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For Engineering Growth: Goals > Roles

Sardine is a high growth startup, as such we need to find the right balance of structure vs. the ability to change direction and move quickly. In this blog post I outline my thinking for why goals are better than roles for career growth in this environment.

Engineers love to build and see products come to life. Like many software engineers, that always drove what I looked for in a job or career.

When I became Head of Engineering for Sardine, I began to see how the industry “roles” didn’t enable the kind of growth and advancement the team needed at our current stage. While each person is responsible for their career growth, for software engineers, I believe we must align it to broader goals like working with larger systems, or getting better at customer facing communication.

The first couple of years at Sardine was all about finding a product market fit, onboarding customers, and building a foundational engineering team, which didn’t give us much time to think about career advancement. We’re now at a stage where our business is growing and we plan to grow the team further.

But it’s not just about new hires, its about the growth of the Sardine’s that are here today.

This year one of my Individual OKRs is to align company growth and career growth. I believe working in a fast-growing startup will give you unique opportunities to advance your career, because you inevitably wear multiple hats and your impact tends to be large.

In my 1:1s, I started asking people about their yearly goal and created shared goal documents. Writing documents like this gives you clarity on what you want to achieve longer term (which you might not pay enough attention to when working on day-to-day tasks). It also serves as a good check-in tool during regular 1:1 to make sure they are getting opportunities towards their goals.

During growth conversations, I tended to reference three common roles in the industry, namely:

  • Engineering manager: responsible for people - planning, 1:1, cross-team alignment
  • Tech lead: responsible for system - review design doc, lead initiative around developer productivity
  • Staff engineer: exceptional individual contributor, can lead complex projects

While it is useful to have these frameworks as “examples”, I found it limiting because it constraints your thinking into certain patterns.

For instance, if your career goal is to one day found your own company as CTO, should you pursue a career path as engineering manager or tech lead? The answer is not very clear. Instead, defining specific goals (eg, be better at designing large systems, enhancing customer-facing communication skills) and aligning your projects (and your manager) with these goals will help.

At sardine, we treat engineering managers and tech leads as different responsibilities and not promotions. While we certainly value these roles, we don’t think these are only ways for people to provide value.

At Sardine, everyone acts as “Software Engineer” and they do what they believe is the best for the company. While I certainly see value in a well-defined ladder, it needs to be defined to fit the company's culture and require careful consideration. At our stage, we see defining personal goals and growth areas along with team-level big rocks working well with our team and delivery expectations.

Hope this blog was helpful for you to think about your career.

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About the author
Kazuki Nishiura
Head of Engineering