What is a career?

Originally published on Butterfly Mind, December 2015.

As I help organize the inaugural SupConf, a conference for people who want to make a career in support, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a career looks like, and what a career is. At the company I work for, Automattic, there is no ladder to climb — we don’t have promotions, pay grades, or titles that make it obvious what career advancement looks like.

In some ways this is liberating — there are no rules, and we have the privilege and freedom to create a new model for working. We get to make it up as we go.

But in other ways the lack of structure can feel chaotic and unnerving. Titles don’t matter? Leadership roles are not promotions? How, then, do we “advance”? 

The only model we have to go by is the traditional one: promote, get new title, climb the ladder to the top.

But not everyone wants to be, nor can everyone be, at the top. And not everyone wants to be rewarded for good work by becoming a manager. Surely there are other ways to progress through a career. But how? What does progression look like outside of the traditional model?

As a Happiness Engineer — Automattic’s name for support personnel — I’ve been thinking specifically about what progression looks like for someone in a customer support role.

Unfortunately, customer support is often thought of as the lowest role in a company — an entry level position that gets you in the door and serves as gateway to more exciting, glamorous positions. But that’s not how I see it at all. Customer service is fundamental to the character and culture of a company — how does the business treat the people it serves, the people who use its products, and the people who make the company’s existence possible? In the companies customers hold in high esteem, the customer doesn’t serve the company: the company serves the customer. And the support culture is as vital to that admirable reputation as the product itself.

As such, it’s important for people in support to feel valued, to not feel like they’re at the bottom, and to have a vision for what a career in support can look like.

Aside from the obvious — that a career needs to compensate fairly — to me, a successful career is one of continuous learning, and continuous opportunities for learning. In all the jobs I left, the jobs that didn’t turn into careers, I left because I ran out of options: options for more pay, options for more learning, options for trying something different from the same responsibilities and tasks I’d already mastered and had become bored with.

To me, a successful career is one without ceilings, walls, or even a blazed path. It is not a ladder, it is not stairs, it is not a single road with milemarkers along the way to tell you how close you are to your destination. Instead it is like Disney World: the whole park is the destination. When you’re finished with Tomorrowland, you can head over to Frontierland. From there you can head to Adventureland, or Fantasyland. None of the lands are the endpoint, and there are multiple ways to get to them from any place in the park.

That’s the way I see career progression: one of exploring one land after another. Compensation comes with doing a good job and having a positive impact, and that’s part of building a career. But that’s not what a career path is about for me. The career itself is about learning, about developing new skills, about staying excited, about not getting bored.

With movement around different areas — whether as a trainer, an organizer, a data-digger, a bridge between teams, a document-overhauler, a product tester, a communicator between customers and product teams, a customer interviewer, a leader, a big thinker — a person’s skillset and knowlege builds over time, creating a deeper understanding of the company, customer base, and industry. This deep understanding and diversity of skills allow for insight, influence, and impact: big rewards in any career.

I am lucky to feel very valued as a Happiness Engineer at Automattic, to be trusted, to be unobstructed by walls or ceilings, and to be able to pursue a career according to the Disney World path. I’m excited for SupConf so we can celebrate support as a career path, and so I can learn more about the worlds I get to explore as a person who is passionate about support.

Related post: Support is Sexy by Alx Block

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