What Poets Can Teach Engineers About Career Development

I am getting good at being blank,
Staring at all the zeroes in the air.


- Billy Collins
Former Poet Laureate of the United States

Collins’s “zeroes” are less about currency than they are about being current or rather, motivating oneself to avoid getting mired in a stagnant present. As the professional world rounds the bend on the last fiscal quarter of 2009, Microsoft Word documents everywhere are being fired up to summarize the year end’s professional accomplishments. Annual reviews are being formatted, costs (bonus points if they’re cost-savings) are reported, everyone’s ideas for next year’s objectives are being weighed against company strategies as delicately as the light in a Vermeer painting.

Perhaps literal currency really is buried in there somewhere, but the immediate objective is to clarify our thoughts while completing those blanks on development plans. Don’t think for a moment that clicking “Save” and e-mailing your performance results and career plans to your manager is where it all ends. Companies provide the opportunity for career growth, but it’s up to the individual to shun inertia and, in pursuing those opportunities with depth and with discipline, to live a dignified professional life beyond the plane of a .pdf file.

To paraphrase Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, modern jobs are less about long-term employment than they are about long-term employability. We are all painfully aware that, with the exception of only a few companies, duration of employment is no longer the comfortable long-term guarantee afforded to previous generations under different global economic circumstances. As such, diligent career development is what fuels employability. But career development is not a self-sustaining engine. Thermodynamics was right: energy in equals energy out.

Long term employability means becoming an expert without becoming siloed; it means learning cross-functionally and inter-disciplinarily without losing focus; it means protecting business costs without sacrificing organizational capability. Basic engineering prowess isn’t even on the table for discussion anymore: proficiency is an understood requirement. An organization’s leadership has dictated what the non-negotiable business targets are, but to execute, the evolutionary question is: how does one approach this and leverage specific talents and experience to do it more efficiently or more cost-effectively? How can an individual not just deliver new technology, but true holistic innovation to win customers in a fashion superior to one’s competitors?

The shift to enhancing employability is realizing how an individual’s unique experience, background, and talent can deliver these goals not just on a single piece of paper, but across an organization. Career development plans are company development plans spread out across the strengths of its employees. As such, companies can afford to be anything but blank.

While leadership has provided the roadmap, it is still up to the individual to select what gear is getting brought along the way, whether the excursion will be by boat or by safari van, whether the journey will be by sunlight or starlight. Don’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions, fill up on fuel (and coffee), keep your iPod charged, and drive onwards.

And ask your manager to come along for the ride.

There are lots of zeroes out there just waiting to be caught.

Published September 25, 2009 by Austin Lin

Filed under: career development,

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