Tomorrow marks the start of my last year at university, where I’ll be finishing up my bachelors degree in computer science with a computer science minor. I’m only attending half-time, and the two of the four classes I need to finish are a professional workforce development course. Obviously, this is going to take a good deal of time away from everything else that I’ve been doing, so I’ve labored to unload as many projects that I can. That said, these are writing intensive courses, and I don’t know what kind of time commitment that’s going to take. Obviously, taking thirty to sixty minutes a day is going to be hard to fit in, but I’m going to be staying on top of the assignments to be able to fit that in.
That said, there may be room for crossposting. In the past, I’ve published writing assignments from class to Facebook or Medium in the past, so I expect I’ll find ways to kill two birds with one stone. That said, one of the first tasks is to share my thoughts on what it means to be a professional. Specifically, the characteristics a true professional must have.
Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. C.S. Lewis
My dad taught me his work ethic, and while I’ve been slow to get going some times, I’ve I’ve never had a problem focusing on a task once I’d made my mind up to execute. Obviously, there’s a difference between personal tasks and professional ones, but I’ve always hustled my butt off. Always. Even when I didn’t have the ability, or wasn’t the best, I could still keep going, driving toward the finish line. But beyond the drive, integrity is probably the most important trait one can have. Your reputation takes a lifetime to build, but can be destroyed in an instant. And taking shortcuts, or otherwise cheating a client or task will come back to haunt you.
There are lots of other answers that people will give as an answer to this question, but I think the question is the wrong one. When people talk about characteristics, they’re really discussing a trait, or a skill. One of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned lately is about choosing the people that I work with. Whether you’re hiring for a position, taking on a client, or choosing a new job, the most important questions that ultimately need to be asked are around values.
Values are the deep-seated beliefs that motivate behaviors; people will fight for their values, and values determine people’s compatibility with others. Abilities are ways of thinking and behaving. Some people are great learners and fast processors; others possess common sense; still others think creatively or logically or with supreme organization, etc. Skills are learned tools, such as being able to speak a foreign language or write computer code. While values and abilities are unlikely to change much, most skills can be acquired in a limited amount of time (e.g., most master’s degrees can be acquired in two years) and often change in worth (e.g., today’s best programming language can be obsolete in a few years). It is important for you to know what mix of qualities is important to fit each role and, more broadly, with whom you can have successful relationships. In picking people for long-term relationships, values are most important, abilities come next, and skills are the least important.” Ray Dalio – Principles, #45
I’ve been at my current firm for almost seven years now, and I’ve sat on the side through a number of hiring interviews during that time. Ultimately we’ve been disappointed with those hires that we’ve taken on, and I couldn’t really understand why until I read Dalio’s principles a few months ago. Every time I sat at that table with someone’s resume in hand, I was always focused on the skills. We were hiring for a position, an immediate need. And while I may have touched briefly on some of those deeper abilities, we almost never discussed the values that drove a person. A lot of your standard interview trick questions may have been originally designed to get into some of those values, but I think they lost meaning the more they became rote. And it’s hard to get to know someone in that short timeframe.
So while we may have chosen hires that were capable of performing the skills that were needed at the time, we handicapped our future growth. We wound up with employees who weren’t motivated to keep learning new skills as business needs changed, that were using the workplace as a dating pool, or who were incapable of documenting their work properly. And make no mistake, I’m no angel myself. Most of the jobs I’ve had over the years have been failures. And this may be my privilege talking, but I’m not afraid to be fired any more. And I’m not afraid to fire a client if they don’t align with our values. I’m at the point now where I can say ‘no’. I’ve realized that a lot of what comes my way is going to distract me from what really matters, and what I’d rather be working on.
I’m forty years old and still trying to figure out what my personal mission statement is. I may not be able to spell it out, but it’s there. I think ultimately it’s about service, and passing on what one has learned to others and helping them along. It’s about building connections and community. Hoarding knowledge is ultimately futile. I think lately I’ve been thinking that if I have an idea and someone else can do it better, then by all means, let them. I’ve got to focus on the things that I can do better than anyone else. What’s my niche? If someone brings something to me, the first thing I ask is ‘am I the only one that can do this,’ and that usually determines my answer. There’s other factors to be considered, of course, but I try to stick to that as much as possible these days.
One last concept that I’ll leave here is the concept of life as a multi-armed bandit problem, where we’re always exploring and experimenting and figuring out ways to exploit that knowledge that we’ve gained. Having this framework in mind and knowing when it’s time to put in the work to experiment build those relationships and reputation, and when it’s time to focus on that one thing that is going to bring you success — that’s key.
But hey, I’m no expert yet. I’m still learning too.