All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
―William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene VII
Here’s a true story. When I was a computer networking instructor in the 1990s, the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) seven-layer reference model was to be found somewhere in every course I taught. Although it may not be possible to include it in this book, I hope that Shakespeare’s seven ages is an apt substitute for a book about the stages of career change.
Looking back on an IT career that began in 1986 with an ‘escape’ from teaching science and mathematics, and ended in 2007 with a bolt toward solopreneurship, the bard’s words still echo an uncomfortable truth about our mortal existence on this Earth. Nothing lasts forever.
This book is a response to what I learned about career change and coaching in those years. There are self-coaching exercises in almost every chapter. Many of them will raise questions about career change without easy answers. In my experience, any book, course or guru telling you of some magical career unicorn’s existence is probably selling snake oil. Caveat emptor!
Have you read the disclaimer at the front of this book? I encourage you to do so because whatever knowledge and tips may be found in these pages are there because they worked for me, most of the time. They also worked for some of my IT coaching clients. However, I cannot be sure that they will work for anyone else. In other words, choose what makes sense to you and where possible, attempt to ‘follow a proven plan.’ The idea of selecting and following a plan is one of the self-coaching rules that make up the ‘just five rules’ model. Although I think that this model has worked well over the years, please remember that sometimes rules are made to be broken now and again.
Whenever career change is mentioned, many people have in mind a bold new start e.g. from programmer to organic farmer, or from IT risk officer to social worker. Examples of swapping the familiar IT job world for something new appear in success stories and testimonials to be found online and in books. Alas, if only it was all so simple. Then, anyone could change careers, do what they love, and get well paid for it. But time, talent and opportunity are not easily tamed and this trio will often demand and then exact a cost that few are willing or able to pay. What I’m trying to say here is, don’t be taken in by all those wonderful success stories. Yes, such things are possible but each career change is unique to the person involved. There is no guarantee that you or I can emulate another’s results.
In contrast to the effort and risk associated with changing careers, a transition within IT can turn out to be a better bet. Transition is a calculated gamble on how a person’s accumulated experience and expertise can be leveraged to create a new start within the IT career space. This space can include (but is not confined to) an ever-evolving group of innovative and growing tech sectors, such as big data, cloud services and mobile internet.
If you have been thinking of changing careers but find even the idea to be daunting then consider focusing your attention on a possible transition within IT, and perhaps also within your current employer. I’ve found that many forward-looking managers will embrace a valued employee’s willingness to be flexible over career development. From their perspective, it’s often better to agree a transition within the organization than to lose staff in whom they’ve already made an investment in time and money, and also incur the risks and ramp-up costs of a new hire. This assumes that a suitable candidate is available when needed.
But what if you can’t stand any combination of your job, your manager, or your present company? Well, take a deep breath and begin with the perspective that a theoretical transition within your company’s IT career space might be a possibility, however remote or distasteful the thought appears to be. The following exercise offers a way forward.
Exercise 1: The Visible EM Spectrum
Here is a self-coaching exercise designed to help clarify a career change or transition journey. Do this in a quiet, safe place where you will not be disturbed for about ten to fifteen minutes. Eyes wide open or shut? It doesn’t seem to matter. Just go with what makes you feel relaxed and in a kind of daydreaming mood.
Can you imagine career change possibilities as if they were represented by parts of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum? Focus first on the familiar visible light region that contains all the colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Realize that although these seven colors are confined to a very narrow band of the entire EM spectrum, they show us the richness and beauty of our visible reality.
Now pretend that your present IT role is represented by one of these seven colors. Which one is it? See it, sense it, and even draw it.
The exercise is a prelude to allowing your inner and outer vision to include moving from one color to another. (Here, I define your inner vision to be what the mind’s eye can sense when you think of a color. Your outer vision is what you ‘see’ when you look at a specific color.)
For example, an IT PC support specialist looking to move into an application developer role might see that as a shift from red to green. Someone else might peg it as sliding from red into nearby orange. The available color choices are enormous because making up these seven main ones are millions of detectable gradations between the red and violet ends of the spectrum. And even within a specific color, there are numerous shades.
Next, become aware of any transition possibilities that are within reach of your current experience and capabilities. Many of these may not be realistic options because of individual circumstances. Nonetheless, continue to imagine what form a transition might take for you. There will be time to worry about the ‘how to’ later on in the self-coaching process.
Some permutations of this exercise that my former clients and I experimented with include:
- What if a color represents a location you’d like to work in?
- What if a color represents a company you’d like to work for?
- What if a color represents a technology you’d like to work with?
Unexpected career transition options can also be obtained by combining your desirable location, company and technology choices to create new colors.
Starting with the visible light spectrum as a reference band in which to think may encourage you to go deeper into those areas of your present career and life experiences that appear to be mundane and nondescript. Don’t be surprised if aspects of your current role that once remained in the shadows now begin to take on more form and function. Why is this? I think it’s in part because we often forget our accomplishments and overemphasize our mistakes and self-doubts. These then become self-limiting but hidden beliefs, pushing successes out of sight and out of mind. This exercise therefore acts as a torch of self-awareness.
Exercise 2: The Invisible EM Spectrum
And what of that vast expanse of EM spectrum we humans are not aware of? Beyond the visible red are infrared, microwaves, TV and radio waves. And beyond the violet are ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays. Each of them is invisible to us but detectable.
It’s time to think big or go home.
In this exercise the invisible components of the EM spectrum represent whatever non-IT career paths or job roles you can begin to conceive of. If you’re using pen and paper, write everything down as it comes to you. If you’ve gone digital, add them to the mind map, word processing document or software application of your choice.
The important thing is to open the pathway and begin gathering data. This is a time to extend your thinking beyond the visible red and into the invisible infrared. Although we cannot see infrared, we do sense it as heat. Perhaps the career you are seeking is just out of sight. It might be geographically close. It might make use of your IT skills or a subset of the soft skills you have developed, such as project management. Something about this career choice might feel warm and be worth investigating further.
Now do the same thing for what exists beyond the violet. Compared to infrared, where warming of the skin is sensed almost instantly, exposure to ultraviolet rays from the Sun that reach the Earth’s surface are not. The tan or the burn or the wrinkled, damaged skin surfaces only later. There is some degree of risk in exposure to ultraviolet beyond the short time necessary for the body to generate vitamin D. But there’s danger too – a danger that can manifest in real life, in the unpleasant form of skin cancers.
Assume that ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays represent career choices that you associate with an increased risk of failure and disappointment. Some will appear that way as soon as you think of them. Others will slot in here later, especially after you review your options for change and transition.
Each time you do this exercise record the thoughts, feelings and images that arise.
The Power of Mind Maps
Many years ago, I found mind mapping to be a helpful tool in exploring my students’ understanding of a scientific concept. At first, I used a blackboard and chalk – and what a dusty mess that was! Then I tried paper and colored pencils because it was fun to discover links between the mechanical motions of drawing on paper and the mental activities that gave rise to idea association. I now use the open source mind mapping program, Freeplane. Paper is still great for doodling simple maps, but I like software because of the ability to quickly update a map.
I encourage you to name and date your maps as a statement of intent and ownership. Use a pen name if privacy or discretion is an issue.
If You Have Difficulty in Seeing Colors
There are other ways to do this exercise. One way is to use the sense of hearing from low to high pitch. The normal audible frequency range for human hearing then represents the baseline for IT career roles and possibilities. Above and below this range are where unexpected career paths and opportunities await. Your goal is to imagine hearing those resonant frequencies and harmonics that intrigue you enough to explore them further.
And if metaphors of sight or sound do not work well for you, here are some alternatives that my clients have experimented with:
- Make a list of all roles and career paths you have even the slightest interest in.
- Record yourself talking through this exercise and try to also move around at the same time. The idea is to distract the conscious mind with a number of important tasks, such as standing up and not falling down. If it is safe to do so, you could go for a walk and record what you are thinking about, or wait until you return and then write down your thoughts in privacy.
The Manager Who Walked His Talk
In 1999, I was laid off from an electronic components manufacturing company in Japan. My role there had been an interesting mix of technical know-how and consulting – regional in scope, but with a focus on advising in-country IT teams tasked with upgrading their voice and data infrastructures to meet various corporate and national standards.
The company had offices and factories throughout the Asia-Pacific region. To an outsider, the idea of traveling for business in Asia might sound glamorous. I guess it was, but only because I also got used to hanging around crowded airports, living out of a suitcase, and visiting manufacturing sites located in rural locations.
For just over two, all too brief years, I felt both inspired and at peace in doing a job that I was good at. I was based in my country of choice (Japan), and offsetting a long commuter grind with an eclectic mix of international business trips. Yes, I suppose it was a form of ‘IT career nirvana.’ The happiness in this role arose because it was also in alignment with an idea I trusted in but only wrote down some years later. That idea became the baseline version of my personal vision statement:
“Move to Japan, build a career, start a family.”
Vision statements can be a source of great inspiration and direction, and the process of creating them will feature elsewhere in this book.
I write here about ‘blissful work’ partly because it was just too good to last. Things are always changing in IT. The external and internal business forces that act on organizations are so dynamic and complex in their interrelationships, that it can be a challenge just to run ‘keep the lights on’ IT. For example, the digital communications revolution, turbocharged by the emergence of the Internet in the late 1990s, has both compounded and fractured these forces. Their ongoing impact on IT career paths would require another book in itself.
Fortunately, just prior to this time of upheaval I received a refresher course from my manager at the time in the benefits of being prepared for unexpected events. Let’s call this person, Jay (not his real name). In Jay’s team meetings there was often an opening agenda item about personal growth in the context of career development. This was his way of introducing us to a form of mentoring that benefited both employees and teams. (We also participated in formal six-monthly written appraisals driven by the Human Resources (HR) department.) I remember Jay’s regular team meetings with some affection mainly because of the genuine opportunities to air our job-related frustrations and issues in a safe space.
Good managers are like good teachers in that there is always something unique about their style that stays with you many years later. For example, Jay’s ‘signal’ that we were in the ‘get it off your chest’ part of the meeting was when he placed a small diecast model car on the middle of the conference table. From that instant, any grievances and complaints that each person wanted to share were described and discussed in what we came to know as our ‘bitch, moan and whine’ moments. And they were moments. No hogging the whole meeting with doom and gloom. It was a respectful way to acknowledge people and the job-related issues they wanted to share, without fear of blame or ridicule.
Jay would make a few notes and close out this agenda item with an action (quite often, for him) to follow up on before the next meeting. The outcome of this follow up would occasionally put the onus back on the person to make a change. He was not a manager who tolerated people transferring their perceived burdens onto his already busy schedule unless it was warranted. We soon learned not to bring him trivial items that would only rebound on us.
Jay’s support of his team’s personal growth was a management style that made a profound and positive impression on me. But that wasn’t the end of it. About once a month, this manager chose to share nuggets of wisdom concerning careers, management and life in general from selected books on his reading list. I don’t recall all of the titles now but one in particular lodged in my memory and has refused to leave. That was Stephen Covey’s, ‘The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People.’
There was no requirement to buy any of these books, nor did the company expense any of us who did. Over the years I’ve found that effective mentoring leads a mentee to make their own choices about things like buying recommended books and signing up for classes. I did purchase my own copy and read it several times. Although Jay was not trying to convert us with these short updates on what he’d learned, I think his intentions were to encourage, by example, an interest in personal and business development.
Anyhow, my career path continued smoothly until early 1999 when a smorgasbord of potential computer problems (also known as the Year 2000 problem, or the Y2K Millennium bug) became the subject of uninformed hysteria from talking heads in the mass media. Many companies, mine included, had already finished most of their important remediation efforts and had moved on to building command centers and planning who would do what on New Year’s Eve.
Here is where fate lent a hand. Not only was the Y2K mania underway and driving significant capital spending on infrastructure upgrades, but both the Dow Industrials and the tech-heavy Nasdaq stock indices were nearing the top of an epic bull market. Mergers and highly leveraged takeovers contributed to this bubbling froth of speculation and the making of a quick buck.
The effect on tech guys like me tucked far away in the land of the rising sun? At first; not much. It was early 1999 and we’d known for a while that our venerable manufacturing company was probably going to be the subject of a hostile takeover. And that’s just about what happened. It didn’t take long. Perhaps less than a year from the appearance of some fresh-faced young consultants with their clipboards and questionnaires, to HR drawing up severance arrangements and the new owners sweeping out much of the incumbent senior management. Whether this ‘takeover’ was good or bad is a mute point now because it depends on whom you talk to. Stockholders? Employees? Executives? Customers? The banks?
It was fascinating to observe how IT staff responded to board-initiated efforts to reduce running costs that, because of muddled communication efforts down the chain of management, resembled an unfathomable mixture of paranoia and intelligent decision-making. For example, while visiting a location in Asia that was a computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) center of excellence, I found it odd that most of the engineers put their heads down on their desks around noon. My colleague, who was showing me around, explained that the napping began only after the company mandated that all lights be turned off at lunchtime. What a shame that in an effort to shave cents off running costs and impress those young guns with the clipboards – who were also popping up at the same locations around the Asia-Pacific region – they were losing uncounted dollars in productivity. Flushing employee morale down the drain does not a good business make. Perhaps readers can see where I am going with this anecdote if it’s posed as a rhetorical question:
What happens to companies that regard their employees as being little more than disposable and replaceable resources?
Exercise 3: Make This Book Reading Quiz a Habit
This exercise will make you think twice about buying self-help books only to never finish reading them.
Have you read ‘The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People’? If so, how many of the habits can you write down from memory? Much respect if you can list more than five.
Pick a favorite personal development book of your own. Summarize the book’s key messages in a paragraph.
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