Monday, January 5, 2009

What's Your Strategy?

"Fail to plan and you plan to fail" a manager of mine used to say. She was right. If you don't have a target, it's hard to miss, but it's hard to hit as well.

Having a road map or strategy is a vital part of anything we do, but we so often muddle through. We adopt the "Just Do It!" mantra. "Shut up and code!" It doesn't work for software projects and it doesn't work for our careers either.

You've also got to remember that no plan is perfect. A WWII general (whose name I forget) said "The plan is essential. The plan is useless." Plans rarely survive contact with the enemy, and they certainly won't survive contact with our lives. We've got to be able to let go of plans that run astray and reset our goals to things that matter today.

But today's topic is about your strategies, not ours. We'd like to ask you to share your best career moments. In the comments sections, or send us email if you'd prefer, tell us:

  • What's the single best career move you've made?
  • The worst?
  • Do you have a plan today? Have you ever?
  • What career advice do you wish someone had told you X years ago?
We're looking forward to reading your responses!


Alex Miller said...

The best career move I ever made was starting a blog. I happened to write some stuff that led to an email from my current boss and ultimately my current job. There's no way it would have happened without the blog. Blogging has led to a lot of other stuff too...speaking, writing, etc.

But most importantly, it's been a great place for me to throw ideas and see people tear them apart. Those comments are sometimes painful but a great way to learn what you know and what you don't.

Eric said...

My best career move was attending my local Java Users Group. I got to connect with some really bright people and I got my current job at Sun from it. Agreed with Alex, though. My blog definitely is a close 2nd.

The worst career move was actually my not looking harder for a good job in the first place. I took the first job that offered and regretted it for 18 months.

My plan is now to work my way up a bit and generate more professional contacts.

I really wish someone had told me to branch out with my programming while in college and to carefully choose who you work for. Luckily it doesn't haunt me like it could have.

bokmann said...

* What's the single best career move you've made?
Taking advantage of a large conference room my employer had in the late 90's to start hosting the Northern Virginia Java Users Group. The contacts I made during that time influence every aspect of my career today.

* The worst?
Staying at one job too long because it got comfortable, not realizing soon enough the culture had changed.

* Do you have a plan today? Have you ever?
Yes, I have short term plans for the projects I'm on, medium term plans for the things I am learning (and if I don't have a project reason to learn, I create one - like signing up to give a presentation at a local technology group), and long-term plans for my company.

* What career advice do you wish someone had told you X years ago?
One programmer, even the best one, is limited in what they can accomplish. To truly scale, you need to know how to work in teams. I got my CS degree without ever having used version control or continuous integration (granted, that was 1992), but today I meet developers who still think these are novel ideas.

Jim Shingler said...

I really enjoyed your NFJS talk on the topic and look forward to the book.


Tim Berglund said...

BEST: becoming an independent consultant. In the past year and a half, I've had more freedom to develop myself and my career in an intentional way.

WORST: like bokmann, I stayed too long in a job in which I was not growing (a company composed of great people with whom I am still friends), but even worse, I allowed myself to become isolated from the development community through the tyranny of the urgent. I was always too pressed with the demands of my role to attend user groups, go to conferences, invest time in friendships with colleagues, etc.

PLAN: Yes, I do. Hopefully by the time Jared's book comes out, I'll be able to read it and say, "Yeah, I'm doing that."

ADVICE: Network! You can grow to a certain level with just you and your keyboard, but you need community with others in your vocation to do anything really interesting. Make space in your life to be friends with them or change careers.

James Avery said...

Plans are nothing; planning is everything.-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Jeffrey Fredrick said...

Jared, great topic!

I had more to say than would fit into a comment.

Jared said...

I find it very interesting that not a single person has mentioned learning a language or technology. It's all been attending user's groups, starting a blog, doing what you love, etc.

Maybe the tech side plays a smaller role than we thought? Perhaps smart people, plugged into their community, can always find great opportunities?

Mark said...

While I'm in my first job, so I don't feel I've made any career moves to comment on, it seems to me from the comments so far that most people's best career move can be summed up as taking a chance.

Reminds me of the cliched phrase no pain no gain.

Conversely, the general worst career move has been not taking a chance.

This might explain why technology hasn't been mentioned. We're all technologists who live on the cutting edge, so to speak, so for us changing technologies isn't as big a risk as putting ourselves out there in a way that might cause us to be judged by others.

qureous said...

the best thing i've done to advance my career is interview often.

practice makes perfect and interviewing is not an exception to this rule.

its not ideal to walk in to the interview for your dream job with low confidence or poor experience responding to the variety of interviewing situations. what happens if its a group interview; what if they want you to write or review code; what if they require a personality test; what if a senior executive participates in the interview?

in addition to building expertise in interviewing, you build up your professional network. i have never had a recruiter turn on me because i didn't accept a position i was offered. quite the opposite, they now want to present you again and again. your the candidate they sent in that secured a job offer, your the desirable candidate the employer wanted and couldn't have.

i think its a good idea to interview for jobs you don't really think you want. there is a lot less pressure interviewing for a job you haven't set all your hopes and dreams on attaining. plus, you may not realize what a great opportunity you've been offered, on more than one occasion i was much much more excited about the job after i got to know the company and met my prospective coworkers then i was originally.

Chris Replogle said...

You could move your career, or you could have your career move you. Have you ever been "moved" to a different group or project. That move could be the motivator. Causing you to re-learn old technologies and embrace new languages and architectures.

Getting out of your comfort zone once in a while seems to keep you sharp and motivated. How to take this move without stressing yourself and your family is the key. Being able to learn the new stuff as fast as you can, yet not completely immerse yourself is the key.

The hardest part to me about career moves is the environmental move. The environment you work in seems to encompass the people, place, noise, hardware, and of course the technologies. What do you miss most from your comfort zone you had before? Your office with the huge whiteboards? Your seemingly endless hardware resources? Your productive development environment? Your working group who all seem to be on the same thought wavelengths? The facilities itself. Is the restroom close or far away, number of stalls vs. urinals, is it clean, all of these can affect your comfort at your job also. ( Sounds gross I know, but if you've ever had to 'make a run' after lunch and been up and down three to four flights of stairs and still can't find a restroom, you'll understand my gripe here. )

The other thing that seems to have a great influence on career changes is your home life. Did your wife/husband change jobs at the same time you did. This one hurts. Your both trying to get on the upswing of your new job at the same time. That can be hard trying to support each other during this transition. Trying to find time for your physical wellness can also be an issue. Taking time to clear your head and get some exercise seems to keep the whole house much happier.

Enough babbling.

Dave Klein said...

My basic strategy has always been to do the best I could at whatever I had to do. I came into software development by accident but once there, I did whatever I could to improve. Not starting with college meant that I had some catching up to do. To do that I attended user groups and conferences.

This led to my first NoFluff conference in Chicago, 11/2002. From that point on, I was hooked. I had always believed in the principle of surrounding yourself with people who were smarter than you. At a NFJS that was easy to do!

I went to as many NFJS events as I could and then the day came when I was invited to the fabled NoFluff Speakers dinner! (and yes it was as fun as you've heard) At dinner I sat next to a gentleman named Jared Richardson who, through the course of the evening, gave me what must have been the seeds of his Career 2.0 keynote.

I went on to do many of the things he suggested and that others have written about here: started a blog, spoke at JUGs and at SD West and now am even writing a book!

It has been great. Most of what I have been doing didn't directly help in my day job or bring in any extra revenue, but I was learning more than ever and having loads of fun. The people that I have met through user groups, the NFJS shows, and through being involved in the Groovy/Grails community are just awesome! Indirectly these activities have led me to my dream job but that was just icing on the cake!

One more bit of advice: Make your goal being the best you can be at what you do, not getting as far as you can get. The former will bring the latter in due time. "Do you see a man that excels in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before unknown men."
Proverbs 22:29