Getting Your Career In Shape

There are few things more important to your health and welfare than keeping yourself in good physical shape. It’s a struggle for many of us (me), but in my experience, the times that I have been most disciplined in diet and exercise have been the most healthful.

Similarly, you need to get in shape and stay in shape, career-wise. You’ll find that your confidence and performance will skyrocket as you exercise yourself to build your career.

This post is about getting your career in shape.


What in the wide, wide, world of sports does that mean?

Before we talk about T-shaped skills, let’s back up for a moment.

We’ve talked before about taking control of your career. If you’re going to advance in your career, you must own it. It’s your career. Not your boss’s. Not your employer’s. Yours.

How, exactly, can I take ownership of my career? What should I be doing?

In other words, what should I be doing to build my career?

The obvious place to start is my own skills and knowledge.

Learn something new

In fact, learn lots of new things. Never stop learning. And there are more resources available to us now than any one person could possibly use. We experience an embarrassment of riches in the tech world and if you’re not taking advantage of it, shame on you!

There’s Udemy, Pluralsight,, Coursera, YouTube channels, TEDx, and probably a dozen more that I’ve never heard of that offer affordable training in every conceivable programming language, framework, and technology.

There are meetups and user groups that many times offer presentations on current technologies.

There are professional organizations like the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and the IEEE Computer Society that offer webinars, books, and access to complete archives of journal articles. The ACM Digital Library is a treasure trove of classic papers in computer science. Membership can be a little pricey, but many employers reimburse membership fees for professional organizations.

If you’re old-school, like me (actually, I’m just old), you like physical books. There are plenty of them available, from good to great. Tech books are expensive, so choose wisely, and buy used.

The T-Shaped Skillset

In a 2010 interview, IDEO CEO Tim Brown put forth the idea of a ‘T-shaped’ person, contrasting it with an ‘I-shaped’ person.

“T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective—to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.”

An I-shaped person, on the other hand, is one with an expert-level depth of knowledge and skill but lacks breadth in collaborative skills and curiosity about other disciplines.

Why is this important? Why can’t I just learn my job, hone my skills, and get better at what the company pays me to do? Isn’t there something to be said for heads down, hands on keyboard, “just do the work” thinking?

Of course there is. The work has to get done.

However, just depth of knowledge and expertise is not enough.

The reason for this is that in recent years, we’ve come to understand that it is not expert individuals that deliver the most value. It is highly collaborative teams that are doing the greatest work and delivering the value the company requires.

The horizontal stroke on the T represents a breadth of knowledge, not only of technical areas not directly related to your particular skill set, but areas of human understanding. The quality Tim Brown focused on was empathy. If you are on team and the members have no empathy for others, your collaboration will be limited. The members will not see other people’s points of view, will not be willing to adjust their own beliefs and opinions based on evidence, and the team will devolve into power struggles and politics. Not that I’ve ever been there.

Empathy is just one important example. Others include listening skills, knowing how to speak to folks without making them feel stupid, basic cognitive psychology, emotional intelligence, and a host of others. These are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “soft” skills, but they have become increasingly important in recent years. In fact, many places value your ability to fit into the culture and your prospective team at the same level, if not higher than your technical ability.

How does one become T-shaped?

The answer is easy, the execution is hard—by definition.

It takes effort, just like everything worth having does. We get better at the things into which we put effort. And not just effort, but purposeful effort. We try to get better.

This is not news.

The important thing to realize, though, is that it’s not enough to be a technical wizard. In today’s team-oriented environment, the folks who thrive are the ones that can do the job and don’t make their co-workers want to jump off a bridge. Or push them off.

I realize this does not answer the original question, “What should I be learning?” But you shouldn’t answer that question before answering the question, “What shape is your skill set?” If you fall short on the ‘breadth’ of knowledge area, then maybe you should shore that up.

Your T-shaped co-workers will thank you, and your company will reward you!