I've been working in IT for over twenty years now, for companies large and small. During that time, I identified a few specific turning points in my career that helped put me where I am now. These ideas can be applied to many people's careers, and I want to share them with you in the hopes that it helps you find your next step.
That said, our paths may diverge significantly. There is no one way to manage your career success, but career success does mean looking at where you are and where you want to be.
I made a few deliberate choices regarding my career path to generate opportunities and hone my skills that, in retrospect, made a huge difference. These choices were:
- Getting an MBA degree.
- Identifying the limits or ceiling at my current workplace.
- Developing communications skills.
- Developing technical skills.
Here is how I think about each of those moments.
The surprising value of my MBA
The first moment came from my education. I started my career (as an intern at 19), I worked in a database administrator (DBA) group at a public utility company. I did attend university, where I earned a Computer Information Systems degree. While I know many successful technologists who don't have college degrees, I feel that having a degree opened doors for me. Having a degree also made it easier for me to have one of my employers pay for my Master's degree in Business Administration (MBA). Getting my MBA was far less valuable in my career than my undergraduate degree, except for one thing—it really made me evaluate my career management. That process fundamentally changed my career.
Identify the ceiling
You need to actively think about your career path and think about what the ceiling is in your company. I'll give you an example. Before I started my first architect job, I worked at a medical device company, where my job title was originally Database Administrator, even though my role was well beyond that. I was the backup to the storage admin, and I handled a lot of system administration for both Windows and UNIX systems. While that company was a great place to improve my skills beyond just being a DBA, it wasn't a great place to take on a broader role. The company embarked on an SAP project, and I took a position as Infrastructure Lead in the hope that I would get some more comprehensive experience. I did learn about SAP and procuring hardware, and I also got to work internationally in a way I hadn't before. That said, the project was a nightmare, and the company didn't have a great technical track record. This led me to look in another direction.
Realizing your ceiling in a given firm is pretty important—if there is no architect function in your organization, you just aren't going to have the same opportunities. So what does that mean? You need to find a firm that does utilize the role you want to fill. This doesn't mean you need to go work for a tech company, but it does mean you need to identify a company that values technology.
In my case, I knew Comcast was in my area (in fact, my office at Comcast was about 500 meters from my office at the medical device company). Given both their business and the job postings I saw, they definitely had a technology focus.
You should talk to colleagues in your network, review job postings, and review comments on various job review sites to better understand the opportunities. There are companies in all sectors that have a technology focus—you just want to ensure IT is seen as a priority and not just a cost center.
Develop communications skills
Taking this back to my career path, one thing I started doing when I worked at the medical device company was public speaking and blogging. I gave my first talk at a local user group, which was a dry run for a presentation at a fairly large international conference later in the year. At the same time, I started blogging, which helped to raise my profile. Writing and public speaking do a couple of things for your career. First, they build your name recognition in broader technology communities, and second, they develop your communications and writing skills, which are critical in any architecture role. I'll talk more about how speaking led me to my current position, but next, I want to talk about technical growth.
Develop technical skills
Being a database administrator put me in a role that bridged across servers, storage, networking, and applications. This gave me a broader perspective across platforms, but it took me a long time to get my technical skills to where they are today. When you work in a larger company, you frequently don't get to work outside your immediate area of responsibility. While this is good for the separation of duties for security audits, it doesn't do much to grow your skills. In my case, my third job was a very large enterprise, but at a manufacturing plant with a scaled-down IT staff. This meant I had to move outside of my comfort level—I worked on a data center move, I built a DNS server, and managed various IT projects, giving me exposure to a broad set of perspectives. Getting the experience in that job and the medical device company left me well-prepared for an architecture role.
Where am I now?
By the time I applied for the job I took at Comcast, I had been speaking and writing for close to four years, and I had gotten my first paid writing assignments. Why am I mentioning this? Well, when I applied for my job at Comcast, I interviewed for a Senior DBA role. The SAP project at the medical devices company was going really poorly (the project ended up getting canceled on my second day in my new position), and I just wanted to get out. About a week before my start date, I got a call from HR at Comcast asking me if I wanted to take a role on a newly formed architecture team instead of being a Senior DBA. Without hesitation, I said yes—who wants to carry a pager? Once I started the job, I asked my new boss (who I hadn't yet met, Hi, Dave!) about why I had been considered for the architecture role when there were experienced people on the DBA team. He responded that my speaking and writing experience (it was on my resume) showed thought leadership, and that was why they wanted me on the team.
Managing your career includes identifying your current organization's limitations and opportunities, enhancing your communications skills, and developing your technical knowledge. Being a good architect requires a combination of these skills along with the ability to manage politics. You need to be able to go deep in some technical areas while being able to evaluate a broader set of business decisions. You should have the ability to communicate those decisions in a clear fashion that can be understood by technical and non-technical audiences. Everyone's career path is different, and I hope you were able to learn a few things from mine.