Working Oneself Out of a Career

ResumeThis is going to be a tough question, and I suspect many won’t like the anwer.

Are you working yourself out of a career?

If this question confuses you, chances are you are doing just this. Perhaps you’re the main guy or gal on your project, and your company values your work (for now). What is your work? Are you doing the same thing day after day? Maintaining Oracle Forms? Updating a legacy web site? Parsing through line after line of Visual Basic to keep some legacy system running smooth?

If so, what else are you working on? Anything?

I remember all too well the dark days of 2001 through 2003, when, just after the dot-com bubble, many skilled software developers were out of work with no good options. Any companies that happened to be hiring took full advantage of the fact that the market for software people was flush with resumes of people who were desperate for jobs. The pay dropped dramatically. I lost my job at a startup that failed, and took the first job offer that came along: A technical writer and quality assurance contractor on a federally-funded project. The job, initially, was horribly boring. I literally hated what I was going–but it was a job.

My problem was, being somewhat young, I didn’t have a powerful resume or much experience under my belt. I didn’t have the proof, so to speak, to convey to a potential employer that I would be a great fit for a position. And the sad fact was that, no matter how great I might have been for a job (so I thought), or how hard I was willing to work, there were literally thousands of other candidates out there. The hiring companies had their pick–and believe me–they were picky!

As good as things seem to be for software developers right now, I’ve learned that the market can change quickly. So it is on you to make sure that your skills are diverse and up-to-date. To that end, it is necessary to continually pursue new learning. Let’s face it: Your employer does not have a vested interest in seeing you grow your career. An employer wants an employee to meet their needs as efficiently as possible. That’s fine. Expected, really.

So what are you doing to ensure that you are valuable when the time comes that your employer no longer needs you, or when your employer downsizes or go goes out of business? It’s a question that many of us don’t wish to ponder too much. It sounds so negative, doesn’t it? But it’s an important question.

It isn’t bad to be an expert at something. It’s great, for example, to be an expert C++ programmer. Kudos! But what does ‘expert’ mean exactly? Does it mean that you do one thing very well, but nothing else? It may mean that you are valuable as a C++ programmer, but of no value when it comes to other needs: UI design, Database Design, jQuery, HTML5, Agile, System Administration. A hiring manager would rather hire a candidate with many diverse skills (yet expert in none of them) than an expert in a single skill.

In a single week at work I find myself working on OS scripts, front-end UI design, back-end data access, business services and Rest APIs. My position requires that I have knowledge of the “full stack” (A term I despise!) as some like to call it. This is good. I feel secure in knowing that I’m hire-able (not to sound self-satisfied) based on a wealth of skills. Should I find myself looking (I’m currently quite content), I’ve built my resume up to show that, while I’m an expert in nothing, I’m skilled in many things. This is a better way to go.

This is  a topic that I plan to write more about, perhaps turning it into an article. I want to leave with this, and this is going to sound a little negative if taken the wrong way: If you have been doing the same thing day in and day out for X years, you have not gained X years of experience. You’ve gained 1 year of experience X times in a row. It may be time to consider looking for a new job right now–while employers are eager to find talented software developers. And not just any new job. You need to find a job that will challenge you–stretch you to learn and grow new skills.

(I hope this post doesn’t strike anyone as self-righteous, cynical, or rude. My intent is only to point out a common problem in the career of software developers.)