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Fate-driven Career Management

I’ve never really had a career path in mind, that is, what tech to learn and when, what job titles to get, when to retire, etc. Most of my successes and opportunities seem to be a combination of personality traits and strengths combined with being at the right place and the right time.

Inherently this post gets a little philosophical and personal, yet I imagine there are probably others like me. Considering you don’t really hear much about those folks, I’d like to validate them and argue that there are multiple paths through one’s career and by extension one’s life.

I’ve watched several Pluralsight videos and read multiple blog posts about how to manage my career. Advice like that is like crack to us engineer types: Here’s an algorithm to exert control over your life! The more advice I see, the more it sounds like everybody has an opinion and some of them are at odds with each other. My belief is that no one knows for sure; we’re all trying to make the best of what we have and make sense of this life.

I’m relatively young in my career, and I think it’s safe to say that what used to be true in my industry 1-2 decades ago does not hold today. The exponential explosion (both in number and in speed) of various areas of study is staggering. The idea of a career path is rather nebulous, which makes it difficult to know where to go next.

Instead what I’m advocating is something more opportunistic. For example, when a friend of mine offered to help me set up a sound system, we went to used books/equipment store. I wasn’t picky about brand or number of features — I wanted to find something that would work with my equipment and was under $50. Could I have found something more optimal (either in quality, features, price) by spending hours researching online? Sure, but I chose from what was available that day (there could have been an even better model had I gone the following day).

My belief is that control is an illusion. I’m not going to blather on about chaos theory or how messy and irrational human beings are. No one knows for sure what’s going to happen and the hindsight bias is always in our back pocket.

In her book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainly and Change, Pema Chodron speaks about our human quest for solid ground, certainty, and predictability. Control. We want life to fit our storyline, the narrative we create. But, it rarely does. We fight and we suffer, and grapple for more solid ground, and suffer more. Life is moving, changing, and exciting unstable ground. It does not have transitions; life is transition. It terrifies us or exhilarates us; the decision is ours. But there’s no controlling it. Not really.
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Here are the highlights of my journey of dumb luck opportunities:

  • My mom bought me my first computer in middle school. I stumbled upon the IBM-DOS menu, which had an option for BASIC, and I ended up getting a book with sample programs.
  • Somebody my Mom knew from her job did some work with Borland C++. My mom mentioned that I loved doing stuff on the computer, so through the friend, I purchased my first C++ compiler.
  • In high school I had friends (who just happened to be in my classes), who it turns out were also into computers. We would stay up late into the night doing stuff with MIDI, Autodesk Animator, and QBasic.
  • There was a class in doing stuff with computers (Apple IIe, BASIC) which I ate up like candy. The next year, a PC-based computer class opened up, so I learned about Pascal and basic data structures. I was around like-minded people and was given the opportunity to learn new things.
  • In my high school music program, I had two wonderful student teachers from Furman University, a local private, liberal arts college. It was the only school I applied to, as a double-major in music and computer science (CS).
  • The CS department had the next four years of my life laid out in a table — take this class at this time and you end up with a degree at the end.
  • Through class participation and professors seeing my interests, I was invited to participate in other programs. Furman was chartering a program where a cadre of students would help professors integrate technology into their classes. This was where I first learned about HTML, JavaScript, CGI, Java, etc.
  • After the director of that program saw my progress and skill, I was asked to join a summer research group where we built a Java-based client to talk to a FORTRAN-77 atmospheric modeling program. This in turn led me to presenting at my first ACM conference.
  • In my junior/senior year, I worked more with the atmospheric modeling code and learned about design patterns as well. My major professor suggested two grad schools I should apply to. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) gave me the best offer, so I took it. (Prior to attending the college visit, I had never been to Knoxville.)
  • A few weeks before starting at UTK, I was unexpectedly offered a research assistantship that just happened to be funded through my major advisor. Through this program I learned C, MATLAB, probability models, statistical models, and LaTeX. This led to more papers and more conference presentations.
  • Our research project was with another university, so from them I learned about malicious software, and through connections there was offered an internship at Symantec in Santa Monica.
  • My major advisor had connections at Oak Ridge National Labs, so he put my name in for a summer internship.
  • After the UTK grant money ran out, I was told I could be a teaching assistant. After having some crap TAs myself, I made it my mission to be the exact opposite, so much so that I won an award.
  • Next, I wasn’t going anywhere in my PhD program, so I happened to respond to a job ad that was e-mailed to the entire department. I applied for the internship, which turned into the job I have now.
  • I knew nothing about C#, WPF, SQL Server, best practices in software engineering, testing, business process, etc. when I first started. I just happened to be in an environment where that was what we did.
  • Most of the connections I’ve made have been circumstantial — new hires, bumping into people at user groups, listening to a talk at a conference it was suggested I go to, etc.

My reason for sharing my journey is not to brag; the point is to demonstrate that time after time, I never really set out to do any of these things. I was just being Geoff and making myself available for opportunities.

Could I have had even better opportunities had I steered the ship myself? Sure. Would I be better off financially had I made different choices about when to enter the job market and to which companies I applied? Most definitely. Would I change anything? I don’t think so. So much of life is out of our direct control. After chatting about this concept with my wife, we reminded each other that had I not chosen UTK, or not been involved with swing dancing, we never would have met.

I would be a hypocrite if I told you to follow my advice and promised that success will be yours. What I’m saying is that there’s not one single (or even best) way to have a career. Here’s what I’ve been doing: Get to know yourself, be true to that self, be available to opportunities, and just go with the flow.

I’d love to hear about your journey or things you’ve learned along the way. Leave a comment below!

(Image credit: Snarl)

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