photo_imwright_47[1].jpgIt's the end of review season: time to reflect on your career and current situation. Some people have a career plan, know where they're at, and already have their next move lined up. I call these people "wise, successful, and yet, disturbing." Perhaps I'm jealous. After all, I should have a multistep career plan in place. But too much life seems to happen to my plans, and I find myself never quite being sure of what's coming.

That's no excuse to purely improvise either. Career improvisationists have a name too, "bitter and exploited." You need to plan enough to know what you want and how to get it. Even if you're happy with your current situation, life has a way of changing so it's best to consider your future options.

Of course, you could be ready for a change right now. Perhaps you feel dead-ended, getting by but not making any progress. Perhaps you are driving hard, but your current role is slowing you down. Perhaps you are utterly devastated—your career in shambles; your manager a nemesis; your daily job a study in panicked, misguided, and endless toil leading only to failure, waste, and uninspired mediocrity. It's time to find you a new role.

Eric Aside

I think people feel utterly devastated far more often than they actually are. Either way, considering a change would likely help you appreciate your current situation more or help you find a better one.

Now which way do we go?

If the time is right to move on, where do you go? Many jobs open up at the end of reviews because people move on, and because hiring managers can't fill positions while reviews are being written (candidates don't like giving their current manager bad news during reviews). This means many jobs will be available. How do you choose?

Naturally, you want a job where you can be challenged, make a difference, and have fun. However, there are many factors that influence enjoyment, impact, and growth. The common criteria people use to differentiate roles are:

§ The technology—what you're doing

§ The market—why you're doing it

§ The work style—how you're doing it

§ The team—who you're doing it for and with

Most engineers choose primarily based on technology. They want to work on something cool; after all, they are engineers. That's a mistake—technology comes last. You probably chose technology first for your current job, didn't you? How's that working out?

We've got a situation here

The most important criteria is the market. Is your new group working on something strategic and important, or is it one VP's bad hair day away from cancelation? There's a joke about a difficult star baseball player on a poor small market team. The manager tells him, "We can lose with you or without you." Don't join that team.

The next most important criteria is the work style. Will the job be a learning and growing experience for you, or is it the same old thing? The career model talks about this in terms of "experiences." You want variety in order to advance yourself and your career. Big groups, small teams, incubation efforts, different disciplines, and remote sites all provide unique opportunities for growth. Don't be afraid to seek something different.

However, market and work style criteria usually only help narrow down the choices. The real differentiator is the team. Whom you are working for and the people you are working with have the biggest impact on whether or not you like your next assignment, by far. The coolest technology can be made maddening by poor management. The most mundane technology can be made fascinating by your peer group. Ignore this advice at your peril.

Eric Aside

I give the same advice about college classes. The quality of the instructor is far more important than the subject.

There is nothing here for me now

By now, nearly half of you are probably saying, "That's all nice, but how do you find jobs that meet your bar? It's not like managers broadcast their incompetence and besides, good senior jobs are always gone before you can apply." Guess what? Hiring managers have the same problem finding good candidates. The solution is the same—cast a wide net and use your network.

Not all potential positions are posted and available, only the currently open ones. Savvy candidates find out about potential positions before they are posted. Naturally, the position still needs to be opened giving all candidates a chance, but the earlier you know about a job, the better chance you have of getting it. That's true inside and outside the company.

How do you find groups looking for someone like you, even before they realize it? The same way industry hires land great jobs—they use their network. As I discussed in “Get yourself connected,” having a strong network of peers is essential to your success. When you are looking for a new role, write to all of them. Yes, all of them. Ideally, potential managers will hear about you from three different friends of yours. That will make a strong impression and produce an abundance of leads.

Should you feel guilty if friends get you a great job? That depends. Did you earn it because you impressed them? It's a competitive market for talent out there. Using your connections is a measure of your influence and impact. It's the way senior people get jobs, so you better excel at it.

It's been a long time

The next hurdle to your perfect new assignment is the informational and interview loop. Pay close attention to how you are treated and how the team makes their decision. Those indications may signal how the team operates and what treatment you can expect in the future.

Prepare for the informational by learning about the team and their projects. If you've got a strong network, then some of your friends should be either on the team or have worked with them closely. Speak to them first, before talking to the hiring manager, and ask what life is really like on the team.

Eric Aside

Informationals at Microsoft are informational meetings you can request to have with hiring managers before you apply for a position.

As for information about you, be honest and forthcoming. However, no matter how bad your current situation is, never discuss your desire to leave your old team; always focus on your interest in joining the new team. That's critical, read it again. If asked why you're leaving, just say, "The opportunity on your team sounds really intriguing." If pressed you can add, "Sure, my old team is imploding, but that's not the main reason I'm talking to you." (And it shouldn't be the main reason—desperate acts rarely improve your lot.)

Should you be asked back for an interview, you might be nervous. Perhaps it's been a long time since your last loop; they are intimidating. Some people cram like they're back in college. While some mental preparation is quite helpful to boost confidence and refresh your memory, it's not the key to success.

The key is to be yourself. If you try to be someone else and get rejected, you'll never know if they misjudged you. If you try to be someone else and get accepted, you'll worry about living up to false expectations. ("Did they really want me?") Be yourself and you'll be more comfortable and confident, which always helps. You'll also know for certain whether or not you and the team are the right fit for each other.

If I go there will be trouble

What if your current team and manager don't want you to leave? What if you have critical unfinished work? What if those facts fill you with glee because members of your former group are pond scum and deserve every moment of pain and suffering you can deliver? Hold on there a minute, Mr. Kersey. Let's think this through.

Eric Aside

Yes, I am old.

First of all, no employee is indispensible. Life goes on in catastrophes far worse than you leaving a team. Therefore, guilt is inappropriate for you to feel or for your former manager to put on you. If they can't handle you leaving, then they do deserve what's coming.

That said, this is one of those times when being a professional is critical. Crazy things happen, particularly in our industry. You never know when you might need to work with or even for some of your former team again. It just isn't right to talk badly about your old team or to refuse to provide a smooth transition.

That means being up-front about interviewing, providing a transition plan, and following through within reasonable limits. Keep in mind, we are talking about a transition plan, not indentured servitude. If the work you do for your old team isn't about smoothly shifting your responsibilities to others, then it shouldn't be in the plan.

I must be travelling on now

Change is never easy, which means there's never a good time to do it. However, putting your career on hold is no good for you, your team, or Microsoft. After reviews and after shipping are great times to reflect on your career and decide if a change would do you good.

There's nothing wrong with being happy where you are, but if the moment has arrived for you to go, welcome it. Great managers will support and help you. After all, flow through their team is critical to their long term success (see “Go with the flow”).

Regardless of what's involved, finding the right challenge to learn new skills and become more valuable is well worth the trouble. Microsoft is a big place with a wide variety of opportunities. We hire the best, but you don't stay that way without working at it. The occasional change of scenery may be just what you need to stay ahead, engaged, and energized.