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Inventive thinking

Making a change from within.

Q: I have a theory about experience. I think there is a point of diminishing returns at a job where staying put doesn’t improve your standing in the company or on the job market. The point of diminishing returns in IT seems to be between three and five years in one position. Whenever I have reached that point in my career, I have started a new training track and reinvented myself. Sometimes it means I have to step back a bit in order to advance further in the long run. But anything is better than a dead-end job with nothing but cost-of-living raises as a reward for all my hard work. I’m presently a webmaster, former custom programmer, and former help desk representative. I’m reaching the point of diminishing returns on webmastery. How should I reinvent myself this time?

A: I think you make an excellent point–reinvention, especially in the IT world, has become a constant. The need for continual education on ever-newer technology has caused many a techie to feel like they’re stuck if they don’t stay on a speedy treadmill of career advancement and constant change. In some ways, this is disheartening, because it means that after only three years you might begin to feel that additional time in a certain job would make you less desirable as a candidate for a new position. This doesn’t always have to be the case, however.

For one thing, it’s true that you’ll definitely stagnate if you do the same duties for five years without ever learning fresh skills, taking on new tasks, or vying for any kind of advancement. This is the norm in every industry, not just IT.

Making sure to take on additional functions at a job or gradually move into a newer position at your company will give you experience within that firm without having to make the five-year leap. Believe it or not, company loyalty still hasn’t gone out of fashion. Even with the continuous job-switching in IT, hiring managers are comforted by long stretches at one company, and even more impressed when someone has swapped jobs within the same walls. It shows a desire for change and an initiative to do so without simply giving notice and packing up.

If the changes you’ve mentioned happened at the same company, you’re to be commended. Changing desks in one office can sometimes be difficult. It seems that it’s far easier to reinvent oneself in a fresh place with new faces, and getting familiar colleagues to see you in a different role can be a challenge, but one that’s worth the effort.

Perhaps now it’s time to take your various incarnations and tie them together. Disparate experiences may seem like fragments until thought of as a whole. In other words, you may think that a help desk representative, a custom programmer, and a webmaster may not have anything to discuss in the same meeting, but your unique knowledge of each of those positions gives you the potential to bring those areas together. Have you considered designing software for the help desk that can be delivered over an intranet? Or perhaps thinking about how customers could benefit from browser-based help desk software that allows them to use IM with customer support?

Another good question to ask yourself is why you’re so restless. If you feel stuck in your position and the tasks are becoming monotonous, that’s one thing. Then by all means, get cracking on that fresh training. But if you like the work, feel happy, but still dread becoming “over-experienced” because you think it will sink you in the long run, you should examine why this might be. In that case, it seems you’re letting external forces like the currently dismal job scene determine your future direction, and you may be in danger of taking on a job you don’t like as much just because it fits in with your theory about experience.

The point is that even though each of us, especially in the IT industry, has to go through a continual process of reinvention, this doesn’t necessarily mean that past experience becomes an albatross around our necks, to be shrugged away in favor of a shiny new training track. The great thing about IT is that it’s kind of a mesh network in a way–with hundreds of new directions, but all interconnected. It’s not the same as making the leap from being, say, a roadie with the Rolling Stones one day and a restaurant manager at Timber Lodge Steakhouse the next.

So to your question, where to go now, I think the answer could be: how about where you are? Reinvention doesn’t always have to be so drastic as to ditch the experience you have and speed down a different highway. Maybe the track you’re on now can be changed enough that your experience will be of benefit, rather than feeling like a hindrance.

Send your career-related questions to Elizabeth Millard.

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