Don’t Get Stuck in Your Job

I hope you’ll take a moment to share this post with your coworkers, colleagues, peers, and even friends. Whether they’re in IT or not, there’s a strong lesson here – one that’s easy to lose in the day-to-day madness.

I have a good friend who’s not terribly happy at his current job. He’s stuck in a more-or-less dead-end position, and while they pay and benefits are fine, he feels a bit like he’s rotting in place. The world of IT is moving around him, and he’s worried about growing more irrelevant by the moment.

So he did the right thing: he started interviewing. That takes a lot of guts, and it’s the step where probably 80% of people will just give up and suffer in a job they don’t love. Interviewing is hard, it can feel humiliating, and practically nobody enjoys it. But he did it.

And had a problem, because for much of his career he’s been in larger companies that tend to “silo” people into a specific technology. So, he applies for this job, and told me:

I recently interviewed to take over a position at an Internet company and I failed… That was a pretty tough pill to swallow, considering the main skill they wanted was someone to manage their PowerShell / Desired State Configuration approach to configuration management on Windows servers.  That’s pretty much my bread and butter right now.  I was told that the reason for being turned down was that I don’t have enough experience with IIS and SQL.

Ouch. Perfectly qualified for the job’s main requirement – in fact, he’s probably one of the top people in the world for that job. But he didn’t get it because he didn’t have SQL Server and IIS skills.

This is such a common refrain. Folks, while your current employer might be happy with your skill set, nobody else will be. There’s a reason your employer isn’t “investing” in your skills by training you up in “unrelated” technologies – it makes it easier to keep you. Your employer has no reason to help solidify your career – they just want to make sure you can do your current job. And unless that job is the only one you ever want to have, you have to take the initiative on your career.

Technologies like SQL Server and IIS are as fundamentally important as understanding DNS, IP networking, and using a mouse and keyboard. Sure, if you’re in a non-Microsoft environment, you can substitute “SQL” and “IIS” with something else, like “MySQL” and “Apache,” but the point is that these functions are essential to everything. Knowing core infrastructure – Active Directory, DHCP, a bit about routing, all that – is lowest-common-denominator knowledge. If you want any kind of decent position, you need to know it all.

I get so frustrated when I teach things like PowerShell DSC and hear comments like, “this looks cool, but I’ll never get to use it at my current job, so….” Why should that stop you? If you don’t work for a leading-edge-tech company – and few folks do – then it’s up to you to invest in your career. You have to keep up, even if it’s on your own… or you’re going to be stuck in your current job. Maybe you’re okay with that – maybe your current job fits you perfectly, in which case, congratulations! But I’d be terrified of being stuck with no options.

People bemoan how difficult it is to “keep up,” but it isn’t always that hard. Buy a book, or subscribe to one of the many video training services (I like Pluralsight these days) out there and watch a video. My Month of Lunches series has IIS and SQL Server books for a reason. You need to identify the lower-level platforms and technologies that power everything, and make bloody sure you know about them. Yeah, it’s harder when you’re not using them for a living at work – but man, it’s so easy to get stuck otherwise. Yeah, books and videos won’t give you experience – but it gives you a start. A home lab helps fill that in. Nothing replaces on-the-job experience, but if you can speak intelligently about a technology in an interview, you might clinch it anyway.

But you gotta learn.

And you know, it’s funny – but think of some of the “religious IT” arguments you’ve heard others make over the years. Linux is better than Windows, IIS is better than Apache, nobody ever needs IPv6, VMware is better than Hyper-V, whatever. Those arguments are rarely founded on technical merit. They’re often based more on the person’s desire to avoid learning something new. Not always; sometimes those arguments are genuinely made in a “what’s the right tool for this job” vein, in which case they’re not “religious” arguments. But way too often, they’re just people defending their turf because they don’t want to learn something new – even when the opportunity arises in their current job.

Never turn down an opportunity to learn something new. Make those opportunities for yourself by learning outside the job. You have to. Because someday you might need to move on, and you need to make sure you’ve got the skills that the marketplace is looking for.

No matter how m@d your sk1llz are in your chosen area of specialization… you’re stuck if you don’t have the breadth needed to fit into a variety of other environments. Please don’t be stuck. Invest in your career, so that you’ll always have options when it comes to a job.