Posts tagged career

Jul 23, 2009

Security of dreams

career dreams work life | comments

Dreaming Girls Head
Photo by Elfleda

As a child I carried with me a host of dreams. My dreams ranged from the fantastical to the remotely possible. While I was quite pleased with my childhood, these dreams kept me at least intrigued that the future could somehow be even better. Early on I realized human teleportation was not something I would likely see. But perhaps with a successful career I could become rich enough to build the mazed tree house I seemed to see every time I closed my eyes.

These childhood dreams were never goals to be reached. Yet they did contribute to the hopefulness that makes me human. Everyone needs a measure of hope for the future in order to maintain sanity in the slightly-less-amazing present. It is a necessary aspect of being human to convince oneself that even though now is pretty good, or perhaps very bad, there is a point in the future where life will be better.

Dreams are an excellent container for hope. Even as an adult, one can maintain a set of theoretically possible, but rather unlikely dreams. For some, these dreams drive them to greater and greater success throughout their careers, whether or not they reach the ultimate goal of the vision. For the vast majority of us, these dreams are used to forgo ever starting down that road toward the infeasible goal. Our adult minds convince us that the ultimate dream is unattainable and keep us from ever analyzing whether the stops along the road are in themselves destinations that are preferable to our current location.

My eyes were opening a few years ago, as I realized not only was my list of attainable goals blank, but my cache of dreams sat empty. Shortly after this recognition, the “dream bag” was filled with multiplicities of Idea > ??? > Profit. I started talking to other colleagues and their store of career fantasies began growing. Soon these colleagues and I thought a lot about dreams while doing very little to make them a reality. We talked about the Idea and the Profit, but never did anything about the ???. We had a shared dream and we were stuck in it.

Our group eventually chose to release itself from the dream’s grip. The dream never left us, but our rational adult minds told us the dream was a delusion; we’d have to give up too much to make it even possible. The dream continued to provide hope, but created no positive change.

This path was not for me. Instead of using the extreme nature of a dream to dismiss the journey to the dream, I began investigating some of the stops along the road. I realized that these practical stopping points, and indeed the journey itself, was greatly preferable to the space I already occupied.

I still fantasize about a future with unbridled travel and labyrinths in the backyard woods. These dreams do not numb me to the wonderful futures I can conjure and achieve. Let dreams enhance your journey through life.

Jun 30, 2009

Security of ignorance

career corporate world passion | comments

Ignorance is Bliss Road
Photo by parl

In college, I would add bells and whistles to my coding assignments. As any computer science degree-holder knows, most college projects are not incredibly applicable to the Real World (tm). But I like to think I was adding features to make the software work as a user expected it to work. I was learning unassigned lessons about user interface. I think the word for this is “passion” - I really loved programming during college.

Shortly after entering the corporate world, I quit my experimentation. There was no encouragement from within; no extra time offered for experimentation and growth. There was little tolerance for false starts and giving things a try. Strict up front planning was rampant. Annual education allotments were 24 hours, but I learned that gaming the system was preferred. Education options provided were a mix of Microsoft Word for Business, pursuing insurance and financial services designations, and a little morsel of technical stuff thrown in. All technical options were job-applicable to a fault. Again, experimentation was discouraged and deemed of very low value.

This is not to say I was forced into my ambivalence. New to the world of employment, I was easily swayed from the path I was on. Somehow I forgot what I loved about programming in order to “learn the ropes.” It was my responsibility to remain engaged in my career, and I failed for a long time to own up to that responsibility.

Over time I no longer even knew what technologies I could explore if I wanted to explore. Programming became a job in the sense that collecting money at a parking ramp or pounding nails is a job. I would leave work at work, which is something I encourage. But eventually I found leaving the tools for work at work was leading to a hole in my career. Something I was formerly so passionate about was becoming a negative, job-is-a-job part of my life.

Programming is a field where passion translates to practice and practice translates into success. One passionate at building eventually needs to stop pounding nails in order to progress in his career. In programming, you can have a very rewarding, and growing, career while writing code the whole time. In that sense, programming is more analogous to artistic and sports fields. It has been theorized that it takes 10 years just to get started in programming. The easy choice is to save tech learning for work hours. It’s an unfortunate decision because if one’s job does not provide enough time for practice, one misses the opportunity for success and fulfillment.

I entered this field precisely because of the changes inherent in the industry, an industry that grows and evolves somehow faster than I ever could. The rewarding choice was to embrace constant learning and position myself to benefit from it.

Mar 23, 2009

Security of loyalty

career corporate world loyalty | comments

Ethics and Morals: Timeless and Universal?
Photo by maistora

Loyalty is a tricky word. While it can mean intellectually binding oneself to a course of action, I believe it is most typically used in its emotional context. Loyalty implies a faith or devotion to a cause. I believe loyalty is one of the most dangerous impediments to a successful and rewarding career.

Consider loyalty to a corporation. Feeling loyal to your place of work sounds like a wonderful state of being. The idea only becomes absurd when restating as having faith in an individual corporation. Faith is a serious thing and it should be applied only after thoughtful consideration. A company hiring you or providing cursory training should in no way require you to tie your wagon to them for the distant future. Their decisions were not emotional, but rather calculated and intentional.

Successful relationships with companies are built on a foundation of trust and respect. If a company treats you with trust and respect, it’s pretty easy to get along with them, giving them trust and respect in return. You may have disagreements, but when trust and respect are involved it is much easier to be objective about such things. If a company refuses to treat you with trust and respect, but rather depends on instilling a sense of loyalty in you, well, your internal alarms should go off.

As a young employee, I experienced a corporate culture whose goal was to tie my job situation as their employee to my career. Early on, meetings with my supervisor discussed my future goals. Would I like to be a team lead, project manager or supervisor? These are long-term goals equated with long-term employment.

Likewise the career advisors at college pushed the job-as-a-career ideal. Professors had little opinion, since most spent little time in the private sector. “Career counselors” had plenty to say about which companies were good. Generally this meant if a company consistently hired students from the school and participated in campus outreach, the company was good. Little consideration was given to whether a company could help me reach my career goals. I have since learned that it is very important to understand one’s personal career goals as early in the game as possible.

My job was something my employer cared greatly about. Their goal was to keep me slightly more motivated than disgruntled. The corporate phrase for this process is “career management.” Career management is the process of selling you on the idea that your job with the company is your career. I believe this is most prevalent at companies who hire heavily from the pool of new college graduates.

Unfortunately for the employees of the world, “career management” is not particularly beneficial to their careers. A career is something only the employee, and those who depend on her, truly care about. While some employers may have altruistic motives, most corporations have very little flexibility to align individual employee’s career goals with their career management track.

It is difficult for a young person to understand the difference between taking responsibility for his career and investing himself in corporate career management. To the employee it appears the company has invested countless hours trying to progress his career. The employee feels it would be unethical to ignore this contribution to his betterment. He owes it to the company to stick around for n years and put in his time. It is the comfortable choice.

Divorce yourself from the fallacy of equating corporate and personal career management. A career is the individual’s responsibility alone. If it is heading in the wrong direction, only the individual can redirect his career. If you are not being appropriately challenged in a job, it is time to look elsewhere.

Sep 25, 2008

Security of group health insurance

career corporate world employment health insurance | comments

Billy Mays is pitching health insurance hahahaha!
Photo by Alcoholica

This past winter I approached another hurdle: group health insurance. I had already been working on my own for almost a year. My wife worked twenty hours each week, less for income and more for the group health insurance benefits she received. We had two children, and that health insurance kept us from even discussing reducing my wife’s work commitment.

Then I changed tactics and started looking at health insurance as a strict money problem. Even though this money problem was like a Porsche lease is a money problem, it did help to bring a dollar amount into the decision making process. I drew up budgets that included higher monthly premium payments and the assumption of paying a huge deductible.

The large insurance numbers were very foreign to me. Enter yet another risk-tolerance test. Insuring ourselves meant that our potential to save money was threatened. If we paid all of our deductible, not much would be left over. On the bright side, if my family had a healthy year we’d be able to save more than in past years.

The non-monetary benefits out weighed the cost of insuring ourselves. We each saw our stress levels plummet once my wife began working eight hours per month. The cost of individual health insurance is a very real hurdle. I found the idea of losing group health insurance to be a false road block.

Sep 17, 2008

Security of income

career corporate world employment income generation | comments

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Photo by mohdzarki

My corporate job did not provide an extravagant income. It was probably less than industry average. This was not a realization over time - getting rich was never a reason to take the job in the first place. Budgeting and planning was made easy due to this consistent monthly income. Yet that simple fact was a poor reason to continue in an unhappy situation.

As my job satisfaction diminished, I began plugging scenarios into a spreadsheet, using various hourly rates and annual hours worked. I asked myself what expenses I could cut to make my budget lower profile. At first the resulting numbers concerned me. The largess of my necessary expenses surprised me.

A bit of a depression phase ensued. I wished I had never worked corporately, that I had never become accustom to living with two cars, a house, and piles upon piles of Stuff. I imagined prison walls built out of stacked DVD’s, furniture, and electronics, with framed equity and debt statements as the only decorative flourishes.

Since my responsibilities necessitated a certain level of income generation, the task of leaving corporate life required analysis of my (and my wife’s) risk tolerance and testing of my ability to predict the future. While I carried debt in the form of a mortgage, car payments, and student loans, I found our situation better than bad.

First, I had recently established an emergency fund. This offered me protection in the form of tide-me-over money in case of disaster while my income dipped below the norm. Second, I carried no credit card debt. Zero credit card debt was obviously helpful in that I had zero credit card debt to pay, nor interest to incur. Less obvious is if money ever became tight I basically had pre-approved loans up to my credit limits to keep my family in house and home (and car and diapers and ramen noodles and so on).

I am not recommending a dip in the ice-cold waters of one’s emergency funds as a means to make a corporate departure possible. Nor am I suggesting incurring credit card debt is the way to go. But this bit of buffer, this bit of protection, eased my mind as I considered the possibilities for my career. If the budget does not work, it simply does not work! There is no shame in working on the side to establish oneself in an alternative career. I would probably recommend the moonlighting route as opposed to the route I took.

After taking my risk tolerance temperature, I was at a point where I preferred tightening the purse strings to delaying a career change. To be sure, I needed to secure paid employment at some juncture over the next six months. I calculated the lowest possible amount I could make in the remainder of the year in order to cover my needs. The scenarios I devised were plausible, and even allowed me to develop a pecking order for potential work. At this point I was fairly secure in my abilities to get another corporate job if the “real world” became too difficult.

I was only able to make this jump into the freelance world by taking the time to research my budget, address my risk tolerance, understand the income I truly required, and consider ways to reduce my required income. Once I truly understood all of these factors, leaving the every-two-weeks checks behind was not all that scary. Growing confidence in my abilities did not hurt my comfort level, either.

Here’s where I share my secret, my ace-in-the-hole. I had another safety net. My wife was working a good-paying job with options to increase her hours if the need arose. It really helped me to have a supportive (in more ways than one) spouse!

Oh, and one other thing. My potential income is now much greater than it ever was in the corporate world.

Sep 15, 2008

Security of retirement

401(k) career corporate world employment retirement | comments

The Retirement
Photo by ted.sali

I cannot argue against one saving for retirement. Most people live a long time nowadays and at some point elderly people are going to need to provide for their needs without much income in the form of a paycheck. Saving is a good thing, and paying off debt is even better. The less money you have invested in Things (tm), the more flexibility you have to make life choices.

Yet 401(k) and defined benefit (pension) plans are a subversive tool in the corporate world. Corporations do a particularly good job of selling these benefits. Heck, most even match 401(k) investments to a certain point, and that’s free money I never turned down in my career. By the end of my time with the corporation, I was investing 15% of my paycheck in my 401(k). Saving for retirement was one of the few career-related choices I had control of.

The promise of future benefits is pushed on us like a pile of garbage bulldozed into a hole to be covered by dirt for a few thousand years. A future of little to no work and monthly 401(k) payouts is indeed tempting. Yet what percentage of employees are even investing at a level to make this feasible? Many coworkers of mine were saving at rates of 8, 6, or even 2 percent. I will not denigrate anyone for saving his money, but those rates do not lead to a beach-infused retirement. This does not even consider the unpredictability of inflation rates, lifespan, and quality of life.

The question I asked myself is, “Why am I putting off a happy and fulfilling life for the distant future?” This opened the door to possibilities. While compounding interest makes early investment critical, would I be willing to give up a year of savings for many years of happiness? The question was quite easy to answer when placed in those terms. Yes, I would give up a year of retirement savings to reroute my career in a more positive direction. Yes, I would take a more clear and immediate route to happiness today rather than wait to see how successfully my retire-in-thirty-years plan could be pulled off.

In no way am I recommending against saving for retirement. But I found when I looked at the retirement question through the filter of more specific, actionable questions, my perspective changed. Will I really stop working one day when I turn fifty-five? I don’t think so. Would I rather have a couple more thousand in savings or a sweet vacation with my family? Family vacations have always been a great experience for each of us. When I look back, would I trade my 401(k) for more time with my kids? YES!

Ultimately my choice was not so drastic. It was a matter of forgoing the “security of retirement” feeling for a short time. After gaining solid footing in a new career, saving money resumed its important place in my life. The salesmen would have me believe in a shiny, happy future with a gold watch and pension plan as a singular career goal. That picture was wiped away like tarnish from the family silver, revealing an even more beautiful future that I could begin enjoying in the present!

Save for retirement. Save for a rainy day. Save for personal flexibility. But don’t buy the beautiful retirement picture corporations are selling. It is possible to be happy with work life even before retiring. When evaluating your employment situation, it is important not to focus on what is coming after the work is all done.

Sep 11, 2008

Security of employment

career corporate world employment | comments

Beginnings of a Blanket
Photo by R_rose

Corporations seek to build a culture within their walls. Typically the culture is catalyzed by mission statements, catchy phrases, and generalized value messages repeated by various levels of management. This was no different at my employer. It was considered a family-focused company, with a long history of respecting it’s employees. In fact, the company had never laid off a single employee in its 100-year history!

This last selling point, which I must admit was a pretty good one, fell by the wayside in the first years of my time at the company. A significant number of IT employees were let go one fall day, and the culture never recovered the family-focused vibe. In truth, the vibe felt pretty manufactured the whole time and never tasted like the real thing. While family-friendly benefits existed, there were no creative or exceptional family benefits this company provided over any other typical corporation.

Feeling safe and secure in one’s job is a nice thing on the surface. I learned a safe feeling in one’s job is not real; it can easily lead to ambivalence, lack of career motivation, and weakening of one’s skills. Was this feeling of safety causing me to let my skills diminish? If I were laid off, how marketable would I be for prospective employers? My answers to these questions were not positive.

I came to realize that I would much rather feel safe in my abilities and experiences than in any particular job. Prior to leaving my corporate job, I spent many hours getting a basic understanding of new technologies that provided a path of growth and opportunity. I never felt like there was a moment when I was skilled enough to jump ship, but there was certainly a moment when it was time to jump anyway.

The three-month training program, something I labelled a “benefit” even upon my exit interview, was one of the more damaging events of my career. The training was specifically designed to tear down each trainee to a base level and then build them up at the same rate. The training did not focus on any individual’s particular skill set. The training did not recognize when an individual was best deployed into a different problem area.

My greatest loss in this training process was forgetting what excited me about computing in the first place: using my creativity and problem-solving abilities to create elegant solutions to interesting problems. All passion for development had been extracted from me like a lime freshly squeezed to provide juice in a CEO’s beach-side margarita. It took six years to rediscover that passion. I was a shell of my potential self.

Before leaving the company, I tried to point my newly discovered passion inward toward the company. Encouraged to run with several of my ideas, I met impasses at each and every turn. The internals of this organization were pretty much designed to foster the status quo and over time I knew I needed to leave.

For all of these events, I blame myself more than the corporation. My early lack of self-awareness made it very difficult for the company to handle my new-found focus. If I had been more insistent up front, perhaps my career path would have been different within those walls. Or perhaps I never would have been hired.