Today, I want to talk to you about one thing that made a big difference in my career and life. People gave me positive feedback many times, and it became one of my superpowers: I'm a reliable person. I'm not here to brag or so but to give you a perspective on how one word can—reliability—can impact your career, and frankly, your whole life.
It all starts and ends with trust. If you're reliable, people trust you. They trust you that you will do the work, they know that you will be there when they need you, they become confident that you will show up and do whatever it takes to finish the work you took over.
I've seen many unreliable engineers deteriorating their career growth because they left things behind and didn't keep their promises. What's surprising is that what they had to do was usually minor and straightforward, but they didn't bat an eyelash. I know some things might be straightforward to me, but not to others. However, when I asked about what they should have done, they all knew the next steps. They just didn't do it for a variety of reasons. In these cases, having a good manager or mentor can boost reliability as they help you find what's essential and what you should do next.
What I've seen more is that many experienced engineers and leaders leave things behind and just move their focus to something else (often new or hype things). Many folks don't complete the thing they started and leave things in an unfinished state. I get it; all of these experienced folks are busy. But I can't accept that there are tons of incomplete initiatives and projects waiting for someone else to pick up.
When you're growing into leadership roles, you will have multiple initiatives and projects run in parallel. Following up on the work and being reliable will become complicated by the minute. Between many initiatives, various dependencies, and different stakeholders, there will be a few things you can be aware of and improve.
How to Become More Reliable
Being reliable is not a checkpoint that you have to pass. It will happen in time, and all you need to do is keep your promises (sounds simple, right?). If you say that you will take care of something, take care of it. Don't let it slide. Although reliability doesn't have a handbook, I want to share some concrete tips to help you organize your work to become reliable.
- Commit a realistic amount of work. This alone is not easy, and it requires prioritization skills. If someone asks you to do a task, ask about a timeline and the scope. If you think you need to do overtime, either say no or delegate the job you task or delegate another job of yours to someone else to open up a space.
- Split the work into chunks and deliver them one by one. One of the things I've come across in engineers is tackling the tasks as big blocks. Whatever job you get, split it into a few pieces and work on them separately. If you're not hands-on working on the task and leading it instead, nudge people to divide the task into smaller pieces and deliver them one by one. When you keep delivering the work, people start trusting you.
- Create a definition of done (DoD) in your team(s). Often what done means differs for every team and every person. Aligning everyone in one definition helps a lot in discussions between team members and different stakeholders. With one definition, whenever you say the task is done, others will understand what it means, and the terms such as "done done," or "done done done" will fade out. I've initiated the implementation of DoD before at the organizational level. I will talk about it in the next Mektup about how you can start the discussions and develop a Definition of Done.
- Use a task tracking system for yourself. In addition to what you use in your team (Scrum, Kanban, or any other board), create a system only for you. Keep it simple. Write down every task you have in that system. It doesn't matter if it's a 10-minutes thing or not; put it there. I have my own Personal Kanban, and I love it because it helps me see all my work. I create a new card (or post-it) for every task and freely move it between columns suited to my work. While the team project tracking boards reflect your team's workflow, your personal tracking system reflects YOUR workflow, and you will see it's not the same.
- Communicate, communicate, and communicate once more. You would be surprised to see how many tasks I stopped working on in the mid-way, but my reliability didn't get a hit at all. I always told people about it and explained the reasons instead of leaving the task unfinished and hoping that people would forget. If there is a chance that you will delay the delivery of a task, communicate with the stakeholder and explain the reasons. The key is communicating all way through.
- If you have to drop a task because of other priorities, find a person you can delegate the task. As you become a leader, you should start matching tasks with people's skills and career plans and delegate them accordingly. Communicate this handover with your team and stakeholders and explain that you'll help the person when needed, but the new person will run the job.
- Officially stop the project or task if you see that it doesn't provide value anymore or you simply have no time and can't delegate to another person. Instead of leaving the projects in an unfinished state, officially close them. If you do, write down why you made that decision as it will help future you when someone asks about abandoned projects.
I hope these tips will help you. I know there is a lot there, and it might overwhelm you, but overall, they are easy to apply once you put a bit of attention to them. Becoming reliable won't happen overnight; it's a long-term investment. This investment is not a risky bet and has a great return. Put some time and energy into it, and you won't regret it.
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What I Published Over the Last Two Weeks
Recently, I was re-reading some parts of the book No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorite authors. The book is the collection of Ursula's blog articles. While going back and forth between some articles there, one paragraph struck me.
"'Let the best man win' doesn’t mean the good man will win. 'This will be a fair fight, no prejudice, no interference—so the best fighter will win it.' If the treacherous bully fairly defeats the nice guy, the treacherous bully is declared champion."
—Ursula K. Le Guin
I started pondering on this and realized how bad my perception was about real life. Thinking about the societal impact on me was an eye-opening experience. You can read my thoughts here.