At the Crossroads

It came to me a while ago that I had come to a crossroads in my career. This isn't the first time that this has happened. Like everybody else, sometimes you reach a point in your career where you need to decide what direction you want to go next.

Should you accept the promotion and become a manager? Should you keep a particular job despite all of the overtime you have to work? Is your current role preparing you for the next stage in your career?

I'm a software architect, with a specialization in web applications. I'm not talking about brochure web sites or somebody's WordPress blog, although I can build those, too. I'm talking about large-scale web sites that serve thousands of people, with scalability options to serve millions if need be. Think "Amazon One-Click Ordering." No, I didn't build Amazon's product ordering functionality...but I probably could.

So, why did I feel like I'd come to a crossroads in my career?

Let me ask you this? How many 50-year-old software developers have you met? I'm not 50, but I can see it on the distant horizon. I also know that there's a modest amount of ageism present in the software industry, enough so that older developers are sometimes considered less innovative, less in tune with current technologies and less likely to work the crazy hours (for no additional compensation) than younger developers.

Like most people, I want to keep making increasingly larger amounts of money. If you remain technical, there's a soft cap on how much money you can make. After all, at some point somebody is going to ask if you're really worth twice what a more junior developer is worth.

Hence, the crossroads.

How do you manage your career so that you're worth what you want to be paid? When you've started to bump into that soft cap, how do you make yourself valuable enough to get beyond that barrier?

A Historical Perspective

Before I answer those questions, let me go back into the depths of time for a historical perspective. In 1990, which is like 10,000 B.C. in Internet years, I worked for a defense contracting firm, one of the proverbial Beltway Bandits.

I don't want to tell you who the company is...well...actually, I do. They were called HFSI, a company that no longer exists. They were a contracting firm that splintered off from Honeywell, then got bought by a French company, then got acquired by a company called Wang. Who knows where they are now.

I worked for a directorship that consisted of about 60 people, with eight managers underneath the director. He was a hoot; probably the worst director I've ever seen in my life. He used Machiavellian tactics to play his managers off against each other so none of them would ever have enough power to threaten his position. He made them do all the real work, while he played flight simulator games on his PC all day.

I was the youngest person in this group. The lowest paid. The lowest level. Yet, as a top-notch C programmer (which was a really big technology back then), I was in demand throughout the company. I was always getting loaned to other groups to help them with their projects. In contrast, the work effort that many of my compatriots put out was abysmal.

I may have been one of the fastest horses in the race, but I was boxed in at HFSI. No matter how hard I worked, there was no way to get ahead, no way to leapfrog the people who did less work than me (for more money, by the way).

I could leave, of course. HFSI was comfortable, but totally unchallenging and financially unrewarding. I was at a crossroads. When HFSI began to falter, engaging in layoffs and a pay raise freeze, it became clear that something needed to be done.

I decided that I wanted to work for a consulting firm, probably for commercial clients (and to get away from the slower-paced government work that I'd seen). I determined that my C programming skills could get me a higher-paying job, but not as high as I wanted. I needed database-related skills to be a more complete package.

Over the next six months, I bought a textbook on Oracle, a prominent commercial database that the company was using in some areas. I taught myself how to use Oracle. I learned SQL. I volunteered for opportunities in the company where I could use these skills. After six months, I started interviewing, at which I was terrible. But I got better at that, too, and eventually landed myself a job as a consultant for a 25% raise.

I learned two important things back then. First, you're in charge of your own happiness. And second, nobody cares about your career the way you do.

You can wait for things to happen, or you can make them happen. Which do you think is more likely to take you where you want to go?

I hit a crossroads, and I decided on the direction of my career. I acquired the skills I needed and pursued the job that I wanted. And I got that job.

Back to the Present

Now that you know how I approached a real-life crossroads in the past, that should give you some idea how I've approached my current crisis. It took six months to navigate my original crossroads, and it's taking a good bit longer for the current one (and the down economy didn't help, either).

Where do I want to go? Well, I like building things. I like building things that people actually use, like web applications. In other words, I clearly prefer to stay technical.

But, I like working with people, too. I like speaking in front of crowds. I enjoy advising customers on technical matters. I'm not the kind of technical person that you want to just lock up in a room somewhere.

Finally, in some ways, I'm a post-coder. I like building things. Coding is what I have to do to build things.

I like challenges. I'm bored stiff now by coding things that aren't challenging or that I've done many times before. For example, I've implemented login systems in Pascal, C, PowerBuilder, Classic ASP, Cold Fusion, Java and Ruby. Implementing another such system is not appealing. Find a cheaper, junior programmer to solve that problem. Give me the hard stuff, please.

Where do I want to go next in my career?

I want to function as a true technical architect, providing structure and direction to multiple software projects. I want to work on the parts of projects that require technical heavy-lifting, where my cost is justified because a junior developer simply can't accomplish what I can. That's how I can provide value to software development efforts.

But that's only half the story. I want to leverage my other capabilities for business development. With my technical background and writing skills, I can provide technical input to proposals. I can provide training to customers on technical subjects, with the intent that such training also functions as a lead generation activity. My speaking engagements at conferences can also fulfill a business development role.

The role I want is one that I have to essentially invent for myself. It combines software implementation, technology evangelism and business development. It requires me to be a serious techie, a gripping public speaker and a businessman.

I don't have all the skills I need for this role. Yet. But I'm working on it. It's my career, and I'm in charge.

You're in charge of your career. What are you doing next? Are you going to wait for something to happen? Or are you going to make it happen? It's up to you.


David Keener By dkeener on Monday, June 14, 2010 at 10:16 PM EST

This was based on a short speech I did for the Ashburn Toastmasters group, which meets in the Broadlands Community Center twice a month.

David Keener By dkeener on Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 03:01 PM EST

It's surprising to me the number of people I've met since this article was published who have told me that this article really resonated with them.

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