Manage Your Own Career

By Aditya Kulkarni|21st May 2012
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A career in technology is often highly rewarding, both financial and job-satisfaction wise, but you need to manage your own career well. Technology is a relatively new field, fast moving as well as high-pressure, which means that there are no set paths that you can follow to "climb up the ladder". These days, you have to be responsible for your own career and its growth. Here are a few tips that can help you navigate through your choices.

 

Find a Mentor

A mentor is someone with whom you can bounce of ideas and problems, and someone who can help you think through issues. Not necessarily technology issues, but more career decisions like "should I take up this year-long project in Indonesia" or "Is doing this high-risk project good for my career?". Unfortunately, there is no directory where all mentors are listed, so you're going to have to go find this person yourself. Having a good mentor is really important, because often times the various options and risks of a career move are not immediately apparent.

I once almost turned down an opportunity to work on a Hindi <--> English transliteration project, because I'm not so good with languages. However, my mentor made me see that this was less about languages and more about machine learning and mathematical models. To this day, it was one the most rewarding projects that I've worked on.

Dealing with Failure

I will often ask a candidate in an interview to describe their biggest failure to me. I expect people to tell me an epic story of unmitigated disaster and how they screwed up big time. The reality is that if a person hasn't experience large-scale failure, then they've not been trying hard enough or taking enough risks. Failure is a great teacher, and one of the most important things it teaches you is how to handle stress. You cannot learn that in a text-book. How to not panic, think calmly in challenging situations, seeking out help and admitting that you can make mistakes are critical skills that are important for anyone in the technology sector.

This is also the reason that doing a startup is such a good idea. If you succeed, then you'll be rich and can buy a Ferrari, but even if you don't, having dealt with a failed startup is invaluable experience that will help you out significantly in your subsequent job hunt.

Smart better than hard

There may be some careers out there where working really long hours and 7-day weeks will pay off, but unfortunately, technology is not one of them. Here, smart work almost always beats out hard work. If an employee has been continuously staying back late and working weekends, most mature managers will treat that as a sign that something is wrong. The big problem with this piece of advice is that it is often unclear what the smart move is in a given situation, which brings us back to the first point: Find a Mentor. You will need to think through things, and think about them quite deeply before what the right thing to do is clear.

Ask for feedback

A rookie mistake that most of us make is to get our sense of self-worth and self-esteem all tangled up with our ideas, and if someone criticizes our idea, we feel like they are criticizing us. Those are two separate things. You can be a really smart person and still come up with really dumb ideas. If someone - your boss, your peers or management - criticizes an idea, it is not a reflection on you per se. Making those two things separate will enable you to seek honest and direct feedback on your ideas and your projects. This is super important, because unless people are telling you exactly what they think, you risk being in a bubble and never learning from your mistakes. You also have to actively seek out feedback and encourage people to offer their honest opinions. It's the only way to learn and grow.

Try New things

One of the best pieces of advice that I got as an intern was that every 3 months of working should result in a bullet point on your CV. That's the right measure to see if you're learning new things at a fast-enough pace. The technology industry moves very fast, and it is very easy to have your skills become outdated, so it is important to keep learning and trying new things. Doing different and new things is a solid way of building up your CV and your career - If you've done several different things and done them well, that gives employers lots of confidence that you'll be able to thrive and succeed in a new job. If you have learnt nothing new for 6 months, its time to quit your project and move on to a new one or even to a new job.

There is no magic formula that you can use to succeed in the tech world, only rough guidelines. But in the end, it is you that is responsible for managing your own career.

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