When I started my professional career in technology nearly 20 years ago, I was driven by a desire to succeed. I studied computer programming and took finance, accounting, and economics classes. I worked for years in public relations, marketing and sales, and ended up (whodathunkit) in learning and development. Looking back, the only constant was uncertainty and change.
Assuming that I had to give career guidance to a group of high school kids or newly minted college graduates, what in the world would I tell them? The world is so unpredictable and changing so quickly. Much more now than 20 years ago.
So, I have tried my best to boil it down to five, simple, “21st century” truths—career guidelines for professionals of all ages. Ignore these at your own peril!
1. Never Stop Learning
It may sound like a cliché but it is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you. You have to approach your work with an attitude of continuous learning and improvement. You do not have the luxury anymore of training for a career, developing a set of marketable skills, and then shutting your brain down. Your skills will be obsolete in six months. The ecosystem of technologies, products, and services in which we all work are changing at an accelerating rate, as is the global economic and competitive landscape. You must find a sustainable way to tune into this continuous change and keep abreast of it all. And continuous learning these days must be a personal habit: something that you own and assume responsibility for. You cannot wait around anymore for your employer to take the initiative, to subsidize your training, or to even give you direction. That sort of leadership is regrettably a thing of the past.
2. Learn About Everything
When it comes to your career development, it is important to stay current with what is trending in your field. However, your mind must be more open than that. You do not know where the world is heading. You do not know where you are going to end up in five years or what opportunities will come your way. So, if you want to keep yourself marketable, adaptable, and valuable, you must maintain a broad curiosity about many subjects. This is particularly true for project management professionals, that—in order to be successful—will be expected over the course of their career to move in and out of different vertical industries. Becoming knowledgeable about a variety of subject matter—ideally, subjects that interest you and have a passion for—will give you more options and ultimately open many more opportunities for you.
3. Be Shrewd with Your Money
There was a great book written in the late 1990s called “The Millionaire Next Door” which describes two different money and savings personalities—the Under Accumulators of Wealth (UAWs) and the Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth (PAWs). The PAWs always manage to save and build wealth over time, regardless of the size of their incomes. Meanwhile, UAWs are never able to build wealth, even with very large incomes at their disposal.
You must learn how to become a PAW. That is because the sooner you create a foundation of financial security and independence, the sooner you can grow your career and income beyond ordinary levels. UAWs are always going to be wage slaves. They may be great at their job, have lots of passion for what they do, and even epitomize excellence in their field. However, as long as they lack a bedrock of savings and net worth, they will be driven by fear and tied to one employer. On the other hand, developing financial security early will give you the freedom to work for yourself, take more risks, or even escape a dead-end job (if you ever have the misfortune of falling into one).
4. Market Yourself Continuously
Most of the technology people I meet tend to have an aversion to self-marketing. That is somewhat understandable. After all, if it came naturally to them, they would be in marketing. But the other constraint that most people face resides in their own negative associations. For one thing, we are trained to be team players and marketing oneself can come across as self-promotion. Another part of this aversion is the impression most people have that marketing is somehow deceptive or manipulative.
But in the end, self-marketing consists of two very simple things—who you know and what they know about you. And whether you oversee this process or not, it is going to happen. That is because people—with or without your active involvement—are going to form their own ideas and judgments about who you are, what you do, and what your value is. How much of this will you take control of or leave to chance?
You do not have to hire a PR expert. Fortunately, social media makes it possible for you to take control of your own brand image, efficiently and effectively. What’s more, not maintaining your brand on social media is now akin to career suicide. It is not even optional.
LinkedIn is like a heat-seeking missile. You program it and it goes to work for you. It attracts the right people to you at any given time (people flow). It also gives all parties enough intel about each other to make quick and useful decisions about how to engage (opportunity flow). The three-tiered connection structure also allows your network to expand exponentially and passively. In many ways, LinkedIn does for your social relationships what compound interest does to your savings.
5. Form a Sole Proprietorship
Do not wait until you are financially secure to consider working for yourself. Form a sole proprietorship immediately (Visit www.IRS.gov. It is free). I tell this to recent college graduates all the time. And predictably, most of them respond the same way—they say that they are too young.
Old or young, your age is irrelevant. In fact, the primary advantage of forming a sole proprietorship is that it will transform the way you view your day-to-day work experience. Even if you are an intern or a full-timer working for a large organization, you will begin viewing your employer as your first “client” rather than your first “job”. That is a very empowering paradigm shift. You will also be more disciplined about how you create value for your organization and how you communicate that value. You will start to see opportunities everywhere to create multiple income streams for yourself. Remember, all it takes to become a consultant is to have one client. You will more easily be able to transition your current employer into that role if you have proactively formed a sole proprietorship and taken the necessary steps to market yourself online.