goals

Focus, Set Goals and Go Get’em!

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.

The Spark

basicFor 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

eurekaWhen 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.

skillsFirst, 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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Arrested Development: You’re Awesome, Just Don’t Be Awesome Here

I’ve moved around quite a bit in my career. I’ve interviewed with a ton of companies and have worked at a lot of different places.

As a consequence, I’ve had the opportunity to experience something that I find extremely interesting, something that I’ve been exposed to more than most have. It’s a scenario that people in other fields might not experience as much as those of use that make a living in the technology sector. I like to refer to it as the “Arrested Development” phenomenon.

A Job That Hamstrings You

No, I am not talking about the popular TV show (or the band from the early 90s). I’m talking about those cases where you’re hired to fill a position because of the your skill set, experience and character. Then, when you join the company, you a constrained so much that you cannot showcase any of the things that made you the right person for the job.

The process of getting a job is a long and arduous one. Writing a resume that stands out from all of the other candidates is not easy. In addition to that, interviewing with a potential employer is often stressful.

Although part of this process includes your assessment of the company and the position, most of your time is spent trying to show the interviewer(s) that you are good at what you do and can bring something valuable to their team. You go out of your way to demonstrate your skill set and showcase your experience. If you are a good fit, and a good interviewee, you will most likely convince them that you are in fact awesome and, odds are, you will end up getting an offer.

At some point in your career, after you’ve established yourself in the industry, this process becomes a lot less stressful. In fact, employers will start seeking you out when they have a job opening. They look for you, and offer you a position on their team, because they believe that you have the right skill set and can help them achieve their business objectives. In other words, they think that you are so awesome that they must have you on their team! This is where it get a little weird.

I will hire you because you are awesome, but I don’t want you to be awesome here.

arrested-developmentWhat sometimes happens next is what I’ve started calling the “Arrested Development” phenomenon. Your new employer has gone through all of the effort of finding you and determining that you are the most qualified candidate. They’ve evaluated you  thoroughly to make sure that you are a good fit based on your skill set, experience and personality. You’ve passed every test and you’ve wowed them at every turn.

Yet, when you join the team, you are immediately handcuffed by bureaucracy, budgets, politics, existing processes, established ways of doing things, and a whole host of other constraints. It’s like your asked to work with shackles around your ankles and one hand tied behind your back.

Sometimes it seems like they are saying “I will hire you because you are awesome, but I don’t want you to be awesome here.” This can make you regret your decision to switch jobs and can make it hard make an impact at your new company.

Find a Place Where You Can Be Awesome

I’ve had the luxury in recent years of not having to spend too much time looking for work. These days, I am usually approached by a previous employer or coworker and asked to interview with their company. This happens because the people that I have worked with in the past know my work ethic, skill set and experience and they think I would be a good addition for their team. Sometimes it turns out not to be a good fit, but other times I come out of these interviews excited about the position and end up taking the job.

Unfortunately, sometimes the environment at the new job isn’t setup to take advantage of my particular flavor of awesomesauce. This is totally understandable in certain situations. There are business objectives and financial limitations that come into play. But that doesn’t keep it from totally sucking the air out of your sails.

Most of the time, we change jobs because we believe that it will be an opportunity to grow or at least showcase our existing skill set. Coming into an environment where you are not being challenged or do not have the opportunity to grow as a programmer can be soul sucking and demoralizing.

One of the things that I love about the company that I currently work for is that they don’t try to hold me back. On the contrary, they encourage me to exercise my awesomeness every chance I get.

In fact, on my first day at the company, I sat down with the managing partner and he told me several things that really blew my mind. They were all a complete 180 degree shift from what I have previously experienced. One of these things was that he wanted me to take every opportunity I had to be awesome! He told me that he hires us because we are great at what we do and he wants us to showcase that greatness for our clients.

The best part of this is that he wasn’t kidding. As long as I’ve been with the company, I’ve been encouraged and expected to be as awesome as possible. It has been a great experience.

– Miguel

Unfortunately, I’ve heard this tale told many times over. I have a large network of friends in the industry and have heard, over and over again, how this same scenario has played out for them and others. Although it is not easy to prevent, if we do a little bit of homework we can try to identify these potential problems ahead of time.

Then again, whenever we find ourselves in these situations we should remember that we are still in the driving seat. We can always reevaluate if that positions still makes sense for us. If not, we have the option of going somewhere else. That is not a bad thing. Some jobs are just not a right fit.

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Hindsight is 20/20. If I only knew then what I know now…

When I look back at the choices I have made in the almost 17 years since I graduated from college, I sometimes question if I knew what I was doing early in my career. Actually, I take that back. There is no doubt about it…I really didn’t know what I was doing back then. I had been working since I was very young, but I had never worked in a professional environment until after I graduated from college.

hind1In  school, I was taught several programming languages, how to use them to build software and and how to interpret business requirements but I was never coached on any of the light skills that are necessary for making a career out of what I had learned. Frankly, I really didn’t know what it meant to be a professional software developer or what I had to do to make a good career out of it. Had I known then what I know now, I would have done some things differently. I made so many mistakes early on and I missed out on a lot of great opportunities because I was just not focused or looking out for all of the careers cues that I now know exist. Fortunately, I was able to overcome this shortsightedness early enough that I was able to recognize some of these cues and use them to guide my career choices in a positive direction.

One of my goals with this blog, and as a member of the DeveloperSpringboard group, is to help others identify these cues early on in their careers. In doing so, I hope I can help those that are new to the industry become good software developers without having to make all of the mistakes that I, and many of my peers, have made.

In future posts I will dig deeper into some of the mistakes that I have made because I was not focused as well as some of the things that I’ve identified as important cues to look out for in your career. I think we can all learn from my experience and apply those lessons to our careers to make better decisions and not miss out on the opportunities that we are presented with every day.

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