Refactoring Your Career

Work in this web world of ours is ever-changing. No matter how much you love your cutting-edge job, it’s not likely that you’ll be doing precisely the same thing in five years: tools, trends, and technologies are all evolving quickly, and our careers have to evolve with them. If you don’t love your job, that’s all the more reason to change what you’re doing; with new opportunities ranging from blog consultant to search engine ad buyer out there, it’s nuts to stick around in a job you hate.

But most of us don’t have the luxury to take a year off at a time to learn new skills while the bills pile up. Like it or not, we need to keep working even while we change the work that we’re doing. Enter the software development practice of refactoring: making small changes to a program that already works to evolve it towards a more functional version without breaking the parts that are finished. Here’s a catalog of career refactorings you can apply to help move yourself towards your own vision of what you want to be doing next:

Ruthless Self-Criticism – Put this one under the heading of “prerequisites.” If you’re too busy to execute on any career refactoring strategies, take a step back. Your career eats eight hours a day (if you’re lucky) of your life. Are you really too busy to devote some time to making sure that major commitment is as optimal as it can be? Whether it’s bowling nights, two-hour lunches, or those weekend beach trips, there’s probably something you could forgo in the interest of workplace happiness. Yeah, it stinks. Welcome to adulthood.

20% Time – Derived from the well-known Google practice of giving developers 20% of their time to work on projects of their own choosing, this strategy involves deliberately using some of your own potentially billable hours to learn new skills instead. This sacrifices some income today for the security of staying on the cutting edge tomorrow. You can use the 20% time (which might be 10% or 30%, depending on how much learning you feel you need to do versus how much income you can afford to pass us) to attend conferences or courses, read, write code…anything that contributes to keeping your skills sharp. To make this work, you have to be honest with yourself and set aside a regular chunk of time (a day a week or a couple of hours a day) instead of pretending that five minutes here and there while you’re on hold add up to something significant.

Instant Expert – This one sounds impossible, but I know several developers and trainers who have gotten away with it. If you’ve identified frobifying web sites as your next area of focus, you just start letting contacts and potential clients know that you’re an expert in frobification. When the first contract to frobify a site comes in, it’s time to drop everything, read the relevant literature, and figure out how it’s done. Key skills: the ability to learn really, really quickly and the chutzpah and self-assurance to convince people that you know more than you actually do. Major pitfall: you’ll get caught. Remember, you can only lose your reputation once.

Paid to Learn – This is “Instant Expert” with an honest face. In the midst of a large job, you may realize that some technology you’re not quite familiar with looks perfect for part of the deliverable. Rather than subcontracting, cut a deal with your client: “Hey, based on some preliminary research I think we should use whizzle components for the registration site. But I haven’t worked with whizzle components yet. Tell you what, I’ll only charge you 65% of my regular rate for the time I spend working on the registration site.” This works best if you’ve already got a great relationship with the particular customer and they know you’re not interested in ripping them off. Be prepared to deal with concerns about a fallback plan in case the new technology turns out to have problems that you don’t know about yet.

Serial Moonlighting – Young and full of energy (or caffiene)? You can always go the traditional route and start job 2.0 on the side while you’re still working job 1.0 full time. When job 2.0 starts to take off, you quit job 1.0. A bit later, you can start job 3.0 on the side. Lather, rinse, repeat. On the plus side, you can make a bundle of money this way, because you’ll never have any time to spend it. On the minus side, well, you’ll never have any time to do anything else either. And if you’re in the “New Economy” you’ve got to be very, very careful about intellectual property issues to avoid getting fired or sued.

Eternal Student – Self-directed learning isn’t for everyone. If you’ve tried 20% Time and failed because you just don’t quite have the discipline, why not use the structure of a formal course to force yourself to learn new skills? Community college is the traditional route, but you don’t need to be traditional these days; there are plenty of distance learning opportunities on the net, or you can go completely cutting-edge and take a course in Second Life.

Potemkin Company – This one is less about acquiring new skills and more what to do with them after you’ve got them. Prince Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin famously set up false-front villages to deceive Catherine II on her tour of the Crimea into thinking his colonizing efforts were already a grand success. With the availability of quick-print business cards, answering services, $6.95 domain name registrations, VOIP, outsourced graphics design, and so on, it’s pretty simple to build up something that looks like a company from the outside even if there’s not a bit of business on the inside. If you’re at the point in your career refactoring where you’re ready to do business, it can really build confidence (for both you and for potential clients) to do so as a corporate shell rather than as Joe, the guy down the street. Tip: get accounting and legal advice early to avoid costly mis-steps.

Patchwork Career – You don’t schedule a single meeting to take up an entire week; why should you schedule a single career to take up your entire life? Freelancers are used to juggling together jobs from multiple clients at one time. Extend that a bit and you can juggle together multiple types of work: writing, Web site design, PR, whatever catches your fancy. This makes refactoring just a natural part of the flow; when you spot an interesting new direction, you just add it to the mix, perhaps with a bit of 20% Time or Instant Expert. Watch out for becoming the living embodiment of “jack of all trades, master of none” though – and remember, four quarter-time jobs do not have the fringe benefits of a single full-time job.

Have you successfully refactored your own career to stay competitive? Have more strategies to add to this list? Tell us what works!

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