Choosing Your Direction

Throughout your career, every now and again you will come to an important junction, a point at which you need to make a choice, which depending on which path you progress, will fundamentally shape the rest of your working life. Sometimes this can be for the better, sometimes for worse, but in any event, such a decision should never be taken lightly – sometimes, you may not even know that the choice exists, or the extent of the implications of what the choice will mean.

Thinking back across my own 15 year career in Information Technology, I would say I’ve reached such a point on three separate occasions, the most recent has occurred only just within the past couple of weeks, and I can guarantee that there will be more to come.

Assumed Choice:

I wasn’t someone who took the university route, or someone who really took to school in any serious way – it was somewhere I was ‘encouraged’ to learn subjects, in which I saw no value. This is probably a common situation, and as a parent I’ll face my own battles in the years to come, but from the young persons perspective it isn’t made clear how the taught subjects have relevance beyond scoring well on an exam paper. Perhaps times have changed, but so frequently it hits the media with increasing numbers of successful exam grades, increasing numbers of the unemployed young, but businesses are still crying out for relevant ‘business skills’ to be taught in education. I am not one to dig too deep into the topic, but I do recommend taking ten minutes to watch a presentation by Sir Ken Robinson, adapted from a talk given at The RSA, who talks about Changing Education Paradigms.

Computers and technology – that was something that interested me, and has naturally driven me into my career as it is now. Coming out of Sixth Form and looking at my options, my first career choice was not that which seemed assumed. I applied for and accepted my first full time position within a small software company, and for me served to feed my interests while paying a full time wage. While my friends were away at University following their own ambitions, I had money in my pocket and food for my brain. More importantly, it was in my view that experience, especially within such a fast growing, ever changing industry would hold more value than a college or university qualification.

But what if I had gone to University instead?

Inadvertent Choice:

Some years later, working another position for a big blue chip, I was well into growing my experience, my technical skill set and my business knowledge, though there was something new I was keen to try – contracting. At the time, it was something I had thought about, and had talked to a number of colleagues who had already made the ‘jump’. It actually fell into view practically overnight – when I was looking for a new position, a call came through on an opportunity to start the following day – and so I became a contractor, which was easier than I thought. My advice to anyone wanting to do the same, is that making the move is the hardest step – beyond that, self motivation is the key skill that drives success.

Having made the move, it enabled us financially to buy our first home, then shortly after, to marry, and then start a family. They say money can’t buy happiness – I don’t believe this, up to a point, as many of the financial commitments that we made together would previously have not been possible. Career progression in a permanent position, working up the corporate ladder simply does not provide the same renumeration that’s possible when freelancing within a growing market – there are benefits to both of course, with different elements of risk, and it does not always suit every type of personality.

But what if I had taken on a permanent role instead?

Considerate Choice:

Much more recently, with finances under control, the possibility and desire of driving deep into a role had became a niggling thought at the back of my mind – this is the downside to contracting. You’ll always be good at doing the same function for ten years, but being able to move into a different area of IT is much more difficult.

As an example, you could be the best Oracle Database Specialist in the world, able to build and support systems with your eyes closed – being put forward and offered contracts as a DBA is a frequent event. However, you’ve an interest in moving into Computer Security – you spend much of your spare time ‘getting up to speed’, taking on and adding value in your existing contracts by carrying out forensic investigations, or incident response following a computer intrusion, and even earning various related certifications. Trying to then get a contract, not as a DBA, but in an Information Security context is much more difficult. Contractors are taken on a temporary basis because they already have the required skill set and experience to do the job, from day one – there is no scope to train the contractor, or help grow their experience in a different area.

On the other hand, in a permanent role, there is an obligation and incentive for an organisation to grow their staff, alongside the growth of the business itself. After all, an organisation is only as successful as it’s people. Not only that, responsibilities are generally assigned and owned, where as contractors, because of their temporary status, are generally task driven based on specific deliverables.

My contract was coming to an end, with no possibilities for extension – I actually felt disappointed, as the role itself was really interesting and challenging, working for a company with rapidly expanding horizons, and for the first time was not looking forward to change. Surveying the market for new contracts did not bring to light anything ‘new’, and I was at a point in my career where I wanted to grow further, take on more responsibility, and more importantly, lay a foundation within an organisation in which I felt a real sense of belonging, on top of which I could continue to build a successful career.

In the end, after following up on a few positions, I had two confirmed permanent options on the table. Both were similar roles, within similar organisations and both with huge amounts of potential – greater than any I had been offered before. When deciding between them, I had to make considerations beyond the basics of the roles themselves, something which I had not done previously. It was one of those situations where you want to make the right choice, but don’t want to turn the other one down – If either one was the only option available, I would have chosen it there and then.

Having now made the choice, the uncertainties with finding contracts no longer exist – and while the financial benefits of contracting also no longer exist, I look forward in excited anticipation on the new possibilities that now lay ahead, that were previously not even accessible.

But what if…? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I’ve never needed to look back. I would make the same choices again.