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Lester and Rothman

Depth or Breadth?

by Johanna Rothman and Andy Lester

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  Johanna and Andy discuss managing your career over time.  

Johanna: Andy, for this month’s column, we decided to talk about how to manage your career over time. One thing I’ve noticed is that few people have linear careers. Have you noticed that too?

Andy: Linear in what way? You mean up the corporate ladder? I don’t know anyone who has gone straight up.

Johanna: Not just up, but even sideways. I don’t know many people who stay in the same domain. Maybe I should tell you my story.

I started as a developer, and did a little stint as a manager, and dove back into development. Then I was a project manager for a two-and-a-half person project while I was a developer. Then I became a tester, but an automated tester, because I was a developer. Then a beta coordinator, which used my project management skills.

After that I started program-managing, which was managing a large program with sub-projects. Then I became a manager, but I moved to managing groups of people, not just one group. Then I became a director-level manager. After I had my second child, when I went back to work, I wanted contract development work so I could go home and nap, so I took test automation, but with C and C++, because I didn’t have any of that. So I had telecommunications, analytical instrumentation, machine vision and robotics, Symbolics and the Lisp machine which was all about operating systems and low level close-to-the-machine applications, and then more machine vision and assorted distributed systems. When I was an employee, I had a ton of systems-level experience, real engineering experience. A lot of that was the time‚Äîthe late ’70s through the early ’90s.

Andy: I know many people who have been like that, but I know just as many who have stuck with programming because it’s what they love to do. That’s pretty much my story. Started out programming, kept at it, kept getting better at it. When I became the manager of the development department, my boss reminded me repeatedly, “If you take this position, you know you can’t code all day.”

Johanna: Yup, that’s why I took that automation job after my second child was born. I knew that coding was going to be easier for me than management.

Andy: I think that different people are built different ways. People like you like the wide areas of knowledge, and I tend to go deep into what I know. I’ve been doing Perl for about 15 years now. Let me test a theory here: How much of your breadth-over-depth tendency is because you get bored easily?

Johanna: Oh, you pegged me! I like projects I can finish, so I can see my results. I like to learn new kinds of domains, because otherwise I get bored. And that’s why managing your career, in some way, shape, or form, if you are like me, is an excellent idea.

But you can’t wait for your manager to do it. You have to start and keep going yourself. If you do a little bit, every week, that’s fine. But you have to do it yourself.

Andy: Absolutely, it’s all your responsibility. I cringe when I see someone on /r/jobs saying something like “My manager isn’t sending me to any training to expand my skills!” Well, no, he won’t if it doesn’t have direct benefit to the company. If you want to learn stuff, and the company’s not doing it, you have to do it yourself. You are the manager of You, Inc., and you are responsible for growth of its one employee.

On the topic of You, Inc., we all have to be prepared to get fired tomorrow. We each have to be ready for the day when, even though we are stellar performers, the boss calls us into the office and gives a speech starting with “Because of the tough economic times, we’ve had to make some hard decisions.” There is no such thing is job security. None. Zero. You want job security, join the military.

Johanna: Exactly. If we don’t keep up with what’s going on in our industry, it won’t be our industry for much longer. I once gave a talk at WIND, Wednesday Is Networking Day. A woman came up to me later, and told me she was a COBOL programmer. I asked, “A COBOL programmer?” She said, “Yes, COBOL, that’s it.” “Don’t you want to learn anything else?” “Nope. I’m happy with COBOL.”

Well, that’s fine for now. But those COBOL programs are being retired. And, if I were her, I sure would like the option of having other choices.

Andy: That’s great that she’s happy with COBOL, so long as she finds employers who want that. I taught myself COBOL back in the late ’80s because I figured it would help my career in the future. Thank goodness I never had to fall back on it.

But we may be misleading our readers by this breadth-vs-depth distinction. Would you agree that neither breadth nor depth is “The Right Answer” to keeping yourself employable? I know if I had to go get a job tomorrow, I could walk into most any Perl gig with my background, but the number of Perl positions seems to be declining over time. Compare that to your situation of having done a lot, but maybe not having expert-level knowledge at most of the things you’ve tackled.

Johanna: Well, in my story, when I looked for contract work, C++ was big. That was in ’92. I had Lisp as an OO language, but there weren’t many jobs in Lisp. If I was going to manage developers and testers, I wanted to understand their issues. I had a hard time with C pointers, and had a lot of memory leaks in my code, so when I managed a group just a year later, I understood the need for tools.

I agree that you have to decide for yourself when to go broad and when to go deep. “The Right Answer” is to keep learning. There are functional skills and domain expertise, and those are just two areas of a technical skill set. You need a lot more than those to keep your skills present and up-to-date.

Andy: One of the phrases I like to keep rolling around in my head is “the velvet coffin.” It’s a situation where you’re so comfortable doing what you’re doing that you don’t bother learning anything new, and you’ll just be happy to die at the given company.

Johanna: Some companies don’t want any change at all. You need to know how comfortable you can be in their environment. If you want a cultural fit with a new employer, you need to understand how much initiative they want. You and I are pretty high initiative people. Not everyone wants high initiative people. I’m big on change‚ÄîI’m a consultant.

Andy: And it’s real easy to get in that situation. Learning new skills falls into Covey’s Quadrant 2: Important But Not Urgent, so we tend to ignore it.

Johanna: Right. When I ask people to look at their job timelines when they think about seeking a new job, I get them to think about their values. What matters to them? Those principles matter. For me, the values of control over my job and learning is huge. I can live with a lot if I have those two values.

Andy: I don’t think company culture stops you from learning on your own. It’s just that some cultures won’t encourage it directly. What to you is “control over my job”?

Johanna: Well, if the company culture is “We have to work from 6am to 10pm every day,” that might prevent you from learning on your own. Control over my job is when my manager tells me the results he or she wants and I get to do it my way. Or, if we are an agile team, and someone tells us what they want and I get to work with the team to define how we do it, that’s control over my job. I am happy to be responsible for the results. I don’t want someone telling me how to do something. That makes me just a little crazy.

Andy: Is there something you can do in managing your career, well before you look for something new, that makes you more likely to find something that will allow you to learn and something that gives you more control over your job?

Johanna: If you approach your current job as something that should allow you to learn something and something that should provide you control, you are practicing.

You can start from where you are. This is why you want weekly or bi-weekly one-on-ones with your manager. That way you can make sure you are on the right track and that you are learning something you want to learn. If you are not, you can rearrange the project (maybe) after a while.

When I was a manager, I had a deal with my staff. I said that we all had to have some amount of scut work, but if that amount ever got to be more than 20 percent, they should let me know, because then we had a problem that we had to solve our way out of. We could all manage 20-percent scut work, but if there was more than that, then we had a huge problem on our hands and we had to solve it. We were not being creative enough.

Andy: How do you know if you’re managing your career properly? Is there a dial or warning light? I know one piece of advice I give is that you should be able to add one new interesting, sellable thing to your resume every quarter.

Johanna: That’s a good thing.

Andy: Say you set up monitoring on your servers using Nagios. Put it on the resume. You learned Solr as a search backend? Put it on your resume. You’ve done the same old thing the past quarter? Nothing to put on your resume? Then you’re stagnating.

Noting these things on your resume also has the benefit of keeping those things fresh in your mind when yearly performance reviews come around.

But what else can we do besides tracking commits to our resumes? Do you keep metrics on how you’ve expanded your circle of contacts?

Johanna: I keep increasing my LinkedIn contacts. I also have a mailing list, and I have statistics on that. So I know how large my mailing list is growing, and that, for me, is what I use for stats now. If I was an employee, I would track my LinkedIn contacts and recommendations.

Andy: Do you actually see value in LinkedIn contacts? I get asked all the time “is LinkedIn worth it?” and the best I can say is “If it gets you a contact to a new job, yes, but it’s no guarantee of anything.” How do you measure the bang/buck ratio?

Johanna: You don’t need to be a “promiscuous” linker on LinkedIn, but if you are not adding people on LinkedIn, you are not doing yourself any favors. There is tremendous power in loose connections. Your loose connections will get you your next job.

Andy: Who do you add on LinkedIn? I assume for you it’s somewhere between “Only people I have worked with that I like personally” and “anyone with a pulse.” Say more about “loose connections.”

Johanna: Loose connections are people who have something or someone in common with you, and are not total strangers. They might belong to a group with you; you might have met them at a conference. Maybe you read something they wrote or vice versa.

If you work in a large company, maybe you work “with” them! But you don’t work directly with them. Now that I’m older, they tend to be children of my friends :-)

Andy: Why do you say they will get you your next job?

Johanna: Because they know someone who knows someone. They are often people who will get you an employee referral. That is what will get you your next job. It works for me all the time as a consultant. All the time.

Andy: What about those of us who are not consultants?

Johanna: They get you employee referrals.

One more thing I want to say as we wrap up. Don’t neglect the interpersonal skills. They are just as important as the technical skills. For some of us, they are more important. I focused on the technical skills for the first 15 years of my career. I shifted to interpersonal skills when I started my consulting business because I realized that’s what I needed to focus on.

Even when I was teaching test automation, project management, and other more technical workshops, I was learning interpersonal skills. Now that I teach interpersonal skills, I am still learning them. So, consider what you need to learn at different points in your career.

Andy: Especially for those of us who have been doing this for a decade or two, we need to remember that any kid fresh out of school can have, in two years time, as much relevant tech knowledge as we have. Sure, I’ve been doing this for 27 years, but nobody cares about my experience in Apple Pascal on the Apple //e. What we have to work with is our understanding of the processes and the human side of the technical world.

Johanna: What stands out for me as I review my career is that it is non-linear. I never would have expected it to take these dips and turns. If you exploit your knowledge, and keep learning, you can keep your career going, which is the point of all of this.

Andy: And we hope it’s been helpful. Next month, we ll be talking about how to build and maintain your business network without feeling sleazy. Until then, we welcome your comments and feedback.

Johanna Rothman helps leaders solve problems and seize opportunities. She consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. She enables managers, teams, and organizations to become more effective by applying her pragmatic approaches to the issues of project management, risk management, and people management. She writes the Pragmatic Manager email newsletter and two blogs on

Andy Lester has developed software for more than twenty years in the business world and on the Web in the open source community. Years of sifting through r?©sum?©s, interviewing unprepared candidates, and even some unwise career choices of his own spurred him to write his nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area. He blogs at, and can be reached by email at

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