Keep the Change – Adaptability is your primary workplace survival skill

I’ve been working full-time since July, 1987. I think it was July. That was the Summer I graduated from college. I’ve had no gaps in employment for the past 27 years.

I started out in the working world with a Journalism degree, an attitude, and one piece of good advice. My High School Art Teacher told me, “When you start working, always make friends with the secretary. First thing. They run the place, and you want them on your side.” Over the years, other wise elders added to the list of those to befriend: the custodian, the security guard and the guy who fixes the phones.

That served me a lot better than did my degree or my attitude. (In fact, at one of my workplaces, I was required to check my attitude at the door each morning. They would bind him in chains and lock him in a closet. It worked okay until Igor, the deputy HR director, started taunting him with fire.)

What you start out knowing, of course, is not what matters most. It’s what you learn along the way that counts. What I’ve learned is that, of all the traits that lead to success, the most important for me has been adaptability. Rolling with the punches. Adjusting to change. Making lemonade out of lemons. Seeing the open window just as the door slams shut. What works for me may not work for you, but I’ve succeeded, I guess, following these points; and I’ve seen a lot of other people fail by not following them.

Once upon a time you could learn a trade and just go with it. In some fields you still can. Although there are advances in technology that affect plumbing or landscaping, the same basic skills still have to be learned, the same principles understood. A guy who knows how to sweat copper pipe would not be baffled by the snap-together ease of Pex, except maybe to be amazed that Pex works. A guy who’s used to swinging an idiot stick is probably thrilled to be offered a riding mower.

On the other hand, an auto-mechanic of fifty years ago, plopped suddenly in a modern garage, wouldn’t know what the hell to do with all the equipment lined up in the bay, and would probably scream bloody murder when he looked under the car’s hood and saw fuel injectors, power steering and brakes, and emission control devices all over. Not to mention the primary computer module, without which a modern automobile won’t run.

IT is all about embracing these kinds of changes.

When I started working, a computer was one of two things: A PC or an Apple without a hard drive, which had the ability to run ONE program at a time, and was useful pretty much for games and word processing and little else; or a mainframe, a building-sized super-calculator which you accessed using a dumb terminal and sent batch jobs to. The mainframe had storage, lots of it… probably more than ten megabytes, for God’s sake. It hosted databases and could handle massive transaction processing.

With a few exceptions, these computers did not talk to each other. They were all hermits. Solitary and anti-social.

27 years later, the iMac on which I’m writing this blog can handle more transactions per second than the IBM 360 Mainframe ever could, and it’s got more attached storage sitting on my desk than we could have fit into the basement at my first office building. (Side note – Hollywood discovered the term “mainframe,” about fifteen years ago… just as 90% of the mainframes in the US were being hauled to the junkyard. Screenwriters to this day love to use phrases like, “Uploading to the mainframe.” Little do they realize that this neat word they’ve just learned is obsolete, and that very little uploading was done to mainframes. They could do it, but they didn’t do it often.)

Since the invention of ENIAC, the first electronic, general-use computer, IT professionals had a lot of adapting to do. Was a time when, if you were good at remembering a small sequence of letters and numbers to punch in to start a job, and you were comfortable flipping reels of magnetic tape in and out, plus you looked really nifty in a lab coat, you were an IT professional. None of these skills do you any good any more. Even a secure password is more complex than most mainframe jockeys are comfortable remembering. And we’ve mostly traded lab coats for UnderArmor hoodies.

Change happens quickly. I’ve known people who stopped learning for five years who made themselves unemployable in the field. No one cares about your Windows 2003 certification when Windows 2008 is about to be replaced. No one is interested that you know how to write Active Server Pages when the web server uses Dot.Net and PHP.

So here’s my (so-called) words of wisdom for anyone who cares:

Rigidty is the enemy – nothing is going to stay the same in your life, especially on the job. Getting your back up and saying, “But I was told it would be this way!” will not help you succeed, and it’s going to piss off more realistic people. Getting stuck in old habits will guarantee that you become of no value to the organization in which you’re working.

When conditions change, you need to always ask yourself, “How can this help me? How can I take advantage of this change? Where’s the opportunity in this?” Indeed, don’t just become a cheerful cohort in other peoples’ change–look for opportunities for change yourself. Make it your friend.

Avoid becoming hard – things like bread become hard when they sit out unused. So do people when they’re unappreciated and unchallenged. Don’t let it happen to you. Stay in motion, keep up with the changes around you. Don’t be the old man screaming “Get off my lawn!” at the younger people around you. Don’t stop giving a damn.

Frustration can be motivating… or it can stop you in your tracks – frustration is the result of unrealized expectations. So, when you find frustration has you by the throat, ask yourself what it was you were expecting. Were your expectations reasonable? Even if they were, can they be met in a new, changed environment? Adjust your expectations to align with what’s happening. If you don’t, you’re going to be so poisoned by your own anger that you can’t get anything done, and, eventually, not getting anything donewill get you fired.

Don’t be afraid – “Fear of change” is probably the most overused phrase in the workplace. A new system is introduced, a new program is begun, and people get this look in their eyes. They become hostile. They start whispering about how all these changes are a plot to make everyone miserable. It’s written off as “fear of change.” Well, yeah, it is. But why? Why are we afraid of change? Lack of growth, lack of motion, lack of change is death. Do we want to be dead? No, we don’t. But we also do want to know where we stand. It’s scary to not know what your place is in a changing world. Embrace, anticipate and above all question the change, and you’ll be on the way to making your place.

“It’s The Way We’ve Always Done It.” (And it’s good enough for me.) – I used to sing this in Church, before, during and after Council meetings, to the tune of “Gimme That Old Time Religion,” which is a song about not wanting things to change. A lot of people want to do things the way they’ve always been done, because that way of doing things is proven. Good point. Don’t abandon a system that works. But a lot of systems aren’t working, and people still cling to them. Because they know what to expect of that broken system. The new system may be more broke. Yeah, it may. But if you embrace it, and you’re a part of it, it’s lot less likely to be broke, because it’s got a supremely competent advocate. (And, oh yeah, believe in yourself.)

Play to people’s strengths. Work around people’s weaknesses – not everyone is going to be everything you want them to be, and that includes co-workers, bosses and employees. You can’t just automatically write them off and refuse to work with them, change jobs, or fire them. You have to try and make the most of every relationship. It’s like doing physical therapy for a torn rotator cuff. Until the damn thing heals, you’ve got to strengthen the muscles around it so it can heal. Someday, maybe, you can improve their. weaknesses, but you can’t wait for someday. You’ve got to be effective now.

Reach out to youth – Yes, the new kids on the job can be annoying, thinking every idea they have is one no one ever had before. Yes, they can be brash, assuming that the only reason a bad system hasn’t been changed is because all the people who went before them were stupid, you included. But they also bring energy, enthusiasm, new ways of thinking. Embrace them. Encourage them. Expect the best of them and treat them as if they’re already giving it. Value them.

And always, always, always be nice to the secretary, the security guard, the custodian, and the guy who fixes the phones.

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