Off topic: The two cycle engine and your career path

I’ve been in technology for twenty years now. I’ve seen hundreds of environments, nearly 300 while employed at Microsoft alone.

One thing that I’ll always remember is my first day at Microsoft and not because I found out that health care was 100% free; though, that was a pleasant shocker. During New Employee Orientation (NEO), the trainer asked who had spouses that worked here and also who had worked here before.

She went on to explain that employees have many career paths. You can shift from one role to another. You can move laterally or make a move up or even down to get to your goal. The next I had never thought an HR rep would say. You can even leave and come back at a higher role. She explained that this is a very common practice within Microsoft.

When she asked how many people were former employees about 10 of the 150 raised their hands. I know this is one reason you should never burn a bridge but it’s a whole different conversation when you think about stepping stones to meet your ultimate goal.

As a consultant I often meet with managers, directors, and C-level staff. I also work directly with the front of the line. The ones that have specific tasks and do them very well. These employees are often referred to as individual contributors.

Take the two cycle engine. It’s small. It uses a specific mixture of fuel and is applied to specific tasks, much like an individual contributor. Need the weeds whacked? Need to jump a dirt mound or do a wheelie through a field? Need a reliable cheap way to get from point a to point b very slowly? That’s the job of a two cycle engine.

Moving from an individual contributor to the next level can be difficult if you don’t have the skills or don’t invest the time and effort. Usually the next level would include mentoring peers and influencing more than just your single area of focus.

I have never seen a weed whacker used to mow the whole lawn. This would take forever and probably end in disaster. Not saying it can’t be done but attempting this over and over would force the weed whacker to evolve it’s skillset.

Being a leader is hard to do with 10 horsepower. You need to grow your circle of influence and core skills. Ask for and get training where you can and as often as possible. If needed, leave and grow new skills in your next position. You can’t make the jump from entry level intern directly to CEO. It takes a lot of work and carefully laid plans.

I was talking with a Microsoft MVP a while back and he mentioned that you will almost never see a Director position posted because almost all of these are internal hires. This got me to thinking. Why are almost all mid-management internal hires and almost all C-level external?

Let’s say you have a small company. It started off as just you and has grown and grown into a blossoming small business of 25 to 50 employees. Is employee #2 the right choice to lead your company into the future? This employee was a rock star and always got you what you wanted and sooner than you asked for it. Is this employee the right choice to be CTO? The answer is more often than not, no.

Transforming a two cycle engine into a V-12 is not very likely to be fruitful. Just because an employee has produced as an individual contributor doesn’t mean they are well suited to be a leader. It’s an entirely different skill set and often requires an entirely different personality and background.

I’m not saying they won’t succeed; however, it’s more than likely that they may be a handicap for continued growth. At least from my own observations over the past 20 years.

Domain knowledge does not equal leadership knowledge. Though this is probably why most directors are hired internally. An intimate knowledge of how the data and applications work is invaluable but doesn’t necessarily translate into steering the ship from an overall perspective of technology. After all knowing where to find your data doesn’t mean you know what CAPEX and OPEX mean or how to control them.

What is your desired career goal? Do you have a path laid out and know how to get there?

Always be aware that there are many ways to advance your career whether it’s growing in place, moving laterally, leaving to develop new skills and coming back, or advancing from IC to leadership in your current role. Don’t limit yourself and don’t ever be afraid to take on new responsibilities if it’s something you desire. Always keep evolving…

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