Expanding Careers and Winding Career Paths

Career LadderWhen I first became a scrum master after being a developer, many people congratulated me on my promotion.  I will confess that I was very confused by that response.  I didn’t see scrum master as a ‘better’ job than being a developer, although I did see it as a job better suited to my particular skills and personality.  I also hadn’t gotten a pay rise with my new role but I guess people assumed I had because career’s are commonly viewed as ladder.  If I was changing my role, it makes sense that people would assume that I was stepping up another rung.

The Career Ladder Never Ends
When people think about the career ladder, they imagine that at the top sits success, just waiting for those strong enough to make the climb.  But if you talk to people in CEO or similar positions, you find that they struggle with success and failure as much as everyone else.  Worse, except for a few, they often don’t see themselves as at the top at all.  There is always someone better.  The grass is always greener on the other side. You get the point, the career ladder is never-ending and there is no magical point where you suddenly achieve success.

Achieving Success
So how do we achieve success in our careers?  In my view, success is job satisfaction.

Contrary to what you might think, salary is only a small part of job satisfaction.  While a pay rise may increase job satisfaction in the short term, in the long term it becomes normalised and no longer has an effect.  Much more important is getting along with the people you work with and feeling like you are creating something valuable.

Winding Career Paths
Everyone has different talents, abilities and personalities.  This means that the job that suits one person will be hell for another.  This is great because it means we can all find our own private niche.  The hard thing is finding what that might be.  The classical view of careers as a ladder discourages people from finding what they’re really good at and what they really want to do.  The general expectation is that we will decide on our career when we leave high school, or maybe university, and from there it will be a straight line up.

Real life careers shouldn’t have to work like that.  Organisations and individuals shouldn’t be afraid to experiment.  If you’re not happy doing what you are, then find ways to try other roles out that might suit you better.  Instead of a career being a straight line, I like to think of it more as a winding path through the forest.  At times we might think we’re lost, but the experiences we gain on our way to find the true path will be invaluable and enriching.  And of course, finding our true path is a much more successful outcome that many miles on the path headed in the wrong direction.

Expanding Careers
Once you find the career that gives you the most satisfaction, where to from there?  You might want to go ‘up’, give it a try, but don’t be ashamed to realise it’s not for you and choose to stay where you are.  Someone who is skilled and satisfied with their job is infinitely more valuable than someone who is promoted to incompetence and dissatisfaction.  While in the short-term heading up might yield a salary increase, in the long term that benefits may disappear (when you get fired or demoted for incompetence) or cease to matter (when the salary no longer makes the dissatisfaction worthwhile).

A better option is to focus on expanding your current position.  What knowledge, skills, traits can you learn that will make you better in your current position?  Anyone who thinks there is nothing is either a rare prodigy or fooling themselves.  From an organisational point of view it’s important to recognise employees who are the most valuable and happy in their current positions.  Help them to find ways to do that job better rather than forcing them up the ladder where you could lose them and their value completely

Careers with Scrum
Now this is a scrum blog so you might be wondering what this has to do with scrum.  In my opinion, Scrum is very supportive of non-vertical career paths.

Scrum focuses on the value we provide to the customer instead of placing value in the vertical hierarchy.  It also centres around continuous improvement teaching us to be brave, to inspect our personal development and adapt our career to truly serve us.  Our careers belong to us, not the other way around.

The cross-functional team is also a great environment for learning about and sampling different roles.  I’ve seen developers wanting to be business analysts having a chance to wet their feet; some deciding to jump and others realising they were happy where they were.

Scrum provides the organisational flexibility to let people find the role where they can deliver the most value to the business, the customer and, most importantly, themselves.

Related Books:

Coaching Agile Teams

Lyssa Adkins
Agile Career Development
Mary Anne Bopp
Diana A Bing
Sheila Forte-Trammell
Help Them Grow
Or Watch Them Go

Beverly Kaye
Julie Winkle Giulioni
Breaking the Addiction
To Process

Elizabeth Scanlon Thomas

Categories: General

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4 replies

  1. It can be problematic not having money as a key motivator if you are in an organisation where this is unusual. I’ve been in one company where they would give me raises I didn’t ask for, but wouldn’t give me the tools I needed to do my job properly (e.g. a computer that was compatible with what the customers were using), then were surprised when I was unhappy with the situation.

    I’ve had bad experiences of Agile development. I try not to read too much significance into this, since it’s only one data point. (When I used to meet people from other software companies, and they’d ask me what flavour of Agile the company used, I’d tell them that it was the sort where you had fixed price, fixed scope, fixed timetable contracts, and stand-up meetings every day.)

    All that said, my observation is that Agile is vulnerable to politics based around the vertical hierarchy: the ability of people to discount feedback that they don’t like is dangerous when it’s feedback that’s supposed to be keeping you honest. Do you think Scrum provides ways of diffusing bad politics?

    • I think when Scrum is implemented well by people who truly believe in it’s core principles, then the required bravery and honesty make any bad politics visible and able to be judged by everyone. This is usually enough to diffuse any bad politics.

      That said, it is true that a lot of people and organisations don’t understand Scrum enough to implement it well, nor are they really willing to commit to having the necessary transparency (which is ridiculous, because why would you want to build your life on a career of lies). As a Scrum Master, building honesty and bravery in the organisation is my biggest challenge. Once you get over that hurdle, most things fall into place before long.

      Scrum also works better in organisations where vertical hierarchy can be minimised, obviously this is easier in smaller organisations although I have seen it work in larger organisations as well. I always think that if management have time for bad politics, then they clearly don’t have enough to do and we better get rid of some of them!

      I feel sorry for people who think more money means more job satisfaction, because it’s means they’ve never really worked a job they found satisfying.

      • > why would you want to build your life on a career of lies

        I think this is the key thing to me.

        I’ve always believed in being open and honest, on the basis that if what you’re doing is technically complex then getting the facts straight can be hard enough even when everyone is making a best effort. The trouble with being studiously honest is that it can lead one into being very naive with people who aren’t.

        I’m fortunate, in that I live in a part of the world where there are lots of technology companies looking to hire. It’s always possible to get out of a bad situation just by quitting and getting a job at a different company. However, from a company’s point of view, if what they are doing is technically complex then it seems like madness to allow a situation to develop which results in high staff turnover. I’m just a software engineer, but that just seems completely counter-productive. (Did I mention about being naive?)

      • I don’t think that believing in honesty makes you naive, you just need to remember that sometimes others might need some encouragement to be honest and help them to understand the reasons for doing so. Your reasoning for why honesty is especially important for software development is dead on. Unfortunately I think a lot of people go to work and just fall into the pattern of acting like they think they should and putting on a facade of ‘professionalism’, rather than thinking about what they are trying to achieve with their time. Generally the attitude towards honesty comes from the top of the organisation, so if you can find a company with honest leadership, you will probably find it a lot easier to fit in.

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