Sometimes your managers ask you to do something outside the range of what you’ve done before. Do it. Even if you’re afraid of failing.
This has happened to me multiple times in my career, and it always paid off — although often not right away.
I was a technical writer at my first job, at Software Arts, the company that invented the spreadsheet. After I got good at that, though, things changed. The company hit hard times and laid off half the staff. They made me the sole representative in technical support.
I was completely out of my depth and had no idea how to handle people. But it broadened my experience and prepared me for the future in other companies, where at times I ended up starting, then managing, the technical support department. And there’s no better way to understand what users want than answering tech support queries — an attitude which prepared me to help design software products in subsequent jobs.
At Javelin Software, I found myself not just writing manuals but designing online help files and online tutorials as well as working with designers to create packaging. That turned out to be valuable experience at my next job at MathSoft, where had to create the whole product package and get it printed and manufactured. I never set out to be a printing expert, but that’s what they needed.
That experience turned out to be useful in my position as VP of Production and Technology at Course Technology, where I had to get multiple textbooks printed. When I took the job, I was under the impression I would design software products, but instead, I ended up mostly getting book and software packages produced, printed, and manufactured. I never wanted to be a desktop publishing expert, but I ended up embracing it to design a system to rapidly produce books. Running book production and dealing with lots of physical books gave me unique insights into the workings of the publishing industry, which turned out to be uniquely useful once I started working on books of my own — I’m one of very few authors and editors that have an insider’s understanding of book production.
At Course Technology, I invented a new job for myself. I got bored with book production and volunteered to design and build a new line of educational CD-ROM products, an uncharted path at that time. The products never took off and they laid me off. But understanding how new technology changed the needs of content companies prepared me for a job as a technology analyst at Forrester.
In 20 years at Forrester, I mostly analyzed the intersection of technology and media. But the company’s management asked me to do two assignments that were well beyond teh scope of my job.
The company leaders at Forrester took me out of the analyst workflow for a few months and asked me to do a report on the future of the their industry, the technology research and advisory business. That had two significant benefits. It made me an expert on my own company’s industry, which provided a unique window into where the company was going and its competitive position. And it significantly strengthened my positive relationship with the company’s two top executives: Bill Bluestein, the president, and George Colony, the founder and CEO. If you’re competent, it never hurts to be visible to the top people.
They also asked me to participate in the team rolling out “eResearch,” an effort to take the company’s printed research and distribute it electronically on the Web. (That seems obvious now, but in 1997, it was breaking new ground.) What I learned there was how to creatively motivate a whole organization to embrace a complete change in the way they did their work.
Finally, at Forrester, I got yanked into a job upgrading and replacing the company’s intranet, called “Superhero.” I was essentially drafted to be a product manager. I’d never before had that role in a development environment. I communicated with the whole company about the new tool and worked closely with designers and engineers. This was a thrilling experience, and I plan to use it to design an entrepreneurial site soon. (I can’t tell you about that next idea yet, but you’ll be the first to hear about it when I can.)
Do not be afraid
The normal reaction to being tapped to do something you have no idea how to do is to run, hide, and try to escape. It’s much more comfortable to keep doing what you’re doing.
I urge you to change your attitude.
When a company asks you to work on something new:
- You get to learn on company time — which is a way to grow rapidly.
- Your managers are likely to tolerant of mistakes, since they know you’re new at this. It’s far better to learn when the errors won’t be held against you.
- You’ll often become visible to new parts of the company, which is a way to build relationships.
- Many of these types of job changes will demand new technical, communications, project management, or people skills — all of which will expand your future career horizons.
So try to say yes. Even if it turns out badly — like my layoff from CD-ROM development at Course Technology — it’s likely to position you for more interesting opportunities in the future.