The most meaningful of career paths will be driven by an over-arching theme or mission, but it can be daunting to set and and discover what your career’s mission is. So how do you find it?
In my career, I found that my experience with building software has primarily been a tool to use in helping me move toward my life goals. Don’t get me wrong – I love what I do. I’m one of the lucky ones that gets paid to do what I would have been doing (and already was doing) anyways. But as my career has progressed, I’ve found that the most enjoyment I get from producing software is not the code that I’m writing and deploying. My most satisfying moments isn’t even the deployment and celebration and something release. Neither is it the job well done and knowing that I’ve made some end-user’s life or job easier. In the end, the most enjoyment that I get comes from helping those around me write better software and do their jobs better. But I didn’t always know this about myself, and this wasn’t always my focus in my career. In fact, I’ve had a lot of other focused career moves and positions – job titles and responsibilities that have all helped me to learn what my career mission really is: to help other developers be the best that they can be.
Choose Your Own Adventure
My career has been somewhat like a “choose your own adventure” book. These are the books from grade school where I grew up, that had an element of you being able to control the story. There were multiple points in the books where you got to pick what the main character did, or what happened next. Based on your decision, you would turn to a certain page and start reading from there. Most of the time, you ended up in a bad situation – often dead. The goal, then, was the find the best way out of the book… the path that got you through without dying. If you were really adventurous, you would try to make the book last as long as possible, reading as many pages as possible and then get out alive. But this usually required many deaths in the attempt.
Fortunately for me, my “choose your own adventure” career has never lead me to my death. :) But it certainly has lead to a number of dead ends.
Pattern Recognition In My Career
I worked at a number of fast food places, gas stations and other menial jobs when I was in high school and college. None of these were ever careers, and I knew that. But I also had a tendency to turn these jobs in to something more than most of the other employees. I very quickly earned the trust of the managers at a one fast food place, in particular. I became a team lead with full access to the computer system and reports and I had a natural inclination to help get other people organized so that they could succeed in their job. But I left those jobs behind because I know they are dead-end jobs.
In the early days of my technology career, I worked at a local internet service provider. I was primarily a web developer, but I also did tech support and hardware support. I could build a brand new PC with my eyes closed (well, almost) but I couldn’t figure out why your printer was out of blue ink to save my life – or, career in this case. I got fired from that job. Hardware support was a dead end for me.
A short time later, I worked in a marketing department for a manufacturing company. I had enough Photoshop skills and art background that I could spend my days helping out with design and layout issues for the company ads. But I had to choose: design or development. I was better at development from an intuition perspective. Ads and design work for me, were dead ends in my career.
I had coworkers for the first time in my development career, at this manufacturing company, though. I quickly became a source of information and fixes. When the company reorganized, I was moved in to IT and given more responsibility. I also started to notice that I was learning more from reading blogs than I was from the books I was buying, so I started a blog for myself. It turned out I didn’t like working in an IT department. I wanted to build new and better things constantly, and having to maintain my own software for 4 years was driving me nuts. Long term maintenance on a single code base was a dead end for me.
Several years and jobs later, I had coworkers that were consistently coming to me with questions and wanting feedback. I was being pushed by them to get out there and speak at conferences and user groups. My manager made me the unofficial technology evangelist which eventually turned in to an official title of chief architect. I spent a lot of time helping teams with methodologies: agile stuff, lean stuff, PMI stuff, six sigma stuff, etc. I was good at what I did, but I found it draining and frustrating to no end and I realized that I wasn’t meant for that world. Methodology and the team dynamics were a dead end for me.
A few more jobs and a few more years later, I took a position as a developer advocate at Telerik – this is a company that I still love and I still use their products, constantly. This was my dream job at the time. I was using all of the skills I had attained in my previous roles, and helping other developers every day. It was great until I realized that I also missed writing my own software and being on the engineering side of things. Moving entirely in to the customer service and support side of software development was another dead end for me.
Looking Beyond The Code
From the experiences in my career, I didn’t so much create the direction that my career has now taken. Rather, I simply recognized the direction that it was already heading.
The thing is, technical skills are great and necessary in our field. But In order to find the direction that your career should move and to create a meaningful and practical career mission, you have to look beyond the code. You have to step outside of the things that you are doing day to day. You have to step in to new roles – uncomfortable roles, at times – and figure out what it is you do and don’t like about these roles. And then you have to read between the lines. When you think about the jobs you’ve had, the responsibilities you’ve taken on, the roles you’ve loved and hated, think about the common themes. Don’t just look at the technical, “this is how you do it” aspects. Look for the larger, more meaningful themes that encompass the day to day grind that you love.
For me, it was the coworkers that were pushing me to get out there and do presentations and local user groups. It was the way my team members were constantly referring to my blog posts, and asking me to write up the solutions for a given problem. It was the way I always became a team lead, a tech lead, an architect or mentor. These were the things that lead me to realize what my career mission is.
Everything Else Supports The Mission
When I look at my career today, where I am as an entrepreneur with WatchMeCode, SignalLeaf, eBooks, blogs, and other things that I’ve done, I can very clearly see my career mission being fulfilled: help make other people’s live easier, with technology. My primary focus is developers, but I’m also stepping out of that realm with SignalLeaf. I’m still 100% focused on “help other people” and “technology” in this case – but it’s not necessarily other developers. I’m help other people solve technology problems for podcasting. I’m focused on customer service and simplifying things for podcasters – the same focus I have for developers. I want to educate developers on better practices. I want to give podcaster better tools and make sure they know the things they need to know. I want to make people’s lives easier.
Everything I do now, supports my career mission of helping others. I’ve identified that theme in my career and I am working my butt off to fulfill my mission. I know that the tools and technologies that I use will change. I know that I will engage in new and interesting business opportunities. I may not stay focused on developers forever. I may not stay focused on podcasters forever. I may not even stay in technology. I can’t predict that part of my future. But I can predict that I will remain focused on my mission to make the lives of other people easier.
Listen, To Find Your Mission
My mission became apparent to me when I looked back on my career and listened to those around me. I’m a better person for having listened, and I hope the world is a better place for it. Finding your mission in your career and your life may still be a long journey. You might look back on what you’ve done and realize that there are no themes and you’ve been wandering. But then, maybe you just need to listen to the patterns and themes of your career, the way I did.
When we stop thinking about the technical details of today and we start looking at the themes and patterns in our career, listening to the thoughts between the words of our co-workers, then the mission that we are already engaged in becomes more apparent. Nurture those thoughts, those words between the lines and those over-arching themes. See what they become, and adjust and refine from there. Like everything we do in software development, this is not a big upfront design. Rather, it is an iterative, incremental and living, breathing thing that we build.