I’m sure I’m not alone in my quest for career advancement. The title “Engineer III” certainly does not make me think that I am doing any kind of special, irreplaceable work at my company. In fact, most of the time, the only thing that really differentiates an Engineer III from an Engineer II or even entry level Engineer is years of experience. This means that anyone from my graduating class could likely replace me as Engineer III if I were to become fed up with my job for salary or work quality reasons. This interchangeability means that even if I work hard, I’m unlikely to be rewarded for my effort. At the end of the day, I’m just one engineer among thousands who could take my place. I’m sure I’m not alone in my frustration in the inevitability this situation presents.
Given these circumstances, is there any hope? I won’t pretend that I’m a particularly smart person. Sure, I’m smart enough to get a college degree but I only barely got that in the first place. It’s not like I ever aspire to win the Nobel Prize or even get a PhD. This means that I can’t stand out by being the smartest. No one except the truly exceptional will be able stand out this way. I won’t pretend that I’m a particularly tenacious person either. I generally try to work as little as possible to generate an above average result. This means that I can’t stand out by working the hardest. Do I just resign myself to mediocrity then? Is that all I deserve?
Probably, but I accidentally found a way out. After starting graduate school last year, I’ve become more accustomed to solving problems like a software developer and it’s completely transformed how I approach my work. In situations where I was just another engineer offering engineering solutions, I found myself attacking problems from an entirely different realm of knowledge. This wasn’t special, innovative knowledge that I was pulling from. But because all of my peers were traditionally trained engineers, none of them were thinking this way. As such, my solutions appeared novel and I found myself doing work that no one else at my firm could.
Personalized Blue Ocean
After some reflection, I started to think of this concept as a Personalized Blue Ocean Strategy, completely copied from the original Blue Ocean Strategy that was developed for businesses. It defines Red Oceans as markets where companies face tons of competition. We can apply this to the situation where we are an engineer, indistinguishable in a sea of other engineers. In this situation, we don’t have much bargaining power and we are really at the whims of our company’s HR. Every year we do an above average job but while we’re told that we’re doing well, it never really materializes into anything. That’s because to succeed in a Red Ocean, an engineer must be the smartest, work the hardest, or in general be the best.
However, the most successful companies actually try to reduce competition as much as possible. If there is no competition, a company can set the prices it wants and operate unperturbed. Moreover, since they mold themselves to unique markets, it is very hard for newcomers to dethrone them as they have already established customer trust. This is the ideal Blue Ocean we’re looking to emulate. If you bring ideas from other areas of expertise, it’s much less likely that your peers can replicate your work or bring the same value that you can. You no longer need to be the best at X because you have Y at your disposal as well. The successful application of combining skills means that you are irreplaceable and have much more leverage when negotiating salary. From my own experience, the differentiation that bringing coding/data analytics expertise from my master’s program to my engineering work has given me much more leverage, culminating in two job pivots within the last year. Why is this so powerful?
Unique environments create a lack of experts
When we think about normal job titles, the people at the top are likely the ones who have been working the longest. If I’m an Engineer III, there is likely an Engineer V or Engineer VI who has been working in the industry for 30 years. Of course if I compare myself to that person, it is very clear that I deserve to be where I am. I don’t have as much experience so I will not be an Engineer V. In fact, I don’t deserve to be if all I’m offering is the traditional engineering skill set.
However, when you are combining skillsets together, you will find that there are very few coworkers who understand what work you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be super complicated. You could be introducing the idea of a for loop or doing simple data transformation or a way to automate a certain process. It will look like magic no matter how simple or complicated it is. If you can prototype a solution that your peers cannot emulate, you have already made yourself an expert no matter how much or how little experience you have. This allows you break the traditional salary bands based on years of experience. Experience no longer matters, it all comes down to what unique value you can bring. If the value you bring is truly unique, you will find that there may actually be no other experts at all in the entire industry. You can imagine the kind of leverage this gives you when talking to prospective teams or companies.
In my personal situation, I have been working with modeling for only a little over a year and I have found myself in roles where I am looked to as the expert. It sounds insane but the truth is that I actually have more expertise than those 30 year veterans in some fields. I am not faking it. I may have a limited amount of knowledge myself but relatively it is much larger than a traditional engineer has. In interviews, I have much more knowledge than hiring managers who are asking me questions. I have a developed philosophy of modeling that many engineers haven’t thought of. Again, this isn’t because I’m special. I’m just using the foundation of another skillset and bringing a different perspective.
As an engineer, I’m probably viewed as above average. I did work at Apple, after all. As a data scientist, I’m definitely viewed as a baby. I’m still in school and have very little work experience. However, it turns out that there just aren’t that many engineers who can readily apply data analytics methods to modeling. The combination is greater than the sum of its parts due to scarcity of other experts.
What is missing from your industry?
The crucial point here is to find a space of value where you are uncontested. This is different from a manager gaining more technical experience to become more familiar with the things that the rest of the team works with. This approach will likely make the manager better but it doesn’t bring in any new information. The manager will truly be able to differentiate themselves if they are able to bring in applicable knowledge that no one else has. Instead of trying to become the best, I’m suggesting an easier approach may to be to diversify your knowledge and bring value through adjacent expertise.
It’s hard to say what that looks like for any particular person or situation but the one who knows that situation the best is yourself. You don’t need to bring something ground breaking to your team, just something that is outside the norm of your peers.