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Everything I learned to manage my career I learned from Soccer

When I started working as a web developer, there wasn’t a lot of guidance about what that meant as a career choice. Of course, back then we were getting over the excitement of the blink tag and the new design opportunities afforded by table tags. I had to figure out a career path, and I did manage to do just that by watching a lot of soccer.

This was originally posted on the mojolive blog 5 years ago, but I want to preserve it here if/when it goes down.

When I started working as a web developer, there wasn’t a lot of guidance about what that meant as a career choice. Of course, back then we were getting over the excitement of the blink tag and the new design opportunities afforded by table tags. I had to figure out a career path, and I did manage to do just that by watching a lot of soccer.

1. It’s not a solo effort.

Rare is the player that can take the ball from one end line, dribble past 11 opponents, and score the winning goal. Even if they manage to do it during a game, they’re likely to use their hand to score the next goal.

It is tempting to think of your career as a solo effort, particularly in technical fields where introverts seek shelter. But the people you work alongside, meet at conventions, and connect with can be invaluable resources when you’re looking for the next challenge in your career. Even at a small company, you’ll have to work alongside other programmers, manager, designers, and end users.

It pays off to make the effort and get to know them beyond the current project, I wouldn’t be working at mojoLive if I hadn’t worked with Sandy previously. Take part in your local community events and conferences too, they’re great for expanding your network’s reach outside of colleagues, schoolmates, and clients.

2. Serendipity complements planning

When you’re watching a game, and maybe dreading a scoreless tie, the entire game can change instantly.  A player with a simple flick, a mazy dribble, or an audacious goal can change the tempo and momentum of the rest of the match.  It’s impossible for a soccer coach to plan every movement or play, like an American football or baseball manager.

It’s also impossible to plan every single move in a career, no matter how good your plan is; economic conditions can change and new technologies may become popular. You have to leave room for chance and serendipity to play a part in your career, and be willing to take a risk and make a change when an opportunity presents itself.

3. Keep your skills sharp

Once a player passes 30 years old, fans and coaches inevitably start asking how much longer they can play. Like any other athlete, the shelf life of a soccer player is limited by his physical condition. Some players can defy time; Preki was named Major League Soccer’s MVP at the ripe old age of 40.

For most of us, physical traits don’t affect our job performance so drastically. But, your own shelf life is limited by the skills you acquire and use each year. If you find yourself in a rut, using the same programming language all the time, one technology stack, or targeting a single platform, make it a point to look outside your comfort zone.

4. The good players practice, practice, practice

The best players have an almost single-minded focus on soccer. It might make them dull at dinner parties but it gives them an edge. They spend extra time after practice running through drills on their own, or hitting the gym on their off days.

Likewise, extra-curricular projects can help you learn something new. Always building Drupal sites? Check out python and django. Have an idea that could be a useful product? Build it in your spare time, to see just what it takes to build something from start to finish.

5. Play with the best to get better

I came to the game late and only started playing soccer recreationally in college. I quickly learned that playing with better players made me improve faster. Not that I ever became more than a barely adequate player, but playing with them meant I had to try to be quicker, and play smarter.

Once you find a comfort zone, it’s tempting to stay in it but you risk stagnation. If you find that you’re a big fish in a little pond or you’re a little bored with the work you’re doing, its time to think about working on more ambitious projects. For programmers, a ready avenue to collaborate with other top-notch developers is through open source projects, or simply sharing code on github.

6. Don’t be a one trick pony

It seems every team has at least one player who is one dimensional but the coach loves for some reason. The worst is watching a player who can only shoot with his left foot. Inevitably, they’ll be one-on-one with the goalkeep, but the ball will be on their right foot.  As they waste time maneauvering to get the ball on their favored left foot, a defender has time to recover and tackle the ball away.

Don’t be predictable. Don’t stick blindly to always using the same solution whether its PHP, Drupal, or jQuery. For some projects, you’ll waste time trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, when a faster, cheaper solution. It’s also tempting to think of yourself as a “Back-end programmer” or a “Front-end engineer”. Learning to do both not only improves your versatility, but you can speak intelligently about what it takes to do both.