I was talking to a technologist the other day, who was gravely worried about not having had a promotion in the last two years. “The hikes don’t even compare to what my friends got last year at startups,” she complained. She wanted to know what she should do to fix it right now.
“Don’t do anything,” I told her.
These days, we are all so paranoid about deciding early. We start asking 4-year-olds what they want to do in life and teaching them to code for good measure. We carefully design every step of our career. We start micromanaging our career, expecting specific and preordained results. In this process, we lose sight of the cumulative experience we can gain over the long-term. We forget that it is precisely these experiences that make us unique. In essence, we lose our ability to zoom out.
This is a great loss. I’ll tell you why. Today, the world is changing rapidly. Programming languages, techniques etc. are constantly evolving. As technology and the business landscape evolves, your skill to learn and adapt will become more important than being extremely adept at one thing.
For instance, when I started my career, it was a matter of pride to say, “I can write 1000s of lines of code accurately, without errors, and commit all at once.” Today, it doesn’t matter so much. Systems can easily correct errors as you type. Likewise, spelling and grammar skills were crucial for a writer. Today, even the simplest word processor can automatically correct these.
So, if you’re a programmer in 2021, you can be successful if you make minor errors or typos. But you’ll struggle if you are unable to understand the business context, solve problems, collaborate with diverse teams, tell stories, or innovate consistently. As you grow in your career, these ‘zoom-out skills’ will become even more critical. As a manager, you need to be able to understand your team, their problems, needs etc. and help even before they ask. You need to have intuition and emotional intelligence. This can only come from varied experiences that offer you a 360-degree perspective.
You’ll notice that this trend is already taking off in the technology space. For instance, organizations are looking for full-stack developers and are willing to pay them more because they can take responsibility for an application end-to-end. The high-paying jobs at startups are usually reserved for those who can get things done. This is also true of business consulting. Enterprises are looking for full-stack business consultants who can handle the whole nine yards, with wholesome understanding of the industry, geography, technology and talent landscape.
Focusing on over-optimizing your current situation, say, worrying about salaries or promotions or what others around you are doing will blind you from seeing the larger cumulative experience you are gaining. Trying to squeeze the most out of every hour or day or year will distract you from the larger career canvas you have ahead of you.
“Do you actually mean do nothing?” she asked, absolutely confused at my advice.
Well, yes and no. My advice especially to early-career technologists is to treat your career like a river. In the Deccan Plateau in India, there are two kinds of rivers — ones that flow east and the others that flow west. So, you need to make the primary decision of which direction you want your career to flow, say choosing medicine, pharma, apparel, retail, analytics etc. And then, let it flow.
Not every day will be the same — that’s a good thing. Just like a river that flows through sand, rocks and grasslands, meandering left and right, let your career indulge in minor distractions to gain unique experiences. To have a clear 360-degree view, it is important to look through different lenses and different angles.
At some point, you will feel like there is nothing moving, and you’ve reached a standstill. You’ve probably come to a reservoir. Your skills, experiences and energies are being stacked together in this reservoir for the future. That stillness you’re feeling is potential energy. When the time is right, the water will flow again in a strong continuous stream, converting all the potential energy into kinetic energy to accelerate your growth.
In less abstract terms, I’d say:
- Approach your career in chunks of five years
- Let it flow
- Be a deep generalist
- Focus on being well-rounded
- Take up opportunities that bring you new challenges and wide exposure
- Remember that over the long-term, zooming out is as important as zooming in