Christian Heilmann

7 things about working in I.T. you don’t learn in school

Thursday, September 26th, 2013 at 7:52 am

Disclaimer: this is the script, well, the notes, for a presentation I am giving at Spotify in Sweden this weekend as part of the Studenttechfest. I was asked to give an inspirational keynote telling students what working in IT is like. The slides and recording will be available afterwards.

Update: there is now a (bad quality) audio recording of the talk on Soundcloud:

1) The “how” lands you a job, the “why” lands you a career

In I.T. there is what I call a “fetish of the how”. We are obsessed with finding and showing quick and intelligent solutions for problems that abstract away the original issues in order to make us more effective and use less time to achieve our goals. I remember a Dilbert cartoon in around 1996 that hit the nail on the head. Dilbert explained when asked why he uses computers all the time that they make him much more effective and save time. When asked what he does with the time he said he does more computer stuff and his friend went “wow, so you can save even more time”.

stop listening to ducks

This culture of giving you a “how to do things” instead of “why they work” starts perpetuating a false belief that what we do is easy and can be learned quickly by doing an online course or looking things up in Google. Many of the threads on sites like Stackoverflow are just repeated answers stating that “you just do this and everything works”. Sites like W3Schools are very successful as they show how to do something and give you the promise that you can achieve anything by just copying and pasting an answer. Why bother with understanding what you do when you could already deliver?

Organic Unicorn Farts

The issue is that a lot of quick solutions start breaking really soon and then you are stuck as you don’t know what you did. You used magic, and not even yours and you aren’t even a wizard. There is nothing wrong with using free resources and abstractions and be more effective. In order to be professional, however, you also need to understand how they work and be able to create working solutions without them. This is when you start becoming someone who can be hired and offered a career. Otherwise you can get a job as a deliverer or maintainer but no company in their right mind would invest in you as your attitude is that of those who try to dazzle and really don’t not know what they are doing.

2) It is a ride, hop on and take in the scenery

I.T. is probably, with the exception of acting and journalism, the most versatile job market out there. Things are constantly in flux and there is not much boredom if you are excited about building things from zeros and ones.

Never look back

You will encounter a lot of products, frameworks, software packages and practices along the way. Take them in and deliver with them. Stay agnostic though as things are continuously changing. In every job there is something new to be learned and whilst your task is to deliver it you can also learn from the mistakes made and the results of shortcuts taken. Try everything and you will find patterns over time that help you make better decisions later on in your career.

3) Be a collector and an archivist

Working in a constantly changing environment also means a lot of drama, a lot of problems and egos clashing. Be aware of that and prepare for it. Even when you disagree with people strongly – if they are your manager and tell you something needs to be done the best way is to ask why and you might learn about outside pressures you weren’t aware of before.

Don't burn bridges

The I.T. world seems large, but it is actually pretty small. When leaving a job, don’t leave in anger. Don’t burn bridges as you will come across people later on you are very much sick of right now. You might even realise that in another environment these people will be brilliant to work with. You make a career by forging personal relationships. Collect great people to work with and keep up to date with what they are doing. Most great jobs come from word of mouth. Not via LinkedIn.

4) Your degree opens doors, your passion opportunities

Once you are done with university, you have your degree and many jobs require a degree as a right of passage. This means you can and will easily get a job. However, lots of other people also have degrees and as someone who hires I am looking for other, additional features. You are about to embark on a great journey, one of privilege, really. No other market is booming like I.T. and the things companies do for us make other people gape in astonishment.

Pawing puppy

Therefore, as a prospective employee, I am looking for passion in you. One of the main complaints by hiring managers is that people come into the job interview not knowing anything about the company they apply for. This is a bad first impression, as if you don’t care about the company why should the company care about you? Talk about your passions, give me an indicator that you want to get better and you are ready to learn more. Then I am ready to take you on and do a lot more for you than just pay you.

5) Nothing stops you from building a reputation now

There is no better way to get hired than to be known as someone who cares about sharing, giving feedback and showing technical and social aptitude. The good news is that this is amazingly simple these days.

touch my hair for a dollar

The main issue is that becoming known and being visible can be easily seen as showing off and in many cases actually is. In the US, this is part of a career; you have to sell yourself. As a European this can be daunting and feel wrong, but sometimes we need to jump over our shadow.

A great way to be visible is to go out there and speak about things you do. This is scary, but it is also a great way to get into the business. The simplest way to do that is to attend meetups and unconferences.
However, you don’t have to put yourself out there immediately, participation and visibility can be achieved much easier.

GitHub managed to make the impossible possible: it is a social network for engineers, people not generally known for being too social. On GitHub you can not only get lots and lots of great, free software but you can also become part of it. You can contribute code, you can file issues and help with testing, you can comment and help work around people’s differences. All of this brings you brownie points when it comes to applying for a job and looks much better on a CV than hypothetical achievements.

It is important to remember that your bad behaviour online is also noted by prospective employers. It might be fun to start a flame war and to troll people, but it can also mean the end of your career before it started. Playing nice is a good idea.

6) Being mobile and flexible gets you places

One ironic thing about I.T. is that whilst we are all connected world-wide, a lot of times traveling to other places to work with people face to face is necessary. Therefore it is important to be flexible about this. Many of my career jumps happened because I was OK to work from a different location for a short while. This also gave me a lot of interesting experiences I took with me.

Taking on an opportunity to work with a remote team is a great move in your career. The problem of making distributed teams work efficiently is still a big one for a lot of companies. If you already manage to have a fruitful collaboration with people from other timezones and cultural backgrounds you become a very interesting asset to companies out there.

7) Find a place to grow, not just a place to get paid

Lastly, I want to point out that I don’t see any way that you could not end up with a good job right now. The question you have to ask yourself is what you want to do. My advice is to find a place you feel great, you can be part of a team you respect and you see opportunities to learn new things. That is much more important than being paid a lot. Burnout is a big problem, and you should consider planning for a longer career rather than being a rockstar for a season and then feel like you already need a break at 22.

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