Today we have a guest editorial from Tim Mitchell as Steve is away from the office. This editorial was originally published on Oct 1, 2010.
When I was a kid, my grandparents had an annoying tradition that took place after every Christmas Eve dinner. Before we were allowed to dive into the opening of presents, all of the grandkids, about 10 of us, were paraded into the utility room and ordered to take turns standing barefoot with our backs against the wall. For each kid, my grandmother would mark our current height on that wall. This was a time consuming task, delaying the gift exchange for at least 15 minutes, and in my mind, it was a waste of time.
However, as I got older, I gained a new appreciation for this old tradition. Even though I grew relatively quickly during my preteen and teenage years, I didn't really feel any taller from one year to the next. However, as those marks accumulated on the wall, I could see clearly that I was noticably taller than the previous year, and even more so than the year before that. Back then I was one of the shorter kids in my age group, and was very self-conscious about my height. Those milestone marks were encouraging reminders that I was, in fact, making progress away from the land of the vertically challenged, even though my own senses told me I was the same height.
In much the same way, I think there's a need to document progress in our careers. Whether they've been in the industry for twenty years or twenty minutes, almost everyone has had moments where they feel as if they are stagnant, that their skill level has hit a plateau and they've stopped learning. For a small minority that may be accurate; however, I suspect that the vast majority of people who are actively working to improve their level of expertise are indeed making progress. Sometimes those incremental improvements are so minor that, when one tries to mentally aggregate them, it doesn't feel like it adds up to much. However, this feeling could be overcome by periodically taking inventory of one's progress. After accumulating a few of these checkpoints, one can look back and effectively gauge the progress made through the months and years. This serves two purposes: First, it helps to ensure that you are indeed making progress toward your goals, whatever they are. Second, this documentation can be a motivational tool to the career minded professional; based on their own growth history, one could extrapolate their progress to set growth goals, and be encouraged at how much they will have grown in six months, a year, or longer.
So what form does this documentation take? That depends on the person and the goals. An approach I recommend is blogging. To use my own experience, I have been blogging for a number of years about problems I've solved, things I've discovered, and projects that excite me. When I read my old blog posts, it's clear that my early contributions were smaller in number, much simpler in nature, more conservative, and broad but not deep. Later posts became incrementally more complex, more focused, technically deeper, and more numerous. Another method for creating this "paper" trail is to write technical articles. This can start off small and simple, with an increase in size and complexity as skills improve. Both of these approaches have the added benefit of peer feedback, through comments or ratings.
If you're not keen on the idea of publicly sharing your technical experience (or lack thereof), you could consider blogging privately, or use a journal to document your progress. Perhaps you could give yourself a report card every year or so, listing the scope of subject areas you know (or would like to) and a competency score for each.
Documenting your career progress is an investment. Regardless of the form, it takes some time to do, and often there's not an immediate payoff. However, for the professional who is interested in monitoring career growth, this is an invaluable tool.