Two weeks back I gave this talk at The Lead Developer London. This blog post is the written up version of my script/speaker’s notes for it. If you want the slides, check out Speaker Deck.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

I used to dread this question. It always made me feel as if I should know the answer to this – rather than just making it up as I go along as I normally do. And I felt bad that this wasn’t something that I inherently knew.

Yet often when managers talk about setting goals, this is one of the first things they ask. There’s this expectation that someone has taken the time already to stop and think about this. That someone knows what their big goals should be.

And a lot of the learning material out there about goals tend to be more about what comes after someone has come up with a goal. Things like SMART or GROW, it’s all about helping people reach their goals, but it all assumes that people already know what they want to do.

But what if someone doesn’t know what their goals should be, how do you help them to figure that out?

So the thing that I’ve started doing with the people I manage is explicit goal setting workshops – to get people to think big and get them to reflect on this stuff.

Before going into the nitty gritty details of coming up with more granular achievable goals, we want them to brainstorm all the different things they could do.

This workshop is about generating as many ideas as possible. Usually you can already get a sense of which things are important to someone, but the focus is on going wide rather than deep. Later on you can help with choosing and fine-tuning the actual goals.

The format of these workshops is very dependent on the person. This can be either a one off thing or if there’s a lot to go through, we’ll split it out over several catchups.

I normally leave it up to each person how much prep time they want: some are happy to just get the questions thrown at them in the workshop, others prefer getting them beforehand and having more time and space to reflect and think about this stuff. It’s easier to give at least some questions or ideas beforehand, so people can get in the right mindset for this.

The most important things are providing the appropriate amount of time and space for that person to reflect.

There are typically 4 different areas of types of questions I ask during a goal setting workshop: values, future, current skills & current role

Reason it’s laid out like this is so that we have two axises. So on the left we have the questions that are more inward facing – looking at the intrinsic, and on the right we have the more external factors, like environment, other people, the wider world. Then at the top we have the ideal world that we’d like to have and at the bottom we have our current state.

Different people will need different prompts to get them thinking, and I’ve found splitting it out like this makes it easier to see which things people are more drawn to and also are more motivated by.

I’ll go through the 4 areas in this order, cause if you’re doing it as workshop, it makes the most sense following this pattern – starting with the internal ideal, then going big picture and then ending on the current state.

Especially cause the answers to things early one, could influence questions in the later phases.

For instance, if someone says “I really value doing things efficiently” during the values phase, it’s worth asking later whether they think they get to do things efficiently in their current role. So a lot of this is fluid and will influence each other.

The first section is values – this is about getting people to look inwards.

And to get them to stop and think about what their ideal self is and what they believe about themselves.

So this is all about asking questions to get them to reflect and think about who they are and how they do things.

Ask things like: what are the building blocks that make up you? What is your purpose? Your motivation? Where do you get your energy from?

These are just example questions – this is no means an exhaustive list, but I wanted to highlight the types of questions you should be thinking of.

An extra thing you can do here is get people to fill in personality tests or quizzes beforehand, so you got something to discuss. Even if they don’t agree with the results, that’s a useful discussion to have.

The second area is about the future –

so here you want to look at the larger world and the person’s ideal place in it.

What impact do they want on the world – what are their life goals?

Ask questions to get people thinking what their ideal life and career would be. This is one of the hardest things to do, but given enough time and space to think, most people will be able to come up with stuff here. I’ve noticed the first question of “Imagine you’re retiring and looking back at your life” generally is easier for some people to answer, then where do you want to be in 5 years. Mainly cause you’re not asking for concreteness yet – people don’t have to have a plan yet on how to reach it.

The other stuff to ask is more about the day to day. What does work-life balance look like? What does your ideal day look like?

While we are talking about this in a work context, don’t limit people to think only about work stuff – it’s been mentioned a couple of times already, but things like exercise and meditation can help people a lot. If that’s something your people want to work on, you should be helping them figure out how.

Finally, for some people it might need to be anti-goals – so what are the things they don’t want to happen. Like “I never want to be bored” or “I never want to work overtime”.

The 3rd area is looking at their current role.

This brings it back to the day to day and is a good time to reflect on the short term. How have their past few weeks or months been?

So get people to reflect on what they currently do and how they fit in to the company. Ask questions like: what are the challenges of their current role? What would they miss if they left this role? It’s all about getting an understanding of what they think are areas of things they could work on, improve or do more of.

An extra thing here is to use a job description or career development framework to help with this. If your company doesn’t have these, it doesn’t have to be from their current role or company! If it works as a prompt for them, use it!

Final area is current skills.

So this is getting people to reflect inwards again and get them thinking about what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Ask things to figure out what they think their current skills are and what they should get better at.

Now at this point, you’ll have answers from other areas as well – and it’s a good time to use them to ask more specific questions.

Also, if they have a specific role in mind that they want to end up, it’s worth using that to compare to and do a skills gap analysis.

So those are 4 areas of questions to ask.

It can easily be that one person is drawn to only 1 area, or only to very specific questions in an area. While someone else is drawn to 2 different areas.

The point of these questions is not to have answers in every single section, but rather to have them as prompts, as conversation starters. And once you have the answers to these, it should be easier to make the jump from these to actual goals.

In the end all of this is mainly to get people to really reflect and think about what they want to do. To lead them down that rabbit hole and get them thinking about all of this stuff. I think goals are some of the most important things that managers should be helping with.

Cause if they don’t, we risk creating the human equivalent to technical debt. Waking up one day and realising that you don’t like the person you’ve become or wishing you had focused on different skills, different passions, different goals.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

I don’t think you really ever need to know the answer to that question. But whatever you do you should always be thinking about what’s next for you?

You need to understand who you are as a person and what you want from life. And as leaders, you should be helping your team to figure this out.

So I’ll leave you with this:

“Which way you want to go depends on where you want to get to…”

Tomorrow, or later this week, whenever you get back to the office. Don’t just get straight back to work.

Make some time to stop and think about all the things that you’ve heard about and learnt about these past 2 days. Think about what’s next for you, and for your team and how to get there.

Enjoyed this post and want more? You might like: Employee Evangelism: Make Your Team BadassBlogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

Last Thursday and Friday I attended The Lead Developer conference. It’s my third time attending, and it’s my favourite conference of the year. Now this post isn’t about the conference and what I learnt at it – I’m hoping to do that at a later point when some of the videos are available. While at the conference though I was surprised by the amount of people that took their time to come up to me and thank me for not only my past talks (I spoke at The Lead Developer last year), but also for my blog posts. And I realised… it’s been 5 months since I last wrote something here.

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I’ve had this blog for 10 years, and while I still love writing for it, I’m finding it trickier and trickier to find the time to sit down and write.

It’s not for lack of ideas. I think now more than ever I’m coming up with different ideas and opinions and stories that I’d love to share with people. If you follow me on Twitter or have bumped into me at an event in real life, you might know that I recently moved to a sort-of new role. To give a bit of background, I’ve been at FutureLearn now for 4 years, and for the past 2 I’ve been attempting to balance three different roles: being a developer within one of our 6 product teams, being a line manager for 5 other developers and being the evangelism lead for our product team. Emphasis on “attempting”. As our team has grown, it has become harder to do each of these things well and I’ve struggled a lot with prioritising and balancing everything.

A month ago our team introduced a new structure and new roles for several of us. Previously we had 5 line managers (including me), who alongside managing people were within one of the product teams and worked on building our platform. Now we’ve changed to having 6 Technical Leads within each of the product teams to provide and help with technical direction and decision making, and 3 Technical Managers outside of the product teams to focus purely on managing, teaching and growing our developers.

I’ve switched to this latter role of Technical Manager and what it means in practice: I’m not developing anymore. I’m explicitly using the term ‘developing’ here rather than ‘writing code’, cause for the majority of last year I already wasn’t that hands-on with code anymore, but still was part of all other aspects of building a product (stuff like planning and pairing on what, why and how we’re building things, researching and analysing different implementation options, etc). Being a developer is more than just writing code (but that’s maybe a discussion for another time).

I really think this change of roles and structure for our team means that we can be more efficient and focused on what we each are passionate about. It means that I and the other Technical Managers now have time to work on things like figuring out how we do career progression or how to make our hiring process more diverse. It means that we have more time to get better at management: people are hard, and managing people is a hard thing, but it is something that we can get better at.

One thing to note: this shift doesn’t mean that I’m completely stopping with the evangelism aspect. I believe that every (senior) developer should be sharing and teaching what they know with other developers. For some developers that might mean giving a talk, for some it will be mentoring and pairing, for some it will be giving workshops, for some it will be writing blog posts. Our role as managers is helping each developer to figure out how they want to share what they know and helping them learn the skills they need for it.

Going back to the original point I was trying to make: finding the time to write. I want to keep sharing my experiences and ideas and opinions, through both talks and blog posts. But I’ve noticed that in the past year, as I’ve started managing more people, where most of my day is focused on having conversations and interacting with people, by the end of the day I’m drained. I love managing people, but as an introvert I have to admit that it does take a lot out of me. Outside of work, I need to do things that recharge my batteries. For me, that’s disappearing into a book, a video game or a TV show – doing things that disconnect me from my laptop and phone and from people.

I get time during work hours to prepare my talks, but my blog posts have always been something I’ve done in my spare time. And right now? Writing posts isn’t something that recharges my batteries. My mind needs to be fully engaged and firing on all cylinders to want to write. And that’s the main reason why it’s been 5 months since I’ve written something here.

So here I am again writing something. I’d like to promise that I’ll write something else soon again, but honestly? I don’t quite know whether I can keep that promise. Hearing though that people like and find my posts useful? It does make me want to write more and it’s motivation for me to re-examine and figure out how to fit it back into my life.

Fingers crossed it won’t be another 5 months till I write here again.

A lot of my recent talks and chats at events have included references and quotes to the various books I’ve read the past year, and I’ve had more than a handful of people ask which books I would recommend.

About a year back I became a line manager, and as with every new discipline that I want to get good at, I threw myself into researching and reading as much as I could about the topic. Alongside that though, I also started trying to vocalize my thoughts on what I’ve been trying to do internally with our evangelism at FutureLearn. Both areas I’ve realized are grounded in similar questions: why do people do what they do? How do you encourage them to do specific things? What motivates them?

So this post is a roundup of all the “leadership-py” books I’ve read the past year (and have mentioned previously in my talks). Even if you’re not a line manager or a leader (yet), I think all these books give good insights into how people and teams work.


Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee

If you’ve just started managing or are interested in it and aren’t sure where to start with reading material, take a look at this book. Primal Leadership is all about how emotional intelligence is key to what makes an effective leader and gives a lot of practical examples of how to grow and apply your skills in it. The book highlights different leadership styles and the ways emotions are affected in each of them.

Favourite quote: “Imagine the styles, then, as the array of clubs in a golf pro’s bag. Over the course of a match, the pro picks and chooses from his bag based on the demands of the shot. Sometimes he has to ponder his selection, but usually it is automatic. The pro “senses” the challenge ahead, swiftly pulls out the right tool, and elegantly puts it to work. That’s how high-impact leaders operate too.”


Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Technically I read this book last year, but there’s so much in this book that I’ve found useful this year. Ed Catmull is one of founders of Pixar and his book Creativity Inc is all about how the history of Pixar and how they created their culture there.

I started reading this cause I’m a huge Disney and Pixar fan, and it’s a fascinating insight into how their movies are created. Beyond that though, the book really focuses on what drives and enables creativity within teams, and I think it can be applied to any team. Catmull manages to elegantly capture the reasons why failure, candour and randomness are all things that every team should embrace and expect to happen. There are a lot of good ideas and good practices in this book and after reading it I came away feeling inspired and motivated.

Favourite quote: “Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.”


Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra

In Badass, Kathy Sierra explains how the best way to get your product being used by people, is understanding that it’s not necessarily about making your product more awesome, but that it’s about making your users more awesome. If they feel they are being badass when using your product, they’ll be more passionate and motivated to share what they can do with your product.

While the book is written from a product perspective, I realised that a lot of it can be applied to how we encourage our teams. It gives a lot of insight in how to keep someone motivated learning something new. I’ve specifically adapted it for encouraging evangelism in teams, but I think it can be applied to other areas as well.

Favourite quote: “On their deathbed, nobody will say: If only I’d engaged more with brands.”


Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Continuing with the theme of “what motivates people”, the next book on this list is Drive from Daniel H. Pink. In it he examines the intrinsic rewards that people seek, rather than extrinsic awards like money or owning stuff. It’s backed up with a lot of research examples and case studies, and it got me thinking about why people I know do the things they do.

Favourite quote: “People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behaviour, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity.”


Quiet by Susan Cain

I’ve always considered myself a massive introvert and have blogged in the past about what it means to be a social introvert. I wish I had read Susan Cain’s Quiet much earlier, cause she really explains the differences between introverts and extroverts, and shows the way our society is built around extroversion.

Regardless of whether you’re a introvert or an extrovert yourself, reading this book will give you a better understanding of how our brains process the information in the world around us and how that can affect each person in different ways.

Favourite quote: “Everyone shines, given the right lighting.”


Mindset by Carol Dweck

Another book I wish I had read earlier is this one from Carol Dweck called Mindset. In it she examines the idea of different mindsets and I think my life might have gone differently if I had read it sooner. Dweck describes the idea of the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset is the belief that your abilities are set in stone – you believe that you can learn new things, but that you can’t really change how smart or social or sporty you are. The growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that your basic abilities are things that you can change – people might differ in initial interests, temperaments and aptitudes, but everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

I noticed about myself that I’ve already switched from a fixed to a growth mindset in the past couple of years, and reading the book I recognized a lot that felt familiar to me.

Favourite quote: “This is something I know for a fact: You have to work hardest for the things you love most.”


Turn The Ship Around! by L. David Marquet

I picked up this book after seeing Marquet talk about this topic in this video. I’ve only just started the book, but I’m including it anyway cause so far it’s been an interesting read. Marquet tells his story of when he became captain of the USS Santa Fe, and started treating his crew as leaders, rather than followers. The result is an environment where everyone is encourage to take ownership and make decisions.

Favourite quote: “Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.”

Which leadership books have you read recently? Given the ones above, which books do you think I should read next?