Embracing your career journey, in three acts
Your work career is a unique thing. Many people choose a profession with minimal information in high school (hmm, that sounds fun, I have no idea what a normal day looks like in that profession, but I’ll try that). Maybe that first choice didn’t work and you ended up with your second or third choice before you found something that worked. However you got there, you then do that thing for 40+ years or so, and you spend a good portion of waking hours doing that thing. So needless to say, work is a big deal.
I think of my career in thirds. In the first third, I was learning, figuring what I wanted to do, gaining experience, meeting people, formulating new ideas, trying things. Towards the end, I’ll be focusing on the post-career transition and what I need to do to get there. But in the middle, the time I’m entering now, I feel like I’m in the prime of my career. I have the skills, knowledge, and experience to make a difference and do something great.
When you’re early in your career, you don’t have as much experience, as much knowledge, as many connections, and potentially as much financial stability. You’re still trying to figure out life, what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a spouse or a parent, or where you want to live. Maybe you don’t even know what job you want to have long term, or you’re trying to decide if you should go back to school. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you might not even know what questions to ask.
When I think about my career, I can pick out times where I made proactive decisions that opened the door to a set of opportunities that weren’t previously possible. For me, those decisions were moving to Columbus for my second job, speaking at conferences, and doing independent consulting.
When I graduated college in 2002, I graduated into a recession, and I had only one job offer. This meant I had to move to a city I hadn’t planned on living in (Ann Arbor, MI) where we didn’t have any friends, not to mention this was probably the last place a diehard Buckeye fan would choose to live (I grew to like it, for what it’s worth). I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted my career to look like, I was just glad that I had a job doing the thing I studied in college. It was a good job, I did well, and after a year of C++ I was able to move to .NET (back in the .NET 1.1 days when generics weren’t even a thing yet).
One of the biggest mistakes that many people make is that they stay at their first job too long. The problem with staying too long is that you never learn that the world is bigger than what you currently see, and you limit your learning potential by limiting it to the small field of vision that you got at your first job, which chances are wasn’t a top notch job anyway. (If you happen to start out in a great spot, good for you, you can ignore this paragraph.)
After 3 years, we moved to Columbus, another place where we didn’t have any friends, but it sounded like a cool place to live. I joined a local consulting company that (unbeknownst to me) was assembling a really solid team of developers, and I lucked into a great situation. It was here that I learned the value of the software development community, started this blog (in 2007!), and started speaking at conferences.
A funny thing happens when you start speaking at conferences – all of a sudden people think that you really know what you’re talking about, and that’s not limited just to the topics you were presenting on. I guess my presentations were good enough that people didn’t hate it (maybe that would’ve had the opposite effect). I think I did know what I was talking about, but at times it felt like people gave me more credit than I deserved, which I suppose isn’t a bad thing.
After 4 years of working at the consulting company (my second job), I went into independent consulting. Some people acted like this was a big risk. After all, if you don’t have a gig, you don’t get paid, and you have to worry about non-paying clients and taxes and Quickbooks and things like that. I did it for three reasons – I saw how the good people at our consulting company never had any downtime between assignments, how much of my bill rate went to the middleman, and I wanted a career path that led to growth but didn’t force me into a non-technical management role. So I found a way to make my own career path. It gave me more freedom to decide where I worked (I took a job working with my friends where I would learn Ruby on Rails and be 10 minutes from my house, even if it meant less money). I was no longer limited by career paths and promotions and job titles, I was only worth whatever people would pay me. It was a calculated risk – yeah, I might end up with no work (and no paycheck), but I earned more money when I was working to make up for it. Those were some of the best years of my career, and I learned a ton as a result.
Looking back at this stage, I wish I had someone to guide me along the way. A lot of things worked out well, but I lucked into some of it and wasted some time and learning opportunities just because I didn’t know what I was missing.
Eventually I decided that maybe leadership roles weren’t just endless meetings, spreadsheets, and the abandonment of all of my hard earned technical skills. I made the leap into leadership roles because I wanted to find a way to create exponential value. If I were a great developer, I could make a big impact, but I was intrigued by the idea that in a leadership role, I could potentially help a large group of people level up and therefore make an even larger impact. I got to see some leaders do this, and the breadth and depth of their impact was immense. I thought I had some ideas that could work, so I went for it.
Leadership roles are a lot harder, mostly on the mental and emotional side. Sometimes you have to have the will to lead people in a direction with no one there to support you. You have to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. You have to deal with the ramifications of your mistakes. You have to create things from nothing, and figure it out as you go.
The main advice I give people in this stage of life is to maximize the upside. There are many opportunities that come along that in some ways may feel risky. But the real risk is that you let fear keep you from taking advantage of an opportunity that could lead to something great.
I want to maximize the upside because I feel like I can do something great. I might not always end up in a situation that enables that to happen, but I will learn something in the process. I need to keep trying to maximize the upside until I find a way to succeed, because I believe that one of these times I’m going to find a way to really make an impact.
That doesn’t mean that it’s going to come easy. Hard things are hard. Things were much easier earlier in my life, earlier in my career. I have a lot more responsibility now, a lot more stress, many more challenges, but also a lot more potential. Sometimes it feels like climbing a mountain to get to the top. In a way, it was a little simpler back when I didn’t even know the mountain was there. But now that I see it there, I don’t want to step back from the challenge.
I reached a turning point in my career when I started believing that I was capable of succeeding in a situation where I didn’t know that I was doing. We all feel comfortable when we’re in our sweet spot, where we’re doing something we’ve done for years, when we’re doing something that’s easy. When things aren’t easy, are you confident in your ability to succeed? Are you confident that you will be able to figure it out as you go?
It doesn’t matter if you failed at something in the past. All that means is that you tried one way and it didn’t work, which means you learned something that can help you be more successful next time, which makes now a better time than ever to be confident. We encourage our kids to have this “growth mindset”, but we might need it more than they do.
This is also a busy time of life for many people. Many people have families, with kids in school and sports and other things. There are a lot of things that are good, but it can also be tiring and stressful. While these things are hard, it’s also extremely helpful because it’s forced me to ruthlessly prioritize how I spend my time and make sure that I’m doing the highest value things, at home and at work. I feel like I have a much clearer understanding of my priorities.
It’s hard to think about the last third of my career, because I’m not there yet. I imagine there is some aspect of seeing the finish line and figuring out how you want to get there.
I don’t ever want to mail it in and quit striving to be great. This applies to retirement as well. I might live 30-40 years after I retire, by then we will probably have many more ways to keep me alive. Sure, I’ll be more tired, my health won’t be as great. But I can’t imagine a life where I quit doing anything meaningful and just sit on a beach collecting seashells. If I’m still breathing, I want to be making an impact. That will look a lot different then I imagine, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out.
Early in my career, I was constantly learning and absorbing. The older I get, the more I see opportunities to give back and help others (while continuing to learn). I imagine that as I go, I will find more and more ways to pay it forward, invest in the lives of others, train the next generation of leaders, and maybe be able to make an impact at a larger scale.
Embracing the journey
Regardless of whatever stage you are in, it’s not about the goal, the destination, your dream job, your dream role, a job at a certain company, or any amount of money or notoriety. The journey is the goal. Every day, you have a chance to get better, to make an impact, to make a difference. That long series of steps will create a career trajectory that will take you somewhere, hopefully somewhere good. The important part is what you do today. What step will you take next?