Chapter 4. Defining Yourself: Aptitudes and Desires
You've probably heard the question your entire life: What do you want to be when you grow up? For some, the answer was simple. In elementary school, I would hear kids talking about wanting to be a doctor, a surgeon, a construction worker, and so on. Even though they might have modified their answers over time, they had answers ready.
I, on the other hand, never really had an answer. I struggled, thinking through possible career choices—something I wanted to do over the course of my life—and came up empty. My entrance into a career in technology somewhat reflected this.
I have been programming since I was 13 years old. During that time, however, and even in early adulthood, I never viewed technology as a career choice. While in school, I spent my time taking courses I enjoyed—English, philosophy, earth science, and so on. I believed that I would enter teaching one day.
However, as I moved from job to job, adopting new skills, my "life's work" was forever elusive.
Eventually, a large insurance company hired me as a data entry clerk. The job was offered more because of my typing ability than any true computer skills I had. However, I soon found myself offering assistance to the department for computer-related issues. When a staff programmer left on vacation and management needed some ad-hoc reports, I muddled through the tasks, providing them the information they needed. Nine months later, I was across the street, in a new department, working as a junior database administrator.
I mention this to emphasize a point made earlier. No career move is without benefit, and if you actively review your aptitudes and desires, a career choice will start to become evident.
This is especially true in the computer industry and technology professions. Individuals often approach me asking my advice about entering the technology field. "Should I learn programming?" or "Should I go to school for network security?"
These people are, unfortunately, letting the proverbial cart drive the horse. My answer is typically the same in all cases, "Sure, if you like it."
What they are really asking is whether they can make a decent living as a technologist. However, I am more concerned with their long-term prospects and whether the career choice is a good one for them. I have already made it apparent that I believe the IT industry is a great place to build a career.
Ideally, you can make a lot of money as an attorney; however, if you absolutely hate the field and the prospect of working in that industry, the money is secondary. Job burnout is caused by pursuing a career—any career—without regard as to how it makes you feel. You are going to be in a career for a long time, so you might as well like it.
While working for a large law firm, I had the opportunity to work with some of the highest paid attorneys in the country. Many of these men were making more than a million dollars a year. During one project, a managing partner looked at me and said, "I wish I was doing what you're doing."
He had been a programmer in school and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now he was a well-compensated attorney who disliked the field but was caught in a gilded cage of sorts. I, of course, commented that I would trade some of my fun for some of his money. But the fact remains that performing work you dislike, even when you're well-compensated, is usually miserable.
And yet, people continually look at their careers from the standpoint of money first, desire second.
I am a realist, too. I understand that someone's desire might be to be a professional baseball player. However, that person's aptitudes simply do not provide the opportunity. I am not advocating an irresponsible perspective whereby you pursue a dead-end profession with no opportunity, simply because you like it. If you are realistic, these types of desires are best relegated to hobbies and pastimes.
The same can be said for technology careers. Be honest and realistic with your particular aptitudes. If you have a hard time understanding control constructs and the logic associated and required for programming, your desire might not be enough to overcome that barrier. Matching your desires with your abilities and aptitude is critical for career growth and long-term career enjoyment.
All is not lost. The person who likes technology but has a love for baseball can still create a truly enjoyable career. With proper positioning and a dedication to networking, that person could work for a sports-centered organization while providing technical solutions. I have seen this type of thing done with great success for the individual. It is a molding of professional aptitude with an area of extreme interest, to create passion in a day-to-day career.
It is not my intention to downplay the need to find a career that provides good compensation. In fact, you will find that pay is of primary importance when determining what your options should be.