I’ve heard that book authors do one of two things: they either leave the book in the shipping package, refusing to acknowledge it for months. Or they immediately rip open the box.
I was asked via Twitter to post the content of some career advice talks I’ve done for college and high school students. At first, I thought, nah, my content isn’t that good. I’ve read a lot of better stuff out there, namely Philip Su’s post which is incredibly good. But then I started thinking that maybe something in here could help someone else out and that would be worth sharing.
The last time I gave this talk was in February, when I was back visiting Mississippi State University, my alma mater. I was trying to build up the courage to blog this content. Again, I was thinking it post wasn’t good enough to share, when a good friend from college contacted me out of the clear blue. He is just getting started with his blog . I was giving him some advice on getting a blog up and running when I realized that I haven’t blogged in nearly a year. With the emails of “are you still alive?” piling up, I realized I needed to get my act back together. So thanks to Clay for motivating me to get this post out there once and for all.
Career Advice I Learned the Hard Way
Be responsive – Something I learned from Prashant Sridharan – Always be responsive on email. I always try to respond as soon as I possibly can, even if it is a “hey, I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, but I’ll look into it.” Just a quick 2-second reply can do wonders. It comforts the other person just acknowledging you got the email instead of them worrying if it ended up in your junk email folder.
Take pride in your work – And the second thing I learned from Prashant – If you love what you do, work on the project as if today was your last day. Or another way of looking at it, strive to do your best on a project, because your name will be associated with that project until the end of time. So make the extra effort to polish your work, like making sure there are no spelling errors, using a nice layout or template other than just a plain text look and feel, and so forth.
Listen to others – One thing I learned from years of customer support is to acknowledge what the other person is saying. You might not necessarily agree with them, and in some cases they could be completely misinformed. That doesn’t matter. What actually matters is that you acknowledge what the other person said. For example, just saying, “I am sorry you are having trouble with <issue>” can go a long way. Usually, this causes the other person to think, “wow, they actually understand me!” and if knowing is half the battle, then acknowledging the other person is at least 80%.
Just a bit of caution. This doesn’t mean cut and paste this as a script, although most of the time you might get away with it. But if someone realizes what you are doing, it can be disastrous. What I’m trying to say here is actually try to understand it from the other person’s point of view, even if it is a tiny, tiny bit. For example, we can all relate to the very basic things, like feelings of frustration. We’ve all been there when we’ve urgently needed to get something from a website, only to discover its fail whale image. It’s that little bit of sympathy when you say, “I am sorry you’re having issues. It’s definitely a frustrating experience that I wish to correct as soon as possible” that goes a long way. As I’ve said many, many times, “It is easy to hate a product. It is very hard to hate a person who is trying to help you.”
So, listen to others. You might be surprised by what you hear.
Seek Perfection of Character – This one comes from karate. “The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the characters of its participants,” quote by Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi. People constantly ask me, “So to get your black belt or to get a rank, do you have to beat someone in a sparring match?” I have to explain it isn’t like that. I describe it like competing in a “best in show” event. The dog isn’t competing against the other breeds. The dog is competing against how close it is to what is considered the perfect example of the breed. Same in karate, you are trying to get as close as you can to the perfection of the art, regardless of how good the people are around you.
So much of karate training blends into the real world, and this is one of those times. The most successful people I’ve ever met had this same mindset of seeking perfection in their jobs, their hobbies, and their relationships. So what are you doing to get your black belt in the things you care the most about?
Challenge yourself – Again, another sports analogy. The only way to physically grow muscles is to challenge them outside their comfort zone. And I’m not saying that just because you can run a 5K doesn’t necessarily mean train for a 10K. But what if a runner tried swimming? It’s definitely an excellent idea to be able to swim when you’re injured from running!
It doesn’t take much. Spend just 30 minutes a day learning a new programming language. You might just end up with deeper insights (or deeper appreciation) for your primary programming language.
Career Changes – A general manager once told those of us on his team that the biggest mistake people make in changing their careers is that they make too big of a jump. For example, he said to consider Red Cross. A lot of people may be inspired by the work Red Cross does, so they put in their resume. But what’s contained in their resume is what they are doing today in their day jobs (e.g. coding) that isn’t bringing them that sense of satisfaction they want. But what is Red Cross going to do? Red Cross is going to evaluate them based on their current day job skills, and match them with more coding jobs, so nothing has really changed.
Another manager reiterated the same thing to me, but in a slightly different way. He said, “Only make one major change at a time.”
I debated whether telling college students this advice, but decided to throw it in after an experience I had on a plane a few years ago. I was sharing this advice with someone sitting next to me (I want to say it was a coworker returning from a conference, but I can’t recall). I noticed the lady seated in front of me desperately trying to overhear what I was saying without appearing too obvious. I thought if a random stranger was willing to press their ear between two plane seats, I should share with college students before it got to that point for them. J
Integrity above all - Never sacrifice integrity. IMO, it is the only thing you can steal from yourself. And I’m talking about the simple, ever day things. Once again on a plane, there was a young woman, in her late teens or early 20s, sitting next to me listening to her iPod. When music can be heard from your earbuds, it is too loud. The flight attendant asked her for the 3rd time to please turn off the music as we were preparing for take-off, and she grunted at her saying, “It’s off.” I just rolled my eyes. Really, is it worth sacrificing your integrity over a 15-minute pause in your music?
There’s a famous story about Theodore Roosevelt that I read in How To Win Friends and Influence People. He once fired a rancher who stole some neighboring cattle and added them to Roosevelt’s herd. When asked about this by incredulous friends, Roosevelt simply replied, “A man who steals for me will also steal from me.”
Be agile - I’m stealing a philosophical belief from agile methodologies. Again, I’ve heard this numerous times from numerous people. In the real world, there’s no time for ‘A’ game. Do your best 80%. Get feedback on the other 20%.
Now, this might seem counter-intuitive to my “Take pride in your work” advice, but it is not. You can still take tremendous pride in your 80% work and have it look polished and well-written with no spelling errors. There’s a fine line here. My advice is to know when to be on which side of the line.
Be humble – Humility goes a very long way. But we all know that. So, I’m going to explore another side of this coin. Never dishonor someone by saying you don’t deserve some recognition. If someone is taking the time to honor you, reciprocate the honor by acknowledging the honor and thank them for it. Just like a birthday present, you’d never say, “Oh this isn’t for me. I don’t want this.” (at least I hope not). Same goes for honors and recognition.
Probably the most humbling moment of my entire life was wearing an Olympic gold medal around my neck. The Olympian was giving a motivational talk to those of us about to do our first triathlon, and wanted to share with us what a gold medal feels like.
You are not a fake – We all suffer from this, the imposter syndrome, that we’re not good enough for our jobs and one day we will be found out and fired. I have struggled with this the majority of my career, so I guess that makes me a fake too.
As I prepared this talk for the first time last year in a hotel bar close to midnight, a college grad student next to me leaned over and asked, “Does the impostor syndrome ever go away?” And here’s something to know about me. If I’ve had a few beers late at night, I will give you a straight, most direct, unsugar-coated answer. This time was no exception. I leaned over to her and said, “No it doesn’t.” She looked so stunned, like I told her that there is no Santa or the shot in the arm actually did hurt. I remember being a bit surprised by her reaction, because we developers are very analytical creatures. She asked a question; I gave her the most correct answer possible. Then I realized she was looking more for support rather than a correct answer, so I recovered with “What I mean is it doesn’t go away but you learn to deal with it. The first step is just to acknowledge it is there. Once it is acknowledge, and that’s the biggest challenge, the rest becomes easier and clearer on how to deal with it. In fact, it is a good feeling to have, because it means you are still growing. Just like sore muscles, you’re growing outside your comfort zone. It also means you have passion for what you do, and passion isn’t something you can fake (not for long anyways). So, figure out what is making you afraid, write those things down, and figure out how you can grow in those areas, like finding a developer mentor, doing toastmasters to practice giving a speech, etc. For example, I was so scared of public speaking when I first got started. I figured everyone would laugh at me just walking out onto the stage because they would know immediately I was an impostor. It was this bizarre ‘everyone will laugh at you before you even get started’ that was so paralyzing. So, I decided to face it head on by doing karaoke. I cannot sing to save my life, but I had to face the fear of “what if they all laugh.” It was one of the best things I could do to get over that fear, and the impostor syndrome was once again placed in check.”
I still think she wished I had just answered “yes, it goes away.” J
“How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie – Why on Earth it has taken me this long to read this book is beyond me. This book should be required reading for all, especially for us super-analytical folks. The hands-down most important sentence in that entire book is “There is only one way under heaven to get anyone to do anything, and that’s by making them to want to do it.”
Stop whatever it is you are doing now, including reading this blog, and get that book. To put into perspective, it was initially written in 1937 and still relevant today!
It’s all about the people – I wish computer science curriculums would spend extra time on interpersonal skills. It’s so easy to forget we’re talking to a human being with feelings and emotions, rather than a compiler or interface that we can simply be black and white, extremely correct or logical. Sometimes being extremely correct is not the best route to take.
I remember when the story mentioned below was happening, and I recall checking out the site, but I never once thought about the person who created the site. I had no clue he was going through this. I wished I had done something to offer my support, even if it was just a quick email.
“Amidst some LCA controversy around “Dr. Who(m),” a site I worked very hard on creating after hours, I arrived at my office to find a handmade two-foot-high Dalek. Someone had taken the time to print, cut, and tape together a mascot to support me. What inspires people to this sort of kindness? I still don’t know who did this for me – but if you’re reading this, thank you.” – Philip Su’s blog.
Luck = hard work + opportunity – I can’t remember where I read this at, but it is so true. Work hard and be ready when the opportunities present themselves.
Meet your heroes – If you ever get the chance to meet your heroes, I definitely suggest that you allow them to be themselves. Talk about spot-on advice. I got to meet one of my heroes once. Not sure how comfortable I made Lewis Black when I made him depressed, but it was epic nonetheless.
Get a personal trainer – When I first entered the corporate world, I was overwhelmed. Work was just one part of it. The bigger issue was the real world stuff, the stuff they don’t teach in schools. One of the biggest mistakes I made was that I passed up the opportunity to get a personal trainer right out of college, but didn’t think I was worth the money to hire a trainer for myself. Oh to go back to my 23 year old self and punch me in the jaw (provided my karate skills have improved in the past 10 years). I struggled early on with this sense of “needing permission to do things,” even if it was what was best for me. Nowadays, I won’t go without a trainer, mostly because I need someone to tame me. But again, speaking to a group of college students, “Invest in your health, the sooner, the better. You’re worth it.”
But don’t go to the other extreme where you never enjoy life. I once had a doctor walk into the exam room holding my blood work in his hands yelling, “Do you have any idea how healthy you are!? You are too healthy!” It was a very odd conversation. My takeaway from that is that it is okay once in a while to splurge. My guilty pleasure is In-N-Out burger. Probably not what my doctor had in mind, but what’s the point of all that exercise if I can’t enjoy a burger every once in a while.
QED – I hope this was helpful.