How to become a Distinguished Technologist: Advice from a career in progress

I thought I’d do a post for aspiring Distinguished Technologists making career development plans for the next year. I have to admit how awkward I feel writing this post — I’m still half wondering what mistake got me such an awesome honor. I got a kick of inspiration and courage after watching a video of Paul Graham giving advice to young entrepreneurs at Stanford.  So here goes: the best advice I have, given what I’ve learned in my career so far.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I don’t recommend that you make becoming a Distinguished Engineer or Architect an explicit career goal. There are all kinds of dead ends and time wasters you can chase trying to get an award.  Instead, I recommend making it your goal to become the type of person that becomes a Distinguished Technologist.  Here’s how you do it:

  1. Learn a lot about things that matter
  2. Work on genuinely useful projects…
  3. with people you like and respect

Item #3 is pretty easy.  It’s not hard to tell if you like and respect someone. Make it a habit to reach out to them and find ways to collaborate. It’s items #1 and #2 that get tricky.  How do you know if a subject matters?  How do you know if a project is useful? I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule for this, but a heuristic I’ve found useful is to focus on things that are interesting.

Things that are interesting also tend to be the things that matter.  Projects that are interesting also tend to produce useful results — eventually. My life is full of experience after experience of working on things just because I found them interesting and those things turning out to be important and useful later on. You have to be a bit self indulgent to follow this advice. You have to be willing to shun the boring, which will get you in trouble from time to time. But making it a habit to gratify your interests is probably the best way to become a Distinguished Technologist (if not a really good way to live).

Think of technology as this ever-expanding mass. Anything on the edge that’s moving represents an important and useful problem.  A sure way of becoming the type of person that becomes a Distinguished Technologist is to get yourself onto one of those edges and push. It means you’ll have to spend a good chunk of your time living in the future.  But when the present catches up, ideas and accomplishments that have become normal for you, will seem brilliant and revolutionary to the rest of us.

Still interested in becoming a Distinguished Technologist? CSC’s Hyper Think Blog series is a good place to start. Take a look at the kinds of things our Distinguished Engineers and Distinguished Architects are discussing and working on, make comments, and start working on useful projects with people you’ll come to like and respect.

That’s what I’ve got. Hope it helps.

Jerry Overton — Distinguished Engineer

Jerry Overton is head of Advanced Analytics Research in CSC’s ResearchNetwork and the founder of CSC’s FutureTense initiative, which includes the Predictive Modeling Research Group, the Advanced Analytics Lab and the Predictive Modeling School.

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