Small habits, big impact: 5 devs share their favorite career hacks

by Andreas Rekdal
February 15, 2018

When it comes to career growth, small habit changes can make a big difference. Maybe you set aside some time every week to refresh your skills. Maybe you reflect on how you spend time, or how you communicate with your team. To learn more about the hacks that drive careers in the right direction, we spoke with devs at five Chicago tech companies. Regardless of where you are on your professional journey, you’d do well to take a page or two out of their books.

braintree chicago tech company
image via braintree

Vendors and consumers around the world use Braintree’s technology to accept payments, split bills and pay each other back for stuff. To Braintree engineering manager Lionel Barrow, learning how to communicate effectively has been as important as any dev-specific skill. He also likes to test his code early and often to avoid sinking time into something that won’t work.


What is your most impactful habit?

Learning how to effectively communicate and share ideas with other developers, as well as with people throughout the business. Writing code well is important, but to really have a large impact you need to be able to express yourself. I studied English in college and I've found that background has been super useful — especially as I've gotten farther in my career and started leading larger teams.


What career hacks have you learned about from your mentors?

Try to make the feedback cycle on your code as fast as possible. If it takes you hours to find out if a change you made was effective, you have to move a lot slower than if you can find out in a few seconds. In general, investing in your own tools pays big dividends — so take the time to do it!


How does Braintree help you grow in your career?

Braintree has always been very supportive of developers taking time to invest in their own development and growth. We take every other Friday for open dev days, where you're free to work on anything that interests you, read up on new techniques or programming languages — whatever. I recently have been spending a lot of open dev time on a tool for our JIRA instance, which has been fun. I'm writing it in the Go programming language, which I don't use often in my day-to-day work, so it's been a learning experience.


signal chicago tech company
image via signal
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Signal makes advertising technology that lets marketers target customers with a consistent message across all their devices and digital channels, as well as in brick-and-mortar settings. For Alifya Kagalwalla, the company’s director of engineering, efficiency depends on finding ways to avoid repetitive work. As a leader, she also prioritizes coaching and mentoring to ensure that junior devs pick up good habits early.


What is your most impactful habit?

One important mantra I follow daily is the “DRY” — do not repeat yourself — principle. This principle applies to all code and software artifacts including database schemas, design docs, test automation code and software documentation. More broadly, coaching and mentoring junior developers on best practices and encouraging agile problem solving in their daily tasks is key to success. At Signal, we have a uniquely transparent code review process, encouraging developers to submit reviews to the entire development organization for the sake of learning and openness. This helps our entire team improve together.


What career hacks have you learned about from your mentors?

One hack I’ve learned and practiced throughout my career is to be intentional with my time, including blocking off free time on my calendar. This helps ensure that I get things done and feel accomplished, rather than feeling overly busy during the day. I also make it a point to follow up on any requests and asks I make that need responses. To keep track, I label them “waiting for” in my inbox to ensure things don’t fall through the cracks. These are simple, yet essential, organization hacks that help me remain productive and organized at work.


How is Signal helping you grow in your career?

Signal is filled with highly motivated and talented individuals who challenge me to grow every day. We value employees and customers equally — a staple for growth-minded companies. Signal encourages experimentation, innovation and continuous learning for our engineers through quarterly hack weeks, tech talks, happiness checks and continuous feedback. At Signal, we’re also able to wear many different hats regardless of the role we’re hired into, allowing us to try new things and to have a larger influence on the organization as a whole.

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nerdery chicago tech company
image via the nerdery

The Nerdery is a digital technology consultancy that works with companies like Google, Best Buy and Medtronic. Erik Weiss, a principal software engineer and iOS domain lead with the company, said the most important thing he’s learned in his time there has been to understand the interplay between client goals and those of his employer, which unlocks opportunities for more win-win situations.


What is your most impactful habit?

The most important thing I do is to always keep learning. Technologies and trends change very rapidly, so it's important to stay up to date, whether it's reading books and blogs, attending conferences, experimenting with new technologies on the weekend or talking to other developers working on projects that are different than mine.


What career hacks have you learned about from your mentors?

Understand both your organization's goals as well as the goals of your clients. You grow as a software engineer when you go from simply building features to providing business value. You can build the best architected software in the world, but it doesn't do any good if it's not providing a positive impact to the client’s business.


How does The Nerdery help you grow in your career?

The Nerdery really values mentorship. From casual check-ins with senior engineers to pull request reviews from lead developers and formal code reviews, there are a lot of opportunities to get feedback on your code and software architecture. Software engineers at The Nerdery have such a vast variety of experience that there is always someone with expertise who is willing to help you learn a new technology or technique for building impactful software.


csg chicago tech company
image via csg

In a world of cord cutting, where consumers expect to access video content whenever and wherever they want it, CSG makes technology products that help content providers launch and monetize new products. Principal software architect Mike Mueller joined the company with little experience and no formal education in development. His most important career tool, he said, has been constant curiosity.


What is your most impactful habit?

I have never stopped learning. Technologies have come and gone, but they all have related underpinnings. By reading a book, taking a course or trying out a new technology, you force yourself to see technology in a slightly different way and gain new insights into those underpinnings.


What career hacks have you learned about from your mentors?

One of my first managers at CSG told me to never be afraid to ask a question in a meeting. If you don’t know, or if it isn’t clear, you’re probably not alone. The answer to the question will make the entire group better. He also told me to never ask the same question twice. As a result, I have taken notes every day of my career at CSG, and when something still isn’t clear to me, I investigate it on my own time. This has helped me grow both technically and within the business domain.


How does CSG help you grow in your career?

I started working in software development right out of college as a business analyst with an economics degree. My second job out of school was with CSG, where I was still very green. Since then, CSG has taught me how to make scalable n-tier software.

With no formal software degree, code craftsmanship was one of the first things CSG helped instill in me. There were plenty of bumps along the way, which resulted in some hard conversations with clients and long nights to correct issues. But with the mentorship I received from CSG, these experiences always moved me forward and were never discouraging.


stats chicago tech company
image via stats

Headquartered in the Loop, STATS provides real-time data and analytics to sports leagues and teams, as well as data-driven audience engagement tools and fantasy sports products to broadcasters and other publishers. Software engineer Annie Chen said STATS’ emphasis on test-driven development has helped her become a more efficient and precise programmer.


What is your most impactful habit?

Since arriving at STATS, the single most important practice I've incorporated into my work is test-driven development. Contrary to what I’ve been taught before, TDD is not the existence of tests, abundance of tests or clairvoyant dictation of design by tests. Rather, it is a mindset that structures the entire development process by forefronting immediate code needs and validating predictable results. By incorporating this mindset, I’ve been able to write code more efficiently and more readably while also understanding unfamiliar code more quickly. Additionally, I’ve become less error prone and a better debugger, which frees up development time for me and my team.


What career hacks have you learned about from your mentors?

I would deem a “hack” in this sense as a small, initially hidden but surprisingly intuitive practice that allows you to do something better. To this end, I’d say that “ctrl + space” and “alt + enter” in IntelliJ are my development hacks. Everything about IntelliJ, which my team lead introduced me to, has made me a better developer, but these two stand out. “Ctrl + space” has saved me countless hours of looking up documentation and digging through old code, while “alt + enter” enables me to improve my code in the ways that I want to but am not conscious of yet.

We at STATS believe everybody always has more to learn. Embracing that notion and continually pursuing knowledge will ensure you are on the fast track for your desired career path.


How is STATS helping you grow in your career?

I’ve had the privilege of having an amazing team and supportive managers. My coworkers, in particular the senior developers, have taught me how to pursue becoming a better developer, not just a more efficient code factory. I also have an approachable and encouraging manager who constantly challenges me to pursue assignments outside of my comfort zones. Overall, the incredible people I’ve been surrounded by have tremendously accelerated my growth as a developer, and I am very grateful.

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