I have always been a self-learning. It is something I have done as far back as I can remember. My parents gave our family a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer when I was 12. My family wasn’t well off, in fact we had very little back then. I spent time in the local computer store looking at games and wondering how I could ever afford to buy one to play. It simply was not an option, so I decided to buy a copy of Sinclair User magazine instead and began the journey of learning to write code by typing source code from the magazine. Over time I developed a skill that would lead to a career I enjoy to this day.
Working in the Information Technology world means nothing stays the same for long. There is always something new to learn, a new skill to develop, or something to explore. Over time you will have to make choices, new opportunities will present themselves and there will be unexpected bumps.
What are you doing to put yourself in the box seat when a good opportunity presents itself? What does the next role you aspire to have require in terms of skills and experience? Where is technology heading and what interests you? Do some research, talk to people who have walked the path before you and most importantly plan, and set a timeline. That does not mean you will be a Senior Engineer, Solutions Architect, Consultant, Business Owner or whatever your goal is by February next year. It does mean that by February next year, you will be ready if the opportunity presents itself.
What do you do to invest in your own future? Throughout my career I have met two types of learners in the workplace. Those who only do professional development paid for by the employer and those who self-develop. Self-developers do two things the first group do not. They invest a part of their own time in learning, often building on the things they have done at work. They also tend to incrementally advance their career slightly faster. It is a bit like compounding interest, a small amount done consistently over a long time eventually outpaces those who do short sharp bursts of professional development.
In my experience, self-learners tend to be in a better place when opportunities arise. Their mindset often means they will be more open to change and new challenges, are less likely to get stuck on an old technology and more prepared to make a change of direction to where the new opportunities come along.
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Let me tell you a personal story about opportunity and being prepared. Back in 2005 I decided to leave a great job I had been in for just over 10 years. I loved the job; the people and the employer were great. Deep down I felt that if I continued doing this wonderful job I would stagnate at some point and the challenge would be gone. I resigned and moved to cities to somewhere that had more opportunities. Once I had settled in, I started applying for interesting roles and found something that really spun my wheels. Side note, this role eventually introduced me into the SharePoint world.
I knuckled down and worked hard and once I got over the initially 6-month hump, I started to find my feet. My boss suggested I needed to study and become a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), so I studied and passed the exam. Instead of watching TV or hanging out in bars, I setup a lab and try things out and studied every day. I passed another exam. In just over 6 months, I passed all 7 exams needed to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), something that my workmates would do in 2-3 years. My performance appraisals were good, and I was given opportunities to work on more complex jobs, became a senior member of our team and Team Leader three years after starting.
This role gave me the opportunity to work with our sales team and software team. This is where a whole new set of learning began. You see, all the stuff in the previous paragraph was technical skills and opportunities, but this opened my eyes to other things. How do present a business case to a client, how to create a quote, how to work on more complex multi-discipline projects, how to tell the boss that things weren’t going exactly to plan and how we were going to dig ourselves out, etc! I developed my soft skills, mentoring junior members of the team, communication with clients and, presenting to groups.
In my own time, I started blogging and reading about projects done by our competition and worked on my public speaking skills. Trying to find new things to learn, that my workmates did not consider as important as I did but would have benefits to my future self.
Big opportunities are a rare thing, they only occur at a very small point in time and if you are not prepared, you will miss out. In my case, the company I worked for collapsed, going into liquidation and I had to make a choice. Go work for someone else, or leap into the world of business. I asked myself “do you have the skills”? Being an optimist, I thought I knew about 80% of what I needed and the other 20% could be learnt or hired. The most important thing I had was an understanding of sales processes, marketing, and pricing. That knowledge gave me confidence but deep in the back of my mind, I knew that if I failed, I could find another opportunity.
It is also important to be aware of when you are not prepared. Perfection is not what I mean here, if you are a 100% fit for something you might have less room to grow. On the other hand, if you are only 50% ready, the gap might be too big to jump across. Make sure you have a plan to close the gap, so when asked you are prepared with a good answer!
We are living in turbulent times and many of us are filled with uncertainty about our futures. We have a couple of choices we can make, hold on and hope for the best or prepare ourselves for something that we might not see coming. Being prepared gives us options. Whether it is looking for the next gig or having the opportunity to get involved in a project that excites you, investing in yourself will help.
What is it you can do, for yourself to get the ‘compounding interest’ effect in your career? What can you do to be more resilient if a bump in the road occurs? What’s your next step?