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Working for Impact
One simple trick that will make you better at your job
Note: a version of this article first appeared on Earlywork, a community for early-career individuals working in tech and startups. If you’re early in your career, I can strongly recommend joining. The community and the content are top notch.
I began my career at Google. My first few years there were fairly successful and after 3 or 4 years on the job I thought I knew most of what there was to know about being a software engineer.
Around this time, Google released a new model for assessing performance for their engineering team, and it was very simple. The only three criteria on which we would be judged were:
The technical difficulty of the work we were doing.
Our leadership skills.
The impact that our work had: on the world, on our users, on our business, and on our colleagues.
I was outraged by the third one.
How is it fair to assess my performance as an engineer on factors that were beyond my control?
It wasn't my job to decide what to build.
It wasn't my job to decide how to go to market.
That was a product manager's job, the marketers job.
My job was to take what they said to build and to build it well. That was what I should be assessed on.
In fact, I was so outraged that I wrote an internal blog post entitled “Impact Considered Harmful” in which I talked about why this change was so unfair and unreasonable.
In fact, I even had an illustration of a giant asteroid hitting the earth to demonstrate quite how harmful impact could be! I thought I was pretty clever, and that my argument was pretty solid.
But then I cooled down, got to talking with a senior colleague of mine, and he flipped things around for me. I was looking at it all wrong. This wasn't an unfair and capricious judgment based on things that were beyond my control. No. In fact, it was an invitation. More than an invitation: it was a demand.
It was a demand that as an engineer we care about more than just building good software, because software should never be an end in itself. We were being told directly, you are going to be evaluated based on the actual impact of the work you do because ultimately, that is what really matters.
And the beautiful thing about it is that by making impact a part of our official assessment criteria, it became part of our job description. 🤯
That was actually incredibly empowering. Once I took on board that it was my job as an engineer to actually deliver impact, provide value, then I became a lot more engaged with my cross-functional partners.
I no longer saw it just as my job to do what my product manager told me or what my marketer told me. Instead, I understood that it was my job to partner with them, to respectfully challenge them, and to work together to deliver that impact, which I would ultimately be judged on.
I asked a lot of questions. I challenged assumptions. I insisted on understanding our underlying motivations. I suggested alternative ways of doing things.
A lot of what I spent my time thinking about would not have been considered software engineering at all by conventional standards. At all times, my eyes were fixed on the horizon of delivering impact. Everything I did was focused on maximum impact for minimum effort.
At first, I was worried that my new empowered attitude to my job would mark me as a troublemaker. And I'm sure some people did feel that way!
But overwhelmingly, my increased engagement and attention to the big picture that resulted from my focus on driving impact was well received.
For most people, it made me a more valuable and collaborative peer and colleague. Increasingly, people wanted to work with me because my perspective on my job led to better outcomes for the work of the entire team.
Maintaining a laser focus on impact changed things profoundly for me as a professional. It is something that has driven my career for more than 15 years, and continues to do.
Everything I do, I judge by its ability to create impact.
I come from an engineering background and this story is about engineering. But the lessons to be learned apply far more broadly than just engineering.
Zoom out enough, and every job at every business is about delivering impact.
As an early career professional, you can rapidly increase your value to your employer by orienting yourself and defining your role in that way.
No matter your role, the behaviours it drives - collaboration, intense curiosity, respectful conflict, and a sense of urgency - serve to simultaneously increase your current value and accelerate your growth.