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When the journey is the destination

Do we all have to be superheroes? Is that the Microsoft way? When a dev busts his or her behind for you day in and day out for a year shipping your product, is the message always, “That isn’t good enough”? What does it take to satisfy the life-sucking career advancement beast?

There are plenty of folks, myself included, who believe and pontificate that you can always do more, be better, and reach higher. Never be satisfied with the status quo, we say; always push yourself and your team to the next level. We associate this attitude with Microsoft Competencies like self-development, drive for results, and technical passion and drive. Does this mean that if you’re happy with where you are and what you’re doing that you are a parasite on the corporate host?

A man’s got to know his limitations

If you think great but satisfied people are parasites, you are a fool. Not everyone can or even wants to be Bill Gates, much as I like the guy. We all have our limits and priorities, and for many of us, being a VP just isn’t realistic or desirable.

Ah, but I know what you alarmists are thinking: Lowering your sights means lowering your expectations. Lowering your expectations leads to mediocrity. And mediocrity is a noxious lesion that grows, infects, and consumes a company, rendering it a mountainous boil of pus. So true.

And yet, it can’t be right that great devs with years of shipping experience, plenty of passion for product, and drive for results should be told that they have no place at the company unless they become an architect or manager. Surely we’ve all known folks like this. They love working here. They love coding. They love the software industry, the new technology, and the dramatic positive impact we all get to have on our society.

There is nothing wrong with the attitude and ambition of these devs. They are the backbone of the company. They are the very foundation that drives us forward and makes us successful. I call these dedicated people “journey developers” (because “journeyman” is not PC, and as you know, I am so PC).

Eric Aside“PC” in this case means politically correct. By the way, this column received one of the most universally positive responses of any I’ve written.

Vesting but not resting

Don’t get the journey developers confused with the “rest and vesters.” The rest and vesters have lost their passion for product, their commitment to customers, and their drive for results. The journey developers still have all these qualities and are totally committed to shipping the best software on the planet, while leaving the people, technology, and design leadership to someone else. Maybe someday they might change their minds and decide to lead by more than just their example and experience. But until then, it is essential that their productive, dedicated, and invaluable contributions be supported, rewarded, and encouraged.

Eric Aside“Rest and vest” was an internal term for employees who stopped working hard and were just hanging around waiting for their stock options to vest. After the Internet bubble burst, the term didn’t really apply anymore.

I wish they would only take me as I am

Being a journey developer needs to be a recognized growth path for devs, just as the expert/architect and lead/manager paths already are. It’s true that by choosing to limit their leadership, journey developers necessarily limit their impact and influence. This means that journey developers will rarely be able to rise above a level 63 SDE.

Eric AsideIn the United States, the entry level for a software development engineer (SDE) is level 59 (compensation levels vary by region). Level 63 is considered a “senior” level for engineers. Levels beyond that take you to “principal” and “partner.”

Some might argue that this is reason enough to discourage this career path, but that attitude shortchanges us all. We need their contribution and experience. We can’t afford to hand over many of our best developers to some lesser company. Our compensation package is generous enough to keep our journey developers. We can easily find creative ways to reward their efforts, and at the same time not force responsibilities beyond their level.

Of course, some journey developers will change the path they’re on and become our future leaders. For them, and for new developers who want the flexibility, the journey developer career path would provide the time and respect that they need to grow and contribute on their own terms. Being patient and understanding as a company can make all the difference in retaining great contributors and increasing their job satisfaction.

We’re in this together

As you might have already surmised, the journey path doesn’t just apply to development. There are similar people in all disciplines of work at Microsoft who love their jobs and do them extremely well, but they aren’t either ready or willing to take on a leadership role. We can and should understand and appreciate those people who love the company, love their jobs, love our customers, and want to contribute without being forced to lead.

As managers, it’s important to push our people beyond their comfort zone at times to get them to exceed their own expectations; we can’t and shouldn’t lower the bar for anyone. However, that doesn’t excuse bullying some of our best people into a job they don’t want and making them feel unappreciated or inadequate at the very time they are helping us succeed. Being the world’s smartest, most productive, and passionate people working for the best company the earth has ever seen should be good enough.

Eric AsideThe concept of journey developers was implemented a few years ago. Now no questions are asked when a productive senior engineer chooses to go no higher.

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