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Professional Development Goals for Grumpy Old Developers

I’ve been recruiting folks to join Atomic for a while now, but this year’s a bit different. The folks I’m offering jobs to this year were born after I finished college. I’m officially old!

Stack Overflow’s developer survey confirms it: if development was still my primary role, I’d be in the top 15% of developers by age.

I’ve gained some experience coaching young developers on professional development goals, but how should I be thinking about my own professional development goals late in my career?

It’s fair to ask why goal planning should be any different for old folks like me. There are a few reasons:

  • I have broad exposure at this point in my career, so there’s less return on investment when I choose to pick up another language, platform, or tool.
  • I’m in a role I’m very happy with, and there’s no obvious next step for me career-wise. I don’t have a list of requirements to check off before I can climb the next rung on a career ladder.
  • I know what I’m good at, and I know what I enjoy. There’s less unexplored territory than there used to be.

My professional development goals used to involve learning new technology, building better workplace skills, and building my professional network. When these broad categories stopped feeling meaningful and challenging, there was a real temptation (often indulged) to take a break from professional development. It seemed less compelling.

What I needed was a change in perspective. Here’s what I look to now.

Focus on Doing, Rather than Learning

I’m fortunate to have built up some knowledge and experience along the way. Adding a new brick to the pile can seem like I’m not accomplishing a whole lot, but putting those bricks to good use can be really meaningful.

Rather than create learning goals, I look for execution goals—ways to apply my strengths and knowledge. Are there milestones you can target that would be meaningful? Achievements that would make a great experience and a good story? The fun part is that, even with this approach, I often learn a lot along the way. Learning becomes a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Focus on Being, Rather than Building

A second approach is to think more about the day-to-day instead of the long-term picture. What mindset do I want to bring to the office every day? What interactions do I want to have? Which ones do I want to avoid? What can I do to feel my best each day on my ride home from the office? What reputation do I want to have around the office?

We often think of professional development goals as long-term targets to work towards, but I find that goals around my daily mindset and approach can be quite valuable. Maybe I should have had these all along, but they’re a great focus when you’re already in the general area where you want to be.

Have Some Fun, for Goodness’ Sake

If you’re a senior team member, you understand your company’s culture, you’re fairly well-connected, and, hopefully, you feel safe and secure. You’re extremely well-positioned to create some levity around the office and have some fun. I like to organize bike rides for the office, and help to plan a regular intra-company conference. Maybe you can put a canoe trip together, or spice up your team retros in some meaningful way.

Junior developers often won’t feel the same liberty to take risks or bring their full personality to work. If you have ideas on what would make a workday a bit more fun for the team, use the safety of your position for the common good. This sort of thing may not seem like professional development on the surface, but it’s hugely valuable to your team and organization if you can lighten the mood and bring some play to the workday.


I hope those tips are useful! Let me know what approaches you take to create your professional development goals!