For many years I have used a very simple model to explore personal development, both for myself and for my engineers. The foundation is the core belief I have: Great products and quality software are made by people having fun.
The above diagram shows the entire model. The whole idea is to look at what you do on a daily basis and identify the things you truly enjoy and have fun doing and what you think you are really good at. Where these two have an overlap with what your organisation values (i.e. your work generates money or value for the organisation), you have your “hyperdrive” area! This is where you can truly excel and shine, and you should actively search out tasks and projects that will allow you to do more of this. If this area becomes too small and the organisation cannot help you get into this type of work, you should find a new job.
Too few organisations recognise the importance of having fun. Fun should be an important part of any development review process and core at exploring new opportunities in the company. If you are a manager, you should stop saying “not all tasks are fun and somebody has to do them”. Truth is that most likely you have somebody who enjoys these tasks more than the person doing it right now, and it’s your job to ensure that you have the right person on the right task; And that you have the right mix of people to get right things done.
Thus, you are not always able to work in your hyperdrive area. Sometimes you need to do things you are good at and that the organisation needs, but you have no fun doing it. This is an opportunity for you to grow others. Most likely you can find somebody who have fun doing these tasks you don’t like, and you can transfer your knowledge to them. But you need to be pro-active, as since you are good at it, the organisation will typically ask you to do it. If you find yourself doing things you are not good at and don’t like, it might be a case of grunt work that somebody needs to do, but maybe there’s somebody better for this task?
Another important area to look at is where you enjoy doing something the organisation needs, but you need to develop your skills or knowledge. This is the typical area where you should look for others to help you grow or maybe do a training course or just get a task in this area that will get you started. It is your responsibility to identify these areas where you have fun and need to learn. You should also know yourself: is this an area you believe you can become highly skilled in? And of course, there are probably plenty of things you enjoy that cannot make money for your organisation. I have found that this area is particularly suited for personal projects. I have great joy in developing an open-sourced Flutter starter app, but none of my last employers have had any need for it (yet).
This shows the importance of the organisation you work in for your happiness. If the things you want to learn are not seen as something the organisation can make money doing, you can either see it as personal long-term growth and as a hobby, or you can see it as an innovation opportunity. Once you have fun doing something and you are good at it, but the organisation does not really need it, you have four choices: give it up, continue working on your hobby project, try to turn it into something the organisation needs, or leave to launch a startup/another organisation that will value it.
In development conversations and as a manager, I pro-actively use this thinking to connect an individual’s needs and desires with where I see we have a gap in the organisation. I start asking questions like “what have you enjoyed the most?” and “if you could choose yourself, what would you like to do next?” These are typical HR questions as well, but as a manager, it is my responsibility to go deeper and connect the individual to something that has real purpose and a mandate in my organisation. I cannot entirely rely on my own understanding of what is needed, I will have blindspots, and there will be details I don’t see that the employee sees, so by pro-actively probing and listening, I will be able to both find an area that excites my employee and provides a real value for my organisation. This process is often iterative, and I typically work with hypotheses on what we need to do and who could do it, and then pro-actively request input and feedback to shape a better understanding. If something does not work out, we need to make changes. It is a continuous process and a partnership between employees and manager.
A word at the end: as an employee, your personal development is your responsibility, especially if you work for a manager who does not actively manage fun. If you’re not explicit about what you enjoy doing and just take on new tasks that you don’t like but that you think is what you need to do to get career advancement, you will not do a great job and you will eventually go sour. This is not good for you or your company.
NOTE! A reader pointed out that this way of thinking is very similar to Ikigai, an old Japanese way of thinking about how to find your path in life. The most powerful ways of thinking are often simple and universal. As a manager, it is not my goal to help an employee find the purpose of life as Ikigai focuses on, but rather to help identify the good ways to grow as an engineer and individual within the context of our company.