The broken ladder: more choices in your career than you thought

Fresh out of university, starting my career as a developer in couple of small start-ups and being rather geeky in nature I never really thought too much about “a career”. The one thing I had set was to be a manager by the time I get 40. Don’t ask me why I set this goal or why this particular age, it probably just felt right at the time. The fate wanted otherwise. I ended up very quickly as a team lead in global corporation I started reevaluating what the goal of my professional life really is and putting together a plan of a career as a manager.

The Manager

Typically if you go the management path in a big company you would work your way up on the corporate ladder, becoming a team lead, manager, director, VP, essentially focusing on one particular domain or product line. In my case being a software developer in telecommunication industry I could set my goal to become head of a product line or director of a particular business unit that develops and sells to mobile network operators. However, this just wasn’t particularly appealing to me. It looked nice on the surface but deep down felt pretty boring.

When you have “I want to be a manager” attitude towards your career you are motivated by position within the hierarchy, fancy title or the “feeling of power”. I’m saying “feeling” as being the boss still doesn’t mean that you actually have any power or that you are seen as a leader. For people in this category successful career means reaching a specific title. To be completely clear, there is nothing wrong with that and you will be happy when you achieve that goal. However, for some people there are other things more important to them than a fancy title.

So what are the options? Well there are different ways how to “have a career”. It is not just about getting to be a Director or VP, you have a broad variety of options and you should search deep in your heart on what is the right professional goal for you, what is the thing that will make you happy. As you go through different phases of your life you may actually even change your career goal couple of times.

The Guru

For many people, especially in the technology it is not about managing people or getting to the position of power, but it is about being the best in the particular technical domain. The satisfaction you derive from the feeling of being the go-to guy who gets consulted on various aspects related to a particular technology is a very powerful motivator and can make you very happy at your job. You know deep inside that you can solve more and more complicated and challenging problems and it feels really good. I still remember the days of me being a software developer. It felt great to write a complex algorithm, to solve a difficult technical problem, to be seen as the expert in my domain. In this type of career you never stop learning and the goal is actually an ever moving target, but that is what makes it fun.

The Experiencer

You might also belong to a group of people who just love experiencing new things, learning new skills, meeting new people without the bound of a particular domain or organization. The goal of your career is not the specific position or being the best at one particular thing. You could say that there is no goal or rather the goal is to gather new experiences along the way. You might be a software developer for couple of years and then realize that you would really love to spend more time with customers who actually use the product so you move to technical support team. You focus on building skills you might have missed so far as a developer.

After some time you build new expertise in dealing with customers, communicating, most likely you learn to be rather patient. You become a really good support representative and you could build your career climbing the ladder of support organization, but rather than that you say to yourself: I’m essentially talking to customers and listening to their complaints when the product is already delivered, wouldn’t it be interesting to get at the beginning of the cycle? And your next career step moves you to product management. Now you talk to the customers about their needs before the single line of code is written and again you build a whole new set of skills starting with market and competition analysis and ending with getting your company to back up your idea and build the product.

The Manager and The Guru are rather natural ways how to look at career and if you ever got a talk with your boss about your career options I’m pretty sure that these two were discussed. The third option is not that obvious, and in fact, many people wouldn’t even consider it a career. You are essentially jumping between different roles. For someone who loves change, The Experiencer is the best option there is. Though keep in mind that there should be some logic behind the individual moves and the roles should be connected and complementary to each other otherwise it will look just too erratic. You are being constantly challenged, frequently experiencing “back to school” feeling, you find yourself frequently outside of your comfort zone, you have to constantly adapt, you get a broad range of skills, experiences, you meet tons of interesting people with varied background, you build strategic relationships, you are very often the person who brings to the organization new points of view and you will always be a bit different. You will stand out in the crowd and be a leader. And at the end of the day, who is better suited to lead an organization than someone who actually experienced working in several different groups or departments and has a decent understanding of how the business works.

What do you see behind the word “career”? How do you feel about your career goals and how do the different options resonate with you? What type of career makes you happy?

Photo: Shutterstock, Inc.

Categories: Career, Leadership

Tags: , , ,

1 reply


  1. You’ve got the right guy… in the wrong job | The Geeky Leader

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