Of Cars and Career Development

OK, I’m a car guy. Ever since I was a kid, I loved everything about them. My boyhood best friend Jimmy McGowan and I took keen delight in being able to identify cars at night by their headlight and tail light patterns. And we knew that the Chrysler 225 Slant-6 and 318 small block engines were the pinnacles of 1960’s Chrysler engineering. Turning sixteen years of age was a rite of passage because we would learn how to drive…a gateway to new adolescent freedom! When we owned our first beater cars, we learned how to tune them up ourselves as a point of pride. After all, how hard was it to gap the points and replace the rotor, condenser, cap, plugs, and plug wires on a pre-catalytic converter jalopy! Timing light? Who needed one of those when you could set the timing by ear just by giving the distributor a turn!

All these years later, I’m still passionate about cars. Even though I no longer tune up my own, I still enjoy reading about and talking about them with like-minded folks. The process of determining my next car is a particular source of excitement since I get to do research, window shop, and test drive! Well, during my most recent car search and after much research and salivating, I decided that an Audi A7 was in my future. I had done my homework and visited my friendly Audi dealer for a test drive. Of course, I fell in love with the car and drove away pondering my strategy for acquiring one of these beauties.

Now the A7 is not exactly a common car, and you don’t see too many on the road. But almost immediately, I starting seeing them all over the place. I could barely turn a corner without one popping up. What the heck happened? Did Audi start giving them away in my area? Did extraterrestrials implant a cybernetic device in my brain and start beaming visions of A7s into my head? Of course not. I experienced the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon also known as The Frequency Illusion. Simply put, my recent experience with and my desire to own an Audi A7 biased my perception of my surroundings toward noticing A7s. There clearly were not more A7s on the road before I decided to buy one. I was merely more attuned to seeing them since I wanted to own one. My desires had shaped my perception of the world!

And so it is with career development!

Before I decided to embark on a journey leading to a technology leadership role, I pondered what I wanted to do with my career. I had spent almost 20 years as a software developer with a high degree of success. I had worked on military, medical, and financial systems and I liked technology, but I knew I wanted to put my passion for applying technology to more than just developing software. After much thought, I narrowed my career direction choices to three. First, I could earn a law degree and practice intellectual property law. After all, there is a market in the legal profession for former software folks who know their way around technology. Second, I could earn a Ph.D. and move into academia. I had tutored students and taught undergraduate labs in college and thought teaching would make a satisfying career. Finally, I could broaden my business skills and find an opportunity leading a technology organization within a business. Being a classic Myers-Briggs INTJ who not only likes the intellectual challenge of exploring a technology but likes to see that technology applied, I decided on the latter…I would set my sights on a CTO-like position.

After deciding upon my career direction, I started researching the role in more depth and discussing what it meant with those around me. Within a short time after committing to a new direction, a funny thing happened. I started noticing new opportunities to learn and talk about topics adjacent to my existing software development skills that might help build my career. The Frequency Illusion had kicked in!

At the time, I occupied and office next to the infrastructure folks. Their conversations about hardware, networking, and storage became more interesting to me, so I joined in. I was home-building computers as a hobby, so it was a natural fit. I was already helping answer technical RFI questions for the sales folks. Discussing the intricacies of sales opportunities with them became more interesting. Business discussions around procurement and budgeting that had felt a bit tedious became more interesting. And things that previous would not have appeared as opportunities for advancement seemed to almost miraculously present themselves.

A year or two later, the company I worked for had developed a new hosted solution for the core product, what is nowadays called SaaS. They needed someone to accompany the sales people on sales calls to explain the technology underpinning the offering. Ordinarily, I would not have seen this as an opportunity, and I would have shied away. Since I knew that understanding client needs were key to being a technology leader, I saw this as my chance to learn more about the sales process and client engagement. I raised my hand to volunteer. Oh yeah, and the prospect of facing off with clients scared the heck out of me but, as they say, no pain no gain! A sales person and I then spent close to a year selling the new solution. We were so successful that year that we won a sales award! I learned a lot about the business and what clients cared about throughout that year. It was one of those truly pivotal moments in my career. Further, I discovered that I really enjoyed evangelizing technology solutions to clients! Not too much later, a CTO position opened up in the company, and I applied. The rest is history.

In hindsight, it’s clear to me that committing to a career direction changed my perception and provided a new focus on opportunities that might help me achieve my goals. In short, I biased my view of the world toward the direction I had set.

Put some bias into your career development!

It continues to be my privilege to work with some incredibly talented technologists. Their skill and passion for their trade inspires me to believe that the future of software development is bright. Occasionally some approach me for career advice. The common thread of these career development encounters is that each person in their own way has committed to a direction for their career. In reaching out, they are looking for experiences and opportunities to help them grow. Maybe without knowing it, their commitment to their future has introduced some healthy bias into their perception of their world.

I urge the reader to explore what you desire in your career. At some point, make a commitment to yourself about your career passions and what you want to achieve. In doing so, you might just put the Frequency Illusion to work for you! Miraculous opportunities could very well come into focus that will help propel your career forward!