Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Hi Everyone, I’m Leo Notenboom for askleo.com. I got a very interesting question this week, and I want to read it to you. It’s actually a flavor of a question that I get periodically and have gotten periodically literally for years. It goes like this:
“Hi Leo, I’m considering a career change and leaving the world of business for technology. The past 15 years of my life, computers have been an ongoing hobby and interest. In my circle of friends, I’ve become the “go to” guy for computer help.
I’ve installed new hardware and software and have become proficient at troubleshooting Windows and Linux plus minor experience in HTML and graphic design. My next area of curiosity is programming. I guess you could say, I’m well rounded. If you were to start your career over today, in technology, what area of interest would you specialize in? I guess what I’m asking is what baby steps I should take? Friends have recommended that I must select a specialty.
In my business life, I sold radio advertising, so I lean towards being creative but also analytical. I’m 55. Does my age work against me? I appreciate any advice or insights you can offer. Thanks, Scott.”
I get this question, as I said, in various forms from a wide variety of people over the years wondering what to do and where to go and how to start and just what technology to choose and so forth. Scott, I absolutely love your version of this question because you’re bringing two things that a lot of people don’t bring to the question. Your version includes both experience and experience, and I’ll explain what I mean by both of those in a minute.
Now, I’m a huge believer in doing what you love. Now, the old adage, “Do you what you love and the money will follow” – now I’m not so sure about that. I can certainly envision loving things, loving doing things that don’t really pay so well, but what I do know is that if you’re doing what you love, three things start to happen.
One, work doesn’t seem so much like work anymore. It almost becomes play. I know that’s true for me. You naturally continue to get better at your work, because you enjoy doing it and end up doing it more. And the opportunities that are presented to you in ways to utilize your work naturally increase.
Now, I got lucky. It’s a longer story, and I won’t get into great detail here, but it all started basically when I was a teenager or almost a pre-teen where I was essentially treated as an adult by a friend of the family who showed me some of his work in electronics. He was a TV repairman. That got me interested so that a few years later, when I applied to college, I expressed an interest in electronics.
The college then placed me in the College of Electrical Engineering out at the University of Washington where in my second year in school there, I was required to take a class in computer programming. The rest, as they say, is history, because that one class within a just of couple of weeks of starting that class, I realized not only did I love doing that, but people would pay me to do it. It was like the perfect storm for me.
Now, I’m a generalist. I love doing all sorts of different things related to technology. In many ways, I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades and master of maybe one or two. I’m really not sure that I could pick a specific technology to specialize in. I have written before that one of things that I would do over if I had the opportunity to do it over would be to spend more time in English class.
That actually has little to do with the technology and is more of a reflection of my understanding of how the world works and how important communication is. It’s not really about having become essentially a writer as part of Ask Leo! but an understanding of just how important written and verbal communication skills are in the workplace, no matter what it is you do.
But I don’t think that’s really getting to the meat of your question. I hear from a lot of younger folks who are interested in a very specific answer to this question. What they’re looking for is: learn this technology, go to this school, learn this programming language, get this certification or degree, apply to this company and you’re set.
It just doesn’t work that way. Life is too complicated, and individuals are too different from one another for that formula to make any kind of sense in a broad, broad way. Personally, I think that choosing a technology or a programming language. as it’s often phrased, when I hear from others isn’t nearly as important as simply being comfortable with technology.
Having a fundamental understanding of how things work, how technology works, how computers work, what they do, how they “think” (if you want to put it that way). The technologies that got me into Microsoft over 30 years ago, are not technologies that I use ever day today. They just aren’t. They don’t apply anymore. The world has changed. Things have moved on.
That being said, though, the fundamentals, the way of thinking, the way of understanding, the nature of technology and computers and programming languages in general, absolutely, these are the things that I continue to use everyday – not just as I support a system or write some software, but even as I answer questions, it gives me that insight that says, “You know, the way the computer is ‘thinking’ it’s kind of expecting this, or that means this error message probably means that.”
Those fundamentals – that’s what’s important, because those then let you build on a career that will change as technology changes. And I’ll be clear, I’m still learning – every single day I learn something new about technology or about computers or about something relating to my career. Heck, that’s one of the reasons that I love what I do. I enjoy learning new things everyday.
It’s exciting; it’s awesome; it keeps me interested; it keeps me out of trouble. You get the idea. For me, the lure, the allure of learning something new everyday about this technological world, about technology in general is part of what makes it exciting and refreshing and new every day, and ultimately, it’s one helluva a lot of fun!
If I had to do it all over again, you know, to be honest, it would really look an awful lot like it does today. The path that got me here may have some changes and you know, minor course corrections, but ultimately, what I did, how I got there, the things I learned, the way that I learned them, which is mostly learning by doing, I wouldn’t change, because I ended up in a really, really good place and am enjoying my career.
I think that you can too, so my advice to you – experiment. You might have that light bulb moment that says, ah, this is it, this is the thing, this is where I want to invest my time. This is what I really love doing. It may be a specialty. I know of many people who have spent decades working on the exact same technology as that technology has grown.
I couldn’t do that. Right? Like I said, I’m a generalist. I’m much more interested in trying and playing with different things as the technology changes, as new things become available. I don’t know where you are on that spectrum and I think that’s something that only real experimentation and dipping your toes in various places will help you understand.
Either way – enjoy the journey, learn from the journey, and leave yourself open to opportunity. Now, the reason I said that you have both experience and experience is this: Unlike a lot of people, you’ve already started what I’ve just been describing. You are already playing with technology.
Heck, it’s what’s causing you to consider a career change from wherever it is you are into a technology-related field. That’s fantastic! You’re already on this path getting an idea of the kinds of things that are going to interest you and maybe be the thing that becomes your passion, your love, your whatever it is you’ll enjoy doing everyday.
That’s great; that’s an experience that a lot of people simply don’t have and don’t bring to the table. The other experience is yes, the experience of age. Now, I’m going to turn 58 in a little over a month so we’re of some of the same demographic, you and I, and to be pragmatic, whether it’s right or wrong is a different discussion, but to be pragmatic about it, yeah, our age does affect our opportunities.
I wouldn’t expect Microsoft, for example, to hire me, in part of because of my age. It’s a company full of young people, by and large, and it’s human nature, again, politically correct, or not, it’s human nature to feel more affinity for people that are like us, as a result, younger people probably hire younger people. They’re looking for somebody like them; they’re looking for that younger energy and so forth.
Now, what you and I of course bring to the table is this maturity of age. We’ve been through the wars, we’ve done business, we know how things work over the long haul. We end up finding companies that appreciate that, that’s fantastic, but my point here is that there are simply going to be places where, again from a purely pragmatic standpoint (I don’t want to say whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just pragmatic) that yeah, we’re not necessarily going to be at the top of the hire list.
So with all that being said, yeah, we do bring that maturity that a lot of these companies need, or we bring the maturity that allows us to set out on our own. Now, I have no idea if you’re of an entrepreneurial mindset, but the internet in particular has created this world where the opportunities to just set up shop on your own and do business, you know, make a living on your own from home or wherever is enormous; it’s incredible.
Take a look at just what I’m doing. I’m standing here in an office in my home recording a video. I’m developing websites; I’m doing this all out of my home, by myself. I’m self-employed. There are so many different kinds of opportunities along those lines, that it’s staggering. It requires maturity; it requires a certain mindset; it requires a certain ability to self-motivate, but if that’s you, if you’re of an entrepreneurial mindset, that could be an option or a very lucrative option if you’re that kind of person. If you’ve got that entrepreneurial mindset.
As you can tell, that’s where I’m at. If Microsoft even did want to hire me, I’m not I would take it. I’m not sure that having done this on my own for the past 14 years now, I’m not sure I could work for someone else again. I enjoy what I do and controlling my own destiny too much. It doesn’t work for everybody, but for a class of individual and especially if you’re of an age where some of the age itself might be working against you in some ways, entrepreneurism and setting up your own shop can be a very lucrative approach.
So my bottom line recommendation here isn’t nearly as specific as most people want to hear. Do. Start playing with the technologies that you are considering. Take classes, build computers, whatever it helps you to learn the various types of technology, the various types of opportunities that are out there but also that exposes to the different aspects of technology so that you can maybe feel that calling to one particular type or another.
It might end up being that everything appeals to you, which is great. That’s kind of where I’m at, or you might find that one thing that really, really rocks your boat. That too would be fantastic. Then do more. My recommendation to people has always been the best way to get a job with a company is to have experience, which of course which is that old chicken and egg. If I don’t have experience I can’t get a job but if I don’t have a job, I can’t get experience.
That last piece is simply wrong. You can just start doing. You can volunteer your time, volunteer the skills that you do have. Teach a class. There’s nothing like teaching technology to force you to learn technology. Trust me. I teach, essentially, every day as I answer people’s questions. That’s one way how I learn so much is by being to be forced to go a little deeper every day by the questions that I’m being asked.
Then, yeah, get paid. Once you understand what it is you love doing, and by that I mean, the stuff you would do even if you weren’t getting paid for it, get paid for it. I can’t tell you how, because it depends way too much on way too many things, not just the opportunities in your area or the opportunities in your field, but the opportunities in your locality. If you’re talking about setting up shop, would your community support it? I don’t know. Are you the kind of a person who could be an entrepreneur? I don’t know.
These are the kind of things, though, that I want you to think about: is once you understand is you love what you would do no matter what, that’s what you want to get paid for; that’s what you want to understand how you would then go and set up and actually turn into a living in addition to a love. Most importantly, just make sure that this is stuff you love, that you enjoy doing. I mean, for me, I enjoy what I do so much that sometimes I have to get out bed early because I’m just waiting to do whatever it is that day’s tasks might be. That’s how much I enjoy it.
If it really is the kind of stuff that gets you out of bed in the morning, gets you excited to “go to work” that’s a sign, that’s a sign that not only are you going to enjoy what it is you’ve chosen but it’s something that in all likelihood is going to reward you for doing that and doing it well. Kinda like me, you’ll get to play and get paid for it. And that’s pretty awesome. Now, I know mine is only one path, one example, and I’ve been incredibly lucky. If you love what you do, particularly if it’s related to technology in some way, how did you get there?
What is it that led you to doing what you’re doing today? What led you to technology? What was your path like, and perhaps most importantly, what advise would you have for others that are contemplating this same path be it an initial path or a career change that somehow involves technology?
As always, if you are watching this somewhere other than on Ask Leo! here’s a URL, go visit that page, that’s where you’ll find this video along with moderated comments. I would love to hear your stories, and I think your stories would really, really benefit many others whom I hear from frequently on this topic. I’d love to hear what kinds of things drove you to the career you have today particularly if it’s a great one. And of course, if it’s not, are there mistakes that you’ve made that we can all learn from that would help people down a career path that they would love, that they would end up enjoying?
So, let me know what you think. Let me everyone know what you think. Share your story, leave a comment and I look forward to talking to you again next week. Take care everyone.
Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
I'll see you there!
Footnotes & References
The TV Repair Man (Personal blog) I credit a friend of the family, a TV repair man by trade, for setting in motion the sequence of events that would lead to my eventual career and subsequent success.