This is in response to a comment from Ask a Manager, a blog I just discovered while I was setting this one up. I’m already spending way too much time over there.
On a comment I made about not getting stuck in your job someone asked me to share my experiences about improving my career. This is deeply personal but I do want to help others so here goes.
I stumbled into the technology field during the end of the dotcom days and right before the bubble burst. I was hired into a company to learn how to program. I had some technology skills but my degree was in a different field. The understanding was that they could build on my existing knowledge and turn me into a programmer. Unfortunately, my trainer and supervisor was actually a complete fraud and didn’t teach me anything. He gave me some very negative performance reviews because I was struggling on learning how to program despite the fact that his own skills were very suspect. I did eventually find some books and learned how to code but I continued to struggle for years with condescending co-workers and management. I was miserable for my first few years.
Eventually I was let go right during the heyday of the dotcom bust. I had a degree in a non-technology field, no experience in that field, and less than the magical “5 years experience” that everyone seemed to want. I was out of work for 6 months before I found a crappy little subcontractor position at a major financial institution. I was so beaten down by this point that I was convinced I was going to be fired. I felt like a useless fraud who had utterly failed in his career and was failing to support his family. Worse, I felt trapped because I didn’t know what else to do.
At the beginning of this new job I didn’t have much to do but think, so I made sure to take time off at lunch and just thought things through. Did I really want to be in technology? Did I need to go back to working security somewhere? Did I need to rethink my whole life goals? I did something that I read about Colin Powell doing when he was trying to decide whether or not to stay in the Army and become the new Chief-of-Staff. I made a list of all the things I liked about technology and all the reasons I should leave. I decided I would give this job a chance and see not only if I could do it, but if I would enjoy it. If not, well then it was time to do something else.
Amazingly, when I didn’t have people constantly telling me how bad I was I could accomplish a lot. I created a brand new web-based application for communicating data issues out to senior executives and business analysts all by myself. I gathered the requirements, I built prototypes, I ran usability sessions to test the UI on actual users. I did everything. I read books. I read a lot of books. I constantly rewrote my code and I approached the job with no ego. If I found a better way of doing something, I did it. If someone looked at a piece of code and questioned my process I would walk through their critique and if it led to a better design I incorporated it. I eventually turned that job into a full-time consulting gig, eventually moving into a large firm. I embraced challenges and became the primary problem-solver and “go to” guy for every project I was assigned.
For people who feel “stuck”, like they are in the wrong place, ask yourself what do you really want to do. Maybe you are in the right place and maybe you are not. Have you really evaluated it? What would it take for you to go do something else? Learning new skills, attending classes, reading books, and growing your network all takes time and effort. The problem is, the longer you wait the longer it will take to get where you want to go.
Here’s my perspective though. You can’t be happy in life if your job makes you miserable. There is no work/life balance. As long as you need a job, your job will have an impact on your life. Find out what you want to do and figure out how to make it happen. Maybe you don’t have the skills for your dream job. What skills or talents do you have that would make you happy? Remember that every job has its drawbacks. I had to pay my dues as a programmer before I got choice assignments, and even that didn’t happen until after I found a passion for my work. Don’t get discouraged or give up though and don’t surrender to being “stuck”. Every job is an opportunity, so find out how you can make the most out of yours. Even if it is just a paycheck to support you until you can pursue the job you want.