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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Surviving the Corporate Battlefield – it’s not enough being a ‘Genius’

As you keep growing in your career, there will be a point in time when all of a sudden, you will look back and say “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” ! This revelation comes to you, not in Wonderland, but in the midst of a lonely and confusing battleground known as the “Corporate World”.

Some thoughts on what it takes to continue to have a smooth ride in this battlefield:

  • ­ Tame your Ego: Almost every good engineer has a tremendous ego. They think they are the best in the world, and often, they are surrounded by sycophants who keep reminding them of this ‘truth’. Get over it. As you go along in life, you will realize that there are many who are as good as you and even some who are better than you. If you have not met anyone yet, you have either not been exposed to a wider audience or your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash (okay, I ripped that straight off Topgun). Taming your ego is the most critical requirement to keep moving ahead. Remember, unless you work on bleeding edge research, no one really needs a genius. Most companies need ‘smart’ people who ‘work hard’. Infact, I’d much rather have 3 ‘smart’ and ‘hard’ workers in my team who gel with each other instead of 1 ‘genius’.
  • Keep your boss happy: For many, it’s ‘fashionable’ to trash their boss. Your boss may be incompetent, lame or useless in your eyes. Just remember:
    • Your boss is your career path, as long as you are under him. Use it as a bridge instead of hacking away at the steps.
    • More often than not, there is a reason he is your boss and not the other way around. Your boss may actually be incompetent, or, maybe, you just think you are the only person who does real work in the company and you wonder why you are not the CEO. (In which case, that usually means, ‘Wake Up’)
  • Use Email for correspondence, not communication: Really, this is one of the most important ‘inter-personal’ skills in the Internet Age. If you have a problem with someone, if possible, walk to his desk, or pick up the phone. The worst method to solve the problem is to continue a conversation over email. Remember this: email does not show emotions. Use it to exchange data, but not to resolve arguments or issues. More often than not, your email can (and will) be misinterpreted. This problem is compounded when you have multiple folks participating in that mail chain. Everyone gets defensive when a lot of people are involved.
  • ­ Take your performance reviews seriously: Lots of folks think ‘performance reviews’ are a time when they can show their ‘protest’ by not filling up their reviews well or putting in one line corny responses. It’s a message to their ‘boss’ saying ‘look – I really don’t care. I think I am above all of this’. This again, makes the list of ‘stupid things to do’. It is your career. Push it and track it ! As your boss, I will try and push you to the right direction, but you should be willing. If you have a problem, discuss it. If you have a question on how your career is shaping, bring it up ! It takes two to tango. If you keep up with the ‘indifference’ assuming that golden opportunities will be laid at your feet, just because you think you are worth it, you are in for a rude awakening. If you don’t shape up, someone else will take your place. Don’t grumble if you lose your spot then.
  • ­ Take Lateral responsibility: I’ve always been a very strong believer in taking lateral responsibility. By lateral, I mean expanding your scope to do something that you never did before. If you are a great engineer, after a few years, try your hand at some customer interaction. Or try your hand at some project management. Again, try it before you trash it. Not everyone can do this. Fine – but if you are willing, the more areas you have hands-on experience in, the better you are in becoming an all-rounded corporate individual.
  • ­Keep yourself honest: What you do unto others will eventually circle around to you. As I mentioned before, remember this: jobs come and go, friendships last for ever. Never do something that could tantamount to back-stabbing those who have put their trust in you. A successful career is built on trust and ethics. It is just not worth it to go any other way.
  • ­ The air is thinner at the top: As you rise, you will notice that to get higher, you will have to realize that its not just about you. To rise to the very top, besides being excellent at your job, you need to be able to gel well with the rest of the management team at your level. You need to have good equations with those who matter, whether you like it or not. And finally, even if you are perfectly qualified, there has to be an availability in terms of need as well as budget to move you to this new slot. You are no longer one engineer amongst thousands where jobs are a-plenty. You are now vying for one spot amongst probably only five or ten in the company. Competition gets tougher here - and how well you do your job is just one of the various dimensions you are judged on. This isn’t a perfect world, my friend.
  • Don't sweat things you cannot control: As you climb the corporate ladder, there will be many things that may bug you. Don't sweat things you cannot control. Over a period of time, every things evens out. In your initial career path, promotions, growth etc. is very linear and predictable. As you keep growing, you will see your career depends on many other dimensions. As long as you keep your focus and keep working away at your goals, over a period of time, everything evens out. So don't analyze your career in days or months. Track it over a few years and work towards the goal and do what you need to achieve it. Ignore stuff you cannot control - thinking about them will only aggravate you - and trust me, there will be many such things as you continue your path.
  • Never burn bridges: When you leave groups or organizations, always make sure that you leave cordially. Many people leave in a huff almost to prove a point ('See, I can get a better job - you folks are not worth my time!'). The point is, this is a very small world. You never know if your new job works out, or, in future, if you will ever have to meet or work for the same people you left. You just don't know. I've had situations where I have had horrible bosses, and I moved on to other divisions - however, by keeping good relationships, those same people have passed on strong references to other companies I was interested in working with a few years down the line. Bottom line: Don't convert work problems into personal problems.
  • Always strive to be the best: Above and beyond all, always strive to be the best in your chosen field. Read a lot - keep a track of everything that is going on in your technology. Don't just limit yourself to the work given to you. Stretch out ! And oh, you will always find people who seem to rise just by 'personal relationships'. I know, its irksome. Let it go. Eventually, if you are really good (and no, it doesn't matter what you think of yourself, it's what others think of you), you will reap in rewards far above others.

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