Career Advice from a Neo-generalist Perspective.

Compass StudyPeople ask me career advice now and then. Generally, people who do so can’t follow the beaten path.

There’s plenty of career advice out there for the beaten paths. The basic recipe is simple:

  • Secondary School
  • Tertiary Education
  • Maybe specialize further.
  • ?????
  • Profit!

I’ve met a few people who this has worked for – which means going in debt with student loans sometimes, or having a tether to parents paying for things, or what have you.

The last part, ‘Profit’, is delayed until after people are repaid – bad news, parents are never repaid. In the context of the United States, which is hardly a data model for the rest of the world (but my experience), we have the rising cost of not continuing one’s education versus the toll of student debt.  The fact that studies are largely done by people who followed the beaten path further confuses the issue at times.

How often do you hear a college say you don’t need to go to college? Of course they wouldn’t say that – and one could say that the student loan issue in the United States is akin to tossing out mortgages to people who can’t afford to pay the mortgages. It’s all very muddy water, and where once I had an opinion I just see a sea of biased data and biased opinions and have none myself.

My Path.

My life, my work history, my education – they don’t fit the accepted model of education, ???, profit. I grew up working through secondary school in a printery, in a electrical motor rewinding workshop, and whatever odd jobs came my way. Despite this, and I would later learn because of a former Irish brother who had married a nun, I did not get expelled and managed to graduate – well.

My parents didn’t put me through college, and the debt I did incur toward not finishing college in the late 80s is something I paid off about 22 years later. The interest was bad, but I managed to settle with the Department of Education for pennies on the dollar. Incidentally, despite being what one might term a minority, I wasn’t African or Hispanic enough to gobble up any grants specifically for those minorities. Equal opportunity ain’t so equal.

My time in the Navy was so busy that I never seemed to have time for college classes or college credits. It’s hard to study full time in NNPS and work on college credits at the same time, or work in emergency medicine and pop off whenever you needed to; when people’s lives are at stake you don’t have that luxury. And getting yourself together after being discharged while attempting to support an ill parent just didn’t leave much room for college, or debt – or paying a debt which I still owed, and thus couldn’t continue college. A nasty trap, that, even with the military deferment.

And so I found myself back behind a computer again through some luck, working at Honeywell and proving my worth. It was a cool job, and I had convinced my manager to give me a book allowance where I read the most bleeding edge stuff I could find back then. It was awesome, if only for a while. Others, like Dr. VcG, tried to help round me out and did so a bit, but really, I was focused on just…. learning.d,

I was told that they would pay for my classes to finish a degree so that they could promote me, which I then began – oceanography – and I was to find out that they wouldn’t pay for classes toward that end. No, they wanted me to get a degree in something they were already paying me to do. Why on Earth would I need a validation for them to be promoted when I was already validating it every day at work?

There was only so much I could learn there, and changes to the company started taking the ‘play’ out of it all.

I moved from this company to that, building up references, building up experience, but most importantly to me, knowledge. My knowledge wasn’t validated by some group of academics, it came from the Real World. As time progressed, the economy went down as my age went up, and I found myself working for money instead of knowledge. It was not fun anymore, and I moved on… to where I am now, with a few interesting stops on the way.

Serial Specialist, the Neo-Generalist.

The beauty of software engineering when I started out is that once you could get a computer to do what someone else wanted to do, you got to learn about what they wanted to do. I got to learn about business, banking, avionics, emergency communications, data analysis, science, robotics, and so much more – and I have this knowledge, hard won, without following the beaten path and getting a bunch of letters behind my name.

It’s where all that knowledge intersects that the cool and fun stuff happens. The beaten path could not have given me that.

Frankly, in my experience, the beaten path is pretty slow – which some say is a reflection of my ability. I don’t know that is true. What I do know is that the real world, paying bills and keeping abreast of responsibilities required me to learn faster than I could get a formal education, and I did. Simply put, I had to. I loved most of it, I hated parts of it.

Career Advice

When it comes to the beaten path that I did not take, I point at it. It works for a lot of people, though the ‘works’ does seem increasingly dubious to me as far as a return on investment. Go study something if you have the opportunity or if you can create the opportunity. Get your education validated, but don’t stop learning.

You see, what I can tell you with a degree of certainty is that the world is as bad as it is because of those who rest on their laurels after getting a certificate or a degree. I can also tell you with certainty that the world is as good as it is because of the people who keep learning and applying that knowledge toward good ends.

We don’t need people who are ‘educated’. We have enough of those clogging up the system. We need more of those that are constantly learning, certificate or degree or not – those are the ones who create true progress. Speaking for myself, I pace myself to 2 books a week or more on topics that range widely.

The world is interesting in many ways. You can make it more interesting by knowing how interesting it is from different perspectives.

Learn how to negotiate. Get as much as you can even though you don’t need it – a problem I had – because you don’t know when you will need it.

And avoid working for idiots if you can. You won’t be able to, and sometimes it’s not obvious until later on, but ditch them as soon as you can.

Advertisements

For Those Entering Tech.

algorithms fearI had a recent Skype conversation with someone working at a company that I had done some contract work for. I suppose I went in knowing how it would go and for a bit of closure – it was the same old story. Contractor does work for a company, contractor does what was required faster than company expected in the hope of a more permanent position, company ends contract.

Someone messaged me on LinkedIn, looking for sage advice because of what I had written – thinking me sage when I am only greying, thinking me wise because I’m good with a keyboard. And all I could come up with this was:

It was a salt trap. 

One of the good things about taking myself out of the job market is to write, unrestrained, about career-limiting topics – mainly because the career is over because I decided not to continue falling for the salt trap. I decided it was time to shift my future, so I did and I have no regrets – though the adjustments are still happening.

My experience in the Software Engineering market spans pre-Internet to last year (and whatever I fiddle with these days). I’ve only worked for one true multinational, and I’ve done work or worked for companies that have disappeared in the churning of economies. Most of the code I wrote – if I called it ‘my code’, intellectual property lawyers would cringe – is not in use. I’m almost sure of it. Contributions to projects deceased.

Sisyphus on a conveyor belt rolling against him. And the project managers and upper management keep singing,  “Keep pushing, folks.” 

In this, I suspect, I am not alone – I suspect that people around my age in the industry have done their time in the Code Mines of places long forgotten. We’ve been through bad economies, through tech bubbles and their inadvertent falls. We’ve seen the rise and fall of languages and frameworks, of business practices that range from asinine to outrageously lucky – rarely solid.

So what is this all about? Oddly enough, it’s about fear. It’s the rare tech company that is built to last; most seem to be built to get money in a tech ponzi scheme – from venture capital to buyouts. The big picture is lost, leaving some really smart people writing some really good code that will not last, that isn’t intended to last, that is meant to get someone else to their own version of success.

Disgruntled? You bet, though I have taken the Path to Gruntlement. There are so many young ones in technology trying to get their street cred, fluffing their resumes – is it appropriate to fluff your own professional persona? – competing against each other like crabs in a barrel, necessarily antagonistic in a market that would do better with more collaboration. Or is it the natural antagonism of tech people? It’s hard to tell.

So my advice to those entering the market is that the market is not the few tech companies you are unlikely to work for, it’s the churning primordial ooze of failures that makes the market – and you will, at the least, have to weather that – if you’re lucky, if you’ve had a good start or get the right opportunities, know that these can be fleeting and that it’s easy to slide back into the ooze. Accept that it’s not going to happen the way you want – or the way that anyone else does, anyway.

Learn and move before they disappear.

Find recruiters that don’t suck. If you’re getting cold called at work by recruiters, block their numbers. Professionals would send you an email first.

Find managers that don’t suck. I could write a book about that. Maybe I should.

And keep pushing until you tire of it – and recognize when you are tired before your body figures it out.

The Long, Dark Tea Time Of The Career

NSB SunrisePeople don’t write about this stuff. I decided I will.

Without going into the details, I left the last job after a resignation, taking it back, and after realizing it was the same thing, resigning more efficiently. It’s not a bad company. It wasn’t good for me.

Let’s leave that where it is.

I had irons in the fire, of course. In a lot of ways I still do. I already had bad headhunters annoying the hell out of me, and some good headhunters with some interesting positions. I was courted by some CEOs and CTOs through LinkedIn.

That was a mistake. There are jobs, and there are careers.

Some things came into play and suddenly I had more breathing space to think about it – freed from the tyranny of income for a period, I could stop. Reflect. Think. Feel. Assess myself, inventory myself, decide what comes next. It’s a luxury in this day and age where salaries don’t allow for the mobility that they once did (and, kids, they did). If you have the luxury, though, you should take it. Taking it I am.

It took me about 3 weeks to forget about the last place I worked – not completely, mind you, but in some ways a job is like a shell – it provides safety once you conform to the inside of it. As I told my last boss at the beginning of 2016, “ultimately the only thing an employee can control is whether or not he or she works at a company.”

After the 3 weeks had passed, I found that I had been doing more creative writing again. I had dusted off my camera and started shooting again. I started reconnecting with people who I  had lost touch with, as one does when one gets into the intellectual toil of more work than play. I recognized myself a bit more every day, like a stranger becoming acquainted with a reflection in the mirror.

A friend at a coffee shop asked, “Why don’t you talk down to people like other software developers do?” I paused. I thought.

“I guess I outgrew that at some point.”

I have. I’ve outgrown a lot of the bad things and have evolved beyond being a Software Engineer, or a Writer, or a Technical Writer, or a Consultant. I transcended technologies some time ago, becoming agnostic after having spent time in the Microsoft corporate code caves and the Open Source code caves. The leadership qualities became more pronounced, my patience for the mistakes of others had grown and the lack of patience for mistakes of others had also grown. I’ve been published, suffered the editing of others and rejoiced at how they helped me grow.

I watched all manner of software process succeed and fail, and understood why. I pick up technologies like some pick up novels but I have become a picky reader. After seeing languages, technologies and architectures wax and wane, you become picky. That cool new technology doesn’t impress me if it does nothing new, and just because you can develop faster in it doesn’t mean that the end product is better. Typically, the faster you can develop in something, the more dependent you are on third parties that don’t care about your project.

I clean up ok.This guy is pretty different than the kid who started off in the late 1980s with the only real aspirations of getting out of a miserable household and being a professional computer programmer. Right now, that guy on the left doesn’t exist. His hair is unkempt, a full scruffy beard across his face, his focus inward. The man who would normally go out of his way to help his friends is suspended in carbonite, a caricature of a guy who shot first. It’s not selfish, it’s self-preservation. It’s coming to grips with what comes next, figuring out what that guy needs, what that guy wants – who that guy is. The kids aren’t going to understand this, and I imagine people with families at my age are too busy to dedicate some time to thinking about it until their children have not only left the nest but have stopped calling for money.

You see, you’re not supposed to write about all of this. In society, it’s taboo to write about this sort of thing publicly until well after the fact. To do that, you’re supposed to have that success that comes from a magical period like this – but that’s uncertain, fickle and cliche. It lacks originality, though originality is not something that is admired as much as people would want to think in this world – take a read of “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World“. It’s harder to live than to read about, like most things.

I have a deadline. The second week of May, 2016, for no good reason other than Cinco de Maya with Tequila seems like a bad time to make life decisions.

Should You Do What You Love?

That is all he has to say about that...So I was thinking of the possible dread irony of living most of our finite lives doing what we love, and then I realized it’s not an irony. Whether we’re happy with our time on Earth is appropriate, and ‘wasting’ time on it is not a life wastedThe irony is that I even thought it was irony. It’s what we should be doing.

 
I mean… the alternative is to die having not loved what you do.
 
How’s that better?