Don Jones, famous in the PowerShell and Microsoft world (and also curriculum director at Pluralsight) offered the wisdom “Look after your career and you don’t need to worry about your job” in a recent interview with Microsoft’s Brad Anderson. (You can find it here:

Don’s idea is that successful people see jobs as waypoints on their career path and that by tending to the career path, they’ll never have to deeply worry about which specific job they have as if that job goes away, another opportunity will soon present itself.

In Don’s case he was talking about how he’d lost some jobs through organizations ceasing to exist or other factors beyond his control, but that each seeming catastrophe had led to a better opportunity because he’d constantly taken positive steps to keep his career on track.

The lesson is that if you tend to your career, you are more likely to recover more quickly from the shock of losing any specific job than someone who only focuses on the job they have rather than what comes next and what comes after that.

Always have a plan

You should always have some sort of overarching plan when it comes to your career. You don’t need to know exactly where you are going to be in five or ten years time, but you should have some general ideas of the direction in which you are going.

It’s not just a matter of having your resume polished, but having an idea what the next step will be. If you’re working desktop support it might be moving into a role where you are managing desktop deployment or managing servers. It might be that you want to move into a project management or architecture type position. It might be that you want to move into an architect role. The key is to have some idea where you are and where you are going.

It’s only once you know where you want to move next, you can start making that happen. If you don’t know what the next general step is in your career path, if you have no direction, it’s much harder to make progress.

Even if you end up changing direction, which is likely with any plans made about the medium to long term future, your decision to change course will be a conscious one. You’ll understand what steps you need to take to pursue the new course, just as you understood what steps you needed to take when pursuing the previous one.

Continuous learning

The best predictor of the health and growth of your career is if your willingness to continually learn new things in support of your future career path. Someone who is continuously learning will know more and have a greater skillset and will hence have far more to offer a potential employer when they transition jobs than someone who has a more limited set of skills and knowledge. The people I know who are most successful in IT are those that are constantly learning new things. The people I know that are less successful or who have drifted out of IT often have also drifted away from continually learning new things. They get complacent about their learning and complacent about their career.

Learning, Middle age and IT

The IT industry has a complicated relationship with middle age and beyond. Some people perceive it to be difficult to remain in technical roles once they reach middle age, with the industry mired in the perception that IT is a career for the young. The people I know who have stayed in the industry once they hit middle age tend to be those that have a direction in mind for their career. The people that I know that drifted out of IT in middle age were those that had let the direction of their career drift.

If you’re in your 30’s you should definitely be thinking about what your career will look like when you hit your 40’s. If your plan at any stage of your career to tread water, then you’re in the wrong industry and it won’t be long until you are swept away by the current. If you have a plan for what you’ll be doing in your 40’s, you are more likely to continue to be successful in your 40’s and wonder what the fuss about middle aged IT workers is all about.

What plans to make

Setting a direction for your career doesn’t mean carving plans in stone. It means choosing a direction and pursuing it with the understanding that you’ll revise your plans as necessary. It might be that you choose to learn a new programming language only to find that after learning something about that new programming language that it isn’t for you. As long as you then choose something else to pick up as a replacement, you’re taking care of your career. If you don’t have any idea of what you should be learning next you are neglecting it. If you are neglecting your career, your jobs won’t look after themselves.