I was recently invited to be a part of a panel to share my thoughts on how aspiring techies could build a career in tech and what such a career would entail.
The discussion was very engaging and I learned a lot about the different motivations that could encourage such a transition. Because of my role in PALO IT, I work with multiple clients and teammates who are just getting started with their careers in the tech industry, and I thought I would share a little insight into what I’ve learned in hopes of helping aspiring techies.
They Are Called Fundamentals for a Reason
I have come across team members who became good at a specific tool or framework after going through training and working with it for a while. While this is great, they may lack an understanding of some fundamental concepts, and I would like to take this opportunity to urge everyone to go deeper and always understand the fundamentals behind the tool or framework.
It would not only make your knowledge and experience transferable across various platforms, but also make you more confident in your skills. These would include programming fundamentals, infrastructure elements, testing techniques, release management, and even software development lifecycle.
Master a Specific Skill
Each one of us is different. Some people prefer to be subject matter experts, while others prefer to be a jack of all trades and master of none. In my opinion, focusing on a specific area, be it development, operations, or security earlier on in your career would give you a strong core expertise.
Generally, you can master a specific skill by working in an area for a couple of years. It does not require working with the same set of tools and applications but rather a specific function. For example, although a developer may be using multiple programming languages, he or she is essentially still getting better at programming with each step. Last but not least, and this may only be relevant if you are a consultant (which is my background), you may not always have the opportunity to work within a specific area for a long time. I would encourage you to explore how you can work on a certain skill set while working on various projects.
There are excellent technical training resources available online for specific skills. They generally provide a great way to pick up skills at your own pace in easy-to-consume formats. Coupled with hands-on experience, they might be all you need to become an expert.
Deliver Value to Your Customers
Based on your role at work, you may have many internal and external users or customers. They are the reason you design and build the applications you do now. It is very important to recognise who these people are and if they derive value out of your work, and changing the way you do things if that might not be the case. Being aware of the problems that you are solving also tends to be a very good motivator to do even better.
This might be the biggest cliche in a ‘career in tech’ blog post but for good reason, one cannot stress the importance of continuous learning. Technology is ever-changing at an increasingly fast pace so it is absolutely vital for everyone in the industry to keep learning. Here are some of my recommendations:
Keep Going Back to the Basics
In my experience, reviewing the basics of a technique or an approach would generally trigger a completely new set of insights that would be immensely helpful in your current context, so I would recommend making it a habit to go back to the basics on a regular basis to see how you could be better at what you do.
Cross-learning is applicable within technology as well. That is not to say that if you are a developer, you should take up painting (which by the way, is something that you should totally do if it is of your interest or helps you keep your sanity). Instead, if you are a system administrator, pick up coding or vice versa — a developer with a keen sense of infrastructure would not just be a valuable asset for a team — they would become a better developer. You should be learning more about development, operations, architecture, data, and security, and putting your newfound knowledge into practice.
Be In the Know
If you are willing to invest some time, it is really easy to keep abreast about where the industry is headed, the challenges ahead, and what the hot-button topics everyone is talking about. It could be as simple as subscribing to some tech blogs, and following someone on Twitter or LinkedIn. Meetups, conferences and hackathons are also other great ways to get a deeper understanding of a specific topic, platform, or tool.
Keep Experimenting and Innovating
I have always understood concepts or frameworks by using them and may have been guilty of testing certain things in an environment where they might not be the best fit. I wouldn’t advise trying things which might jeopardise your current projects (very rare) so I would suggest applying different principles to your current problems and trying new tools that may solve specific problems in your overall solution. Through experimentation, we learn and innovate. Be creative with your solutions and if you fail, learn from that experience and be better next time.
Find a Mentor
Someone who has overcame the challenges you are currently facing and can offer their experience to guide you through your journey is very important. They might be someone you work with or have worked with in the past and have your best interests at heart. A mentor would provide technical guidance, serve as a career coach, and help you with any work-related or personal challenges that you might have. They could also leverage on their network and influence to find specific opportunities for you. I believe the role of a mentor is always important, but it is even more vital at the beginning or in the earlier stages of your career.
That being said, it is obviously very important for your mentor to have your best interests at heart and for you to trust them. In certain cases, specifically when it comes to difficult conversations related to work, it might be easier to have a mentor outside your current organisation. Don’t shy away from asking someone you look up to to play this role. People are generally open to helping others and you could always give something back to them for their time and guidance, such as feedback or even a nice meal.
Improve Your Soft Skills
Skills like communication, empathy, consciousness, and working well with others are keys for success in a tech career. Ensure that you are improving your interpersonal communication, effectiveness, and leadership skills as they would play a significant role in ensuring success in your career. Due to the possible disruption posed by artificial intelligence and machine learning, they are even more relevant.
Build strong bonds with the people you work with and actively network and maintain relationships with others. Helping out someone by providing feedback or connecting them to someone else who could be of immense value can help strengthen your bond. When the situation arises, your network would serve as a great support mechanism.
Share as a Way to Learn
Recognising the need to learn at a faster pace, a lot of organisations have embraced “shared learning” and have espoused many initiatives like brown-bag lunches, sharing sessions, and even mini-hackathons. Whatever form they might come in, I would encourage you to be a part of these and share your knowledge whenever you find a topic of interest. You will not only learn a new topic or technique, but also get to hone your public speaking skills and get some very valuable feedback while doing so. Company lunches could be a safe space to get started and build your confidence along the way.
Coach Your Team and Organisation
Transformation efforts typically require a cultural and mindset shift across the organisation. In my experience, it could be a very engaging experience to help an organisation through such a change. Technical coaches are needed to help tech teams improve the quality of products they are working on. If you would eventually like to have a bigger impact through coaching teams, I would urge you to start doing this within your team and eventually move on to your whole organisation.
Take Charge, It’s Your Career
In conclusion, I would suggest being conscious of your strengths, mastering a key area, developing experience in other areas, and continually learning. With the help of your mentor, drive your career forward and if at times that means having a hard conversation with someone, have it sooner rather than later. I hope that self-awareness gives you the confidence you need and this post serves as a blueprint for success in your career. Most importantly, remember that you are the author of your own story.