Managing Your Career in Tech – Part 1: Make Work Matter

It’s an amazing time to work in technology. There is so much opportunity available to talented, driven people. Any of us can rise to the top of our chosen profession. But where we go and how far we rise is increasingly up to us.

How will you manage your career in technology? This is a many-layered question. The first layer is finding meaning at work.

Consider Work-Meaning and Personal-Meaning

As Peter Drucker mentions in his missive on personal management, Managing Oneself, anyone can operate as if they were the CEO of their own career. As the CEO of your career, you are in charge of your own investment, growth, and purpose.

Of course, you aren’t totally independent. You probably have an employer, and you do owe your employer time and energy. This is an obligation that keeps you from being totally self-determining. Additionally, because time and energy are limited, you will need to find the intersection of your employer’s purpose and your own personal purpose if you are to succeed at both. Trying to manage two major separate interests probably means you’ll fail at one of them.

Therefore, finding affinity, alignment, or compatibility between work and personal meaning is important when managing oneself. This aspect of career management is why you should expect more than a paycheck from your job. Your work should matter to you in some way that outpaces monetary compensation so that you can push your own career forward while also fulfilling the responsibilities of your job. It’s a simple win/win situation.

Choose to Coast–Find Meaning Elsewhere

Must you find meaning in your work? There are tech workers who don’t. Instead, they collect a paycheck and permit their careers to happen to them. They might be good, hard-working employees. They do what’s expected of them. And it’s very possible these individuals find meaning outside of work.

At times, we might all find ourselves in this position. Sometimes family, friends, or health require more of us, and we have to de-prioritize work. There isn’t anything wrong with this approach, but think carefully before you let it go on for too long.

During your career, you give your employer time and energy. Most knowledge workers will work for around 45 years. If you work full-time, that’s about 96,000 hours. Each one of those hours is a non-renewable resource. Once that hour is spent, you can’t get it back. If managing your career is meaningful, should you give that much time and energy to something that doesn’t matter to you? Should you also leave the development of your career (a powerful collection of time and energy) up to your employer? This is a heck of a lot of power and self-determination to give up.

But, let’s say you are okay with this arrangement. You should probably ask if your employer is able to take up this responsibility in earnest. Your career is a powerful asset. It wouldn’t be smart to turn it over to an employer without asking some questions:

  • How many full-time employees are dedicating time and effort to managing the careers of the workforce?
  • What sort of career path is available to me?
  • What do I need to do to be ready for advancement?

An employer may say they are going to develop employees, but then not assign someone to do that job. When there’s no concrete party in charge of something, it generally doesn’t get done. This passive approach could end with an individual stagnating in their career. When an individual hasn’t been prepared for more responsibility, they’re unlikely to have advancement opportunities.

Choose to Take Charge–Find Meaning at Work

Finding meaning at work is the first step toward aligning your personal development with the responsibilities of your job. We should do a thought experiment to see if this alignment is even possible in your case. For clarity’s sake, let’s consider an extreme example:

Let’s say you are a staunch pacifist, but work at General Dynamics in the Unmanned Systems Group on drone control software. I’m not sure how you ended up in that situation, but you are going to find each day at work to be in tension with your deeply held beliefs. It’s probably not a sustainable situation. You will also struggle to find ways of investing in yourself that align with your employer’s purpose.

If your deeply held beliefs conflict with the values of your employer, you may struggle to find alignment of purpose when it comes to personal development. As CEO of yourself, it’s your responsibility to find sufficient compatibility between employer and career. If this idea of finding meaning at work seems out of the question, there is a possibility that you are a part of the wrong organization.

Your situation might not be as extreme as the example I’ve outlined above. It might be that the alignment of personal and work purpose is hard for you to gauge. If this is the case, you might want to scale back your expectations and look for compatibility over explicit alignment. Let’s look at another thought experiment:

Maybe you work for a project management software company as a developer. It might be that the purpose of that company is to provide the best project management software in the industry. You might not be so passionate about project management or software. But let’s say the company you work for treats its employees really well, as you feel employees should be treated. To you, that should enhance the benefit of advancing the organization because some part of the company’s reason for being intersects with your own. This compatibility isn’t quite so clear, but it can be meaningful.

Another possibility exists: Personal and work purpose don’t necessarily line up, but a position within an organization represents such a powerful professional growth opportunity that you don’t need much alignment. This might be a situation that works for a time even if it’s not a long-term fit. Take advantage of this situation. Define what you want out of it, get what you need from the experience, and move on when you’ve got it.

I hope you find personal alignment with your employer’s reason for existing. If you don’t, I wish you strength and courage to make a change. If you do, then you’re ready for the next step in career management: setting personal objectives and key results.