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Day 2 - The Future is Hard to Guess, So Don't

Level 12

Advice:

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.

  1. ) 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[1]. 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.

  1. )    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


 


[1] https://www.gao.gov/key_issues/climate_change_funding_management/issue_summary

52 Comments
Level 7

Thanks for the heads up Joe

At this point in my life I was about to stop diversifying and wanted to narrow my development in this field (IT), but after reading your experience, I now believe that the diversification that I am aspiring to achieve will further my development more, that aiming for carrier development

Thanks for laying out there this game changing perspective

Level 11

I've been lucky with the company I work for. 12 years ago I got a new manager at my previous workplace and I knew his manager style and that it wouldn't work for me. I decided to move on and find another place of work. That is where I am at now and then it was still relatively small. I was able to work a lot with the other groups within IT and outside of IT, learning from them and growing my diversity. As you mentioned I stumbled along the way as well but you need to learn from those speed bumps and move on.

MVP
MVP

This is a great write up, totally agree with you on what's drafted above, the pace in which things are changing in IT is massive, its best for us to continue with what we are doing along with the up-skill program (truly speaking I am not sure which way should i lean onto when it comes to up-skill but yet I would try to grab a few things under the hood of the latest technologies in IT)

Times without number I have sat in classes describing a new organizational approach that ends up failing because no one asked how. They can describe why we want to do it and what it is, but how do we can from were the organization is today to the vision of tomorrow isn't well defined. More often it is not enforced. All the way down the chain of command the cultural change needs to be adopted. There need to be consequences, good and bad, for compliance.

One example is in the adoption of new security programs. Failure to adhere to them loses one access to the assets they are tied to. Often that would lead to non-performance on assigned work, which could then lead to loss of employment or missed promotions. That approach is harder to take today because unfortunately most places don't have that deep of a bench to pull from. Loss of an individual team member can have dramatic impact on the teams ability to deliver. So then peer pressure can help play a part in everyone complying.

Joe, shidoshi1000, I am curious what your thoughts are for those who don't aspire to climb to the top. There are after all only so many CTO positions. Would your advice be the same? What makes a great first line senior manager?

I hear the 'diversify' sentiment from many leaders and technologists. If the day ever comes when I want to pursue a role in leadership, I will definitely keep this in mind! Thanks for the insight Joe!

Great question, Tom!

This is a good one.   The Future is what you make of it, it has no predictable path because every decision you make changes the potential future path you might be on, so make it as great as you can.   I would tell my self to invest, as much as you can, in the 80's in Oracle, 90's ni Google, Cisco, Microsoft, and a small company most people never heard of in 1998 VMware.   Later i would looked to also tell my self to forget the math minor, do the double major, keep the Industrial Engineering degree and get the Computer science bachelor too.  it was only 7 more classes....   in my best homer voice, "DOH"  

Level 10

I quite agree that diversifying ones knowledge, toolset is very important.

A broadened knowledge will help to understand those you are dealing with better as an IT professional.

Level 14

Well said Joe.

Your future is in your hands. Learn as much as you can... it can only help you at some point in your career.

Knowlege is the currency of success.

Never say never... the world and life has a strange sense of humor.

Level 14

This is a tricky one for me. My previous department was dissolved and I was moved to a different team, after 11 years with my company. It's hard to forge your own path when you're held inside a box and now allowed any growth at all. It fosters complacency and apathy. I think some people might read "so don't  (predict the future) and presume that nothing can be done.. . I've been there. I'm fortunate to have leadership that wants to foster growth in many directions now.

"Success is where preparation and opportunity meet." Words I live by.

If you are a poker player or a con artist then you are aware of the long game. For my career I have been playing the long game for decades. I make contacts, do favors, send "Let's grab lunch!" emails, give a kudos, etc. all for the long game. All for the low % chance of an opportunity to improve my career.

I started my IT career off working for free helping a guy getting his small IT consulting firm for non-profits in DC get off the ground in the early 90's. All to start my long game and it has paid off huge dividends that I am appreciating today. I am so so glad that I did.

I do have my regrets though. More to come on those..

Level 12

Hi tomiannelli – my suggestion for someone at first-line manager would be the same. Sometimes opportunity, be it CTO or not, comes at the most unexpected times and situations.

- Joe

Level 12

The statement "The future is hard to Guess, so don't" is true, in particular to the Information Technology trends. When I was starting my career in IT, I used to be on 1 or 2 skills only and continued till 2010. Then I started relaizing that we need to learn/acquire more skills to move further, on to the top position. Then started developing more skills. Now I am a SME on few skills. But, still to develop more skills to beat the competition and reach heights in this IT field.

Level 12

They key to success is to keep up with the ever changing technology. Even if you think you will never use what you are learning, you maybe surprised some day you will need it. Advancement will be within your grasp.

Level 7

I enjoyed reading this and find inspiration from it.

I am relatively new to the network engineering scene and even as i study for certifications such as CCNA, i am surrounded by people with much more experience than me trying to tell me what the future of networking is.
Not all of them say the same future, which leaves me scratching my head as to where to head.
Some of these engineers seem willing to follow the future and grow in that direction
But others seem only to say what the future might be and then bury their heads in the sand and stick with what they know.

I like the idea of creating the future for yourself. But i also feel that you need to stay flexible and agile, also to be willing to adapt at a moments notice in this ever changing industry.
I am lucky that the company i work for really does allow you to focus on what you want to and grow where you will be most fulfilled, therefore for me, a Monday is equally as exciting as Friday.











MVP
MVP

Preparation and growth. It's so easy to get into a routine and find yourself just rolling along and becoming stagnate. I make it a habit to spend a few minutes of each day planning out that day and looking to the next. I find that this helps reveal things I need to refine and work on rather than just taking things as they come.

Level 10

Enjoyed these words as going thru this experience right now.    Things change and can only look at how to improve on what you today and make it better.  

Level 13

You make your future.  It can take a life time to correct a bad choice.

Level 7

This is a terrific read.  Joe outlines and explains two specific ways we can be better people going forward.  I appreciate that he concise, makes his points and supports them.  I'll read this more than once.  

Level 12

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD . “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope."

                                                                                                                                                                                         Jer. 29.11

I trust, in a future and hope that is beyond my own.

Level 9

Thank you Joe, having been in the IT world since the late 80's, I've found a number of your quotes similar to my own evolution from working in a MICR library, to my own executive roles. To your journey, I would only add that as leaders, we need to sometimes return to our past when talking to our teams, remember our experiences (positive and negative) and task ourselves to guide (and not command)...

Level 9

No one knows the future.  The best we can do is continue to learn and develop as things change.  The point of asking HOW is a good one.  In my past this is something that has been a problem.  The HOW isn't just deciding on what software to buy to do the job, but also the implementation and maintenance of that software.  The HOW is a big question to answer sometimes.

Level 9

shidoshi1000​, the future is really hard to guess as no one knows what tomorrow holds. The next minute may be different than what was planned.

One wakes up today and the next minute, not where they want to be.

While I agree that there needs to be emphasis on the "how" (tactics), in my view, there first needs to be a clearly defined "why" (vision) and "what" (strategy)(c.f. "Start With Why" by Simon Sinek).

Image result for "start with why" circles

I remember participating in a workshop about a decade ago, and the facilitator had us do an exercise that I've never forgotten.  She had the entire group (about 75 of us) line up against the wall on one side of the room and then she explained the rules to us:  The "why" was a sense of accomplishment.  The "what" was to get from one side of the room to the other by any means we wanted...excepting that we could not be use the same method ("how") as anyone before us.  And oh, by the way, we couldn't walk (as she walked across the room), run (as she ran across the room) or skip (as she skipped across the room).  With those three methods off the table, you should've seen the consternation build on people's faces as they struggled to figure out the "how".  I was about mid-way down the line when my turn came up and I had seen "The Crab", a cartwheel, and many other methods I do not remember.  So what did I do when I got to the starting line?  Something I hadn't seen: "The Hammer Dance"!  But what if the person right before me HAD done "The Hammer Dance"?  Would I have denied my turn and gone to the end of the line (that happened to a couple of people)?  Or would I have "changed my approach"? (More on that later.)

My point is this: while the "how" must be taken into consideration, it is not always of paramount importance.  A saying that runs over and over in my mind is, "When you have a strong enough "why", you can overcome any "how"!  In some cases, I agree that one must have strong, repeatable processes in place in order to keep a business running (why do you think McDonald's can take a kid out of High School or a senior citizen looking for extra income and make them a successful part of a team?), but in other cases, "how" we get there is less important than the simple fact that we do get there (ever see the Special Olympics? :-).  Now I can hear the jeers and boos of those of you saying "Yeah, but if you become a millionaire by lying and stealing and cheating and walking all over people, that isn't right!" and you are absolutely correct.  I heard the following from a mentor of mine and it's stuck with me to this day:

"Ask yourself two questions.  Question 1) What do you want?  And question 2) What are you willing to do to get it?  And if the answer to question 2) is not 'Anything and everything humanly possible as long as it is legal, moral and ethical!' then you need to re-think the answer to question 1)."

One final thought on this: Tony Robbins talks about "approach" (how) in several of his books and seminars.  He says that he often hears from people, "Yeah, Tony, I've tried everything to {quit smoking | lose weight | start a business}!"  Tony then asks them, "Did you do it?" (Whatever "it" was) and they say, "Well, no."  To which Tony immediately replies, "Well then you didn't try everything did you?!  Because if you had tried everything you would have achieved what you wanted!"  Like electricity, we humans tend to take the path of least resistance.  As soon as we try a couple of things and opposition is encountered, we give up saying "Yep, I tried everything!" which is a lie because the stark reality is, we tried TWO THINGS!  Tony says if you aren't getting the results you want ("what"), then change your approach ("how").  And keep changing your approach until you achieve your desired outcome.

Future.

The mighty light of ten thousand suns challenges infinity and is soon gone.

It's true life flies faster than eyes could ever see.

Fishes biting--so exciting!  Lunchtime sounds so inviting.

Minds are subject to what should be done.  Problems solved, time cannot be won.

The trees are drawing me near; I've got to find out why.

Evening has earned its place today.  I'm tired of working away.

Earth re-energized by the sun's rays every day.

Building castles in the air, whistling to the wind.

Just what the truth is I can't say anymore.

But we decide which is right.  And which is an illusion.

Level 10

There are a lot of changes occurring in our business right now.  It's hard to stop trying to predict the future, but that doesn't stop me from trying!  This article is very good advice.

My favorite challenge to predicting the future is forcing myself and others to think about it collaboratively. Instead of "how do we fix the problem", say "how do we fix it for good? How do we fix it for 3-5 years from now?" "where do we see it after that?" etc. I don't know if this is a leader thing or just simply something everyone should do as a matter of a thinking process to always remember. I blame my first real corporate job being a company focused on sustainability, in a good way

Level 15

The point(s) on personal vs professional growth are spot-on.

I spent the last year working on the personal, after spending the previous XX on the professional. The shift in attitude and approach to problems, both technical and otherwise has 100% made me a better engineer, colleague, and human.

You can NEVER go wrong with trying to better yourself.

Level 9

I'm always trying to get a taste of anything around (food AND technology-wise)... if I can sneak into a presentation on a new product, or a webinar on something that might come my way... knowledge is everywhere. I have to be a generalist with specializations where I'm at, but I never want to stop generalizing.

I guess I started this way back in school - I'd get done with my typing homework early in high school so that I could learn other things with computers. Later I took automation engineering classes, where we had 6 or 8 separate stations to learn at. I'd bounce around as much as possible. Finally, in college, there were only options for programming if I wanted to get into computers (both at community college and at a university) so I didn't stick around... I learned a bit, then moved on. They had nothing to the tune of IT, but thanks to branching out all along, I'd already been doing IT for so long..

Level 9

Great advice. Never stop learning. No experience in life is without purpose. I don't know how many times my random assortment of past jobs has given me insight into what I was doing at the time. It is also much easier to understand people if you have "walked in their shoes".

Level 20

Actually the US has reduced greenhouse gas emissions... the problem is a large percentage of the rest of the world haven't and are using all kinds of dirty energy at an alarming rate.  And just think... all that money invested into this and it hasn't change much on a global scale.  It has inside the USA but we are only a small part of the issue at hand.  The future is hard to guess... so is the earth's climate.

Level 9

Great article.  The need to keep learning both personal and professional can be challenging (no budget, no access, etc)...but is needed in today's workplace.   Flexibility is the key.

Thank you sir. In some of the management classes I have taken on employee performance I have argued that fire-walling performance is bad because it discourages people from preparing for opportunities. Everyone on your team isn't the greatest. So many managers thought that was a mean approach. "It must be awful to work for someone like you." But it comes from my experience in the USAF and then as a new manager.

When I started in the service everyone was fire-walled. If you got a rating one notch below the highest in any category it was viewed as a bad mark. This went for both military and civilian members. They realized it was a problem and changed it to a three level evaluation, where everyone was expected to get a two. Later as a new manager I experienced the same type of evaluation system where everyone expected the highest rating all the time. It made no sense to me. How do you recognize and reward those who prepared to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves? If everyone is already doing outstanding work then there is never need to improvement, both as an organization and an individual.

I espoused the notion the highest ratings should be for those you were presented with an opportunity/challenge that was outside the normal tasks and they rose to meet that challenge successfully. They knocked it out of the park! The next level down should be for those that stretch themselves beyond their normally assigned duties putting in extra effort on a big project. They could have failed in stretching too far or been successful in doing something not as big a stretch for them in terms of growth. Then comes the hey you are doing a good job for us. We love that you show up every day, do want we expect you to do, and we appreciate that very much. Last level is where there is room for improvement. I do not think the notion that the bottom x% of employees should always be terminated. If you aren't willing to invest in improving the people you already hired and they are fail it is a reflection on you and the organization. A manager should be judged by the people they hire and how well they advance. Some of the proudest accomplishments in my managing career are not the projects, but when I look around at where many of the former employees are in their careers. Several of whom have honored me by thanking me for how I aided them in their careers with opportunities and training.

Now however, I see little if any room for growth or advancement where I am at. Not that technology doesn't keep changing and keeping me on my toes. I love learning. It is just that all the knowledge around budgeting, forecasting, strategic planning, business process improvement, targeted selection for hiring, etc. that I accumulated over the years is not called upon here. It is too small. I also feel that at my age it becomes harder for companies to look at hiring me in a senior technology position because I have spent a lot of time going broad and not deep. I have so many certificates in management and technologies because the job of the moment required it I can fill two pages just listing the titles. The hardest part is deciding what opportunity I want to prepare for in the next decade or two of my career.

Level 9

I always like this quote when people talk about the future.

Do not worry about tomorrow. Focus on today and let the future take care of itself.

Level 10

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Perhaps today's idea is well served by Master Oogway's reflection concerning worrying about tomorrow:

Yesterday is History

Tomorrow is a Mystery

Today is a Gift.  That's why it is called "The Present".

Master Oogway - Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is a mystery, but Today is a gift - YouTube

Level 9

Great advice! I have been fortunate enough to have jobs in the industry and also out of the industry that made it easy to create my own future.

MVP
MVP

What strikes me from this telling yourself is the importance of diversity. It is probably a given, that most if not all the people reading this are technologists of some variant or another. So much of my development time has been focused on technology, where as the shift to other skills and knowledge has not only been a breath of fresh air, but opens the mind to new thoughts and ideas that relate back to work and personal life.

Level 9

"...pursue personal development that can support diversified thinking." Great advice because it brings personal satisfaction that will endure even through professional ups and downs by exposing you to different people, potential friendships, and growth experiences that may take your life in directions you never anticipated.

Level 8

Great words of advice. I have been fortunate to be with a company that has been built by collaboration focusing on the “How” while discussing the “why”and the “what” as an engineering team. It’s amazing how much time you can save by learning from other people’s mistakes and lessons learned. It is always challenging but I always try to set a little time aside each week to learn something new in either my professional career or personal life to continue to grow as an individual and share with others around me.

Level 11

The idea to improve oneself personally, not only professionally, is underestimated. A number of the great people in human history had very broad interests and education. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, actually studied mathematics and engineering at the University of Berlin and in France ,including at the Sorbonne, up until the start of WWII -- not what one would expect of the leader of a Chassidic dynasty. America's founding fathers were also well-rounded individuals. Benjamin Franklin alone studied electricity in addition to being a printer, political theorist, and even postmaster.

I think it is fitting that Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, was intended, "to mark in a fitting manner those who have conferred honor upon their Alma Mater by distinguished scholarship and exemplary character as undergraduates in engineering, or by their attainments as alumni in the field of engineering, and to foster a spirit of liberal culture in engineering colleges." [emphasis mine]

Level 9

Thank you very much for sharing, very good words of advice

MVP
MVP

Thanks for the insight. I've struggled to find that balance between my professional and personal development sometimes to the detriment of one or the other. However, I think I'm in a much better place now to do so than a few years ago.

Level 11

Good read. I try not to focus on what the future holds and do my best in the present however sometimes you hear things about whats going to happen, in my job for example, and you cant help it sometimes.

Level 13

Good post, thanks.  There's a quote from Warren Buffet I really like - In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.  That doesn't mean we should close our eyes, turn our brains off and hope for the best. But it absolutely does mean that much of the time the pundits will be wrong, maybe even most of the time. 

Level 16

Great write up. I have been fortunate throughout my career to have had a passion to grab on and learn the next technology coming down the road. I made the jump from Telecommunications to IT early in my career, then from Mainframe to Networking, Rode the Cisco train for years then jumped into Monitoring. I'm thinking Security might be next...

Cheers Joe. Interesting take on the critical aspects of running anything, be it a sunday league football team, all the way up to the magnificent beast that is SolarWinds INC.

It all boils down to the adage "Fail to plan, and you plan to fail", I suppose. The "HOW" can be read as a plan needed to deliver my customer requirement, and getting that plan right is key

Level 13

The future is hard to guess! That's why I don't I just stick with SolarWinds! A platform for the jack of all trades. A little bit of everything.

Level 14

I really hate those interviewer questions such as "Where do you see yourself in 5 years time".  I usually answer that I have no idea.  Anything could happen between now and then, long term plans never come to fruition and I might change my mind.  Even short term plans have to be fluid.  I try to know a bit about everything and get involved with as many projects at work as I can.  I also live in the moment because I could be knocked down by a bus this afternoon.

Level 8

i think i understand that calvin and hobbs.   but if i do understand does that mean sometime in the past i didn't?

About the Author
Joseph is a software executive with a track record of successfully running strategic and execution-focused organizations with multi-million dollar budgets and globally distributed teams. He has demonstrated the ability to bring together disparate organizations through his leadership, vision and technical expertise to deliver on common business objectives. As an expert in process and technology standards and various industry verticals, Joseph brings a unique 360-degree perspective to help the business create successful strategies and connect the “Big Picture” to execution. Currently, Joseph services as the EVP, Engineering and Global CTO for SolarWinds and is responsible for the technology strategy, direction and execution for SolarWinds products and systems. Working directly for the CEO and partnering across the executive staff in product strategy, marketing and sales, he and his team is tasked to provide overall technology strategy, product architecture, platform advancement and engineering execution for Core IT, Cloud and MSP business units. Joseph is also responsible for leading the internal business application and information technology activities to ensure that all SolarWinds functions, such as HR, Marketing, Finance, Sales, Product, Support, Renewals, etc. are aligned from a systems perspective; and that we use the company's products to continuously improve their functionality and performance, which ensures success and expansion for both SolarWinds and customers.