Saturday, December 17, 2005

Flash Forward...

A question I get a lot goes something like this:

What <technology/language/feature> should I learn in order to be best positioned for the future in order to increase my marketability in the future?

There are variations on this, like “should I be a DBA or Developer”, “is management a good career path”, “is management the only career path” (somehow intimating that all paths are just hobbies).

I just answered this one (again) on asktom and basically said it boils down to “soft” skills like common sense, communication skills, excitement about learning new things and so on. In short, a particular language or technology? No, there are none that will assure you of increased marketability in the future. A good track record – with the ability to think, be creative, be flexible, utilize your common sense – that can.

Then, later in the week, Kathy Sierra posted this… It says almost the same thing – using slightly different words of course (and a picture, always a neat graphic). Very nice.

I agree very much with her sentiment expressed there:

"How many of us over 30 are working in the same field that looked attractive to us (or our parents) when we were 14? I'd encourage anything that requires thinking, creativity, and focus."

If someone would have told me what I’d be doing at age 40 when I was 20 – I would have laughed at them, or at least not understood the words coming out of their mouth since bits of what I do would not have been comprehendible in 1985. To tell me I would spend some amount of time talking to a room full of people – sometimes with an audience numbering into four digits. To tell me I would be writing so much. Well, I couldn’t envision it back then (heck, I hadn’t really even touched a computer back then, I had no clue what I was going to do).

None of my career has been “goal oriented” so far. I never had a plan, I don’t even know how you would have a plan to do what I do now. I certainly never chose a technology or language as a means to ensure my marketability in the future. I did however jump at the chance to try new stuff – to move around, to never do the same thing year after year after year. I volunteer for those opportunities, still do. There have been what I thought were dead ends I got into – that turned out to be some of the best things to have happened to me.

So, my advice, be flexible, try new things, see what you like to do and what you are good at doing and constantly “refine” what you do over time. If you are in an environment where that is not possible – look for one that makes it possible. I’ve volunteered for projects that were far away from where I lived because they looked interesting, I’ve left a job because it became such a drag that I couldn’t envision staying there for another day. Change is good, even when it is bad.

Nothing wrong with having your hobby as your job either…


Blogger Rachel said....

At age 14, I wanted to be a teacher. At age 17, a programmer -- but only because I knew that there wouldn't be many teaching jobs when I got out of college and I had had one programming class in high school and it had been fun.

At age 38, I became a DBA. And at age 52, left all that and an back in school for something totally non-technical.

If you had told me at age 14 I'd be planning on working with animals, with sick animals in particular, I'd have laughed in your face.

The mentality of sticking to one job from high school to retirement is gone. Job tenure is not guaranteed anymore, in fact it's almost as if companies expect you to plan on not working there for a long period.

But skills are transferable. Being able to think creatively works whether you are a programmer, a teacher, a sales person... just about any field. Being able to think and react to situations as they arise is always transferable.

I had a teacher in college who told us that we should all get English degrees because "with a degree in English you can do anything". Not sure I would go that far, but I know I'll be telling my nephew to work at something he enjoys, and when he no longer enjoys it, try something else. I'd hate to have him afraid to try something new because it's "not marketable"

Sat Dec 17, 01:17:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

"None of my career has been “goal oriented” so far. I never had a plan, I don’t even know how you would have a plan to do what I do now"

Which is why I can't stand interview questions like: "What do you want to be in 10 years?"

Sat Dec 17, 02:01:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Have you read a book called the 'Pragmatic Programmer'? The authors have been programming for 30 years. They state that programmers should work on skills that make them more efficient. The more work you can get done, the more value you have. They argue you should learn a new programming language every year.

Its very good. I recommend it to everyone.

Also, I think people underestimate the usefulness of learning fundamentals. I think taking basic Computer Science courses at a junior college is more useful than taking a class at Oracle that focuses on a new feature. You can learn the new feature from the documentation. The core fundamentals you will get out of computer science classes will make it easier for you to learn those new features and to learn new programming languages.

I like how you noted in asktom about code junkies. Nothing is more annoying than the people who are so religiously tied to their one technology that you cannot have a conversation with them. The one technology they know is the be all and end all to everything. They refuse to learn anything about anything else.

Sat Dec 17, 02:13:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Paul said....

Well, you didn't really ask for it, but here's my 2c worth. I work in an IT unit which has no technical skills in any of the management positions and in which the restructure has no DBAs. (They're going SAP). I've spent the last 3 years self skilling in Oracle (thanks to AskTom and Tom's books) and now my only 'opportunity' appears to be self skilling again in SQL Server (sorry about that) so that I can work for a non IT section. What I need now is Tom's equivalent on MS Server. Help!
So the point is ... Just a bit of a rant really. I suppose I need to follow Tom's advice and get out and do something different.

Sat Dec 17, 03:46:00 PM EST  

Blogger DaPi said....

You can measure where you are by your answer to "What do you do for a living?"

Mine is something to the effect that I solve problems, usually with computers as my tools.

(verification: xpnyo => XP NO! I've been having probs - put it this way, I now know the 25 char product key by heart.)

Sat Dec 17, 06:05:00 PM EST  

Anonymous LC said....

Nothing wrong with having your hobby as your job either…

Personally, I would be very wary of this statement.

At one stage (about 12 years ago) I was in the position where my hobby turned into a real job. It was OK for a year or two but as the job got more and more intense, I found myself getting more and more stressed, and because my main hobby was now my job, I had little opportunity for 'switching off'. It got the the stage where my doctor was prescribing anti-depressants to ward off a nervous breakdown, so I finally made a change of career.

That is how I got into IT :)

Sun Dec 18, 05:06:00 AM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Personally, I would be very wary of this statement.

Guess what I was trying to say is that you can do what you like, like what you do.

You do not need to go down "some predestined path" to achieve career goals - if those goals don't actually make you want to come to work. I've known people that hated managing, utterly despised doing it, but did it anyway becase "that is the career path".

To say they did not make the best mangers would be an understatement.

Sun Dec 18, 08:46:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

What I need now is Tom's equivalent on MS Server. Help!

For MS SQL Server you could do worse than

There isn't a "Tom" as such, but it does have a similar Q & A forum in which most of the questions you're going to be asking have been asked and answered already.

Sun Dec 18, 09:42:00 AM EST  

Blogger Alberto Dell'Era said....

Ok, but do you share my perception that in most companies, it is considered "obvious" that

value( best(technician) ) < value( average(manager) )

"value" in a broad sense, not just "salary" (but including it too).

Ie: the choice of "career goals" is limited, if you dislike managing.

Sun Dec 18, 09:46:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Chi said....

I thought I was alone in this type of thinking that languages are just tools for what you really want to do: create a solution for a problem.

As a recent consultant, I've run into many people who lack the fundamental programming skills that could help them understand how to best solve problems. They stick to a technology and claim it as their specialty, but without the fundamentals, even doing tasks related to their specialty, they fall far short in product quality.

Has anyone worked in an organization that has a good career path model that includes technical expertise? I'm at a company where Alberto's formula definitely applies. I understand the importance of good managers, and they may be even more important than good technicians, however, average managers (or below average) can bring down a project so easily even if they are given great technical resources.

Thanks for listening to my rant.


Sun Dec 18, 04:46:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

You do not need to go down "some predestined path" to achieve career goals - if those goals don't actually make you want to come to work. I've known people that hated managing, utterly despised doing it, but did it anyway becase "that is the career path".

Well said Tom. In traditional India when I was growing up they asked us a question when I was in high school: "Do you want to be a doctor or an engineer?" Those two were the highest paid professions there back then. Obviously the parents and the relatives had the welfare of the children in their mind. So the career path got pre determined at that point. Many private engineering institutions even without basic facilities were started in some parts of the country. People tried to get admission to engineering/medical colleges by any means. A degree from there is considered a visa to a prosperous future.

It seems to me the career path in West is determined by seeing if the person has a degree from top school, an MBA, big company consulting experience. There seemed to be lots of demand to get an MBA here at one point.
A degree from a Top school or experience from a big company seems like a ticket to ever lasting offers from employers. Somewhere along the way, measure of the ability to do the job was lost.

I cant help but compare things.

Mon Dec 19, 12:13:00 AM EST  

Blogger Bill S. said....

Thomas Kyte said.....
You do not need to go down "some predestined path" to achieve career goals - if those goals don't actually make you want to come to work. I've known people that hated managing, utterly despised doing it, but did it anyway becase "that is the career path".

Yup. I took a job (must be about 12 years ago) as a "supervisor" (really just a lowest-level manager without the word "manager" in the title) where I had complete authority (hire, fire, re-arrange). I managed a small staff (just 5 people) but I learned in 2 years time that I hated being in the "Dude, you're fired" seat. Never looked back. :-D

Mon Dec 19, 08:43:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Patty C said....

What a timely blog topic! I just had my year-end performance review with my manager and he told me that I am 'exceeding expectations' because I am so passionate about my job. He said that he can see it in everything that I do that I love what I do for a living. I never expected a review like this. I thought I just has a mediocre year, no major upgrades, no big performance improvements.

I enjoyed every day this year and was happy to have the time to improve my own Oracle skills and to spend more time learning new things.

Now I realize that I don't have to complete some big task or project to perform well in management's eyes. I just have to be happy with what I am doing everyday and continue to be passionate about it and people WILL notice!

Mon Dec 19, 01:56:00 PM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Patty --

I notice two kinds of people...

Those that hate what they do (they bring everyone down with them). They get noticed for all of the wrong reasons.

Those that truly seem to enjoy what they do - they are the ones everyone else wants to naturally work with. They get noticed for the right reasons.

Mon Dec 19, 02:06:00 PM EST  

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