Thursday, 08 October 2020
Twelve years into her tech career, Lila Papadoperaki’s journey has taken her from Ericsson to Spotify to Facebook, Greece to Sweden to London. Now in a coveted role with the social media giant, she’s determined to shatter some of the pervasive myths about what a successful career looks like.
We’ve taken five insights from her career story, shared during our webinar, Seizing the biggest opportunities in tech: practical advice from Facebook’s Engineering Lead (now available to listen on demand).
Phrases like ‘climbing the career ladder’ and ‘getting ahead at work’ are entrenched, helping the idea persist that a successful journey begins at the bottom and follows a linear path, a professional achieving a series of mini goals in the pursuit of a singular, overarching objective. Intern to head of department. Graduate role to CEO. Start-up entrepreneur to head of your own ever-expanding enterprise. And so on.
This is reality for very few, and certainly not for Lila. “It would be challenging to create a presentation of my journey. Because it was never a straight path from A to B. Rather it was a winding path from a starting point which was randomly selected by my upbringing and the socioeconomic factors affecting my family, to a destination that was never clear and kept changing,” she says.
Your progression is a journey log, and one you create for yourself. “Though I wasn’t always happy with the twists and turns of [my] evolution, in hindsight I am happy for every single one of them. And for that reason, I have learned to focus more on the long term. For every new opportunity, I ask myself: What can I learn? What missing piece of the puzzle will it grant me?” says Lila.
How often have you felt like you’re in a role that isn’t going anywhere? Perhaps there’s no clear next move, you’re underpaid, or you’re simply not enjoying the day to day. This moment in time is part of your journey, and if you’re wishing it wasn’t, some reframing work is required – with self-reflection you can choose to see a cul-de-sac or blip as a meaningful chapter in your story.
Lila’s first job “[paid] ridiculously little money and had no career progression potential,” but on reflection she found it “fun and meaningful. At the end of the day, it fulfilled its purpose, which was mainly to put together some money so that I could do a master’s degree abroad the year after.”
A later role “was not really exciting as a subject, and it wasn’t very relevant to the Master’s program in interactive systems engineering that I had just finished. But it was an entry job to a company that I very much wanted to work in [so] not a huge step but a significant one towards the right direction.”
Orienteering your way through your career isn’t just about looking ahead and forging a new path; it’s equally important to look at where you’ve come from, and draw lessons from the journey to this point.
“In our day to day work, it is easy to be caught in the endless stream of events and never pause to reflect and adjust course. But it is crucially important that we do that if we want to ensure we are heading towards the direction that will help us feel fulfilled and happy,” says Lila.
She explains an impactful exercise she did to get insight into the types of roles and challenges that suited her best. She describes this as an ‘energy audit’: “This is a simple but powerful exercise. For a period of a couple of weeks, at the end of each day I would sit and write down a few bullet points of the things that energised me and the things that drained my energy. At the end of this period I would look through all the data and try to identify patterns. I then combined this newly found knowledge with a longer-term retrospective where I would revisit in my mind past roles and circumstances in an effort to identify the moments that stood out, either for extreme frustration, or for high levels of enjoyment. [This] real life data helped me make the decision to try and land an engineering manager job in my company.”
Following her self-reflection work, Lila knew she wanted a management role. She approached a hiring director but the answer was a firm “no”: the role in question required extensive leadership experience, and she had none.
“Then it struck me that if I couldn’t get such a role from within the team and company I worked in, it would probably be impossible to get by applying externally to other opportunities,” recalls Lila.
Rather than accept the rejection and try again later, she decided on a different approach: “I wasn’t ready to leave it at that [so] I started setting up 1-1s with the director at an almost weekly basis. Trying to demonstrate through specific work deliverables, as well as through debating and conversation, that I would be worth considering and that he should at least give me a chance. Finally, I got him to agree, and he said, he would consider giving me an opportunity, if I managed to hire one new person to the team [which I did].”
Do you suffer from impostor syndrome – that debilitating feeling that you’re faking it, that every success is a fluke? Rather than try to quieten that internal voice, whispering that you’re not good enough, Lila advises you to step into its shoes.
“Be the impostor instead. Act as if you are actually an impostor: ask all the questions you are afraid to ask, reach out for help when needed, stop pretending you always know what you’re talking about. Put [in] your best effort, be open to feedback, and be curious and inquisitive. In my journey, this was the most effective shortcut to growth,” she says.
In Lila’s first management role, she put this strategy to use following a period of ‘decision paralysis’: “At some point, as I was feeling exhausted by this whole parade, feeling frustrated with myself and ‘the system’, it struck me: I have actually nothing to lose. Worst things worse, I go back to being a developer. I learned as much as I could by interviewing colleagues to gather insights, reading books, and obviously by making plenty of mistakes. Cause if we make no mistakes we cannot possibly move forward, right?”