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19 September 2023
Five Ingredients of Tech Career
A friend of mine recently asked me what five things he should do in order to grow his technical career in a big company. He is not interested in being a big manager, or a CEO. Rather, he wants to be a software expert, an architect, an owner of a technology, and eventually a “Fellow.” I’m not sure I was qualified to give such advice, but I did anyway. This is what I told him. Maybe this will also work for you.
Stay focused on one problem for many years. I literally mean a “problem”—something that bothers people now but will stop bothering them when you solve it. Ideally, first and foremost, it should bother you personally. If you can’t specify in one sentence what the meaning of your office life is—you don’t have a problem to solve. Find one.
A strong multi-year focus on one particular problem will most likely lead to a rather boring office life. People around you will be switching projects, accepting offers from crypto-startups, changing technologies, programming languages, and teams. You, unlike them, will remain focused on one thing for years and years. Imagine how boring it will look to them and to yourself. So be it. Accept it.
Moreover, if you don’t see significant results (and you won’t for years!), you’ll be tempted to switch to something else, where the outcomes seem more promising. Don’t.
Even when you change companies, remain loyal to the problem you chose as “yours” years ago. Don’t betray it. It’s yours. Your lifetime mission is to solve it. Who cares which company you are in? A company is just a temporary sponsor of your mission.
The problem must be as monumental as finding a cure for cancer. Ensure it’s bigger than your team, your company, and even your lifespan. The word “ambitious” certainly fits: it must be an ambitious idea. How do you know it’s big and ambitious enough? Count your enemies. If you have many of them—which could include your bosses, colleagues, spouse, and, of course, your haters on Twitter—you have a solid case. Conversely, if everyone loves your idea and supports you, your challenge might not be big enough.
Think about it: If it is big enough, many people have already tried to solve it. They failed. Naturally, they would love to see you fail too. If you don’t, it could dent their self-respect. It’s basic psychology.
The more enemies, the better! However, you should have a few allies. I’m referring to high-level technical people, like a CTO, VP of Technology, Chief Architect, or Fellow. They might not be technically competent in your particular domain, but that doesn’t matter. Strive to establish an information channel between you and them, and periodically share updates. Keep them informed about your progress and occasionally seek their advice. They will shield you from most of the attacks your enemies might launch.
To clarify, it’s impossible to ascend in a human hierarchy on your own, no matter how bright you are. You need a cadre of supporters within the company—individuals who back you unconditionally. A few are sufficient. They must be personally loyal to you. If you leave the company, they should follow you without hesitation.
It would be ideal for all of these friends to be part of your team. However, that’s not always feasible. Similarly, it would be wonderful if all these friends were technically competent, but that’s not always the case. In contrast, loyalty doesn’t often coincide with expertise. Having a friend who is both loyal and intelligent is a luxury.
Finally, maintain a connection with the younger generation that’s succeeding us—students. Engage with them, learn from them, and ensure you understand their needs and aspirations. They represent the industry’s future. If you treat them right, they will work for you with enthusiasm unmatched by any other employee.
Strengthening ties with the academic world will unquestionably reinforce your position within your company.