Running a retail store from a high-level is a fairly simple concept. As an owner you keep an inventory of your products and you take note of what is selling, and what is not. You may watch for emerging trends and buy new products that relate. When you notice that a product doesn’t sell well, it might be wise not to buy more of that product. When you notice a product is selling off your shelves quickly, you could increase your profitability by stocking up on that item. Trying to “specialize” in too many products can often times cause your business to fail. You end up with too much stock in products that don’t sell, and not enough stock in products that do. This happens mostly because you can only track so many products effectively.
Running your own career should be very similar to running a business. As owner and operator of your career, you should keep track of the skill set you have — taking note of what is needed in the industry and what is not. You watch for emerging technologies and perhaps learn a little about those skills. When you notice a skill is not in demand, perhaps its time to stop “perfecting” that skill. If a skill is high in demand, you would be wise to learn something about that technology. You should pick an area that you like and are comfortable with and stick with it. Trying to keep track of too many skills at once could leave your knowledge a bit too broad in areas where clients and hiring managers want depth. While each person has a different tolerance level, an individual can keep in-depth knowledge with so many technologies at once.
Assessing your Current Inventory
If you are considering taking another position in the near future step back and start your resume from scratch. Take a completely honest assessment of your skills. Put each skill area you have in a list. One-by-one, add your personal skill level assessment beside the skill using one of the following descriptions: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Expert. Use novice only when you feel you have an understanding of the skill but would have to consistently access a resource if you were asked to do a project with that skill. Use intermediate if you know most of a product and rarely have to look for references. Assign yourself a level of advanced if you know the product inside and out but may not understand all of the underlying architecture. Place yourself as an expert if you push the limits of a technology, know how it works under the covers, and could write a book on the topic if asked to.
Determine Market Trends for your Skills
Once you have your list, set it to the side. Start looking for skills that are hot on the market. Check out monster.com in your area, and others across the nation or the world. Determine what companies are looking for. Pour through each job listing and add skills to a list. When you come across a skill that you have already listed, start counting how many times you found it. Look at the dates of the ads to determine if they are still relevant. If you are a Microsoft developer, you could probably get some assistance by looking at the Microsoft Career Center or even at the Microsoft Job’s Blog.
Determine Your Career Specialty
We often get side-tracked in our careers. We are forced to learn things to fill a job duty and we start picking up more and more knowledge in areas that may not be marketable. We tend to stray away from marketable specialties. Should an unfortunate situation arise and you find the need to look for employment again, you may have a skill specialty that is not high in demand. You would then be forced to take yet another position that isn’t optimal for you and you’ll be right back where you started. As an example, I started a dead-end job learning all about printers, printer drivers and printer languages from a small company in Charlotte, NC. I was actually starting to enjoy writing parsers and tools to make development on the company’s product line better. When I finally decided to leave the company to re-align my career, I found that I had lucked out. I wrote my tools in .NET and gained valuable knowledge and skills, otherwise I would have no marketable skills at all. Look at the specialty and determine what skills are core in that area. List those items and your specialty on a piece of paper and keep it near your computer or on the fridge. Look at it every day to help keep you focused on your goal.
Once you have a list of your skills and a self-assessment of your skill level, compare it with the list you made of the hot, marketable skills needed to get into your specialty. What are you missing? What are you deficient in? What level of skill do you feel you need to be effective in specializing in that skill area? It should be pretty obvious where you fall short, and where you have unneeded skills. Start finding resources to research and learn everything you can about a subject. Set agressive goals to learn about the details of your specialty. Make sure you learn about the skills that are most important to your specialty and you are deficient first.
Keep your goals in mind and try not to wander off target too far. It’s easy to get side-tracked. If you find yourself reading a lot about a different topic consistently, you might consider switching your specialty to that topic or even positioning yourself under both skill sets. For instance, if you decided to specialize in data access and communications, but often find yourself reading about the compact framework, you might consider specializing in data and communications on the compact framework.
Set aside some time each day to pursue these goals. Make it a part of your every day tasks. 30 minutes to an hour a day should keep you on pace. Of course, if you are more aggressive, you can adjust and plan for as much time as you can spare. Don’t spread your learning plan out too thin though. Your skill marketability may be dwindling as you read. It is important that you invest the time to make sure you stock up on this skill properly. Doing this half-heartedly will do you no good.
Use any valuable resources you can get. There are many sites now that offer blogs owned by Microsoft employees. You can search through many of them at the Microsoft Community Blogs Portal. These can be valuable or a waste of time, check out some of these blog lists and look for employees who talk about the topics you want to know about. Get a news aggregator like NewsGator or SharpReader and subscribe to those blogs. It keeps you from having to click on every link every day to see if something new is available. Sometimes the blogs are broken down into categories too. Consider subscribing to only the categories the blogger offers on your specialty. This will keep you from getting caught up in a ton of personal opinions tossed around every day on blogging sites. Search some popular sites with information on your skills. Participate on community forums. Sometimes helping others with a problem will net you some knowledge in the end. Try to use other’s experience and headaches with a technology as your stepping stone to becoming an expert in your area.
Advertise and Market to your Target Audience
When you are ready to seek a job as a specialist in the area you have chosen, do not just spam your resume everywhere. You will still find yourself back in that old familiar position of doing something you didn’t want to do. Go back to your job sites and search for jobs in that category. Don’t just jump into the first job that is offered to you. Make sure that the job being offered truly does fit the job specialty you want before you send out your resume. Tailor your resume to the specific job at the specific company you are applying toward. Make sure you highlight the skills you have against the skills they need and describe in your cover letter how you feel you might best help the company with their needs. Do not just give your resume to a recruiter who thinks he or she has a position to fit your skill set. Most head-hunters just want to fill the seat and collect the check; they will not scrutinize the employer before sending your resume to them.
Targeting your job search will more likely get the career you want, not just any career you can get. Just like a retail store, it does no good to advertise your gun shop at the democratic national convention. It just isn’t a good use of your time or resources. Use the same common sense when advertising yourself and marketing your resume.
A Dose of Reality
Just like running a store, there is always a dose of reality to add to the mix. Things sound very simple when laid out properly. But the devil is always in the details. Sometimes there is a place to draw a line between learning for work, and learning for fun. Don’t pick a specialty you don’t enjoy just because it’s hot and marketable. In the end, you’ll be miserable and you won’t make an effective specialist. There is something to be said for being poor and happy over having money and being miserable getting it. You may choose to pick a specialty that isn’t as hot as the next skill, as long as you get fired up about it. Make yourself happy with your skills first or your employer never will be.
On that note, I have some career planning to do. Drop me a line if you found this article helpful in any way.