Random career advice from the ivory tower

Few days ago I had the honor of being the guest speaker at the graduation ceremony of my alma mater. Just in case you’re interested in what I told future Slovenian IT geeks, here’s a short summary.

It’s important to graduate. A lot of IT people realize too soon how much they’re worth and drop out of college following the easy money. A lot of them regret that when they’re older (unless, of course, you’re Steve Jobs, in which case you probably don’t care a bit). Pushing all the way through all the exams and finally the thesis proves that you’re able to complete a multi-year project. The confidence you gain by getting a huge job done usually doesn’t hurt your professional career either.

You should never stop learning. IT is one of the fastest-evolving fields in the human history, which offers you great opportunities, but also the challenge of continuous learning that never stops. IT career is like a life-long marathon: if you stop running to rest a bit, you’re left in the dust ... and it’s pretty hard to catch up.

However, there’s a trick you can use: always try to understand the big picture. Try to position every new technology in a framework. After a few decades, you’ll figure out that nothing really changes; what looks like a new idea is usually a reincarnation of an older concept, this time implemented with vastly improved processing power and significantly increased bandwidth. Your knowledge of “historical” IT concepts will always help you spot the benefits (and drawbacks) of every new technology.

Don’t fall asleep. I’ve seen many great engineers become complacent in their mid 40s (usually after a few career successes that they worked really hard to achieve). Don’t fall into that trap; the moment you think you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career is the moment it starts going downhill.

Never stop being curious. If you lose your curiosity, you’ll lose the ability to learn about new technologies and solutions that would have excited you years ago. Try to be like a child.

Follow your dreams. Career achievements and financial successes are important, but it’s more important to make something you’ll be proud of. If you have a dream you want to make true, go for it. Don’t let the bystanders (including your friends and family) telling you it’s impossible derail you. If you don’t try, you’ll never know whether you’re able to pull it off or not. If you fail, try again. It’s the effort you put in and the lessons you learn that matter most.

You’re responsible for your own success. Don’t complain about unfavorable circumstances; we all had them. Work with what you have and figure out how to make progress. Don’t rely on your country, the society, social services, your company or your boss helping you. They are all interested primarily in what you can do for them, not what they can do for you. There’s a single person in this world responsible for your career and your success – you are.

Individual faculties of my university have their own graduation ceremonies; having only IT graduates in the audience made my task way easier (it would be hard to come up with something that would be equally relevant to classical philologers).

12 comments:

  1. Demotivated engineer17 December, 2010 17:37

    " ... your company or your boss helping you. They are all interested primarily in what you can do for them, not what they can do for you."

    Some people swear by nepotism.

    Ivan, you couldn't have timed out article at a better time. And you are right - need to find a way to progress.

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  2. Great timing indeed. I've been having kind of a hard time staying motivated in my job hunt recently, but reading this certainly helped a bit =)

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  3. Awesome advice.

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  4. Important to graduate? Well, maybe for some people. Never saw any value in that, never really cared :) Piece of paper and washed out brain. Wisdom and knowledge is out there, just go and get it, paper does not mean you are smart, innovative or good team player. Paper just means you can obey, act humble and compress all possible not necessary stuff through your brains.

    Agree with the rest of the article, 100%.

    Cheers, Jan

    P.S: Maybe I really should never have ceremony speeches in academic buildings :)

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  5. As I wrote, the paper also proves you can complete a project, even if you don't like every bit of it. It's a very similar discussion to the "value of certification" one.

    Also, let's talk in 15-20 years ;)

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  6. Great speech! Somehow, I always appreciated this one: http://thinkingproblemmanagement.blogspot.com/2010/12/wear-sunscreen.html 8-)

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  7. You also don't need a piece of paper to prove you can finish a project. 15-20years? That's how long I've been working in this industry without graduating from any college/university and I've been very successful. I don't think that not having a degree/diploma has hurt me, and I've gotten more than one job where the advertisement listed a degree as a requirement. Rather than "it's important to graduate" maybe it should be "it's important to finish projects that you start" :) It's all good advice though!

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  8. Don't think paper can give you those superpowers to complete the projects that you partially don't like. You know me, I worked with lot's of different people and usually I observed that self-educated people are more persistent in trying to figure out things they don't like or even understand. It's more "attitude" thing...

    Maybe I met and worked with different people :)

    /jan

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  9. I'm going to have to side with Ivan on this one. I thought I was too smart for college and dropped out my sophomore year. Now I regret that I didn't finish when I was young and had the time to do it. Working a full time career and going back to school, even part time, sucks. At my current pace it is going to take me 5 years to finish what I could have done in the past in 2, with the added bonus of not having to be "The Old Guy" in class. Even though I have a great job and a CCIE, I feel that I missed out on some great learning by not sitting through all those classes, whether related to my job or not. In short - Is it needed? No. Is it helpful? Yes.

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  10. I agree that graduating is not the ultimate task to achieve, on the other side the study of various theoretical concepts definively outlines you the current possibilities of computer science, give you an idea where the battle fields exists, who&how is fighting them to extend the science in that area.
    That knowledge is what gives you with getting the big picture.

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  11. I vote for graduation advice :) Not much because it's complicated project, but more because it gives you a wide base of fundamental knowledge from multiple disciplines. Not to mention you get those nice studying habits and have the chance to learn mathematics! I have hardly seen anyone who was able to learn mathematics (algebra, calculus, discrete math, differential equations etc) on their own, without attending a college/university.

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Ivan Pepelnjak, CCIE#1354, is the chief technology advisor for NIL Data Communications. He has been designing and implementing large-scale data communications networks as well as teaching and writing books about advanced technologies since 1990. See his full profile, contact him or follow @ioshints on Twitter.