Mind the Gap Between Your Title & Your Skillset

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Throughout our careers, we’re told that we’re awesome.

Everyone we interact with tells us that we’re magicians making software appear out of nowhere. Every day we perform superhuman feats of software development. Maybe it’s because we work for people that are not very technically inclined. What we do on a daily basis is nothing short of magic to them. Or maybe it’s because these people were trying to motivate us to do better, do more, or simply do their bidding.

In any case, sooner or later, some of us start believing the hype. We begin to think that we might, in fact, be some sort of code slinging wizard. Every year, or so, we get a decent raise and a huge bonus. Eventually, we start getting promoted: first a senior engineer, then a team lead, next principal engineer and eventually architect. This only helps to reinforce the belief that we are in fact the gods of the programming universe.

All of this continues for several years and we keep buying into the idea that we are the awesome-est of the awesome – oozing awesome sauce on everything we touch. By this time, our head has grown so much that we can barely squeeze it through the door of our swanky corner office.

…we keep buying into the idea that we are the awesome-est of the awesome – oozing awesome sauce on everything we touch

Then, all of a sudden, something happens that pulls us back into reality. Maybe we are laid off and have to start looking for a new job or maybe we’ve gone as far as we can go in our current position and decide to test the waters. This is probably the first time in years that we’ve been on the market. Things have changed drastically while we’ve been heads down climbing the career ladder at our previous company. We look through job listings and see that every one of them requires some tool, technology, or process that we are not familiar with. Industry best practices have progressed and what was magic at our old company is now not so cool, new or even relevant.
All of a sudden we realize that we are not as awesome as we thought we were. We are consumed by self-doubt. What is happening? Have I been fooling myself this whole time? How did I get this far without realizing how far behind I was?

Unfortunately, I see this play out far too often. I’ve interviewed several people that have an architect title and are not able to code a simple fizz buzz console application. In fact, in one case, an “architect” I was interviewing didn’t know how to create a new console application project at all. This is not as uncommon as you might think. It is really easy to climb the career ladder somewhere and lose sight of the industry changes that are happening around us.

I too experienced the same thing early in my career. I had spent six years at a company and had climbed all the way up to Web Development Manager. One day, I looked up and said: “man I’m a really good Cold Fusion programmer!” This was followed soon thereafter by “Holy crap! I’m a good Cold Fusion programmer. How the heck did this happened?” I realized that the industry was leaving me behind and that I had to do something immediately if I wanted to have any chance of catching up. I decided to make a change quickly and refocus my career on learning the things that I had missed out on while I was going “full steam ahead” down the wrong path.

One day, I looked up and said: “man I’m a really good Cold Fusion programmer!” This was followed soon thereafter by “Holy crap! I’m a good Cold Fusion programmer. How the heck did this happened?”

The key takeaway from all of this is that finding yourself at this juncture in your career isn’t a death sentence. At least you’ve recognized that something is wrong and you have the opportunity to resolve it. It is up to you to make a change and refocus your career. You have all of the necessary tools at your disposal and all it takes to reset is to go out there and do it. To avoid getting into this situation in the first place, you should try to stay abreast of all the trends in the industry and periodically reevaluate your current positions to determine whether it is still the right position for you. Sometimes the answer is going to be no, but that’s okay. At least, you still have the chance to do something about it. You don’t want to be the person that spends twenty years at a company only to realize that you can’t even consider going somewhere else because you’ve become so specialized at your current job that making a change would mean starting from scratch.

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