The Meandering Career Path

Boy, what a great panel discussion on guiding a software development career last night at the Cincinnati .NET User Group. I don’t know, probably 50 people packed the place to listen to Jim Holmes, Tim Apke, and Ed Summerfield share their nuggets of wisdom about career paths. The topics spanned everything from how to keep up with changing technology to how *NOT* to get into management. The evening ended with a very personal response to the question, “How do you find time to do all this?” where one of the panelist tearfully shared about the difficult decisions he’s had to make and then his personal choice to continually make family his first priority. I’ll post more details about the discussion itself over the next day or so. For now, I’d like to tell a story about my own career path. The panelists talked quite a bit about an unplanned career and taking advantage of the choices presented at multiple times during their careers. This resonated with me.

I started an undergrad program at the University of Cincinnati in the engineering program. By the end of year 1 I flushed that idea down the drain and redirected myself to the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences. I continued in an English Literature program, and with a stroke of genius decided to take an indefinite amount of time off from school to pursue I’m not sure what. I only had three quarters left. After the fact, I thank God for that choice as it created some amazing opportunities.

During my time off I moved to Chicago. What a rush. I lived right on North Avenue across from Cabrini Green on the south side of Lincoln Park, just around the corner from Second City, and about a mile from the beach. I had a free room for a while. I needed a job pretty quick. And being an untrained and unfinished English major, I took a position through a temp agency. I answered questions at a desk for the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation, which is the teaching practice of Northwestern Hospital. Most of the time I sat there, quietly. From time to time, maybe 6 times a day, someone would ask me where the bathroom was or perhaps how to get to otolaryngology.

Apparently I did such a good job in this role that the area director, Richard Nagengast, created a personal assistant position and offered it to me (okay, the story is longer than that but this post is already going to drag on much too long). I got a computer. W00T! Here I put my high school typing class to good use, taught myself Lotus 1-2-3 and Wordperfect – for DOS, and installed the 5″x4″ 5MB memory card so I could actually install WP for Windows. The bottom line is that I had a great time in Chicago and learned some great skills along the way. One key to my success was leveraging this director as a mentor.

In my next stroke of genius, or more realistically, a stroke of actual maturity, I moved back to Cincinnati to finish my degree. I got engaged in April, graduated in July, got married in August, and figured I better actually find a job. Being an English major, it was either teach or wait tables. Or so I thought. I didn’t want to do either, so I headed to a temp firm again and shocked them with my typing skills. Not sure whatever motivated me to take a typing class in high school, but I was grateful for it now. I took a data entry assignment at Star Bank at the time. I would be working with Lotus 1-2-3 – again for DOS. And again grateful for my experience in Chicago. One task required 12 hours of straight data entry. Oh, I wasn’t going to do that twice, so I broke out the manual, whipped up a few macros, and completed the task the following month in two hours. Management thought I was a Lotus god. They helped me write a business case on why the bank should hire me. I met with an SVP and she immediately brought me on. She placed (in 1993 dollars) a $1M chunk of a $10M project to automate all the retail branches while the team developed a new system.

While on this team I leveraged multiple mentors both in the business and on the technology team. I developed close relationships with the developers, and at the end of the project, two-years later, they invited me to become part of their team. I took the opportunity and worked under two strong managers, Ken Webb and Jeff Schmidt, that taught me quite a bit along the way.

Being somewhat of a self-starter, I had brought my own 14.4 modem to the office and spent much of the day online hoping that no one had to actually reach me on the phone. I learned some web development along the way, circa 1995. I had a Cinternet account and could deploy into their web environment on my personal pages. When the bank began its own internet initiatives in 1998 I was passed over for the team. That was my first real opportunity to experience the whole corporate politics thing. It was also then that I realized I was responsible for my own career. I left amicably with relationships still in tact (at the time I didn’t understand how much this would help me in the not too distant future) while employing a head-hunter to help me land my next position with Cintas.

The outcome of working with a head-hunter? Cintas was just a job. Nothing special here. A point of interest is that I also had no real mentor here, no great environment to learn anything new, and thus no real reason to stay when a recruiter called. I lasted 10 months.

I moved to Rapidigm, a national consulting firm, and joined their local Cincinnati office. Kris Huiet brought me on board, and Doug Dockery ran the office. Rob Wesley teched me and was leading a project for a firm in Ft. Wayne, IN. The platform was PowerBuilder, and Rob earned the professional certification. The key to success here was that Rob mentored in some fantastic ways. Although truly much more senior than me and the other developer, he was actually open to our ideas along the way. We soaked up Rob’s teaching us about OOA and OOD with CRC cards and built some relationships that have lasted for 10 years. On my next project I was on my own in ColdFusion and got caught in a deathmarch. I could only handle so much. A friend at Whittman Hart asked me for a resume, and they offered me a position there. The Rapidigm PM out of Columbus was canned soon after I left. Still, I left with good relationships with Kris, Doug, and Ellen Greenburg.

WH/m1 was full of mentors and leaders all over the place. My time there also gave me my first real leadership responsibilities. Tom Kent, a director at Cognis, allowed me to run a team of m1 developers, interface with his business users across the United States and other parts of the world, and sell his services across the enterprise. I had both the authority and the responsibility to manage sales as well as delivery for Tom to his users. Tom even flew me to Chicago to meet with a director of a business unit over lunch. Overall, I gained a lot of respect with my clients as well as my colleagues. All of us still keep in touch today. I think it goes unsaid just how strong the local WH/m1 network is in Cincinnati.

Shortly before m1 filed for bankruptcy I took an independent role developing for Atlantic Mutual insurance company out of Roanoke, VA. This was an out-of-the-blue call to leverage my ColdFusion skills. There weren’t many of us around at the time, and it was pretty easy to tap into the network as it was needed. After some careful thought and consideration, I jumped. I stayed independent for a year and worked on a couple of different projects. When the work dried up, right after the .COM bust, I had to find another real job. I called a Java architect friend of mine at Lexis Nexis and forwarded him my resume. The next day I received a call and came on board.

Let’s just say LN is a great company and this tiny little division I worked for out of Springfield, IL had some real issues. My director in Dayton wound up taking a position in another division because of the issues. Three months later I moved on, too. This time back to Star Bank, which was now US Bank.

My relationships at US Bank helped me get back in the door there. I made a verbal deal with my Lexis Nexis manager in Springfield that I would find a job if she didn’t can me first. Boy was that a tough thing to say. I’d been used to performing at the top of my game, and to be squashed to this level was quite humbling. Things don’t always work out, but they do seem to work out for the best. I re-joined a team at US Bank that I had been a part of 5 years or so previously. I was developing in BankPro, an arcane and difficult language specific to parts of the financial services industry. This time I was able to come in not just in a developer role, but because of all the great mentors I’ve had along the way I could really give back this time. I helped other developers understand the “OO” nature of BankPro (OO used loosely), and this helped the team resolve issues that had plagued the application for years. I even earned a Star Performer award, which is a small award in some respects, but I needed it to validate that I wasn’t a complete idiot after my stint at Lexis Nexis. After a couple of years at the bank I moved to LUCRUM. I recently heard that Ken Webb, the architect on the US Bank project, has refactored much of the BankPro application to take advantage of the OO-ability of BankPro. I felt great about this.

Tom Kent remains a mentor, guide, and confidant for me to this day. Tom had left Cognis and joined LUCRUM. While I was at US Bank Tom tried multiple times to bring me into the LUCRUM organization. I continued to rebuff his attempts. I thought I was ready to settle down. Then the project of a lifetime, well at least for me, at that moment, came along. I left on somewhat bumpy terms simply because of the abruptness of my departure and the fact that I didn’t provide any visibility into my intentions beforehand. I’ve been able to smooth over the rough edges over time and still remain good friends with Ken.

LUCRUM, I must say, has been one of the most wonderful places to work for me. I have had the opportunity to do more with more people in more places than I really ever thought I would. I had the opportunity to manage our development group of up to 21 folks at times. And they actually liked me 🙂 I’ve managed global projects with teams of 25. I’ve had to work through the timezone differences with their late nights and early mornings. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Bangalore on multiple occasions and developed some great friendships with some folks there. I’ve been to Paris once. I’ve managed many projects and have been responsible as a program manager for client portfolios. I’ve worked closely with sales in efforts to really understand our clients’ needs and develop proposals that showed we listened. And I’ve had the opportunity recruit both strategically and in a pure staffing mode. I never thought I’d be so okay with being attached to a telephone.

In my current role at LUCRUM I’m transitioning out of recruiting and back into delivery where I’ll take responsibility again for sales support, client meetings, and proposals. I’ll also work with our clients leading alignment sessions to bring stakeholders together and get everyone on the same page. And I’ll get to continue to write as I’ll take a place on our technology leadership team which determines where we’ll take our company technically and create the roadmaps to get there. Along the way, LUCRUM continues to support my efforts in reaching out to and into the local IT community to make the best difference I can. I’ve been working closely with the UC College of Applied Science serving on the IT program’s accreditation advisory board and recently got back involved with the UC Arts & Sciences program. I’ve started discussions with NKU, formed a working relationship with Professor Tim Kloppenborg at Xavier, and also work with many of the local user groups.

That brings me up to the present with what I’ve had the opportunity to do and how I got there along the way. If you have questions about any of this, please ask me personally or leave a comment. Hopefully somewhere in there is a principle, a habit, or something you can take away that will help you with your own career path.

Thanks for listening.



~ by Andy on May 22, 2008.

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