While I was on a telephone call to prep for a technology panel I was part of, someone asked me: “How do you stay relevant?” Although this wasn’t the first time I’d been asked this question, I never had a good response. After all, it can certainly be a challenge to just keep up, let alone stay ahead of the curve. However, after giving it some thought, I finally came up with some answers. Here is my advice to other engineers.
1. Avoid Getting Pigeonholed
About a year into my career, I was concerned that I was being pushed into a role I didn’t want to be in. But it was my first job, so what was I going to do? March up to my boss and tell him I needed something meatier? I didn’t even know what the meatier projects were at that time.
Although I already had two degrees—one in electrical engineering and the other in computer science from Duke University, in Durham, N.C.—I decided to take courses outside of my job description such as graphic and software design, and cybersecurity.
This led me to move away from the hardware projects I was originally working on into software. At the time, I did worry about job security and advancement. But the training I had put myself through paid off. With my new skills, I was able to help build a software prototype for a young start-up, which is now Mint.com. The free web-based personal finance platform was since acquired by financial software company Intuit, and has been given a US $140 million dollar evaluation.
As I got lured into so-called start-up land, I became enamored with business and product development, and wanted to learn more about creating companies. Five years ago, I launched a business of my own that is thriving, providing a software solution that helps companies better manage and grow their clients. None of this would have happened if I put myself in a box as the “hardware engineer.”
2. Hone Skills That Translate Well in Various Roles
The first thing I needed to do as a founder of a company was to manage sales, but I was terrible at it—so much so that I wasn’t even good at hiring someone else to do it!
If I was going to have a positive cash flow business, then I needed to improve my sales skills. I came across a sales course which really helped me improve. Although I still wouldn’t hire myself to run the sales department, I now have the know-how when it comes to successfully closing five-figure deals. Moreover, the ability to sell can be applied to almost every other role in my company. You have to get buy-in for your ideas from staff, clients, and other decision-makers.
I also am using my writing and speaking skills more, which is important to do if you plan on giving technical talks or need to communicate with clients about your product or company. Last year, I gave a talk at TEDx, called “Taking the Time to Tinker,” which was about how playing with things and taking them apart to figure out how they work can reignite people’s curiosities and imagination. I also started working on my first book on how to transform ideas into software projects. I wouldn’t have been able to do either without honing in on my soft skills. If you don’t know where to start, here are just a few ways you can build up skills at your job.
3. Rub Off the Rust
Although I no longer write code every day, I have managed to keep my computer skills semi-sharp by training newcomers at hackathons. I admit that I haven’t kept up with every new coding language that’s come out, but the good news is that programming hasn’t fundamentally changed since the era of the punch card. Many of the new languages and frameworks are just replacing old inefficient methods and, as a result, it’s actually gotten easier to program.
I still know basic design patterns, how to debug and refactor, as well as how to architect and scale software. However, I wasn’t really good at front-end development and took the Photoshop for Web Design course and am currently taking Sketching with CSS to help in these areas. It’s important to keep up with old skills, even when you might not need them as much anymore, and fill in the gaps with new skills where you’re lacking. This keeps me in check to make sure my company website is as up-to-date as possible with a homepage that is high quality to help me sell my services.
4. Stick to the Core
It may seem like I’ve managed to amass a lot of skills over the past 10 years, but I’ve actually been picky about what those are. My basic criterion is that they have to feed the creator in me.
Therefore, I don’t do things like file my own taxes and you won’t catch me drafting up legal documents. I find people who are better at it than me, and outsource that work. Other times, I partner with people who are experts at whatever project I’m involved in to get me to improve and refine my work—and ultimately help me stay relevant and ahead of the curve.
Now I want to know how you have managed to stay relevant in your career. What are some strategies that have worked for you that you would recommend to others?
Poornima Vijayashanker is the founder of Femgineer.com, a website that helps tech professionals, particularly women, advance in their careers. She is the CEO and Founder of Bizeebee, which provides a software solution to help companies manage their clients and grow their businesses. She is also the founding engineer of Mint, an online and mobile personal financial management service.