Swim outside your comfort zone!” was the message Dee Mcrorey was sharing from the podium. It was 2010 and I was sitting at the Grace Hopper Conference, having found my way into the largest collaborative risk taking workshop ever (at the time anyway). It was such a crystallization of how my life had turned out thus far that I wanted to stand up and applaud (which I did do at the end in addition to thanking Dee for what was a fantastic workshop).
As the child of a marine engineer, my early childhood was spent on commercial shipping vessels, sailing the high seas with my parents. When we finally did settle down on land, it was never for longer than 5 years at one place. By my high school graduation, I had lived in 4 countries, 2 continents and various cities – from the most cosmopolitan to the most quaint.
What I gained almost organically through my childhood was enhanced ability embrace changing/uncomfortable situations and take advantage of them for the better.
I didn’t realize was how well this life skill would serve me in my career.
After graduating, I took up a job in the telecommunications industry as a programmer. What I found out was that the programming was just half the job – the other half was the teamwork, communication and interpersonal skills that are required to make sure deadlines are met and products are delivered. This was the stuff that they don’t teach in school but is so crucial to career and personal growth.
Thanks to amazing team collaboration, we were able to put out a state-of-the-art product. The only catch was that it didn’t sell, resulting in the product being cancelled and the R&D team dismantled.
To see the first product I’d worked on not even making it to a customer shook me up. All along, I had believed that engineering could change peoples’ lives, and make the world a better place. This experience taught me that my second big lesson: it takes more than cool technology for a product to sell. Technology is necessary but not sufficient.
This drove me to learn more about the other aspects of the business of technology. I asked my manager for side projects that could help me in this regard and was able to participate in technical marketing presentations, learn more about the customers, and how important the roles of sales and marketing are to any business. I set up lunch dates with people outside my organization to learn more about what they did, and really started to pay attention when they called all-hands meetings to share company strategy.
At some point, I realized that I really liked having this big picture view of how a technology business functions, and decided to join the Masters in Technology Innovation Management program at Carleton University (Canada) to learn more. What I appreciated about the program is that it’s specifically designed for engineers who wanted to build the business acumen required to make a technology business succeed.
The first day of class was a nerve-wrecking experience – I was the youngest person there, surrounded by people who had years of work experience equivalent to my age. When we started a group activity, I found could contribute something to the discussion, then I relaxed and realized that this was a great opportunity to learn from others’ experiences.
Pushing myself to complete my Masters while still working full time was challenging but tremendously rewarding. One of the great things that came out of the program was that I found out about the Anita Borg Institute and Grace Hopper Conference and got a chance to attend my first one in 2010. I’ve been involved with GHC ever since, learning and contributing to what is perhaps the best support and mentoring forum for women in technology. I suddenly got exposed to so many things, in such a short time.
On the career front, I had just completed one term in my Masters when the company I worked for declared bankruptcy and was looking to sell the business unit I was working for. In this period of uncertainty, it hit me that my Masters was the perfect backup plan. It had bought me time to think about my next steps while giving me a chance to upgrade my skills. Third big lesson in life: sometimes you can’t wait for change to happen, MAKE change happen.
My business unit ended up being bought out by another company, and just as I was settling into my new role, I got engaged and my fiancé (now husband) suggested moving to Bangalore, India. Dee’s words and my life experiences helped me take the plunge and make the move. Fourth lesson: Sometimes you have NO way of knowing what may come out of a spontaneous decision. Go with your gut.
I’ve been in India for about 17 months now during which I’ve managed to finish my Masters (long distance), get involved with GHC India, and transition into a role in innovation program management, something far removed from what I was doing before.
However, I believe that where I am at right now is a culmination of all the lessons I’ve learned till now. I hope to continue to challenge myself and seek to “swim outside my comfort zone”, be it career or life.
I urge you to take Dee’s words of wisdom to heart and make one change in your life that takes you outside your comfort zone – something you always wanted to do, maybe even something that scares you. It could be going back to school, taking up a new hobby, learning a new technology, transitioning into a different role at work, or using your skills in a new way (teach kids to program, contribute to an Open Source project).
Embracing change, even initiating change, is always an opportunity to learn, and learning is the quickest way to grow, both professionally and personally.
Special thanks to Carol Muller for being a sounding board for this blog post.