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Unsolicited Random Advice on Having a Successful IT Career

May 7, 2013 5 comments

Whenever I am teaching a class with a substantial percentage of graduating seniors, I usually close my last lecture with some advice for my students who are heading into industry to pursue their professional careers. This time, I’ve decided to publish this information as a blog post.

The following advice should be taken with a grain of salt. It just collects some random tidbits of information I’ve accumulated over the years. Nevertheless, this advice is genuine, as I truly wish someone had shared this information with me when I was starting my professional career.

  • 0.) Exercise regularly. As your body gets older, it takes an increasing amount of maintenance to keep in shape. Do not neglect physical exercise under any circumstances. Note: Switching from college life to office work, when you’ll be spending 8+ hours sitting in front of a computer, must be balanced with targeted, regular exercise. Buy a decent gym membership before you start work and then set a regular exercise routine.
  • 1.) Time moves at a constant rate, but our perception of it does not. Plan accordingly. Humans are horrible at long-term planning, as our perception of time changes continuously as we age. We perceive the length of any given time period (a day, a month, a year, a decade, etc.) proportionally to our age. Therefore, planning based on our past experiences is foolhardy. 
  • As a specific example, assume that you are 20 years old and you wish to set some goals to accomplish (e.g., get a graduate degree, get married, buy a house, start a company, etc.) by the time you are 30. You ask yourself: how much time do I have? A common strategy is to look back at how long it took you to get to your current age from the time you were 10 years old, and it seems like an eternity! However, perception-wise, it takes much less time to get from 20 to 30 than from 10 to 20. Furthermore, when it comes to time planning, perception is reality. Therefore, a safe estimate is to half the time when planning based on your past experiences. For example, plan that it’ll take you as long to get from 20 to 30 as it took for you to get from 15 to 20.
  • 2.) The best time to take risks is now! If you want to pursue something in life that requires taking risks, do it while you are young. Take risks while you are young and the consequences of failure have a limited ripple effect. If you always wanted to start a company, do it now. The allure of receiving a stable paycheck can become hard to escape.
  • 3.) There are people who ask questions, and there are people who answer them. Be the one whom people ask for help, and not the other way around: that’s how you earn respect and gain value as a technical professional. If something does not make sense, try to figure it out first on your own before approaching your co-workers for help.
  • Become “the go to” person in your organization, someone who can answer technical questions and make things work. Get a thorough understanding of the system you are developing or maintaining. Don’t be afraid to look “under the hood.”
  • 4.) Software is in the service of business; not the other way around. IT is a tool that helps businesses increase their competitive advantage. Therefore, IT professionals with strong domain expertise are invaluable. Extend your expertise beyond the purely technical realm to learn about the domain at hand. Try to understand how your customers use the technology you are creating to benefit their business practices. For example, if you are building financial systems, learn about finance as much as possible. 
  • 5.) Do not become too comfortable. If you have become too comfortable, you stopped learning. Stopping learning in a fast-moving industry like IT is suicidal for your career. Once you feel that you are becoming the most knowledgeable, experienced person in your organization, it may be time to move.
  • 6.) Your professional reputation is your most valuable asset. The higher you move up the professional career ladder, the bigger is the role of your reputation. Professional references may play an increasingly decisive role in obtaining senior positions. Integrity is key. Make it a habit of doing your best possible work all the time and treating people right.
  • 7.) Keep in touch. I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to know if what you have learned in this course turned useful. Have I missed something important? Was I right on?
  • In addition, I’m available for advice, recommendation letters, consulting, etc. If you become very rich and successful and find that my teaching had positive influence on you, do not forget to establish a chaired professorship and give it to me! 🙂
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Categories: careers, teaching