Career advice for anyone who cares to listen :)

At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing there are many attendees offering and looking for good advice.  Dear friends among them.  I read some, “inarticulate” responses earlier today and they prompted me to think of what advice I might offer.  As I considered this I found myself thinking the same thoughts I always think when counselling people on how to have a good career. And so I offer these tidbits, trite as they may appear, in good faith, to all genders, religions, orientations, ages, and other demographics equally. I do this partly because it seems timely but also partly because I promised Emma Watson I would do something in the spirit of #heforshe even if she didn’t exactly hear me make that promise.

1. Don’t compromise

It is, in my opinion, impossible to have a good career if you aren’t investing in a good life and so you must never sacrifice the things that most matter to you in the name of career progress.  That kind of sacrifice will ultimately backfire without fail.  It doesn’t matter if what matters to you is your husband, your wife, your children, your church, your fire department, your animal friends, your theater, your poetry, your dancing, or anything else.  It is these things that we do when we leave the office that nourish us and put us in the frame of mind to feel valued, to do our best work, to not be spiteful, but instead be as successful as we can be.  If you come to work feeling like what you really should be doing is something else, or that you failed to do that something else this past weekend, you cannot give matters at hand the attention they require and you will then fail at all the things.

It is my belief and experience that you will have the best career you can possibly have by taking care of all your needs.  It only superficially feels like you’re compromising your career to do "that other thing", in the end, you aren’t.

2. Bring all your experience to the job every day

Do not compartmentalize who you are.  You are a whole person. All those other things I mentioned up there, whatever they may be, they enrich you and make you better.  They are skills and knowledge that you can and should tap every day.  If you try to turn some of them off, or fail to consider the utility of some of the others, you are less than all you can be, and it will show in your work.  I’m unable to think of any endeavors a person could be passionate about that bring no material value to a professional context.

3. Find mentorship and sponsorship

Professional waters are difficult to navigate.  You put yourself at a huge disadvantage if you do not have colleagues that can help you avoid common mistakes and give you important perspective.  Mentors are out there for the asking, and while you may not succeed immediately I can promise that, as the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the master WILL appear.”  Sponsorship is as important but in a different way, and it can’t always be the same person.  I think of sponsorship as having a person or persons “out there” that have a good sense of who you are, what your desires are, where you are in your career stage, and so forth.  These people need to be in play so that when opportunities arise, they will be able to speak for you.  It is truly unfortunate if “Jane” doesn’t get that choice assignment and promo opportunity simply because nobody knew that she always wanted to work on “ratafrat development” and had experience from her hobby.

4. Keep investing in yourself

Ongoing professional and personal development is essential to be promoted in a corporate environment, but I think it’s also essential for your happiness.  If you end the year a [slightly?] better engineer, parent, husband, wife, poet, singer, dancer, or whatever matters to you… you’ve had a good year.  That’s worth celebrating.  Making yourself a better person will pay in the end.  I’ve personally been astonished how many times my little side things turned out to provide just the thing I needed down the line.

5. Self-advocacy is great, but do it in the way that fits best in your environment

As far as promotions go, the best way to get promoted is to be doing the work already.  The best way to get raises is to be extraordinarily competent.  But those things alone might not be enough.  Some corporations give raises through a fairly formalized process where asking for a raise really isn’t even an option.  But in those cases the questions to be asking are more like, “what could I be doing to earn my next promotion, I want to be a strong candidate” – from a career management position that’s still a great take-charge way to proceed.  And it shouldn’t be off-putting.  On the other hand, there are plenty of situations where getting raises is a personal experience that practically requires a specific request.  These are great things to discuss with a mentor.

Even if you’re not getting your promotions as often as you want, if you are constantly a candidate for promotion you can hardly be considered among the weaker team members.  You will command a good share of the budget for raises.

If you feel you are being treated unfairly, I can’t recommend silence, but sadly I can’t make a specific recommendation that’s good in every organization. 

6. Self-worth goes a long way to projecting, and inspiring confidence

In the end, getting assignments and promotions may come down to whether or not your management feels you can handle those situations.  If you are always cautious and appear to doubt your own self-worth, or need to be reminded of it constantly, you are unlikely to inspire the confidence needed to get the big jobs.  You are also much more likely to accept substandard pay because you think yourself unworthy of a fair wage. 

Trust your skills and yourself, do not accept the unacceptable, conduct yourself with integrity and professionalism, these things will inspire your organization to give you the rewards you deserve.  And if they don’t, it may be time to consider another organization.  A skilled worker knows their value.


I’m sorry if all those thoughts seem like so much trite advice, it seems like I said nothing noteworthy at all, and yet those are the things that people seem to most need to hear in my experience, so there they are.

Best wishes and thanks for reading.

Comments (8)

  1. Catalin Pop says:

    I would add one item to this list:

    Always be helpful as much as possible and empathic to your colleagues, act as a team member, it's not enough to do the hardest of tasks or the take the biggest challenges alone even if you do a great job and even if you would be the only one being able to do them in a certain context. Being a team player can be more worthwhile than being a superstar.

    Being helpful will get you noticed and appreciated way faster than otherwise, but don't try to please that will backfire immediately, always do the right thing, no exceptions.

  2. ricom says:

    A few years back I gave a talk on careers for senior engineers at Microsoft, it was very well received.  The central themes of the that talk were the points I made above in essay form.  I was asked to do a sequel the following year, the central theme of that talk is that you soon reach a point in your career where individual success isn't enough to keep propelling you forward.  At that point it's all about facilitating the success of others.  

    Sometimes people are confused, that in a competitive environment they must succeed at the expensive of others to advance.  Nothing could be more backwards.  The best way to stand out is to move everyone forward.  For a director nothing less is even noteworthy, for an individual contributor that is of similar seniority the same is true, only you must achieve it by different means than management.

    I'm tempted to write the second talk up in essay form now 🙂

  3. John Hazen says:

    I would add that folks should not make the mistake of only focusing on pleasing their direct manager.  Often decisions about career advancement are made by your manager and his or her peers together.  So understand the goals and objectives of your "aunts" and "uncles" and nurture your connection and relationship with them.  Not in a trite, brown-nose kind of way, but genuinely understand their role and their team's role – it will give you a better perspective on how your own role contributes to the larger objectives of the company and will help you make better decisions about how to invest your time.

  4. Cameron McColl says:

    +1 for Catalin's addiiton. Although I've witnessed at least one individual contributor who was tremendously effective at enabling others. He was the go to guy for some of the hardest issues and he was always willing and able to help. However he didn't always fair well in reviews primarily because the reviews tended to focus on individual results. Ironically the individuals that his guy helped were often the ones with the great results and better reviews. So my take away from having seen this is that a balance is required. Also this is a good time to remind folks that sending Kudos/positive feedback is so easy to do and very effective. That last peice of advice applies in almost all parts of our life. So often we hear about people complaining or worse suing. How often do you give praise for a job well done?

    While you've got me thinking about career advice Rico I'd like to add another thought. My mentoring experience isn't anywhere near as long as yours but I've been at MS now for almost 18 years and the one thing that has always stood out to me as a barrier for many folks career is ineffective managers. Too often great ICs take on lead/manager roles that frankly have no relevant skills. So who manages the managers? The truth is that today it's simply a top down model and in my experience a managers word carries far more weight than a reports – especially from an HR perspective. A great manager is sadly a rare breed that has technical experience AND (not OR) great interpersonal skills. Too often conflicts occur, are poorly managed and ultimately we lose great employees. I'm convinced that if managers had more accountability for their actions their actions would become less biased/discriminatory just as people often act with a higher moral standard when they know others are watching.

    A great employee on the other hand also needs to have all the core skills for thier job AND great interpersonal skills in order to effectively manage managers of the type described above.

  5. ricom says:

    Unfortunately we are sometimes faced with dysfunctional management… How to deal with that is a whole 'nother posting.

    The main thing I can say here is I can't recommend changing your behavior to align with bad management.  You will not end in a happy place.

  6. aviad says:

    Great advice! Especially liked the part on asking for a raise. Some organizations has good employee evaluation process so you likely be rewarded simply by doing your best work and having an impact. Other organizations needs a push..

  7. TimTim says:

    wish I read this two years ago

  8. Jyotsana Rathore says:

    Wow! Best career advice I’ve got!

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