Finding my values to land me a great job

I recently decided to leave my job as a software engineer.

As a software engineer, I didn’t feel I was making an impact on society. I didn’t have a real opportunity to improve people’s lives. My work felt like it existed only to make money for shareholders.

I found that there was a lack of opportunities for learning and improving. While languages and frameworks change often, a firm understanding of the basic principles of programming mean that there isn’t much learning needed.

How did I discover what I wanted in a job?

I knew I wanted something that felt more meaningful, and something where I would always be learning. Other than that, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted.

I started by following advice from the University of Cambridge Careers Service and reflecting back over my career so far (university and 3½ years as a software engineer). I set out to answer these 4 questions:

  • What have I enjoyed and why?
  • What haven’t I enjoyed and why?
  • What’s it been like when I’m working at my best?
  • What’s it been like when I’m working at my worst?

I wanted to avoid asking “what am I good at” and “what am I bad at” in these last two questions. I knew that there had been things I was good at which I hadn’t enjoyed doing, and vice versa. Instead, I used a question similar to one that Paul Field asked in his session at Agile Cambridge 2016. For each answer, I looked at what the work was, why I was good or bad at it, and how I felt about it.

I focused on my professional life to answer these questions, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t use your personal life too. I drew my answers by:

  • thinking back to big events each year (e.g. company restructures, moving teams)
  • thinking back to big pieces of work each year (e.g. speaking at a conference, building a new feature)
  • thinking back to different processes used (e.g. what were the regular meetings)
  • looking over old 1–1 write-ups (I had these once a month. It was interesting to see common themes over the course of several months/years)

So what did I want?

An important note: write your answers down. It’s a lot to hold in your head, and you’ll likely want to come back to your answers over a couple of days.

Writing my answers meant I finally found a chance to use this awesome notebook!

I took my answers to each question and grouped them into common themes. I looked at why I enjoyed different things, and why I thought I was working at my best. Here’s some of my themes.

I enjoy:

  • learning things frequently, ideally daily
  • being pushed further when I’m doing well
  • feedback from people I’m doing the work for
  • working in a diverse team with different ideas

I don’t enjoy:

  • lack of a goal or direction
  • work which doesn’t feel useful
  • repetitive work, which doesn’t need much thought

When I’ve been working at my best:

  • I could see the outcome and how it was valuable
  • I identified where I needed help most, and got that help
  • I cared a lot about the work I was doing

When I’ve been working at my worst:

  • I wasn’t part of a team, everyone was doing different things
  • I wasn’t learning anything
  • I felt bored because my work wasn’t challenging

How did this lead to values?

With these themes, I started to think about values — what are the underlying things that make me enjoy my work and succeed in it.

I wasn’t sure how to write my values down. How many should there be? Is the format important? Should a value be a single word, a sentence, or a whole paragraph.

Scott Jeffrey has over 200 suggestions for values, all single words, and suggests picking 5–10 values. I found these words to be good prompts, but not what I wanted for values because there was no reason or intention behind each word.

Ed Burghard has 12 statements which he believes. I thought the explanation of each value was a useful reminder of why it was important.

Anne Loehr picked names for her values and found about 5. I liked that she used names that resonated with her, to make them personal.

Ultimately, I decided that the format didn’t matter. My values are for me. As long as I understood what I valued and why, any format was fine.

I made a first pass at my values and came up with 8, roughly in this format:

I value _____.

My evidence for this is _____.

It’s important to me because _____.

I came back to these a few times over the next couple of days, asking myself “do I still believe this is true?” and “is there anything I’ve missed?”. The only change I made was to combine two of my values (being challenged and getting feedback). I found that they were closely coupled and it made sense to have them as a single value.

I made a quick sanity check of my values by thinking about how past decisions aligned with them (e.g. choosing a university, choosing a job). I’m sure I suffered from some confirmation bias, but I felt like I could reasonably explain past decisions from these values.

Once I was happy with these values, I rewrote them (more than once) to help make the meaning clearer. I dropped the evidence section from each value — while it was helpful in defining the value, I didn’t feel it needed to be repeated here.

What are my values?

These are the values I came up with:

I value having a goal which I truly believe will benefit somebody, so that I know why I’m doing a task. It’s important to have a goal in the range of a few months to a year. The benefit is to improve someone’s life, not to make money.
I value being challenged and being pushed by someone to do better, so that I can enjoy the sense of accomplishment when I succeed. Frequent feedback is very important to let me know that I’ve done well or how to improve where I haven’t.
I value variety in day to day tasks, so that I don’t get bored. When tasks are repetitive or I can do them well, I find them boring and lose interest in doing them.
I value having a few close relationships, so that I can trust and depend on these people. I see these people regularly to share my life with them.
I value being informed, so that I can build an overall picture of what’s happening. I like to know what people are doing and why, and I join in when I think I could help or would enjoy it.
I value having a high level routine and plan, so that I can be prepared for things. Being prepared makes me feel more comfortable. I don’t like big surprises or changes.
I value being trusted to do a task, so that I can do it in the way that works best for me. I enjoy people offering help, but don’t like them checking up on me.

I want to reiterate: my values are for me. As long as I understand them, it’s not important if other people don’t.

How can my values help find the job I want?

Unfortunately, most job descriptions don’t say “we want someone who values exactly these things for exactly these reasons”. Even if they did, finding a job that matches exactly would be difficult.

I thought that an “ideal job description” would make it easier to see if a job looked right for me. I took each of my values and wrote some bullet points for how this value might present itself in a job description.

Here’s my “ideal” job:

  • Our mission is “specific thing that makes a big impact to this set of people in this way”.
  • Everything we do is towards this mission. Your team and individual goals all work towards this.
  • It’s important that everyone clearly understands the value their work provides and how it contributes to the goal and mission.
  • We frequently inspect how we can improve at all levels - individual, team and company. We take steps to make those improvements.
  • Peers regularly give each other feedback about how they’re doing to help with this improvement. Feedback highlights both things people have done well and things they haven’t done well, with reasons.
  • Your line manager exists as a coach/mentor. They help you reflect on your work and progress, help you see how to improve, and always push you to do better. Your line manager doesn’t have to be the same person as your teammates’, it is the person who can support you best.
  • You work in a team which is working towards a shared goal.
  • You get on well with your team, trusting each other and having fun.
  • We respect that people work in different ways. You work in a way that works best for you and your team.
  • Your team collaborates on most work rather than owning individual tasks, taking into account the way members of the team work.
  • Your team is made up of people with different ideas and opinions, and you understand what each person brings to the team.
  • You make mistakes but learn from them, and you ask for help where you need it.
  • You’re free to make changes that help you or your team get work done, you can remove blockers preventing you from getting work done.
  • You’re trusted to get the job done.
  • Learning is a significant part of your job. You learn new things on a day to day basis, aiming to deeply grasp a topic.
  • Work is both varied and challenging. You will be working on different things from week to week.
  • We work with the people we’re doing the work for. We get feedback as early as possible, and give them value as early as possible. We make an impact as often as we can.

What next?

I’m pleased to say that I’ve found a job which I think aligns well with my values. In September, I’ll be starting a graduate trainee course in financial management at the LGSS within Cambridgeshire County Council. I’ll be working in placements throughout the LGSS, while studying for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy’s Professional Qualification.

While reading the job description and information about the company, I felt that both aligned well with my values, my ideal job description, and ultimately what I wanted from a job. At the interview I asked questions which were important to me, and I felt that the job description was an accurate reflection of the work and the company. Finally, I made sure to be honest about my experience and what I wanted in the interview, not wanting to waste my own or their time if the job wasn’t a good fit for me.

Now that I know my values, I hope that I can use them in the future when making decisions, letting them guide me into doing things that are right for me.

There’s quite a lot of material online around values. Here’s some I found useful which I haven’t mentioned.