I learned how to be a technology professional by accident at a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.
After nearly four and a half years with the organization, I learned that there would be a restructuring and that I had about six months to find something else so as to advance my career. It was tough to comprehend at the time, but it really was the right time for me to move on. I landed at a technology firm just under the wire; I started my role as an IT project manager at this company in late 2015. And, at the time, I was in my early 30s.
Here are some tips I’d offer to anyone in a similar experience, or is considering a newfound career path in the IT space, in the months to come in this new normal we are all experiencing with COVID-19:
1. The youth of the workforce will absolutely affect the culture — period.
When I started working for a technology agency, I was 32 years old, and about to turn 33. That may not sound “old” broadly speaking, but the fact that I was in my early 30’s made a difference. At the time, I was the fourth oldest person in the company that had over 20 employees and offices on both coasts. Many of the developers, UX designers, data engineers, and even some of the leadership team were in their late twenties and recently out of college or earlier on in their careers.
Frankly, I was fortunate to have worked in management consulting early on in my career, and blurred those lines among the right people, who to this day have been a positive influence of my professional development.
In technology companies, there seems to be an unspoken rule that your life is all access, all the time. That should absolutely not be the case. Boundaries matter — period. I felt this unspoken, yet distinctive, pressure to hang out after hours with people from the office on certain days a week, and even on weekends. It’s not that I minded being collegial, but I absolutely did mind feeling as if my personal life was their constant professional concern. Some days, I felt like a babysitter; that’s not what I signed up for.
There is a difference between creating space for your coworkers and saving space for yourself. I think it’s important for any technology professional to learn how to establish boundaries and say, “no” in one form or another. There is no shame in creating — and protecting — a space for your personal life outside of your job.
2. Making genuine connections was really tough. And, it’s OK to acknowledge that for yourself.
I should offer that I broke my foot within the first two weeks of starting at the firm. Needless to say, it was hard to get around and connect with people. Balancing my entry into the company and managing my new health challenges was indeed difficult.
In any circumstance, challenges will always persist. While at the firm, I always felt a sense of resistance internally, which was very unsettling. My confidence wavered. I was able to befriend one or two of the elder staffers, but it wasn’t enough; I was still perceived as standoffish and distant.
My advice to anyone in this position is to learn how to stand firm in your beliefs and be confident in yourself. I had no choice but to focus on my health, and try to do my job as best I could. I still held conversations and was friendly, but I refused to be someone that I was not to squash incessant curiosities of those who didn’t know me, and were not allowed to get too close into my personal life.
3. Being outspoken and intelligent is never a bad idea, even if others feel otherwise.
I was entering my role as several projects that were just under contract and getting underway. I hadn’t had the opportunity to be a part of the proposal development process or establish relationships early with potential clients. And yet, it didn’t take me too long into my time with the firm to begin to realize that there were some real operational challenges. I won’t lie — coming to this realization was part of why I knew that I couldn’t remain there for multiple years. Within months, one of the new contracts that was to be a multi-year endeavor that would net close to $200,000 started to falter; the three-phase project was reduced to one phase and the lost monetary gains were significant.
It’s all fun and games until the financial well begins to dry up; paying attention to those signs is key. I knew pretty early that I wanted to move on to my next role within about 18 months. I think there is something to be said for coming to such a realization early, owning it, and beginning to implement a plan to make some moves beyond a current circumstance.
I was already an outcast; most of the younger staff seemed to struggle with my presence in the company. I asked questions that bruised egos and I was creating space for myself. Even more, I was the only project manager in a bicoastal technology firm, and was trying to build a name for myself within the company all while making a couple of friends. I couldn’t help but begin to notice how some of those new clients were becoming distant, and seeming to struggle with the tone set by the leadership of the company.
Any solid PM knows how to monitor the budget and track revenues — that’s just a given, in my view. Those in leadership roles at the firm were unsettled by my asking questions, and it made a tense situation somewhat worse.
Sometimes being an outlier and an agitator is a good thing. It is always okay to be yourself. It’s also okay to ask those tough questions. I’m happy to help, be supportive, and lend expertise. The technology space can absolutely be tough to navigate, and the later you seem to be in your career, the more challenging it can be for others to comprehend. Don’t feel bad about not wanting to be an interpreter for those who want to surpass your boundaries. My overall — and perhaps, most important — advice to all is to stand in your truth as you are.
My departure from this particular company ended up being a mutual decision, and I have no regrets. I developed quite a bit because of the experience, and will never forget it. Further, I will never apologize, nor will I minimize who I am to satisfy a perception that is more acceptable for others to maintain status quo.
The ecosystem of the technology space is ever-changing. The world has changed immensely recently, and the prior normal is long gone. I’ve clearly been a disruptor for some time now, and I own it. My hope is that my story helps you think about how to be the same on your terms, wherever you are in your career.
Tomorrow is ours. Let’s go get it.-30-
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