Career Growth and Career Development: What’s the Difference?

Development is what you do to get better at your job — growth is the big picture. It’s important to plan for both.
Sunny Betz
May 23, 2021
Updated: August 19, 2021
Sunny Betz
May 23, 2021
Updated: August 19, 2021

One way to grow in your tech career is through meticulous study. Mike Hendrickson, the vice president of tech and development products at Skillsoft, is an obsessive learner. When he started out in tech, he researched the industry trying to learn as much as he could and took advantage of every opportunity available to grow his career.

“At that time, I subscribed to virtually every tech magazine available. I read at the gym. I read at night. I completely immersed myself in things I knew little about but knew I would benefit from learning about in depth,” he said. He built his skill set piece by piece, and eventually, all his work paid off. His passion for education and career development led him to his role at Skillsoft, a corporate e-learning company based in Nashua, N.H., where he builds products designed to build leadership and business skills.

Career development vs. career growth

Career development is achieved by building skills in the short term while career growth is the big picture, the overall progress of someone’s professional life — it’s defined by the different roles and responsibilities you take on throughout your career journey.

Commitment to career development can steer the course of your career growth. Instead of randomly choosing which skills to build upon, Hendrickson had a vision of where he wanted his career to take him, and pushed himself to get there.

Planning around your career development is essential for reaching your goals, but career growth is more than just the sum of your workplace accomplishments and hard skills. “Combine your tech and business skills with your human skills — intangible qualities, like tenacity, self-motivation, good listening skills, persuasiveness, sense of humor, and the ability to connect with people,” Hendrickson said. “That is a winning formula for anyone wanting career growth.”

 

Sync Development and Growth Goals

The phrases career development and career growth are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually different. Think of it like this: You need to develop your career in order to grow.

Career development is achieved by building skills in the short term. Learning a hard skill like programming, or a soft skill like effective listening, could all be a part of your career development plan. 

Career growth refers to the big picture, the overall progress of someone’s professional life — it’s defined by the different roles and responsibilities you take on throughout your career journey. While it’s easier to manage your career development, growth is a little trickier because it can be affected by your environment and available opportunities. 

Think of your career development plan like the foundation of a house — the more carefully you structure it, the stronger the final product will be.

The more you take charge of your career development, the more you can influence your career growth. Think of your career development plan like the foundation of a house — the more carefully you structure it, the stronger the final product will be.

“While some career development happens naturally as you work and learn from coworkers, dedicating time to growing and expanding your skill set can accelerate the speed of career growth and lead to new opportunities,” Hendrickson said.

There’s nothing wrong with working to become a CEO, but it’s important to remember that growth isn’t always vertical. Consider your career values and how your work aligns with them. 

“Career growth can, of course, include getting a promotion and becoming a manager or team lead,” said Kevin Wu, founder and CEO of Pathrise, an online tech mentorship company based in San Francisco. “But it can also mean moving into a role that better suits your goals, taking on a project where you can showcase your knowledge, and receiving positive feedback from your managers.”

Ultimately, you should be the one to define what growth means to you.

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Develop a Game Plan

It’s important to develop a detailed plan for how you’ll achieve your development goals, both to hold yourself accountable to reaching them and also keeping them in line with your greater growth goals. Think about your dream role and figure out a path from point A to point B that’s manageable and realistic for you.

“Find someone who works in your goal position, then make a list of what you need to get to that role in five to 10 years.”

Take a look at job postings for roles you want, make a list of all the skills they call for, and make a plan to learn them. You can also network with others in your industry and set up informational interviews to get a sense of different career journeys. See what you can borrow from their experience and apply to your own plan.

“When you have figured out where your goals lie, then you can start to develop strategies for getting there,” said Wu. “Find someone who works in your goal position, then make a list of what you need to get to that role in five to 10 years. What skills do they have that you need?”

 

Look to Your Managers for Assistance

A company that values its employees should offer career development resources. “Companies who put an emphasis on career development and employee upskilling will have a leg up on the competition both in their industry and when it comes to employee satisfaction,” Hendrickson said. 

“Being upfront and honest can lead to more opportunities.”

Once you’ve developed your short- and long-term game plans, ask your leadership what they can do to get you there. It will show your employer that you’re invested in becoming the best employee you can be. 

There are a variety of ways that your company can help you grow. Benefit packages can include a stipend or reimbursement for online courses or graduate degrees, Wu said. Some companies also host lunch and learn events or educational sessions that focus on building relevant skills. If there are training or development resources you’d like to see that your company doesn’t provide, bring it up to your manager and explain how it can make you a better employee. 

“Say you’re a developer, but you’re really interested in data science,” said Matt Jackson, Salesforce developer at Chicago-based software company LaunchPad Lab. “If you let your manager know it’s something you’re passionate about, they might be able to find an AI or predictive analytics project that you could work on. Being upfront and honest can lead to more opportunities.”

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Learn Through Observation

Find someone within your company in a role you’re curious about exploring and ask if you can shadow them for a day — you’ll learn about their responsibilities and discover what skills they rely on to complete them.

“Asking questions is one of the most effective ways to develop your career,” said Wu.

You can also watch YouTube videos on tech skills, take online courses, and join a forum to ask questions. StackOverflow is a site Hendrickson recommends for conversations, questions and answers around tech and programming. 

“If you’re trying to branch out and grow your career, you’ll need a combination of self-directed learning, a good network of people that you trust and hard work,” said Jackson.

Focus on taking initiative. If you want to move into a leadership role, offer to take the lead on a project with a cross-functional team. Pick up freelance projects or work on teaching yourself a new coding stack at a bootcamp. Another option: Create a portfolio and start a blog to track your progress so you’ll be able to show others what you’ve done. 

 

Find Support in Your Network

The most effective way to ensure you meet your goals is to have someone who can hold you accountable to reaching them. This guidance might take the form of a mentorship, but you can also ask friends or peers to help keep track of your progress more informally. 

“You can really benefit from having a good network of other people who you feel comfortable asking for help,” Jackson said. “Having work friends that are willing to jump on a Zoom call and help you figure out a problem is a great way to build your confidence.”

If you are looking for a mentor, know that mentorship is a two way street — you’ll only get out as much as you give in. “Establish a reasonable cadence for meetings so that neither of you feels overwhelmed and remember that they won’t be able to provide the answer to every question you ask,” said Wu. “Moreover, it is not their job to provide all of the answers. Instead, you should be spending time doing research and working on your own and then come to them for guidance and support.”

 

Get out of your comfort zone

“Certifications and new skills definitely play a part in career growth, but I think what’s most important is getting outside of your comfort zone a little bit, taking on projects that make you kind of scared,” Jackson said. 

Long before he joined the LaunchPad Lab, Jackson did freelance video production in Portland, Oregon. When he made the leap from video production to coding, he wasn’t sure if he’d be successful. “I thought you had to be a math genius to write code,” he said. He joined the Epicodus bootcamp, where he learned JavaScript and HTML. “I was just working and grinding away at it for hours,” he said. “Eventually I had that light bulb moment where it all clicked and I understood what I was doing.” 

“Just keep doing the work, and you’ll wind up getting an opportunity that you’re really happy with.”

It can be challenging but stick with your game plan, Jackson said. The bootcamp gave him all the skills necessary to begin his new path, but he says what truly sparked his career growth was jumping into an unfamiliar situation and learning on the fly. 

Taking on challenging projects and pushing yourself beyond what you already know will not only make you a more valuable tech worker, it will also boost your confidence. You may not see results right away, but if you maintain your commitment, the rewards will only multiply. “Just keep doing the work, and you’ll wind up getting an opportunity that you’re really happy with.”

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