest.
The One Take Away
If you can take away one thing from this article, let it be this: Be realistic and deliberate in managing your career. Listen to feedback from people you trust, but do not expect others to lead your career path for you.