I recently had a conversation with an engineer who was very busy but wasn’t making progress on projects at the rate they had expected. Despite being fully ramped up and consistently performing well, they struggled to keep up.
The pattern was all too familiar. In the past, whenever I struggled with feeling overwhelmed (which still happens!), I would incorrectly concede that there wasn’t enough bandwidth to tackle my growing set of responsibilities. I would remain in an overstretched, unstable equilibrium until my responsibilities somehow reset. This usually involved switching teams internally or switching companies altogether, causing the overwhelming feeling to dissipate. Unfortunately, changing jobs whenever you struggle to stay afloat isn’t a sustainable solution.
After a few overwhelm-switch-reset cycles, I noticed a pattern. The feeling of overwhelm typically began after I had fully ramped up – at the point when my top priority shifted from ramping to execution. At that point, I had developed more skill and context than I needed to employ day-to-day. However, every new task presented an opportunity for learning or was impactful, so saying “no” was not an option. Developing expertise does not create more hours in a day.
During the ramping phase, your goal is to learn as much as possible and become a contributing and high-performing member of the team. Ramping looks different for every company and role. It usually starts with a lot of learning and eventually moves on to intentional projects that help you get familiarized with the product, codebase, and system architecture. Everything is a learning opportunity during this phase. Staying focused is less of a challenge when you’re ramping up because you have less expertise and context than bandwidth, so there are fewer distractions.
The inflection point is when your expertise reaches escape velocity and the “big picture” comes together. You can contribute fluidly to team discussions and execute independently. By this point, you have likely developed some domain expertise and ownership and are able to assist others. Suddenly, you feel empowered because you have a deep understanding of the system you are working with.
You’re fully ramped up and are tackling increasingly ambitious projects. You’re now building highly coveted institutional knowledge, others depend on you, and it feels great to be a team linchpin. You want to have multiplicative — as opposed to additive — impact so you can’t let others who depend on you down. You’re productive and very valuable to your company.
The Ramping-Inflection Trap
The inflection point is where things can go awry if you’re not careful. You may be capable of making an impact in many areas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have the bandwidth to do so. The team has learned to depend on you, and you’re tempted to deploy the expertise you’ve built at every opportunity, but you haven’t yet learned how to scale yourself. Telltale symptoms start becoming clear:
- Feeling compelled to participate in every technical discussion and design review.
- Staying tuned into way too many Slack threads.
- Jumping to the aid of others without an emphasis on training and education.
- High amount of context switching.
- Fixing low impact, low effort bugs.
- Becoming your team’s de facto fire fighter for bugs and outages.
Although you’re capable of juggling everything, it’s draining. If you’re optimizing for long-term impact at your company, being a hero and thrashing is not a sustainable way to get there. Longer term, your expertise keeps growing, but your bandwidth stays constant.
Maintaining focus and sanity after getting to this point requires selectively applying energy. There’s an endless amount of literature about working on what matters, focus, and prioritization so I’ll leave that out of scope. The important thing is to recognize when you reach the inflection point, stop, take stock of your time and energy, and adjust accordingly.