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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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Becoming a Programming Expert Is Within Your Reach

I have always really enjoyed building things.

I had a dad who built all sorts of things out of wood. That was his medium when not working on his day job. He built gazebos and greenhouses and decks. He also put things together without instructions.

He got places without asking for directions (before GPS). He would charge off into the woods in search of a stream to fish. He would get into his airplane, take off, get to where he was going, land. All of this was done effortlessly.  He has always acted as though he knew how to do things. He was an expert at everything!

Two Kinds of Expert

Jeweler using a blowtorch while he works on a ring
Jeweler using a blowtorch while he works on a ring

As a dad myself I now know that from time to time he was either “winging it” or had toiled enough at a task way ahead of time to make the task now seem effortless. And much of his success in the now was based on previous successes and failures of past experiences. But ultimately he had told himself that he would figure it out. He had faith in himself to solider on and get through it. But from my point of view looking from the outside in he was an expert at everything he did. I was always amazed.

Over night success is achieved through years of hard work and practice.

To be honest I think there are really two forms of perceived expert in the world. There is the guy that is a deep dive technical genius in their world. They have seen everything. They have done everything. There is no stone unturned. They have forgotten more then you will ever learn. They can answer any question asked.

Then there is the person that isn’t afraid to say “I don’t know.”

They have seen some things. They have gotten their hands dirty from time to time. They have failed at least as much as they have succeeded. They know someone with the right answer, or they can produce the answer through searching and reading. They can eventually answer any question asked.

Different Types of Expert Produce Different Results

Now let’s talk about how valuable these two folks are to me, you, our industry, and our society.

madscThe first person may eventually solve cancer. Or cure world hunger. Or resolve global warming. That would be valuable. But perhaps they learned game changing things along the way to solving one of these world issues – but didn’t actually solve anything? And they didn’t share any of their findings while on their journey. Then died. Their activities unrecorded. Their knowledge lost. Not very valuable.

Take the other person. They have been here and there but not everywhere.  They have done some things. While learning they are also actively sharing their findings. Over time they amass a great deal of knowledge – almost comparable to the guy that knows everything.

Also, as they are putting who they are and where they are out in front of the world for all to see – they are continuously being pushed to be better. They correct any wrong assumptions they have made along the way. They are not working in a vacuum.  Instead they get feedback every step of the way.

Perhaps they solve one of those world issues. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps instead they contribute to someone else who can tackle the world issue.  But in my mind the guy that is more valuable is the one that gave to the community without seeking anything in return. The person that contributed to the story potentially for someone else in their industry learn from.

Becoming An Expert

As a kid I was inspired by my father to tackle problems head on. Get shit done. No one could stop me but me.

html3As a result of that whatever I was interested in at the time, I was pushing in new ways. Learning all that I could. Never enough to be a truly deep technical expert to the experts of the world, but always enough to be more expert than the majority of the next guys.

One day a customer at Fry’s (while I worked as a technical representative for HP at Fry’s) showed me HTML. It was a very low bar but amazing. He opened notepad and just started hammering out some characters.  With each iteration he would flip to a browser and show me a web page. Back to code. Back to a web page. He was building something out of nothing. How cool was that!? I have no idea if that guy was an expert or not, but to me he was the only person I knew that could type out all sorts of gibberish and make something structured and usable.

Every expert was once a beginner.

I have seen people that knew nothing about a topic quickly come up to speed on something and immediately grab the title of expert.  Being an expert can at times be a context-oriented label.  You can be an expert at something in your peer group. You can be an expert at something in your office. You can be an expert at something in the city you are in. Or you can be an expert at something in your industry. Those are all levels of expert.

Then you can further slice those definitions of expert by vertical slices in our world of technology. You may be an expert at building distributed systems using C# and NServiceBus on MSMQ. You are the expert in this space. However, in a room of Java programmers, you might be reduced to being an expert at the theory of distributed systems but a total n00b at the any of the technology tools they may use.

Apply this to any band of people. People live in groups. Programmers have peer groups, coworkers, city of residence, city where they work, regional groupings, industry groupings, industry sub-groupings, and global groupings.

And programmers have a huge variety of technical options across all of those people groupings. This means there is a very low bar for you to become an expert at certain things in certain circles.  Being an expert at something, which will ultimately help you achieve your career goals, is mathematically accessible to anyone who is willing to put in the work.

All the so-called ‘secrets of success’ will not work unless you do.

So then how do you become expert enough in your area of interest? START!

There is no reason to not be thought of as an expert by someone in a meaningful way. There are so many sites on the internet dedicated to people posting their questions in a given subject matter. For programmers that site might be as simple as StackOverflow. Find a topic that you love, subscribe to the appropriate tag for your topic, and start answering questions. This will force you to do research. And you will quickly find that you are an expert to several people.

Another way is to start a blog. This may be seen as a bit more difficult as there is some technical know how required to set up a blog – even a free one hosted somewhere. Also, this usually requires some creativity on your part to keep coming up with topics to write about. And some research for each thing you want to write about so that you sound enough like an expert for people to want to read what you say.

blog1But the key to either of these methods for becoming an expert is to do it with a regular cadence. Practice answering peoples questions. Or practice observing the world in ways that produce topics for you to write about. Ultimately both of these will force you to get better at doing what you do.

Another slightly more difficult thing to do is to write a small book. Pick a topic that is somewhat in your wheelhouse already.  Then learn enough about that topic to get a high level of understanding about the topic to piece together a table of contents that is three to four levels deep.

Then start researching each of those topics enough to form thoughts on each of the topics. Publish this book in real-time as you add content to it. Give the first few rounds away for free to get feedback quickly. Evolve over time. The key here is that you will start as a new guy. And finish with a published book on the topic. And since you researched all the content in the book you are now an expert in two ways: 1) you likely know more than most because you went wide and deep on the topic and 2) you are now a published author which brings a certain level of professionalism.

The key here is pick something. Scratch a little more than the surface on your topic. Give back to the community. They will criticize you for your efforts. And you will learn by fire. And eventually pop out the other side as an expert in some circles.

The secret here that nobody will ever tell you, but I will.  I have met a lot of industry experts. The only difference between them and you is that they did some work to get where they are. They actively chose to learn something vs. watching the latest TV series. They had a plan to be better than the next guy. And then they did it.

Follow through, commitment, dedication, stick to it and get shit done. In our world, this is the recipe to becoming expert enough in something.

Here is a whole site dedicated to being “Expert Enough”.  You will find a similar theme being mentioned there.

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Jack of All Trades, Master of Some

I noticed a pattern in my life early on.

I tended to go deep into a topic in a very short amount of time. It never mattered what the topic was just that I had some interest in it. If I was interested in it I was all in on the spot. This is true even now.  But my life was never lived with a plan – just an interest in some topic that led to another interest.

I had a father that I remember doing everything himself. I always saw him tinkering on something. He didn’t spend much time glued to the TV. And he always had the tools or books or whatever he needed to work with that topic. It seemed that he knew everything related to a given topic. To him these topics spanned construction, all sorts of fishing, almost every war, air planes, plants, and chemistry.

By day he had a PhD in plant sciences and ran a company running various experiments to make plants bigger, better, healthier, pest and disease resistant, while growing faster.  He did a lot of research trying to make a difference in the agricultural world. He flew all over the place (often times in his own plane with him as the pilot) working with people from all over the world.  I like to tell a story about him contributing the size, flavor, and seed-less-ness of grapes as you now know them. When I was a kid grapes were tiny blah seeded things.  Dad loved grapes and worked to make them better.

One of his knacks that fascinated me was his recall.  Someone might ask him a question about a report he wrote and he could tell you all about what he wrote 15 years ago up in the storage at the office in a box buried 3 rows back on the bottom.  This binder. That page. This paragraph.  Yep – there it is. How did he do that? This led to him eventually being a very talented “professional witness” in agricultural legal trials.

I am not sure my recall capabilities are quite as good as his. I forget my birthday for Christ’s sake! But I have always been able to skim through magazines and books cover to cover. I never left the information with full recall of a topic but I could always leave with the vocabulary in hand and enough information to be dangerous.

Having seen my dad do anything he set out too, I have always felt empowered to dive in and just get it done. I had built an entire “club house” around the age of 12.  And by club house I mean 8’x8’x14’ building complete with sleeping loft, door, windows, wired for plugs and lighting (plugged into my mom’s house – she hated that) where I spent a lot of time! My mom had one of my Dad’s come inspect it to ensure it was safe. He said it was “Up to code! How did he do that?”

woodI had family issues growing up which caused me to be an interesting kid. By the second grade I was already being kicked out of school.  My mom sent me to live with my dad when I was 7 – she couldn’t handle me. I don’t know how my dad managed to raise me without seeing the inside of a jail! Among a plethora of other issues I had eventually found a way to get kicked out of high school a couple months into my 10th grade year. Out of the school district that is. I was forced into home school.

Dad took me to work with him every day at 7 and home again at 6. I had to sit in the library and do nothing but school. No talking. No help. But in my sophomore year I had jumped a head in school. By the end of my junior year I was done with high school. My senior year was a blast. I had two PE classes, 2 wood shops, 1 metal shop, and 1 auto shop (and a couple half semester things I couldn’t take until my senior year).  With access to all these great facilities I was building swords, cross bows, knives – thankfully my shop teachers got to know me well and were ok with this crazy kid.  But it was clear that my parents were done being responsible for me. Where too now?

Off to the Army I go. Like most of my life to this point I had bumbled from one interest to the next. Why not do that in the Military? I tested very high and was told I could have any job I wanted. They sold me on 11X-ray. I would get to shoot and blow things up. Sign me up. They even “gave me” an airborne contract. Don’t trust recruiters – they are there to fill quotas.  11X-ray is an open ended infantry contract. Grunt. Oops!

Duped into a life as a worker bee I went through basic and AIT without much problem. Earned my PFC quickly. Showed an aptitude to lead. Off to airborne school. Did well enough. Got recruited into the RIP program – ranger indoctrination program (now called RASP – ranger assessment and selection program). Got through that. Showed up to ranger battalion where they looked at me and immediately decided I could carry heavy shit – weapon’s squad for me! It was a fun period in my life. I have never regretted it in the least. I learned that while I can suffer through anything you might throw at me. I also learned that I needed to work with my head not my back.

Once I got out of the Military I tried “work”. I attempted to hang wire for an industrial electrician. Having just gotten out of a world where shit rolls downhill I quickly realized that I was not going to cut it in a trade where someone that is happy doing the same thing every day for 40 years is telling me how to do something in-efficient – back to school.  ITT Tech! I started in a CAD program and had my first real introduction to computers. I had touched them a couple times in previous years but never in any way that sparked my true interest. Now I was sitting in front of a computer every day.

Talk about a never ending stream of learning! I loved the world of computers. Other than learning command line access to CAD programs, how to hand draw blue prints (right up my alley), and draw in Auto CAD, I was learning daily about networking, computer internals, and how to make this thing go faster. I quickly started to collect dead computer chassis and bring them back to life. I got a job as an in store tech support guy for HP where I stood in BestBuy and Fry’s to talk to customers as an HP rep. Every day I learned something I didn’t know I was missing. Someone showed me HTML in notepad. Another guy showed me javascript. I had friends that could “fdisk” their computers – what’s that? Quickly I found myself in a part-time network admin gig (not that I knew how to do that job yet) and started to figure things out. Each day getting further away from enjoying sitting in a class learning as slow as the teacher would trickle information to us.

My first networking gig was with a company that built shutters which they managed on a magnetic white board. This was insanely inefficient to me. Someone mentioned I should look into making a database to manage that. What’s that? OK. But entering data directly into a database wasn’t going to work. Build a web site. OK. We need servers to run this stuff. OK. A great first playground for me.

All the while going to school where I had two teachers that I interacted with quite a bit. One of them hated that I was so all over the place. I built video games in 3d studio max and some world building program (when we were just supposed to model something simple). Or I would go deep into photoshop.  You name it – if the assignment was simple I would go over the top in five different directions. This guy pulled me out of the class (in the middle of class) to go for a walk.  We walked around the parking lot. He asked me “what do you want to do when you grow up?” I replied that I had no idea I liked a lot of things. He told me that I would eventually have to focus on being really good at just one thing to make it in this world.  A “Jack of all trades, master of none, had no place in this world”. This didn’t sit well with me as I tended to be very scattered and really enjoyed doing all sorts of things – not just one thing.

The other teacher pulled me aside in a similar fashion. He saw that I was tinkering in the web world already and suggested that I should go learn a “real programming language”. His suggestion was that I learn Visual Basic. I giggle at this now of course. I bought a book on PERL (oops).  He was a GIS and big data guy before the term big data existed. He saw where my mind was and steered me in the right direction. I got my associates degree at ITT in CAD with a 3.8 but didn’t complete my bachelor’s degree. I didn’t think I needed school anymore – LET’s DO THIS!

pat-testingThis pattern of constantly bumping into what I didn’t know pushed me to learn more and more. I almost always had three jobs running at one time. Tech support, networking, cable pulling, LAN configuration, phone lines, IVR, VOIP, server builds, building out data centers.  I was very hardware oriented for the first couple of years. At some point I bridged over to building data driven dynamic web sites.  I was doing AJAX before the term existed. Starting with simple commerce web sites plus managing the data center. Then social networking. Then big commerce. Then big systems peeked my interest in general.

To this day there is nothing that I enjoy more than cracking open a new topic. From rebuilding a car, to fabricating a green house, to building poll barns, wiring up IoT widgets to the cloud, building a pig farm, to building big distributed systems.  I have made a career of learning how to learn.  A career of being a technology generalist. A jack of all trades, **master of some**.

Which leads me to why I am writing this book and donating my time to the Developer Springboard.  While my path to where I am now was very unplanned and fragmented, yours certainly doesn’t have to be. I have worked at almost all levels of the technology industry. There are so many soft skills that you can learn from my experiences that will immediately be beneficial to you going down the right path. I am very passionate about sharing this with you and learning what I don’t yet know in this career management space.

My wife is now cringing at my new hobby for which I have to go deep.

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You Can’t *Not* Do Something

What do you do when you don’t know how to do something? Or you have something you want to do but don’t have the time to do it?

The answer is easy but difficult: you simply do it.

Everyone has twenty-four hours in the day. To accomplish your goals of leveling up with your skills, learning new technologies, or working on side projects that you want to turn into your main income, you must make the time to work on it.

Make Time Stop

Most of us have to work full-time, requiring at least nine hours per day when counting commute time and extra hours. If you have a family to care for, you also need to spend time with them, caring for your children and spending time with them.

kanbaIf you don’t carve out time to work on your projects, you will never make any progress. You must look at your schedule and what you spend your time on and find ways to make it happen.

Wake up an hour early twice per week, or two hours early. Stay up late an hour and work. Take a lunch break but work on your project then.

Cut down on watching videos and television series, on playing video games, on facebook, and be amazed at how much time you gain. Ask your spouse to support you taking an evening per week or a day per month to work on your project. Explain how doing so will “buy your freedom” from having to punch a clock everyday.

Tools to Help

Use tools to help you in your work: a kanban board like Trello or Kanban Flow where you can add and track tasks you want to work on. Use the pomodoro technique to focus your work periods and give yourself small breaks.

Learn to use email (like Inbox Zero), reminder tools, and automated systems to streamline your efforts. The more you automate your processes and make systems, the more you are freed up to work on the next big project.

You can learn so much now with free YouTube videos, online learning academies, and tutorials. Figure out what you want to learn and start a side project with it. We are all constrained in varying ways by time, but also most of us waste a lot of it.

So get off your “buts” and start on your project today!

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