By September 13, 2019

5 Ways to Define Your Career Goals as a Software Engineer

It’s easy to decide to find new career opportunities based on your career goals, but what if you don’t know how to set career goals for yourself? 

In this article, I’ll discuss five techniques you can adopt today to get your engineering career back on track and achieve the goals, work-life balance, and motivation you’ve always dreamed about. 

Be Purposeful About Your Goals

When approaching life management and goal setting, we would do well to embrace the 80-20 rule by asking ourselves “Am I focusing on the 20% of stuff that will bring me 80% of my results?” In other words, of all the tasks I have in mind, am I selecting the ones that will have the biggest impact?

Evidence suggests that only 1% of Americans actually take time out of their busy schedules to define their daily goals. Software engineers (SWEs) are no exception. 

Being intentional about your goals starts with sitting down and taking the time to break down your convictions, your motivations, and your ambitions into quantifiable objectives. 

Adam Talcott recommends the SMART criteria as a way for software engineers to formulate actionable and measurable career goals.

Distilling your goals into quantifiable objectives and being intentional about tracking your progress will help you to hold yourself accountable and start accomplishing even your wildest goals

Find Your Best Team-Fit

As you’re probably well aware, technical talent alone won’t guarantee your satisfaction within a particular team. Finding your best team-fit also has a lot to do with chemistry, communication, trust, conflict resolution, and professional development. 

Research shows that team cohesiveness is strongly correlated with positive job satisfaction. Traditionally, job seekers didn’t have the freedom to interview their future teams. Today, chances are that you have this very privilege. 

Roi Chobadi, co-founder and CEO of STELLARES, has used a breadth of academic research to develop five factors that can help you evaluate your future team

  1. Intellectual stimulation 
  2. Learning goals
  3. Working style and intentions 
  4. Team chemistry
  5. Diversity

Taking the time to carefully choose your team will expedite your journey to career success, especially as it relates to accomplishing the other career goals you set for yourself. Never underestimate how much positive impact the colleagues who surround you can have on your well-being and professional development. 

Pinpoint Areas For Skill Development

The software industry is changing at lightning speed and requires constant learning and training to keep up. But as I mentioned above, these skills are not all about the minutiae of the latest Kotlin code updates or refactoring techniques for data integrations. You can also look into maximizing the soft skills in areas of communications, collaboration, and even interviewing. 

One important skill to have and continuously work on is project-based interviewing. 

While some SWEs tend to dislike these types of interviews due to the large amount of time required to complete them, there is no better way for a company to size up a candidate than by giving them a real project or problem to solve. Look for the silver lining—these types of interviews can also be a great way to test your proficiency in certain areas. 

LeetCode is one of the best ways to prepare candidates for project-based interviews. The site provides online assessments, training, and a variety of tools and resources to help candidates prepare to ace the technical portion of their interview. 

Taking on additional gigs also is another very powerful and practical way to hone your skills outside of regular work hours. Freelancing is a popular route, and there are many websites that can get you connected with new opportunities. 

No matter the area of development, choosing one that matters to you and setting goals around it are actions that future you is likely to be thankful for. 

Weigh Your Career-Life Balance

Paying off student loans, getting married, buying a home, starting a family … there are plenty of things to worry about beyond that next code release or product deployment. When tracking your career as an SWE, you need to decide what you want out of life, both now and in the future. 

Do you aspire to be in management within the next five years, are you content with being a code ninja for the next decade, or do you want to FI/RE (achieve financial independence/early retirement) and retire by the age of 40? Dedicate some time to sit down and truly think about your life design. 

When charting your career journey, remember that work-life balance is a rather elusive thing, which some even refer to as a myth. In this article for The Atlantic, Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte states that balancing work and life “is such an act of subversion, of resistance, that it’s really difficult for individuals to do. The fear is you’ll be overlooked by your overworking bosses and seen as a threat by everyone else.”

In the same article, Shulte suggests letting go of an idealized image of home life and negotiating your priorities in order to achieve the right balance. 

Developer John Sonmez well captures it this way, “Take care of yourself, choose your relationships carefully, and live as much as possible in the present moment, and you’ll find your life doesn’t need ‘balance’, because you’ll find joy and fulfillment in whatever you are doing.” 

Identify Your Most Fulfilling Tasks

The key to success in life is to be fulfilled with the job you’re doing each and every day. Do you get excited about writing gaming code for 8-10 hours on a Monday and then repeating it for the next four days? Or are you passionate about the thought of working on machine learning systems at Amazon? 

Keep in mind your longer-term goals, and ensure that whatever you’re doing now is putting you on the path to meeting your career objectives in the next three-five years. 

Perhaps you’re in between jobs or recently unemployed. In that case, it’s important to think back to your last job and identify your favorite part of each day or week.

What was it about the job that released your endorphins? Or on the contrary, what made you want to hit the snooze button each morning? 

Likewise, if you’re currently employed, pay attention to the kinds of tasks that make you feel excited or fulfilled. It’s much easier to notice these things in the moment rather than trying to look back on them later.

Ensuring that your goals are built around the tasks you find most rewarding and not tasks you’ve romanticized but haven’t actually explored will solidify your path toward professional growth and give you the best chance at long term career success and fulfillment.

Homework to Become a Better You 

If you’ve read this far, then chances are good that you’re serious about mapping out the SWE career of your dreams. Whether you’re on the hunt for your first job at a Silicon Valley startup or have been building Google apps for the past decade, these techniques will add clarity and purpose to your career path. 

Nothing is worse than feeling lost in your profession. Software engineering has a ton to offer, but it can also be very stressful. My hope is that these tips give you comfort about setting your own actionable goals for the near future and equip you to figure out what you want as you’re searching for your next adventure. 

As a parting thought, I would challenge you to undertake two modest assignments this coming week: 

  1. Take five minutes a day, preferably first thing in the morning, and identity your goals for the next 12-15 hours. Strive to be among the 1% of those who perform this critical, daily practice.
  2. Now, pull out a goal that applies to your “dream work” (perhaps learning a new skill or building a startup), and put together a game plan on how to fulfill it. Make sure the goal is actionable and requires you to invest at least 30 minutes a day.

Kicking off these simple tasks today will add confidence, clarity, and purpose to your life.

About the author

Sharon Sahar

Sharon Sahar has over 20 years of experience in software engineering as a developer, manager, and co-founder. Currently he serves as the VP of Engineering at STELLARES.ai, a career growth service for top tech talent that uses deep learning to match software engineers with career opportunities that fit their technical interests, skill development goals, career-life balance needs, team-fit preferences, and more.