I guess I’m semi-famous. Or maybe I’m a moderately sized fish in a rather small bowl. Whatever the reason, a lot of people reach out to me for career advice. Which is okay, of course — I make it a personal policy to answer every email that’s addressed to me, individually, that I receive. It only takes a minute or two, after all, and it drives me nuts when I send an email to someone that seems to go into a black hole. I try not to be the person that drives me nuts. 🙂
So a couple of times a week, I open my inbox to find either an email or a message through some social network (the only social networks I actively use, by the way, are Twitter and LinkedIn, so if you friend me on Facebook, or send me an invite to something else, I’m not likely to accept) asking some variation of a couple of questions. The one I want to address in this post is probably the hardest to answer.
How can I become an architect/really good engineer/really good writer/really successful/etc.?
The snark inside me just wants to answer, “just change your title on LinkedIn, that’s what everyone else does.” But as funny as the snark is, it’s not really helpful when someone honestly wants to know. So let me try to give you an answer here that might actually be useful.
To become any of the above, act like a duck.
Okay, if you’re still reading after that one, you deserve an explanation. How can you act like a duck? We used to have this ritual we used on first time campers in my Scout Troop. They had to squat, stick their hands under their armpits, and attempt to walk around the campfire chanting, “Owa, Tagoo, Siam…” At least until they got the joke.
But first time camper hazing is not what I’m talking about. If you want to become an architect, you need to paddle like crazy under the surface and remain peaceful and patient on the surface. In other words, you have to work a lot while being very, very patient. Look like a duck on the surface, look like a duck under the surface. I think we might all have the paddle like crazy part down (though I think the crazy paddling might be a little better focused most of the time), so for the moment I want to focus on the patience on the surface bit.
I like to tell people that when I started in this business, I was installing VT100 terminal emulation cards in Z100 computers. You know the kind — two 5 1/4 inch floppies and a little bulbous semi-grey screen with green letters? I still own a set of Digital Research CPM on 5 1/4 floppies, in fact. 8in floppies were actually common when I was installing said VT100 cards, as were punch cards and all sorts of other stuff.
But, in reality, I started in network engineering long before those VT100 cards. I started at the age of twelve, getting an Amateur Radio license (WB4YRV — not, it’s not a vanity plate, either, it’s really that old of a call sign). I started working on discrete electronics in old weather and navigational equipment (the FMN-1 had drum memory, while the RVR-400 had dual transistor flip-flops with little light bulbs — of the incandescent type, and the FPS-77 had a dual vacuum tube operational amplifier), and moved to building systems by hand and working on a Xerox Star and the Z100’s laying around everywhere on base and Banyan VINES and Netware and… I started coding in BASIC, and then assembler on a COCO2, and then xBase (dBase and Foxbase specifically), and then Smalltalk, and then C…
The point is this — it takes a lot of time and variety to build of a solid engineering sense. It takes a lot of (what seems to be stupid) repetition to get to the point of being able to understand technology in terms of rule 11.
Don’t be impatient to get to “architect.” It takes time, and that’s okay. Don’t forget to paddle like crazy. But don’t forget to be patient, as well.