Throughout your career, you’ve probably heard a lot about how to be the “best” employee. These days, you may even here people talk about what it takes to be a “full-stack” employee. This is someone who comes to the table with all the cards. They have a broad set of skills that takes them from end-to-end across a product—designing, coding, testing, documenting. They can play any hand they’re dealt and be successful.
Need someone to design a UI, build a web server, rig up a test harness, write the user doc, and walk a tightrope over a boiling pit of lava while carrying a client and a puppy!? Quick, call the full-stack employee!
You might be asking, “But who are these mythical, magical pegacorns?”
You. You are a full-stack employee, you just don’t know it!
It’s true. You have full-stack greatness within you. Here’s how to unlock it.
It’s an Agile world. Don’t settle for Waterfall You
Accept the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) You and iterate. This means you don’t have to be great at everything right out of the gate. Be willing to take a stab at something you’re probably not very good at…Bash scripts? Masking in Photoshop? New Slack Webhook?
You’ll be terrible at first. There are some things you’ll never get. Occasionally you’ll discover a hidden talent or interest. Either way, you can’t do anything to your skill set except make it better, simply by increasing your exposure and making an earnest effort to learn something new.
Take advantage of training opportunities, both traditional and self-guided
Today there are countless opportunities to learn anything you need to know about just about any topic in the world. A little curiosity is your ticket to the next level.
If your employer offers to send you to a class, fantastic! Take advantage of the perk.
If your employer won’t or can’t send you to training, don’t fret; training yourself is easier than ever. It doesn’t matter how obscure it is, there’s probably a Youtube channel or a subreddit for your interest.
There are also many inexpensive online training options that have great content and won’t break the bank. At Motivis, we use several tools to keep up with a wide spectrum of technologies and skills. We each follow our own paths and are encouraged to build our talents in a way that matches our personal interests and benefits us as individuals. We get training we enjoy, Motivis gets skillful, happy employees—what’s not to like?
Lean on your teammates
The bold new world of Workplace Collaboration is a two-way street. You lend expertise where you have it, but be sure to call upon your neighbor when you need help. Do your due diligence (RTM!), but asking for help sooner than later is the new norm. It’s not a weakness; it’s an opportunity to add depth to your team’s knowledge base. Of course, some lessons can only be learned through The Struggle, but when you are really stuck, tap a teammate on the shoulder.
Lean on the broader community
Sometimes even the best employees at your company won’t have the answer. Then, it’s time to hit the streets. Look around at the broader community—StackExchange, Github, or a product’s forums or success community. Ask your question of the masses—chances are, other people have the same problem. Be a good citizen and spend an hour a week in the same community helping n00bs or answering any questions you can answer. Take your turns both asking and learning.
Scrap the word “perfectionist”
You’re not a perfectionist. Banish this excuse, because it’s holding you back. Learn to love your mistakes, use them to help you learn for the next go-around. Don’t let the fear of a mistake rule your work life. Unless you’re building software that launches missiles, chances are your mistake won’t really hurt anyone. It might be a setback, but it probably won’t be fatal.
Forget (or at least downplay) your job title
Your job title is a double-edged sword. Yes, it is helpful for your business card, and for explaining “what you do” at backyard BBQs, but your job title can be an artificial limit to your professional growth and your willingness to try things that seem well outside your realm.
Even if you make a concerted effort to keep your fingers on the pulse of many things, others will naturally want to pigeonhole you into a narrow band of corporate life. To stay involved outside of your “turf,” you don’t need to take over the entire project or make a nuisance of yourself, simply offer to lend a hand and be helpful to folk. For example, you can write internal documentation for your team on using the new product, or act as a liaison and train people in your department, or simply evangelize to other departments where you see value (“Yes, we really do need Continuous Integration! Trust me!”). You will learn about problems, solutions and technologies that you didn’t know existed.
Use a different professional lens
Try a new tack when looking at a problem—you might be able to borrow a solution from a different discipline. This has given rise to whole new ways of doing things—for example, Behavior and Test-Driven Development. By moving parts around in the ol’ Waterfall SDLC and attacking a problem from a different angle, people have created entirely new ways of working. Use this approach to gain insight and you might find a creative solution waiting for you.
Don’t be afraid to become an expert
With all the emphasis on being a generalist and collecting tools and skills like they’re merit badges, you might hesitate to spend time and effort on learning to do something really, really well. Don’t be afraid to sink your teeth into a skill or a tool that really interests you. People will seek out your expertise.
Network your knowledge
Lastly, be sure to share what you know. Knowledge networking is a great way to learn new skills and meet industry players. You will find many ready friends in your company (and beyond!) who want to learn about even the most esoteric things. Also, by sharing what you know, you make yourself approachable and can open yourself up to learning from others. Join or start a User Group for your skill. Mentor others where you can. Cross-train when an opportunity presents itself. Everyone learns faster and finds ways to contribute.
It might seem like a lot of effort to become the magical, mythical pegacorns that employers want to hire, but if you tackle a little bit day by day and remind yourself that you’re also a work in progress—aim for improvement, not perfection—and you’ll quickly find yourself with some great new skills and a new way of presenting your expertise.