In light of BillG's announcement that he will, over the next two years, transition to full-time work at the Gates Foundation, lots of people are talking about Gates, the man, and his contribution to the industry. There's talk from folks who had the opportunity to meet him. There's talk about what made him successful. Listening to (or reading) all of this, and not having a first-hand BillG story myself, what I can offer is my perspective on what it was about Bill that made him successful and how it applies to your job search. I'm not implying that no other factors exists (frankly, the availability of a computer lab to junior high students probably started the whole thing...I'm sure there's someone that deserves a pat on the back for that), just focusing on what it is about Bill.
Pardon the pun, but this one's a bit of a no-brainer, don't you think? There's no doubt that Bill is a very smart man. I'm excited to see him focus his brain on some larger problems in the world. Chalk it up to genetics, good parenting, the availability of resources to Bill at a young age. Just because he was smart didn't guarantee success but it's hard to be successful without it.
Relevance to your career? Well, companies want employees with strong core competencies. That doesn't mean recruiting Mensa members. It means assessing open roles with regard to key people attributes that will have the highest potential to lead to success in the role. When writing the job description (at least an effective one), we have to think about those kinds of things. As someone managing your career you should too.
I remember, earlier in my career, having a conversation with my dad about what professional path I should take. He told me that I had a "personality for sales" (which I think of as an observation, not necessarily a compliment/criticism). I recall responding, in a rare moment of clarity in my then 26-year-old life, that just because I was good at something didn't mean I wanted to do it. What I really meant is that I need too much control in my life to be comfortable with sales cycles, but I digress. Some years later (wouldn't you like to know how many?), I find myself in a position where I am kind of selling. Hmm, there was something to what Dad said. The key is applying your talents to the right kind of work.
That might mean figuring out the color of your parachute, asking peers what they see as your strengths or just a little introspection. It means thinking about what you like about what you do, aspects of other career paths that interest you, what your competencies are and identifying the career paths that exist where all those things converge. Would I ever see myself going into a true sales role? Nope. But applying some aptitude to my current role definitely benefits me in my career.
The key thing about timing, I think, is awareness that an opportunity exists. Think about McDonald's or Starbucks; two companies that identified and filled a market need when the time was right. Same goes for the computer industry. I remember those IBM punch cards (only vaguely...that's my story and I'm sticking to it). Without people understanding that the time was right to move technology forward, we would not have gotten from there to here. That's what Bill did.
There's no end to the annual reports on "hot careers" at any given time. Go on the career sites of major employers and you can write your own report. Listen to the news: computer science grad rates dropping (there's an opportunity), increased usage of the web for social networking (there's an opportunity). Ask me what we are hiring for at Microsoft and I can rattle off a bunch of different areas that I think are "hot" here right now.
I think that too often, people manage a career search with blinders on. Yes, focus on roles for which you are uniquely qualified. But it a wise career manager that takes into account pockets of opportunity; where they can apply their qualifications. Think about finance professionals and Sarbannes-Oxley compliance. Think about web developers and increase of ecommerce. I could go on but you get my point. Aside from applying your skill set, seek out opportunities when the time is right.
What we now know as Microsoft started with a teenager's passion for computers. Without that, Bill could have focused on something else...maybe following his dad into the legal field. I think "passion" is a bit of an over-used word, especially here at Microsoft, though I'd have a hard time coming up with a word to replace it. Simply, it is something you care so deeply about that you are willing to sacrifice other things. Passion for something invites risk and there are plenty of start-ups to prove that (and even more people with now defunct companies on their resume to show for it...I applaud the risk-takers). It might even explain why I am writing this on a Saturday morning in my pajamas...I'm just saying.
Passion is what makes it fun to come to work every day and it's what allows us to overcome fear of failure. Passion for the candidate experience is what made me get over the fear of being fired and start blogging (2 years later, I am still doing it). Hey, it doesn't always work out but when it does, it's a lot easier getting out of bed in the morning.
We are not all in a position to do work that we are really passionate about, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't aspire to. The key is knowing what that is, applying our core skills and jumping at the opportunity when it arises.
What part does luck play in all of this?
Those of you who know me, or at least read my blog regularly, know that I think the concept of luck is total bunk. Even people who win the lottery have to go buy the ticket (not something I'd necessarily recommend, by the way, but to each his own). I find that most often, people that use "luck" to describe someone else's success say more about themselves than the person they refer to. Specifically, they begrudge someone their successes and show a lack of depth in the analysis of what got the successful individual where they are. It also may provide the individual an opportunity to believe that similar success will come to them with no effort on their part...yeah, right!
"Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect"---Ralph Waldo Emerson (Props to The Quotations Page)
I guess my point with all of this is that success isn't something that "happens to people", it's something that people make happen (I find that kind of empowering). I think of all that Bill Gates put into Microsoft so that definitely lends to the gravity of his announcement this week, positively balanced by the fact that all of the things that have made him successful are going to be applied toward bigger issues (and not to get too sappy but I think the world will be a better place for it). I don't think that Bill Gates is the only model of success, but I do think that now, as people are taking stock of his career and contributions to the industry, it's easy to pull out the few main things that have led to his success and consider how they could apply to our own careers. I'd love to be able to make an announcement someday that includes the words "great wealth", wouldn't you?