I was tagged by Grant Fritchey (aka Scary DBA) in the latest get-to-know-you question. This one asks, “What do you wish you had known when you started?” I could go on for hours about the things I wish I hadn’t had to learn the hard way, but here are the highlights. Apologies to those who were tagged before me if I repeat their points.
It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s also OK to admit it.
There are two types of people in this world: those who make mistakes and fess up, and those that make mistakes and try to cover it up. Everyone – everyone – makes mistakes in their jobs, and in life in general. While there are some high-profile mistakes that are notoriously noteworthy (airline disasters, medical errors), the vast majority of us are permitted, and even expected, to make a few errors here an there. As long as you can learn from your errors and not continue to make the same mistakes, it can be filed under the “Valuable Lessons Learned” heading. Further, those whom you work with and for will have more respect for you if you admit your errors up front, especially when you deliver a plan for resolution.
Technical skills are not enough
When I started out, I had my mind set on simply learning a craft, fine-tuning my skills to become one of the best in the field, and keeping my head down and working hard for the next 40 years. While it is important to grow and learn hard skills, today’s economy is not friendly to the stereotypical technical geek working in a dark basement and slinging code (or monitoring logs, or building desktops, or whatever). To be successful, you’ve got to break out of your technical world every now and again and interface with nontechnical people. Spend half a day shadowing one of your end users to see how the systems you build/support help them to do their jobs. Spend time with senior management and executives to find out what big-picture goals they have, and how you help get the organization there. Have coffee with someone unfamiliar with technology and learn how you can ease them into the digital age. Most importantly, get to know the overall goals of your organization/clients/customers – you’ll be far more successful in the long run.
You are responsible for your own career development
Technical careers require constant learning. Training, college, and conferences/trade shows are great ways to learn and network, but many companies can’t or won’t fork over the cash for these career development events. The bottom line is, it’s up to you to take charge of your career. A few thousand dollars for conference fees can be painful, but it could be argued that you’ll easily recoup that investment over the course of your career. For those who truly are budget strapped, there are tons of free career resources; user group events, online references (even videos!), libraries, and volunteer opportunities are all cost conscious ways to build your network and skillset.
Don’t try to be an expert in everything
There are generalists, and there are specialists; nobody can be an expert in all things technical. Find something that you enjoy doing (that statement alone should be a bullet point), and become an expert in that thing. You don’t have to specialize to the point that you’re a niche player, but you can limit your scope such that you can be known as an authority in your chosen area.
Don’t take things too seriously
I almost didn’t type this last one for fear that I would portray myself as having a lackadaisical attitude toward my career; nothing could be further from the truth. We’re all human (see #1 above) and are limited by a number of factors, including emotions, limited energy, family commitments, and natural abilities. Don’t be a stickler for absolute perfection; accept that some things are part of live and unchangeable. When obstacles block your path, don’t freak out or become the voice of negativity; take a breath, smile, and know that, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it and our skills would be far less valuable. Address problems or deadlines with a sense of urgency, but don’t let your commitments consume you to the point that you spend all of your time working.
Again, I could go on for pages on this topic, but these are the lessons I’ve learned the hard way that stand out in my mind. Now, to keep this thing rolling, I’m going to tag Jack Corbett, John Magnabosco, and TJayBelt – not sure if TJay reads my blog, I suppose I’ll find out shortly :)