A few days ago I was asked by a client to describe how it was that I got to where I am today. More specifically, how I was able to build my skillset and gain all of the experience that I have been able to so far in my career.
We were out to lunch as a team and he wanted his team members to hear how I had done it so they might get some ideas and use them to progress in their own careers. After describing my journey, I thought that I should capture this and share it with you all. It’s a question that I’ve been asked, in several different ways, quite a bit in the past. I don’t know that the particulars of my journey are super interesting but I do think there are a few things that could be quite valuable to a lot of people out there in the web-o-sphere.
For me it all started really early on in my life.
When I was in second grade, my teacher saw something in me and decided to move me into the gifted and talented program. This was a more advanced program tailored to students that they felt could absorb information and progress a little faster than other students.
A couple of years later, when I was in fourth grade, my math teacher decided to teach us a little bit of BASIC. I’m not sure exactly why, or what it had to do with math, but I’m super grateful that he did. His decision to do something “out of the box” is the reason why I decided to become a software developer.
It’s amazing to think that something as small as teaching a bunch of fourth graders how to do math and print output to the screen in BASIC could have such an impact. Well, it can, and it did for me. I was blown away by the idea that I could tell a computer what to do. I knew then that it is what I wanted to do when I grew up. Before then, I thought I wanted to be a teacher or a police officer. This one experience changed all of that.
One problem though…I grew up poor – very poor.
I didn’t have much access to a computer as a kid. I dreamt of being a software developer but I wasn’t able to do much about it for a few years. When I was in eighth grade, one of my teacher told me about a magnet school, The Science Academy of South Texas, which had opened up a few years earlier. It offered two tracks – health and science.
Part of the science track was computer science. All freshmen and sophomore students had to take a computer programming class! That sealed the deal for me…I applied and was accepted.
Unfortunately, this was a very bad year for me.
I started hanging around with the wrong crowd and doing all kinds of things that I shouldn’t have. After my freshman year, I left the magnet school and returned to my local high school. All wasn’t lost though. In my year at Sci-Tech, as we called it, I learned how to program in Pascal. When I got back to my local high school, I found they had started offering a beginners computer class. While taking that class, I learned that we had a computer science UIL group. I joined up and started competing against other schools in the area…including The Science Academy of South Texas.
By the time I was a senior in high school, there was no doubt what I was going to major in when I went to college. I remember my calculous teacher, Mr. Plas, trying to persuade me to choose something else. He told me I would end up in a dark room, staring into a computer screen working on really uninteresting problems. Little did he know, all of that sounded great to me! There really wasn’t anything anyone could say that would change my mind. I wanted to do this for a long time and I was going to make it happen.
The Chaotic Years
The first few years after I graduated from college were a little chaotic. They were not bad years, they were just unfocused for me…at least career-wise. I did well at work. I had found that I was actually pretty good at this software development thing. I was a hard worker and quick learner so I progressed rather quickly.
In the first 8 years of my career, I had worked for a couple of companies. I worked for a couple of years for a small government contractor on emergency management software for the chemical weapons program. Then I worked for a company that was a joint venture between the local newspaper and television station in San Antonio. I had excelled at both of these companies and had moved up rather quickly. After only eight years, I was already a Software Development Manager leading a team of web developers and designers. Most would say that I was doing really well.
The problem is that, up to this point, I had never really focused on my career. I had never put any thought into what it was I wanted to do with it or set any goals for myself. I had just been taking any opportunity that was presented to me. I had done well, but I knew I could do a lot better if I had just put a little bit of effort into coming up with a plan and goals for my career.
The Aha Moment
When I think back now, I remember the moment I knew I had to make a change.
I was working at MySanAntonio.com. I had a good position and decent pay but I wasn’t really satisfied. I was the Software Development Manager of a ColdFusion shop. That didn’t sit well with me. I don’t think there is anything wrong with ColdFusion. In fact, I could have continued doing that and would probably still be doing it and doing well at it. I have a few friends that are still gainfully employed as ColdFusion developers.
The problem for me was that I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had stayed abreast of emerging technologies, tools and development process and knew that the industry was passing me by. I had work with C# .NET several years prior to this and really wanted to explore that more. I knew that wasn’t going to happen any time soon at my current position so I decided to make a change. It was a risky decision, but I knew I had to make it and that it would only get riskier as time passed.
So I gave up my management position and took a contract position as a C# developer. Looking back, I realize this could have gone really bad for me…I could have failed miserably. Luckily, things worked out. When I made the change, I knew I had somewhat of an ace up my sleeve. I’ve never been afraid to work hard and put in the effort and time to get good at something. So, I made the move and I put in the extra work to learn how to be a C# developer. I made it work. And it’s been working for me for 10 years now.
The Rest Is History
After coming over to the dark side (C#, .NET, Microsoft), I knew that I could not leave my career up to chance like I had before. I was determined to be a lot more focused and goal oriented. This meant making several changes immediately.
First, and foremost, I needed to expand my skillset and commit to maintaining it constantly. I started off reading a lot of books, blogs, and trying to learn as much as I could from others. I quickly realized that it wasn’t working out as well as I wanted. You see, I learn by doing…not reading or watching others do.
So, I decided to start doing work on the side to help. I figured, if I have to work on something in order to learn it, why not get paid to do so. So, I took small moonlighting jobs that allowed me to try out new technologies or tools that I had only ever read about or played with before. This worked out really well for me.
Secondly, I needed to create goals for myself and focus on reaching those goals. I had already decided that I did not want to be a ColdFusion developer and that I wanted to focus on the .NET framework but I need to set even longer term goals for myself. By this time in my career, I knew what I was and wasn’t willing to do for work and just had to figure out what I wanted to achieve. I didn’t think that I wanted to go back to management so my goals were more in the technical space back then. I wanted to become the best software developer I could be.
Lastly, I needed choose where I would worked more carefully. I realized quickly that if I was to make progress towards my goals, I would have to do a better job of vetting potential employers. I needed to make sure that I was always progressing and that I was working at places that were in line with my technical and career goals.
Focus, Set Goals and Go Get’em!
Again, I don’t think that the particulars of my journey are very interesting, or important. You will all have a different experience. I think the things that are important are the fact that I realized that I was going down the wrong path, refocused and set goals and I worked hard to make those goals a reality.
I challenge all of you to take stock of your career and ask yourself if you could be doing better. Odds are you could…and you should. So focus, make a plan, set some goals and make things happen.
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