Non-linear career trajectories

Originally posted Oct 18, 2015

“If I knew that I could do what I do right now as a kid I’d find it a little daunting, because there was no linear way that I made it to where I am. I have a very wiggly trajectory. And some of it is luck, and some of it was talent, and some of it was just being at the right place at the right time. There’s no way that you could prescribe that.”
Kate Beaton

I’ve often struggled with having a clear vision of what I want to be when I “grow up”, despite the fact that I’m a successful engineering manager and have written two books in my field. Both of my parents had a “calling” for their careers early in life—mom’s a minister, dad’s a teacher—so by comparison I’ve always felt disjointed in my professional path. I’m a person without a concrete career goal or plan, and I routinely lose sleep over that fact.

This isn’t to say I’m unhappy with my professional path and where I am today—far from it—but I couldn’t have predicted how I got here, and there was never any overarching vision or plan behind it all.

As an example: While in high school I taught myself how to write HTML using Neopet’s tutorial. I had no idea these skills would factor heavily into my professional path (even my high school guidance counselor advised me against taking a course in visual basic). I built websites for friends and for college internships long before I was ever working professionally as a web developer.

That’s the way it’s been with most of the skills I now count as essential to my career - I developed them out of genuine interest, often didn’t have an immediate professional application for them, and didn’t necessarily have a coach telling me I could make a successful life out of these skills. Looking back now, however, I can identify a handful of the experiences that have led me here:

That’s about as linear as I can portray it.

What gives me reassurance about that lack of a goal or dream is that, reflecting on that list of gigs, I notice that each random piece of work pushed me forward in small and sometimes surprising ways. Here are some of them:

WorkOpportunity it led toBecause
College classes in Photoshop and web designMy first, second, and third jobs in techIt gave me the right skills to get started, and my professors ended up hiring me after college.
GM of my school’s radio stationManagementLearning from growing pains in leadership and failing at the “people stuff”.
Philosophy degreeWriting a successful bookI became a confident writer, good problem-solver, and learned how to take feedback.
Photography businessSecond large side businessI met my co-founder!
Owning/running a large websiteAll future tech jobsI finally had a sandbox to play with tons of new tech that I couldn’t implement at my day job.
Blogging for workTons of speaking gigsI was giving back to the tech community in a valuable and recognizable way and got hours of practice honing my thoughts and my niche.
Participating in a Ladies Lunch at a VelocityConfWriting a bookRight place, right time to pitch the idea to an editor at O’Reilly. And I took the risk to pitch it.

I’m also reassured when I trace my developed skill sets to their origin. The sampling of below skills have aided my career in every industry I’ve worked, not just the ones in which they originated.

SkillHow it startedHow it’s grown
Acting on trusted instinctStreet documentary photography requires you to “make it work” with just what’s in front of you. You’re not at all in control.It helped me be certified as an EMT. And helps every day making tough decisions in the moment at work.
Public speakingSmall lunch and learns within a companyKeynoting, speaking at dozens of conferences and companies, on a wide variety of topics
WritingPhilosophy papers for collegeBlogging, book writing, solid inter-team communication
Asking for a jobAsking if the company I loved interning for had any full-time openings when I graduated collegePitching two books!

I could list so many more things here: how the connections I’ve made on Twitter and at conferences have built my career. How the lessons I learned managing a wedding full of stressed-out people every weekend have translated to my tech job. How on more than one occasion, a random corporate-y dinner invite has led me to my next job.

Having a non-linear trajectory—a career full of photos, coding, EMTing, etc.—has meant it’s hard to distill down what actually leads to success. Very few parts of my career have been planned. My father used to joke that his kids’ successes were due to “half luck, half talent”. While I used to take issue with the “luck” part, the older I grew, the more I understood this to be absolutely true. For many of us, working hard and then being in the right place at the right time seems to be key.

If there’s any advice I have for those struggling with the same source of anxiety, it’s to pull random bits of experience from different corners of your life and see what it’s taught you. Find your sandbox to play in until you have things you can blog about, speak about, or give back to the community. Your experience, connections, and opportunities easily translate across industries; don’t feel limited to just the job or industry that you’re currently in. I have no idea where I’m going next, but I’m sure it’s going to be just as random as the things in my past.

This post originally appeared on The Pastry Box.

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.