How you know if you are improving

You want to get ahead in your career. For that reason, you read books, articles and newsletters (like mine), you watch videos, you do practical experiments and even work through DevOps courses. But maybe you’re still not sure if all these efforts have the desired effect.

I can wholeheartedly recommend The Bike Shed podcast to any software developer. It’s such a treasure trove of engineering experience. Case in point: Another discussion from the same episode 294 from 2021 that I referenced in my article “It’s not Impostor Syndrome” inspired this post. It revolved around the question “How do you know that you’re improving?”

Pondering this question myself, I came up with 10 aspects that will help you answer it.

Signs that show your personal growth

  1. With improving skills, you will deliver results of better quality. This quality might manifest in a simple metric such as a lesser amount of bugs in your code. On a more general but also more important level, your code will have a higher degree of maintainability.
  2. Another sign that you’re improving is higher accuracy. For example, you’ll become better at estimating necessary effort. This will enable you to meet deadlines (as long as they’re realistic to begin with) more easily and precisely.
  3. Increasing velocity is another improvement that will allow you to achieve more in less time. In the podcast, Chris Toomey quotes cycling wisdom: “It never gets easier. You just get faster.”
  4. At this point, I find it important to note that improvement shouldn’t be limited to your technical abilities only. Communication is one of the so-called “soft skills” that will also indicate if you’re making progress. For example, the more senior you become, the more you will find yourself running meetings, and explaining complex systems to less technical people.
  5. A few years into your career, you’ll smile when you look back at what made you anxious as a beginner. Alongside your skills, your confidence will improve as well. You’ll feel more comfortable handling unfamiliar code or getting into new technologies.
  6. Improving analytical skills will help you dissect and understand technologies quicker and more deeply. Coupled with your growing experience, they will also allow you to apply critical thinking to existing or proposed solutions.
  7. Synthesis, counterpart and complement to analysis at the same time, means to assemble existing pieces to something new. Your growth will show when you propose, design and build new creative solutions.
  8. Yet another trait of more senior engineers is that they take on more responsibility. They hold themselves and their team accountable for the results they agreed to deliver. Even individual contributors without formal power in a team can practice leadership this way.
  9. A more subtle ability that will emerge over time is intuition. You will develop a gut feeling that, combined with your objective know-how, will help you make better decisions.
  10. There is not a single engineer in the world who doesn’t deal with other humans. That’s why I picked empathy as the final entry in this list. Being able to pick up on signals from your coworkers, to gently integrate newcomers in your team, and to relate to people across and beyond your organization are just as important skills as the previous ones.

A simple check-in tool

In summary, there are many criteria that reflect your personal development. Mind you, not all of them will grow at the same rate or the same time. But checking in on them on a regular basis can be a great motivator.

I have a practical tip for how you can keep track of your progress. Keeping a work journal allows you to look back and compare your current skills and struggles with those of Past You. It’s an easy way to answer the question “Am I improving?” any time it comes up.

This article was originally published in my newsletter, “News From the Server Room”. To get my column “Mentor Monologue” fresh when I publish it, subscribe here.

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