I’ve had this post – or rather just the title – in my blog as a draft for over a year. Today, I decided it’s time to put my money where my mouth by writing it and making it public.
First, some clarification. My intention is not to brag about my professional career. My intention is to provide useful guidance I’ve learned during the course of almost 30 years. I’ve found the guidance below very useful and I’m typically seeing a pattern for success. I hope this provides assurance, help, and guidance for anyone wanting to become better while working in tech and also for making others – like me – succeed and reach their goals.
My goals have never been about making a lot of money. To bastardize Mr. Alex Honnold from Free Solo, I know what an average dentist makes per year and I’m pretty okay with that.
Take here what you find useful; discard what you disagree with; add what you feel works better.
nine six three patterns I embrace, live by and work with — every day. I aim to keep these simple as nobody likes to memorize complex patterns and formulas.
Always be learning. When I was growing up I didn’t really go out during school recess. I’d open a book on Turbo Pascal programming or a book on optimization techniques for Assembly language. I loved every minute I felt I was really learning about important stuff. I haven’t used Turbo Pascal since 1992, though.
There simply is no excuse in not learning, every damn day. It isn’t about reading and browsing for tech news every second of your waking hours. It also isn’t about mindlessly reading about technologies you might never get to use.
It is, however, very much about consistently challenging yourself by learning what’s new, what’s interesting, and what your customers are interested in.
As an example, I’m taking myself (as I’m the only one in the room right now, and it’s also my home study room and it’s 9 pm and I’d scream if a stranger appeared here). I work mostly with Microsoft-based and related technologies. Azure, Office 365, Microsoft 365, Windows, Active Directory, .NET Core, Office, BizTalk — you name it and I probably know something or a lot about it. I don’t know everything about these. But I know enough that I have a very solid foundation on anything new that is being released. And let’s be honest — many things announced each week are rehashed things from yesterday.
I study using all available mediums at my disposal. I use Pluralsight for accelerated learning on specific topics – 1.5X speed is typically the best for me. I use docs.microsoft.com and download a whole topic as PDF (lower left corner) and then speedread (or slow read if it’s a new area for me) them on my Kindle when I’m flying or commuting. I write, teach, lecture, talk, and present a lot to force me to reinforce my learnings. The best way to learn is to convert what you read to what you breathe. I also keep my “hands in the mud” (an old Finnish saying) as otherwise, I’d only be great on PowerPoint and not much else. I hate those
Enterprise Architects people.
The one thing that makes you great is when you continuously adapt and adjust. And the most efficient way to enable this is always be learning.
Break through concrete, when you need to. The finest lesson I’ve received on this occurred in early 2000. It might have been in 2002. I was working with a great software company focused on providing consulting services and solutions on the Microsoft stack. I enjoyed it quite a bit as it was challenging and I could dedicate myself to the craft of becoming great at what I did.
One day I realized a solution I’d been working on for a customer didn’t really work as I thought it would. I spent the whole day without a break trying to fix the numerous issues. I didn’t know anyone else to ask for advice. After 5 pm, most everyone left the office and I was sitting alone in my cubicle trying to crack the problem. I made steady progress but I also felt very, very lonely, and quite scared. I needed to get this thing working before 10 am the next day when there was supposed to be this grandiose demo and I didn’t want to let everyone else down.
Someone peeked through the entrance and asked what I was still doing at the office at 8 pm. I told the person I had this problem that I needed to fix and that if there were any great ideas to pass around I’d be open for any. I vividly remember that person telling me it wasn’t really their problem and they were already off from work – but “good luck!”
It was a make it or break it moment for me. Right there and then I gathered all my remaining willpower and mentally told myself something along the lines of “I’ve been in tough situations. This might be one of the tougher ones. And I will beat this, and there will be more challenging situations in the future. And I will beat those. You will do this.“
I stayed up until 5 in the morning. I figured out and fixed all the issues. Everything was running smoothly in the early hours of the day. I had a few hours of sleep (I lived very close to the office, luckily) and the demo went great later in the morning.
This gave me the insight that I still live by – every day. The more challenging scenarios and projects and technical issues you face and the more you’re able to resolve those, the better you become. And it builds your mental muscle and provides a solid armrest you can lean on when things get tough. And just magically those hard and complex problems start to feel a little bit easier.
You need to be able to break through concrete when all else fails. Not every day. But on those days when it’s required. It’s tough and it’s painful but once you know you’ll eventually break through, it isn’t scary anymore.
Be great to work with. I cannot underline this enough. This isn’t about smooching up to your manager or the CEO or your coworkers. It’s about being authentic but also about being a nice person to work with. It’s about treating everyone with respect.
I regularly meet with customers, ex-colleagues and other acquaintances I’ve worked with in the past. I make my utter best that I leave a lasting and good impression. It isn’t tricks or smoke and mirrors. It’s about making solid promises, delivering on those consistently and generally being nice to work with.
Instead of saying “ooh.. I don’t know, looks pretty hard to me” it’s about saying “let me have a look” and then giving it your best shot. Consistently (see: #2 above).
When you’re great to work with, it tends to attract other people you enjoy working with. I’ve had – and currently have – so many amazing people I get to interact and work with, I feel at times it’s a little bit unfair even. It isn’t about tracking scores on who owes what to whom, but about providing guidance, support, and help to others while also managing to accomplish your own goals and projects. Being reliable.
If you have a tendency to complain, even if it’s meant as a constructive complaint, it rarely produces anything worthwhile. And the thing people remember about working with you is that you opened your mouth to complain about something. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t complain – but if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. And I often find my job to be part of the solution.
I cannot exaggerate the importance of positive thinking. And not in a hippy “nothing harms me and I just smile like a weirdo” way. It’s the ability to find solutions. The ability to listen more. The ability to approaching problems realistically while also keeping an upbeat attitude. Small scratches at times are okay. Bigger too, if you become better through that experience.
Through positive thinking I feel I’ve met so many great people that I can now call friends and share a laugh with. It also makes the whole journey so much more enjoyable.
A final thought
I felt I needed to say and state these out loud. Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking “huh? that’s it?” and that’s fine (see: #3). But then again I hope by the time you’ve read this you might have an inkling of an idea how to become better.
Perhaps it’s a more organized structure for studying while working. Perhaps it’s more mental persistence to break through the barriers you are facing. And perhaps it’s that you’re already living and breathing all these (and many more, I’m sure!) ideas and you are really succeeding.
I’m happy for anyone who becomes better, and I hope I can provide a small grain of additional positive success.
Thanks for reading!
I work with Azure and frequently write about my experiences. I’m a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, ex-MSFT. Based in Helsinki, Finland.