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15 Career Mistakes

I’ve written other newsletter articles about careers (see the links throughout this article as well as at the end of the article), but until now I’ve never specifically written an article about career mistakes. I think the subject has been too personal – I’ve made a lot of these career mistakes myself, and it’s hard for me to admit my failures. But in the interest of helping others avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made, I’ve decided to go ahead and create a list of the major career mistakes that I’ve made or that I’ve seen other people in IT make. Let me know if you think of other mistakes that should also be on the list.

1. Focusing too much of your time on things you’re not good at
I wrote an entire newsletter article on why you need to specialize, so I won’t repeat myself. Read the article.

2. Talking to non-technical people using technical language
I wrote a newsletter article on this one too. Read the article.

3. When you’re trying to sell, focusing on features rather than benefits
This is a variation on Number 2, and it’s a major pitfall for IT people. As I said in my book, the most common IT mistakes are doing the wrong things – not doing things wrong. We tend to focus on how things are done, and so it’s very common for presentations made by IT people to the business to list a lot of features of our solution. We talk about things like the hardware, operating system, network and software we’re going to use, together with the features of all that stuff: high MTBF, low latency, and other technical terms that drive business people batty.

Forget all that descriptive information! Tell the business people what’s important to them, things like “customers will be able to access our web site 24 hours a day,” “the time for salespeople to enter an order will be cut in half,” or “our inventory requirements will be reduced by 30%.” These are benefits of our IT systems, and the benefits are much more important than features.

4. Thinking that being good technically is enough
It is enough if you want to stay in your same job for the rest of your career, and if you’re lucky enough to be in a job that won’t be outsourced, offshored, or made obsolete by changing technology. For everyone else, it’s important to understand that jobs require people skills, and you need to develop some of those skills even if you don’t want to move into management or become a CIO. See my newsletter article, “10 Rules for IT Job Success” for more information.

5. Not networking outside your company
I realize how difficult it is to take the time to get outside the day-to-day needs of your own organization. Notice that I said “take the time” – some people say “find the time” and I can guarantee that the time to do this will never be “found.” This is one of those things that you have to force yourself to do. But please force yourself, because it’s important. It’s important to your career because you need to maintain contacts with people in other companies in case you need to make a job change. And it’s important to your success in your current job because you need the perspective that comes from seeing similar problems from the point of view of people in other companies.

Some networking can be achieved by attending national conferences or training programs. But I also recommend regular networking with people in similar jobs in your city. Join local chapters of organizations like the Society for Information Management; they do a wonderful job of getting people together to discuss shared issues.

6. Not getting everything you can out of every training opportunity
It’s easy to go through the motions when you’re sent to a training class that doesn’t interest you. But think of every training class as an opportunity – no matter what the subject. Open your mind to new ideas, and try to figure out ways to use the things you learn in your day-to-day life.

And don’t ignore the networking opportunities in training classes. Many classes include a mix of people from different locations, different jobs, and different companies. Take the opportunity to compare jobs, talk to people with other backgrounds, and get a different perspective on your career and your life.

7. Not having a mentor
I’ve had various mentors throughout my career. Sometimes it’s easy to find one; there’s a friendly experienced person nearby. In other environments it’s difficult, and you feel like you’re all alone. But whatever your situation, make the effort to find a mentor. If you’re in a technical job, then the mentor might be a more experienced technical person. As you climb the career ladder, you’ll find that a better mentor can be found outside of your department – someone who can advise you on the people issues rather than the technical challenges. You can formalize a mentoring relationship, but even an informal mentor – someone you can go to for advice and counsel – is a big help.

8. Forgetting who you work for
I don’t mean your immediate boss. I mean your company and its stockholders, or if you work for a nonprofit then the people who derive benefit from your nonprofit. There are a couple of reasons why it’s important to remember that these “stakeholders” are who you really work for. First, you’ll find that the lower you are in the organization chart, the more likely it is that people will ask you to do things that don’t make sense from the stakeholders’ viewpoint. Sometimes these instructions will have been garbled in their translation through the organizational hierarchy, much like a message is garbled when relaying it from person to person in the telephone game. Sometimes the instructions are the result of a misunderstanding of alternatives, maybe because someone with a non-technical background made a technical decision. In either case, it’s your duty to bring the problem to the attention of your boss (do it diplomatically, please), and to try to reconcile the intent of the stakeholders with the instructions that you’ve been given. And although a few bosses may resent your questioning their instructions, most will appreciate your focus on what’s really important.

Ethics are the second reason to remember that you really work for your stakeholders. Newspapers from the last few years are full of stories about companies where individuals acted in their own best interests instead of the best interests of the stakeholders. Many of these individuals have gone to jail, but even if they didn’t, it’s a sure bet that their careers hit a major stumbling block. It’s important that you don’t follow in their footsteps.

9. Not delegating
It’s difficult to give up things that you’re good at. Yet one of the rites of passage when being promoted from a lower-level job to a higher-level job is to give up detailed responsibility for doing some of the things that you’ve been doing in the lower-level job. A higher-level job requires you to focus on different issues, and you can’t focus on these new issues in addition to your previous responsibilities. There’s not enough time, and so you’ll have to delegate responsibility for the lower-level issues to someone else. People who don’t understand this are like a person with one foot on a dock and one foot on a boat that’s moving away from the dock. You have to choose which foot to move, or you’ll fall in the water.

10. Punishing people who make mistakes, instead of teaching them
Along with the responsibility for delegation is the responsibility for teaching. One of the basic truths underlying teaching is that the student will make mistakes. It’s the teacher’s job to help the student learn from the mistakes – not just punish the student. As you move up in an organization, you’ll be responsible for more and more teaching. Your role likely won’t be called a teacher, but the goals are the same: help people learn to do better.

11. Not blowing your own horn
People who get little recognition often wonder why. It’s usually because they don’t make enough of an effort to bring their accomplishments to the attention of others. I’m not talking about bragging here; but it’s important that others know of your successes. When you accomplish something, make sure others know. Put the accomplishment in terms of benefits (see Number 3), and make it clear that you were responsible for achieving those benefits. If others were involved, credit them as well. In fact, a great strategy to get attention for your own accomplishments is to highlight the accomplishments of others who worked with you or for you. You may be calling attention to others, but it will be obvious to everyone that you deserve recognition as well.

12. Not changing jobs when the time is right
It’s tempting to stay in your rut, doing the same thing day after day because it’s comfortable. Yes, there’s risk involved when you change jobs, but there are incredible benefits to be gained. Look at a change with hope – not with dread.

13. Thinking of your job as something you do rather than as a process to be improved
Even if you stay in the same job for a while, there’s no reason that you have to keep things the way they are. Take a good look at what you do from other perspectives. Is there something that could be eliminated? Something that could be automated? Some part of your job that should be outsourced? Try to find ways to help your company (see Number 8 above) accomplish the results of your job better, and you’ll often find that you’ll be rewarded with an even better job.

14. Equating your career with your life
Life is about more than your career. So no matter what happens at work, don’t let it affect your real life: your family, your friends, your community. You have to keep your career in perspective. It’s a part of your life – an important part – but it’s not all there is. Balance your life and your career, and you’ll find that you do better at both.

15. Not learning from your mistakes
After you finish each project, or periodically – maybe at the end of each month or so – ask yourself two questions: 1. What did I do well that I need to do again? 2. What could I have done better? Learn from your answers.

Life is a series of mistakes, from our first attempt at walking, through school, and throughout our career. Making mistakes – and seeing the mistakes that others make – is the way we learn, and through learning we make our lives better. Learn from the mistakes I’ve listed here, and have a better career and a better life.

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