Get with the Program: 3 Life Hacks for a Career in Tech
May 24, 2017 | Express Scripts
Phil is the vice president and chief technology officer at Express Scripts, working to build a core competency in technology that differentiates Express Scripts in the health care industry.
When I take the time to look back at my early years, going back as far as my pre-college days, I have to chuckle at how hard I tried to avoid a career in technology. In high school, I was known as the computer nerd and when I got to college, I knew one thing: I didn’t want that title to follow me for the rest of my life. I took classes in just about everything in college – though admittedly, I was never the best student – before I finally stopped fighting the idea of a career in tech and realized I actually liked it.
I got extremely lucky growing up in Silicon Valley in the ‘90s. My first job straight out of college pretty much landed in my lap. A friend of mine needed some software work done and, having taken a few CS classes as an undergrad, I took him up on the offer. After a few months of being a subcontractor for a friend, I was able to land a job at bona fide software company, SBT, writing accounting software in FoxPro. After that, I jumped around a lot in the late ‘90s playing the part of code monkey for hire, contracting for whatever startup in San Francisco that would pay for my services. From there, I held various engineering leadership positions at companies, including Yahoo, Zynga, and American Express, before landing in my current role as vice president and chief technology officer at Express Scripts.
While I’ve come very far in my career – from being the kid that avoided computer classes like the plague to someone that leads a team of incredibly talented architects – I owe much of my success to the incredible mentors I’ve had along the way and the lessons they’ve taught me.
So, if you’re considering a career in technology, or really any field for that matter, here are some life hacks I’ve accumulated over the years that I wish I would have learned sooner:
1. Find a balance between technical chops and influence.
Knowing your stuff is important, yes, but being able to use that knowledge to influence others is infinitely valuable. Early in my career, I would rail against leadership, other engineers, or anyone else who didn’t agree with my approach, wanted to go fast instead of “doing it right”, or didn’t see realities that were obvious to me. What I didn’t recognize was that everyone has different perspectives and that no one follows the grumpy guy who looks down his nose at the rest of the world. As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that you need to build credibility and trust in others, speak to people with respect, and use terminology your audience can understand and relate to. If you’re mindful of these things, the odds are good that people will follow your lead.
2. Recognize that there is a difference between being right and being effective.
Like most engineers, I’ve always been convinced in correctness of my positions vis-á-vis technology… but I frequently alienated those around me. For example, in 2002, I joined a small startup (TuVox), taking over engineering from one of its founders. When I looked at the code he had written, I was horrified. So much was “wrong,” by my definition. I spent the next ~8 weeks coding day and night to “fix” the problems he had created. In the meantime, I didn’t explain what I was doing, or create new features that the startup desperately needed, and I ended up destabilizing the codebase. This approach got me fired and all my code rolled-back. In short, I might have been right about the app’s deficiencies, but that didn’t matter in the end. A more mature engineer would have found a way to both deliver what the business needed and overhaul the code at the same time.
3. Always be hungry to learn.
In today’s world, technology is changing and advancing at a rapid pace. No one knows what language, tool, or skill will be critical five years from now. When I was starting out, however, I assumed that I could just learn a language and make that my go-to skill. How wrong I was when I tried to jump from SBT on the merits of my FoxPro. I quickly found myself having to change my moniker from “FoxPro Engineer” to “Engineer who knows FoxPro (amongst other things)” in order to stay relevant. One of the biggest pieces of advice I have to anyone in technology right now is: don’t get too attached to what you’re doing today. It won’t be around for too much longer and you need to either learn what’s next or be at risk of being marginalized.
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