Mapping Out Your Career ‘Finish Line’

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A long time ago, when I worked as a comedian, other comics would tell me their goals. One guy wanted to perform on David Letterman; he worked toward nothing else. When he finally landed on the show, he had no idea what to do next: He hadn’t mapped out a more comprehensive future.

Likewise, too many people who get into tech are aiming only for that next job, and not envisioning the larger picture—their career picture. What most people call a goal is really a milestone; they’re not mapping out a “finish line” or endgame. While it’s difficult to predict the future, it’s more important than ever in these evolving times to plan for multiple outcomes, and to hold a top-level view of where you want your career to actually go in the end.

Vanessa Corchado, associate director of career services at Plaza College in New York, agrees with that sentiment: “Everything changes… New developments are upgraded all the time, so I believe backup plans are always needed.”

Whether or not you intend to stick with the same job your whole career—which is a long shot, given the rapidly evolving nature of tech—or plan on job-hopping until you end up at your dream company, you need to consider the skills and tactics you’ll need along the way.

Donna Shannon, career coach and author of Get a Job Without Going Crazy, suggested that developing non-technical skills can prove immensely beneficial in preparing for your career arc. “Planning for later stages of your career goes beyond just developing your technical skills,” she said. “Far too many IT professionals get wrapped up into obtaining the latest certification or learning the latest systems that they may forget to work on their soft skills.”

The first real milestone in a career is your degree or certifications; the next is to secure a job that puts you on a desired career path. As you progress, you learn new technology skills and take on new challenges. But if you’re not learning, your jumps will only be half as “high” as they need to be; you might land in good places, but you can jump higher and further with the right long-term planning. (I had been planning a transition from desktop applications to information security for years.)

Not Just for the Young

Students sometimes confuse their first job in tech with a profession in tech. Your first job in tech will look nothing like your last job in tech, and you need to proactively prepare along the way. If you’re at the start of your career, keep your mind open to all the possibilities the technology field has to offer.

Never Stop Planning

Bestselling author Charlene Li once said that the best advice she received while attending a career-management course at Harvard was to evaluate her career status every 18 months, because it takes about that long to master a job. For those of us in tech, however, active career management should be baked into everything we do; because our world changes so fast, 18 months may be too long to wait for a self-evaluation. I would suggest every three months; put it on your calendar to evaluate yourself and adjust your plan.

How do you actually plan for that next step? Here are some pointers:

  • Perform a Self-Assessment: To start, you may want to use your company’s employee evaluation form. (Doing this regularly will also allow you to provide a more complete assessment during year-end evaluations with your supervisor.)
  • Consider Career Planning Strategies: Look at the skills and qualifications required for jobs you covet, and learn accordingly. Add a Dice JobAlert Search and Google Alert to your desired jobs, so you can get a sense of what’s going on in the industry as a whole.
  • Develop Your Personal Network: The best time to network is when you don’t need something. Build that network by helping people with information, assistance, or contacts. This will all pay off later.
  • Market Yourself: Social tools are out there for you to deliver and receive specific expertise in your field. Use them.

You can also employ a professional career counselor. The better ones are members of the National Career Development Association (NCDA). It can make all the difference.

Whether you spend the extra money for a career counselor, or plot out your career on your own, make sure you spend the effort to delineate your career arc.