— George Bernard Shaw
History is often unkind to unreasonable men. But I also know that nothing is ever accomplished by reasonable men. They are content with the status quo. They exploit and profit on the frailties of the human condition without making any changes to improve that condition. I strive to make the world a better place despite being told it was impossible. I am not a reasonable man.
I was asked to give a short presentation to a group of young people who were trying to get to the straight and narrow path that a career might offer. Some of the young men had fallen from the path of education, of self improvement and had been convinced by the efforts of a dedicated few to return and try again. All previous sins forgiven, all that was required was a re-dedication to the efforts to improve their lives. I was asked to speak to them about taking some coursework in IT done at an accelerated rate in an effort to prepare them for a summer internship in the middle of next year. I became involved with mixed feelings.
Not because I do not think it is a worthy cause. On the contrary, I believe it is the worthiest of causes; without such efforts, my own redemption at an earlier point in my life would not have ever occurred and I would likely be dead, or in a state such that death might be a preferable condition. My trepidation came from having to tell these young men the truth about my occupation; or at least, as I knew it. I love what I do. I have done it now for over twenty five years; not the same job, but the same industry, information technology and communications with overlap into the publishing, banking, government, technology, game design, publishing, retail, small business and educational sectors.
How do you distill that into something someone can use? It’s impossible to write something technical that would be useful to someone who has never even done IT, so I decided to write down the things that I learned along the way; stepping stones that have to be touched on the stairway to occupational success. Thinking about these things, I decided these would be the things I would tell myself if I could meet myself on my way to my first IT job interview.
These are the fundamentals. If you aren’t careful, violation of these rules can cost you your job.
- Pick your battles. Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win a war. Keep your eyes on the war. Give up some things to gain everything. Outlast your enemies. Just because you did not make them your enemies did not mean they did not declare war on YOU.
- What got you to the top, won’t keep you there. Don’t get complacent. Stay frosty. Sharpen that saw!
- Previous success is just that; what you did before. It has no bearing on your present circumstance other than it appeared on your resume. Succeed in a different way this time! Innovate, create something new.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is a tool and a quite necessary one.
- You learn nothing from success. (You got it right the first time!) Failure teaches and the world’s greatest minds learned best from this harsh schoolmaster.
- If you work somewhere you cannot fail or failure is a punitive event, leave. They are not doing anything important there anyway.
- Real innovation is risky. When forced to choose between innovation and efficiency management, the long-term win is in innovation.
- Know the difference between being effective and being efficient. The first deals with deciding the right things to do and the other deals with doing things right.
- Hire the guy who came in second. He tries harder. Persistence is the real talent. Plus he will love you for taking that risk and work even harder to prove he’s worthy. It has always paid off for me.
- Be right. But don’t be an ass about it. Do your research; know your craft. Be right but if you make everyone hate you because of it, you won’t last long there, even if you were never wrong. Sometimes it is better to be heard than to be right.
- Never compromise your work. Stand up for what you know, through dint of your effort, research and intellect to be the right thing to do. Find a way to get it done. IT that is compromised serves no one well and costs everyone.
- When you become master of all you survey, allow your team to innovate and fail. The things they succeed with will amaze you. Empower your team. Give them the ability to make decisions on the things they work on. Less paperwork for you, more autonomy for them. Make them responsible for their work, because, well they are.
- Insist on diversity. Hire people smarter than you. (Don’t be afraid. They don’t want your job. If they did, they would certainly have it already.)
- Hire people who don’t look like you. Avoid groupthink. Give your team the power to tell you that you are wrong. This may be the second greatest thing you ever do for yourself. The first was hiring someone smart enough to tell you that you are wrong.
- Just because everyone says it can’t be done, does not mean they are right. Believe and do it anyway.
Those core rules are non-negotiable and will likely work for any occupation. These are my IT-related truths. They too may be applied to any occupation. Adjust as necessary.
You must learn to love new things.
- Every three years all that you know may become obsolete. Even if it does not, the IT industry will certainly have expanded further than expected. You have a lot of learning to do.
- Start your career learning about everything you can. Specialize once you know what feels good to you and you are able to do with maximum efficiency and minimum wasted effort. Be a generalist when you can, specialize if you must but maintain your versatility. Your employment may depend on you being able to do an array of things.
- Maintain your versatility over time by taking a variety of IT careers in a variety of business models. Business skills will become more important the further up the command structure of the corporation you want to go. Get some training or some education related to business if your mission is to conquer the executive suite.
- Learn the soft/social skills of how to deal with people. That is a skill set that will only grow more valuable with age.
- Find the time to take an assessment exam and to read books that deal with occupational growth and career design (i.e. Myers-Briggs, What Color is Your Parachute, Zen and the Art of Making a Living, the Success Principles by Jack Canfield.) These books guide you to consider your reasons for working in the occupation that you do now and how to maximize that experience, or suggest a career better suited to your skill set.
- Learn 10 things today that you did not know yesterday. Real facts – don’t cut corners. (3,650 new ideas every year will keep you sharp, and yes, that means you learn on the weekends, too!)
- Knowledge, Information and Data are not equal. Data is the raw stuff of databases and reports. In and of itself, it does nothing. When organized and understood, data can become information and has the potential to influence events and empower the person using it. Knowledge is the state that information assumes when it has helped to accomplish work. Knowledge is the ultimate expression of data in use. Knowledge is Power. Data is just data.
Know your limitations.
- If you don’t know your weaknesses or limitations, ask someone you trust and don’t take it too personally if they tell you something you didn’t know. Then you should take the time to know yourself better. When in doubt find an enemy and ask him. He has nothing to gain by not telling you the truth.
- Lose a bad habit a year, every year until you approach perfection. (You are not likely to become perfect, but people may like to be around you a lot more.)
- Know yourself; do work that complements your skill set. If you don’t like databases, don’t become a database administrator, even if you know how. You will resent your work and it will show.
- Learn your strengths and use them, they will grow even stronger. Don’t dwell on your weaknesses; you don’t plan to keep them anyway.
- Be introspective. Introspection is a lost art. Introspection is the art of looking into yourself to find out who you are. You cannot do it with your iPod or stereo blasting at 11. You cannot do it while you are texting your friends or playing World of Warcraft. Introspection can only be done, in silence and the harsh light of honest analysis of who you are and what you do (or have done recently). If you cannot stand a silent room or be alone with your thoughts, ask yourself why? Then do it anyway. The life you improve will be your own. If you find introspection especially difficult, learn/take a class on meditation or yoga, (or both).
No one outside of IT will really know what you do or understand it. So kudos may be slow to arrive after you pull the company fat out of the fire for the fourth time this month. IT is your family now.
- Love, admire, respect and support each other’s work. It may be the only acknowledgment you receive from your workplace. Cross-train so you can help each other over time and allow everyone to take a vacation sometime.
- Complements are rarely given to the technical masses that do the most difficult of work. Know that the bulk of the people who benefit from your work, appreciate it greatly. Why management is less able to do that is still a mystery…
- In some work environments, your work will barely be acknowledged; do it well anyway.
- Your work is your signature. When you leave your work behind, it should be a monument like the Pyramids of Giza; built to last, with vision in mind. Also see: timeless.
- When you become the boss of your own IT Empire, sing the praises of your team to everyone. That praise will be the greatest tool in your arsenal.
- Under-promise and over-deliver. Keep the masses clamoring for your support happy with this simple mantra. Learn how to budget and manage your time. Be realistic when you promise your client a delivery date. Then deliver on your promise, in spades.
- In IT, everything takes longer than you thought it would. Make sure you think of everything your client would want and a half a dozen things they never considered. Treat them as you would desire to be treated.
- Document everything you do. Keep an electronic paper trail of your labors. Hercules had only 13 impossible things to do, so he did not need to take notes. Make a to-do list every day. Keep it on a flash drive or in a wiki. It helps you determine how well you are doing, what you are doing and whether it is what you should be doing.
- Once a year, make a list of things you want to accomplish in that year and make sure those things get on your daily or weekly to do list. At the end of the year, check that list, if more than half are not done, where is your time being spent?
You must appear perfect in word and deed. Unrealistic? So what. Who said life was fair.
- Your parents are responsible for what was, you are responsible for what is. If your life was not a bed of roses, get over it. Every day is a chance to make it better. Real life is progressive and iterative (meaning it builds on the work of the day before. So it will take time to correct all that was wrong. Do it anyway.)
- Mastery of self must occur before you can master anything else. Self-control means control of your habits, your mind, and your body. The most powerful thing you can do for yourself is to maintain your self-control especially when everyone around you is waiting for you to lose it.
- If you are out of sorts; get help. There is no shame in seeking support. The IT industry can undermine your self-esteem and morale. If you are psychologically stressed, IT work can drive you to the brink in record time.
- If you say it, it must be so. Your word is law. Keep your word, your integrity is everything.
- When in doubt, say nothing. Everything you say will be remembered. When you say nothing, you appear wise and inscrutable. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” No truer words were ever spoken. Remember them.
- The most powerful words you can say are: I don’t know. But I will find out. Become a master of research!
- Rest; use your vacation. Learn to walk away. Many IT types have an inability to walk away from a problem. This dogged determination is how they solve the impossible issues that end up on our desks. But it leads to stress, wear and tear on our minds and bodies over time, rendering us less effective over time. Don’t let this happen to you. Take time out. Plan for it. Then do it. You will be better for the time away. (Plus, it lets them miss you, especially if you are great at your job. Familiarity often breeds contempt.)
- Do things not IT related. The greatest minds in the world have often discovered that things apparently unrelated to your work can sometimes inspire you to find new ways of solving problems. Rejuvenate your mind by doing things that don’t require a keyboard and a mouse. Read a book, take up painting, do crosswords or Sudoku, learn a new language, play a musical instrument… When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Get at least one physical hobby or sport that puts some wear and tear on your body. The sedentary life of an IT guru can add inches to your waist and pounds to you behind. Your mind is only as strong and resilient as the body that houses it. (Weight-lifting, aerobics, running, martial arts, bicycling, swimming, ultimate Frisbee, touch football, soccer, to name a few.) Get your heart rate up and keep it up for 50 minutes a day. Your life depends on it.
Love IT as the complex and dynamic craft that it is.
- You must enjoy the challenge of finding the straw in a needle stack. You are about to become part of the largest, most distributed neural network on the planet and possibly the greatest technological wonder ever created by humanity. Savor the moment. Done? Now get to work. With that membership, you will also have the great responsibility to ensure that whatever part of that network you build, patrol, protect, guide or create, that you do it with a vision of the future, being mindful of present circumstances and with an awareness of what has gone before.
- It will, if you choose it, be the hardest job you will ever love. People will tell you that what you do is not work. Do not listen. This career is as challenging as any being done anywhere:
- IT is as challenging as medicine, because your patient will sometimes span the world, be in more than one place at a time, and have thousands of discrete elements, with millions of parts and billions of lines of code holding it all together. IT changes faster and more consistently than medicine ever has. (To be fair, medicine may soon accelerate the pace now that they are embracing IT in their diagnosis, management and coordination of information. More work for you…)
- IT may be as hard to handle as law, because there are no precedents for every event. Each time may be the first time that circumstance has EVER been seen. What was true this morning may no longer even be relevant by sunset. Human laws develop at a geologic pace compared to the shifts that technology witnesses every year. (On average, law firms are incredibly slow when it comes to utilizing the full power of IT. I am amazed to see how many law firms are still running Windows 98 or NT.)
- As difficult as architecture and engineering because what you build must offer stability and adaptability and is constantly under attack from threats within and without and yet must make the people using it feel safe and productive. Depending on the IT you are responsible for lives may hang in the balance. Be vigilant. IT is ever-challenging and has constantly expanding horizons.
- Learn all you can, all the time. If you are not a strong reader, I recommend you work on expanding your speed and your literacy, because a strong and fast reader has a decided advantage in IT. Technical publications, both in print and online are your friends. Take an 8 hour work day, once a week and do nothing but read technical journals or publications on that day. Your productivity will still be higher than anyone who doesn’t.
- IT will offer you impossible deadlines, put you in positions to affect the highest stakes (you have four minutes to save the world…) pair you with some of the strangest and often brilliant people, keep you working long and sometimes nonstandard hours, and ultimately provide you with immense satisfaction. IT will give you the satisfaction of creating something out of nothing whether that be a circuit board, a processor, a network, an application, a database, or a website, you will be creating something from the realm of ideas (Logos) and bringing it into the world. Create something the world needs they will pay you handsomely for it. (Sometimes, even if the world didn’t need it, you will get paid too, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.) Know that when your skills mature (in 5 to 7 years), you will be able to call yourself one in a million and mean it.
- Mastery of this craft makes you rare amongst humans. Even the most sophisticated and educated often pale when confronted by a computer on their desk and a demand to use it. And despite our recent economic misfortunes, work in this field will likely continue to expand to those who stay at the forefront of their fields of expertise.
- There will never be fewer computers on Earth than there are now. They may be virtual computers under unknown operating systems but the number of computers is likely to continue growing for the foreseeable future. And on the off-chance that the number of computers actually goes down, the skill level required to manage, understand and control those computers will likely be greater than ever. The only people who would have a chance of controlling or working with them would be people who already have the core fundamentals at hand. That would be you.
If you don’t love IT, you will leave it in 2-4 years for something easier, less stressful with a greater sense of acknowledgment from the common masses. Your powers will diminish somewhat but you will always remember what it was like to have your finger on the pulse of the world. Good luck. These ideas were from my private journey of twenty five years in the IT workforce. I am curious to see if anyone else sees anything familiar here. If not, share with me those things that made it possible for you to succeed. I am always looking for other great tools for my belt. About the Author: Thaddeus has an Information Technology blog at the Examiner.com.