Sunday, 3 March 2019

On choices, decisions, initiative, career planning: lessons, looking back

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At a recent town hall with my technology division (100+ people: frontend & backend engineers, platforms & infrastructure systems engineers, system architects, agile specialists, AI/ML engineers, Agile PMO & technical ops monitors), I opened up by giving my perspective on expected behaviours & responsibilities of the individual, especially when it comes to career development & growth aspirations.

The message was about taking a personal ownership for one's own growth, rather than leaving it up to the company or one's manager (a message that surfaced a few times in recent OfficeVibe feedback) - that the responsibility largely lies with the individual. Yes, managers/leaders are there to support you & guide you along the way, but only you know what defines you as a person, so don't leave it up to others to determine a path for you...

Reflecting on my own journey, it all comes down to understanding your current reality, weighing the choices on the table, defining your aspirations, taking initiative,  processing & reflecting through assessing the outcome of the initiatives, finding great people to learn from, tracking your trajectory on the path to growth. The path is not always clear, sometimes adjustments need to be made, sometimes a little backtracking is needed to enable the next leap forward - still, it all comes down to one's own personal ownership & level of commitment to controlling one's own future.

I thought I'd share my own timeline as guidance for people who might be stuck. Interestingly enough, although I only recently started formally implementing my own management framework around life/work planning by way of my RAGE model, that I was actually instinctively using this decision-making model all the time.

My timeline table shows the major periods in my career, commenting on reality of the situation at the time, choices I faced, decision made & eventual outcome. I think anyone who's considering what to do next with their career plan should do a similar exercise for their own sense-making.

My Perspectives

  1. Gain a keen appreciation for your current situational reality and take responsibility for it. Yes, reality sucks sometimes, but you got to play the hand you're dealt, don't let that get you down.  It is possible to change your reality. I made hard choices based on my reality of being caught in a low-income family, living through Apartheid.
  2. Discover your key motivations and use them as your guiding compass, some call it your "value system". I believed in myself and my ability to make things happen. If I felt my knowledge was lacking, I would learn & close the gaps myself. Don't assume you know everything, there are tons of smart people out there. I got a huge awakening when I went overseas, so much so that I had to learn software engineering & computer science all over again.
  3. Don't go seeking hand-outs or help, but if people or companies do extend their generosity, don't naively turn them down. There will be good people helping you along the way. After trying many avenues of financial aid/scholarships without success, I thought help would never come my way, but it eventually did.
  4. Don't bog yourself down with "If Only", or "What If" - this creates negativity & unnecessary anxieties. Move on, look forward. Sure, reflect on the past, learn from it, but never let it hold you back. You're in control of shaping your own reality. I chose a path that was the most practical, I switched jobs just as I was going to be promoted, I left big projects just as they were about to land, I left a start-up thinking I had a job lined up (but it didn't happen), I left what others would say is madness (left the stability of UK to return to volatile SA). Leaving UK was very difficult for me from a professional experience sacrifice, but I never allowed doubt and negativity to bog me down.
  5. If you want a good measure of your skills or experience an alternate reality, leave your country & work overseas. Even though the world has gone smaller through globalisation, that even in South Africa we do work with international teams, I still think getting overseas exposure is one of the best things one can do. Living and working in different countries exposes you to a different world of experiences. If you're under the age of 35, then you should try it. It doesn't have to mean relocating or emigrating, it could be a temporary secondment for a year or two. I was fortunate to experience working with many cultures across the globe on some really big projects. I learnt so much in a short space of time, it took my engineering skills to another level. As for Planning, Management & Execution principles, in my opinion, the UK ethic is world-class.
  6. Become comfortable with uncertainty & embrace the unknown, even it means leaving your home town/country for another one. You get this only through experience, and having been through at least one transition into the unknown. I've seen a few - it's not so bad, you must embrace your fear of uncertainty.
  7. Develop a learning & growth mindset - in any new role, work hard to learn as much as you can, by reading, studying, latching on to people as mentors, read other people's code through open source projects, etc. I became expert in a few areas: MPEG/DVB protocol spec & implementation, C & C++ coding, Voice synthesis & Text-to-Speech, Project, Agile Program Management & Execution, Professional services consulting and more recently Leadership skills. This doesn't come easy: I read a ton, implement the tools, learn from experienced, the wise, still remaining open to new experiences, no matter how edgy they might make me feel.
  8. Be ready to start-over again more than once - switch roles, domains or industries, sometimes what might seem to be a step or two backwards, actually turns out to be better than hoped. I started over at least 5 times in my career of 20 years. If you're in software, sure you can specialise (and there's nothing wrong with that) but you must then become expert at what you do. To grow in software, my view is to learn as many tools as possible, switch every two years. One of the best ways to do this is side projects, open source communities. Don't wait for your company to reserve hackathon sprints, or 20% time - take ownership. I taught myself text-to-speech synthesis on my own, developed POCs in my spare time and proved to company the potential innovation. If I had not taken initiative, I probably would not have landed the ultimate technical role I dreamt of.
  9. Don't pass the responsibility for your career on to someone else (your manager or company), rather you should have a view of your own map, your end goal. Your company or leaders can help with options available, guide on the gaps you need to fill - and it's even better when the company has a decent career ladder in place. Never pass the buck on and make excuses that your company / manager does not care, that you don't have enough syncs 1:1s or feedback sessions with your manager. You need to take ownership, period. In the companies I worked for, we at least had a decent career-ladder in place, showing all the upwards, sideways opportunities available. I made it clear to my leaders at the time, that my ultimate goal was to become a "Jack of all trades, but Master of SOME" T/PI-Shaped skills. They knew that when I'd enter a new role, I would learn, produce outcomes and then move on, thankfully, I had very good leaders that did not stand in my way. If you feel obstructed by your leader / team / company, first dig deep within yourself to reflect on whether your own behaviours need improving, and if you're still convinced it's not you, then leave, change your environment, change your circumstances.
  10. Don't get complacent or too confident your role is secure, retrenchments & redundancies are a reality, business-is-business. I got my first taste of layoffs when I was still a junior software engineer, naively thinking I was in a good place by virtue of being part of a cool new product team, and owning some key components. Since that first-and-only layoff (in 20 years), I developed my "spider senses" - and decided that it would always be me that decides whether I stay or leave, not a market event or the company.
  11. Do not grow an entitled mindset, or have unrealistic expectations from your employer. Say you studied hard and earned additional paper qualifications: MSc, MBA, PMP, etc. Don't expect the company to automatically increase your salary or grant you a promotion. Say your own personal life changes, you get married or have children, so you have more responsibility at home. Why should you expect your company to give you an increase, if the work you're doing hasn't materially changed, or your output is still the same, and you're still working at the level the role expects?? At the end of the day, it's up to you to manage your personal circumstances, it's not the company responsibility now to just automatically reward you or make your life easier financially - NO - you have to work at it. If you gained new qualifications, you need to show an interest in contributing your newly acquired knowledge, showing value. If you're seeking a promotion, you must show you've actively contributed covering much of the roles/output of the next role you're seeking. Companies don't owe you anything - so don't come up with unreasonable expectations or feel entitled. It's all about your output, meritocracy  is the only thing that matters.
  12. Becoming your own boss, running your own consultancy is hard work, be prepared to fail in this area. Although branching out on your own can be enormously liberating & exciting, unless you have a large network to tap into, moving from one consulting engagement to another, building up clientele & a pipeline of work, growing your team - whilst a lot of people have made this a successful venture - it is actually quite hard to do. I was fortunate to secure the company I left as my major client, although, the client only wanted to work with me, so in effect, I never really left! Without a strong network, the going was tough trying to break into other clients, even after doing some pro bono consulting work. You must invest a lot of time & energy, unpaid hours to build your own consultancy, something I didn't do, which showed I wasn't really fully invested in this venture. So I shut my company down, and was pulled back in by the strong gravitational forces of the big company. I learnt a great deal, became a better salesman, and became confident in interacting with C-Level executives. Consulting however, is a sure way to make extra money than being a permanent employee, but it comes with its own set of risks.
  13. Show gratitude. Whilst you might think that you're in control and the result of your successes are due to your own hard work, sweat and tears, never become arrogant and ignore that other forces helped you get this far. Take time to seriously reflect on this, and you will soon identify people or events that helped, and when these surface - be thankful & show your gratitude, develop humility. Although I was brought up in low-income household, I never once felt not having a complete home, or solid upbringing on life skills - if anything - this actually shaped my personal motivational value system. I never regretted or blamed my parents, I had a good childhood, was taught responsibility & key life skills. I've acknowledged people, friends and family that shaped my reality, the leaders in the various companies I worked with, were supportive, friendly and encouraging - I learnt so much from them, and still continue to learn from them today. Sometimes, when you're in the thick of the day-to-day job, you might not like what your manager says or does (over controlling, micromanaging, lecturing), and it's only when you leave, you realise the wisdom and lessons being taught. It's not always about you, and if you're leading teams, show appreciation for your teams as well. Your success is a result of your team's output. As you develop into senior roles, your visible output might become less-and-less, but you're still working hard through people, in the background. Never think you're the sole reason behind success - there's so much more that goes on, that we're often blindsided - don't get blindsided, actively seek out your blind spots.
  14. Be patient. Patience is linked to gratitude. Be patient with your role, allow enough time to learn the essence of the domain. Once you're comfortable & confident in your appreciation of the essence or core principles and you've remained long enough in the role to complete 1-2 major pieces of work / projects, then allow yourself the opportunity to move on. But don't rush things through, learning needs time to soak. Personally I'm always doubtful when I come across people's CVs hopping from one permanent role to the next in less than 18 months (this is because the major initiatives usually run for at least 18 months). From my experience, this (9-15 months) is just not enough time to do justice or have made a serious contribution in terms of outcomes (unless the gig was to rescue, recover or revive a project as a major intervention, or consulting gig). For me, it's been roughly a minimum of 18 months provided I felt confident in my results. I just about completed my engineer-in-training role after university when I took a big chance, although successful, in retrospect, I had big gaps to close anyway. The more higher one climbs the ladder, the more patient one needs to be, which means 18 months could grow to 24-36 months minimum. Currently I'm resisting the urge to switch, knowing that I still have another year to go before I can claim to have truly owned the role, so patience becomes a necessity.
  15. It's not always about the money or job title - neither does "years in role" contribute to "seniority". Although I might risk passing a value judgement on other people here, what I found is that money should not be a driving motivation, if you've set your sights on a learning and growth mindset. Sure, you can hop from one job/company to the next every 12 months or so, on each move your salary jumps - but if you're effectively not learning new skills or growing, is it worth it? Job titles are also relative, what's in a name after all? What matters is what you can do, and the value you bring to the table. What I found also trips people up is this complex of "seniority" based on "I've worked so many years in this role, hence I deserve a promotion as a senior xyz". In my journey, I sacrificed salary growth for knowledge, experience and a wide/deep toolbox of skills/capabilities. Later when things became challenging financially, other opportunities opened up that boosted my income, which wouldn't have been possible if I'd not honed by capabilities & demonstrated value as a result of experience. I once had a manager who, in his previous company was a VP of Engineering only to become a development manager in his next role - two steps back. I'd asked him why he made the move, this was when I learnt that work/life isn't just about the title. He restarted two levels down and in a short space of time, was back to being a Director of Engineering. I had a team leader once who was performing in the role of manager, but was so humble and patient that having the title did not bother him much. I have seen engineers who effectively remain doing similar activities for years, expecting a promotion by virtue of being doing the same job, even though the competencies haven't grown (e.g. influencing group/country/global teams, taking ownership, showing initiative) - so if you want a promotion, you need to earn it! I've also seen people who are content being a software engineer (with no aspirations of seniority/leadership), but who are expert at what they do, adding so much value, that the company provides enough incentives to keep the person happy (at times a brilliant software engineer could earn a higher salary, have indirect influence greater than his/her manager). At the end it does come down to personal motivations, and when the time does come around to being a financial/happiness constraint, then don't expect the company to help you - it's time for you to change!

My Timeline (Click here to see full table)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Great article.. As always. This made me realize the choices and changes I also need to make.