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Discovering Your Breakout Career Moment

In my work as a mentor for startups and as an informal career coach for others, I often tell people about the moment in time when I made a major career change. Many of you might enjoy this story as well and use it to think about how you have gotten to where you are today. And in the time of the pandemic, it is useful to have a moment or two for some self-reflection, particularly if you are thinking about making a major job change.

Sometimes, we don’t recognize that the breakout job moment has arrived until many years later, when we look back on our careers and see how we zigged when we should have zagged. Or taken a risk that eventually paid off. For me, it is easy now to recognize my own breakout moment, because this turned me towards my path of tech journalism and changed the nature of what I do every day. I can remember it precisely: it was the fall of 1986, and I was working as an IT analyst for a large insurance company in downtown Los Angeles.

It was a fun job, and I had been there for just over two years. Back then, end user computing was on the rise. Budgets and staff were big. We had, I think, somewhere north of 20 people working in various capacities, and we were installing hundreds of PCs across our three building “campus” (although no one called it that back then). I was good at my job and enjoyed working with end users and helping them to learn about the few apps that we supported on their PCs. Remember Lotus 1-2-3, dBase III and Multimate? Those were our three standard apps that we installed on our computers. Actually, “installed” may be too strong a word. Some of our PCs had the first hard drives, and they only held 5 MB! Now most of our smart watches hold gigabytes of data and run dozens of apps, and our laptops routinely hold terabytes of data.

I was an avid reader of both PC Week and Infoworld — these were the two leading trade pubs for IT workers. Now, of course, we have the internet and most of our publications are online. Back then, we had to wait for the printed copy and the US Postal Service. I know, quaint! All work would stop when the internal mail delivered our copies Monday afternoon, as we tried to scan its pages before our users (who also were subscribers) would start calling us with questions about the tech they were reading about in the latest issue.

In late 1986, PC Week was about to start a special edition that was going to be called Connectivity. It would be a supplement that would go to a subset of its readership, what publishers call a “demographic.” And they were looking for writers and stories.

I found out who was going to be running the publication and sent him what I now know is a query letter. At the time, I was just a reader of the pub and didn’t think anyone would be even interested in hiring me, let alone want to know what I thought was important and interesting. I mean, I was just this little cog in a big machine. I had zero professional writing experience. I didn’t know who Bill Gates or of the other big tech CEOs by sight or even knew them by name. But I had one important job skill that caught the attention of my future colleagues: I was in the process of installing my company’s first local area network (LAN), so was interested in PC communications. That made the editors more than interested and after reading my query letter, I flew out to the COMDEX trade show in Las Vegas. COMDEX was big back then, and it was there that I met with the newly minted Connectivity staff. I soon got a job offer to join their ranks as a staff writer. I began working for them almost immediately, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That first year I wrote more than 300 individual stories for the publication. They were stories about how LANs were connecting to mainframes, and how PCs were changing the nature of American business. They were heady times: we had the ear of every major tech company around. I got to work with some of the most creative and interesting people of my career, some of whom I still am in touch with today. Many of the original PC Weekers went on to bigger and better things in the tech industry, and I am proud to count myself as part of them.

I went from installing my first LAN to telling thousands of people how to do it themselves. Back then, we could talk to anyone, and it was through that job that I got to meet and interview Bill Gates, just by calling him on the phone. Email was still a bright and shiny object, and the internet was yet to be invented, by Al Gore or Vint Cerf or anyone else. What was interesting is that at PC Week we had our own internal email system that was based on the precursor to Microsoft networking technology, but it wasn’t connected to anyone else’s network: remember, the internet was still not for commercial purposes then.

What motivated me to write that query letter? I really don’t know. I do remember that I didn’t have much hope that PC Week would even be interested in little ol’ me sitting at a desk inside the bowels of a boring insurance company that was just joining the PC revolution. But it was a transformative moment for my career, to say the least.

So take a moment to review your own career path, and see if you can figure out what your breakout moment was – if it is in your past – or where you should go next in your career. Maybe your current job has gotten less satisfying because of the pandemic, or maybe you have figured out that you have a skill that you can market and transform your own workday. Or maybe you can now move to another part of the country or even another country since remote working is now more accepted and, in some cases, even encouraged.

David Strom

David Strom

David Strom is one of the leading experts on network and Internet technologies and has written and spoken extensively on topics such as IT security, VOIP, convergence, email, cloud computing, network management, Internet applications, wireless and Web services for more than 30 years. He has held several editorial management positions, including Editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, Digital Landing.com, and Tom's Hardware.com. He currently writes for IBM's SecurityIntelligence.com, HPE's Enterprise.Nxt, blogs for RSA and Kaspersky and CSOonline.com and has contributed opinion columns, reviews, feature stories and analyses to ITworld.com, TechTarget.com, Internet.com, Network World, Infoworld, Computerworld, Small Business Computing, c|net and news.com, eWeek, Baseline Magazine, PC Week, PC World, PC Magazine and more. David has created numerous print and web publications, built several hands-on IT test labs, curated various email newsletters, blogged extensively about a wide variety of IT business topics, spoken at IT business conferences, written thousands of magazine articles and published two books on computer networking. He is the author of two books: Internet Messaging, which he co-authored with Marshall T. Rose and Home Networking Survival Guide. David also publishes Web Informant and is the creator of an innovative series of video screencast product reviews of enterprise IT products that can be found on Webinformant.tv and syndicated to various other Web sites. He has also appeared on the Fox TV News Network, NPR's Science Friday radio program, ABC-TV's World News Tonight and CBS-TV's Up to the Minute news broadcasts.

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