The biggest opportunities will be given to you by someone who trusts you. The quote goes like this: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” While I agree that preparation is crucial, ultimately opportunities will come your way when you’re deemed dependable, consistently trustworthy and reliable. Here is my story of where I first learned about this through an unexpected opportunity.
My early days as a software engineer
The year is 2010. I’m a software engineer at IActive, a 4-year-old B2B startup in Granada, Spain. IActive builds a low-code SaaS product for domain resource planning with AI. The company is building the AI engine and an IDE on top of it, where other companies can model their use cases through an UML-type notation.
It’s my first professional role. I joined as an intern, and I’ve been at the company for about 2 years. There are 20 people in engineering, with a flat structure. I report to the CIO, but I also have sporadic syncs with the CEO, who sits in the same office. Although I joined earlier than many, there are engineers with more tenure and more experience in the industry than me. During my first 18 months, I simultaneously juggled work and college (including writing my thesis).
The CEO spent most of 2009 in Silicon Valley to get exposure to US investors and to the latest tech trends. Right around the end of 2010, he moved back to Spain, and he never stopped talking about one thing: the iPhone. The world is going mobile, and Apple is leading the race. Smartphone penetration was <30% at the time, and the growth rate was frantic after the iPhone launch in 2007.
As a B2B company, we don’t know much about B2C. We have some experience building web prototypes as demo artifacts, but we have zero experience building mobile apps. Among our engineers, there is some prior expertise in mobile and in the Apple ecosystem. Our workstations are either Windows or Linux, but a few engineers have personal Macbooks and iPhones. There are a couple of passionate Apple fanboys who play with XCode and Objective-C in their spare time.
Of all of our engineers, I’m probably the most mobile unaware. I don’t have a smartphone, and I barely use the cellphone I have. I don’t know how a touchscreen feels. My workstation is hardcore Linux, both at work and at home. I barely have free time outside of work: I’m wrapping up the last classes from university and writing my undergraduate thesis on fuzzy databases.
At some point in late 2010, my CEO decides that the company must have exposure to the ferocious mobile trend. He’s a passionate engineer and entrepreneur who sees the tech world changing before his eyes, and he can’t resist betting on it. We keep our B2B strategy, and in addition to it, we prioritize building mobile apps as demo products of our capabilities, but also as final revenue-generating products. We are now an AI, B2B and mobile company (too much, I know!).
With our new North Star, the first shiny Macbook laptop and company iPhone show up in the office. All engineers are wondering who will work on those machines and what exactly they will be doing. I’m somewhat convinced that it will not be me. There are more experienced engineers who also know the iPhone ecosystem better than I do.
One day, the CEO schedules a meeting with me.
”You know, about our bet on mobile. I want you to lead this initiative.”
Oh, surprise! I wasn’t expecting that. My immediate internal reaction is, Why me? I’m confused, and I don’t listen well to all the arguments he makes afterward. But I recall something about skills and “trusting that you can drive this.” He gives me the Macbook and the iPhone, and off I go to chart a new piece of the business. Fast forward a few months, I have built and released Smartourism, an intelligent trip planner for Granada, and I’m the tech lead of a team of 4 mobile engineers. The remainder of this history probably deserves a different post.
That day, when I was handed the Macbook and the iPhone, was a defining moment in my career. It was the beginning of the journey that has now taken me to Rio de Janeiro as a co-founder and CTO of Nativoo, a smart travel app for any city in the world. I have experienced some very cool collaborations, like building the official Rio app for the 2014 Soccer World Cup. I can’t see any other career where I could be more fulfilled and happier. But it took me a long time to understand why I ended up here.
From a pure “y-intercept” in a 2D chart, I was below my peers on several dimensions. I had less engineering experience than a few colleagues. I had no exposure to mobile, touchscreens, iPhones, Macbooks or Objective-C—things that some of my colleagues knew to some extent. I was performing well, but I don’t recall myself performing much better than some of my peers who I thought were very strong and more knowledgeable. Given that I was also very busy with wrapping up college, I actually felt I could have done better, and that made me feel a bit unsatisfied.
Three years later, after that Macbook handoff day, now having interviewed, mentored and hired junior engineers, things were starting to make sense. It was all about becoming trustworthy and demonstrating potential. Let me explain what this meant in my case.
During the 2 years that I had been at the company, I inadvertently did many of the things one has to do to build trust. I didn’t know it at the time, and nobody told me or set it as a goal for me, but my big passion for coding, for solving problems, for helping others and for always setting high standards for myself helped me build trust early.
- Delivering. We operated under Scrum and 2-week sprints. I don’t recall many sprints where I didn’t finish what was assigned to me. I would often get my work done before the end of the sprint, and then I asked for more. I worked hard, not because anyone pushed me, but because I enjoyed what I was doing. Such a privilege, I know.
- Communicating. I avoided surprises. When I wasn’t able to meet my deliveries, I talked to my manager ahead of time. This helped me become predictable. I explained what was happening and presented options, which helped me become proactive. My manager appreciated that, even if my option pool was very limited in the early stages of my career.
- Estimating. I forced myself to give estimates on when I would be done with things. Sometimes I was wrong, and that forced me to think about ways I could meet the estimate, either working harder or cutting scope. It increased my ability to prioritize, and my manager appreciated that.
- Clarifying. I reviewed all my tasks and ask clarifying questions before jumping into them. I put my thoughts and plans on paper, to minimize sloppy assumptions and to build transparency.
- Cleaning. I operated under a cleaning mindset, not just a delivery mindset. I strived to leave things better than I found them. I added documentation frequently, presented my work and the gotchas to others, refactored and deleted code, etc. It showed that I cared about my craft.
- Collaborating. As I developed more expertise over the systems that I was building, at some point I was in a position where I was able to help others. I was generous with my time with all my peers, and I enjoyed digging through bugs or complex logic together. It demonstrated that I cared about the team.
- Being flexible. I had a high tolerance for thrash and a high enthusiasm for solving unexpected problems that the company thought were important. This showed that I cared about the company.
Overall I had become a dependable engineer in one area of the business, with a certain scope, tech stack, people, etc. That’s not always a guarantee to success in a different area, with a different stack, and with different people. That’s where identifying potential matters a lot, and there are two things you can look at:
- Environment. I became a dependable engineer while I was simultaneously finishing my university degree, including writing and presenting my thesis. I was doing good work in spite of the added pressure from my cognitive load outside of work. I didn’t let the added pressure affect my emotional approach to work, and I always showed a good attitude and enthusiasm.
- Growth rate. I grew a whole lot since my first day, taking on more responsibilities almost on a monthly cadence. I incrementally delivered harder problems, always on time. I proactively asked for more. I incrementally became the go-to person for some complex areas of our systems, and I showed that I worked well with others regardless of tenure.
Basically, you can identify potential when you see others as vectors, with a direction and a magnitude, not just scalars. And then you factor tailwinds and headwinds into those vectors. Are they growing because of the circumstances, or are they growing in spite of the circumstances?
If you are in the early stages of your career, becoming dependable is your most important asset for growing rapidly. Dependability cements confidence in the people responsible for giving you big opportunities. And it’s through big opportunities that you will accelerate your growth even further.
It doesn’t matter if your current surface area is big or small, or if you are more or less experienced than other folks. Many of the things I inadvertently did aren’t dependent on hard technical skills. It was more about being brave to make promises, working hard to deliver on those promises, avoiding surprises when I couldn’t deliver, demonstrating a growth mindset, having a passion for my craft (a very unpolished one, I should say), and working well with others.