It happens to most of us. As we settle into life, especially into the middle years, we have a tendency to, as they say, round out a bit in the middle. When you’re younger, you want to be slim, fit, what we think everyone finds attractive, but you realize later on, filling out a bit isn’t the worst. It should be the same in your career.
Lots of people start their careers wanting to be that lean and mean worker, doing something well and hoping it brings the spotlight on us. We want to be the best salesman, the best programmer, the best chef. Pick a track, be number one, and everything else will fall into place. Of course, it rarely works that way. Specializing is great, but often doesn’t work out great in a team environment, and that’s what most jobs need. It’s why I recommend letting go a bit and rounding out the middle.
As a software engineer here at Forbes, I work with graphic designers, product developers, QA testers, and all sorts between. To do my job best, I need to understand why product wants a feature built, I need to know why designers choose to make something look a certain way, I need to understand what process QA goes through when looking at something I’ve made, and I can’t ever really know about those things until I’ve walked at least a few feet in their shoes. Learning about the other jobs that interact with your own doesn’t mean studying hours on end like they do; often, it can start just by asking questions while putting yourself in their mindset. Then, I recommend taking it a step further.
I started my career as a freelancer, so I had to cover all bases myself. I learned how to work with Photoshop and Illustrator, because those were the tools I was being given designs in. I learned the basics of business, so I could stay in business. I learned how to phrase things in terms of the product, not the code.This means now, when I get a layout from our designers, I can give feedback in their terms, and sometimes make minor recommendations of my own. I can work with a product owner to figure out what they really want to do, from both user and software points of view. I still do what I do best, coding, but I save myself headaches by having dove into their worlds. And I help save them headaches by being more involved early on, meaning there had to be less back and forth.
It’s said that diversity is the spice of life, and I definitely think that’s true. I’m a programmer who fences and rock climbs, and the latter helps me with the former. I get a break from a particular mindset, and it helps give me a different world view. And while not everyone may like spice, I think some diversity is the salt of your career. It’s a basic component to build on, and you don’t need a lot to make a difference. Learn a part of your company environment you’ve never been involved in, and it may well give you ideas on how to improve your own work. Be the salesman who learns how the device you’re selling is made, then try to build something basic yourself! As you draft designs for a new building, learn how the sales people sell those buildings.
Branch out, know more, and you’ll save yourself headaches in the long run. As you get more integrated into a team, you’ll become more essential to the team. And as you learn more, who knows if you’ll find a new passion? In the end, a bit of a love handle never hurt anyone.