7 Lessons I've Learned as a Senior Wireless Architect
Looking back over my nearly 25 years in IT, there is one thing I wish I had more of: frank conversations about how to advance, and more importantly, to get where you want to be. If there is one thing I've done a lot of in my career-as many in IT have done-it's move around.
This includes actual locations, but more specifically, roles. I headed off to college where I graduated holding a degree in elementary education. I have never taught in a formal classroom as a job, however. What I have done is worked, from entry level IT to where I am now.
So, how did I go from entry level to solutions architect? It's a long and winding path. It has been equal parts challenging, entertaining and, ultimately, rewarding. This latest part of my journey has easily been the best yet of my career, and I want to take this opportunity to share my experiences. Perhaps my experiences will help you on your own path.
Your Start Doesn't Necessarily Define Your Career
Necessity is the mother of invention. But for me, necessity was the reason I landed in IT in the first place. I graduated with a degree in Elementary Education, but would need to return to school another year-or more-in order to get certified. I knew I needed to get to work. Ironically, RSVP to my graduation party led to an interview, and my entry level start in IT.
I was going to join a small tech startup as one of the earliest employees. The pay was low, the hours long, the opportunity great. I learned skills, both technical and soft, that I have made use of my entire career. I started as a grunt, an IT generalist-do anything and everything. By the time I moved on, as the company went bust like many other dot coms at that time, I was a telecom and network administrator.
In between, I'd learned or worked just about any role I could. That was something my mentors and bosses made clear-no matter what I wanted to do, it was invaluable to know and understand as much of the organization as possible. Or, put another way, even the CEO started at the bottom. Here are seven valuable lessons I've learned along the way.
1. The Power of Having Frank Conversations
As you embark on your career, communication is key. And, while that might seem obvious, these frank conversations need to happen — and not only with your leadership. In a perfect job, you have a great relationship with your direct supervisor. Having these conversations with them is tremendously important, because you want them to be your ally and advocate. Work with them to make sure you are meeting and exceeding expectations in your current role, but also learning how you can advance.
Those frank conversations? They need to happen with other people too. For instance, if you have a partner in life, they need to be involved too. As your career goes, so too can your relationship. And this last conversation, while it seems a bit odd, is having frank conversations with yourself, too. I know, talking with yourself might seem funny, but when you have a lot of commuting time, sometimes sounding your thought process out loud can help.
For me, those frank conversations led me from my first job at a startup, to my second job with a large Fortune 100 company. It was a smart, yet scary move. I liked the startup environment, but things weren't great for many small startups then. After talking with my family and mentors (more on this one later), I was at peace with my decision, and it was on to the next chapter. And, as things tend to do, they worked out for the best. That second job opened up my career opportunities, and played a big part in getting to where I am today.
Ultimately, having frank conversations can open doors, provide direction, and give you confidence to move upward in your career.
2. Don't Fear Change
Now, this could have been said before moving on to job #2, but it's applicable with any change, really. Yes, a new job or new role can be scary. It's sort of normal for people to have those feelings. But don't fear that change.
My early career had me focused on the engineering side of things, primarily in voice and data networking. However, I was presented an opportunity to try something different. Less engineering, with a bit of a hybrid project management flair to it. Something different, yes, but in talking with my usual sounding boards, it made sense and off we went. It was a good gig, but I went there in part for the pay raise, not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you.
I wound up moving on from that job after about a year, in part out of a desire to relocate, but also chasing that raise again, which gets us to another important point.
3. Don't Always Follow the Money
We all want, and deserve, to be paid what we are worth. However, chasing the money is not always a good thing. I left a good job to move to another, which did pay better. Our plan was to relocate, but life happened and changed those plans. So I ended up taking the money and the job, and driving home every weekend. It was not fun — and ultimately wasn't worth it. Plus, sometimes life just has a way of working out.
One weekend, while working away from the family, I got a call from a hiring manager. It was a job doing consulting in New York City and involved much more money. At first, it seemed too much of a challenging gig and like maybe I wasn't a fit. However, the idea of a significant pay raise and moving back closer to the family was too much to decline. Was I really a fit, though?
4. Let THEM Tell You No!
I have to repeat: don't always be sucked in by the money. The opportunity that I mentioned above, while it did mean a big raise, was not my motivation. My main motivating factors? Getting to see my family every day of the week, without the long drives to do so — and the experience that this opportunity presented. It promised to provide me with a wealth of new knowledge that could serve me well.
But, I was not so sure I had done enough in my career to be a fit for what they needed. That said, it doesn't ever hurt to talk to someone about a role. If someone wants to interview you, do it. Let THEM tell you that you are not a fit. Don't tell yourself no and prevent yourself from exploring new opportunities.
5. Focus on the Experience
Understand from the start, that money is nice, but experience matters a great deal. I am as concerned, if not more concerned, about how any role will help me learn and grow as a professional. If you make a nice living and don't learn, what happens when that role is eliminated and you can't find the same job again?
Experience matters, and take all of it you can get. One bit of advice around this idea-early on in my career, I had a question posed to me: is it better to be a jack of all trades or a master of one?
The answer, truly, is it depends-because now, if you are a master of the one right skill, you can make a very good living for quite a while. However, make yourself as valuable to the organization as you can. if you know all the roles in your group, it makes you easier to keep around. In general, however, having a diverse skill set brings value to any current and future engagements you will be a part of.
Some experience you might not want. But you get it anyway. Many of us have been, or will be, laid off a time or two in our careers. The first time it happened to me, I was unprepared for it and I was out of the market longer than I wanted. But, bouncing back I aimed to expand my skills and make myself that much more employable. The next time I was out of work, I was back at a new job less than a month later. This is why we always need to keep focus on our experiences.
6. Don't Get Too Comfortable
This is going to be a theme throughout the rest of my path, so far at least. Up until this point, I had generally been a voice or data network engineer of some type, with some project management mixed in. I was working as a project manager, at a nice company and with a great work-life balance — a good commute, the whole nine yards. I was comfortable.
Don't get comfortable.
I've heard it many times. When you get comfortable, you get complacent, and you stop advancing. I wasn't there too long, but I fit in well and I was happy. And then a recruiter came calling. It was a big-name company, a great opportunity, and a terrible commute. I was comfortable where I was, and had great concerns about the drain the commute could become.
Still, I interviewed and landed the job. After years as a PM or engineer, I had a chance to be a manager with a team reporting to me. As much as I debated it, I left the comfortable commute for the arduous one, and ended up staying there for nearly a decade.
Many of my above points drove me to that job. I had frank conversations with the important people in my life. I also did not chase the money, but rather the experience. Initially, the salary was effectively a lateral move. However, the experiences the job afforded me, both personally and professionally, were just too significant to ignore. I didn't fear the change. I embraced it.
Now, during my time there, I pivoted. I came in as a manager, I left as a senior solutions architect. But how?
7. Seek Out a Mentor.
Find a mentor. Or, two or three, honestly.
Truthfully, I've had them all along, but they've always taken different forms. My first one was my cousin, who, as he says, did not give me my first job, but rather my first interview. Another was one of my earliest directors. We stay in touch, and he's always around to give me a blunt, yet fair and honest assessment of things.
More recently, as I entered into the world of WiFi, I picked up a couple newer ones. In that role, I worked closely with a vendor subject matter expert. He fostered my interest in WiFi and set me on my path toward my CWNE certification.
Another was a trainer who I met at a conference. I was not in his class, he just happens to be very outgoing and over lunch we became friends. As I continued on my certification journey, he was someone I actually asked to be a formal mentor along the way — something he was and is absolutely on board with.
There are others, too many to mention, but the point is this: have a mentor, or as many as you feel necessary. They've been there and done it. You can learn from their experiences, just as you learn from your own.
When I look at my journey, from the beginning up until now, I know one thing above all others: I could have never predicted any of it. I know there are people who head into college with a plan, a career path in mind, and they relentlessly pursue that until they achieve that. Or burn out trying. That wasn't me.
I didn't have a path set out to be followed, but rather let the path come to me…and I still am. Over my lengthy career I have gained many skills and many more relationships, and learned one thing for sure: do not ever be afraid to make a change, because everything you've learned along the way has been preparing you for that change. Even if you don't know it at the time.