Get Out of the Way

I have a lot of memories that have emerged from my years as a network engineer — from funny stories to profound moments to those times when I felt like a complete idiot (because we’re all idiots sometimes). One of those formative moments was when I was agonizing over the decision to leave the Global Escalation Team in customer support and move into an engineering focused role. I agonized over the change for a number of reasons.

I was moving out of something I knew well, directly supporting customers in a very real way. The Escalation Team was the last stop in customer support. If we couldn’t solve it, it couldn’t be solved. That meant a lot of high pressure customer interaction, doing troubleshooting work on really hard, really big problems. I learned a ton. The Escalation Team was also the top of the hill in my world. There wasn’t anyplace, really, I could imagine wanting to be more than working directly with customers, being able to say at the end of the day, “I helped someone solve a real problem,” or even better, “I helped someone learn how to solve a real problem.” Not only for external customers, but also internal ones, from engineering to technical support, I was on line all the time, helping people constantly.

The destination I was aiming for was a complete unknown. What would I do in engineering? Would I be any good at interfacing coders and customers? Could I code well enough to at least be effective in my interactions with coders? Could I do design well enough to really help build new architectures? Could I really bring new ideas to the table?

On the other hand, there wasn’t much growing left to do where I was. How many more problems could I learn to troubleshoot? I could learn the in’s and out’s of a few more protocols, and I could learn a new generation of hardware and software, but in terms of principle skill sets, I was at a dead end. I’d written my first book, and was doing pretty good with speaking engagements. Was there anything more?

So on the one side was the comfortable world I knew well, and on the other was a great big unknown. On the one hand, there was not a lot of growth left, on the other hand, I wasn’t certain I was ready and able to take on the growth that was out there on the “dark side.” (If I’m to be honest, I would actually say I’m not convinced I’ve really done as well as I could on the engineering side of life, nor that I’m as good a designer as I could be. There’s still room for growth where I am, even today.) On the one hand, there was a lot of good I could still do, and on the other, I wasn’t really certain who would be able to step up and take my place. Would the team fall apart without me there? Would the customers I was so engaged in helping be harmed?

Into what was an agonizing decision stepped a close friend — Don — who approached the problem from a completely different way. What he offered was a simple piece of advice: “If you don’t step out of the way, others will never grow into your spot.” Less than a week later, I was in engineering.

This one thought dovetails with a primary point I’ve learned over the years: being an engineer isn’t about me, or what I can get. It’s about what I can give. And sometimes, giving means getting out of the way so others can grow to where you are.

So if you’re struggling with that next career move, think about it from another perspective. Sure there are scary things out there to learn and deal with. And maybe the leap won’t be the best thing in the world over the longer term. Maybe, in fact, you find yourself in a sea you never completely feel like you’ve mastered.

But no matter what you do, if you don’t get out of the way every now and again, no-one else is going to have the chance to grow into where you are.


  1. Edwin Sutherland on 29 September 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Fantastic advice I thoroughly enjoyed that.

  2. Jason Gooley on 29 September 2014 at 5:04 pm

    Well said Russ.

  3. Ken on 30 September 2014 at 5:36 pm

    Awesome, thanks for sharing!

  4. GhostOfChristmasPast on 2 October 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Well naturally we all need to move on. Life certainly does either we want it to or not.

    But I don’t agree. Stepping aside? Nothing left to learn?

    “We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”
    — John Archibald Wheeler

    Always follow your heart no matter what drives you. But also, always be true to yourself.

    I can’t recall hearing anyone who’s truly excellent at something saying what you just said. Think about that for a while.

    • Russ on 4 October 2014 at 7:03 pm

      There’s always something else to learn, but you have to decide where “what’s left to learn” is taking you (see my first post, Jack of All Trades…). Just like when you clean your car, at some point you’ve moved beyond the point where you’re doing learning anything useful — and you’re blocking other folks who could be learning and growing. “Follow your heart?” Sounds selfish to me… “Be true to yourself?” Thanks, but no thanks. You have to decide who you want to be, and work hard to get there. Everyone who’s truly excellent at anything has to learn when to let go of the things they don’t want to be excellent at — and sometimes being excellent at helping others matters just as much as any specific skill set, etc.

      So — sorry, I don’t agree — I stand by my original post. 🙂

  5. Chrissy Dussy on 5 October 2014 at 11:35 am

    nice one russ