Managing Your Job Versus Managing Your Career

I’m between jobs right now; I’m not much for downtime so I ended Friday and start the new gig Monday. But the last year has brought me some realizations regarding my career that I thought others might find interesting.

A quick background for context, I passed my CCNA in December 1999 and my CCIE R&S in 2008, and have spent the last 12 years between four jobs – an ISP, a “Big Four” accounting firm*, Myspace, and a moderately sized CDN. I like to stay put, in part because I have other interests that benefit from a set schedule, but I also believe that it takes at least 3 months for you to be more use than hassle in a technical job. So staying less than a year feels overly selfish, like I’m taking the knowledge and running.

But this last year, I realized that I was falling into the trap of minding my job at the expense of my career. It may sound weird, but even as an engineer you can shoot yourself in the foot by putting your head down and working really hard. There’s a balance to be maintained, and you are the one responsible for maintaining it for yourself. If you mind your career at the expense of your job you’re not much use to the company. If you ignore your career for your job, you’re exacerbating the natural imbalance of power between an employer and employee.

I’ve had several bosses make my team write out goals – ostensibly to try to mesh my career with my job – but those usually fail for a variety of reasons. Very often people are afraid to be honest with their boss, or the boss will send the goals back with a note that they’re wrong, which replaces any value the exercise might have had with cynicism. My point is that you can’t rely on your boss, your parents, your rabbi, whoever. You need to look up every month or so and make sure you’re running in the right direction. I have several methods I use to accomplish this.

  • Actually read the emails recruiters send. I occasionally respond to them with something helpful (such as, “this has nothing to do with what I do for a living, this job title should be X.”). This, along with monster.com, helps me see what employers care about and how I stack up (though many candidate wish lists are ridiculous)
  • Update your resume every 3-6 months. Not obsessively, but never let it get years out of date. I spent over five years at Myspace; if I had waited until the place fell apart to update my resume, I’d have missed some important, early accomplishments.
  • Take the training! I don’t know why, but I’ve noticed a real hesitation to sign up for training classes, even after the boss OKs it. Even a bad class is a few days away from the grind to think about a new technology or product, and you get to compare notes with other network geeks on off-the-radar stuff like how they handle change management.
  • Volunteer for strategic things you don’t know how to do. If you’ve never configured Cacti, volunteer to do Cacti tickets. I volunteered to lead our team’s portion of the IPv6 rollout, which got some folks off my manager’s back, filled a strategic gap for me, and gave my company someone who was excited about learning – a win-win-win.
  • Stay in touch with old co-workers. When people move on, it’s a boon to you because you now know people in different companies, industries, and even fields. But you can’t ignore them for two years and call them when you get laid off. It stinks of desperation, and people feel used. So take the time to write a nice LinkedIn review or call someone. Even better, offer them help for the sake of helping them.
  • The nuclear option – you might just need to leave. If you’ve been doing the above, this is really painless.

If you’re in your 20s I believe you need to prioritize learning over money. That sounds nice, but what does it actually mean? It means if you’re learning less than 30-50% of the time, you need to make a change. Are you doing the same tasks repeatedly with no change on the horizon? Is the position above yours (senior neteng, lead, architect, etc.) filled with no change on the horizon? You need to change teams, create new projects, or find a new job. Most companies use a very narrow spread of technologies, and you might find that as time passes your skillset is actually degrading more than it’s growing. That’s a huge red flag.

It also sounds nice to *always* prioritize learning over money, but that’s not very realistic. Priorities change, you burn out on 3am maintenances, a bad investment (or a baby!) raises your monthly bills. But fights are won in the gym. If you’re reasonably curious and on-task for years, changing gears into sales engineering or some other lighter load is much easier than if you’ve been coasting.

Finally, minding your career keeps you from being caught flat-footed. Your boss pays you what he has to – no more, no less. If the balance of power is shifting or currently against you, you’re vulnerable. If your boss is a little ruthless and knows you can’t find another job easily, your yearly raise might be 0%. I saw this happen to a very diligent co-worker who was in the midst of a visa sponsorship. When you mind your career as well as your job, you sleep well at night knowing that if your boss decides your feet smell and fires your tomorrow, you’ll have another job within a month.

So even though changing jobs is stressful and I have some residual guilt about leaving my busy co-workers, I’m minding my career. Because no one else is going to. I highly recommend you do the same.

* Never willingly work for accountants. They nickel and dime you to death.

Keith Tokash

Keith Tokash

Keith Tokash, CCIE (R&S) #21236, began his career in 1999, and has spent the last decade running around large content and small ISP networks. He spends his spare time with his newborn son, on the mat at the local Jiu-Jitsu gym, and trying to keep his fat yap shut.
Keith Tokash

Latest posts by Keith Tokash (see all)

  • David James

    You are dead one on this one.  You see I have been am IT guy for the better part of 10 plus years.  Got my CCNA, CCSP, and all that stuff. I haven’t made myself buckle down and do my CCNP but I need to.  I too, am in the middle of a job change

    • ktokash

       And one can’t disregard the sage wisdom, “parting is such sweet stuff.”
      — Daffy Duck

  • David James

    Your post hits closer to home than you realize

  • http://twitter.com/x509v3 bill burns

    A few years ago I looked around and realized the same thing: I was “comfortable” but felt like my mad skillz might be getting dull. One day I decided to start my “search” but quickly realized I had no idea how to proceed properly.

    I followed this podcast’s advice, ended up buying their “Interview Series” set of podcasts and PDFs: http://manager-tools.com/podcasts/career-tools You don’t have to buy the series, the podcasts are free but the paid-for-product includes all the show notes and PDF worksheet. (I have no affiliation with that organization, I’m just a happy customer.)

    It took me two months of working-after-work to get my resume cleaned up, and myself prepped to go into interviews with my series of accomplishments, attributes, and skills I could bring to a new company.

    It also gave me a new way to think about what I do every day/week: make sure I’m moving the needle on my career. Too many weeks/months of work that’s not moving YOU forward, and it’s time to figure out why.

    Your manager should want *you* to be excited about what you do and constantly growing and learning. If you’re not doing that, figure out why. Talk to your manager (unless he’s toxic).

    If the solution isn’t with your current company, reach out to your network and start looking around for the next adventure. 

    You’re the only one in control of your career/life, do what you’re passionate about.

  • Merfen

    “(though many candidate wish lists are ridiculous)” I would appreciate if you could tell me what you consider ridiculous with some examples, as I am a young IT-Guy starting his career and trying to find out what employers really need.

    • ktokash

      What I had in mind when I made that comment was the impossible list of qualifications I used to see and get demoralized by.  After 5 years in the field I would read job descriptions/qualifications and it got me down that I didn’t seem qualified for *anything*.  The good news is I don’t run across that as much anymore, but I still do a bit.

      Specifically I’m talking about jobs that want/require you to be a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on running Microsoft technologies like AD/Exchange, maybe some Linux, their VMWare environment(s), and of course manage the network.  All for 70k or less (that’s a junior salary in Los Angeles, it takes 40k just to not starve to death here).

      That’s a nice list; it encompasses at least two people’s skillsets.  You can definitely become proficient in each of those areas and more, but it takes maybe a year of operational experience in each one, and when you shift focus from A to B, your expertise in A drops almost immediately.

      Ethan and Greg have touched on this in a couple of podcasts.  You used to be able to run a company’s email, DNS, network, IDS (ack!), etcetera.  Now IT departments are fractally complex – every piece is as complicated as the whole.

      • Lindsay Hill

        Yeah, agreed. I’ve seen plenty of ridiculous lists like that. Generally I think that if there’s an enormous list of items for low-end $$, then don’t get too fussed about knowing all the things in detail. When they say “DNS” they probably just mean “can add a new record to Microsoft DNS” – they don’t really mean “actually understand DNS as a protocol, how to correctly configure and secure it, and how to manage BIND.”

        Many times they only really want basic familiarity – i.e. have you heard of it at all? Certain areas will need deeper understanding obviously, but these will usually be more obvious core skills, closer to the heart of the job. If you can, try and work out what the main skills they’re looking for are, and what a typical day’s work might involve for that role. If you know the bulk of those, and can Google the rest, you’ll be OK.

        My personal favourites on the laundry list are things like “5 years experience with Windows 2008″ or “10 years C# programming experience”

  • ZeroZeroFourteen

    Excellent post. Please keep them coming!

  • Lindsay Hill

    “…changing gears into sales engineering or some other lighter load..”
    Touche!

  • Brian

    Love the post. I concur on learning over salary early in your career. The opposite will leave you in an increasing ugly situation until finally you have to bite the bullet and start on the bottom rung. If you find yourself in a situation where both the learning and salary are good–work hard and take advantage of it.

  • thema27

    Amen to that!