Spotlight On... Evolving From An Engineer To A Senior Engineer - (Article)
We all experience a variety of challenges as we navigate our way through our careers, especially as we progress to more senior roles. Sheri, would you mind sharing your journey through the tech industry with us?
The first thing I'd flag is that there is no right or ‘required’ journey, everyone is different. I went into engineering because I was good at math and science. At that stage, I had no idea what a real engineer did. I’m very lucky to have been able to work with several very different engineering organizations and benefited from learning various skills from each one. Each experience taught me how to be a better engineer.
The first company I worked at designed computers and I was there just before the dotcom boom. The team I was hired into was extremely senior with certain team members having worked in hardware design for 15-25 years. I was the first hire in 6 years and the first female. The amazing thing about this company was that everyone there took me under their wing, so I got to shadow a different senior engineer every 3-4 months. During that time, I was able to gain hands-on mentoring which allowed me to get my feet wet as an engineer.
The next company I worked at was where I learned how to be a solid system engineer. Again, I gained access to senior team members who taught me how to write good specs, put together good analysis, and I was truly able to dig deep into my expertise. It was at this point that I began to branch out into project management which extended the breadth of my technical knowledge. At my third job, I was asked to manage multiple projects and I also was given the opportunity to run my first real engineering team. Each experience was different, but they allowed me to extend my skill set in different ways and prepared me to run the engineering team at Altaeros.
Would you advise someone starting in the industry to make the conscious decision to work at a variety of companies or would you say it’s case by case?
I always recommend that everyone should try working for a few different companies during their career. I find ‘lifers’ have great knowledge, but the breadth of their entire perspective is narrow because they have only worked with one company. Even if you leave for just a year and then choose to return to your previous company, that different perspective will allow you to be a much better engineer.
How would you differentiate the traits between an Engineer and a Senior Engineer?
What it boils down to is whether the individual can be autonomous in their work while still thinking about the bigger picture. With a great engineer, you’ll be able to give them a task and they’ll get it done with little oversight or give them a problem and they will be able to propose a solution. The difference in a senior engineer is that they can plan things out, think longer term, and prepare for the next 5 tasks rather than just the task in front of them.
For me, someone needs to be showing the qualities of a senior engineer before they are one. A good head of an engineering team will be able to spot the potential in their team members and offer the support to guide them to that next stage.
After 20+ years, one of the biggest things I've realized is how much self-advocacy matters. My advice, firstly, is self-reflection. Take a look around at your current team and figure out what position you want next. Then, be honest with yourself and ask why it is you want that particular role. Is it because it comes with more money? Does it offer more challenging work? Or is it that the job title comes with more respect? It is important because it will allow you to separate the title from the goals you desire.
The next step is to communicate your aspirations to your manager. You need to set expectations with your manager so you can avoid my experience of waiting for my next review for a promotion and being disappointed when it wasn’t handed to me. Having that conversation is the way to move things forward. This communication also allows effective, and realistic timeline mapping from your manager on how to get you to your goal. Your manager will be able to be open and honest concerning your limitations or the company’s limitations that could hold you back from reaching that next step.
What does a Head of Engineering look for in a Senior Engineer?
Having touched on the most technical skillset required by a senior engineer earlier, it's worthwhile discussing the softer skills that a head of engineering looks for in a senior member of the team.
By the time an engineer is a senior engineer, typically they’re a subject matter expert. However, I’d also expect them to start developing the capability to think outside of their core expertise. For instance, before making a decision, consider how the choice will impact other teams, other existing products or even regulatory or security requirements.
Also, whether they have direct reports or not, I'd expect a senior engineer to lead and manage the work of the junior engineers on the team.
Communication plays a huge part as well. It’s great if you’re good at what you do, but being able to communicate both up and down the company hierarchy is important for more senior roles.
Looking back now, what piece of advice would you like to have been given when starting in your career?
The biggest piece of advice I’d share with myself is that your growth is all about conscious learning. You may find yourself in a role that isn’t exciting, but if you’re learning a huge amount then you’re building up your skillset for your next position. If your manager offers you more responsibility without a change in job title, this isn’t necessarily a negative thing as you will still be allowing yourself to learn and grow.
Typically, we all have a path we think our careers should follow. It is ok to take chances and try other paths. The more unconventional the journey, the more you will learn. I’ve tried a wide variety of roles and now I am a far better leader since the breadth of my knowledge is far greater. I’ve found that times where I am most uncomfortable, is when I’ve had the most personal growth.
Any final thoughts or nuggets of wisdom you’d like to close with?
Something that has always helped me is having a support system along the way. More often than not that will come from having a group of people around you at the same level as you that you can trust to be honest with you, provide a different perspective, and allow you to vent without judgement on those bad days.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to balance being a mom of three wonderful kids with a challenging and exciting career because I have a supportive spouse. I took a semi-unconventional path by working part-time for 10 years which allowed me to balance my career and motherhood. In retrospect, it didn’t hurt my career at all. If anything, being a mom makes me a more caring and effective leader.
ABOUT SHERI PALAZZO
Sheri Palazzo is VP of Engineering at Altaeros. Sheri brings over twenty years of successful product development and engineering leadership experience having previously worked at GE, Bose and Hewlett-Packard. She now leads the research and development of Altaeros' autonomous SuperTower technology, pushing the engineering team towards commercialization. Sheri holds a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Northeastern University and Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University.