I had lunch with an old friend last week. We hadn’t spoken in a while and we were catching up on everything that was going on in our lives. She mentioned that she was looking for a new job, and we got to talking about what she was looking for.
“I want something that’s challenging.”
Challenging. That word gets thrown about a lot in relation to jobs and career development. We all want a job that’s “challenging.” But what, exactly, does that mean and how is it manifested?
For me, “challenging” has a few aspects to it.
- Solving problems – I’m a puzzle geek. Put a book of brain-teasers or logic puzzles in front of me and I’m in heaven. I played Myst for hours. Seriously, go away, I’m busy. There’s really nothing I love more than getting elbow-deep in a problem and figuring out a solution. I used to do phone tech support for WordPerfect (c’mon you remember WP). Anyone who’s ever done phone tech support knows how monotonous a job it can be. But that’s not what I remember. What I remember were the calls where the customer wanted to do something that the product just wasn’t designed to do. Rather than tell them it wasn’t possible, I would figure out how to do it in a macro. That was the best part about that job.
- Being creative – The thing about puzzles is that it’s not always about how mind-bendingly difficult the problem is. Part of the fun of problem-solving is the need to think outside the box. To find new lines of thought, new tools to use, or new ways to use old tools. And to never accept the line “but that’s the way it’s always been done.”
- Learning – something that’s challenging forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you take on new skills. We usually think of this from a technology standpoint, new languages, platforms, certifications, etc. We are IT professionals, after all. But this could also mean softer skills like teaching, writing, management, even design.
The thing about challenge is that it needs to come from within, too. We own much of the responsibility for creating challenges in our career. Stay with any job long enough and the job itself will stop being challenging. Keep doing the same tasks the same way and you’re going to get bored. Does that mean it’s time to start job-hunting? Maybe, but not necessarily.
If you’re monitoring the same servers every day, think about how you can automate part or all of the process. If you’ve got a process you’ve honed and refined, consider how you can improve it. That might mean scrapping it altogether and approaching it from a fresh angle. Get a certification. Learn a new language. Develop a training class for your colleagues or end-users. Organize and lead a regular forum for knowledge-sharing in your organization.
The most difficult part is changing your thinking. When you’re stuck in a rut it can be so hard to get out of it. So get involved with other parts of your community. Surround yourself with peers who will inspire and motivate you. Sometimes the key to finding new challenges is closer than you think.
So how about it? What does “challenging” mean to you and what are you doing to create challenges for yourself?
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For me in SQL Server the most challenging problems are around data recovery where I have to work out sneaky ways to get around corruption to let me get at the data without tripping over broken system tables, PFS pages, and the like.
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