adventures in systems engineering


*Surprise, there’s actually no magic involved. Bummer, right? If I could drink a special tea, align my crystals, and chant some *NIX commands to get to principal engineer tomorrow, I’d already be there.

Instead, it’s all about taking charge of your own career, setting goals, and moving yourself forward. This will look different for every engineer, and hell, practices you favor early on may fall to the wayside later. The important thing is recognizing that you are in the best position to figure out what’s next. So you should.

Sometimes our career growth path is not obvious. Sure, you would like a title change and the requisite salary raise that accompanies it, but how do you get there? What skills and responsibilities are required?

You could keep doing what you’re doing and wait for an opportunity to jump in your lap. You could even start to look for a new job (and if promotion requirements are that incredibly unclear, this might be your best bet). But if you genuinely enjoy your current job, there is always something you can do. Read on for some of the approaches that I’m employing.

Be a fly on the wall.

No, I’m not suggesting you start stalking your more senior coworkers. But quite often, we can forget that we don’t always have to be front and center to get to the next step. Listening, reading and observing are skills we use regularly in our work, so employ them in your career growth too.

Attend social events for coworkers. Even if it’s just tagging along to happy hour with other engineers or grabbing lunch. Getting to listen to two senior engineers discussing how they are approaching larger company issues can be invaluable, especially when you’re starting out.

When I was brand new to systems engineering, after-work beers featured plenty of conversations way over my head. However, as I started to work in that space more, I gained context from what I had heard and I could start making important connections. This helped vastly with establishing mental models of different services in our infrastructure.

Read everything you can. Old postmortems can be enlightening in ways to troubleshoot a particular set of symptoms, ways to resolve that issue, and any work that came out of the incident.

Starring Slack threads that interest you (but you don’t have time to read now) can help you glean context from SME’s (subject matter experts), customers, or just provide some more general knowledge around a particular tool, service, or application.

Fall down the wiki hole. If you have a company wiki, chances are, each article links to related articles. You can deep dive on a particular topic, get higher-level overviews, or even learn who writes kick-ass documentation on your team (so you can maybe ask for help in improving yours!).

Get involved.

Earn yourself a little more visibility in your organization while making meaningful contributions.

Meetings may not be fun, but attend anyway! You can volunteer to take the meeting notes for the team (this is such an important skill that we overlook). If there’s a project that interests you and there’s optional attendance, be there as long as you’re not stretching yourself too thin. If there’s something you want to attend but you weren’t invited, see if you can request to be included.

Take on the incident commander role. Depending on how your company handles incidents, if anyone can step-up to command, give it a try. This can provide opportunities to work with multiple teams you may not interface with on the regular, and to see the steps taken to resolve an issue firsthand so you can help troubleshoot it in the future.

Job postings are roadmaps.

When your company does not have a transparent promotion process, job postings can really help you make a case for promotion or determine areas to focus on.

Use your company’s own listings to get to the next level. Once you understand what the company is looking for in an external candidate at what would be your next level, you can look at the desired skills and traits to assess where you currently are and what could use some more work. Definitely include your manager, a mentor or someone else whose feedback you respect in this process, because we can be our own worst critics.

Bonus: I created a spreadsheet with a cell for each trait or skill in the posting, and then looked through all of my work to tie projects and tickets to each requirement. I was then able to reflect a lot of this work and these traits in my annual self-review.

If your company doesn’t have any postings, look at openings at similar companies (size, stack, location) or companies you would like to work for. Again, this can provide ideas on different technologies to become familiar with and help you determine areas of strength and weakness. In the case of companies you would like to work for in the future, this aligns your career to a path that is more likely to make that happen.

Show what you know.

I’m sure everyone had that math teacher that expected you to show all your work in arriving at an answer on a quiz or test. Turns out they were on to something.

Ask, ask, ask. One of the facets of engineering that I enjoy so much is that there’s always something new to learn. It’s our job to make sure we’re doing just that. Asking questions is vital!

When asking questions, be sure to provide context. If you’re stuck on troubleshooting, explain where you’ve looked so far. If you’re checking how well you understand something, describe the concept and seek verification rather than asking “how does X work?”. When other engineers see the effort you’ve put in and can see what you already know, they’re much more likely to help.

Tech discussions provide exposure. If there is something meaningful you can add to the discussion, i.e. you’ve worked with the service extensively at job X, you’ve approached a similar problem from angle Y, or you’ve read some great discussions about method Z, share them. Even if you’re just contributing to a Google doc your team is using to record notes, this allows you to see how other engineers contribute and gets you used to doing the same. The more you do this, the more you can establish yourself as an SME.

Build advocates. This tends to happen naturally as you start to show more of what you know, but you can also be more proactive. Got an engineer you really respect? See if you can pair with them on a ticket and pick their brain. Interested in the implementation details behind a service? Reach out to the engineer that did most of the work. Does your engineering department hold office hours? Go show off some of your work, ask about what other engineers are working on, or geek out about new tech. When it comes time for promotion, those advocates can really work for you.

Whoa, this got wordy! Just remember: you are in the best place to look out for your own career. Being proactive, taking charge and building your own path can be scary, but also downright magical.

Have you used any of these methods to grow your own career? What else has been successful for you? Is there anything you would avoid?


Hi! I'm a systems engineer for a global marketing platform. Here I dish about (mostly technical) books I'm reading, my musings on the ever-important soft skills/glue work in this field, and my general adventures in engineering.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You Might Also Like