Today is another busy day in the life of my long IT career. The day consists of a slew of meetings, a podcast, and then a mad scramble to the airport followed by an hour plus drive home for another late Friday night arrival at my house in sunny Florida. I was able to catch my breath between meetings long enough to reflect on my career. I just realized that in about 45 days, I will have been working in IT for 35 years. So, I asked myself, what advice would I give my 19-year-old self when I was first starting the journey. In no particular order, here are the tidbits of advice that trickled into my mind.
Technology changes fast, now faster than ever. Be curious and explore new and emerging topics. Being early to an emerging trend and becoming an expert at it can open opportunities that may have never been available to you before. I was early in cloud and learned everything I know the hard way, by failing and fixing it. It got me where I am today.
Everything changes all the time. Technology changes rapidly. People change. Organizations and companies change. Life events change. If you want everything to remain static and predictable, your life in IT is going to be miserable. Embrace change as an opportunity to learn, both what to do and what not to do. Change creates opportunities. It is what you do with those opportunities that determines your fate.
Do things that add business value
Often in IT, budgets are made up from people’s best guess of what the business needs from a year earlier. But change happens, and the business needs new and different things throughout the year. Seize these opportunities. Enabling customers (internal and external) is a rewarding experience and frankly, it is the thing we are supposed to be doing. Not only do you grow your network with people outside of your inner circle, but you learn the business from your customers’ perspective, not IT’s perspective. It also makes you more visible. I know too many brilliant people who solved incredible technology problems that were invisible to the business. These heroics rarely get recognized. Solving business problems helps you in so many ways.
Empower others to replace you
If you don’t want to be in the same role for years, teach the people below you how to do your job. Learn how to delegate. Too many people feel that they can get the job done quicker by doing it themselves than by showing someone else how to do it. Guess what? You now own that task forever. This is the biggest mistake you can make. Instead, find someone less experienced and willing to learn and teach them how to do it. Yes, they will take longer to do it initially, but they will get there eventually. In fact, they will often think of solutions better than what you have implemented and build upon your methods of accomplishing that task. In return, you can move on to the next challenge and learn the next new thing to increase your value. Even better, is the person will forever be thankful for their opportunity and may help you tackle your next problem on your journey.
Steer clear of toxic people
Give me someone who knows a little but has great work ethic and the hunger to learn over the person who knows everything and is an arrogant jerk. Make it a point to stay far away from arrogant and toxic people. They add no value to your well being.
If you want it, you must go get it
When people cry “I never get to work on new things”, my first thought is that they are not risk takers. They are sitting there waiting for opportunities to come to them. You must go find those opportunities and take risks. That might mean volunteering, experimenting during your own personal time, accepting roles you are not yet qualified for, or leaving a safe job or role to take a shot at a totally different opportunity. Waiting for the opportunity to come to you is like hoping the lottery will be your retirement plan.
Always do the right thing
Whether it is dealing with customers or dealing with colleagues, always do what is right, not what is best for you. Sometimes what is right is also best for you, but not always. If a customer is asking for something that can make you or your company a lot of money, but it is the wrong thing for their business, don’t sell them that. Explain why there are better ways to accomplish their goals, whether it makes you money or not. They will appreciate the honestly and understand that you are there to help them.
The same thing implies internally. I had a team that busted their butt for months on a complex and important project. We had an annual meeting where the leaders got up and talked about the project which basically resulted in them taking all the credit. I sent my project manager and architect up to present. Many people did not know they existed. I just could not stand up there and take the credit for the hard work these two and others did. They stole the show.
Learn from your mistakes and mistakes from others
It should be ok to make mistakes, just don’t repeat them. I always tell people that everything I know about cloud is from doing it wrong the first time. There is a lot of truth to that statement. But also learn from how people react to others. Watch how the team reacts to a passive-aggressive leader. Watch the facial expressions and body language of how people react to messaging, criticism, praise, social interactions, etc. Learn both what to do and what not to do. I am still learning the hard way on this one.
The only real way to learn is to do
Reading books are great and recommended. Getting certifications is good and recommended. But neither of those make you an expert at anything. The only way to be an expert is to do it, fail at it, fix it, and repeat. Some people think they are high and mighty because they have all these certs yet they make fools of themselves in front of clients because they have never spent a day doing the work in a real working environment. Even worse, they make recommendations and go home without ever having lived to implement and support those recommendations. The best recommendations come from learning what not to do. Implement something and then support it. You will never get it right the first time but over time you will learn better ways of solving problems by fixing the ones you created.
The customer is always right, especially when they are wrong
In the customers’ eyes, they are right until you convince them otherwise. Telling them they are flat out wrong does not help them learn. Even though their solution or approach may seem wrong on the surface, there may be constraints unknown to you that drove them to their current solution. Ask the “why” questions to see how they got to that point. Give them alternatives when necessary but don’t flat out discount their opinions. In some cases, customers are incredibly wrong and unwilling to change. You should walk away from those because in good conscience, you should not take money for doing the wrong things.
Don’t forget about your family
This was my worst sin. I worked so many hours, nights, weekends, holidays, vacations over the years that I basically missed my kids growing up. Don’t make this mistake. Burn the midnight oil when it is necessary, but it should not be the norm. What’s the use of making as much money as possible if you don’t get to experience life with your family? There is only so many gifts you can buy them. The gift that matters is your time and the experiences you share together. I failed miserably at this for almost 30 years. I am pretty good about this now, but I can’t buy back the time lost. Also, go have dinner with your parents this week. They won’t be here forever.
Onward and Upward
That’s my advice you 19-year-old clueless version of myself. Go forward, build a large network of non-toxic people, create business value, don’t work for or with assholes, help people, love life and most importantly your family. Oh, and don’t wait for the lottery to hit. Cheers!