My first code deployment was a disaster. I was carrying a box filled with hundreds of carefully sequenced punched cards, each with 80 characters of expertly crafted Fortran. I had carefully drawn a diagonal line across the top edge of the stack with a black marker — a visual indicator in case any of the cards got out of order. I was heading toward the computer room where a hungry IBM giant was waiting to gobble up my masterpiece, filling its belly with my extremely efficient instructions on how to do something I fantasized was so important that the fate of the company depended on it.
As I turned the corner, envisioning the executive dining room lunch I would undoubtedly be invited to by the CEO once he heard how I had single-handedly and only three weeks out of college saved the company from ruin — BOOM! — I collided with a mail cart and my firstborn flew into the air, a torrent of perforated perfection. My colleagues found this hysterical while I wondered if it was an omen for the mysterious career in “computer science” that lay ahead.
That story came to mind as I sat down and reflected on my career, trying to mine a nugget of wisdom that might be mildly interesting to those who are now just starting out. While I didn’t have many role models back then — computer science was so new — I imagine software engineers today face similar uncertainty about what the next 30 to 40 years might hold for them, with everything evolving so rapidly. It got me thinking about how important it is for each of us to take ownership of our career paths.
Building a career is hard, and there are a lot of shortcuts. One of the most common is “following the crowd,” or learning only the most popular technologies and working desperately hard to get in the door at only the hottest companies doing the sexiest thing of the moment. While that may be a valid and successful choice for some, I would argue that designing a career specific to your talents and passions will maximize your value to employers and your own job satisfaction. Two specific things that can help you design your career are 1) finding great mentors and 2) taking some side trips along the way.
One of my most influential mentors was also one of the most unlikely. He and I could not have been more different; he was the head of the facilities department and had a big, loud, Type A personality. On the surface, I saw little of myself in him and he wasn’t an obvious choice for a mentor. I was looking for a role model, someone to become, but I learned that the best mentors don’t help you become them; they help you become the best you.
We would often grab a beer after work and, between telling jokes to the bartender and flirting with the waitresses, he would ask me questions that helped me better understand my varied interests and how I might connect them in my career. Good mentors don’t talk a lot about themselves; they listen and learn about you. I enjoyed telling stories about volunteer work I was doing as a crisis counselor. He started connecting the dots between that work and the skills that I could apply as a manager, such as communications and empowerment. At the time I was a bit afraid of a management track, but he helped me see not only the possibility of being successful as a manager, but also how it tied in with some of my unique skills and passions.
Look beyond the obvious places for mentors. They don’t need to be older or more experienced. They don’t even have to be in your field. They should be people who want to get to know you, who can help you better know yourself, and who can encourage you to explore and take risks.
Explore Something Different
Side trips are explorations that sometimes seem off the beaten track but could potentially uncover new interests and new directions for your career. I took a fairly long side trip early on in my career when I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a lifetime commitment to software development. I was always interested in finance, so I got an MBA and worked for a few years in that field. My passion for technology kept calling me back, and ultimately I forged a career that successfully married these two disciplines.
But side trips can be on a much smaller scale — playing with a new technology, shadowing a colleague in a different department, or taking a course in something you’ve heard about. It’s about hopping off the tour bus and exploring something different. You will discover interests and passions you may not even have been aware of. The more possible paths you can visualize, the more empowered you are to map out your own unique journey.
Use the passions and strengths that make you one of a kind as guides in designing your career. Go your own way.
Written by Greg Paris, Senior Manager, Enterprise Applications