I’ve always loved the game of Checkers (or Draughts/Drafts for those of us who grew up outside of the U.S.). I like to claim prowess at it but my younger brother would probably have something to say about that. When playing, my goal was pretty simple: take out my opponents pieces off the board as fast as possible. Doing this often involved setting up traps and baiting my opponent into taking a piece or two, a move that would often result in me capturing more of their pieces as a result. If I faced a savvy opponent however, this never panned out as desired either because they saw through my ruse and sacrificed a single piece to prevent a bigger loss or used my bait to create a bait of their own. The most important part of the game however, were the opening moves I made. In about 80% of the games I played, my first 5 moves were about establishing some defensive zones that I could then attack from, whereas in the other 20% I attacked haphazardly, which either worked by confusing my opponent and had them reacting to every single move I made or royally failed.
Chess on the other hand is a game I was not good at all. My approach to the game was similar to my Checkers strategy: take the opponents pieces off the board as fast as possible. I did not have the patience that the game required let alone the forward-thinking nature of the game. I was more interested in a run-and-gun type of offense a la Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns of years past.
Fast forward to the present day and I am sitting here thinking about my career and I can’t help but notice the similarities between a game of Checkers and the makings of a career, and how that then transitions into a game of chess. At least that’s how I see it when it comes to how my career has progressed. When I got done with my undergrad program, my first goal was to find a job and establish a foothold in my desired field: web programming. Making websites is something I discovered in my first year of college in good, ol’ Alfred, NY, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I later transferred to a school in Iowa where I didn’t take many development classes but still got internships that had me learning a lot, and upon graduation, the game of career Checkers started. I lucked out right out of the gate with a gig at an ad agency and started building my defensive positions by learning and getting better at the craft.
I have now been making websites for close to 8 years and realize that the game of Checkers is over. Not because I won. Far from it. The game has simply changed to Chess. I have become my Dad, the only person I ever played Chess with, thinking plenty of moves ahead and contemplating what different options are out there for me. This is not say I have not been doing so over the past few years. I most certainly have been. But it was mostly tailored to short-term interests depending on what was going on in my life. I think this is a natural progression that a lot of people before me have gone through, and on one hands it is intriguing, but at the same time a challenge.
The field of development has changed significantly in the years I have been in it. New techniques, tools and platforms like Responsive Web Design, SASS and LESS, Angular e.t.c. have made things very exciting and the future only promises to get better. While I don’t necessarily jump on the new hotness that’s out there, I do maintain an awareness of what is new and noteworthy, and the instances where it could be useful. One of my techniques for doing this is the star feature of Github. Repositories that I find interesting for example, get starred and noted for future reference when they will come in handy on some project. Learning new tools as they become applicable and useful for me is one aspect of development that I like, and a big reason to keep doing what I do.
There is also the exciting uncertainty of what is going to come out next and how you may be involved in its emergence. Look no further than Silicon Valley start-ups to understand this. Start-ups are coming up with lots of tools, products and ideas that have re-shaped how I work and even how I live my life, usually (read hopefully) for the better. And the excitement that spews out of people working in them is enough to (a) attract more people into starting their own or (b) companies adopting start-up type mentalities in how they approach things.
From my perspective though, part of the intrigue becomes first and foremost part of the challenge. All these new technologies require constant learning and reading to know how to work with them. Instead of beating a dead horse on this one, I am going to point you to Susan Robertson’s A List Apart article:
Overwhelmed by Code
There is a constant pressure to learn new things and keep up with all the latest ideas: new frameworks, new platforms…
The other part of the challenge is all the unanswered questions that you need to answer. I recently came across a question on Hacker News that someone posed, asking “Where happens to older developers?” The poster of the question was seeking to get insight into what developers in their late 30s and beyond are now doing. The most common responses were that they either went into management (which some did not find appealing) or they started their own companies and continued making things. What it all boiled down to was figuring out what was important to them. And that is now what I am trying to do.
What are you passionate about?
This may seem like a simple question to answer because you likely know what you are passionate about today. The bigger question is whether that will be something you are still passionate about tomorrow. This is a tough question to answer. And simply because it is in our nature to change our interests and preferences over time. So while you may be passionate about photography today, is it something you will still be interested in tomorrow? Answering this probably necessitates taking a leap of faith once you have had time to reflect on where you have come from and where you want to go as there is no other way other than going full steam ahead.
pas-sion: a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something
But what if you’re not passionate about something but still enjoy doing it? Is the passion for it something that can be developed over time? Or what if you’re simply not good at it but are interested in getting better? Does that count as passion? I am interested in photography. It is not something I am skilled at, but it is something I would definitely like to get better at. I also enjoy making videos from clips I’ve shot on my phone. Is that something I could develop into a passion that then results into a livelihood? Possibly. Other things I would like to see myself become is some sort of professional traveler, or a test car driver whenever some car manufacturer rolls out a brand new ride.
So of all these options, what should I actually do? More importantly, how long should I take to reflect on it before coming to a decision? I’ve heard of people taking sabbaticals to figure things like these out, which sounds like a great idea in itself although not quite practical for the majority without prior planning. But if there is one thing that could get you moving in the right direction, it is talking to people. Seeking the opinions of others, especially those who have gone through similar situations, is going to provide great insight on how you should approach your own situation. Besides that, it is probably all up to you.
What do you consider success?
When I was growing up, a flashy car and wealth were considered signs of a successful person. Status symbols still permeate our daily lives, but whether they mean something to you is a question that is very important to answer. Status symbols do not only come in the form of material wealth, a fancy title at work could also be a status symbol. There is definitely nothing wrong with having any of these, because they hard-earned items. What I am trying to get at is that the direction you choose to go in life might not necessarily translate into having some of the finer things in life or let you maintain the lifestyle you currently live. But once again, it is up to you to define this as it is you who will be living the life you choose, not someone else.
How do you chart your course?
Let’s assume you have picked the path you want to walk. The usual course of action is quitting your job immediately or in the near future to pursue your new dream, or charting your new path within your current organization. Assuming the latter, challenges arise when your goals don’t quite align with your employers goals. A lot of organizations have pre-defined career progress paths that employees can take to rise up the ranks which is great, but these may not necessarily line up with what you have in mind. Do you then make your intentions/desires known to your manager to see how best to accommodate you? Do you keep your mouth shut incase it is wrongly assumed you intend to leave and you get let go because you don’t “fit in” anymore?
I don’t know the answers to any of the questions above, and they probably vary from case to case. But here is what I do know. The loyalty that used to exist between employees and employers is a thing of the past. Business decisions necessitate moves that will always ruffle feathers, and employees are now more concerned about their own progress and development. My intuition says the second is a result of the first. Regardless, the onus is now on the employee to take control of their own future. Why not think of your career as a business and approach it the way a business handles its, for lack of a better word, business?
… the reality is that we are the CEO of Me, Inc., and there are always others playing in our domain and competing for the same resources we need to advance.
- Matthew E. May
Can’t Picture Where You’ll Be in 5 Years? Find Your Strategy
Businesses succeed by finding out what people want (or don’t know they want yet) and providing this core product to consumers. From there, they expand into new areas by creating things that complement or enhance their core product. Careers are absolutely the same. Once you have figured out what you’re good at, you complement it by learning new disciplines. Take a web designer for instance. While designing is what they particularly good at, they can learn how to actually code what they design. This not only creates versatility but gives a better understanding of what is possible from a development perspective. It also makes them better designers because of this awareness that they have now gained.
All I have done here is pose a lot of questions, the answers to which I don’t have. But by doing so I at least I have given myself a starting point for figuring out what my next step is. As they say, determining where I want to end up requires working out where I am starting from. So I’ve already made progress. So here’s my question for you. What comes next?