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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Advancement – It’s All Up To You

Recently I’ve been having a lot of conversations with my friends and coworkers about essentially the same thing: how does one get a better role at their company?

How does a junior become a senior level developer? How does a senior developer make the transition over to lead, principal or architect and beyond? Often, these questions are followed by “I’ve been at my company for a while and I still haven’t been promoted to a new position.”

Aha, we gotten down to the root of the problem.

You Must Initiate

In our industry, unlike many others, progress is not usually a formula based on tenure. We should not expect, or rely on, being promoted into a more senior role because of the amount of time we’ve been with a company. That is not to say that tenure doesn’t play a role in advancement, but it is not usually going to be the main factor in deciding whether you are promoted or not.

adv1Whenever I have these conversations, I like to immediately reset the context of the discussion by telling people that we need to stop relying on others to promote us.

In most cases, the only person that cares about the advancement of your career is you! Many employers claim to care about providing opportunities for advancement but usually it is more of a selling point to potential employees than a true desire to see people grow, advance and do better. In most case, upward movement that is initiated by the employer is motivated by some business need and not your personal growth. It is some strategic move intended to satisfy a business objective that benefits your employer more than it does you.

That is why we should not leave this in our employer’s hands. Unlike other fields, ours is one in which we have the opportunity to affect our advancement and growth in dramatic ways. All we have to do is realize that it is in our power to do so…and take the reins.

Grow Your Skillset

First and foremost, you should make sure that your skillset is up to par.

skil1If you intend to get ahead, and move into a new role, you need to start by increasing your worth to your employer. You will need to demonstrate that you have mastered your current responsibilities and have grown beyond the constraints of your current position. This means making sure that you are comfortable with all of the tool, technologies and processes that are used on your project.

Depending on your goals, this might also require that you stay abreast of industry trends and emerging technologies. If you want to move into an architect position, for example, you’ll need to become an authority on all things technology…not just the technologies and tools that you are currently using.

Grow In Maturity

In order to make the jump from your current role into one with more responsibilities, and potentially one that involves managing other developers or projects, you will need to demonstrate a level of maturity that is commensurate with that type of position.

What does this mean? Well, it turns out that developers are quite emotional people. You would think that we’d be very stoic and level-headed because of type of work that we do. This is just not the case.

mat1I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we are used to being treated as magicians and, to some extent, we let it go to our heads. Employers, friends and family have always told us that we are awesome and, at some point, start to believe the hype. When something happens that we don’t agree with, we tend to be very vocal and respond emotionally.

I’m not suggesting that we should just accept everything that we are told. I’m saying that we should not respond as emotionally to situations…especially if we’re looking to move into a position of authority or leadership. Instead, we should object when appropriate, provided data to back up our objections and, whenever possible, offer solutions or alternatives.

Grow In Leadership

Usually, getting promoted means taking on more of leadership role.

If you intend to move into a new position, with more responsibility, you should take every opportunity you have to demonstrate your leadership abilities. This will prove to your employers that you have the necessary chops to take on the extra responsibilities.

This could mean any number of this. It may be that you put in some extra hours during a time crunch. I could also mean that you start mentoring your teammates. Maybe you start volunteering to lead programming efforts or projects. Whatever the case may be, you should start looking for opportunities to showcase your ability to get things done, help your teammates and coordinate development efforts.

What’s Your Special Sauce?

Every one of us has something that makes us unique…our own “special sauce” that sets us apart from everyone else.

spe1Maybe it your ability to get things done. Maybe you work really well under pressure. You might be the type of person that works well with business folks and can translate business requirements into technical specifications. You should try to find whatever it is that you are good at and make every effort to showcase it.

Be careful not to take it too far and come across as bragging, but take every opportunity you have to exercise this special skill of yours and make sure everyone around you is aware of it. Whatever you can do to set yourself apart from the rest of the team, in a positive, way will help you stand out and increase the likelihood of promotion.

You Are In Charge

If you take anything away from this blog post, it should be the idea that you are in charge of your own career.

You, more than anyone, can affect it. If you want to make a move: do it! Whatever the “it” might be for the particular move you’re trying to make. Make it happen. Remember, you always have more option at your disposal; you can always find another job.

If the company you are with doesn’t look like it’s going to allow you to progress like you want, you can always go somewhere else. The only thing that can keep you from advancing is yourself and, luckily, that is under your control. Just do it!

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Keep Your Portfolio Up-to-Date At All Times

I have a never-expiring calendar reminder for myself to update my portfolio. Otherwise I just won’t do it.

Make Yourself Do It

 

But it is surprisingly hard to make yourself do it even with a calendar reminder constantly dinging you. And unfortunately you only ever realize that you needed to do it – and didn’t – when you need your resume to be up to date when you are ready (or worse: when you aren’t ready) to move to the next gig.

resu1This added pressure means that you are now going to be under the gun to send out your resume in a not quite up to date form, or you will struggle to remember all the cool new things you have done in the past many months.

It won’t be your best showing. You won’t likely have all the detail you once had. And ultimately you are doing a disservice to yourself when thinking about this late in the game.

Use LinkedIn As Your Source of Truth

A long time ago I stopped maintaining a resume in document form.

Before there was a LinkedIn it made sense to constantly toil over the formatting of my resume. And it made since to keep a copy and several backups.

I needed a consistent place to go to for the source of truth for my work history as there wasn’t one clear winner on the internet for such things.  Back then I would keep a digital resume on Monster and various other job boards. It was a real hassle to keep them all up to date.

But now a days it is easy to keep your information in LinkedIn. It is now my source of truth.

I try to go there at least once a month to enter at least one cool thing I did that month. It might be something simple like solving a customer’s problem. Or something more complex like learning a new thing in a pinch prior to a sales call or speaking engagement.

sour1Similar to blogging, if you don’t pay attention to the every day details of your day job you will miss the really important parts that you can use later to sell yourself.

Additionally you are missing the opportunity of someone looking for that special talent that you just picked up. You may make good money doing a bang-up job with that 80% thing you do. You run up against some new fancy way of doing things. And that becomes your new norm.

But you never update your resume.

As far as recruiters and other hiring managers know you are only really good at that 80% thing. There is no mention of your new go-to-favorite skill – which is what they really need right now and can’t find anywhere.

This is a missed opportunity for you in a couple of ways. The recruiter won’t contact you to let you know that your new skill is in high demand. Which means you miss out on the possibility of shifting to a new gig. Or, if you really like your job, but want to earn more, you might miss the opportunity to bargain around your newly found skill. Either way, this is your loss in the here and now.

So what sorts of things might you keep track of on LinkedIn? When you have a job, you can use LinkedIn as a running log of interesting facts. When you don’t have a job you can scour through your profile and clean out the things that aren’t really relevant any more. Let’s look at what sorts of things are hand to keep track of:

Title and Responsibility Changes

There are a couple ways of tracking when your title changes and when your responsibility changes. The first is the easiest and doesn’t require much thought. Keep one entry per company you work at. Update the title. List the existing responsibilities.

promo1This is a great way to keep a short resume. And it is a great way to not tell your hiring manager about your history. This is where the difference between a traditional resume and a CV/Portfolio come in. When I am in the hiring manager role I like to see where a person has been and all the things at a high level they have done while at a company.

If you were a developer, then a team lead, then the architect, then the engineering director – list those out. They are very different jobs. They will have very different responsibilities. And being able to show that you have done them all is important to many hiring managers. It shows you are experienced.

We have interns at my current company. One of which we have had back three separate times. For a person like this it is very important to distinctly show that you came back at three different times. And detail out what you did on each occasion. This paints a different picture than someone who just worked somewhere with no timeline. It doesn’t show that we liked you so much that we kept hiring your back.

Business Goals Achieved

Business people, hiring managers, etc. – they don’t generally care that you learned the latest version of HTML. What they do care is that because of your mastery of this new version of HTML you were able to up the sales conversion of your check out process because more customers are able to complete the check out process on their phone and tablets.

roi1Geeks really care that you were able to write a mail sending tool in 100 lines of unreadable code. But business folks care that your tool took into account the bounce rate of certain domains and the rules around how you stay off of black lists so that your email penetration goes up 30% which effectively increased their over all penetration resulting in X number of new dollars for the month.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You need to swizzle this in a manner that you salt and pepper your business swizzle with some tech babble so that all audiences are made happy. If you just deliver the business numbers uber geeks may find your resume wanting. Add appropriate tech talk to sell that you know what you are talking about.

Use the Right Voice to Tell the Right Story

Equally important to what you did is how you tell the story. It is very off-putting to read about a guy that is singing the me-me-me-me-me-me-meeeee song! It is ok for you to say “I used tech X to achieve business Y” now and then. But equally important is how you enabled the team to achieve a goal. Or how you pulled bugs for a week to get to zero defects (sacrificed your enjoyment for the team). Tell a story of being a valuable team member.

If you are in a leadership role tell the story of how you are a shit-umbrella vs. a shit-funnel.  Give concrete examples of how you help you team get stuff done.

Bottom line: keep your portfolio up-to-date at all times. And LinkedIn is a great place to use for it.

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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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