I received an email from LinkedIn regarding an #IfIWere22 series for young professionals who are graduating this year and what advice would I give.

This is a re-post of my LinkedIn post.

Painting the picture

if_i_were_22If I Were 22 In my early 20’s the Internet and Web were just coming out. It was really only known to techies, and keep in mind this was an era of dial up modems. Which was an incredible time as a technologist as I could see the tremendous explosion about to happen. From a professional level I’ve personally gone through a transformation in my journey starting as a Junior Software Developer to where I am now as the Director of Technology and Engineering at Amcom Technology in Silicon Valley. If I could send a message back in time to my younger self, here’s the advice I would give.

Stick with your convictions and take risks

Back in those days (mid 1990s) it was the tail end of the era where you go about finding a stable job, work your way up the ranks, and retire with a pension. Which is a completely alien concept by today’s standards.

However I recognized that the Internet explosion was around the corner, so my friends and I took a stab at two startup ideas.

Idea 1: Autobank – an online used car listing

I had this idea when looking for my first used car. I found it incredibly time consuming to go through a newspaper to look at car listings and filter for what I wanted. I felt there’s a need to create a web site where people/dealerships could post their cars for a nominal fee, and users could filter and search.

We teamed up with a business partner whose family owned a number of car dealerships, so that gave us the industry expertise we needed. However the Web was so new, and dealerships were so antiquated and conditioned to spending tens of thousands of dollars in radio, tv, and print ads that the idea of spending a buck a month per car online seemed like a scam to them.

They actually said that the Web/Internet is either a scam (because how could it possibly be so cheap), or a fad and that it won’t last. I eventually gave up not being able to achieve any traction.

Of course, a few years later autotrader.com, cars.com, and other such sites came out.

Idea 2: Spyder Web Hosting

At this point in time the non-techie early adopters of the Internet were signing up with their dial-up modem ISPs. The ISPs would give them an email address and 5 MB of space for a personal http://www.yourisp.com/~username website.

I felt this was unprofessional as a business from a marketing and branding perspective, and teamed up with some friends to create a Web Hosting company.

With our T1 into a friend’s basement powered by a Sun Sparc server (both of which were extremely expensive back then) we began to hustle and market.

We ran into a similar problem – businesses felt that the free 5 MB ~username was good enough for their business site. Whereas I was proposing that we help register their yourcompany.com domain and we host it.

I eventually gave up not being able to achieve traction.

Of course, years later you have the godaddy.com’s and all these Web Hosting companies out there along with fierce legal battles over domain names.

Message to Tariq @ 22:

Don’t give up too early. If you have an idea, or really believe your instincts are right don’t give up.

It may seem daunting to give up a nice secure full time job at a stable company, and of course having a real income stream for the first time in your life is amazing and something that you feel would be crazy to give up.

But trust me, the opportunity and ability to take risks goes down over time as it’s proportional to your debt load (mortgage, car loans) and the responsibilities you have (family).

Not that it ever goes away, but the stakes get higher over time.So take calculated risks now.

  1. Try out your ideas, don’t give up on them until you’ve completely exhausted all possibilities.
  2. However your time is valuable. Don’t foolishly waste it chasing something that will not manifest. You have to balance your emotions (passion, ambition, persistence) with logic (critical thinking & data driven decisions) in order to be analytical enough to determine when it’s time to move on.
  3. Iterate over as many ideas as you can.
  4. Take career advancing job opportunities in other parts of the country and even overseas. Moving isn’t permanent, you can always move back.

Recognize time and value

When you’re young it feels like you have unlimited time. You do not. Time is finite.

20 years ago I felt most things were equally important. Think long and hard about every action you take throughout the day, and ask yourself if that activity generates value.

Value could be personal value, and it can be value at work. Focusing your time on the most valuable activities is what will allow you to achieve maximum progression throughout your life and career. When you’re working, just ask yourself if what you’re doing at any given time is really the most valuable use of your time?

Find ways to achieve the same end result in as little time as possible. E.g. a face to face or phone conversation, as outdated as it’s becoming, is often faster than writing a long articulate Email.

Stay focused

Along the lines of value and time is the need to stay focused.

Focused means saying no. Saying no to distractions, saying no to low value activities, saying no to activity instead of productivity. As humans it’s gratifying to want to tackle easy things in order to get a sense of accomplishment.

However the things worth doing often aren’t easy and thus we tend to procrastinate on them. Push yourself to get the real things done. Done is value. The more you increase your value, that’s what your raises and promotions will be premised on.

Speed vs. Velocity

Recognize the difference between speed and velocity.

Speed is just rate of change/movement. Velocity is speed in a given direction.

You can turn your steering wheel in your car to the left, floor the gas pedal and hit 60 mph. You’ll be moving fast, but you won’t be going anywhere.

In your career you want to be moving somewhere. Make sure your activities, projects, and learning have direction.

To use a technology centric example, number of Agile points completed in a sprint, or count of tickets resolved, is just speed. However if those efforts are iterating towards a path or goal, it has direction.

Don’t just create solutions, solve problems

As a young technologist I often viewed technology as isolated and distinct from business activity. Even mature companies today view I.T as such.

Whether you’re into technology, finance, marketing, or anything else – don’t just create solutions for the sake of creating solutions. Solve problems using your skills. This generates value out of your work (and thus increases your value).

The key however, is to define the problem. When working with others make sure this defined problem is published and clearly understood amongst teammates and stakeholders. The problem I’ve found is that when it is not published everyone has a different perspective on what the problem is, and thus efforts are fragmented and folks are solving different problems.

Develop and maintain your professional networks

You’ll meet many people in your professional journey. Starting fresh in your career your peers will all be at the same entry level that you are now. However as all of you grow, the value of your network will compound.

The biggest mistake you make is lose touch with all the people you meet along the way.

Create alumni user groups email lists, LinkedIn Groups, and of course stay connected through LinkedIn and other forms of social media.

Recognize your strengths and weaknesses

This is hard.

It can take years to develop a strong sense of what makes you distinct and unique. Weaknesses are directly related to strengths, as they’re often two sides of the same coin.

Someone who may be ultra-versatile and adaptive probably isn’t going to be an extreme specialist. Nor will an extreme specialist be versatile. A deep methodical analytical long range thinker may not be adept at making rapid high risk decisions.

Knowing what you bring to the table will help you position your career to best leverage your distinctive attributes in the companies you work for.

As you grow even further, recognize the distinct characteristics in others and then learn how the combinations of certain groupings of skills create a whole that is more valuable than the skills individually. This is the value of a team, and you’ll make far more progress creating and working with the right combinations of people than working individually.

Never stop learning

Graduating doesn’t mean the learning is done. The learning never ends. Always keep learning and improving your knowledge. Learn things directly related to your core job function, as well as things that would help complement your skill-set. Learn things that advance your strengths and minimize weaknesses.

In this day and age where everything moves so fast you run a huge risk of becoming antiquated quickly.

  1. Attend trade shows and conferences
  2. Take classes with industry training professionals
  3. Attend webinars
  4. Join local usergroups
  5. Participate in trade related discussion forums
  6. Subscribe to magazines, and read books
  7. Present a conference or usergroup any topic – it’ll force you to learn as much as you can about it

Failing is learning

Don’t be afraid to fail. Failing is the process of learning.

No one rides a bike for the first time and just goes. You have to take the risk, fall, and develop the balance in order to move forward.

Failing is only failing if you don’t learn from it. So when you fail at something, evaluate what went wrong and what you would do differently if you could go back in time and do it again.

Therefore failing is an investment in your development.

In Summary

Your career is a journey, and your profession is a craft. Continue to pave the path in front of your career so that your journey continues to flow, while cultivating your craft.

And lastly if there’s anything to remember, remember this. A Roman philosopher by the name of Seneca once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Or as I like to say, “luck is being prepared for an opportunity.”

Good luck!

#IfIWere22

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