Year 2022 in review - a period of growth[
A reflection post on year 2022, and learning what it means to be a tech leader
If I had to choose one word to describe 2022, it would be this word: Growth.
At the start of the year, I knew 2022 would be a pivotal year - and it would be a continuation from 2021.
On the tech career front, it’s either I attain seniority through a promotion or I get my seniority elsewhere. Based on my perspective, I have already reached the point of no return at the cliff in my tech career trajectory - it’s a do-or-die situation. I knew I needed to learn how to be a senior-level individual contributor.
In terms of overall health, I started introducing 5km runs into my weekly exercise routines since October 2021. The intermittent heart stops and sleepless nights caused by worsening stress and anxiety about my career progression persisted going into 2022, and I knew I needed to learn to cope with these health stressors.
While I may have achieved only 2 (and a half) of my 2022 goals that I initially set at the beginning of the year (with one slightly later than originally planned), I am learning to be at peace with what I have managed to achieve given the turbulent changes in my personal and professional life - and the necessary growing pains that comes with these changes.
The goals I did achieve (fully or partially):
- Attain my seniority and become a Senior Data Engineer
- I am now 5 months into my first Senior Data Engineer role at a nascent team in a superapp company.
- Pass AWS Certified Machine Learning Specialty exam by March 2022
- Due to work commitments, I ended up passing the exam in early May 2022.
- Continue learning functional programming through writing more Scala code and documenting my learnings through my functional programming series
- I did publish one - with two more still in draft.
- Enhance my Github portfolio with a meaningful side project that demonstrates end-to-end data / machine learning solutions
- I have been working on-and-off on designing and building a members database for a women’s leadership community. There are still some technical hurdles to overcome; however, I would have to put this side project on hold until February 2023 due to my new role.
Recap of Year 2022: Writing (and Speaking Break)
In my 2021 reflections, I mentioned that I decided to cut down on conference speaking in 2022 and focus more on creating quality content from my writing to increase direct ROI for my career and personal life.
After getting rejected for PyCon 2022 early in the year (3rd consecutive year in submitting a proposal for a US-based tech conference) and feeling as if I’m running out of ideas for a standout conference proposal that would be worth the ROI relative to the costs, I decided to take a speaking break for the rest of 2022.
Speaker burnout is real - I've been feeling it for some time.— Ong Chin Hwee 🐼 (@ongchinhwee) March 21, 2022
The fear of irrelevance in the tech community if I take a prolonged speaking break is real.
However, I do need to take care of myself first - by choosing how and where I can create more value relative to the costs.
I’m glad I went ahead with the speaking break and did not apply to conferences this year, as I subsequently went travelling in Northeast US / Quebec region and changed jobs. There was no way I could have had additional capacity for side hustles when I’m focusing 100% of my energy on surviving my 6-month probation in my first Senior Data Engineer role at a greenfield project. In fact, I even had to cut down on writing in public as I had no more spare capacity left after my day job to dedicate towards anything remotely related to my day job - and I’m still at the stage of learning as much as I can about the tech stack.
Even with the drastically-reduced public output in 2022, I managed to achieve a few milestones in my writing:
- Published my 4th post in a series of posts on functional programming for data engineering - the cross-posted article on Towards Data Science has the highest all-time view count among my published articles on Medium even though it was the most recent article (as of today).
- Sent out 3 invoices for freelance technical writing on MLOps/DevOps topics (though they are all ghostwriting projects)
I really enjoyed writing on these topics as they are relevant to my interests in data/ML pipelines and architectural design principles (or what they call DataOps/MLOps), and I look forward to more personal and freelance technical writing projects in 2023.
When in-person tech meetups resumed in Singapore, I had quick catch-ups with a few regional-level tech speakers (there’s not many of us here in the Southeast Asian region) on separate occasions about the conundrum I face regarding quality vs quantity in tech content creation, managing my tech career while trying to enjoy life outside of tech (especially with countries loosening pandemic restrictions), and maintaining my relevance in the tech community.
A few pointers from these conversations:
- Speaking at regional-level tech conferences did help open doors in our careers - be it transitioning into a developer advocacy or public-facing developer role, or moving to better tier companies that recognise our technical communication skills.
- Beyond a certain level of “achievement” and reputation in the tech community, the focus shifts from quantity to quality as our words start to carry more weight and the reputation that we build from our prior body of work precedes the subsequent outputs that we produce within the community. Speak only when you feel strongly enough about the topic and have a different perspective to contribute to the discourse.
- Life happens, and work happens. There is no pressure to have to keep up the speaking or side-project momentum, especially if you have a solid portfolio that is clearly being recognized in the community.
- Speaking at a regional-level tech conference is different from speaking at a local tech conference or meetup. Same for speaking at an event that is targeted towards C-suites.
That being said, I plan to resume writing from February 2023 onwards after the completion of the 6-month probation period in my current role. Speaking at a conference or two would be a nice bonus, though it depends on whether inspiration strikes and whether anyone would even be interested. :)
Recap of Year 2022: Career and Personal Life
Year 2022 started with an outreach email from a tech recruiter representing the tech company from which I received the Senior Data Engineer offer in 2021 - and she happens to be from the women’s leadership community that I am involved in.
On hindsight, it was a sign of what was in store for me throughout the year. I joined that tech company as a Senior Data Engineer in August 2022. I also formally started a STEM circle together with 4 other women within the women’s leadership community.
Career Trajectory Decisions are also Personal
Those who have been following my career situation would have been aware that I have reached the seniority cliff in my tech career trajectory in late 2021 when I was still working with a fintech scaleup as a mid-level Data Engineer.
~9 months ago, I received an unexpected Senior Data Engineer offer from a "good tier" company.— Ong Chin Hwee 🐼 (@ongchinhwee) July 14, 2022
I felt the timing wasn't quite right and declined the offer.
However, it was the turning point in my career that made me seriously consider pursuing seniority for the first time.
After yet another failed bid for a promotion despite exceeding expectations in my annual performance review, I decided that it was time to move on and attain my seniority elsewhere. Coincidentally, the same tech recruiter reached out with an opportunity to join a different team in a greenfield project that aims to deliver financial inclusion in one of the world’s fastest-growing regions - this time, I decided to negotiate for a better overall compensation package and accept the offer.
It made me wonder: Where did it all go wrong for me? Should I have just taken the Senior Data Engineer offer 9 months ago?— Ong Chin Hwee 🐼 (@ongchinhwee) July 14, 2022
When a similar opportunity from the same "good tier" company came knocking once more, I knew I had to take the offer - or regret it for the rest of my life.
An important lesson I learnt through the process: Career trajectory decisions are not just professional, they are also personal as they have significant impact on our personal lives. I had countless sleepless nights and anxiety attacks trying desperately to get clarity on career leveling decisions, wondering if I could have done anything else to achieve a more favourable outcome and constantly doubting my capabilities as a data professional when I was still working in my previous company. My anxiety got worse until my friends noticed and asked if I was doing anything to cope with it, and sometimes I wonder if I should have just quietly accepted the initial Senior Data Engineer offer and saved myself all those emotional turmoil about my career trajectory (on hindsight, it was a good call not to accept the initial offer).
I have always relished the opportunity to join a greenfield project that aligns better with my career plans and values, provides me with greater autonomy over cross-domain data architecture decisions and enables me to guide mid-level engineers on data engineering best practices. It was a no-brainer for me to decide that I should look after myself first and foremost by moving on from a role that has already served its purpose and taking the next career step for myself.
At the end of the day, career trajectory decisions are not just professional but also personal.— Ong Chin Hwee 🐼 (@ongchinhwee) July 14, 2022
It's not up to our bosses to decide whether we are ready to take the next career step.
Sometimes, we *have* to look after ourselves and look outside to seek that promotion we desire.
I’m currently nearing 5 months into my current role as a Senior Data Engineer, and I’m glad I made that career leap for myself.
While my responsibilities have become wider in scope and impact, I am also making a slow and steady recovery in terms of my overall health as my career title is finally in line with my responsibilities. I still have the occasional sleepless nights due to the 6-month probation period and uncertainties about the tech industry, though my anxiety has become more manageable and my abnormality conditions have improved compared with the previous year.
There’s still so much to learn about the tech stack that my teammates have more experience with, and I’m still trying my best to understand the wider tech stack in greater detail while continuously building the data pipelines and architectural stack to meet tight end-to-end testing timelines (and accummulating quite a fair share of tech debt in the process). I’m also learning how to become an effective senior individual contributor in my team, a good mentor to my mid-level teammates and an influential tech leader across teams.
Learning what it means to be a (Young) Tech Leader
In my previous role, I focused more on becoming a strong individual contributor in terms of technical expertise and demonstrating value to the company as quickly as possible. While it was unequivocably clear that I have already crossed the seniority bar in terms of technical expertise and initiative, my increasing frustration with the lack of transparency and poor communication across departments within the company further fueled my impatience towards demonstrating visible results to prove my case for seniority. It felt like a vicious trap: I needed to demonstrate visible results on a high-complexity project as soon as possible to prove my case for seniority, but I felt like I had no real say in technical decisions and my requests for user feedback were getting ignored due to my lack of seniority. I was told that the reason why I was denied the promotion despite exceeding expectations in my performance was because they had issues with how I navigated the organisational structure, which to me was a vaguely-worded reason that can simply be rephrased as: we simply don’t like you enough to promote you.
Determined not to make the same mistakes that I made in my previous role and succeed in my first-ever Senior role, I joined the mentorship programme in my women’s leadership network to seek 1-1 mentorship with a prominent female leader in fintech and data products (who has coincidentally taken on a new role within her company this month). It was a complementary fit as the people aspect of technical leadership is not my strength, and I needed to learn how to hone my budding power and lead with influence as I advance my career as a senior tech professional and tech leader. It also helps that she has a straightforward and no-frills style, which suits me fine as she would not hesitate to call me out on my mental traps and is perfectly okay with meeting over a casual coffee session (a.k.a in-person mentoring on incognito mode) before our respective morning meetings.
I also met a female data engineering leader who works in a FAANG company through a leadership roundtable organised by my women’s leadership community (I paid for the event specifically to meet her), and arranged for an afternoon coffee session to seek her advice on technical leadership in data engineering and navigating performance management/reviews as a senior individual contributor within the first 6 months.
Being a relatively young (yet not-so-young) tech leader, I do have some form of impostor syndrome regarding my capabilities and effectiveness in my role as a senior individual contributor and a circle leader.
As a senior individual contributor, one of my key responsibilities is to serve as an informal mentor to the mid-level engineers in my team. When stepping into the role of a senior individual contributor in a higher-tier tech company for the first time, a frequent question that kept surfacing in my mind is: How do I provide guidance to mid-level engineers who may have more data engineering experience than me in absolute years, and are more familiar with key components of the tech stack? It felt as if I shouldn’t be sharing these struggles with others as a tech leader, as I’m supposed to be a mentoring figure to the mid-level engineers. I was reminded by my mentor that I do possess certain qualities that probably stands out enough for the hiring manager to place me at my current level of seniority compared with other mid-level engineers - and I should leverage on these qualities. I also learnt that being senior does not necessarily mean knowing the tech stack better than your juniors; it means having a better understanding of the best practices and the bigger (technical) picture, setting standards for code maintainability within the team, and knowing how to communicate and achieve consensus across teams and domains (usually through written technical documentation and effective meetings).
As a founding member of the STEM circle in my women’s leadership community, I felt as if I had to present myself from a position of strength to establish credibility as a leader. My key motivation in starting the STEM circle is to empower young women to thrive in STEM industries through improved access to career resources and informal socials within a safe community. Soon after the official launch of the STEM circle, mass layoffs started spreading across tech companies - and I felt that I had to do something as a circle leader and support my circle members. When I received news of mass layoffs in a competitor company, I freaked out as it struck deep into my fears of getting laid off before I could even prove myself in my current role. “Are we doing enough to justify our relevance as a circle?” “Would losing my job make me lose my worth and standing as a leader?” “What if I fall and there is no one left who is willing to back me up?” Opening up with my fellow circle leaders about these challenges and fears that I had as a young tech leader helped me to recognise that there are complex macro situations (such as mass layoffs) that are not within our control, and I am already doing the best that I could within my power and locus of control.
I’m still in the process of learning how to lean into my vulnerability and harness it as a strength. It’s scary to admit that I am not an expert yet in my team’s tech stack and I do make mistakes even as a senior-level engineer. It’s also scary to admit that I do need to ask for help when I clearly need it and lean on others when I am feeling overwhelmed. An important lesson that I will bring into 2023 is to learn how to exercise my power with care and practice being vulnerable - so that I can become a better leader for my team and community.
Life Lessons from Starting an Exercise Routine
Since October 2021, I run and exercise twice a week. My exercise routine typically involves a weekly maintenance run with an accountability partner and a mid-week 5km run near my office. Wet weather plans typically involves stretches and hitting the gym for the weights machines.
I also started practicing dead hangs and partner-assisted pullups every week (with the help of my accountability partner) and doing lat pulldown exercises at my office gym to train my back muscles and improve my grip strength. I still can’t do a single pullup yet, though my dead hangs are improving from 2 seconds to at least 5 seconds. I guess that’s progress?
Due to an old right tibia injury, I’m not able to run that fast - 34min 36sec in April 2022 is probably my best timing for 5km and I ended up experiencing unusually painful shin splints (particularly the right tibia) the next day. A bad bout of COVID-19 in July 2022 affected my breathing and I’m still experiencing shortness of breath even up till today.
I was frustrated with my 5km timings as I struggled to hit sub-40min timings after recovering from COVID-19. It felt as if I have to recover fast and run faster to prove that I’m constantly progressing. The feeling of seeing others run 10km distances with better timings than my 5km runs was absolutely terrible. I still wish I could get back to consistently hitting sub-40min timings for my 5km runs to “get back on track”; for now, I’m content that I am still able to run 5km comfortably and consistently throughout (most of) the year.
Some of my exercise metrics for 2022:
- Total Distance: 333.9km
- Average Weekly Distance: 6.4km
- Average Monthly Distance: 27.8km
- Total Time: 52:11:16
- Average Weekly Time: 1:00:13
- Average Monthly Time: 4:20:56
- Total Ascent: 3234m
- Average Weekly Ascent: 62m
- Average Monthly Ascent: 270m
- Visits to Office Gym (since August 2022): 7
- Average Dead Hang Duration: 5 seconds
5 life lessons from my exercise routine:
- Setting goals is overrated; showing up consistently despite setbacks is underrated.
- Focus on progress, not outcome.
- Progress is not always linear; you’re doing fine as long as you’re making progress as a whole.
- Push yourself a little bit more to stretch your own limits, but not to the extent of hurting yourself.
- Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for what you ate. Be grateful for having a healthy body.
2022 was about being a leader in my tech career and community. There were a lot of growing pains, anxiety and discomfort throughout the year as I learnt to step up as a senior individual contributor and a circle leader in my community in an even more turbulent macro landscape.
What’s in store for 2023?
In 2023, my overall goal is to learn to become a tech leader in my team and in the data/tech community.
As part of my overall goal, I plan to resume tech writing and speaking activities from February 2023 onwards. This will involve a lot more reading, deep work, and brainstorming of ideas on topics that would interest the data/tech community.
I’m not going to set a goal for conference speaking in 2023 - let’s see if the tech community outside Singapore misses me after a one-year hiatus. :)