Picture this visual. You are standing in a field on a foggy day and a rope is dropped in front of you from the sky. You can’t see where it is coming from but you hear someone ask you if you want to experience the unknown, be challenged more than ever before, move forward in life while being responsible for your own successes. Would you grab it and hold on tight or would you be too concerned about what you are getting into and let it pass you by? Granted, in this situation, you have very little information to help you make the choice. Maybe we should change the field to a swamp, quick sand, or maybe there’s a forest fire heading your way. That probably makes the decision a bit easier to grab the rope and get out of there.
I think everyone goes through this situation many times in their lives. If you never have, maybe you just haven’t identified those situations correctly or maybe it’s time to go searching for that rope.
Every time I see the rope, I grab it. Sometimes it pulled my career in the right direction and other times it didn’t. But I learned that relinquishing a little bit of control over my career to see the unknown usually turns into a good thing. And if I let the rope pass me by without grabbing it, I would always regret it and wonder what I missed out on. Let me give you a few examples in my life when holding on to the rope worked out well.
Out of college, I ended up working as an engineer in Cleveland, Ohio. Now, I grew up in Cleveland and wasn’t expecting to end up there after working so hard at college to get my degree. So it was a bit of a disappointment. After three years there, I decided it was time to move somewhere else in the US. But as a newlywed with little money, my husband and I couldn’t travel around to decide where we wanted to move. So we picked two places because we thought we could find jobs there and we thought they seemed like nice places based on our research (back then, it was research from the local bookstore and library since the Internet hadn’t yet taken off). We put our resumes online (which was a very new experience and made us very nervous). At the point that I was talking to Microsoft and got a job offer, that rope was there waiting for me to hang onto. My family and friends are in Cleveland and my in-laws are in Pittsburgh. Living at least one plane flight away was a big deal (and for anyone who moved to a new country for a new job, I can appreciate the difficulty in doing that). I decided to make the move and go from a control systems engineer in a hardware company to a software tester in a software company – THE software company of the time. Not only was the work different, the environment of Seattle was different, the stores were different, the people even talked differently! But that was the right rope to hold on to and it pulled me into a new career, new challenges, and many great successes. It was scary and unknown, but I relinquished some control and let it take me where it did.
Once at Microsoft for many years, I ended up being the Test Manager of a team in the Digital Media Division. When I joined this team, it was a mess. The people were confused, over-worked, and they mostly under-delivered. My three years leading that team change it around to be a very successful team. Through the course of doing this, I did some unconventional things like hiring a dev lead to run my tools team (instead of the usual test lead aspiring to be a dev lead). I hired a lab manager and formed a lab team. I transformed some teams into new directions. What I found was a group a dedicated and passionate leads reporting to me. A few had followed me from a previous role, others were hired on new. But after about three years together and the challenges we faced, it was a tight-knit leadership team. Then came the reorg (of course) and once again I found a rope dropped in front of me. This time, my leads did too. During our party celebrating the transition of our old team from Digital Media to the new client Windows team, I found myself and my leads huddled in a corner at the party discussing the future. We ran services for the Digital Media Division and now we were the main team to run and expand these services to all the Client Windows teams (about 10 times as large). I could see everyone was nervous. They didn’t know if they had the skills to work at that scope. How would we scale to that degree? What are the situations we are going to encounter? We didn’t even know who our new internal customers would be or what their requirements of us would be. Once again, I held on tight and let the rope carry me into that next set of challenges. And this time I had to help my leads grab a hold of the rope as well, relinquish some control, and go for it.
This is a common theme when organizations restructure. There aren’t answers to all the questions and to some degree, in corporate life, you aren’t in control of the decisions that are made. But find that rope. It’s a rope that will pull you to a future of career growth, and hold on tight. And be careful to identify it. The rope should pull you forward, not push you back. Have fun being a bit out of control and see where it takes you, but be prepared for the challenges. The ride is a blast!