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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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Start something that you’re passionate about.

topofmygameYou’ve made it! You’ve followed all of the DREAM principles and you’ve built yourself a pretty sweet programming career. You’ve DISCOVERED who you are. You’ve REFINED your identity and you’ve set your goals. You worked hard to ESTABLISH your presence in the industry. You’ve done all you could to ADVANCE towards the goals that you have set for yourself. Now, you’re working on MASTERING your success by leveraging your experience and honing your awesomeness. You’re at the top of your game and things are great right?

Well, maybe not. Maybe, there is something inside of you that remains unfulfilled. You might not be getting all that you want, or need, from your current job. But why? This doesn’t make any sense. You love what you do, the people you work with and even the company you work for.

The problem, I think, is that a job, by definition, is not very fulfilling. Yeah, I know, that’s a bit of a downer, but bear with me. I am not saying that a job can’t be fulfilling at all or that a job can’t be fun, exciting or awesome. In fact, I absolutely LOVE my job. I think I work for the best company in the software development world! What I’m saying is that it just isn’t what you would be doing if you had your way. If you could choose to do anything, odds are it wouldn’t be to go work for someone else. You would probably do something for yourself.

In the end, a job is exactly that…A JOB. Somebody pays you to do something for them.

In the end, a job is exactly that…A JOB. Somebody pays you to do something for them. Let that marinade for a while. You are getting paid to do something that somebody else wants you to do for them. The fact that you’re getting paid for it implies that you would not otherwise be doing it. Maybe you wouldn’t be doing it at all or maybe just not at that very moment. Whatever the case may be, you are not getting paid to do what you want, but what someone else wants. Now that doesn’t sound very fulfilling does it? But what if you could do the things that YOU want to do?

This is something that I’ve struggled with most of my career. I’ve tried several times to starts something for myself but haven’t had a lot of success. I tried to go out on my own but was never able to make it work. I also tried, on several occasions, to start something with family, friends, coworkers and other people that I respect. Each time, the project started with a frenzy of activity but would eventually fizzle out as enthusiasm from other team members subsided. I’ve been trying to figure out why this happens for a while and I think I’ve finally made a breakthrough. I just haven’t been doing it for the right reasons.

Each and every one of my previous attempts to do something outside of work was missing passion.

Every time I’ve tried before, I’ve started a “project” for the wrong reasons. Maybe it was that I wanted to quit my job or that I wanted to work with a group of people that I liked or maybe it was just that I wanted to make more money. Therein lies the problem. Each and every one of my previous attempts to do something outside of work was missing passion. Yes, I love software development and I liked the people I partnered with but I wasn’t working on something that I was truly passionate about. My drive was to build a business, not to do something that I loved.

This endeavor wasn’t one that we were searching for or had to conjure up. It was born from the things we were already doing every day and were excited to share with our family, friends and coworkers.

Green-Start-Now-ButtonThis time around though, I think I’ve stumbled upon the perfect storm of circumstances. I am extremely fortunate that I’ve partnered with a couple of really talented guys that share my passion for helping people advance their careers and avoid the mistakes that we’ve made along the way. This endeavor wasn’t one that we were searching for or had to conjure up. It was born from the things we were already doing every day and were excited to share with our family, friends and coworkers. Eventually, we realized that others might benefit from it so we decided to make it available here. This has translated to a wonderful collaboration that is unique amongst all of my attempts to start something outside of work. And the key, I believe, is the passion that we all have and that was missing from all of my other endeavors.

So my advice to you is to find those one or two things that you are passionate about. Look for the things that you are always happy to discuss and that make you happy. Share those things with your coworkers. Share those things with your friends. Share those things with the world. Who knows, those things might be interesting, helpful or a useful resource for others.

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Don’t believe the hype. Be mindful of the gap between your title and your skill set.

blueribbonAs developers, I think we have an experience that is unique to our industry or maybe to high-tech industries in general. Throughout our careers we’re told that we’re awesome. Everyone we interact with tells us that we’re magicians making software appear out of nowhere. Every day we perform super human feats of software development. Maybe it’s because we work for people that are not very technically inclined. What we do on a daily basis is nothing short of magic to them. Or maybe it’s because these people were trying to motivate us to do better. In any case, sooner or later, some of us start believing the hype. We begin to think that we might in fact be some sort of code slinging wizard. Every year, or so, we get a decent raise and a huge bonus. Eventually we start getting promoted…first a senior engineer, then team lead, next principal engineer and eventually architect. This only helps to reinforce the belief that we are in fact the Gods of the programming universe.

All of this continues for several years and we keep buying into the idea that we are the awesome-est of the awesome oozing awesome sauce on everything we touch. By this time, our head has grown so much that we can barely squeeze it through the door of our swanky corner office.

reality-check-aheadThen, all of a sudden, something happens that pulls us back into reality. Maybe we are laid off and have to start looking for a new job or maybe we’ve gone as far as we can go in our current position and decide to test the waters. This is probably the first time in years that we’ve been on the market. Things have changed drastically while we’ve been, heads down, climbing the career ladder at our previous company. We look through job listings and see that every one of them requires some tool, technology or process that we are not familiar with. Industry best practices have progressed and what was magic at our old company is now not so cool, new or even relevant.

All of a sudden we realize that we are not as awesome as we thought we were. We are consumed by self-doubt. What is happening? Have I been fooling myself this whole time? How did I get this far without realizing how far behind I was?

Unfortunately, I see this play out far too often. I’ve interviewed several people that have an architect title and are not able to code a simple fizz buzz console application. In fact, in one case, an “architect” I was interviewing didn’t know how to create a new console application project at all. This is not as uncommon as you might think. It is really easy to climb the careers ladder at one place and lose sight of the industry changes that are happening around us.

I too experienced the same thing early in my career. I had spent 6 years at a company and had climbed all the way up to Web Development Manager. One day, I looked up and said “man I’m a really good Cold Fusion programmer!” This was followed soon thereafter by “holy crap! I’m a good Cold Fusion programmer…what the heck!!!” I realized that the industry was leaving me behind and that I had to do something immediately if I wanted to have any chance at catching up. I decided to make a change quickly and refocus my career on learning the things that I had missed out on while I was going “full steam ahead” down the wrong path.

The key takeaway from all of this is that finding yourself at this juncture in your career isn’t a death sentence. At least you’ve recognized that something is wrong and you have the opportunity to resolve it. It is up to you to make a change and refocus your career. You have all of the necessary tools at your disposal and all it takes to reset is to go out there and do it. To avoid getting into this situation in the first place, you should try to stay abreast of all the trends in the industry and periodically reevaluate your current positions to determine whether it is still the right position for you. Sometimes the answer is going to be no, but that’s ok. At least, you still have the chance to do something about it. You don’t want to be the person that spends 20-25 years at a company only to realize that you can’t even consider going somewhere else because you’ve become so specialized at your current job that making a change would mean starting from scratch.

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Live the company culture every day

There are a few types of company’s to work for when it comes to core values and culture.  A company that shares your core values.  A company that doesn’t share your core values.  A company that is so/so as far as how your core values overlap.  Or a company that hasn’t defined any core values.

You should be sure to interview the company about their core values before you start a job.  And ensure that what you are getting into at least sounds like it is in line with what you are interested in.  And for companies that interest you in others ways, ensure that the core values and culture is something that you can grow in or help direct in a more healthy manner.

Being pure to who you are … will help you become the pied piper of company culture.

No matter what the situation is you need to live your own personal core values every day.  Being pure to who you are, especially if your values overlap with the company’s, will help you become the pied piper of company culture.  Being “that guy” will certainly get you noticed.  A company that stands strong behind their expressed core values is always on the hunt for team members to hold up as examples of AWE-some.

If your company subscribes to the notions of Jack Welch then you may have heard these statements before.

Put the right people in the right place and get out of the way!
–Jack Welch

According to Jack it’s all about having the right people in your team.  The people have to be aligned with the company’s vision and values.  And he is noted for saying this:

You have to focus on it! When they exhibit the value, you make hero’s out of them.
-Jack Welch

You can make it easy for your company to take notice of you by understanding the values that they are interested in.  Then be involved with building the right culture by being the example that everyone sees.  Live these values every single day.  Weigh every action against the vision for the company, the direction the company needs to go today, and the values that they want to build their culture around.  Don’t worry about being reviewed on a schedule.  Never spend time saying “look what I did today”.  Don’t actively seek recognition.  That will happen naturally.  And your place in the world will rise.

So then, how do we ensure that we are living the company culture?  Print out the core values.  Envision what you need to do to be an example of each one of those core values.  Then actively do a couple of those actions every day.

Don’t just direct this type of activity towards your upper levels.  You need to be the example to your peers.  And you need to be an example to people that are unrelated to you or “beneath you” (ugly phrase).

And most importantly, add this to your personal measurements for being awesome.  Keep a log of your activity.  Every time you violate a core value, or you do just enough but don’t go out of your way to be AWE-some…

Deduct a point!

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