The Career Development Mountains

Published in TDAN.com October 2005

In my prior articles, I have written at length about the future of information technology and how globalization has impacted our environment. The one thing that I have not addressed is what you can
do about it. In this article, I want to spend some time talking about development plans. Development Plans have evolved as a particular approach to planning career and skill development activities
for individuals within employing organizations. The concept of a development plan is the creation of a clear action plan for an individual for which the individual takes primary responsibility.
Barber, Hirsh, and Tamkin (2005) describe the development plan as:

“A Personal Development Plan can vary considerably in focus. A plan may concentrate purely on development needed to perform better in the current job. It may extend to development required for
the next career step. It may take a much more holistic or person based approach; encouraging the individual to consider their personal effectiveness and a correspondingly wider range of development
needs. This issue of focus was very important to how the individual employees perceived their scheme. By and large, employees feel more satisfied by a development planning process which takes their
wider personal aspirations on board.”

I am going to use an analogy here in order to describe the corporate development planning environment. The world of development consists of two basic elements: mountains and valleys. The analogy of
the mountain describes the enormous amount of effort required in order to develop and execute a true value-add development plan. The valley describes the area that 80-90% of information technology
workers evolve too. I use the word evolve in the sense that we all, at one time or another, worked on developing skills, knowledge, and ability beyond the current scope of employment. For most of
us, this was the college years where we went to school during the day and worked at night or vice versa. Eventually, we got into a job or career that has carried us to the valley.

Why do I use the imagery of a valley to describe where most people are in their development activities? While not exactly true, we see the valley as a peaceful place where flowers bloom, the grass
is always green, and simple cottages paint the landscape. People that live on the plains will certainly work hard for those 40 hours that they are paid and sometimes stretch to 45-50 if the work
demands it. They will go to training if the corporation pays for it and read the occasional industry article. They will focus on their weaknesses as pointed out during performance reviews all the
while giving the illusion of an actual development plan. In no way am I saying that the people of the valley are lazy, lack ambition, or don’t care about their career. The simple fact is that they
are not climbing one of the four mountains. Is a mountain a representation of what we do for a living? No, the mountain represents what you do to develop your career when no one is looking.
Mountains are not a representation of what you do for a living or what you get paid for, that is something else and we would not have valleys if that were the case. What do you do after you put the
kids to bed? Do you watch the next episode of Desperate Housewives or do you read Fast Company or Harvard Business Review? When you are sitting in traffic, do you listen to talk radio or do you pop
in the latest book by Tom Peters or Seth Godin? You see, the valley has a place for those that work hard and do a good job but the mountains are for those reaching to a higher plane where the
future must be created not simply managed.

The four mountains that will be described include Mt. Academia, Mt. Professional, Mt. Corporate, and Mt. Entrepreneur. One early warning about these mountains is that the terrain is constantly
changing and what looked like a solid career plan yesterday might not work today. Let’s start with the mountain that the vast majority of performance reviews focus on and that’s Mt. Corporate.
The people that are climbing Mt. Corporate are obvious since we vilify these people daily and Dilbert has mocked them for years. They are the ones we refer to as workaholics, the ones that work 60
to 70 hours a week, the ones that are driving toward that corner office with conviction. We know them well since we sit at company outings and make snide comments about who is seen with them; “Hey
look at Frank over there kissing up”. Those of us in the valley enjoy sitting out in our lounge chair and laugh as they slip, get on failed projects, and embarrass themselves during town halls.
That is, of course, until they reach the top and then we are amazed at their model of success. Make no mistake, these people want the projects no one else does, they want to be on the most
challenging projects, and they want to be on the firing line. They understand medals of valor are not awarded to the cooks unless you’re Steven Segal. The question remains that while you may want
to “Be” a Director, are you willing to “Do” Director. Life on Mt. Corporate is not easy and I admire those that travel this path.

The next mountain is one that I am very familiar with since I have spent the last seven years aimlessly wandering around. Mt. Academia is where education and the expansion of the body of knowledge
take center stage. For some people, Mt. Academia is getting a Masters degree while others it’s the Associate degree. For others, publishing in journals, proceedings, and writing textbooks complete
the challenge of the climb. Now, how does the corporation or the technology manager view people that are climbing Mt. Academia? It wasn’t that long ago that an MBA was a treasured credential.
Organizations not only paid for the degree they allowed employees to take time off to complete it(often with pay). Today, many managers value experience over an education. According to Schecter
(2005) graduate business schools are churning out a record number of eager MBA holders, approaching 120,000 a year in the United States alone, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Because
of the sheer volume of graduates, the status of a conventional MBA degree as differentiator has faded; instead, it has become the common denominator. However, I will argue that academic credentials
can never be removed from your resume and publishing in a journal and proceeding is still very rare. The reason I like Mt. Academia within the corporate setting is that the accomplishments have a
lasting value while project work does not. When you get a chance ask your current manager what project you worked on three years ago. Chances are they don’t remember or care. Corporate America
only really cares about what you did in the last twelve months or the next six. Whether you agree or disagree with this fact that this is good for business is up for debate but it is undeniable
none the less.

Mt. Professional is out next adventure to discuss. Let me start with this comment; talent competes on a global scale while labor competes on a local scale. In other words, learning Microsoft’s
.Net is no big deal but being one of the top five .Net programmers in the world is. When I say Data Modeler, who comes to mind? (Graeme Simsion or William Smith?) When I say Metadata Management,
who comes to mind? (David Marco or Adrienne Tannenbaum?) When I say Information Architecture, who comes to mind? (Louis Rosenfeld or Peter Morville?) And one more, when I say Enterprise
Architecture, who do you think about? (John Zachman or Steven Spawek?) These people have climbed Mt. Professional and set themselves apart from the rest of us within our field of study. How do
these people differentiate themselves? The most popular method is the publication channel. They spend an enormous amount of time writing articles, books, and presenting material at national
conferences. They are letting their voice be heard across the vast channels of communication. To ask the same question as we did for Mt. Academia; how does corporate America look at people that are
climbing Mt. Professional? I wish I could say they support people trying to get at the top of their game and becoming one of the top experts in their field. Unfortunately, fear over Intellectual
Property, trade secrets, and simple lack of understanding by front line managers forces most people to sit at the base of Mt. Professional and never take that first step.

The final mountain is Mt. Entrepreneur. Who among us haven’t thought about starting our own business or moving into the consulting environment. I enjoy the commercial where the lady is telling the
story of how her and her husband vacationed in some exotic location and decided to stay and open a beach bar. In fact, many of us made that leap during the Y2K and Dot-Com eras to try our hand at
the entrepreneur game. Sadly, many of these individuals have returned as these “Tulip” Mania events failed to deliver on the dramatic increase in demand for resources. Gerber (1995) makes the
claim that the small business owner must be an entrepreneur and a manager as well as a technician. The technician is the worker-bee, the one who produces the product. The manager makes sure
operations and finances run smoothly and consistently. The entrepreneur formulates the goals, and steers the business in the direction needed to reach those goals. Of these three personalities, the
entrepreneur is the key. Without it, the technician will work himself or herself to death or bankruptcy. As the business grows, the business owner will need to draw away from the technician work
and manager work and delegate this work, rather than abdicate this, to others. Clearly corporate America frowns on the obvious conflict of interest. Recently, a fellow enterprise architect changed
jobs and was forced to stop blogging due to the “Corporate Policy”. As Tom Peter’s once said, if your not willing to be fired for what you believe in then why get up in the morning. He found a
new job and continues his climb on Mt. Professional.

So what are the implications of where you stand; mountain or valley? First, we need to understand and admit that the valley cannot compete with the globalization movement. We must bring together a
collection of forces in order to compete: Innovation from Mt. Academia, Risk from Mt. Entrepreneur, Knowledge from Mt. Professional and the Commitment from Mt. Corporate. Only the combination of
these skills will be able to turn the tide of automation, standardization, and globalization. Second, you need to commit that you will tackle at least one of the mountains described in this
article. The new competitive framework requires a broader set of skills; “hard” (technical) and “soft” (interpersonal and communication) skills are equally important. The skills identified by a
number of authors include managing information, resources, and relationships with people as well as self-management. In addition, “global” workers need flexibility, problem-solving and
decision-making ability, adaptability, creative thinking, self-motivation, and the capacity for reflection (Sandra, 2004). My father’s advice is perfect: “Todd, don’t just stand there do
something”. Please don’t let the comfort of the valley control your career.

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About R. Todd Stephens

Dr. Todd Stephens is the Technical Director of the Collaboration and Online Services for the AT&T Corporation. Todd has served as the technical director since 1999 and is responsible for setting the corporate strategy and architecture for the development and implementation of the Enterprise Metadata Repositories (knowledge stores), Online Ordering for internal procurement, and the integration of Web 2.0 technologies utilizing SharePoint. For the past 24 years, Todd has worked in the Information Technology field including leadership positions at BellSouth, Coca-Cola, Georgia-Pacific and Cingular Wireless. 

Todd holds degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science from Columbus State University, an MBA degree from Georgia State University, and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from Nova Southeastern University. The majority of his research is focused on Metadata Reuse, Repository Design, Enabling Trust within the Internet, Usability and Repository Frameworks. In addition, Todd has co-authored various books on Service Oriented Architectures, Open Source, Virtual Environments, and Integrating Web 2.0 technologies.

Todd can be reached at todd@rtodd.com

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