I play the piano for Sunday morning church services. One particular day earlier this year, the choir director and his family were out, and the choir was shorthanded that day. The cantor was also not there that morning. We desperately needed someone to step up, and no one was willing to do it.
This is not to disparage the choir, which is made up of wonderful people; that is not the point. Rather, it got me thinking: what is my role?
Most of the time, my primary role in this group is as accompanist. However, I’m also the most musically accomplished person in the group, and as a member of a number of ensembles, I’m also probably the most experienced ensemble musician. Often, when the choir director is not there, leadership duties often falls to me. The director has, in the past, asked me to lead rehearsals when he is not there. So I can probably say that my secondary role is backup choir director.
I regularly think about this when I play in the symphonic band as well. Where do I fit in? This is not an existential or philosophical question; rather, it serves a purpose: what is my part supposed to be, and how am I supposed to perform it so that it best serves what is required in the piece? Band is a team sport, and each member has a role to play so that the group functions as a single unit.
The professional workplace environment is no different. In any organization, all employees are pieces to a larger puzzle. Each person serves a purpose (and sometimes, multiple purposes).
During my podcast recording a while back, one of the questions I was asked was, “what’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve gotten?” My answer was something like, “play to your strengths.” I’ll admit that, since the recording, I’ve come up with several other answers that I wish I’d given, but it’s that particular answer that I want to discuss in this article.
Let me start with an analogy (as the Yankee fan that I am, I’ll go with another baseball — and more specifically — a Yankees team analogy). Brett Gardner (outfielder) is known for his baserunning, speed, defense, and gritty play. Aaron Judge (another outfielder) and Gary Sanchez (catcher) are known for their power hitting and penchant for driving in runs. DJ LeMahieu (infielder) has a penchant for hitting, getting on base, and playing solid defense. Likewise, each relief pitcher has his strengths that are used for specific situations. Each ballplayer on a team has a role to play. Aaron Boone (manager) utilizes each player as to what they’re capable of doing and when to best make use of their strengths depending on each situation.
Everyone has their strengths and capabilities that add value to an organization. For me, personally, those strengths include technical communication, writing, and design. To a smaller extent, I am also capable of database work, object-oriented development, analysis, and design. But my professional strengths are what enable me to come through in the clutch. And if they are properly nurtured, they can help improve my other (often, lesser) skills as well.
I remember reading a Wall Street Journal interview with Dilbert creator Scott Adams (it was back in the early 1990s; unfortunately, I have not been able to find a link to the article) in which he said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “the best way to be valuable is to learn as much as you can about as many different things as you can.”
A while back, I did a self-assessment of my own skill set, and I made an effort to be honest with myself. While I’ve worked in technology my entire professional career, I discovered that my true strengths weren’t so much in application development — the career path I had been pursuing the entire time — but rather in technical writing and communication.
When I came to that realization, my focus changed. I started moving away from hardcore technical topics and toward subjects geared toward my strengths — technical writing, layout, design, UX/UI, communication, and so on.
This focus manifested itself in my SQL Saturday presentations and my ‘blog articles. While I have enough of a background to maintain a presence within the technical world, my focus is on soft topics that aren’t necessarily technology-related, but are of interest to technical professionals, anyway. Even now, when I do SQL Saturday presentations, I use this analogy to introduce myself: when it comes to my relationship with PASS and SQL Server, “I’m the professor at MIT who teaches English Lit.” This mindset has carried me all the way to a speaking gig at PASS Summit.
Over the course of time, and without even realizing that I was doing it, I’d established my brand. While my official title is still “developer,” this is more of a misnomer (although it can be argued, what am I developing?). I’ve become the technical writing and communications guy. And I’m okay with that.
As I get older and continue to advance in my career, I’ve come to terms with my role and where I best fit on the team. As long as I still play for and contribute to the team, I’m in a good place.