It was 2am when I found myself upright in bed, gasping for breath. As the chest pains that woke me started to fade, fear and confusion took over.
I’m only 27 years old. Too young for a heart attack, surely?
“It could be stress,” the doctor said to me the next day. “What do you do for work?”
I’m an IT consultant. I work with computers.
It was the seventh year of my career, and from the outside things looked like they were going well. I worked for one of the biggest IT companies in town. I had a senior job title. And I was making pretty good money. I should have been happy.
But the opposite was true. I was miserable. I sat at my desk every day, completely uninterested in the work in front of me. Weighed down by the feeling that I wasn’t achieving anything meaningful, I had to force myself to complete my assigned tasks.
I’d also started to gain weight. Friday afternoon drinks turned into Friday all-night benders. Weekends were spent recovering from hangovers. And each Monday morning I dragged myself back into the office, dreading the week ahead.
The unexplained chest pain incident was a wake up call in both a literal and metaphorical sense. When the doctor suggested stress might be the cause, I thought a good antidote would be to seek opportunities that would get me away from the mundane work I was assigned to on a day-to-day basis.
So, I put my hand up to volunteer for any new work that came up and I joined projects with crazy deadlines; working nights and weekends to get everything finished on time.
But despite a few good projects, I kept finding myself back where I started. Unhappy, unhealthy, and searching for something better.
In the end, I came to realize that burnout was actually the reason for how I was feeling. (So it’s unsurprising that adding more projects and more pressure to my plate didn’t make me feel better.)
And I’d love to say that a blinding moment of clarity followed this realization. One that led to me having a long, fulfilling and meaningful career in IT.
But the reality is, it took me nearly two years to decide to leave that job. The good thing about doing that particular role is it showed me what kind of work I didn’t want to be doing in the IT industry. But I still had no real idea of what I did want to do.
So, what followed was a string of seven job titles with six different companies over eight years. Some of those roles were among the best jobs I’ve ever had. Some weren’t so good. Some of them I moved on from in search of new challenges. And some ended for reasons outside of my control: company mergers, bankruptcy, outsourcing, and the global financial crisis.
Along the way, I worked with a full range of teammates from those who were awesome and remain great friends to this day, to those who were complete slackers. I worked under team leaders and managers who ranged from woefully incompetent, right through to the kind who mentored me and helped me to grow my career. I worked for people who were awesome, and people who were awful.
After more than 18 years in the IT industry:
- I understand what I want to do in my career.
- I know which jobs I’ll enjoy, and how to find the right companies, customers, and people to work with.
- I take vacations every year with my family (several of them actually), where we completely unplug from work.
- I have time for hobbies and exercise, side projects, and studying new technologies.
In this book, I’m going to share everything I’ve learned over the past 18 years in the hope it will take you less time than it took me to find a place where you too can survive in the IT industry, and maybe even thrive too.
One of the biggest challenges for IT professionals is understanding where they fit into the big picture along with how businesses look at technology and IT workers. So, in Chapter 1, I’ll start by sharing how the IT industry works.
The technology industry is full of opportunities, but they aren’t just going to be handed to you. In Chapter 2, I’ll walk you through how to find a new job, whether it’s your first job you’re looking for, or your next job. I’ll teach you how to showcase the skills that make you stand out from the crowd in a competitive job market. I’ll cover resume tips and tricks that will get you through the front door with recruiters and employers. And I’ll share my best interview tips. I’ll also talk you through how to leave a job when you decide it’s time, as I know this is something many people struggle with.
In Chapter 3, we’ll get into what I call the Business of You. Once you’ve found your foothold in the IT industry, how do you expand your network, continue to grow your skills, and build a strong foundation for your ongoing career success? I’ll show you how the top professionals in the industry get to where they are, and stay there for the long term.
At its core, IT is a people business, not a technology business. People skills are one of the most important soft skills that you can have. As IT professionals we can’t sit in the back room and interact with machines all day long. In Chapter 4, you’ll learn about dealing with people: customers, co-workers, managers, and more. I’ll also help you make sure you’re treated as a person and not a resource to be consumed and discarded.
In Chapter 5, I’ll share with you the productivity tips that allowed me to move through a variety of different IT roles, from support, to projects, to consulting, all while maintaining a high level of output. Learning to manage time, break work down into manageable chunks, prioritize tasks and demonstrate results will turn you into the kind of high performer people want to hire and work with.
In Chapter 6, we’ll talk about your personal health. I’ll share with you the same advice I would give to the younger version of myself who was overweight, miserable and had woken up in the middle of the night with chest pains.
In Chapter 7, I’ll share with you a series of tips and life lessons that I call my Veteran Advice. These are the short pieces of advice I wish I could go back and give my younger self. Advice that would have made my career, especially the early years, just that little bit less rocky.
Throughout this book, I’ll share stories of situations I was either a direct participant in, or that I witnessed first hand. I’ve changed the names and some of the inconsequential details to protect people’s privacy, but each story in this book is based on real events.
Before we get into the meat of this book, however, I have an exercise for you to do.
THE PERFECT DAY
What does your perfect day look like?
That’s the question I asked myself a few years ago. The answer I came up with went something like this:
Wake up around 5am, drink a glass of water, and go downstairs to my home gym. After my workout, head back upstairs and make breakfast for my family. Eat my delicious breakfast burrito, drink my coffee, and read a book on my Kindle or some saved articles from around the web on my iPad.
After breakfast, spend a little time with the kids before they bury themselves in a fun activity or head off to school. Then go and do a few hours of work on the projects I have on. Just before lunch, go through my emails and add things that require following up to my to-do list. Then go and eat while reading my Kindle or watching the end of a basketball game.
After lunch, do a little more focused work, then hit my to-do list items for an hour or so. In the late afternoon, do some exercise with the whole family, like a bike ride, a walk, or playing basketball at the park. Pick up something fresh for dinner, and cook a nice, healthy meal for the family.
After dinner when my wife goes to the gym, I’ll drink some tea while I do a little reading, watch some Netflix, take an online guitar lesson, or just play some video games. Get to bed around 9pm for a good night’s sleep.
That all sounded pretty good to me. Unfortunately, at the time I asked myself that question, my days were nothing like that. In fact, for a large chunk of my IT career my days looked more like this:
Wake up tired from a late night, scoff down some cereal, and rush out the door to catch the train into the city. After 30 minutes squished in a peak-hour train carriage, I would walk into my building and sit down at my desk then proceed to work through an endless barrage of other people’s priorities.
Lunch consisted of whatever food I could run out, buy and be back at my desk in 20 minutes. I would eat at my desk while continuing to deal with issues that were other people’s priorities, not my own. All while pretending I couldn’t see my gym bag sitting under my desk. After staying late to deal with yet another of someone else’s priorities, I would squeeze into another train for the ride home.
At home we would cook whatever fast, convenient meal we could throw together. Then I’d log in remotely and try to close some overdue tasks before stumbling into bed when I couldn’t stay awake any longer.
From what I wrote about my perfect day, it was clear the following things were important to me:
- time with family healthy eating
- work that I enjoy doing
- control over my time
- fun leisure activities
- a good night’s sleep
And it was clear that no one was going to gift me days that had those things in it. From what I could see, there were only two ways to achieve something close to my perfect day:
- I needed to win the lottery.
- I needed to stop letting my job consume my entire day.
Given the lottery win was not likely to happen, I set about trying to fix my day job. The first thing I had to do was leave the job I was in at the time in favor of one that allowed me to work more reasonable hours, so I could spend time with my family, get regular exercise, and take the time to eat healthy. During work hours, I needed to have more control over how my time was spent so I wasn’t constantly reacting to other people’s priorities, and could do more of the work that I enjoyed.
In the years after I first envisioned that perfect day, I worked in many different roles that met my ideal to some extent. Some jobs had flexible hours, as long as the work got done. Others had a gym near the office, or lockers and showers in the basement, so I could work out at lunch and ride my bicycle to and from work. Some had clear technology roadmaps with reasonable target dates that didn’t require a non-stop 150% effort. Some of them had none of those things, and I didn’t stay long before moving on to another job.
Of course, the perfect day is not something you can expect to live every single day of your life given you need to factor in things like kids’ activities, maintaining a social life, the weather, and so on.
On the work front, crunch time during projects might involve staying late a few nights here and there. Upgrading systems sometimes means working on a weekend. Critical outages need you to keep working on them until they’re fixed.
But it has to be said: those should be exceptions. A company that is constantly running on crunch time, or suffering constant outages due to poorly designed systems is not somewhere you want to work. While some overtime or on call work is a fact of life in IT, a consistent 50+ hour week fighting fires is not something we should accept as the norm.
Ultimately, as you read through this book, you’ll get the most benefit from the advice if you have a clear idea of what your own perfect day looks like, because you’ll know what you’re working towards.
And it’s worth stating that your perfect day will look different to mine.
- Perhaps you don’t mind a long commute, because it lets you get some reading done.
- Perhaps you prefer to spend your weekends playing video games, hiking in the wilderness, or building your own furniture out of recycled wood.
- Perhaps you want to work hard as a contractor for half the year, so you can travel for the other half.
There is no right or wrong. It’s all about what you want. To maximize your career and achieve a happy life-work balance, you need to know what you’re striving for.
So, before you go on to Chapter 1, grab a piece of paper or a notebook and spend a few minutes writing out what your perfect day looks like right now.
Once that’s done, look for the main themes in your answer, and note them down.
Now, as you continue on with reading this book, keep what you’ve written above in mind as it will dictate how you put the advice in this book to work.
REMEMBER, THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING
This book is not intended to be the end of your journey to a better career and life. This is just the beginning. There are many areas this book touches on that are covered in far more detail and depth elsewhere. To include that level of depth in this book would make for an impossible read. In fact, I doubt I would ever be able to finish writing it.
So what I hope you get from this book is a sense of hope, possibility, and confidence that you can take control of your career in IT and use it to get where you want to be in life.
After you read this book there will be many more steps for you to take. In a sense, you get to choose your own adventure. If you decide that improving your people skills is your first priority, that’s what you’ll work on first. Meanwhile, another reader might choose to focus on their technical skills. Another will take their first steps to move to a new city, or improve their health.
To help you along the way I have some resources to share with you here. There you’ll find a list of books, blog posts, and other resources that I think will be useful to you.
Most of all, I hope you’ll get in touch with me and let me know how this book helped you. You can get in touch using my contact page, or find me on Twitter at @paulcunningham.
Found a problem with this page? Let me know and I’ll fix it ASAP.