goals

Setting clear goals to help guide your career decisions

For the sake of argument, let’s say that you’ve been working as a software developer for a while and you’ve been able to advance in your career. You’ve gotten a few raises and maybe a promotion or two. If someone were to ask you how your career is going, what would you answer? Better yet, how would you answer? You might say that it’s going well considering that you’ve been able to advance financially and have been promoted to a more senior position. Is this a good enough answer? Are promotions and raises the only measures of success and failure for our careers. If you’ve been following the DREAM principles and have taken the time to DISCOVER who you are and REFINE your goals, then you have a lot more data points at your disposal to answer these kind of questions. Most importantly, you have the career goals that you’ve established and can use to quantify your success and measure how much progress you have, or have not, made towards them.

If someone were to ask you how your career is going, what would you answer? Better yet, how would you answer?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, when I came out of college I didn’t really have an idea of what I was going to do with my career.  I was not really prepared to be a professional software developer at all. Nothing in my youth or schooling had gotten me ready for the real world. In fact, for the first few years after school, I just did whatever was in front of me and took every opportunity I was presented with without much regard to career path or any other personal goals.

At first glance, you could say that this was working well for me. I was progressing rather quickly at work and I had become pretty good at my job. In the first 5 years or so, I had switched jobs once, gotten several raises and had already been promoted into a management position. To a certain extent, these minor successes had blinded me to the shortsightedness of my career choices. It took me a while to realize that although I was advancing, I wasn’t really doing well in terms of my career.

You see, the first job I took after college consisted mostly of writing backend applications in Perl. Then, I switched over to a job working at a small Cold Fusion shop.  Neither of these programming languages were what I considered cutting edge and, in fact, I could see that there was no future in them for me. Yes, I was gainfully employed, but I was losing a lot of ground with respect to the changes that were happening in the software development industry. There were new programming languages, tools, technologies and process that were taking off and I wasn’t getting any exposure to them. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that if I didn’t do something about it quickly I would soon become pigeon holed into the niche programmer that I was becoming and it would be really difficult to regain all the ground that I had already lost.

I realized that if I did not set these goals for my career I ran the risk of digging myself into a hole that I would not be able to climb out of.

So, what happened? How did I get to this point? How could I have gone for so long without realizing that I was falling behind and coding myself into irrelevance? After thinking about this for a while, I realized that I had never really set any career goals for myself. Up until then, I had been reactive. I would only ever consider the opportunities that fell into my lap. I wasn’t proactively looking to take the next step to better my career or progress towards a goal. This was a HUGE eye opener for me. I realized that if I did not set these goals for my career I ran the risk of digging myself into a hole that I would not be able to climb out of.

goals-signI immediately pivoted and started working towards what I felt were more appropriate career goals. I decided that I would go back to working in the C# .NET programming language that I had started looking into a few years before. I would use that to try to get my career back on track. After realizing that this was not going to be possible at my existing position, I decided to leave my management role and take a developer position with a different company that was using C# and other leading edge technologies, tools and processes. I knew that it was a very risky move. I was essentially giving myself a demotion but I also knew that it was the right move for me in the long run. I was banking heavily on my ability to learn and excel at anything that I set my mind to. In hindsight, I know I was very fortunate that my gamble paid off in the end.

At this point, you might be thinking “Wait, what’s so wrong with being a Perl or Cold Fusion programmer?” Well, nothing really. I could have stayed at the same job or even gone somewhere else and continued working in either of those programming languages. Maybe I would still be working somewhere in that space today. In fact, I have a couple of friends that are still doing really well as Cold Fusion developers. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t think I could make a career out of Cold Fusion or Perl. The problem was that I didn’t want to…and I had never intended to. I had ended up there because I had not been focused on my career and had made decision without setting or considering my long term goals.  I knew there were other things out there that I wanted to do and I realized that the only thing keeping me from doing them was myself. I had never really focused on my career or set any goals that I could work towards. So I just took what was available and didn’t really consider where I wanted to be in 5, 10 or 15 years.

Things that I didn’t think I was interested in when I was in my 20’s have become a lot more appealing to me now that I’m in my late 30’s

successAfter having refocused and refined my career goals, I took the necessary steps to align my career with them and start making progress in that direction. Soon, I was advancing just as I had at the onset of my career but this time it was more in sync with my long term goals. As it turns out, this wasn’t the only time I had to reset goals for myself. In fact, I’ve found that I have to do this fairly frequently. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We are all growing every day – changing as developers and human beings. Things that I didn’t think I was interested in when I was in my 20’s have become a lot more appealing to me now that I’m in my late 30’s. At the same time, our young industry is changing at an extremely rapid pace. New technologies, tools and processes are being developed every day that might make us reconsider our goals from time to time.

The key takeaway from all of this is that we should always be working towards some goal. That goal might change over time, but it’s crucial that we always have one to help guide us as we navigate through our careers. How can we really quantify our progress if we don’t know what we’re supposed to be progressing towards?

Without [goals], it is difficult to determine if you are heading in the right direction or not. In fact, goals are what will determine that direction.

In order to know whether you’re making progress in your career, you need to establish the goals that you are attempting to reach. Without them, it is difficult to determine if you are heading in the right direction or not. In fact, goals are what will determine that direction. Setting goals is not an exact science, so don’t expect to get it right the first time around. The key is to always have a goal that you’re working towards so that you can remain focused and make career decisions based on whether the outcome gets you closer to achieving these goals. So remember to stay focused on your career and frequently reevaluate your goals so that you are always working towards something.

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Miguel Gonzalez

Miguel has designed, developed and managed dozens of software projects for clients in a wide variety of industries including emergency management, media, insurance, real estate, logistics, marketing, education and retail. In the process, he has gained valuable experience building highly available, high bandwidth applications. He has a passion for robust, precise and efficient software development. His recent focus has been in leading the development of distributed, scalable applications for several top tier clients.