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Architecting Your Career

Soft skills are necessary for success

2/10/2016 12:00:34 AM | We spend at least 8 hours a day working. That’s one third of the day. Most of us are probably spending closer to half. Are you getting the most out of the time at work? Are you doing a job or a career? Are you in control or just bouncing from job to job? What can you do to gain control of your career?

Before we focus on career, it’s important to understand what executives are looking for in employees. In IBM’s 2012 CEO study the top characteristics for employee success were collaboration, communication, creativity and flexibility. This clearly shows that the so-called “soft skills” are just as important, if not more, than the technical skills that we value. It’s clear that executives are more focused on how you deal with people than your ability to code or manage systems.

Do These Things

Working with a number of Distinguished Engineers and Fellows in IBM has taught me something important about corporate technical success: there’s no single path. One can’t just follow simple steps to success. It requires those core skills that the CEO’s defined. Having said that, a few guidelines that can help you progress in your career include to:

Keep your life balanced.
This is extremely important. All work and no play does not just make a person dull, it burns them out. Making sure that you spend time with family and friends doing things you enjoy will actually help you to work better. Often it’s the time off that brings new ideas and methods for solving a difficult problem. This isn’t to say that you wont have to work on a weekend or miss a family event from time to time. It means that a steady diet of working to the exclusion of everything else will ultimately work against you.

Know your worth.
It’s not difficult to know how much people who do similar work are paid. Plenty of websites will give you that basic information. This isn’t to say that you should only look at the money, but you should understand your worth. What tradeoffs are you making for money? How important is job satisfaction? Perhaps you are more attached to the team you are in. Whatever the motivation, it’s important to think about it from time to time.

Get out of your comfort zone. This is the most important suggestion. We can easily get comfortable in a job. When you know exactly what is expected of you and how to meet those expectations, you get comfortable and over time can lose the drive to excel. It’s good to get out of that comfort zone and stretch yourself. It’s OK to say, “I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish this!” once in a while. You probably don’t want to do it all the time. Nothing great was ever accomplished without risk. Ask yourself, “When was the last time I was a bit uncomfortable at work?” If you can’t remember a time or if it was a long time ago, maybe it’s time to change things. Your current job may be fun, but is it the right job for you long term? Perhaps it’s time to move on.

Develop more than your technical skill. It’s important to develop your technical skill. You should have a deep understanding of something. If you plan on developing in a company you need more than your technical skill to be valuable. It’s important to understand the entire landscape that surrounds your technical skill. How is your technology used? To what end? Additionally, it’s important to understand the industry in which you’re working. This will allow you to understand the importance of your technology and ultimately the skill you have. Perhaps it’s time to increase the number of technologies you know. Perhaps it’s time to build skill in a new technology. Maybe it’s time to deepen your skill in your chosen field. No matter what, be a generalist in addition to your specialization. It’s easy to find great specialists. Finding good generalists is harder. This helps you be the skill the company needs.

Be the optimist. Being optimistic doesn’t mean being happy all the time. It means taking something everyone sees as a problem and making it an asset. This sounds hard but there are many great business examples of successes coming from seaming failures. For example, Post-it notes came about from a failure. Dr. Spencer Silver was attempting to create a super strong adhesive when he inadvertently created a low tack pressure sensitive adhesive. It wasn’t until Art Fry took the invention and applied it to notes five years later that the product took off. Every failure is an opportunity to win something.

Be inquisitive. One of the things that makes technical people stand out is the ability to solve puzzles. Don’t lose that. Apply it to things in the company that aren’t part of your technical world, or even your job. Be inquisitive about the business around you. Any clues that allow you to figure out the big picture are valuable. When you stop learning in the technical world, you die.

Be humble. Being humble doesn’t mean walking around saying you are useless. It is about understanding your contribution and the contribution of others. There is always someone with more technical expertise than you. Understanding what they can contribute will help you achieve your goals faster. Letting others win doesn’t diminish your technical prowess; it can enhance it.

Be decisive. Sometimes making a bad decision is better than no decision at all. Don’t get caught up in analysis paralysis. Pick something and move forward. The key to being agile is to fail fast and move forward. This isn’t to say you should be reckless. Failing fast means being close to your client and understanding what they want and consistently refining that understanding.

Be flexible.
Technical people often get married to an idea or a way to solve a problem. This can keep you from seeing the way things are changing in the industry. We live in a changing environment; you need to be ready to abandon ideas, processes or activities that aren’t moving things forward.

Let go.
Technical people often want to do everything themselves. They are most comfortable creating solutions and content on their own and demonstrating it. That is fine early in your career as you are trying to learn as well as build. As you and your sphere of influence grows, you can’t possibly do everything. Learning to let others do things and learning from their successes and failures is critical to growing.

Mentor others.
Mentoring grows talent in the company. It’s a powerful way of building up the junior members of the company. It also gives you a new perspective. Mentoring grows your business acumen as well as your technical prowess. Read more about mentoring.

Network. Building out a network increases your effectiveness and increases your understanding of what’s happening in the company and its product portfolio. It also builds out your technical understanding of products. Your network will help you solve problems that are way beyond your normal technical sphere.

Know your strengths and weaknesses.
Most people focus on their strengths. It is also a good idea to understand your weaknesses and work to mitigate them.

Remember image is reality.
People will build an image of you and then everything you do or say is through the lens of their image. This can either help or harm you. Work to build an image that supports your growth.

Think about the team. People aren’t stupid. They want to feel that they are getting something out of the working with you. Take the blame for problems. Give the team credit for success. Their growth will reflect well on you.

Understand the business. Any technical person can understand the technology behind a product. Understanding the business and its needs help you to see the big picture and where products fit into the business. It also allows you to understand what will resonate with your customers.

Be a good communicator. Learn how to write and speak. Practice both. Use any opportunity to present in front of others. We live in a time where it’s easy to publish content on the Internet. Take advantage of the opportunity. Find people who will be critical of your content to get feedback on your writing and presentations.

Create a patent.
This is easier than you think. What ideas do you have to make your work environment better? Is your solution to problems novel? Talk to others in your area. Work with them to figure out the value. People with patents have automatically have credibility.

Think globally but act locally. Understand the big picture. Try to figure out how you can contribute to that picture. People who can relate what they are doing to the big picture have an easier time describing their relevance to the bottom line. They also have the ability to come up with new ways they can affect that big picture.

Don’t Do These Things

Just as there are things you need to do to advance your career, there are things that can slow it down. Avoiding certain things is just as important as doing the right things. Things you should avoid include:

Stagnation.
It’s easy to get stuck into a rut by sticking to the things you know. In our business if you’re not learning new things you’re falling behind. Be eager to learn new stuff.

Closed-mindedness. Even if you have been doing something well for the past decade doesn’t mean that this is the only way to do it. Sometimes the most insightful comments come from people who haven’t been living and breathing the process forever. While bringing someone new in can be time-consuming, it can also bring a refreshing perspective on things. Closed-minded people often miss the next big thing right in front of them.

Being an island.
Between the problems we face and the mercurial progress in technology, no one can know everything. You need to work with others, share information and be informed by others. People who hoard information or don’t listen and incorporate other ideas into their world will never progress very far.

Relying on politics.
Every business has politics. You need to deal with them and in some cases play them. Avoid playing politics whenever possible. People catch on to people who play politics early and learn not to trust them. They also often sabotage the efforts the politicians.

Emotional outbursts.
People who allow their emotions to rule their interactions with others often say or do things that hamper their own success. Don’t reply to that email in anger, or tell that person he’s an idiot. Wait, consider and then reply.

Being accusatory.
If something is done wrong, figure out how to fix it and make it right. Don’t waste time pointing fingers. Focus on solving problems rather than assigning blame.

Your Career Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint


People often feel that their career isn’t moving fast enough. There’s always someone who gets ahead seemingly without good reason. Rather than compare yourself to those people or question their appropriateness for the promotion, focus on what you need to do. The prize goes to those who stand out. This doesn’t mean shameless self-promotion. This is about building a personal brand and extending your influence through that brand.

Frank De Gilio is a Distinguished Engineer from IBM’s World Wide Client Technology Centers with a global focus on client enterprise infrastructures. He is the IBM Systems Chief Architect for Cloud Computing.

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