We spoke briefly about the traits that make a person attractive in a career context. Attaining attractive traits yields ever-increasing opportunity, like a snowball rolling downhill. For instance, when I wanted to study for a doctorate after leaving the military, the company that employed me at that time provided a partial scholarship and was very flexible in the use of that scholarship. They normally offered a full scholarship to the local state-supported university, but that was a lot cheaper than the private university I wanted to attend. So we worked out a deal where they still provided the same amount of support that they would have provided had I gone to the local state university. This is an example of the result of a good performance ethic (study, learn, work, produce). "Earn" is a key word in all of life's opportunities. It is not an accident of birth. How persistent are you? Are you willing to focus on your goals and take initiative? As you move forward along your road, you may find it necessary to depart from people and environments that are holding you back. Don't let yourself be dragged down by "leaders" who want to keep you stuck in a culture of failure. People who drag you down are not your friends. They do not deserve your respect. If you want to be successful, associate with and learn from successful people.
As you strive to take advantage of opportunity, be thinking about what you can produce, what you can provide that is needful, how you can put yourself head and shoulders above the crowd. There are many career paths you can follow. Some start as a technician, then move to engineering, and finally to research and development. A general path starts off with being told exactly what to do and how to do it. After that you are given a problem to solve. This is followed by having to figure out what problems to solve. Over time, you have to lead others in discovering and solving difficult issues. That is the way that I went because I want to stay technical, and I don't want to become a manager. Now, this does not mean that there is something wrong with being a manager. There are four pillars in every organization: management, business development, administration, and technical execution. While you may want to be on the technical side, you have to remember that if those four pillars are not sturdy and are not tied together in synergy, the business will fail. If the business fails, everyone loses their job, including you. So, you have to have respect for those who fulfill other major roles in the company. It's not just technical. The number of technical people who have failed in business are legion.
Another career path that some like is to start in customer service. Then they move on to computer programming or system administration. After that and they move into training and then marketing. Following that, people go to supervisory duties, stretching later into managerial and finally into executive responsibilities. That also is a great path. You can be a very great benefit to your company because of this broad background. Just keep under consideration your goals, what you really want to be doing in life. As my father-in-law said, there are a lot of things you can enjoy doing. You need to pick one for your life's work that will allow you to make a living. (Be flexible in this choice. I switched technical focus five times in eight years. But, none of that education, none of that effort, was ever wasted.)
As your career progresses, always build on present abilities and add new ones. There is a jobs/skills pyramid that explains my approach to career selection and the progress I seek in a career. The bottom of that pyramid is very wide because there are lots of jobs. But, those jobs are relatively simple to do so there are a lot more people who can do those jobs than there are jobs. What I have found is that you can not just look at the number of jobs. You have to also look at how easy it is to do those jobs. When there are more people than jobs, companies who need those kinds of people go out in the street and a shovel them in. When those people are no longer needed, they are shoveled right back out again. There is no job security at all. There is only low pay and few benefits. You will also find low-quality supervisory staffs and poor working conditions.
Moving up to the middle of the jobs/skills pyramid you will find fewer jobs but a good balance between the number of people who can do those jobs and the number of jobs. That is because the jobs are harder and people do not bother themselves to learn how to do those jobs. Plus, there is the reality that there are fewer people who are capable of learning how to do those jobs no matter how hard they try or how badly they want to. At the top third of the jobs/skills pyramid there are fewer jobs still but even fewer people who can do those jobs. That is where you want to be. You want to push yourself into that top third of the pyramid. People at that level are always in demand because companies can never find and keep enough people capable of doing that kind of work. If you want to be in demand, you need to acquire skills that few people have to do essential things.
Consider the very peek of the jobs/skills pyramid. This is where people become over-specialized, something that should be avoided since you want to maintain your flexibility. The market ebbs and flows. Don't let over-specialization leave you at a loss. If you maintain flexibility, you can always do the jobs lower down in the pyramid. While they may be beneath your capability, there is no dishonor in them. Just write your resume accordingly. Do not write a rocket-scientist resume for a model-airplane job. That would only broadcast your over-qualification and the temporary nature of your interest in the job. The bottom line is to not put yourself in the position of wanting to do or being able to do only one thing.
Once you reach the top third of the jobs/skills pyramid, you need to consider certain issues. You really need to know your way around the market to find the jobs and you have to go where those jobs are. Top-tier jobs do not always exist in every place you think you might like to live. You also have to be good at selling yourself and you need an independent streak to rise above the crowd. If following the crowd is what is most important to you then you are less likely to rise to the top tier of jobs because the crowd tends to seek the lowest common denominator. That does not mean that you should not have friends. However, if you want a successful career, you have to associate with successful people, not get yourself embedded in a culture of failure. Once you reach the upper part of the jobs pyramid you are more likely to find solid job opportunities at high pay and benefits. Tenure is excellent since companies do not want to get rid of somebody that's profitable for them in their company's main line of business when the company has such a hard time finding anybody that can do that work successfully in the first place. Even during high unemployment, companies have a very difficult time finding and keeping good people.
Besides pay, benefits, and tenure, what should you be looking for in a company? Once you get yourself to the point where you really are valuable to the companies you interview with, you will find that you need to interview them as much as they interview you. Just as much as companies decide to hire you (or not), you have to decide who you want to work for. If you have measurable/verifiable accomplishments that matter, current knowledge, and relevant experience, and can make things happen for a company, you will find yourself much in demand. In return, you should expect companies to provide something to you. Of course tenure, pay, and benefits are an important part of that. But career success comes from working for good companies. You can always start by looking at Forbes' 100 Best Companies to Work For. But, your personal needs in a career must come into play as a primary criteria.
What do I personally look for in a company? I start by looking for a vision from which measurable performance metrics can be derived. Once that is established, I want to observe a strong corporate desire to achieve the vision. This has to be followed by focus. Do they have a steady focus applied to important activities so that the vision can be achieved? And then of course, do they have the funding to proceed? If any of those components are missing, the company is not a good choice. During one interview earlier in my career, a company was all excited about the data warehouse they wanted to build. I asked what they intended to do with their data warehouse, what was the purpose. All they had to offer in response was blank stares. It was clear that this company had a fad going on. They wanted to have a data warehouse because every other company seemed to have one, so they wanted one too. They had no idea why they needed it or what they would do with it. Needless to say, I declined to be hired because fads lead to failure. Failed projects do not last long. They just come and go with the wind. You and your career blow away right along with fad projects. Another example was an interview I had with the Chief Scientist of an organization. I had come to the interview with a technology demonstration on disk. When I mentioned the technology in question, he just waved his hand backwards at me and declared that I'd never be able to do what I proposed (what I had, in fact, already accomplished). From the interview, it was clear that this person had not been a practitioner in 15 to 20 years and was so far behind the times that it would be impossible to do anything useful in that organization. Again, I declined to be hired. Both those decisions have proven to be correct.
As we close, here are some ideas to think about, these are quotes from very talented people. Their words are striking. The first quote comes from Michelangelo. It was quoted in an issue of Linux Journal: "The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it but that our aim is too low and we reach it." He is trying to warn against becoming too satisfied too quickly. If you do, you'll never reach your full potential. When you pick a career, how hard are you going to push yourself in that career? Here is something said by Don Dingy, Industrial Embedded Systems Magazine, Spring/Summer 2006, volume 2, # 1, page 7, "If lots of things were easy, anyone and everyone would do them. The term for this, 'commoditization', really means nobody makes any money doing it. It's the hard that keeps average participants away from some things and makes the effort of the few who tackle the problem and deliver results valuable. The way to financial success is to take something hard, so much so few other people can do it, and make it look easy."
There are times when well-managed risk is necessary. Be aware that I am a contrarian, rarely doing what most people would do. I undertake very high-risk approaches to things and am constantly walking the edge of a sword. This has been very effective for me and I get things accomplished that most can not. The approach I take may not suite everyone but hear the words of Dale Carnegie, "The person who gets the furthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore." Your eagerness to study, learn, work, and produce is extremely important. Smart Money Magazine, March 2006, page 6, has an interesting quote along those lines, "The number one rule is simple, you've got to go above and beyond your job description. If you just do your job, you don't get a raise, you don't get a bonus, you get a paycheck."