Not all industries are created equally, which is why not all generic career advice applies.
The tech industry is incredibly fast-moving, largely unpredictable, and an unexpected breeding ground for household name rockstars (can you name the COO of Home Depot?—no you can’t).
No matter how high you hope to skyrocket in tech, you won’t make it far without a few key attributes, namely brilliance and humility. Yes, a rare combination. For everything it takes to “make it” in this industry other than raw talent, read on.
Be a “learn it all”
At a recent Testlio-hosted fireside chat, CEO Kristel Kruustük sat down with Partner Director of Engineering at Microsoft Kevin Henrikson to talk about Henrikson’s wildly successful career and all its twists and turns. One thing that came up in the discussion was that it’s far better to be a “learn it all” than a know it all.
Believing that you’re already at the top of your game is a surefire way to stay stagnant. This is probably why Bill Gates reads 50 books per year. Here are two ways to immediately put lifelong learning into action:
- Don’t rely on your former education: Whether via new courses and certifications or informal, personalized learning, seek out new skillsets and deepen your existing skills each and every year
- Take notes everywhere: Use a small notepad or the Keep app to write down those book recommendations and company names that you hear about at various tech events and would otherwise forget—particularly when given a personal recommendation of someone you should reach out to.
In a fast-paced, ever-changing industry, striving for new knowledge and new connections is essential.
Ask what you can give
Continuously learning new things is one way to practice humility. Offering help is another.
In the tech world, there are some big egos. We all know that’s an understatement.
Sometimes our egos serve us, and sometimes they can get us in trouble and hold us back. To combat your ego (and the egos around you), it’s important to learn how to be of service to others. Henrikson explains how he’s adopted this practice in his daily work life:
Not that I don’t have an ego anymore, but instead of coming in and saying I have the answer, it’s like hey, I’m here to learn. It’s a small question… “Tell me your problems. How can I help?” This notion is incredibly disarming. When I meet people now I’m always like “How can I help?” It’s the easiest throwaway question but it’s incredibly disarming for the other person.
If you’re meeting them for the first time, you come in and someone’s like I need a one-on-one with you and you’re thinking oh no this is going to suck, and you come in and say “How can I help?” and they were all pissed about something, and wanted to tell you [about it]. And you’re like “No no no I want to help.” It completely changes the conversation.
Remember: it’s not about being a know it all and acting like you can solve everything, but instead be a genuinely good listener and then see if there’s anything you can do.
Help remove blocks for others
In tech, we talk about blocks a lot, and there’s a reason for that. For most tech companies, the potential for growth and speed is enormous.
Perhaps there’s no physical product component or no daunting industry regulations. For many companies in tech, the only limits are how well their team can achieve product/market fit, how quickly they can ship, how well they respond to customer demands, and the ability to scale. Counter that potential with Henrikson’s example of designing and launching a plane, and you’ll see that in a lot of ways, we’ve got it easy.
Clearing blocks allows teams to actually reach that potential. Regardless of your role in a company, if you’re someone who can remove blocks for others, you’ll be a team favorite and your efforts will not go unnoticed.
Actively participate in daily standups, notice when others are struggling and work to find solutions, and of course by never become a block yourself.
Follow up no matter what
Follow up on everything, always.
Follow up on requests you’ve made of others. Follow up on requests other have asked of you.
Start creating “follow up lists” and sort them by categories: new initiatives that you want to take, tasks that are required of you, and things you’ve requested from others. This can be done by creating calendar reminders, by using the Keep app, making notes in a spreadsheet, or simply by starring emails.
Know how to survive an acquisition
Depending on your position, it’s quite possible you could go through an acquisition one day. Henrikson learned the right way and the wrong way to adjust when going through multiple Zimbra acquisitions and when Acompli, the startup he cofounded, was bought by Microsoft.
VMWare just disabled us. All the people that worked for us, our team, all of my friends they either got laid off or stuffed into crappy jobs because we did a bad job making friends. We would fight for crazy stuff. We would say we’re not taking VMWare business cards, we only want ones that say Zimbra on them. You think you’re winning, but it was a complete bad move.
When we went into Microsoft, we deleted our Acompli accounts, we completely dissolved our identity as a startup, and said nope we’re Microsoft, we’re Outlook, this is our thing. We have tons of friends up and down the org. We have incredible retention of the team.
Understanding the importance of fluidity and knowing how to rebuild a team can help not only during acquisitions but in times of major growth, when dozens or potentially hundreds of new employees are joining up in the span of just a few months.
Do things outside of your job description
Nobody likes a chicken running around with its head cut off. So keep that in mind as we discuss this next point.
As Sujan Patel says, “Only doing what you were hired to do communicates to your boss that you’re content at your current level.”
You don’t need to work yourself to the point of overwhelm or step on other people’s toes, but when the time is right, step outside of your comfort zone and your job description. This could be when your company is down some resources, or growing faster than hiring can keep up, or simply when you’re asked to do something new—especially when that thing represents an advancement in your skillset or leadership abilities.
The satisfaction of working in the high-speed tech world is incredible. If you have a #cantstopwontstop mentality alongside hefty doses of humility and servitude, then you’re golden.