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Microsoft

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.

 

#HumansofIT

#CareerJourneys

 

Enjoyed this article from Sonia? Be sure to watch this recording of her Microsoft Ignite 2019 session on "An Introvert's Guide to the IT Industry"https://myignite.techcommunity.microsoft.com/sessions/81710?source=sessions.

You can also connect with Sonia by following her on Twitter at @SoniaCuff. 

3 Comments
Super Contributor

Thank you for sharing, I believe there would be one other lesson called learn from failure. 

I used to think that failure means you are not good, but failure is actually is a lesson and experience which give you power to be more accurate next time , so you will take a decision to make sure has higher success rate.

In case, this is true, would you mind share a bit of it.

Learn from failure is very important and I would like to learn more about your experience on it.

Microsoft

Thanks for contributing @Reza Ameri  ! That's also a great lesson. I'd add there are two main things that influence how well you learn from a failure, that are related to how the failure is handled when it happens. The first thing is how do you handle it? Do you spiral into negative thoughts that you are not good enough and you should just quit? Do you accept that this is part of life and quickly move on, vowing to not repeat the same mistake again. Or do you sit somewhere on a scale between those two? I do beat myself up a little, and then pick myself up and refocus on the next steps.

The other hugely influencing factor is how OTHERS respond to your failure. In the case of a work-related event, either a mistake or even just a lack of success, how do your colleagues, your project team, your manager etc respond? If you get a glaring looked and a loud conversation behind closed doors, that's not going to put you in the frame of mind to pick yourself up and carry on. And it's more likely to make you even more cautious in the future, and lean towards playing it safe.

I'm fortunate the Microsoft has a strong "growth-mindset" approach. What did you learn and what will you do differently because of it? And if you haven't learnt anything in the last 6 months, or you think you did everything perfectly, maybe you're not pushing yourself enough?

 

A good friend who is an executive coach talks about failing your way to success, like kids do! That's how we learn to walk, ride a bike etc. We fail and fail and fail again and again until we stop failing. Watch that approach in your career, but kids have no embarrassment over it and a determination to conquer it. Latch on to THOSE properties you used to have!
 

Super Contributor

Thank you @Sonia Cuff for sharing and these are also very valuable lessons.

Successful companies like Microsoft will see failure as opportunity to be successful and make sure not only that failure won't be repeated, they are also blocking similar failures. This is what I have seen in development of Windows for example. In time of Windows XP when there was no firewall, no anti-virus and connected PC have been at risk and today Windows 10 not only has build in Anti-Malware, Firewall, but also several protection features which makes it outstanding operating system.

However, companies should realize that failure is just a fact and we shouldn't fight it, we should see how it is being handled, like you said.