How Being Authentic, Open-Minded, and Direct (All At Once!) Can Help Your Career
We all want to be successful in our careers. Whether that means running your own start-up or heading a team at a major corporation, we all have aspirations and are looking for the best ways to get there. To find out how we can all get a little closer, I interviewed many professionals from the world of technology – including UX and project directors, senior engineers, infrastructure leads, and devops experts.
Three of the interviews really stood out – and so I have included excerpts from Karthik Ramakrishnan [Senior Engineer at Amazon], Steven Shingler [the UK Director of Engineering at Wildfire Interactive], and Dave Zwieback [Head of Infrastructure at Knewton, Inc].
They each had a lot to say, but what surprised me what how much their interviews had in common. Despite different positions, fields, and specialties, their secrets to success were remarkably similar. I want to highlight some of the common themes brought up by these tech professionals to demonstrate how some basic building blocks can help you succeed just about anywhere.
Be A Jack Of All Trades
A common thought among tech professionals is that being the master of your field is the key to achieving the highest level of career success. My interviewees had a much different perspective. While being proficient at your field of choice is absolutely essential, Dave and Steven both stressed the importance of being versatile within the entire tech world. Beyond that, even, they also both believe in honing your “softer” skills – being open to ideas and proactive about developing and maintaining relationships.
Dave brought up an idea he called “The Way of the Generalist.” What he means is being a professional who is deliberately open-minded and accepting of new ideas and skills. While it absolutely pays to be really good at one thing, it can actually hurt you not to know about other aspects of your business. If your position should evolve – which so many fields in this industry do, all the time – you want to be able to flow easily between roles, and not be stuck with over-specialized skills.
Steven put it another way: “I think it is crucial that you really want to solve real problems and make something which people can use and which helps them.” Writing beautiful code only matters when it’s solving a problem that people want solved.
Be Authentic, Be Nice
All three interviewees touched on the importance of engineers developing relationships and the social skills it takes to build those relationships. Steven explained:
“Engineers typically have pretty linear progressions through life and tend towards a black-and-white view of the world. A unit test either passes, or it doesn’t. An engineer can struggle to realize that other people have different goals and desires to their own, especially when those goals aren’t crystal clear. During moments of difficult decision-making, they don’t put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Grace under pressure is a distinguishing characteristic when you’re thinking about who you want on your team.”
Karthik put it a little more bluntly: “Don’t be an ass, don’t be hard to work with. If peers tolerate you, you wont succeed, your career will hit a wall. If peers cannot tolerate you, you will be shown the door. Only if your peers love you, will your career succeed. Engineers are smart and brainy, but we need to learn to treat people with respect to get the best out of them and to play well as a team.”
Dave emphasized the important of ownership and accountability at work. “Ownership is about finding something that needs to be done, something that adds value, and stepping up to do it, regardless if it’s your ‘official’ responsibility, or who ultimately gets the credit for getting it done.” Becoming the person your peers know as the one who gets things done will allow you to reap rewards throughout your career.
The point is – your reputation matters. The moody genius who everyone wants on their team is the exception, not the rule. For the rest of us, being someone other people want to work with is an invaluable asset.
Put In The Hard Yards
Put simply, this is all about taking care of business. Karthik emphasized this point, saying “If I see my manager or peers put in the hard yards, I am inspired by it and I tend to push myself doubly hard. I have seen poor managers send out emails saying we need to work hard, and yet they maintain a 9-5 schedule. Actions speak louder than words.”
What I love about this point is how making the effort not only impacts your own career success, but also inspires others around you and can make the difference in a company’s success or failure. A team is not just a collection of individuals; if the standard is set that everyone is going to work hard, you can bring everyone up with you. Commitment to the job at hand – being willing to put in the long hours and being able to persevere through the challenges – is what makes you stand out and builds your professional endurance too.
Putting in the hard yards is an important personal commitment as well. Two of Steven’s favorite phrases are “Don’t compare downwards” and “Don’t polish the dirt”. The first describes a situation that it’s all-too easy to get comfortable with, especially when you are successful in your position. Looking around the room and thinking, “I’m the best engineer in here” does you no good in terms of growing your career. No matter how good you know you are, there’s always someone you can learn from, or something else you could be doing better.
“Don’t polish the dirt” has a similar reminder of always driving for improvement. He explained, “if something needs sorting out, you should sort it out. Don’t settle for something which is clearly broken underneath.”
Be Direct…When You Need To
Anyone who has ever held a leadership role in an organization has faced the tense situation of needing to tell someone on their team that they are not performing up to standards. Plenty of people opt to just avoid the often-awkward confrontation; Karthik explains that he used to praise his peers for their accomplishments – generously – but avoided speaking up when mistakes were being made.
Unfortunately, the way to get things done is by being direct. Not mean, not condescending, but direct. Think about a time that you have gotten negative feedback on your performance. Did it soften the blow to have your manager tiptoe around the issue or use such vague language that you weren’t even sure what you were doing wrong? That strategy is almost never successful, and only ensures you’ll be having the same conversation in a couple of weeks.
Being direct doesn’t just get the job done, it also conveys a level of respect to your peer that shows that you take them and their time seriously.
Karthik also pointed out that being direct all the time isn’t the cure-all for dealing with employees or peers in the office. There is a time and a place for sharing your opinions with your employees and especially your peers, and it’s probably less often that you think.
“In general people are gratuitous when it comes to giving advice. You want others to learn and follow from your actions and not your words. And unless and until you share a terrific rapport with your peers or direct reports, I would stay away from doling out advice. So first step is gain the trust and respect of your peers and direct reports.”
What do you think about this career advice? Have any of these concepts worked for you, or do you completely disagree? What steps can you take towards becoming a Jack Of All Trades, or to make an effort to improve your professional reputation?