Over the past few months, I've had a number of people ask me basically how I managed to get to where I am now--doing work that's professionally and personally interesting and challenging. Since I never really had a master plan for professional advancement, it's been a challenge to try to reconstruct my process in a way that could be translated into advice for others.
Today I had coffee with a friend-of-a-friend, and I realized that all this thinking had resulted in a few specific pieces of advice. Seems worth sharing those via the blog.
The first, and most critical thing--at least for me--was to always look for and take jobs that were a little (or even a lot) beyond what I thought I could do. It often felt like I was bullshitting my way in the door, but once I got there I worked my ass off to do what I'd been hired to do. I learned RS-232 cable pinouts on the fly when I took a computer support job back in '87 and said "of course I can design and help install a computer network." I leveraged that networking experience into my job interview at RIT, where I told them confidently that of course I could teach introductory networking classes...and then spent most of my first year barely an hour ahead of my students. (Turns out teaching is less about knowing it all, and more about knowing how to connect other people up with what they need...although it's a helluva lot easier once you know the material well!) There are plenty of other examples. Really, every job I've ever had was something that I went into without all the knowledge I needed, and then had to push myself to grow into, quickly.
Doing that has a number of rewards associated with it. First, you learn a lot, quickly--because if you don't, you'll be out of a job even more quickly. Second, you get a great confidence boost when you pull it off despite your own doubts and fears. Third, that confidence boost shows in your interactions with others, and you get a reputation for being both fearless and dependable. Saying "yes" to the hard (and occasionally unpleasant) tasks makes people see you as the "go to girl" (or guy), which is a good reputation to have...and when interesting and enjoyable opportunities open up, you'll then be the first one they think of.
This really isn't unlike the advice I've seen given for any kind of sports or physical fitness activity--to push a little beyond what you think you can do, which will get you further than you expected every time.
The other important pice of advice is to take interpersonal networking very seriously. One of the biggest stress points in my relationship with my family is the amount of time I spend traveling to conferences. And the reason I keep doing it, despite that stress, is that so many of the best opportunities that have come my way in recent years have been a direct result of meeting and talking with someone at a conference. My job at MSR? A result of attending the first social computing symposium? My invitation to the symposium? A result of meeting Clay Shirky at Supernova (I think...or a similar conference). It's all connected. Carving out the time and money to attend conferences, and then taking full advantage of that attendance to meet and talk with people I respect, pays off handsomely over time.
So that's it. Simple--but not easy--advice. It's the best distillation I can come up with of how I got to this point in my career.