Top Tips for Driving Your Career - a Fire-Side Chat With Yana Martens

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On May 12, 2021 I sat down with Yana Martens to talk about driving career growth. This article is loosely based on what we discussed, but focusses on the bits I think are most important and going in to a bit more detail about some of my experiences.

# Introduction

None of us are taught about career growth in school. Most of us fumble around for the first few years, experiment with what’s acceptable and how to progress our career. A few of us are lucky enough to find a mentor who is able to help us (I wasn’t one of those lucky ones). I know how much of a challenge it can be to find the right career path and to ensure the trajectory is rapid enough to maintain our interest but slow enough that we can learn and develop to be able to maintain our role.

In this article I will talk about direction, networking, branding, passion, planning, drive, momentum, and ownership. Each of these apply to your career growth in different ways; some of them make the journey easier, others help with alignment, and some help set the velocity of your career growth. Everything I’ve written here is based on my own lived experience; much of it I’ve shared with others, but some of it I haven’t formalised until now. I’ve tried to write this for people at all stages of their career; all of it will be relevant to people in the early and mid stages of their career, as well as those who are yet to embark on their career. Unfortunately, for those in the twilight of their career a lot of this will not be relevant, but it could still be useful if you plan to have a post-retirement career.

# Direction: Have a goal, even if it changes in the future

One challenge I love to propose to people at all stages of their career is to imagine the role they want to be in on the day before they retire. I’ve met very few people who are comfortable doing this, but the benefits of it are huge.

I’m 43, almost half way through my career, and it’s only in the last few years I’ve given my career any direction. For the first 15 years of my career I applied for roles based on what sounded fun and interesting; I never thought much about the future. Although my career was firmly in the IT space (except for a brief break in hospitality) there wasn’t any clear path. I drifted from Internet access provision, to systems integration, to web development, to domain name registration, back to web development, to content creation and ultimately back to web development. After 15 years my career found its own path, I didn’t really control the direction, it just sort of happened. For the next 5 years I focussed on web development, but more specifically I moved into the start-up/scale-up SaaS space. Through my work with Ark Technologies and Ento I developed a taste for leadership, and it was during my time at Ento that I started to set an end-goal for my career. I had developed an interest in Agile, I enjoyed leading a team and working on strategy, I found satisfaction in helping others to be the best they can be. I decided my career goal was to become a CTO, more specifically a CTO of a SaaS organisation. Looking back at my career, about 10 years of it hasn’t aligned with my goal; if I’d been focussed for those 10 years I may already be in my dream role.

It’s important to recognise that my CTO goal is not purely an end-point for my career. I’ve deliberately left a number of factors open in my goal. I know I could find a CTO role tomorrow that I would be able to fulfil and that would meet my goal. When defining my goal I was conscious not to define the company size; I know the company will have multiple development teams, but just how many will depend on the skills I develop, my ability to prove my capabilities and the opportunities that arise. I also didn’t set any parameters around the product or the tech stack; it will probably be a product that helps people to grow in some way and the tech stack will likely be based on programming languages that I’ve used, but maybe the best opportunities for me to provide value to others will be in another industry with a different technical base.

I’ve digressed enough with my personal story for now though; let’s get back to why the goal is important. By setting the goal I have a firm direction in which to take my career. As my interests and passions change I can change the goal (and I regularly revisit it to ensure it is aligned with my desires), but it will be quite rare for the goal to move significantly. This means that even if my goal changes, my short-term career development won’t shift significantly.

When you’re setting your goal, make sure it aligns with your wants and needs, don’t let expectations from others dictate your future. I’ll talk more about this when I talk about passion.

# Networking: It’s never too early

Now you’ve got a broad career direction defined it’s time to start developing a network of people to help you get there. I use the term “network” in its broadest sense; it will include mentors, mentees, coaches, subject-matter experts, students and workers; basically anyone who is in the industry or who is looking to enter the industry. All of these people will be useful to you in some way, and you will likely be useful to them as well.

Early in my career I never realised the value of a network. I focussed all my time and attention on learning technical skills, I thought technical skills would get me through my career and that if I didn’t know something then I had to learn it. As I’ve progressed through my career I’ve realised the value of a network, and in the last 3 years I’ve spent the majority of my time focussing on building my network.

As I’ve built my network I’ve realised it is far more important to know people that know what I need to know, rather than knowing the actual information. As my network has grown I’ve amassed a group of people who all have their unique subject-matter expertise; far more than I could ever hope to know myself. If I get stuck on a technical problem, struggle to understand a concept, don’t know how to react to a situation, I can usually find someone in my network who is able to help. This in turn helps my network as people have recognised the power of my network and will often ask me if I know someone who is able to help them with a specific issue. Of course, this use of my network helps me with where I am in my career at the moment; earlier in my career I would have used my network very differently.

I often find myself talking to university students, bootcamp attendees and recent migrants; the biggest problem faced by all of them is finding a role in their chosen industry. By building a network and coupling it with the advice I will give in the next section it’s possible to stand out from all the other resumes in a pile; even better is that when roles become available hiring managers will often reach out to their networks for recommendations prior to any form of advertising (this is often referred to as the hidden job market).

When building a network it is vital to remember that it is a two-way value exchange. On LinkedIn alone I have around 1,100 connections; of these, 200 are people I’ve worked with and 130 are people who I would be comfortable messaging in a business context, the rest are people who have connected to me on LinkedIn but I’ve interacted with so little that I don’t see any value in the connection. Although these people may feel there is some value, I do not perceive them to be a part of my network; I’m also sure that some of the 130 people I mentioned before would not consider me part of their network even thought I feel they are a part of mine. In these single sided cases my network will not be as powerful; I will either have to push information to them or pull it to me; when the connection is bidirectional then I am confident that people in my network will push information to me and pull it from me.

One aspect of your network will be mentors and mentees. Both of these connections are important. Mentors will help you by sharing their learnings and providing advice as you encounter challenges in your career. Mentees will allow you to share your knowledge and will help you recognise how much knowledge you’ve gained on your journey. Often when talking to people who are early in their career they express a concern about asking for a mentor’s time; I’ve always countered this by telling them that in many cases the mentor gets just as much if not more value from talking to a mentee. Personally I don’t have a mentor, but I do have a large group of people I will actively seek advice from, in some ways this could be considered a group of mentors, each with their own speciality. I do, however, have a few mentees; some of these are people I talk to quite regularly, others are on more of an ad-hoc basis. The value I get from mentees is being able to hear about the challenges they face, helping them to find ways to respond to the situation and learning from their experiences with the lens of knowledge and experience I have.

# Branding: Get your name out there

As your network grows it’s hard to maintain a connection to everyone; this is where your branding can come in. When I say branding I don’t mean consistent colours and imaging, you don’t need a fancy logo either; I mean making sure you have a consistent message and build your reputation in your chosen field.

One of the best branding strategies I’ve found is to regularly publish content. It may be articles like I do, videos like Yana does, maybe a podcast, or it could be something else entirely. If you’re just starting your career focus on your journey; things you’ve learnt, unexpected challenges, how you solved a problem. As your knowledge and reputation increases then you’ll find you start providing opinions, proposing new concepts and ideas, and questioning the status quo. As long as you’re consistent with what you focus on you will build your brand and reputation.

This strategy for branding will work in two ways. The first is that it will give your existing network a chance to interact with you and for you to keep on their radar; a side-effect of this is that it can help to expand your network by new people finding your content and choosing to connect with you. The second is that it will allow others to see your learnings and interests and follow the direction of your career.

The benefits of this sort of branding will also vary throughout your career. In the early part of a career it is important to differentiate yourself from others. By sharing your journey you’re helping to stand out from the crowd, you’re demonstrating to potential employers and managers that you have value to give and that you are eager to progress your career. Later in your career your branding can lead to career progression opportunities, but can also provide other career directions and can help to short-circuit some of the normal recruitment processes.

I’ve only been focussing on branding for about 12 or 18 months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and I then set it aside as I coped with a number of changes to my life. As life in Australia is returning to a more normal level and the changes in my personal life have settled down I’ve started refocussing my efforts on this again. During the 12 to 18 months I was focussing on may branding I noticed a shift in how others perceived me. I was no longer just some long-haired bearded programmer, I became a recognisable voice in my chosen specialities (business & agile and work & personal advice). This change not only gave me more confidence in what I do, but also gave my words more weight both within my employment and within the wider community. The more I share, the more perceived value others saw in my communications.

# Passion: If you love it then it won’t feel like work

When writing this document I was initially unsure if I should put passion earlier in the document, or if I should put it here, after branding. I decided to put it after branding as, in terms of career development, finding your passion will come later than networking and starting to build your brand.

I can only speak from the perspective of the IT industry as that’s the industry I’ve devoted my career to and I haven’t had to opportunity to do research across other industries. Within the IT industry there are a huge number of paths that individuals can follow. Even specifically with software development there is agency or product based work, there’s start-ups, scale-ups, medium to large businesses, enterprise etc; each of these has a different way of working and a different skillset required. These days its common for entry-level developers to start with an internship; in larger companies this may include 2 cycles of 6 months each to see different aspects of the organisation, this may then result in a permanent job or may just be a fixed term contract; in smaller companies this may be a six month contract. In both cases I highly encourage developers to accept a second internship at a different organisation, one that is at the opposite end of the size range. If you’ve had an internship at one of the Big4 banks in Australia, find one at an agency or start-up, and vice-versa. As your career progresses keep narrowing your niche to align with your passions.

At the current point in my career I’ve found my niche is in software that helps people to grow, and in the SaaS side of the industry. When I’m working in this particular situation I find that work is a joy and it doesn’t feel like I’m working. This situation also helps me to easily find content relevant to my brand as I am immersed in it, and I find it much of the work I do to benefit my career will also provide a greater benefit to my work.

# Planning: Knowing what’s next is vital

Earlier in this article I covered the important of setting a career direction. Using this direction it’s highly beneficial to create a career plan; the importance of this plan will be covered in the next couple of sections, so I won’t go in to detail just yet.

I’ve found the best way to create a career plan is to take your career goal and work out where you would need to be half way between now and when you retire. If you’re at the beginning of your career this will likely be around 25 years through your career, if you’re in your early to mid 40s this might be a 10 or 15 year positioning. Repeat this one or two times until you get to a sub 5 year time frame. You’ve now got a few way-points in your career, it isn’t important if you actually achieve them or if they change, but it is important they exist to define your proposed path. The final step is to take the sub 5 year plan and work out what step (or maybe 2) you need to take to get from where you are now to the first way-point. This bit of the plan will need more detail; items such as what your next role will be, how long until you’re likely to need to seek that role change (either internally or externally), what learning and development you need to achieve the role. If you’re comfortable with your manager and you have a very supportive manager, it can also be good to discuss your plans with your manager to they can help you fulfil them and they can start planning for your future promotion or for your departure from the company.

# Drive: Know why you’re doing it and push yourself

To achieve career growth you will need to push yourself. This can be really challenging if you don’t know why you’re pushing; that’s why the previous planning section can be so important.

As part of pushing yourself it’s important to understand how companies and recruiters advertise roles. In my experience the must have items on a job add are more of a list of desirable items; the desirable ones are more of a wish list. If you’ve got even 50% of the skills listed it’s worth applying for the role (just remember to set expectations during the interview process and show how you can gain the other skills).

You’ll also need to push yourself to grow. I’ve met many people who expect all of their learning and development needs to be met by their employer, I’ve also met some who don’t expect anything from their employer; in most cases there is a balance. Again from a developer perspective, through your role you will be able to gain technical skills and the skills required to fulfil your current role and progress toward your next role, but if you’re looking to step into a management role you will likely need to undertake some learning and development activities outside of the workplace (if you’re lucky your employer may help fund this).

While we’re on the topic of growth, there’s a fantastic image that has been used in a large number of articles that helps explain the different “zones” we can find ourselves in. To truely drive your career you will need to extend yourself in to the Growth Zone on a regular basis, and you’ll also spend a lot of time in the Learning Zone.

The Comfort Zone

# Momentum: It’s hard to change gear, but you may need to

Over the years the momentum of your career will ebb and flow. Early in your career you may find that you have a number of shorter-term roles. As you find your niche your rate of change may slow, then over time events will happen that may put your career growth in to overdrive. If you have a period where your career development stagnates you may even find that as you leave that period you go into a state of hyper-growth and changes roles several times in a short space of time.

One of the risks of building career momentum is outpacing your employer’s growth and needs. Thankfully, as a society, we’ve moved on from only having a single employer for life; so if we aren’t getting the career growth we desire it’s ok to change company. When our careers are growing rapidly it’s not uncommon to start a new role (either with the same employer or a different one) every 12 to 18 months; if we’re in a period of hyper-growth this could even be more frequent. This doesn’t mean we should or must change role so often; we also need to give ourselves time to consolidate our learnings and reflect, so sometimes we will stay in a role for a number of years.

Changing the rate of growth can be challenging. If we’ve been in a role for a few years and we’re in our comfort zone, our desire to progress may be low. If we’ve been rapidly changing roles it can be quite confronting to realise that there are no prospects for growth in the foreseeable future. When we encounter these situations we have to ensure we are prepared for them and take the action that is most appropriate for us as individuals, sometimes that action is to try to build momentum, other times it is to slow the rate of change.

The most important thing to ensure is that each time you change role (or employer) it is clear why you accepted or made the change and that it helps steer your career in the right direction. If opportunities for promotion are available with your current employer don’t accept them because you feel you should, only accept them if they take your career along the correct path and you feel the time is right. If your employer can’t offer any promotions, don’t feel obliged to stay, forge your own path.

As a side note to this, I recently encountered a situation where a role was available that was extremely well aligned with my career goals, but I will still in my probation period at my current employer. I held concerns that changing roles so quickly could be perceived as a negative on my resume. After a lot of consideration and consultation I determined that it would generally be perceived as a positive, as long as I didn’t frequently change jobs so rapidly. I would have to ensure that my resume clearly relayed the reasons for the rapid job change, but most future employers would understand the benefits in career alignment and growth.

# Ownership: It’s all up to you

Now I’ve given you a heap of detail about driving your career, it’s time for the most important bit.

You are the only one responsible for your career growth.

I’ve heard people both credit and blame others for their career growth; but in truth, the only person who can drive your career growth is you. Others can help or hinder your growth, but if you focus on your goals and ensure you learn and develop at the required pace, you’ll make the progress you want at the time you want it.

Don’t be afraid to seek external advice to help you stay on track. I remember my father feeling as though his career had stalled for more than a decade, it didn’t seem to matter what he did, he couldn’t take the next step on his path. He sought advice from a few people (some of them quite expensive paid services), made some changes to how he was trying to take the next step, and ultimately got his career moving again. Despite a decade long stagnant period in his career growth, he still achieved his career goals before he retired. I went a slightly different way, I got external advice when I wanted to take the next significant step in my career; I undertook a personal branding masterclass, did public speaking coaching, and paid for certifications in topics that aligned with my career plans, only after that did I attempt my next step, and I achieved it much quicker than I planned.

It doesn’t matter if you’re about to look for your first role, or if you want one more role before you retire, your next step is completely within your control. Use all these tips to make sure you drive your career where you want to go.

# Video