Do you know what the next milestone in your career will be?

For most of us, it’s a difficult question to answer. Unless you’ve got a great idea of where you are and where you are going, it can be challenging to figure out what the next significant event in your career will be.

Milestones are clearer in hindsight

When thinking about milestones, it’s easier to figure out what the future might hold by looking back at the significant events in your career to date. Events that are significant in our career are easier to discern in hindsight than they are at the time. What might have seemed a small step at the time, a choice to learn a new technology or the completion of a specific project can, years later, mark a significant step in your career.

One example from my own life is that one day in 1997 the University that I worked for offered to put my colleague, the senior Unix administrator, on a Windows NT4 administration course. He declined because he didn’t want to learn Windows NT4, but suggested that I, who had been doing some junior Linux admin and general IT support work might be a good candidate. His small choice marked my move into the world of Microsoft ecosystem systems administration. From 2016 it’s easy for me to see it as a major turning point in my career. In 1997 it was just a course that I was going to take to learn a new technology.

Some milestones you can work towards

Certifications, especially the ones you get earlier on in your career, are achievable milestones. My first MCSE in Windows NT4 and the follow up MCSE in Windows 2000 felt like notable career achievements. There’s a palpable sense of achievement when you get your first major certification. In terms of job hunting, having some experience and an MCSE made me get far more callbacks from recruiters at the turn of the century than just having the experience did.

Milestones are often personal

People who go on to get multiple certifications don’t always remember what a big achievement that first major certification feels like. While I’ve gone on to get multiple MCSEs and other certifications since I was awarded the NT4 MCSE, that first one felt like a big achievement. In some ways my NT4 MCSE was more important to my career than my undergraduate degree in that the certification was a choice made around my career. My undergraduate degree was something I chose to apply for while I was still finishing high school and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do as an actual job beyond “work with computers”.

Milestones as markers of continuing progress

It’s useful to consider possible future milestones because milestones function as progress markers. A person that feels their career is progressing will be much more positive about that career than someone who feels that they’ve not accomplished anything of note.

Positive career attitudes are self reinforcing.

If you feel you are making progress, you continue to make progress. If you feel that you aren’t making progress, you start to conceive of your career as being stuck in a rut. If you’re feeling positive about your career, you’ll keep working to keep your career moving. I’ve met many people in IT careers that feel like they are drifting from job to job without any real sense of progress. They get away from this feeling of drifting by setting themselves some goals.

If you could reach your next milestone tomorrow, what would you do?

If you are feeling that you haven’t accomplished anything particularly significant in your career of late, you should start setting some small achievable goals. Once you achieve those goals, start setting larger goals. By setting and accomplishing goals you’ll start to feel that your career is getting some momentum. It’s also likely that, at some point in the future, you’ll look back on the decision to start setting and accomplishing small goals as one of those career milestones I’ve been talking about in this article.