No Limits

Interviews/Thought Leadership

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A couple of months ago, I had a late-night conversation with a student about his future aspirations, the challenges he was facing in his Computer Science program, and his ultimate goal of a career in mobile. Throughout the conversation, I shared a lot of what I learned during my time at the University of Waterloo and the first few years that followed. The more we talked, the more I came to realize: I wish I’d known all of this when I was in school. Of course, it’s possible that somebody did tell me, and I just wasn’t willing to listen.

In honor of #BlackBerryDevEd week, this post is for all the students out there, and for the parents of students. Hopefully what I’ve learned will serve you well.

For my own career progression, there was a sequence of events that led me to where I am today:

  1. I graduated high school with a grade point average that qualified me for the schools and programs that interested me. In my case, it was actually a toss-up between the University of Ottawa’s Accounting program and the University of Waterloo and their Computer Science / Software Engineering program.
  2. I completed the post-secondary program that qualified me for a career in software development.
  3. I worked a co-op job while at the University of Waterloo that gave me a little bit of mobile experience, and another that connected me to the spouse of a BlackBerry employee, which ended up being my foot in the door at the company.
  4. I tried to do the work of both the position I held as well as the position I desired, to have the experience that qualified me for advancement.

When I look back, it’s abundantly clear that some of the decisions I made at a relatively early age had  a major impact on my future. In high school, if I set aside economic and social barriers, then I could pretend that any school and any career I wanted to pursue was 100% possible. In other words, using the old cliché, anything was possible and I could be anything I wanted to be. But from there, the decisions I made quickly narrowed the field and shrank my world of possibility. For instance, when I graduated high school, my grade point average had already eliminated some schools and programs I could apply for. In my case, I had fairly good grades, so I was still able to apply to 80-90% of the programs out there, but I had already disqualified myself from some of the more specialized programs, and in turn, the careers they allowed. Once I chose a program, based on the qualifications afforded to me by that Computer Science degree, my options for possible career paths were further reduced, this time, quite substantially, probably to less than 10 or 20 percent of all possible careers.

My point is: what I do today and what I’ll do for the next 40 years of my life were massively influenced by decisions I made when I was only a teenager. It’s wildly unfair.

When I was a teenager, I had no idea what I wanted to do and didn’t even know what kinds of jobs, businesses, or opportunities were even out there. I had no idea how a business actually worked; I understood very little about startups; my knowledge of human resources, public relations and law were laughable, and I certainly had no idea about the ecosystems that surrounded a given industry – the very ecosystems that have created a demand for roles like the one I occupy today: Developer Relations. To give you the full appreciation of my ignorance: I didn’t even know about the existence of project management, program management, and product management positions, let alone the difference between them. In short, if a job didn’t have a uniform, or it wasn’t featured in television, movies, or books, I didn’t know about it.

My world during high school was pretty limited: friends, girls, sports, video games, and the minimum effort required to keep parents and teachers satisfied. And yet, through all my misguided priorities, if I had not achieved a minimum 85% average, then I would not have been able to apply to the University of Waterloo’s Computer Science program, I would not have started in software development, I would not have worked in mobile, and I would never have started working in Developer Relations at BlackBerry.

That’s just one example. What if I hadn’t achieved a minimum 80% average? What if I hadn’t achieved 75% or 70%? What options were available to me at each of these thresholds?

If you know what career path you want to pursue, and getting into mobile or even into tech in general is your goal, then I applaud you: you are far more informed than I was and you can be much more focused in how you get there. I’m also not going to pretend that good grades and post-secondary education are the only paths forward – everyone knows a story about someone who succeeded without these things, especially in mobile, where the only stories that seem to get any traction are those of the overnight millionaires.

However, when I look at the complete world of possibilities and how each decision I made significantly reduced those possibilities, it’s easy to make my number one recommendation to today’s students: keep your options open. Don’t let the knowledge you have about the world today limit what you can do with the knowledge you’ll have about the world tomorrow. Or in other words: do what you can to leave yourself with as many opportunities as possible – don’t let a piece of paper dictate what you can and can’t do.

Some concrete advice:

  • For high school students, push hard for those grades. Whether you know what you want to do or not, whether you like going to school or not, you’re going through the motions anyway, so you might as well do yourself a favor: give yourself all the opportunity in the world. Sadly, the next 40 years of your life just might depend on it.
  • For college and university students, diversify. If you’re taking a Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Software Engineering, or any other technical program, I strongly recommend pursuing a minor in Business, Accounting, Management Sciences, Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Advertising, Legal, or any other non-technical program that would be complimentary to a technical degree. Every tech company has people who work in these fields, but not enough people can straddle both technical and non-technical worlds. In my personal opinion, a minor in Business is probably one of the most versatile. It will help you better understand the impacts of your work regardless of employer, prepare you in the event that you want to start your own company, and better prepare you in case you decide that pure tech is not where you want to be. But of course, that’s just my opinion and you should let your own personal interests be your guide.
  • Pursue schools with co-op or internship programs. There’s a good chance you’ll learn more with hands on experience than you’ll ever learn in a classroom. And with so many mobile companies looking for employees with mobile experience, it’ll help you solve the chicken and the egg problem.
  • Build an app! When I was in school, software distribution was a nightmare. Now, with the explosion of app stores, it’s easier than ever. Fill your resume with real, meaningful work, including some of your own.
  • Build many apps! The apps don’t need to be successful, but while you’re in school, build a variety of different apps, each with the goal of teaching you something different. One app should teach you persistence, another client/server communication, another UI, another multimedia, another location and sensors, etc. When you’re done, your resume won’t just be filled with credentials, it’ll be filled with links to apps that a potential employer can see, touch, and use.
  • Re-build those apps! As you learn more, go back and refactor previous projects. Take those apps and re-build them on other platforms. By building the same app over and over again, you will learn a lot about code maintenance and version control.
  • Everything is a learning opportunity. Even in a job you hate, there is opportunity to gain inside knowledge not only about a given industry, but also in development processes. If you ever had visions of being an entrepreneur, it’s easier to start a business that revolves around something you know as opposed to something that’s completely foreign to you. And from a process perspective, you will learn how to avoid costly mistakes, such as having all source code on a single hard drive.
  • Focus. In college or university, all you have to do is survive. Make it through your program, get your degree, and figure it out from there. Finishing anything is better than floundering with nothing.
  • The degree outweighs the grades. For your first job after school or post-graduate program, your college and university grades still matter, but once you’ve been in industry for a few years, nobody will ever ask to see your transcript ever again. From that point on, your experience and your accomplishments will carry far more weight than your grade point average.
  • For new grads, beware of financial responsibility. Don’t rush into buying a car, house, or even that big screen TV… the more you have, the more you have to lose. Whether you want to start your own company, pursue an international job opportunity, or even just take time out and travel the world, give yourself the freedom to take advantage of what comes your way.
  • Surround yourself with good people. Be it in school, in business, and especially in startups: a strong, motivated group will accomplish more than you ever could have on your own.
  • Learn from your peers. Their expertise can be your expertise. If and when you spot a superstar, if they are willing to share their knowledge, extract as much as possible. Ask questions, get to know them and show humility. This kind of mentorship is invaluable.
  • Build (and maintain!) personal relationships. Everyone you meet has potential. Don’t write anyone off and don’t burn any bridges. You never know who will amount to what or when you may cross paths again. When people say the world is small, it is interconnectedness that gives us that impression – in mobile, you will encounter many of the same people over and over and over again. Leave them with the right impression of you.
  • Always say ”yes.” Okay, practically speaking, saying yes isn’t always possible, but especially for those who are just starting out, your willingness to take on new tasks and new projects will go a long way to earning you respect and recognition. If you do the work of the job you want, then it’s more likely to become the job you have. Conversely, “that’s not in my job description” is a surefire way to make sure you only do what’s in your job description.

It’s scary to realize that some of the most life-impacting decisions I ever made occurred at such an early age. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, yet at the same time, I was somehow brazen enough to think I knew it all. To all the students out there: study hard, never lose sight of the bigger picture, and always, always ask yourself what these four years are worth to you versus the next forty.

Agree/disagree? Have any insights of your own? Feel free to sound off in the comments and participate in the larger #BlackBerryDevEd conversation here on the blog, on Twitter and Facebook throughout the week!

About Brian Z.

Brian joined Research In Motion (RIM) in 2005 working with Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) who specialize in Bluetooth, GPS, multimedia, and gaming. As a senior member of the Developer Relations Team, it's Brian's mandate to not only support the application development efforts for a number of ISVs, but also to act as a voice at RIM for third party application developers. Like RIM, Brian's roots are in the enterprise world, but over the past couple of years he's quickly adapted to the consumer space, and that's where he spends most of his time today.

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