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Last weekend I had a long phone conversation with a close friend of mine who is stuck in a career rut. This is someone I went to high-school with and when he called on Saturday to wish me a happy birthday (37 years old, thank you very much), we started talking about this and that and eventually ended up discussing his career conundrum.
This is someone who has a Computer Science degree from a respected school. He is a smart, dedicated worker, extremely talented and very nice to boot. An all round great guy. However, this is someone who for years has made one bad career move after another. I am not quite sure where it all started, but for the past five years it has been clear to me that my friend's career is not headed in the right direction. For the sake of clarity, by "right direction" I mean the direction my friend wants his career to go.
What went wrong? Well, I think it all started when my friend lost his job in a tough market and took a job that felt wrong to him, but would help pay the bills. The position was more or less a field service engineer for a sophisticated satellite communications system. What's wrong with that, you ask? Nothing. It was a well paying job with a good company. The only problem was that this position did not take my friend in the direction he wanted to go. The position led to two other well-paying, but similar positions in other respected companies. My friend really wants to land a product management position, but can't get anyone to give him a break. He feels pigeon-holed and at age 37 is about ready to hit the reset button on his career and take a low level programming position just to escape what he sees as a dead-end job.
So, once again, this time more deeply, what went wrong? In my mind, the main thing that went wrong is the fact that my friend did not have a well thought out career plan. If your ultimate career goal is to become a marketing executive, taking a job as a car mechanic is probably not the right path. Similarly, if you want to end up a reporter, you should probably not take a computer programming job. My friend wanted a product management job but took a starting position that typically leads to service and operations roles.
Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking if you tell me what you are doing today, I will have a decent chance of guessing what you will be doing a few years down the line. Since my friend's goal was a product management position, he should never have taken a field engineering position, or if he had to do so due to economic circumstances, he should have continued looking for a new job. Alternatively, he could have taken the engineering position with a large company that has a reputation for assisting its employees to develop their careers and that offers job function mobility.
If you know your ultimate career goal, but are not sure what the path to get there might be, here are a few tips for finding out where you need to start:
(1) LinkedIn - LinkedIn is a great career research tool. Log in and search for people with the title that you aspire to. You will find some truly impressive people on that site, and many of them have their full career path laid out for you right there. Learn from those who have already walked the path.
(2) GigZig - this is essentially a career crystal ball. You type in your current or planned position, and the site spits out a list of some of the most likely positions you can expect to hold five years down the line. Alternatively. you can plug in your target position in five years, and the site will tell what position you should be looking for right now. Neat, no?
(3) Old Fashioned Talking - if you are serious about achieving your career goals, talk to some folks who currently hold your dream positions. Ask them how they got there. While you are at it, this is also a great networking opportunity. People love to talk about how they succeeded.
The best piece of career advice I can give you is this: always consider how the job you are about to accept positions you with respect to your long term career objectives. While it's OK to make some career detours (I've certainly made some of those, but more about that in a future post), always take such decisions in a deliberate and calculated manner, knowing full well that you are making a decision that may impact the course of your entire professional future. No pressure there... :-)