Every been out on a boat? You’re supposed to wear a life jacket, right? You might not need it, but just in case.
Does your career have a life jacket?
That is, if you run into a day-to-day technical problem, to whom would you go to for help? Google? Online forums? That’s kind of like forgoing the life jacket and just hoping the dolphins will save you if something goes wrong. They might. It’s not impossible.
Or maybe you rely on your coworkers. That’s kind of like relying on the other people in the same boat, though, isn’t it? If the ship’s going down, it’s kinda every man for himself. I’ve always relied heavily on coworkers to make sure the job gets done, and they’ve relied on me; but when it comes to dealing with real problems, I’d like my safety net to be a little more expansive.
I find that software developers tend to grasp this concept pretty well. Most developers I know regard the entire software development industry as their “career,” regardless of what their current job might be. They actively participate in the broader community:
- They reliably respond to questions on forums. They spend a lot of time correcting each other, but that’s part of community, too.
- They attend conferences. They go to classes. They watch instruction videos. They really learn.
- They go to user group meetings. They do stuff after hours and on the weekends that’s development-related.
- They blog a lot. Even if it’s on something either other people have blogged on. For any given problem, you usually get a range of opinions on how to solve it.
- The complain a lot. Loudly, about things they don’t like in technology. This results in more fixes from vendors.
I don’t know why, but I find that fewer IT pros engage in some of the same behaviors. It’s tougher for us to get to conferences, I feel, because we’re often needed more from minute-to-minute than developers, who tend to work on projects more than “fires.” But I see fewer IT pros engaging in community.
Community isn’t just asking a question on a forum. It’s going back to that same forum later and seeing if you can offer any answers. Of all the various IT pro-focused forums I’ve engaged with over the years, fewer than .01% of the question-askers ever come back to offer answers, or an alternate approach, or an additional observation. Most just show up when they have a problem, and then vanish when it’s solved. But think about the advantages of coming back. You get to know the other people who post there. When you’re in real need, you can ping them in an e-mail and ask them to look at something a bit quicker than usual.
And this isn’t just forums. There are all kinds of ways to engage and become a part of community. Get on Twitter and watch relevant hash tags. Frequent some blogs, and comment on their articles. Attend a user group meeting – every time they have one. Heck, start a virtual, online user group around a specific topic. Attend a conference and actually network, instead of just soaking in all the education. Make personal connections. Get to know people. Those people will become your colleagues. They will support you when you need an answer, and they will recommend you when you need a job. They will offer suggestions when you need to find a solution, and they will be there when your current job isn’t.
If you don’t have connections then you do not have a career. You have a job. I’ve written before about the distinction, and I think it’s an important one. Yes, it can be difficult to begin, and it can be time-consuming to maintain. But having a career is a life jacket for when your job starts to sink. When your job has a fire, your career helps provide the extinguisher. If your job becomes vexing, your career helps offer the way out.
So consider spending the effort to get connected. Find colleagues, and keep in touch. Find ways to meet people virtually, if not in person. Form a network. Make a career.