I find it hard to believe, but apparently, this topic has never popped up on No Kill Switch until now ... Let's talk about your ability to escalate stuff.

Without further ado, it's probably the very first skill that comes to my mind when someone asks me: what's the essential skill the junior (software craftsperson) must master before graduating (out of 'juniordom')?

'Ability to escalate' - what does it even mean?

It means that you're able to notice (and re-route directly to correct people with more autonomy/causative power) something that does appear NOT OK (hence requires attention/intervention):

  • breaking some elementary contract (assumptions, expectations, requirements, etc.)
  • a discrepancy in the communication between multiple parties (difference in understanding, interpretation, or even just vocabulary - but in a way that could cause some negative effects in the future)
  • conceptual gaps, edge cases, with a meaningful potential for a different interpretation in future
  • clear breaking of formal commitments that were not communicated in a transparent manner
  • etc.

Don't get me wrong - especially if you're a relatively fresh team member - you're NOT expected to know all the answers. Or to address all the possible issues that do pop up. But you're expected to keep the high awareness in your vicinity - trigger the alarm if things go awry and the shit is on a trajectory to hit the fan. Not in a discreet, subtle manner (a "call me when you have some time" post-it or a "meaningful face expression") - be persistent, direct, and straightforward:

"Houston, we (potentially) DO HAVE a problem here!"

Definitely, the work environment should not make it harder. I mean - occasionally, your escalation may be a false alarm. Shit happens - that should not discourage you (at all). As long as your inputs make sense (as a trigger for alarm), you should be fully covered (I mean: justified) - false positives are far less painful (when it comes to potential outcomes) than true negatives.

So if you're struggling with:

  • a judgment of what could be an issue for the product/project and what not
  • confidence to raise the issue within your work environment (team, unit)
  • ownership - becoming the first one who steps in front of the row and raises a hand

... then probably, it's either too early for you to aspire for a seniority level higher than 'junior'; or you work in a highly dysfunctional work environment that punishes all the 'healthy' escalations (hint: run, as far as you can!).

P.S. And what if I don't know WHEN to escalate? I mean: when is the situation leaning too much outside of what was expected/planned/acceptable? Then it probably means that you're moving forward without any clear success criteria. Do you think it's a good sign?

P.S.S. Obviously, there's much more behind that: WHEN to escalate (at what point), to WHOM escalate (the target audience), HOW to escalate (how should the proper message look alike) - but these aspects are far too much context-dependent to turn them all into a single blog post.

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