The AWARE Development Plan

A development plan helps everyone aim for and achieve their long-term goals in an intentional manner. Wherever you are in your career, there’s room for growth and a goal for you to work towards. Maybe your goal is a promotion? Maybe your goal is to acquire a given proficiency in a language or framework? Maybe your goal is to start your own company? Whatever it is, the development plan is your roadmap to that goal. Once you have that long-term goal, create a development plan to achieve it. Now I’m assuming there won’t be one single thing you can do to make it happen, if there was you wouldn’t need a plan. When picking a long-term goal, make sure you pick one that’s far enough out to make the goal ambitious but not so far out that you can’t define a sequence of steps to reach that goal. If you can’t define the steps to reach the goal then talk with a mentor or set a goal that you feel is along a path that you can define the steps to reach. After you have that goal, you'll iterate towards it with the AWARE Development Plan. 

Today, my job is that of an Engineering Manager at Shopify. Outside of this position I've always been a planner: an individual iterating towards one long-term goal or another. I didn’t refine or articulate my process for how I iterate towards my long-term goals until I saw members of my team struggling to define their own paths. In an effort to help and accelerate their growth, I started breaking down and articulating how I’ve iterated towards the goals in my life. The result of this work is this AWARE Development plan.

Having a goal means we have an aim or purpose.

"A goal on its own isn’t enough as a goal without a plan is just a wish."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Once you have a goal, you need to create a plan to understand how to reach those goals. Setting off towards your goal without a plan is akin to setting off on a road trip without a GPS or a clear sense of how to get to your destination. You don’t know what route you’ll take, nor when you’ll arrive. You may get to your destination, but it’s much more likely that you’ll get lost along the way. On route to your destination, you’ll undoubtedly have reference points along the way that you’ll take note of. These reference points are akin to our short and medium-term goals. Our plan has these reference points built-in, so we can constantly check-in to make sure we’re still on course. If we’re off course then we want to know sooner than later, so we can adjust, ask for directions and update the plan. The short- and medium-term goals created in your AWARE plan provide regular checkpoints along the way to your long-term goals. If we are unable to achieve short and medium-term goals we have the opportunity to lean in and course correct. Failing to course correct in these moments will result in at the very least substantial detours on the way to our goals. 


Iterating Towards My Long-Term Goals

When I grow up I want to be a… Well, what did you want to be? I wanted to be a: fighter jet pilot, police officer, lawyer, and then when things got serious, a developer. For me, long-term goal setting started with a career goal when I was younger. I set a long-term goal, figured out what goals needed to be achieved along the way, achieved those goals, reflected on them, and then looked for the next goal.

I was 12 years old when I got serious about wanting a career with computers. I had spent a bunch of time on my dad’s computer and I was hooked. But the question was: how do I make this happen? To figure this out, I started with the long-term goal of becoming a computer programmer and worked my way back. I took what I knew about my goals and figured out what I needed to do along the way to reach them. I made a plan.

A summary of my 12-year-old self’s plan:

An outlined planing working towards the long-term goal of a career in Computer Science
An outline for working towards the long-term goal of a career in Computer Science.

I looked ahead and set a long-term goal. I wanted a career as a computer programmer and to attend the University of Waterloo. I worked back from that goal to set various shorter-term goals. I needed to get good grades, get my computer, and earn some money to pay for this. I had a specific long-term goal and a set of medium and short-term goals. These medium and short-term goals moved me closer to the long-term goal one step at a time. New goals such as the purchase of a computer weren’t immediately on this plan, but this goal was added once its value became apparent to the long-term goal.

Helping Others Reach their Goals

I’ve always been interested in setting and reaching long-term goals. I’ve set and reached long-term goals in: education, software engineering career, and dance career. In my career, working both as an Engineering Manager and a dance instructor I’ve had the opportunity to work with and help individuals set and achieve their goals. What I’ve learned is that the process to achieve those goals is the same irrespective of the area of interest. The AWARE process works just as well for Dance as it does for Software Development. I’m sharing this with you because you’re the one who’s in control of you reaching your long-term goals, and yes, you can reach them. 

As a manager and instructor in both dance and Software Development, I’ve heard questions like: “What do I need to get to the next level” or “What do I need to do to get better at this” more times than I can count. In either case, my answer is the same. 

  • Start by building your development plan and work backwards from that goal to figure out what must be true for you to reach that goal. 
  • Sit down and critically think about the goal as well as the goals you must achieve along the way. 
  • Sit down and critically think about the result of your short-term goals after you achieve them.

In my experience, these are the concepts which are often not as clear-cut with other approaches one may take to reach their long-term goals. With the AWARE Development plan we are:

  • Putting the individual in the driver's seat and making them accountable for their long-term goals is key for them taking responsibility and achieving their goals. 
  • Having the individual develop an understanding of what it means to achieve their goal helps them understand where they need to grow and what opportunities they need to seek out. 
  • Creating a clear set of areas of development for which both they and I continuously look for opportunities where they can develop. 
  • Creating a clear answer to the “What’s Next?” question. We know what’s next as we can just consult our Development Plan
  • Provides (to an extent) the individual control over the speed at which they achieve their goals.

If you are an individual who is unsure of what’s next or unsure how you can reach your long-term goal I’d encourage you to give this a shot. Sit down and write a Development Plan for yourself. Once you're done, share it with your lead/manager and ask them for feedback and their opinion. They are your partner. They can work with you to find opportunities and provide feedback as you work towards your goal. 

AWARE: Aim, Work Back, Achieve, Reflect, Encore

AWARE is a way for each of us to iterate towards our long-term goals. It’s strength comes from breaking down long-term goals into actionable steps as well as reflecting on completed steps in order to provide confidence that you are on track. How does it work? Start at the end and imagine you achieved your goal. This is your long-term Aim. Now, work your way back and define what steps you need to take along the way to that outcome. You are unlikely to be able to achieve all of these Aims right away and they are often too big to achieve all at once. When you find these, break them down into smaller Aims. From here start Achieving your Aims. As you complete your Aims take time to Reflect. What did you learn? What new goals did you uncover? Was that Aim valuable? Now take your next Aim and do it all over again. Let’s dig into each step a little more.

Overview of each step: Aim, Work back, Achieve, Reflect, Encore

Overview of each step: Aim, Work back, Achieve, Reflect, Encore.



At this stage, you’ll write down your aim aka your goal. When writing your aim make sure:

  • You time box this aim appropriately.
  • That there’s a clear definition of success.
  • You have a clear set of objectives.
  • You have a clear way to measure this aim.  

Work Back

Can the current aim be broken down into smaller aims or can you immediately execute towards it? If you can’t immediately execute towards it then identify smaller aims that will lead to it. A goal is seldom achieved through the accomplishment of a single aim. Write down the aim and then work back from there to identify other aims you can perform as you iterate and move towards this larger aim. Each of these aims should:

  • have clear objectives
  • be measurable
  • be time-boxed
  • be reflected upon once it’s completed.


Now that you have a time-boxed aim, with a clear objective, and a way to measure success we’ll execute and accomplish this aim.


After you have completed your aim, it’s important to reflect upon the aim and its outcomes:

  • Did this provide the value we expected it to? 
  • What did we learn? 
  • What new aims are we now aware of that should we add to our Development Plan?
  • What would you do differently next time if you were to do it again?


Now that you have completed an aim, repeat the process. Aim again and continue to work towards your long-term goal.

Aim and Work Back Example

I recently had a team member who expressed that their goal was to run their own software company one day. Awesome! They have a long-term goal. One specific worry they had was onboarding new developers to this company. Specifically, they wanted to know how to have them be impactful in a “timely manner.”  They identified that having impactful developers for their startup was important early on and could be the difference between success and failure for their company. What a great insight! So working back from their long-term goal we’ve identified “being able to onboard new developers in an organization promptly” to be an aim in the plan. In breaking down this aim, we were able to find two aims they could execute over the next eight months to grow this skill set:

  1. One area we identified right away was mentoring an intern and new hires, so we added this to their plan. This aim was easy to set up: you'll onboard an intern in one of the upcoming terms and be responsible for onboarding them to the team and mentoring them while they’re here. 
  2. This team member presented the idea of taking four months away from our team to join an onboarding group that was working to decrease the onboarding time for new developers joining Shopify. This opportunity was perfect. You can practice onboarding developers to our company. You can see firsthand what works and what doesn’t while helping develop the process here.

With this individual we have :

  • A long-term goal: start your own software company.
  • A medium-term aim working towards that long-term goal: learn how to accelerate the onboarding of new hires.
  • Two short-term aims that work towards the medium-term aim:
    • Buddy an intern or new hire to the team. 
    • Mentor for four months as part of the company’s onboarding program.

By setting the long-term goal and working back, we were able to work together to find opportunities in the short term that would grow this individual towards their long-term goal. Once they complete any one of these aims they’ll reflect on how it went, what was learned and then decide if there’s anything to add to the Development Plan as we continue on their path towards the long-term goal. In the provided example we think we have all of the shorter-term Aims required to reach the longer-term goals flushed out from the start. This won’t be the case and may not be true. That’s ok. Take it step-by-step and execute on the things you know and append the plan when you reflect.

Bonus Tip: Sharing

Once you have an aim. Share it! Share it with your lead/manager, and if you're comfortable with the idea, your colleagues. Sharing your goals with others will help ensure the right growth opportunities are available when you are ready for them. What follows when you share your plan:

  1. New opportunities will present themselves because others are aware of your goals and can therefore share relevant opportunities with you.
  2. You will see opportunities for growth that may not have initially been obvious to you.

Sharing your aim will enable you to proceed to your goals at a faster rate than if you were working at this alone.

Tips for Using the AWARE Development Plan

I provide this development plan template to team members when they join my team. I also ask them to write down their long-term goals and to time box this long-term goal to at most five years. This is usually far enough out that there’s some uncertainty but doesn’t prevent developing a plan. We then work back from that long-term goal and identify shorter-term aims (usually over the next one to two years) that moves them towards this goal. The work of identifying these aims can be done together, but I also encourage them to drive this plan as much as possible. They have to do some thinking and bring ideas to the table as well. 


To help with their aim I ask questions like: 

  • What does success look like for you in these time frames? 
  • What do we need to do to achieve this aim?
  • How will we know if we’ve achieved this aim? 
  • What opportunities are available today to start progressing towards this aim?
  • How does some of the current work you’re doing tie into this aim?

Work Back

Once we have an aim, we need to ask: is this something I can achieve now? If yes, you can move on to Achieve. If it’s a no, not at this time, the situation should be one that you and your lead/manager agree that you’re ready for this aim, but you’re unable to locate an opportunity to achieve it. Finally, if it’s ano, you’re unable to achieve this aim at this precise moment, you’ll need to work back from it to find other aims that are along the right path. For instance, this aim may require me to have a certain degree or set of experiences that I’m missing. If this is the situation, simply work back until you find the aims that are achievable. Document all discovered aims in your development plan so you and your lead can pursue them in due time.


You have an aim that you can execute now. It has a clear set of objectives, and its success is measurable. Do it!


You completed your aim. Amazing! Once you’ve completed an aim, it’s important to take some time to reflect on it. This is a step most folks want to skip as they don’t see the value but it’s the most important. Don’t skip it! Ask yourself: 

  • What did we learn? 
  • Did we get what we thought we would out of it?
  • What would we do differently next time?
  • What new aims should we add to our plan based on what we know now?

Maybe there’s a follow-up aim that you didn’t know about before you started this aim. Maybe you learned something and you want or need to pivot your aim or long-term goal? This is your chance to get feedback and course correct should you need or want to detour. Going back to our driving example from earlier. When we are driving towards a destination and aren’t paying attention to our surroundings, or checking on our route, we’re far more likely to get lost. So take a minute when you complete an aim and check in on your surroundings. Am I still on course? Did I take a wrong turn? Is there another route available to me now?

Encore: Maintenance of the Development Plan

We have to maintain this Development Plan after we create it. Aims can change and opportunities arise. When they do, we need to adjust. My team and I check in on our plan during our weekly one on ones. At these meetings, we ask:

  • If an aim has been completed, what’s the next aim that you will work on?
  • What opportunities have come up, and how do they tie into your plan? 
  • Is there something in another task that came up that contributes to an aim? 
  • Are we still on track to reach our aims in the timeframe we set?
  • Did we complete an aim? Let’s make sure we reflect.

If the answer is yes to any of these that’s great! Call it out! Be explicit about it. Learning opportunities are magnified when you are intentional about them. 

The Path to Success Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

The path to success is often said to look something like this:

An arrow where the shaft is tied in many loops and knots

An arrow shaft tied in many loops.

But it doesn’t have to be quite as complex a ride. Get a mentor, some directions, and form a plan. Make sure this plan iterates towards your goal and has signposts along the way so you can check in to know you’re on track. This way If you miss a turn, it’s no big deal. It’ll happen. The difference for you is that you’ll know sooner than later that you’re off track and thus you’ll be able to course-correct earlier. At the end of the day your path to success may look like this:

A depiction of an easier path to success. The arrow shaft has less knots that the previous image.

An easier path to success moving forward.

If you haven’t already done so: sit down with your lead or manager, write a plan, figure out what is needed for you to reach your long-term goal. Then start iterating towards it.

David Ward is a Development Manager who has been with Shopify since 2018 and is working to develop: Payment Flexibility, Draft Orders, and each member of the team. Connect with David on Twitter, GitHub and LinkedIn.

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