Amazing Careers: Are Super Powers Really Required?
I was recently talking with Peipei, one of my co-workers, (who is much more bad-ass than I am) about sharing our career stories at women in tech events. In order to inspire others, at various points we’ve both been asked to share our stories about how we got where we are today. We were commiserating about how we find this task challenging because we don’t feel like we particularly did anything to get where we are. We agreed that we both feel like we got lucky with our opportunities. We worked hard, but we didn’t feel like we particularly did anything special. In fact, in many ways it feels like we happened on our career paths and did far less planning and far more meandering. If you’re curious, she’s shared her story here.
On top of that, when I’ve gone to listen to talks on leadership or on career advancement, I often find myself hoping to learn that secret magical answer or the 5 step fool proof method to get ahead. Maybe there’s some secret sauce that I just haven’t discovered yet. Unfortunately, based on all of the many talks I’ve gone to and from my own experience, I have yet to see any proof that this exists. In fact, I hear over and over from top women about how careers aren’t ladders, they’re lattices — meaning that they aren’t a straight line.
There are often many ways to get to the same place and you don’t always have to take the most direct route in order to get somewhere great. There is no one answer and what works for one person may not work for anyone else. On one hand, this is comforting — just because I can’t exactly emulate one person, I can still get ahead. However, on the other hand, this is very frustrating because it’s sometimes very hard to see what the next steps can or should be.
So, even if there’s no magical bullet, that doesn’t mean that Peipei and I didn’t still end up in pretty awesome places that can inspire others. That also doesn’t mean that we didn’t learn some things along the way that we can share with others. As the two of us continued to talk, I started to realize that while it may feel like I got lucky, and while I’m not going to try to pretend that luck didn’t play a part in my success, I have also done a few things that have nothing to do with luck.
I looked for challenges.
When looking for a project or job, there are typically three things I look for. I look for a group of good people, because if the people suck, nothing else matters. Secondly I look for some place that will teach me something new and give me the opportunity to grow my skill set. Finally, I look for something that will challenge me and give me the opportunity to expand my scope and impact. My previous job was at a small startup and while I learned a ton there at first — with no one else to push tasks onto, I had to learn how to do everything — I found that at some point I stopped learning much. I could continue to build features, but I had no one to teach me about how much my code sucked. We were also still too small to start running into complexity or scale issues. In short, it had stopped being challenging.
When switching between teams at Box (and I’ve done that many times now), I’ve rarely gotten to the point where I actively wanted to leave my current team. When given the opportunity to move, I’ve always evaluated which team would give me the bigger challenge. Where would I learn more? What would be more difficult? I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always picked the option that puts me most out of my comfort zone — after all, I feel like I’m best able to contribute if I can balance between falling back on some experience and expertise and learning something totally new. That said, I do tend to drift towards the bigger challenges.
I said yes.
I have gotten a little lucky in that people have given me opportunities. At the same time, I’ve also recognized them as opportunities and said yes to those opportunities. I’m not talking about saying yes to everything. I think many of us have seen or been that young, excited employee who says yes to everything including planning the next social and interviewing and a million other tasks that probably won’t teach us much or help advance our careers. I’m grateful to these people and I’ve definitely been there myself, but this isn’t what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is keeping an eye out for potentially strategic opportunities and not shying away from them. I’m also talking about making sure to take full advantage of them when you get them.
I’ve said yes to big things. As I mentioned before, I’ve moved around teams and roles at Box a lot of times. That said, I can only think of one that I, in any way, initiated. For many of them, I was asked to help out another team on some exploratory task because I knew something in the area and then at some point when it because a full project, I was asked to pick between my current team and that other team. In a few cases, there was a need in an existing team and they thought I would be a good fit to fill it, so I had a manager come to me to present why switching might be a good idea. In many of these cases, I was happy and comfortable where I was. I probably wouldn’t have gone out looking for something new. However, when it came up, I evaluated the opportunity and in every case I can think of, I took it. Some of them were obvious choices, but a few of them were a bit riskier. I took those risks; I said yes.
I’ve said yes to smaller things too. Not everything is always a big sweeping question of switching teams. When someone asks me to help with something, I keep an eye out for which things will be high leverage to me. For example, when I’m asked to speak at various events, I almost always say yes. These opportunities are often a lot of work, including hours outside of work hours, but at the same time, they give me exposure and help build my credibility in tech. They allow me to give back to the larger community and they allow me to represent my company and our technical brand in a positive light. I don’t have to do these things — many of these organizers would easily be able to find someone else to take my place, but I said yes. Similarly, at work there are times when an important task comes up that will require some thankless work, but if done correctly and well, can give exposure or can be used to show coordination across teams or leadership. As I mentioned, it’s also what you make of a task. If I’ve been asked to help with a site issue, I can do the bare minimum to solve the portion related to my team’s ownership area or, I can take more responsibility and solve my problem, lead the effort to make sure the problem is solved across teams and possibly even identify and push through solutions that will solve the root of the problem, not just the current problem.
The big thing about saying yes, however, is finding the right balance. You also have to pick your battles — getting spread too thin or finding yourself in a position where you’re ignoring your main job so you can get the side things done won’t be good for you either. A big thing I’m always cognizant of is picking my battles. I figure out what I care about the most and what’s the highest impact and focus on those. I don’t shy away from something risky or challenging or uncomfortable, but I also recognize when I won’t be able to add much or when someone else might be able to better contribute or when something would be a great growth opportunity for someone more junior. I say yes, to the right things.
I dared to ask.
In many cases, opportunities have come to me, but that doesn’t always happen. I’ve also learned to ask for things. At some companies, the politics are such that you should guard your hand and not put all of your cards on the table. That’s not me and I’ve decided that if I ever end up somewhere where that’s a thing, it’s probably best if I find that out quickly anyway. I like to be up front with people about what I want, which allows everyone around me to help me with my goals. For example, the last time I went up for a promotion, I told people about it ahead of time. Now this can be incredibly scary (if I fail, everyone will know I failed!), but it was really helpful in terms of getting people used to the idea of me being a level higher and rooting for me. It also allowed me to more easily have conversations with various people about where they saw my weaknesses and what I might be able to do to fill those.
I’m going to be honest, I still struggle with this point the most of the three I’ve mentioned here. I still don’t like to rock the boat and have a tendency to not always think to ask for things. That said, I’m also a firm believer in the idea that it’s much harder to get something you don’t ask for. I have a friend who talked in a panel about how she started asking for things all the time just to try to get more used to rejection. To that end, she’d ask for the craziest things from airlines, from restaurants, from retail stores, you name it. She said that most of the time they said no, but every now and then, they’d say yes. I’m not saying that you have to go to this extreme, but it’s hard to know what you might have gotten if you had only asked.
When I was managing people, I often found helping people grow their careers to be one of the hardest things. People would ask for “growth opportunities” or for “feedback” and I would struggle to come up with much. That’s not to say that I didn’t genuinely want to help them out on both fronts as much as possible. The thing was that with requests or questions that broad, it’s hard to zero in on anything. However, if someone were to tell me they wanted a chance to speak at an all hands, then the next time that opportunity came up, you can bet that they’d be top of mind. Similarly if someone asked for feedback on how they handled a tricky meeting, I could give them honest thoughts (positive or negative) on how I thought it went. Asking helps other people help you, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Anyone can do it!
I realized since that conversation with Peipei, that even though my career path may not feel special to me, it can still be useful and inspiring to others. Even though I sometimes feel like I didn’t do a whole lot, I probably still did a lot of things that affected the outcome and sharing those things can still help others. At the same time, because I didn’t do anything super special and I feel like my story isn’t that exciting, it’s actually good news for everyone. Peipei and I aren’t magical or mythical figures. We’re not super women; we’re regular people. Success doesn’t necessarily require some special sauce; anyone can make it happen!