Lessons Learnt Along The Way
12 pieces of advice I would give to my 20 year old version as an engineer
It has been 11 years past since my first full-time position as a “Junior Networks & Systems Administrator”. As of writing this I’m 31 years old, hence my corporate IT career journey started when I was 20 years old. A bit younger than today’s university graduates. Funny how time has passed and today I’m in a position where I assist and mentor juniors both formally and informally in a workplace environment.
Couple of months ago one of our managers came in and said they want to hire some “DevOps” interns and are planning to start a mentoring programme, where we pretty much come up with a curriculum of concepts and tools, we desire these interns to learn eventually. As a part of this programme, mentors who are already established DevOps engineers would become mentor’s and provide assistance in those particular subjects in the curriculum.
Needless to say I’ve raised my hand to volunteer to be one of the mentor’s and already put in some work to come up with learning topics, materials, a schedule and flow for the topic and related activities as such. However, yesterday I was thinking, besides from all the discipline specific knowledge, what can I actually teach to a junior that would benefit them the greatest. What advice, what insight, what gem I could give them, that would be of guidance in their journey in the next 10 years.
So it is yet again the million dollar question, if you can talk to your 20 year old self right now, what would you tell him or her about the upcoming 10 years.
The things I will share today are insights I have accumulated over the years and proven to be true again and again. However, I have this point of view about giving advice and knowledge sharing in general. If you go to anyone and just pour your wisdom on them, it never creates the effect you wish it does. According to my past experience, all advice I’ve received and actually applied are the answers I personally felt the need for and seek it. This sort of information is valuable, if the receiver is ready for it. So I wouldn’t necessarily preach these lessons on my younger self or any younger individual. Instead I would do what I’m doing today, leaving it in an accessible place for curious minds to discover.
1- Approach to Mastery and Learning
The real difference between the master and the apprentice is the amount of time they have failed.
There is only one method for mastering any aspect of your life, that is practicing. Everything easy now was difficult some time ago, only thing changed in between was repetition.
Being smart only dictates how fast you can learn something new. How fast you can grasp something, and there are also different types of smarts, you need to learn each and respect every one of them.
Expose yourself to new information, be curious and adventurous. You can only learn what you don’t know if you expose yourself. You can also never know if a piece of information can benefit you, don’t waste time trying to learn everything but don’t see your time wasted when you’ve learned something you don’t see an immediate benefit.
Learn the gist of things, the main idea, the core principles of everything you do. There is not a tutorial for everything so you need to make your own decisions. To figure out complicated looking questions, you need to have principles you can fall back onto simple directional guidance that will help you figure out the answers.
In order to achieve this, you need to focus on learning problems and solutions instead of tools. If you know what problem you are solving in the essence and what solution you would like to reach, you can achieve anything in between. If you are lost in between these, then you would only become an operator of tools.
2- Understand Seniority in Business
No matter the circumstances, some things just happen with time. Experience is one of them, experience can only come with time because there is not a real methodical way to gain it. Some things you can’t learn by reading a book, it’s true. You need to deal with people, customers, deadlines, mistakes, conflicts, headaches, heartaches and a lot more professional and personal drama. They all shape a person’s experience. This is not something that I’ve immediately acknowledged during my initial years. Sometimes, just being in the room long enough, is valuable enough for a business.
Also, do not forget that no matter what you’ve lived so far, your perspective is still only your perspective, valuing other people’s opinions, at least giving them a fair assessment, increases your perspective exponentially.
Ask right questions and you will get excellent support from any senior in any field. However, as time goes by time becomes more valuable. So you need to know how to approach them, and how to make best out of their time in an efficient way.
3- Don’t Shy Away From a Challenge
There is something brilliant about being daring
Awkward situations. You can actually tell how much you are getting out of your comfort zone by the amount of times you find yourself in situations where you don’t exactly know what to do. Every time you feel awkward, know that you are actually doing well. Obviously the exact same scenario shouldn’t make you feel awkward in the long run but initially it will, and again it’s something like after workout muscle pain, that’s how some people feel more ‘trained’.
It’s similar to anything in life. If your job becomes too easy, you need to do something harder, much like you would go to higher weights in the gym.You also can’t stop challenging yourself. Even without increasing the intensity, you can have diversified challenges.
An example is, while working on my technical skills in DevOps, I also take every other opportunity I can find to participate in sharing, teaching and mentoring in business and my personal life, because I want to give public speeches, write books and maybe run workshops in the future.
I take on projects, where the technology is something I’m already very good with, but took on the project just to improve on my project management skills. Again, If you want to be a leader, you need to start leading things, you need to accept delegation and actually own and deliver and deliver good results to the people who have trusted you.
There is no denying that I’m ambitious, and this ambition provides me a different perspective to spot opportunities otherwise may seem not really glamorous, or seem like a burden. I see a room full of growth opportunities.
Yes it’s difficult to do extra, but easy is not our friend.
Easy Paths Leads to Crowded Destinations
Check out Jack Butcher’s other work: https://twitter.com/jackbutcher
4- Don’t Whinge
And own your destiny end to end
20s are difficult, I get it. Transitioning into being an adult is difficult, yes. However the earlier you accept the facts the less time you would lose complaining. Life is no war movie, there are no reinforcements, no cavalry will come for you. You are responsible for your outcome %100.
Complaining is just time lost, period. When you are a child, you can complain to your parents, if they allow you. It ends there. Unfortunately, this is a behaviour we bring from our childhood to our 20s, the earlier you snap out of it the better it is for your own sake.
I’m old enough to know that chaos will happen, uncomfortable events will happen, my only chance is to separate my decisions from my reactions. This is only possible, if you accept and internalize the fact that you have no one to complain to. This is different from asking for help, ask for help but when things go south, accept your responsibility. You are far away from perfection like everybody else in the world. Just try to learn from them, and visualize the alternative. If you never experience negative events, you would be crushed on the first occasion.
If you know that, complaining is not an option, as a reflex you can block your emotions. The better you can do this, the more that challenge transforms into a learning opportunity.
5- Funny How Ideas Change So Quickly
Even throughout the last 10 years, my ideas changed on so many topics I can’t even list them. Be open to being wrong and be ready to update yourself. Your current views are shaped with your current experience, so don’t be a fanatic about them. Know that they are most likely to be changed in the future via various inputs to your life.
6- Be Authentic
Being authentic is effortless and It provides mental clarity. I believe one of the reasons I did not feel the famous “Imposter Syndrome” is that I was, maybe sometimes too honest with my employers.
I was very open with what I’m currently capable of and my potential during all of my job interviews. If I was inexperienced in an area, I would tell them how much time I would require to do some up skilling on it. This behaviour may have cost me some opportunities, but on the other hand I always had the confidence that I was very open to my employer, what I can deliver to them at the present and I am capable of picking new things as well.
7- Success Is Just Putting In The Work
The success you have achieved, won’t feel like success in the beginning not even in the middle. It will feel like you are chasing away a freaking train, if you look all the way ahead to the result.
The champions, %99 of the time, are not doing glamorous things, they just wake up and train hard. They have no fans cheering in the gym, there is no press, but they know they need to put in this work to actually perform great in that %1 of the time when it matters.
Success looks like getting sweaty in a gym, not like having an after party in a rooftop bar. That may be a byproduct, but it won’t feel like that until you get there. Whatever your goal is.
Between my 20s and today, my curiosity or growth mentality didn’t change, one bit. What has changed is execution. I realized that, unless you take action and do work, information is useless.
This was possible when initially I took a chance on this theory that claims success is more about consistency and repetition of ordinary effort rather than bursts of extraordinary effort. Actually sticking to doing things even if I don’t feel like it, and see that it’s actually working.
You can only see your success, either if people tell you so, or you really objectively take a step back, zoom out and compare yourself to your past self. In the present though, if you are growing you will always have that ‘itch’ and the feeling will suck. You will feel some sort of hunger, again like anything we are human and this is the human reaction. We want instant gratification, accepting it’s not possible and that is the natural way is important for staying resilient.
8- Ideal World Does Not Exist
Ideal job, does not exist, Ideal project does not exist, Ideal working environment does not exist. There is fine balance between having standards and expecting everything to be ideal.
If you feel the world is coming down every time you encounter something different than ideal, you would be exhausted. Accept that there would be adjustments in your plans, almost all the time.
Learn to lower your expectations just a notch, to protect yourself from emotional let downs. If you have it better, good for you, else well it’s fine we already settled on that it won’t be easy right.
9- Technical Debt is Not Your Personal Fault
When you work in a company and you see there are things that don’t sit right with you, be open about it and speak up but don’t get stressed. Getting fresh out of learning, you may think that in the commercial world, everything would be a textbook. On the other hand it’s not always the case, purely because we live in a capitalist economy, and business needs to consider cashflow, period.
Best practices are known and obvious but not always feasible. And drift doesn’t necessarily happen due to people’s talent shortage, ignorance or anything like that. it’s simply a business decision, to prioritize something else and we are not the judge of this decision.
The judge of that decision is the management of that particular business, we are responsible to inform others about the consequences of the shift, but knowing why it happens may put your mind into ease.
Actually, your manager, the ex-developer, the ex-product manager most likely had an idea what would be close to the best practice in the first place, or they may have already realized a certain thing needs refactoring. However, business doesn’t work that way, maybe they were understaffed, or working towards a tight deadline for a feature. They may have simply not had the go ahead to go back to fixing things.
If things gets out of hand, you have every right to raise concerns, but don’t expect to not have any clunky processes leftover in any environment.
10- Understand the Business
What exactly are you getting paid for? What is the value you are providing? What problems are you solving? How does your work translate it’s outcome to your employer/client? How do you reduce their risks/costs?
Figuring out the answers to above questions is necessary because not all companies are providing clear success metrics to their employees. You may be lucky if this is more methodically approached by HR specialists but even in the absence of that guidance, be aware of your own position.
In a business context: You are %100 responsible for your interests. You are liable to a business, you are professionally contracted to.
These two are everything you need to take care of, you can’t fall behind on your obligations to the business, that you are bound with a contract. It can be a direct, employee/employer relationship or it may be a direct customer of your services. It doesn’t change the fact that, you can’t fall short on these, this is your core integrity as a professional. Always keep this intent first.
On other other hand you are %100 responsible for the reward or compensation you are getting in return for your value. These interests, perks or monetary valuation is something you are responsible to gain.
Think about what your purpose is, when you are at work? Is it simply a paycheck, I don’t think so right, you want to do more. Does work provide you the opportunity fulfil your dreams, if not have you asked if things might change or not? if still not why are you still there? It’s a two way street. You need to be skillful to be desired in a business context, however the job you do needs to be challenging and rewarding enough to keep you growing and motivated.
Business is purely a value exchange, what do you solve for your client/employer, what do they then solve for their customers? How much better you made their ability to serve their customers is your value?
Once you figure out all above, you then have more clear vision on your self-worth in business.
11- Your Best Work Will Come Out Of Your Centered Self
There will be stressful times, where “shit hits the fan”. There will be downtimes, production issues. You will be tired, you will be mad, you will be frustrated.
Going back to not complaining philosophy, I would also suggest blaming and pointing fingers is not an attractive skill to have in any area of life.
What will make you a superstar is keeping your composure and trying to block off your emotions. Just think of solutions with your rational mind. By the way, solutions might be asking for help, however make all decisions with a centered peaceful mind.
Rushing, and acting on things trying out different things without any particular good reasoning is not such a good idea. In any business context, keeping your composure under chaotic times is a desirable and useful skill to have around.
12- It is Your Responsibility to Stand Out
Everyone is super busy, and has their own lives and responsibilities. People don’t really have time to look out for your progress. You need to be vocal about it and keep track of your own accomplishments.
Don’t expect the road will also be carved out for you. You are again responsible for aligning yourself to what is next for you in your life, career wise. You need to figure out the next direction and walk and leap towards that direction.
Don’t expect people to give you credit just like that, that won’t happen. You need to be daring and actually try to stand out. It can only happen if you try and improve.
There you go, 12 pieces of advice I would give to any 20 year old today who would be entering the IT world today.
The insights above are all part of my belief system, but as like any teacher I’m also imperfect and I can’t always practice them as perfectly as I wish to be. I’ve titled this article as learnt, as I have a better understanding and solidified views about the topics above in comparison to my younger self, however I’m also a firm believer that learning never ends.
Hence, anyone who is reading this, the above insights are my experience distilled from 11 years of industry and 31 years of life experience. We are all students in life and can all learn from each other in some way. Be good.