Career is about the future. Those musing about career performance peer into a crystal ball, while those reviewing job performance just glance in a rear-view mirror. Most technical professionals surrender to the perspective that they can’t control their future, particularly when the chips are down. Yet we all seem to be soothsayers. The water cooler is the font of prognostications about corporate reorganization, growth, and demise. The ‘blogs, journals, and conferences abound with “insights” about the future of technology.
Engineering industries build on novelty. Emerging technologies almost always enjoy the largest funding and opportunity for long-term growth; it’s rare that a company eagerly pumps money into old ideas. Career-minded engineers can nonetheless be future-minded in several ways. First, there are innovators who pioneer such ideas. Maybe they aren’t even “inventors” but just the “early adapters” who bring ideas into the corporate value stream.
As professionals, engineers are builders and refiners, but — let’s face it — our job often takes place in the background. Nonetheless, visions still have a place there — whether for the betterment of technology, or of the enterprise, or of humanity. Powerful visions need not be grand. Managers may share a vision simply as servant leaders to help their teams' innovations thrive in the long term. That is a career with vision.
Second, there are the solid citizens who wait until the noise dies down and then join the effort as willing contributors. These are rarely the people who think in terms of career; as I mentioned in previous columns, they just have a job.
Third, there are the “career hounds” who seek the limelight, attention, and potential rewards of the next fad. These are the people whom Bran Seli? feared would vindicate their attitude in this column until I assured him otherwise. They abandon their “boring” assignments to jump to the “sexy” ones. These are false careers: the individuals gain in title and stature more than the enterprise gains value.
Each of these strategies relate to predicting the future. The career hounds seek predictions that they can follow to glory. The solid citizens try to predict when things will stop changing so they can sign up. The career-minded predict the future by making it.
While we like to blame circumstances or others when things go wrong, most of the time we can quote Henley’s Invictus: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." In the end, each personal mission shapes the corporate mission. Corporations don’t invent: people do. I once worked at a company where I bucked the ISO 9001 trend and showed —empirically — that there was a better way to meet ever-shortening market horizons and to reduce waste. Jeff Sutherland cites that work as one influence on Scrum. My employer didn’t value it at the time and it was one of the factors that resulted in my departure — though they invited me back to give a talk on the subject to a packed auditorium eight years later. It had become a place to have a job, but not a career.
Today, a technical generation of developers in a large Nordic company have fallen far enough behind in the innovation game that they no longer can hold their own. Their careers have also given way to jobs.
Become part of your employer's destiny by taking charge of your own. Take your professional discipline by the horns and shape it. It is hard work, but you'll find that the rewards are worth it. Make the future.