This article was written by Microsoft employee Sonia Cuff as part of the Humans of IT Guest Blogger Series. Sonia shares about the universal truths that have appeared during her 24 years in tech that can apply to any career.
I have been in a technical role of some kind for the past 24 years. Twenty-four years! I had no idea that following my heart would take me on an adventure through this winding career path, but incrementally, every twist and turn has brought me to a dream job here at Microsoft.
I wasn’t always interested in tech. At school, I did “computers” as a subject and I was good at it, but I didn’t fall in love with BASIC coding on the Apple IIe. In fact, I wanted to be a flight attendant. A paid job in a bank straight after high school lured me away from my plans to study travel & tourism, so I never went into the travel industry. After two years in a bank branch, spending a fair amount of time on the “user” end of helpdesk calls as the resident branch tech expert (I was only 18 years old then!), they asked me to relocate to a different city and join the IT department there. It was December 1995 when I learnt lesson 1:
“Lesson 1: Change your plans.”
Sometimes opportunities come your way that didn’t fit your plans. And sometimes they are even better than your plans.
Could I work in an IT department, with no formal training? I had no idea, but they were willing to take a chance on me so we come to lesson 2:
“Lesson 2: If you are not sure – say yes.”
I was thrown into a project to build and deploy new workstations and servers to our branches nationwide. And I hated it. I had great colleagues who taught me everything, including one vivid session around a whiteboard explaining TCP/IP and subnet masks. But I struggled through the project work and the after-hours deployments, until I figured out why – I missed working with people! So, do I suck it up, after my employer had relocated me, or did I speak up about it? Lesson 3!
“Lesson 3: If you don’t like it, then leave.”
OK, there are all sorts of nuances with lesson 3. Understand that at the time I was living with a partner who could financially support me if this was going to be the end of my tech career, while I looked for a new job or did go and study, and we had no dependents. That makes it so much easier to take a risk and leave a role you are not enjoying. That said, sometimes you do have to suck it up for a while to keep feeding your family and paying the mortgage.
After confessing how I was feeling to my team leader… they gave me another chance in the second level support team. It was going to be sink or swim, so I dived into the basics – xcopying DOS files, installing token ring adapter drivers and more. Here’s where the groundwork was built in with lesson 4:
“Lesson 4: Learn and understand the basics.”
Tech concepts I learnt then are still foundational for the work I do today, and helped me build a strong troubleshooting skill. When things stopped working, I knew what to try next. I also built great working relationships with my colleagues, listening to those who had been in the industry longer than me and taking their advice. This was really informal mentoring before mentoring was a thing, and I soaked it up like a sponge. I jumped into email systems (MS Mail, Microsoft Exchange) and a large migration project, rising to become a Lotus Domino Systems Architect!
Now I’m at the peak of my tech skills inside this global organization – but do I really know what I’m talking about compared to others in the industry? Hello lesson 5!
“Lesson 5 – Take a chance”
I wrote up my CV, went for some interviews, and landed a role with a small IBM Partner. The rest of my career has mostly been a repeat of those 5 main lessons. I continued to learn, continued to listen, and continued to take chances – then moving into a team leader role and finally as a Service Delivery Manager inside a large systems integrator.
After almost losing it all due to burnout, I changed my plans again – left the country and started a managed service provider looking after small and medium businesses. Here I learnt lesson 6:
“Lesson 6: Share your stories”
I became active on social media, attending user groups and conferences, and also blogging. I shared how I fixed errors or deployed things, and earned the title of Microsoft MVP. Then lesson 7 appeared:
“Lesson 7: Always be learning”
My tech career has been nothing but learning, and that was about to ramp up again with an opportunity to interview at Microsoft as a Cloud Advocate. In Azure. When I’d been focused on Office 365. Again, all of the qualities I’d grown throughout my career, plus my commitment to sharing with technical communities, meant I was an ideal candidate, even without an impressive Azure resume. The last two years in this role have been Learn – Share – Repeat!
There are many other lessons in this story, including one about taking care of yourself, and one about the stresses of being a manager or business owner. Some lessons are easier to say than they are to do.
And some lessons absolutely apply to people differently depending on their circumstances at the time.
Ultimately, I’ve found that my successful 23 year career has been directed by these simple truths and they’re likely to resonate with people in different tech roles too. Picking the hottest technology to specialize in is not as important as these human skills you will use to navigate your career.
Always be learning, and stay open to whatever the next change of plans looks like, for you.