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The Product Centric Career

By Andy Warren,

Today we have a guest editorial as Steve is away on sabbatical.

I started working in IT in 1997 doing inbound help desk work. Before that I had done some programming and some database work, but nothing ‘enterprise’ level. I was supporting Windows 95 so I took that exam and because the exam helped me learn, starting taking more exams. Then a friend referred me to a job doing work using Access and SQL Server and before I knew it, I was focused on SQL Server – because that was the work I was doing and because I liked the work. Maybe I was always a database guy at heart.

I wanted to be a ‘database guy’ that did more than just SQL Server and briefly considered diving into Oracle and DB2, but it didn’t take long to realize that trying to master multiple products was going to be very hard and that it was three times as hard because I wouldn’t be using them at work and to be proficient you have to have the real demands of the work place to help you attain and maintain competency. So with that analysis done, I moved from database guy to SQL Server guy. That’s worked out to be a very good decision for me, I have had – and still have – an enjoyable and profitable career.

What I didn’t consider back then was the market for SQL Server skills beyond seeing that there were jobs that required that skill and an understanding that there were a lot fewer DBA’s than developers. I didn’t consider (or don’t remember) if the product was big enough and complex enough to support an extended career. I wish I had. It wouldn’t have changed my decision probably, but it seems like a career decision should be more deliberate! It’s worked out though, so we’ll call it a win.

It wasn’t until many years later that I really understood that that’s how most of us get there. The interesting part is that not every job (product) leads to a great career. I’ve watched a lot of people specialize in niche products because that was what the job needed, but then found out that few other employers use that product. I’ve watched people be successful at using a product that required less than 100 hours to master. Great to learn it all so fast, but then what? Thirty years of using an app that gets a theme of the year upgrade and a couple new buttons? Compare that with SQL Server, a product I may never master!

It’s also led to an industry compromised of people that people that specialize in products and the more we do that, the less we know about the skills and challenges and possibilities of those products. That seems like a bad thing, yet just like I couldn’t master all the databases, it’s hard to think of really learning deeply about Exchange (or Sharepoint) or any of the other products in common usage.

As they say, it is what is is. But it’s something to think about as you assess where you’re at today. Maybe more interesting still is to have thought about so when your child or nephew or friend wants career advice that you can explain how picking the product (silo) really drives so much of your career, for better or worse.

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