four brass skeleton keys

Own your career

This is an excerpt from my recently published book, Own Your Tech Career. It’s pretty representative of the book as a whole, including action items and more to help you put the book into immediate context and use. For a limited time, You can take 35% off Own Your Tech Career by entering fccjones11 into the discount code box at checkout at manning.com. And while “Owning your career” can be a complex set of tasks, don’t forget that Ampere Club members have access to 1:1 career coaching and other resources to help out.

Many of us see the word success and think of a big salary or an important job title. Instead, success should be seen as a set of criteria that you define, and that represent a career which is capable of supporting the personal life you want for yourself. A career plan is a plan to achieve that kind of career.

Job, career, success, and self

Let’s begin by quickly defining some terms, so that you and I can be on the same page.

I define job as a set of tasks which form a role that you’re paid to do: a software developer, a data analyst, a systems administrator, a network engineer, a security specialist, and so on. A job is an arrangement in which the employer offers compensation to someone, and that someone performs the requested job tasks. If you weren’t doing the job, someone else would be. In other words, your employer owns the job. That means your employer bears a lot of responsibility for the job: they have to provide you with the tools you need, they have to tell you which tasks need to be performed, and they get to define the standards that you have to adhere to when performing those tasks.

Your career, on the other hand, belongs to you. Your career encompasses all of the skills it takes to obtain, keep, and perform the jobs of your choice, and you may have several different jobs over the course of your career. You are responsible for your career: you get to decide where it is headed, and you have to pay for any of its upkeep that falls outside the scope of your current job.

So: your employer owns your job, you own your career.

For example, suppose you’re a software developer working on in-house applications written in C++. You’ve been doing it a while, and you’re eager for a change. You’re also a little concerned that being great in C++ doesn’t offer many job opportunities in the world, and you’re–wisely–worried about getting stuck in a rut by working in a language that’s not too common.

You decide that you’re really interested in web development, and you’d like to take a class in advanced JavaScript programming. You also want to attend a conference on web development, so that you can get a handle on all of the various technologies that come together in web applications. But your employer refuses to pay for either the class or the conference.

Should you be upset? I would argue that no, you should not.

The class and the conference aren’t connected to your job, meaning neither the class nor the conference will do anything to make you a better C++ programmer, which is what your employer pays you for. Instead, the class is something you want for your own career. You want to expand the set of skills contained in your career, both to satisfy your own interest and to expand the job opportunities available to you. Therefore, you should be the one paying for the class and the conference, not your employer. But “Keeping your tech skills fresh and relevant,” and expanding your hard skills is an important aspect of maintaining your career. So don’t cancel your class or conference just because you’ll have to pay for them.

So there’s a downside to “owning” a technology career, in that it can sometimes be expensive. But there’s a definite upside to owning a technology career, too: you can make it serve your bidding. Your technology career can be a powerful means of achieving… well, just about anything you might want it to!

But what should you ask your career to do for you?

Start at the beginning: with yourself

Too many of us graduate from school, get into our first “real” job as adults, and immediately start trying to do the best job we can. We manage to impress our employer, and in time we’re offered a promotion Or, perhaps we gain enough experience to land a “better” job elsewhere—one that pays more, offers a better job title, or other “upgrades.”

Without really thinking about it, we start to equate success with salary, job title, the size of the team we lead, and other criteria. But we rarely stop and think: “what’s it all for?”

That’s what I’d like you to do right now: stop, and think, “what’s it all for?”

What kind of life do you want to live? How do you want to spend your time, both on and off the job? What contributions do you want to make to the world? What passions and experiences do you want to pursue?

Not only do I want you to stop and think about these questions; I want you to write down your thoughts. Writing things on paper with a pen or pencil helps you take the thinking seriously–and helps you remember your conclusions.

Your answers to these questions clarify and define the life you desire, and I call this piece of writing your “life definition.” Unlike other definitions, your life definition may change as you enter new phases of life, and discover new goals and values. My current “life definition” is not the same one I’ve always had. As I’ve grown older, formed a family, and changed interests, my definition has changed. That’s fine! That’s what being alive is all about! But I’m very careful to document, in writing, what I want from my life. I revisit this definition annually, and I treat it a bit like punching in a destination into a GPS app: this life definition is my destination. When I get there, I want to stay there, unless something happens that prompts me to re-think what I want from life.

One more thing before you start thinking and writing: I want you to write this life definition as if you were on the outside of your life, looking in. Not to be depressing, but treat this as if it were a kind of extended obituary. It should represent what you want your life to have looked like, when it’s all over and you’re looking back on it. Writing it this way can help you distill your most important dreams, goals, and desires.

To show you what I mean, I’ll share my current life definition.

Don was an experienced technology educator, who was respected by a broad community for his ability to help people learn new technologies.

Don was also an experienced business leader, and the companies he worked for relied on him to help execute the business’ plans. They also relied on him to help build new leaders, by nurturing his team members.

Don worked mainly for companies where he was able to make meaningful and visible positive impact, even when that impact was only visible internally.

Don was a leader in the technology communities in which he participated. He helped build and grow communities that invited and encouraged others to participate, and helped them see a path toward growing those communities on their own, even after he bowed out.

Don was a well-regarded author of fantasy and science fiction. Although perhaps never achieving a Stephen King level of success, his works were well-reviewed and were enjoyed by a meaningfully sized audience.

Don believed that technology skills were a key for people to lift themselves up in life, and he focused significant effort toward making those skills more accessible. He founded an enduring nonprofit that helped unlocked tech skills for people from disadvantaged situations.

Don’s family lived comfortably, if not luxuriously. They were able to maintain a small second home in a quiet place, as a “retreat and recharge” location. They traveled for vacations, visiting new countries and experiencing different cultures. Don ensured that, in the event of an accident, his family would be well provided for.

This is what I want my life to have looked like, when it’s all over and I’m looking back on it. There are a few specific bits in this life definition that I want you to take note of:

  • Money is implied in my definition, because I’ve listed some things that will clearly require money to achieve. However, at this stage I’m more interested in describing what I want than worrying about how much it will cost.
  • I’ve described something about the types of jobs I want to take. Work is, after all, a big part of life: most of us spend a third of our lives working. It’s important, to me at least, to have a job I find satisfying as well as one which will provide the income I need.
  • I’ve listed things that I haven’t yet achieved, even though—as I write this—I’m pushing 50 years old. I may not ever achieve them all, but this is where I’m pointing myself.
  • I’ve included some things about my personal life that will require time; that in turn creates certain implications for my work life. I need a job that will, for example, give me the free time to work on writing novels, which means I probably won’t ‘be working for hard-charging startup companies that need 20-hour workdays.

My life definition is the destination that goes into my GPS of life app. Everything I do is meant to drive toward that destination. My life definition is what it’s all for. It’s why I get out of bed in the morning; it’s why I work; and it’s why I live.

Please write it down… on paper!

Human cognition—the way we think and learn—depends largely on our senses. The more senses that are engaged in a given experience, the more lasting and powerful the resulting memories are inside our brains. That’s why we can have such strong memories from our childhoods: the smells, the sounds, the sights, even the taste of the churro—they all add up to that, memorable moment at Disneyland.

Typing on a computer doesn’t engage many of our senses. As touch typists, our sense of touch, and even our sense of sight, often barely register what we’re doing: the words simply flow onto the screen, as they’re meant to do.

But as you write down your definition of what your life will be, you want your brain to be deeply and deliberately engaged. You want to be thoughtful, and you want the words you write to be branded into your mind. That way, those words are always more present for you, helping you remember what it’s all for.

That’s why I’ve always written my life definitions over the years, using a sharp pencil and a quality notebook. Even sitting here typing this book’s manuscript into a computer, I can smell the leather of the notebook cover, feel and hear the scritch of the pencil against the page, and feel my hand traveling across the page. Those sense memories instantly bring the key elements of my life definition to mind. I didn’t even need to go get my journal to offer you the example I did, because my definition statements are indelibly carved into my consciousness. They’re always top of mind—as they should be.

Now… with my life definition—my GPS destination—firmly in front of me, I just need to figure out what it’s going to take to get there.

What does success look like for you?

For me, success is very simple: it’s whatever it will take to get the life I want. Success is literally a bullet list of things I need in order to achieve that life I’ve envisioned and defined. If my life definition is what goes into the GPS of life app, then my success is whatever parts I need to build a vehicle that will take me there.

Consequently, success is not something I pursue endlessly. It is a very specific set of measurable goals that I can slowly work toward. I will know when I reach those goals, and at that point, all I need to do is maintain that success, rather than trying to continue growing it. I never feel like I’m in a “rat race,” endlessly pursuing the next-bigger piece of cheese. Instead, I’m pursuing specific, achievable goals which will help me live the life I want.Just as I write down my life definition, I also write down my success definition. To create my success definition, I usually start with the life definition, and then I add bullets that describe what it will take to achieve my outcomes, aka my life definition. As much as possible, I try to keep the “success bullets” objective and measurable, meaning anyone would be able to look at my life and decide if I’d met a given item or not. That’s not always possible: some things, especially those more qualitative things, are always going to be a little subjective. That’s fine—just try to be as objective as reasonably possible. For example, my idea of a “great vacation” isn’t something I can easily quantify, and even shifts a bit from year to year. I might only be able to think about ranges or guidelines, and that’s fine.

Here are some examples of my success definition, using just a portion of my goals from my life definition:

Don was also an experienced business leader, and the companies he worked for relied on him to help execute the business’ plans. They also relied on him to help build new leaders, by nurturing his team members.

– At least a Sr. Director or VP role

– A team that includes people who have their own direct reports

– A company with a known habit for promoting from within

Don was a well-regarded author of fantasy and science fiction. Although perhaps never achieving a Stephen King level of success, his works were well-reviewed and were enjoyed by a meaningfully sized audience.

– Job with solid work-life balance—no weekends, no late nights

– Don’t feel comfortable with writing dialogue—need to publish a short novel in some way that doesn’t involve characters speaking to each other

Intend to self-publish; need to understand the marketing aspects of that and budget accordingly.

Don believed that technology skills were a key for people to lift themselves up in life, and he focused significant effort toward making those skills more accessible. He founded an enduring nonprofit that helped unlocked tech skills for people from disadvantaged situations.

– Need to understand how to found a nonprofit in the US

– Need to create a way for the tech community to derive value from the nonprofit in exchange for money, so the nonprofit has an operating budget and can execute on its charitable mission

— Launch a tech conference

— Profits from tech conference power the nonprofit

— Partner with existing tech education nonprofits to reach a client base

Don’s family lived comfortably, if not luxuriously. They were able to maintain a small second home in a quiet place, as a “retreat and recharge” location. They traveled for vacations, visiting new countries and experiencing different cultures. Don ensured that, in the event of an accident, his family would be well provided for.

– Need $150k/year gross

— Includes reasonable mortgage on a cabin near Dixie National Forest (3hr drive)

— Includes long-term disability insurance

— Includes term life insurance

— Includes retirement contributions per financial advisor suggestions

— Includes annual vacation budget

This is obviously a pared-down example, but I wanted to highlight some sections that are a little bit subjective, and some—like the salary calculation, which is purely a made-up number for this book—that are very objective and easily measured. Some of these bullets are definitely aspirational, as they’re things that—when I wrote this, at least—I hadn’t yet achieved.

Very importantly, I don’t change the success bullets unless I’m changing the life definition, or unless life itself has changed around me. For example, I don’t just plug in a larger salary number for no reason. Instead, if I’m feeling like I need more money from work, I look at why. Has the cost of living simply gone up? Did we decide to adopt a kid? Have we just been visiting more-expensive places than I anticipated? Whatever the reason, I need to decide what has to change in my life definition to justify the need for a larger salary. Have we simply been eating out more than we should, and spending more on food as a result? Maybe we should decide to stop that. Or, maybe—if it’s something we love and want to continue—I need to modify my life definition accordingly.

The point is that my success is there to support my life. Nothing goes into my success definition unless I know why it’s there. That ensures I’m not just randomly chasing a larger salary, or pointlessly pursuing a “better” job title just for the glory of it or whatever. Whatever I’m doing with my career, I’m doing it because my life needs it.

With those success bullets in mind, I can start crafting a career plan.

Creating a career plan for right now

If your life definition is the destination you plug into your GPS, and if your success targets are the parts of the vehicle that will get you there, then your career plan is the route that the GPS spits out. Follow that route, and you’ll get there.

With a good career plan, however, you don’t need to know the entire route at the outset. Instead, you can just think about the next few steps on the journey, and plot those out for yourself. So long as you’re always pointing to your ultimate destination—your life definition—then you’ll get there eventually.

To create my career plan, I start by looking at the success bullets that support the components of my life definition. Some of the success targets might be simply too hard for me to imagine reaching. Become a company vice president at 25 years of age? Hah! Instead, I focus on the bullets I can achieve, or at least that I can presently see a path to. For example, rewinding my mind about two decades (and consulting the notebooks I write all this down in, which I’ve kept over the years), I see things like this:

Don was also an experienced business leader, and the companies he worked for relied on him to help execute the business’ plans. They also relied on him to help build new leaders, by nurturing his team members.

– At least a Sr. Director or VP role

– A team that includes people who have their own direct reports

– A company with a known habit for promoting from within

Okay, at 30 years old, I definitely lacked the experience to get a Sr. Director or VP role. But by then, I’d led a small team, and I’d started to understand what running a business was all about. So I made a point to land a Director role, specifically with a company which would be interested in investing in making me a better business leader. With that as a job-hunt focus, I was actually able to find a role within my current company at the time. It wasn’t as much of a pay increase as I’d wanted, but I was more focused on getting the experience I needed to move toward my goals.

And that’s what a career plan is: a way to help you move toward your goals. To slowly, step-by-step, tick off all those success bullets. Focus on the ones you can, and for the others, start researching what it would take. For example, I spent quite some time on job boards looking at what was being asked of VP job candidates. I knew I’d need things like:

  • 10+ years managing teams of however many people
  • 5+ years in a position with financial accountability or outcome accountability
  • Ability to manage teams with 4+ layers of people underneath
  • Experience managing “up” into the executive suite

That’s a sampling of bullets I assembled from scouring VP job postings. I didn’t have those things, but I could start to see the path toward them. Start with a small team. Ask my boss to share accountability with me. Ask to give the occasional presentation to the company executives. Again, that all required working for someone who was willing to make those investments in me, and my job hunting was aimed sharply in that direction.

Scouring job postings is a wonderful way to build a career plan. For example, at one stage of my life, I realized my next move needed to be an increase in salary. Not a huge one, but I was pretty much maxed-out in terms of where my current job would take me. In fact, I came to realize that the field I was in was unlikely to offer more money. And so I needed to change fields, moving from systems administration to software development. Boy, was that scary. I needed to pay for the necessary education myself, because my then-current employer had no reason to pay for it. But I did it, I eventually got a job as Lead Web Developer, and wound up in charge of a small team, which also put me on-track toward my leadership goals.

Obviously, it took a while. Life can be a long journey. But at age 46 I finally did land my VP role. Career plans work.

Action items

In each chapter of my book, I offer you an exercise. I strongly recommend you do these, because each exercise will help you start mastering the “soft skill” covered in that chapter.

For this article, as you can probably expect, I’m going to ask you to get a paper notebook and a pencil (unless you love pens, which is fine), and writing down your definitions for life and success, as well as a first pass on a career plan. Work with your family and friends on this: they’re stakeholders in your life, and they need to be represented in your life definition.

❏ Start by writing your life definition, as you see it right now. Given who you are and where you are in your life right now, what can you imagine doing in your life? You don’t need to think about this as a set of end of life retrospectives; instead, just focus on what you, at this point, find valuable about your life, and what you want in that life for the foreseeable future. If you have clear goals, write them down as well.

❏ Next, go on to your success bullets. What will it take, from your career, to meet your life goals? Get serious about the math, in the appropriate spots: know how much money you’ll need to make to get what you want. If the number seems unattainable, then go back to your life definition and decide what you can live without, but try to make the “life/money” equation balance. In other words, for whatever you’ve said you want from life, make sure you’re providing a good estimate of how much money that will take.

❏ Finally, start thinking about the single next step in your career plan. What one, two, or small handful of things could you change about your career to achieve just one or two of those success bullets? Is it just a better-paying job? Something else? Do some research and figure out how to take the next step—and then start executing on that next step.

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