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One Day at a Time

April 5, 1999
by Pat McClellan

"Hi, my name is Pat and I'm.... I'm a programmer..." I stand before the crowd, looking into their screen-weary eyes. I go on, "...and I want to do more than write code." The group emits understanding murmurs; shared dreams, hope, futility.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but we all know that there are a lot of stereotypes associated with being a programmer. Help me out here: nerds who don't know how to dress in front of a client... can't communicate except with other geeks... don't understand how "real" business works... are half a step away from dungeons-n-dragons cultists (with low charisma, a chaotic good alignment and loads of hitpoints.)

Let me digrest into another of my "insights from business school". The typical b-school student body consists of equal parts of the following: engineers who need the MBA to prove to people that they aren't just technical thinkers, middle-managers and accountants who need the MBA to prove that they aren't just number pushers, and sales reps who need the MBA to prove they aren't just award-seeking schmoozers. Hmmm. Sounds vaguely familiar. It seems that this pigeon hole paranoia is not restricted to programmers. Truth is, it's the result of instinctive human nature.

Without getting into an extending sociological discussion, I'll point out some facts about prejudice -- race, gender, age or profession related.

Now you, too, can become that successful person you've always wanted to be! For the secret to success, send a cheque for $19.95 to the author! Well... skip the cheque, here's the secret.

Only you can change the way people see you. The world isn't fair; every person you meet will have different preconceived notions about who you are and what you're capable of. Yet it's up to you to prove yourself capable of achieving the goals you set. Nobody owes you that.

The irony is that you'll use a multitude of other stereotypes to build that picture of yourself. Think about how you get to know someone. You are introduced and -- based mostly on appearance -- you make assumptions about the person's age, social status, ethnicity and culture. Maybe later, you make an obscure reference to a Monty Python skit and your new acquaintance completes the punchline. Aha! Another little bit of insight. Then, the person mentions that she plays violin in a string quartet. From that you can guess that she's disciplined and works well in a team.

It's a process really. Initially, you place a person into a rather superficial pigeon-hole. Then, as more data comes in, you have the opportunity to reclassify -- moving your understanding of that person to broader, more complex points of understanding. Now, enough with the sociology and psychology. Let's get back to how this knowledge can help build your career.

When you're in a job interview or writing your resume, remember that everything you say about yourself is another piece of data which goes into building that person's understanding of your capabilities. So, be selective. Choose those items which -- as a group -- best frame your capabilities as you want them to be seen. If a particular job experience simply reiterates the same data as another, think of something different to say about that experience which will give more perspective on your abilities or insight.

As with all communication processes, you must keep your "target audience" in mind. The more you know about the person interviewing you (or reviewing your resume), the better you'll be able to supply the correct data for them to analyze. In many cases, you can't know specifics about the person, but you can target the data to that company or the job opportunity. Think about providing information which will counter-act negative assumptions they may have about you. For example, if your current job title is "programmer" and you're trying to get a management job, emphasize those things about your job experience which demonstrate leadership, creativity, teamwork and responsibility. Anything to help them not picture you crouched in front of a screen full of code.

Finally, assuming that you can draw a complete picture of yourself, it's entirely possible that your capabilities may fall short of the requirements. So don't assume that you didn't get an opportunity because they were just prejudiced against [insert appropriate pigeon-hole label here]. It may, in fact, be the case, but you should devote your energy to things which you can control. To make a career move into another area of responsibility, you may need to further your education or gain lower level experience in the new area of responsibility.

The good news is that you are probably capable of achieving in almost any area of your interest. I've been particularly impressed by the diversity within this group I'll refer to as multimedia developers. Our profession seems to attract people with a multitude of talents which can converge in our daily work. Most of you reading this article have another talent which you could build a career on, right? Music, art, writing, film making, education, design, management. So go after your dream... and for those of you whose dream really is writing code every day, well, I'll see you in the front row at the premiere of "The Phantom Menace". ;>

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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