I got a call last month from a newsletter reader in India who wanted help in making a career decision. He was a bit vague about the details, but it seems that he impetuously quit his previous job over a difference of opinion with his manager. Now he wasn’t sure whether to try to patch things up or to move on to another company.
I won’t go into the details of the advice I gave the reader, but the phone call prompted me to consider what general career advice I would offer to lower- and mid-level people in IT. I came up with the following set of 10 rules:
1. You don’t become an executive by being a better employee.
As Robert Kiyosaki pointed out in his excellent book Before You Quit Your Job, people usually gravitate toward either being entrepreneurs or being employees. The education system in the United States (and probably elsewhere as well) is focused on training people to become employees. It teaches them to follow rules and procedures, to maximize their use of existing resources, and to follow the orders of the people in charge. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, learn through trial and error to obtain the resources they need and to make something out of nothing. Employees want the security of a full-time job; entrepreneurs want the freedom to accomplish their dreams.
I point out the difference because lower- and mid-level people in IT are very definitely employees, but the higher you go in the executive ranks the more likely you are to find an entrepreneurial spirit. This creates a natural barrier which prevents lower-level people from ever becoming executives. Only by leaving behind the very essence of why you became an employee can you ever rise to the executive level.
2. There are no right answers to any question – just opinion guided by ethics, legality, experience and tradition.
This of course contradicts what you’re taught in school, but see rule #1. Even the answers to basic questions like “How much is 2 + 2?” are based on years of tradition that developed our modern number system. In a different context, for example in a chemical reaction, 2 + 2 might not equal 4 at all.
If someone tells you that there’s only one way to do something, what the person really means is that he always does it that way. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way, and it doesn’t mean you can’t improve on things.
3. Pick your battles.
Of course, life is full of people telling you that there’s only one way to do things. And although there are probably better ways to do almost everything, it often isn’t worth the time or investment to figure out a better way to do most of them. The key is to prioritize: to focus on improving the things that are most important to you or that are most important to your business.
4. The people who make the least mistakes are the ones who have the most experience. But the people with the most experience are the ones who have made (or observed) the most mistakes in the past; making mistakes is how they got the experience in the first place.
The only way to learn is to make mistakes; babies don’t walk the first time they try, but they keep trying until they stay upright. If you do your job by copying exactly what someone else does, then you might do the job as well but you won’t know why. You won’t be able to respond to changing conditions by altering what you do, because you won’t understand the implications of doing things a different way.
Overprotective parents often correct their children’s homework because they don’t want their children to “fail.” But the lesson they teach their children is that it’s unacceptable to fail, while the lesson they ought to be teaching their children is that it’s ok to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes.
Try new things, and try to do old things new ways. Some new approaches won’t work, but you’ll learn why and you’ll be better for the knowledge.
5. The more credibility you have, the more people will listen to you.
If you’re perceived as an expert, then people will pay attention to what you say. This seems obvious. But it’s the route to this credibility that confuses most people. See the next rule.
6. Build credibility by being successful at what you do – not by telling other people they’re wrong.
When you first start your career, just do the best you can at the work you’re assigned. Treat each assignment as a challenge to exceed (not just meet) your goals, and gradually you’ll build your credibility.
But be very careful to keep your opinions to yourself about topics for which you haven’t yet established credibility. It’s very easy to get a reputation as a trouble-maker when the number of your critical comments exceeds your demonstrated capability.
7. Titles convey temporary credibility, but the credibility expires if it isn’t proven.
New managers or people who are new to senior technical positions often expect that they get credibility just because of their title. While it’s true that new people in titled positions are given the benefit of the doubt for a month or so, all of the credibility associated with the position will disappear if you don’t show evidence that the credibility is warranted. You don’t get credibility because of a title – you get a title because of your credibility.
8. The lower you are in an organization, the more you have to do what you’re told.
There are four scenarios for doing what you’re told:
a. If you do what you’re told and things go well, then you’ll be perceived as right.
b. If you do what you’re told (and it’s well documented) and things go badly, then your boss is wrong. But you’re also wrong if you didn’t point out the problem earlier.
c. If you don’t do what you’re told and things go well, then you might be right or you might be lucky, but you’ve got to be careful in either case. Was this a battle worth fighting?
d. If you don’t do what you’re told and things go badly, then you’ll be perceived as wrong whether or not you really are.
Try to learn from every assignment you’re given, even if you don’t happen to agree with the way you’re supposed to do the work. Figure out why the work is being assigned that way; there’s always a reason even if it’s not a very good one.
9. You can learn something every day if you look for it.
You might learn something you should do, or you might learn something you shouldn’t do. Either way it’s progress.
10. Enjoy the journey.
Sure it might be great to be an executive someday. But enjoy what you’re doing right now. Life is about more than anticipation – it’s about the learning experience you go through to get to your destination. To me, that learning experience has always been the fun part.
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