J.D. Meier's Blog

Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness

Thinking About Career Paths

Thinking About Career Paths

  • Comments 2

I'd like to share some of the insights that others have shared with me over the years about choosing paths.  My favorite insights have always been guiding questions that help me choose my own adventure.

Mentor #1

  • Do you want more fame, fortune, time, or love?
  • Do you want to be a thought leader or a people leader?

Mentor #2

  • What are you doing that you currently enjoy?
  • What do you want to do more of each day?
  • What do you want to do less of each day?

Mentor #3

  • What problems are you working on?
  • Who are you working with?
  • What impact are you making?

As more folks ask me about their careers, I've found myself talking about three things  

  1. Your network helps you.  It's a small world.  Don't burn bridges.  The best networkers I know, balance their weaknesses through strengths in others.
  2. Your career is a portfolio of experiences.  What do you want under your belt?  A twist on this is, what are the unique experiences you can have, where you are right now?  For example, what sort of things can I do at Microsoft that I wouldn't do anywhere else and how do I make the most of it?
  3. Your approach sustains you.  Knowledge is very transient.  It's how you learn and how you adapt that carries you forward.
  • I think the last bullet point from Mentor #3 is worth elaborating on--especially since the goals given by Mentor #1/#2 can be counter-productive to that point.

    Sometimes it's not enough to "do what it is you want to do" (in service to any of the goals Mentor #1/#2 gave above). You also have to consider "what is it that gives value to my employer?"  I've seen folks who were very happy in their job, doing what they love, but lost sight of the fact... it didn't add value. In some cases that was "it didn't add value anymore" and in other cases it was "it never added value and management has finally realized their mistake."  Management isn't always going to be fair or upfront about where on the these two ends of the spectrum you happen to have landed. The needs of an organization change--whether "right" or not. Whether you agree with them or not. The net result was a dismayed look on the employee's face when they got their "Reduction In Force" notice and had only 6 weeks (for example) to relocate within the company or vacate their office.  Sometimes not even that long—the RIF notice arrived along with security personnel to assist in the packing of their office and provide a friendly escort out of the building. In every case I can think of—there were warning signs, sometimes as blatant as "I think less than 50% of the current organization will be here in a year"—and rather than face that, were in denial right up to the point they were escorted out of the building by security.

    This also ties into my next thought... complacency.  When serving your own goals (again with regards to Mentor #1/#2), have you stopped growing in ways that the company will value?  Compound this with "how long have you been doing it?" There is (with both some legitimacy, but only some) in the perception that someone who stays too long in a single position is "just marking time."  Sometimes this perception is not true—and if you continue to have value-add, more power to you. But do the people around you know this? Do you have as much relative value-add as when you first started and were climbing the learning curve and working hard to make sure you mastered the skills, process and relationships  the position required? Sometimes the perception is true—but are you looking closely enough to see it? Denial is a comfortable place to remain in—it's familiar and less risky than looking critically at yourself, and the organization around you. If the reality is that you have grown complacent and stopped growing--then give yourself a kick in the rear. This doesn't mean quit your current job, but it does mean stop being stagnant. The folks who got RIF'd that I mentioned?  Most of them were extremely complacent—so much so that they ignored the warning signs that they had decreasing value.

    This is balanced against passion, sometimes mis-placed. I've seen several individuals who were so passionate about evolving the business model, about pushing the outside of the envelope, about transformation of the organization--which they didn't really bother much with doing their job. The current "state of the business" was... boring. Inefficient. Not worth their time. So they were given the opportunity to spend their time elsewhere.  In the process of ensuring you have value-add, and avoiding complacency (real or perceived)--have you gone too far on the spectrum to the point that your co-workers wonder when it is you bother to get any work done--and how much your impacting them in the process. The net moral of the story being... don't forget to do what it is your current job description says you should be doing even while serving your (or the organizations) longer term goals.

  • Don - great points and nice elboration!

    I think you brought to life several ideas ...

    * do you make value or just do your time?

    * do you practice anticipation or live in constant surprise?

    * do you drive-change or get run over?

    * can you roll with the punches?

    * do you have fallback positions?

    From a practical standpoint, here's some things I do that help me ...

    * try to work myself out of a job

    * set a bar higher for myself than anybody has ever set for me

    * keep an eye on market demands and trends

    * check the goals up the chain to see what folks are really doing vs. say they're doing

    * check open headcount to see if the org is growing or dying

    * check vision to see if folks in the org have a story that motivates and resonates

    * evaluate intrinsic value vs. market value

    * make growth a part of your job whether it's improving a skill, improving yourself, or improving others

    * adopt a life of continuous improvement

    The two most powerful lessons for me have been,

    1. people matter more than the work (the worst of jobs, was the best of jobs, with the right mix of people)

    2. your work is what you make of it

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