Akhil's Blog Thoughts, Ideas, Essays & Views

Individual Development Plan

This is a post for thinking about individual development plan


Individual development has many facets to it, sometimes we may get right opportunities & environment to grow & learn while many times we have to seek or create those opportunities based on individual aspirations & situations. The aim in the post is to put together a template to help anyone who is starting with outlining a development plan for oneself or someone else, these are just ideas to help think about career in more structured way.

There are many different point of views when it comes to approaching self development, whether it should be goal oriented or journey focused, many times the goals create too much pressure & sets an artificial boundary while journey focus gives relaxed growth & also provides flexibility to explore. But this problem with goals is more due to the way goals are defined, if the goals focuses too much on how instead of what & why. Basically instead of steps to reach the goal, we should be defining it crisply first & then overtime think of ways to achieve it.

One of the important learning has been that everyone has some aspirational & concrete goals, in fact most people don’t spend too much thinking time on aspirations & even when some people have clear aspirations, generally they will not share their aspirations unless there is high trust environment. Just for example if there is an aspiration in person to

Planning in general means that you are putting together some kind of projection in future to guide the journey & bring focus on the goals from time to time, it can be done in either forward looking (more suitable for short term oriented plans) or backward looking (suitable for long term oriented plans). The forward planning is basically building on things incrementally based on current situation & competency while backward planning is basically to backtrack the journey to plan for the end goal which is far enough in future to enable anyone to change the situation & competency as required.

If the forward & backward planning converges, that means the work being done today is aligned with individual’s long term aspirations, which means chances are that individual will get more job satisfaction. But if they are not aligned, there will always be a feeling that working on something else may enable the person to achieve those aspirations.

Generally there are few of the themes where “WHY” a person is doing something is clear, people might have different targets based on personal preferences but theme wise it is similar. First theme is the financial theme - basically everyone wants to ensure stable future for oneself & family, next are the becoming & doing themes which are closely related but can result in very different choices in the career. The last theme is around learning which acts as lever or leverage to enable a person to move from current role or work or domain etc to something which the person aspires to do.

Aspirational Goals - Act as a compass

Aspirational goals are basically larger than life goal which many times will be something abstract or open ended, it doesn’t need to be practical or achievable based on current competence & situation, these are meant for much longer duration & scope of these should reflect that.

Next 10 years

  • Financial Theme - Achieve financial freedom for next 10 years, this is more inline with the FIRE movement, it is an important aspect but generally not sufficient to define the journey individual needs to take.
  • Becoming Theme - To become someone, mostly this translates to taking some role may be as engineering leader, product leader or business leader - for example - Technical Architect, Engineer Manager etc, more can be read on engineering ladders
  • Doing Theme - To do something like build world class product, open source contribution, or to work on new (0-1) product, growth (1-10 or 10 -100) product, mature product (scaled)
  • Learning Theme - To learn some skill - tech (design/architecture), domain, non-tech (product, finance), management (project, people)

Next 5 years

  • Financial Theme - Achieve financial freedom for next 5 years, this is more like stepping stone towards the 10 year goal
  • Becoming Theme - To become someone - Principal Engineer
  • Doing Theme - To do something - Take 1 product to customers - internal or external customer, paying or not paying customer
  • Learning Theme - To learn some skill - tech (distributed systems), design (micro-services), product (success metrics), management (agile methodologies, effective feedback)

Concrete Goals - Act as a roadmap

Concrete goals are basically more detailed & are like a roadmap of what a person aims to do in next 1 year, this again can be growth & learning oriented when looking at longer 1 year timeline while competency & outcome oriented in the shorter 6 month timeline. The goals here should have opportunities mapped to ensure that the plan to achieve those goals is in place, also these need not be abstract or open ended instead should be immediately actionable.

Next 1 year

The next 1 year timeline is focuses on linear & possibly non-linear growth, the linear is incrementally doing better & progress to next role while non-linear is either creating multiplier effect by solving cross cutting concerns (breadh) or solving complex concerns (depth).

  • Non-Linear Growth (large impact taking the person leaps ahead in career) - mostly by addressing some cross cutting concerns which will have multiplier effect in the org or solving complex problem having long term impact
  • Linear Growth (current role to next role) - understanding the role delta in terms on increased expectations, mostly focusing on incrementally taking more responsibilities

Next 6 months

This should be based on expectations for the next role & also previous review, many of these things are in geneeral already in progress.

  • Improving the system design by keeping in mind the bigger picture of the system.
  • Increasing the tech breadth which will enable him to make better tech choices while working on the designs. - I-Shaped learning paradigm (breadth on fundamentals & first principles along with depth on one tech stack / area and finally breadth on many tech stacks/area) - Example - Distributed System Design & Algorithms

General Aspects

There are few important general aspects which are mostly common but should find some place in everyone’s individual development plan.

Time & Energy Management

  • Everyone has limited amount of time & energy, it is important to manage these well to accomplish more, the time management will be very different based on different roles, have been using a generic framework - role responsibilities framework which uses a simple approach of understanding the responsibilities of a role, give some percentage to each responsibility based on importance. Example - For engineer role, the responsibilities (execution, solutioning, operational, mentorship, idp) & a sample time allocation for ideal situation may look like this - execution-35%, solutioning-35%, operational-15%, mentorship-10%, idp-5%. In the equilibrium state, time allocation should be like that which means that the focus is to ensure time management comes back to this equilibrium state every few weeks or months depending on the skewness created due to situational factors.
  • Plan for the week and keep the day open - generally have seen that very granular planning at a day level creates more pressure as either adherence will not happen due to some unplanned activity or unnecessarily mind space will be taken to ensure adherence, it is better to plan for the week, keep track and review things by end of the week.
  • For any kind of deep work, continuity of thought & focus is critical which is basically the maker schedule while when the focus is more on delegation & breadth of knowledge, context switching is required & many times good, this is basically the manager schedule. Good article on this - Maker vs Manager Schedule
  • Energy management is equally important, sometimes only optimising on time will drain the person of energy required to perform and may result in slowness of mind, burnout or even feeling exhausted quickly. The best way to keep up with the energy needed is to take breaks (within day, month, quarter & year), taking enough rest.
  • While the time is more continuous in flow, it automatically brings rhythm & consistency but energy is generally non-continuous with many bursts (up and down) which is where chances of mismanagement is much higher and mostly it’s not even talked about unless someone starts feeling very low.

Learning & Thinking Structure

  • Breadth Vs Depth - There is lot of debate going on with regards to breadth focus vs depth focus. Even the popular saying “Jack of all trades is a master of none” is misrepresented today as an insult to people who are focusing on breadth while ignoring the depth but the original full quote “Jack of all trades is a master of none, but often times better than master of one” was in fact a complement. To avoid this dilemma, its better to use a combination of both breadth & depth in something like I-shaped learning paradigm - in this paradigm the focus is on breadth (for the high level) - depth (in one area) - breadth (for the low level). The
  • Strategy Vs Tactics - This is again highly debated topic and generally strategy is associated with long term deep thinking while tactics are short term shallow responses to situations or problems at hand. The learning needs to be on both levels, as if we can’t solve the problem at hand with variety of tactical responses, chances are the strategy may not even see the light of the day. Learning strategy is required for a lot of areas where thinking over doing is more important like design/architecture
  • Learning Agility - The Learning Agility for the VUCA world - The Organisational X-factor: Learning Agility - Korn Ferry Focus is a good framework to improve the learning agility with following five factors
    • Mental agility — embracing complexity, examining problems in unique ways, making fresh connections, and staying inquisitive.
    • People agility — being open-minded toward others, enjoying interaction with diverse groups, bringing out the best in others.
    • Change agility — willingness to lead transformation efforts, continuously exploring new options.
    • Results agility — delivering results in tough situations, responding to challenge, inspiring others to achieve more than thought possible.
    • Self-awareness — being reflective, understanding strengths and weaknesses, seeking feedback and personal insight.
  • Mental Models - One of the most important learning structure which can help in many situations is to study, form & evolve various mental models which basically enables a person in different kinds of thinking & decision making, many times the data driven approach to decision making is good enough of situations but sometimes data might not be in right form (as data needs to be refined, data -> information -> knowledge -> insights or wisdom), various mental models can help short circuit & make the decision making faster but its important to know when & why that model works to apply it appropriately.
  • Decision Making - One simple framework to improve decision making is to move from How (Implementation) to What (Definition & Scope = OKR) to Why (Reason & Motivation). This movement basically increases higher order thinking & bring lot of flexibility in decision making, basically when focus is on what, the how becomes flexible & similarly when focus is on why, the what becomes flexible. Another important way to improve decision making is by doing incremental decision making using Hypothesis (Non-Deterministic) instead of Deterministic approach. When we use hypothesis, the possibility of being wrong is stated explicitly along with other assumptions while when we do deterministic decision making, being wrong is hidden and there can be lot of implicit assumptions. Hypothesis based approach also enable person to do evolve decision incrementally by qualifying & refining the hypothesis as more & more knowledge is discovered & understanding deepens.