6 mins

Parenthood teaches you many things, including how to become a better leader. Here's how to apply the lessons and fast-track your IC career.

An unfortunate but common narrative presented to women is that a successful career and parenthood are in opposition. Given the number of challenges I’ve already faced as both a female and a Latina in software engineering, this is the last thing I wanted to hear when I found out I was pregnant with twins. So I decided not to listen – and I encourage you to do the same.

I am an example of how parenthood has made me not only a better employee but also a better leader. Here’s how I applied four brutal (and wonderful) lessons of parenthood to my job as an engineer, and in turn, accelerated my path to staff engineer. 

1. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

One newborn is a handful, and I was blessed with two. This was an immediate (and let’s be honest, forced) lesson in prioritization. Does it matter if I've showered today? No. Is it important that my kids have eaten? Yes! With limited emotional and physical resources, I became very skilled at identifying what must be accomplished, versus what is a nice-to-have, in my four amazing months of parental leave.

After using that muscle so regularly at home, I've realized I have a new vantage point for my work. I can step back from the chaos of seemingly endless tasks, identify what’s really important, and focus on the work that matters most. My calendar is a good example of how I prioritize and focus my time: I create distinct color-coded blocks to set aside time for specific outcomes-based work, inspired by Gergely Orosz’s tweet about calendars and Will Larson’s chapter on archetypes in Staff Engineer.

My calendar during my first official week as a staff engineer

A screengrab of the author's busy calendar on their first official week as a staff engineer

I also changed the way I approached my standups, 1:1s, project management, and more, leading by example to guide other team members.

‘Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.’ – Albert Schweitzer

2. Optimize your systems design

The power of a system is that it’s reproducible and scalable. From implementing a trifecta of Baby Brezza formula products (to revolutionize feeding time) to hacking the standing diaper change, systems are the key to efficiency – and getting through the day – in parenthood.

Once again, exercising that muscle enabled a stronger flex at work. I’m now eager to define (and refine) a process. Then I’m always asking, ‘What can be automated?’ and ‘Are there any steps in this process that can be eliminated without impacting the ultimate outcome?’

This mindset means small changes can have a big impact. Writing a few lines of javascript to automate a frequent task doesn’t seem like much, but it adds up over time. Or, when I got pulled in to help on an initiative that had trouble taking off, a small focused effort unlocked the blockage. The project had been suffering from analysis paralysis. On my first day, I engaged with the group to identify priorities, then define the data model. I pushed out the code and migrated the table that afternoon. Three days later, multiple engineers were pushing code and the project was ahead of schedule.

P.S. Don’t keep these efficiency wins to yourself; sharing is caring! (More on that in a minute.)

3. Communication is key

It’s important to track when a newborn eats, for how long, and how much. You are also supposed to note every single elimination – plus all the details. If there is more than one person taking care of a baby (and in my case, more than one baby) communication and documentation is key. Bonus if you have help from a system, like an app.

At work, I was so tired I no longer trusted my brain to remember all the things, so I began to communicate and document like crazy. This actually kept me focused on my priorities, created accountability for my team and me, and provided much-appreciated visibility to senior management.

I also began recording training videos on Loom. This allowed me to 10x myself without having to give each person an hour-long 1:1, but still ensured the whole team got the opportunity to learn. Leaders rise by lifting others!

4. Self-care is essential

It became very obvious very quickly that if I didn't take care of myself first, I couldn't take care of anyone else. I needed to be healthy physically, but also mentally, so I could be fully present.

Before becoming a parent, I would put in some after-hours work here and there in an attempt to get ahead; this is nearly impossible as a mom of twins. Less really is more, and self-care has made me more present, and more productive at work the next day.

Reflecting on the journey from parent to staff engineer

We all love a good ‘hack’ and I’ll bet several exist right under your nose. I challenge you to think of parallels that might exist between your personal and professional life, and how you might transfer knowledge from one to the other. How did you approach planning a logistically successful vacation? What have you learned from managing your child’s softball team?

When I returned to work after maternity leave, I was able to ruthlessly prioritize, optimize systems design, and exponentially improve my communication. Becoming a mom of twins accelerated my promotion to staff engineer within seven months of my return. Now I aim to be a servant leader and a role model for others.

Gandhi said, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’ By taking care of my babies, I found a better version of myself: a leader. It’s cliche to say that parenting is the most challenging and rewarding adventure there is. So, instead, my message to parents is: you can apply what you learn as a parent to reap rewards in your professional life, too.