The future is hard to guess, so don’t.
Having grown up in the information technology industry, initially as a developer, a product leader, and now as an executive and CTO leading technology for a public company, I have gleaned a wide range of lessons from my professional and personal experience.
As technologists, we face a professional landscape that embraces highly charged evolution, where the demand to understand and keep up with innovations can sometimes be overwhelming. At the same time, the pressure to perform and succeed is ubiquitous in becoming a high performer in the tech industry. So… if I were to imagine myself addressing a scrappy and ambitious younger self, stressing about navigating ambiguity and career, what would be my single advice to him?
“The future is hard to guess, so don’t.”
Abraham Lincoln is often attributed with the following quote: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” This quote perfectly captures my approach to any professional environment. We must be proactive, take ownership, and create the future we want.
Today, I spend a large amount of my time thinking strategically about where my team and our organization needs to be to address the needs and demands of our customers. It’s one of the reasons we have such a unique perspective on innovation—we ask our customers directly about the problems they need to solve and focus most of our innovation energy on how to solve them easily and efficiently. The more you try to guess around items like “innovation,” the more likely you will fail.
If I foresee obstacles or challenges in a plan that we are working toward executing, I target elements that will influence (or eventually influence) the materialization of a desired outcome, and I ensure those elements are accomplished. This makes it a lot easier to navigate ambiguity and prepare for unknowns. So, what does it mean to create your future?
Here are two important practices that I believe will set you on your way to improving the odds of taking ownership.
- ) Focus on the “HOW.” A lot of people talk about the “why,” and then go straight from that to the “what.” Oftentimes, folks fail to identify how something can (or could) happen. The “how” determines the manner or means leveraged to accomplish a given goal.
For instance, take the issue and conversation around global greenhouse emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise even though we are aware of the consequences of this phenomenon and have invested billions of dollars on policies aimed at curbing the rise of emissions. How is this occurring, when it seems that the “why” has been clearly illustrated with a litany of “what” items already implemented like taxation on emissions, timelines on automobile companies to improve MPGs, increase in alternative energy usage, etc.? Well, not having an articulated and agreed “how” that identifies the challenges associated with something this complex leads to the “what” items becoming not as effective to address the problem. I have seen this play out similarly in teams, organizations, and companies throughout my career.
How many times have you seen a “vision” (the why) painted clearly with a bunch of action items or mandates that are then pushed throughout the organization (the what)? How many times have you seen this fail? How many times have you seen leadership surprised that it did?
Spending more time on developing solutions that address the “how” of a problem you face will inevitably optimize your time troubleshooting and securing a desired outcome.
- ) Continue to add to your toolbox. Continuing personal development is critical. This is not the same as professional development. Professional development focuses on our ability to maintain the skillsets necessary to execute and perform well in our job, such as maintaining your certifications and developing your emotional intelligence. Instead, I am challenging you to pursue personal development that can support diversified thinking. Educating yourself in an area that has nothing to do with technology is a good thing. Do it, and you will be a better technologist for it and have a diversified knowledge base and skills to help drive strategic objectives.
Personally, I diversified (and continue to diversify) my portfolio of skillsets by helping different teams, departments, and companies. I’ve done various things like spearheading a special project supporting our legal team when dealing with contractual matters so that I can better understand contract negotiations. I’ve also become a champion of HR initiatives like college recruiting and leadership development programs to better understand how to drive learning and engagement from a diverse workforce. Taking time and going above and beyond to learn in these other areas eventually led me to be able to take on broader roles like General Manager of business units, not just technology teams.
Creating a sustainable and successful future is not easy. The time you take to invest in yourself and start thinking critically about forging your desired path, whether it be in a professional or personal endeavor, is critical for success. Like me, you will stumble and fail at times; however, that is when you learn the most and will develop the experience necessary to succeed the next time.
- Joe Kim, EVP and CTO at SolarWinds