I remember sitting in my chair at work one day, looking around and noticing all the sour faces sitting at their desks. It was an open office type of set-up which has become very trendy for big multinational conglomerates, but also increasingly started appearing in the smaller firms as well. Everyone was sitting, staring at their screens, clicking away.
I thought to myself: I don’t want to do this. I didn’t want to work at this type of job for the rest of my life. Freshly out of university, I ended up getting hired to do what was essentially a dead-end job.
Most of the talk at the office revolved around people looking for other jobs or getting a mortgage in order to buy a house. People were tired of doing things that even a trained monkey could probably do. They didn’t like taking home paychecks that ended up barely covering the necessities. They had studied long and hard in college and suddenly once they entered the real world, it didn’t turn out the way they expected.
When you are young, you have these big dreams about the world and your place in it. You dream about making a difference, doing something you love and making a lot of money. However once school ends and it’s time to get a real job, reality hits. The world isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.
Most people adjust to this reality, ending up just going through the motions. The reason for them conforming is usually internal. They cannot overcome the mental barriers that they have, whether it is a lack of vision, not having the right priorities, being afraid of risks, or just plain laziness.
For me, it was different. That day I decided that I am not going to get stuck in this endless cycle leading nowhere. I resolved to do everything necessary in order to pull myself out. I had bigger plans for myself and they did not involve resigning to my fate. If I was going to go down, I was going to go down fighting.
In order to chart out a course of action, you need to sit down and analyze the situation first. You need to know where you are and where you want to be and then do a gap analysis. It’s OK, if you don’t know precisely where you want to be, but it is important to plan a course of action that leads somewhere. Pick a direction and go for it. You can always change mid-course.
I took a cold, hard look at what was going to bring me to my preferred destination. Doing the actual work that was supposed to be my main task was not going to do it. It was essentially doing what we jokingly referred to as “copy+paste”. People who would blindly just execute the tasks were going to get stuck doing the same thing 30 years later. In order to rise up, you need to do things differently.
In any start-up, you have essentially 3 main roles:
the project manager
The visionary comes out with the ideas and plans out what is going to get done. The project manager follows the work daily and oversees the tasks and makes sure that the plan gets done. The coder is the guy who does the actual work.
This type of framework does not apply only to start-ups, but also in other jobs, including in the corporate world. You usually have the guys who set the direction and strategy, the ones who come up with the ideas, then you have the guys who oversee that these ideas are carried out and then you have the guys doing the actual day to day work.
I wanted to be the visionary.
There was only one problem. How was I going to go from being a lowly clicking monkey in a dead-end job to a person who makes the decisions and has others execute them? And how was I going to do it fast?
I was starting from the bottom. I had graduated with a degree in economics and after a long period of searching for a job, I ended up getting hired for a big multinational in order to work in sales support and finance. The work consisted essentially of updating databases, getting data from databases and creating reports in excel, and when I changed positions, applying some formulas to come up with prices that salesmen could then use to bid for certain contracts.
It was very boring. My brain hurt every time I did it, but not from being challenged at work, but instead because of the incredible dullness of the work I was doing.
However I noticed that people were stuck in their own little routines while doing the work, but that they were not efficient. Things could be done differently.
For example, people were spending close to two hours every day coming up with a report in Excel. Essentially they were getting some numbers from databases, rearranging them, making some rows and columns, combining…etc. There had to be a better way of doing this.
KEY TAKEAWAY #1: Always try to come up with better and more efficient ways of doing things.
Whatever you are doing right now, there is probably a better way of doing it. You just need to find out how. Once you do, then you need to change up the current process and improve it, so that you are always coming up with new, better ways of doing things: continuous improvement.
The Japanese are especially good at doing this and call their process kaizen. In Japanese, the word is made up of two characters and simply means “change for the better”.
I started applying this philosophy to my life and my job. At work, there were a lot of processes that seemed dull and inefficient, like the reports in Excel that I mentioned above. How can this process be improved?
Then it hit me: Why do the work, when you don’t have to do it? Most things that you do at your job are a series of routines based on a sequence of steps. The beauty of this and the opportunity that you have here is that many of these steps can be automated (or eliminated altogether). So you work a bit harder the first time to streamline the process and then you can coast all the other times thereafter. This is the principle that I used to try to simplify some of the processes at work.
I went back to examining how the process of doing reports in Excel at my work could be improved. People were spending hours doing things that could be done in seconds. Excel has this handy module called Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). If you have ever done macros, then you know what I am talking about. With this module you can automate the entire process. So with one click of the button, the report gets done by itself, as if by magic.
There was only one problem. In order to automate that process, you needed to be able to program in VBA. Doing simple recording macros won’t do. You needed to do some hard coding.
KEY TAKEAWAY #2: Always be looking for new skills you can acquire and always be learning.
There was nobody in my department who had the VBA skills necessary to do the job. So I decided to learn how to do it myself. I talked to some people in other departments who did have the necessary skills, got some initial tips and got to it.
I had very little previous experience with coding. I did take one class on Qbasic in high school, but had really very basic knowledge in this area.
However we are lucky that we live in an era of constant access to information. There are plenty of courses, books and videos available just at the tip of your fingertips. The internet is a wonderful resource.
I got some books and started learning. First I went through the books and worked through the exercises in the books and in parallel, I started experimenting a little with automating the reports. I succeeded in doing some very basic things. The key to learning a new skill is to do the theoretical part together with the practical part. Don’t get stuck just in the learning mode, but also try to apply what you learn in practice from very early on.
I continued on learning and experimenting and kept on getting better and better. What you have to keep in mind is that most of the time you are not solving new problems, but instead problems that most likely someone else has solved before. On the internet, you can not only find courses on how to learn to code, but also snippets of code that will do the exact things that you want to do. Why spend hours playing around with code, when you can reuse?
KEY TAKEAWAY #3: Refocus your current job in a way, so that you only do the bare minimum of the dead-end work, and spend more time on learning and doing tasks that will advance you personally and professionally.
When you are at work, you seriously need to reflect on which tasks that you are doing will help you advance in your personal and professional life. Which tasks have added value for you?
Most employers won’t be happy with the advice I will give here, but if you want to advance personally, this is crucial. Do the bare minimum of the tasks that are just simple monkey stuff, as little as you can do in order not to get fired and focus on learning, improving yourself and tasks that will teach you skills that you can use later.
When I told my manager about how we can improve our processes and what I needed to do and especially after I showed some practical examples and successes, I ended up basically creating a job for myself. I would spend hours doing practical added-value things and also got more flexibility with my time. The end result was that I taught myself how to program in Visual Basic. This led me to getting interested in other IT topics.
I would then spend a lot of time reading up on different topics dealing with economics and IT, in order to advance my skills. I took over my own learning. While other people were browsing Facebook or going for coffee breaks, I spent that time reading up on new things.
After a period of time, I acquired a proven track record of improving things, technical skills and also an ever-growing theoretical knowledge of different IT areas.
Then one day, I got an offer from another organization: work in their IT strategy unit at quadruple the salary I was making then. I was 28.
At 32, I am now the visionary. I drive the direction of IT in our organization and instead of doing the actual work myself, I just set the direction and have other people execute. I earn a decent living and have an interesting, challenging job.
All this, because I chose to apply myself. I managed to reinvent myself and succeed in a field which I did not study at university and which is quite challenging: IT. If I did it, you can too. The key is to set out a vision for yourself and do everything possible in order to achieve that vision.
However this is not the end, but merely the beginning. There are new horizons that I plan to tackle.