My tech industry career advice

Spending time with some of our interns who are just getting started in their careers got me thinking about my own. So I sat down and made a list of things that I think shaped my career in the tech industry. Note that I’ve only worked for a few large companies in my 15-year career and while I’m happy with my career trajectory, others might have found it too slow or boring.

“Advice”, as a wise woman once said, “is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” And, like her, I’ll dispense mine now:

Write up weekly status reports for yourself. I started this habit a decade ago when working for a remote manager. Every Friday I would make a high-level bulleted list of what I accomplished that week. At the end of the month I bundled those up and sent them to my manager. This helped my manager know what I was doing and gave him something tangible to use with his peers when promotions and other employee rankings happened. More importantly it helped me keep track of when I was slacking for a week. It also helped me write up my end-of-year self-evaluation for that employer. I continue doing this today. They aren’t very detailed and sometimes they happen a week late if I forget, but it provides at least a trail of breadcrumbs to follow later.

Attend division/company-wide meetings. Often these optional meetings are boring but I still recommend making the effort to attend the important ones (engineering lunches, quarterly meetings, etc). The mostly important reason is that this is your company.1 You’ll get insight into how it’s doing, how the competition is doing, the direction of the company, and what’s going on with other parts of the company you aren’t familiar with. The other reason is that while individual contributors’ attendance is generally optional, managers’ attendance is generally mandatory. As political as this may seem, being seen at these events is good for your career. When managers get together to discuss promotions and rankings you’ll have a small leg up on your peers that didn’t attend these meetings.

Seek out and accept every opportunity to speak with customers. Many times we engineers are siloed away from interaction with customers. But customers are where the money comes from and any interaction you can have with them is good both from understanding how they are using your product as well as tying your name to that customer account in management’s mind. Customer interaction can come in many forms, like assisting support with problem tickets, helping run product betas, shadowing someone going on-site, or presenting at conferences. The closer you tie yourself to customers the better you’ll understand how to make your product and company succeed.

Say yes until you have to say no. I hate saying no to a request, whether it be direction from my manager or a request for help from a coworker. So I say yes. In fact, I say yes even when I really don’t want to do it if I think it’s good for my career like presenting at company conferences. I say yes until I’m almost drowning and then I start saying no. Both skills are important – you can’t do it all – but I’ve found defaulting to yes to be good for my career.

Don’t wait for your manager to figure out you need a promotion. Your career is your own and it’s your responsibility to manage it. Before my last promotion I felt I was performing at the level above where I was. I went out and found the job descriptions for my current position and two above me and did an honest evaluation of where I fit. It was clear to me that I was easily performing my current position’s requirements and could present a very strong case that I was performing at the level above me (having a years worth of status reports to fall back on certainly helped). It was also crystal-clear that I wasn’t performing at a position two levels above me. During my next one-on-one with my manager I told him what I had found and said I’d like to present the case that I deserved a promotion. He readily agreed and I followed up with an email presenting the one-level-up job description and how I thought I fit into it. He used the data I provided in the promotion discussion with his peers and I got the promotion. If I hadn’t got the promotion I would have put the onus on him to determine what I needed to do to get it.

Do what you love. This is last but it’s the most important. We spend entirely too much time at our jobs to hate what we do. There are times with any job when it’s a slog and not all that fun, but that should be transient. It that’s the norm: look for something else. Life’s too short to not enjoy what you do. Those of us in tech have it really good right now as even during the worst of the recession tech jobs were numerous for good people. Besides, the more you love your job the better you’ll be at it. And if this involves quitting your industry all together and becoming a mountain man in Alaska: do it.

1 And you never know if you might be recognized in the meeting!

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I'm a gay geek living in Seattle, WA.

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