Career Transition

At the beginning of August this year, I made the transition to officially become a Product Owner at my current company. This led me to think about the software developer skills that I had gained and used for the previous 3-4 years. Just because I’m not performing software developer related tasks on a daily basis, and just because this isn’t my full-time role at this point in time, does that mean I’m not a software developer any longer?

I started pondering this question as my career interests changed and I started making a transition into serving as a Product Owner for my previous team. I can still read, understand, and write code and queries. I don’t do those activities everyday now, and I may not fully understand highly complex coding concepts, but does that mean I’m not considered a software developer anymore? I still maintain and update my personal website, occasionally work on small side projects, and go through tutorials in my free time to keep up my dev skills. But I’m not rapidly learning the newest and hottest languages and frameworks, nor am I writing code to build or maintain software on a regular basis in my day job.

Not a Developer Anymore?

At some point while I still had the job title of Software Engineer, my team’s manager began referring to me as “not a developer”. I don’t think he meant it in a way to say I didn’t have the skills to be a developer or accomplish software developer tasks. I think he just understood that I was performing a different role and my career interests were changing and I just didn’t have the responsibilities and title to match my new role. I couldn’t help but feel a little hurt whenever he said this, though. After all, what did I spend 6 months of my life and a few thousand dollars in 2016 to learn how to do through Nashville Software School?

Job Tied to Identity

Many people tend to tie their job titles into part of their identities. It irks me when I’m at a meetup or otherwise networking with people and 98% of the time, one of the first 3 questions they ask (I’m guilty of this too) deals with what you do for work. I understand that this is an important topic because it’s what most people spend a third or more of our days engaged with, but I find issue with it because when people start to tie their job title in with their identity, what happens if they lose their job, either through being let go, or perhaps having an accident and no longer able to perform that particular job? Lots of people struggle with what to do next because what they did to earn their living is so wrapped up in their identity.

I started thinking about this as I was making this transition over several months from being a Software Developer into a Product Owner. On my previous team, I was essentially serving as a Product Owner for about 1-1.5 years, but still had the title of Software Engineer, which confused a lot of people, both within the company and outside. I understand we use job titles as a way to describe job functions and responsibilities, but in this particular case, my job title didn’t match up with the role in which I was serving and my overall responsibilities.

Interestingly, according to the Scrum guide and Agile methodologies, a Product Owner is a role that someone serves on a team, and not necessarily it’s own position. Often, Product Managers are also the Product Owners (this Medium article written by Melissa Perri also explains the differences between PO and PM very well). I’m still learning why some companies split this role up into two different positions, and whether it works effectively in different environments and team structures. All this to say that I’ve found it doesn’t really matter what your title is, but more important is what skills you develop and the impact you can have utilizing those skills.

As another example, I have picked up painting as a hobby in the past few months during quarantine as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (I’m planning another blog post about this topic). Art isn’t something I’ve put much time into in the past because I never felt that I was naturally good at it. I’m still no great artist after only a few months, but just because I haven’t been painting for very long, and because it’s not something I do professionally or try to earn a living by selling my art, does that mean I can’t consider myself a painter, even if only as a hobby?

Summary

If there’s anything I’ve learned from this career transition, or what I’m referring to as my “career identity crisis”, it’s that my position doesn’t define me. You can have a variety of skills and use them to your advantage no matter what position you serve in. And the job you perform doesn’t have to tie into your identity, or pigeon hole you into a specified career path or industry. So I’m encouraging everyone who reads this, as much as encouraging myself, to assess the skills you have (or want to develop) whether you’re at the beginning of your career, experiencing a mid-career crisis like me, or well seasoned into your career, and apply those skills to whatever interests you.

Hero photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash.