A motivational-like presentation on the attitudes and behaviors one should have in order to achieve one's career goals, to get to wherever it is you want to be. First given at Northeast PHP 2013, in Boston.
How To Get There
Larry Ullman, @LarryUllman
Northeast PHP 2013
[[ASK]] What did you want to be when you were a kid?
[[ASK]] What do you want to be now?
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time around doctors and in hospitals, and so I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. Years later, after I had grown up some, I decided I
wanted to be a lawyer. This was partially because of an 80’s TV show called...
LA Law. I’m where I am today, in part because of LA Law. There’s a dirty little secret for you. Can anyone else make the LA Law claim?
So how do I go from wanting to be a lawyer, to being whatever it is that I am today? Well, a big inﬂuence was my need not to make more than $23,000 per year. Seriously. Which,
of course, rules out being a lawyer.
So I got here in part because of a tacky 80’s TV show and a desire to live in a better apartment. But does that mean that leaving things to chance is the only way to get there?
Because I wanted to be a lawyer, I choose to go to a college with a dedicated pre-law program. There weren't many because, as I would eventually learn, the concept of a pre-law
undergrad program is pretty much crap. But I selected a school that had one, and you could be pre-law political science, history, or English. I choose English.
In college, as an English major, I decided that I wanted to become a writer. Largely thanks to...
...this man. I will be most impressed, and your friend for life, if anyone knows who this is. Anyone?
I *loved* Kafka in high school and college. Deep, depressing, absurd. Great stuff for an angst youth.
I discovered that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a writer well before I ever knew what that meant or entailed. I wanted to be able to have an impact on someone’s life,
someone that I didn’t even know, or didn’t even share the same country, language, or era with.
And so, I read and read and read and I learned how to write good, er, well.
Be a Writer
I left college wanting to be a writer. Some years later, I was working at Georgetown University, and I took a continuing education course on how to get published.
A couple years later, after I learned PHP, because I didn’t want to make more than $23,000/year, I used what I learned in that publishing course to get my ﬁrst book deal for my
beginner’s PHP book. Which has since turned into more than 20 books. To quote another tacky 80’s TV show, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Of course, I’m not writing the kinds of books I imagined, but I’m much more of a legitimate writer than I ever expected I would be. But how did I really get here? Not the facts or
historical events, but what did I do that put me here? More importantly, how do you get to where you want to be?
Walk Long Enough
Surprisingly, I really didn’t read much as a child. Basically I tested out of childhood at an early age and quickly moved on to being a precocious young adult. But there’s this
classic scene in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, where Alice meets the Cheshire cat. In goes something like this...
Alice said to the cat, "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don’t much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"--so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you’re sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
In this presentation, I’m going to provide some advice as to how you get there: how you get to where you want to be. The ﬁrst piece of advice, and perhaps the most important,
is that you’ll need to walk long enough. This is true whether you’re the kind of person that plans your life out and then achieves those goals, or you’re the kind that just wings it,
or, like me, you’re somewhere in between.
How far is “long enough”, you may ask. Well, it you’ll know when you get there.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? What do you want to be today? What do you think you’ll want to be tomorrow?
Here’s another big inﬂuence on my life. Anyone know who this is?
Here’s some better context for you.
Jim Henson did amazing things. He dreamt big and he did what he set out to do. He realized his dreams.
Henson said, “If you care about what you do and work hard at it, there isn't anything you can't do if you want to.”
For almost all of my life, I’ve dreaded public speaking. Hated it. But for the past 18 months I’ve been working hard at being a better public speaker. I’ve worked hard, and I’d like
to think it’s paying off.
I’m not a motivational speaker. I’m really not an optimist. I’m not a person of faith. But I truly believe that if you really want to do something, if you really want to get
somewhere, you absolutely can, if you work hard enough and walk long enough.
Never Stop Learning
Towards that end, I’ve come up with 21 best personal practices, sorted into three categories: gaining knowledge, getting experience, and earning money. This presentation isn’t
about using LinkedIn or applying for jobs but rather general attitudes and behaviors that will lead toward success. Attitudes and behaviors that will help you achieve your
dreams, whether you have speciﬁc goals, or are winging it.
The too long; didn’t read version is this: be honest, work hard, and never stop learning.
I’m going to go into speciﬁcs now, and at the end of the presentation there will be time for questions. Or you can catch me whenever and however after the presentation.
“Perplexity is the beginning of knowledge.”
- Khalil Gibran
To start, you must learn. You must expand your knowledge base. Here are seven tips for doing that.
Number 1: Know Thyself. This was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (of course). The ﬁrst thing you need to do is know who you are. What are your strengths? What
are your weaknesses? What are your interests? What do you hate doing? Know these things, don’t guess.
And be prepared to re-evaluate these things. People change.
Say "I Don't Know"
Number 2, be willing and able to say “I Don’t Know”. These are very important words as they begin the path to knowledge. A hallmark of a professional is being aware of what
she doesn’t know. By admitting that you don’t know something, you put yourself in a position to learn.
Don’t be ashamed to acknowledge that you don’t know something. I know a fair amount, but what I know is only a fraction of what there is to know. Even within my own ﬁeld. I
only have a cursory familiarity of Node.js. I’ve never touched the Laravel PHP framework. There’s so much I don’t know. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Learn How to Ask
the Smart Way
Number 3, learn how to ask questions. This is one way you learn, one of the best ways. Or I could be more precise and say “Learn how to ask questions the smart way”.
What does this mean? Anyone?
Right. You need to learn how to:
- ask the right people
- ask exactly what you need
- be terse
- provide all the requisite information
- be appreciative of the help you get
There’s a classic Web page titled “How to Ask Questions the Smart Way” which discusses this further. If you’re taking notes write that one down: “How to Ask Questions the
Number 4, be organized. As you learn, ﬁnd a system that works for you.
Take notes. Studies have shown you’re more likely to learn something if you take notes, even if you never refer back to those notes.
Find ways to organize and track what you’ve read, what your favorite sites are, what your goals are for the future. Track the hours you spend on the things you do.
Keep a tidy desktop. Keep a tidy computer desktop. In all ways, be as organized as you possibly can.
Develop Good Habits
Similarly, there’s number 5: develop good habits. This can be anything: eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, responding to emails promptly, staying organized.
Whatever. Develop good habits.
I feel like many put too much emphasis on words like “smart” and “talented”. Being organized, developing good habits, and working hard will get you much, much farther than
either smart or talented.
Never Stop Learning
Number 6, never stop learning. There are a few people that still do Fortran or Cobol, but most everyone is working with technologies that have only recently been invented, or
have recently been expanded in signiﬁcant ways. It should go without saying that you can never stop learning. Don’t get complacent. Never stop learning.
Further, there’s a great concept I like called “managing your intellectual portfolio”. This comes from the book “The Pragmatic Programmer”. The idea is that you manage what
you know--your intellectual portfolio--just as you’d manage a ﬁnancial retirement portfolio. Because what you know represents your value, and is a resource that’s vital to your
job. Even where I’m at, if I stopped learning today, I’d be irrelevant in two years.
You should attend to your intellectual portfolio as you would your retirement portfolio. This means that you need to constantly put new knowledge into it. But the more
interesting idea is that you should also balance how you invest your knowledge. Spend a little bit of time learning something that’s riskier, that may not be useful, because it
could pay off big. But spend most of your time learning something that’s guaranteed to be useful. Manage your intellectual portfolio.
Get Oﬀ the Computer
The last recommendation I have for gaining knowledge is to get off the computer. Seriously. You’ll beneﬁt tremendously from time not on the computer. This is true for
debugging, for your own mental and physical health, and to broaden your knowledge base. Get off the computer. Take a walk. Take a nap. Run an errand. Read something
unrelated to computers. Interact with people IRL! When you work with computers for a living, getting off of the computer (and your tablet and your phone) is one of the
healthiest, most rewarding things you’ll ever do.
“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.”
- Albert Camus
Experience is similar to knowledge, in that experience can help you gain knowledge, but knowledge can be obtained by reading and listening, whereas experience requires
doing, action. So what should you do to gain experience?
This is just one of those good life rules that everyone knows but not enough people abide by. Be honest. Or be as honest as you can. Be honest with yourself. Be honest with
others. Just be honest. It will open the world to you.
If you want a practical argument, being honest is easier. The lies you make up are lies you’ll have to remember and maintain.
Number 9, be inﬂuenced. Find your role models. Follow them, read what they write, pay attention to what they do. Find what blogs they follow, what books they read, what
conferences they go to, and what people they follow, and absorb as much as you can. Use the information, synthesize it, note what counts, and if you want, write about what
you’ve ﬁgured out. Try to do some of the things they’ve done. Their knowledge and experience becomes yours. This is especially important as you get to be older and more
seasoned and think you know it all. Many of my inﬂuencers are a generation younger than I am.
Without Blindly Guessing
Number 10 is a tricky one, particularly for beginners. To gain experience, you’ve got to try things. Occasionally, I come across beginners that ask and ask and ask questions,
which is great, but at some point you’ve got to get into the pool. At some point you’ve got to extend yourself, to reach a bit. You’ve got to try.
This goes the other way, too: some people try to early or try to do too much. So my modiﬁed suggestion would be to try, but without blindly guessing. You should try to do
things you think you understand. Try to do things that you have reason to believe will work.
Numero 11, fail quickly. You are going to fail. You are going to fail often. Big failures, little ones, hopefully few catastrophic failures. Do yourself a favor and learn to fail quickly.
This idea is a main tenant at Pixar. One of their directors, Lee Unkrich, said, “Screw-ups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as
fast as possible.”
Fail quickly. What does that mean? It means that you should, as quickly as possible, get to the point where you’ll know whether it works or doesn’t, whether you’ve done
something right or wrong, good or bad. This isn’t my strong suit, but if you can do it, you’ll gain better experience at a faster rate than those that aren’t smart enough or
organized enough to fail quickly.
Learn to Fail Gracefully
Number 12 is related, although not the same: learn to fail gracefully. Once you accept that you will fail sometimes, learning to fail gracefully becomes a useful skill and applies in
For example, in your coding, you’ll have errors or bugs, and your code should be written to handle those gracefully.
As a different example, in your personal and professional life, you’ll have relationships and jobs that fail. Those should be handled with grace as well: no burned bridges, fewer
There’s also an argument to failing publicly. Doing so will make you more humble, which is always good. But if you fail gracefully in a public manner, you’ll look all the better for
it. And public failures will make your public successes all the more impressive.
When You Can, Start
Number 13: when you can, start helping others. I could make a noble argument here: how great it is to give back, to return the favor, to pay it forward if you will. Or I could
make the economic argument: helping others is a way to network, which in turn can make you money.
But I’m talking about experience here, and helping others ends up being a great way for you to gain experience. And knowledge. I am a better programmer because I write about
programming. I am a better writer because I help people with their problems. You’d be amazed by how far your skills will expand when you start helping others.
Listen More Than You
Okay, so this is perhaps my most hypocritical piece of advice. I’m just not great at listening more than I talk, and I don’t mean only when giving presentations. But I’m trying to
do better, and you should, too.
And if you have trouble talking less, then at least try to let others talk ﬁrst. Especially co-workers, bosses, clients, spouses, dates, and anyone that you’re doing something for.
“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.”
- Spike Milligan
So you have some knowledge and you have some experience, how do you make money? Again, I’m not going through rote mechanics here, but rather focusing on behaviors and
attitudes that will serve you well in your trek to get jobs, to work with clients and co-workers, and to pay the bills.
Number 15: communicate well. You really cannot overstate how much this counts. Even in technology. Even if you’re not a writer, you’ve got to be able to communicate well.
With your co-workers, with your clients. With those you’re working for, with those you’re expecting something from. Communicate well. Always, regardless of the medium. You
don’t need to be brilliantly terse like Hemingway or poetic and deep like Lorrie Moore. Be clear. Proofread. Put in the effort to communicate well. It’s not that hard.
Number 16 is a good one: value time. By this I mean both your time and other people’s.
As for your time, there’s an adage that good programmer’s are lazy. This does not mean lazy as in not wanting to work, but rather lazy as in not wanting to work more then you
have to. Find the most efficient ways to do things. Find great tools and master them. The seconds you save through automated work ﬂows add up.
Learn to fail quickly. That’s a great way to save time. In the office and in your life, choose your battles: spend your time and effort on the things you can control, don’t waste it
on things you can’t.
And value other people’s time, too. When you’re talking to them, asking them questions, doing whatever. Value time.
Worry Most About What
You Can Do For Others
Number 17: if you want to be a great employee, a great co-worker, and just an all-around great person, then worry most about what you can do for others, not what others can
do for you. I’m channeling Kennedy here, but it works.
If you spend your time helping other people to succeed, making life easier for others, you’ll be invaluable.
Give It Away
Number 18 sounds counterintuitive, but it really, truly works. Give it away. This works time and again. Over the past year I’ve been self-publishing a book on the Yii framework.
I’ve earned about $35,000 on that book so far. Largely because four years ago I wrote a series of blog posts on the Yii framework which became very popular. The time and
effort I put into those free, online articles is now paying off in spades.
My boss at Stripe got his job there after voluntarily helping others use Stripe. He helped others for free, then got the job at Stripe.
People create libraries of code, or contribute to open source projects, and those efforts turn into good, paying jobs.
Altruism aside, giving it away is an amazingly effective way to get a good job doing something you love.
Number 19 is simple: work hard. This is another one of those that should be obvious, but needs to be repeated time and again.
Jim Henson said “The only way the magic works is by hard work.”
Don’t cut corners. While it’s best to look for efficiency shortcuts, to value time, never shortcut quality.
When I was in college, I worked for the university’s maintenance crew. I’d work with the painters one day, the carpenters the next, the electricians the next. There was a painter
by the name of Charlie, who’d been doing it for years. Seasoned man, had had a hard life. One day we were painting something that involved an area that was high up, behind
something else, and unable to be seen by anyone not on that ladder painting. I asked Charlie why he put in the time and effort to paint that spot when no one would see it. He
answered “I’ll know”. He would know that he didn’t do his best, that he didn’t do everything he should have done.
Or, as another standard, imagine that the work your doing is something you’re paying for with your own money. Do the kinds of work you’d be happy to pay for.
Hard work gets a bad rap, when it shouldn’t. The full Jim Henson quote is “The only way the magic works is by hard work. But hard work can be fun.”
Do What You Say
Number 20: do what you’ll say you’ll do. Maliciously or not, too many times we let each other down. If you say you’re going to send an email, then send it. If you say you’re
going to get X done by Y date, then hit those marks. Being organized, creating good habits, and valuing time make all this much easier.
If you can’t do what you said you’d do, then be honest about that, correct the problem to the best of your ability and the other person’s satisfaction, and do better the next time.
Do More Than You Say
Finally, suggestion number 21: do more than you say you’ll do. Whether it’s for clients or co-workers, do more than was required and do it faster. Many people can do what they
say they’ll do, few do more. Set yourself above the rest.
How To Get There
Larry Ullman, @LarryUllman
Northeast PHP 2013
From what I’ve learned, from being a wanna-be lawyer, to a wanna-be writer, to being an actual writer, to being whatever I am today, those are the things I believe you must do,
and the attitudes you must have, to get to wherever it is you want to be. Be honest, work hard, and never stop learning. If you do these things, and if you walk long enough,
you’ll get there.