Today we have a guest editorial
Last year I delivered a presentation, titled Climbing to the Top of Your Profession, at the Google DevFest in Orlando. It was a new presentation and a new audience for me, though it would be fair to say it was a variation of a topic I’ve covered a few times about learning and growing. My target audience was those who had made it on to the first or second rung of the IT career journey and I intended to encourage them to look beyond their immediate work or workplace and think about what it would take to be really good at what they did. The talk went well and as is so often the case I think I learned as much as the attendees did.
What does it mean to be at the top of your profession? That is the question! We might define it as earning a title (Senior DBA, Principal Engineer, etc.). We might instead define it as salary. Or we might define it by name recognition, or perhaps by accomplishments such as presenting at an event or being hired by a well-known company. Or by those who consider you a worthy peer.
You could picture it as a ranking of everyone with your job title. You start out at the bottom of the ladder as the latest person to acquire the title and you try to climb to the top. Then you get promoted and you’re at the bottom of the next ladder, going again, until you run out of ladders to climb or energy to climb them.
A different, maybe more useful context is how you explain your skills and experience to your family. It’s a big moment when you get that first job in your career field and another big moment when you get to the senior level. For family, that means you’ve figured it out.
I asked the attendees at the presentation about what they saw as being at the top of their profession and the answer that got the most nods from the other attendees was “to be trusted to do important work independently”. That’s a wonderful answer. One that will probably change as they grow, but certainly a valid and useful view of building a career.
Reflecting on that discussion afterward, I was reminded of my early days in IT. First job as a DBA, first DBA for the company, and a performance problem I couldn’t figure out. I asked for help, we found a consultant, he helped us find and fix the problem, and that seemed to me like a view of the top – to be paid big bucks for having the deep knowledge to solve a problem quickly.
Thinking about what the top looks like is a useful exercise because you are here and you know there must be a path to there. That drives learning and ambition and I think that’s the key, because we rarely are given (or can easily find) a checklist of all the skills we need to acquire to be good, much less great. Having a destination in mind can help us figure out at least some of the things we need to learn.
Yet, after giving the presentation and writing this editorial I’m still unsure if it’s the most useful framing. Ideally, it’s aspirational, but it can also be overwhelming and unrealistic for many. I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.