One of the best ways to advance in your field is to help others advance in your field. It's a surprising truth brought home to me again just now while working with Darl Kuhn and Tom Kyte on an upcoming article for the IOUG SELECT Journal.
The year is 1979. It's summer before my senior year in high-school, and my mother has gone out of her way to arrange a college course for me in COBOL programming. (Bless you mom, for doing that). I’m at Henry Ford Community College. My instructor is John Rostek. Three classmates are also high-school students, and the rest are adults looking for better jobs and career changes. It’s an evening course.
John Kaitschuck – I still remember his name – is the youngest of us high-school students. He plans to become a doctor. Curious, I ask why, and his answer slams into me like a ton of bricks:
“I like to help people”
Simple! Help people. I realize in the moment that I also like to help people. John's eloquently powerful motive haunts my memories for decades to come.
Fast-forward to this morning and an interview-style article I’m working on for the SELECT Journal. Tom Kyte is perceived as the epitome of success in Oracle Database and is often asked for advice on being similarly successful. Here's part of his answer, from an old post he wrote on success:
How to become better at what you do? For me, the formula was simple:
Help, such a simple word yet it pays back many times; maybe this is a better way to say it:
I think that says it better, participate. What you'll get from participating is a greater sense of what people are doing. You'll see solutions you never would envision otherwise. You'll ask questions. You'll answer questions. You'll debate, you'll engage. You'll win some battles. You'll lose others. In the end, you'll learn and you'll teach. And who knows you might even become known. Known as a credible source of information, a reliable go to person. You don’t need to write a book. I didn't write a book to become credible or known; it happened the other way around. You just have to participate, and be flexible (that is, accept criticism for what it is).
Once again I am knocked back as if by a load of bricks. Because it's true! Every act of helping pays off. Either you become better and more practiced at solving problems you're already able to solve, or you develop new expertise through solving brand now problems you wouldn't otherwise have encountered. Helping provides accelerated experience.
Two years ago I knew nothing about Squarespace, the platform hosting my website and blog. These days I receive inquiries from time to time about paying work. You see, I've been active at answering questions in the Squarespace Answers forum, at writing solutions into blog posts and a book, and at helping readers who reach out by email. Helping others has built my own base of experience and skill way beyond where it would be had I focused narrowly on my own interests. I’ve learned a great deal about Squarespace, and it’s all from helping others get better at the very same platform.
Bicycles provide another example. A decade ago I could barely bolt on a bash guard. Today I guest-blog at the cycling site Loose Screws and mentor young people in building bikes from the bare frame and a pile of parts. Where'd my expertise come from? Much of it is from freebie work I've done over the years for friends and their kids in the neighborhood. It's hard to believe how much I've gained from so freely giving away supplies and parts and my expertise.
Do you want to advance your career? Help someone else advance theirs. The more people you drag up the ladder behind you, the faster you go. It’s an irony, but its truth.