Software Development
Career development / Leadership / Software

I’m a software architect in an org that doesn’t need one. How can I make myself useful?

If you can’t find opportunities, then start creating them, engineering manager Leemay Nassery advises in this edition of The Lossless Leader.

Tasks, please? (Photo by Flickr user, used via a Creative Commons license)

This is The Lossless Leader, an advice column written by engineering manager Leemay Nassery.

Why call it The Lossless Leader? An engineering leader is someone who inspires their team, communicates well, grows their people to become leaders themselves, removes blockers or painful aspects of their team’s day-to-day, delivers on product requests and so much more. In tech, lossless compression is a technique that does not lose any data in the compression process; it reduces the size of files without losing any information in the file so quality is maintained.

Combining the two: Leaders aren’t perfect. Sometimes they manage to not lose any data while leading their org, and other times it may seem like they’re losing it altogether. This column is called The Lossless Leader because we all admire those leaders who strive to stay true to who they are and the people they serve (their team). They admit fault when necessary, learn from their mistakes and sometimes flourish in difficult situations — all while not losing themselves along the way.

Submit your question to The Lossless Leader

The question:

“I am the lone software architect that reports directly to the VP of an engineering organization. I love the company, the people and especially the pay, however, I’ve realized there’s a problem: My boss is unsure as to how to best utilize me. To say it simply, I don’t really have a lot to do. I’ve got decades of experience, and so much to offer. How can I make myself more useful?”

The answer: 

There’s only one song that perfectly distills the sentiment you have for your job and of course, it’s the Talking Heads’Once in a Lifetime.”  You’ve found a real gem. Not only do you love the company and the people, but also the pay! That’s a big deal, minus the part about not having much work to do.

Now I must assume that you value this role at this particular company, so you want to ensure you’re adding value and creating impact so that you can continue with this role for years to come. Let’s cut to the chase, with a couple of ways you can approach this problem.

I’m going to skip the suggestion I typically give folks — ask your manager and peers how you can help. Two reasons for this: I assume you’ve already taken this approach, and to some extent, you’re too senior to be handed problems. At a certain level you have to hunt for your own food. The better you get at this, the better you’ll be at any job. I will also focus on things you can control, your energy and how you spend your time, and not external factors such as your manager.

Leemay Nassery. (Courtesy photo)

So let’s start simple: Tell your manager what you’re good at during your next 1:1. For example, if you’re skilled at distilling ideas in the written form, tell them this and then follow it with “keep me in mind for opportunities in the future.” Then, do the research yourself, identify those opportunities, and bring them to the next 1:1.

If you can’t find opportunities, then start creating them. There’s one caveat to this: Don’t create complex engineering solutions to have a big fancy project with your name on it. Seek out solutions to actual problems.

Think about the things your engineering organization can’t do today that building a solution will enable you to do in the future. Is on-call dreadful? Then work with engineers on the ground floor to make it better. Are you missing data to truly understand user engagement? That’s a big problem. Take a stab at solving that. Now, if you decide to tackle a large problem, the best way to drive change is not to go it alone. You’re going to be more successful when people on your team want to tackle this problem with you and your stature in the organization will only improve by collaborating with folks.

Last bit of advice: Don’t get attached to any particular idea or opportunity you come across. Just keep churning out ideas until one sticks. Being a software architect is a hard role to hold. You have to be good at identifying opportunities and building the momentum to solve them while you’re typically not really in the code itself or on the team that’s implementing the solution. However, given that you’re such a fan of your role, figuring out how to add more value and creating impact is totally a solvable problem. Good luck!

Submit your question to The Lossless Leader
Series: The Lossless Leader

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