IT careers: Why you should embrace unexpected twists

Those unexpected twists and turns in careers can teach rising leaders plenty - including how to make sense of ambiguity. Treat each one as a growth opportunity
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When I look back over my almost 20-year career thus far, I sometimes marvel at how many times I’ve been offered opportunities or suggestions that unexpectedly led to some career-defining moments. I can trace the first instance of this back to before I started my first job and I was still in college.

I was an accounting major, about to graduate and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I had to work since there was no trust fund waiting for me and it was not my parents’ responsibility to support me financially. I was playing cards with some friends one night and a friend who already knew he was going to work at IBM offered to send my resume to a recruiter. I figured nothing would come of it, but I ended up with an accounting job offer that I excitedly accepted. My mom suggested that I push back my originally agreed upon start date since I would be working for the next 40 years.

When I reported to work, "my" job had been given to someone else and I was dropped into a hybrid accounting/IT role.

The twist: By the time I reported to work, “my” job had been given to someone else and I had been dropped into a hybrid accounting/IT role, much to my dismay and frustration. I thought I was going to be doing debits, credits and journal entries! But after a few months, I discovered a passion for this type of work – which led me to a career as a Business Systems Analyst, something I didn’t know existed and therefore had never considered, but work that I truly enjoyed.

Fast forward a few years (and a few job changes) and I am comfortably doing BSA work when disaster strikes. A reduction in force takes place, my entire department is eliminated and we all have to apply for new jobs with the company. I applied for a role supporting the company’s contact center technology - again, something I knew nothing about, and not really expecting to hear anything about the application. (The organization was insourcing call center operations and it needed to stand up brand new infrastructure for the insourced agents to use).

[ Want more on today's IT job market? Read: 5 flourishing and 5 fading IT careers. ]

Surprise: You're hired

Imagine my surprise when I got an email for an interview, then imagine my shock when I was offered the role. I think the team saw transferable skills that would be useful: I had a consulting mindset, good communication skills, and because I had worked at a few different companies, had some pretty diverse experience.

This was probably the most frustrating role I’ve ever had in my career. But I found that it was possible to reinvent yourself and your skillset.

To be completely honest, this was probably the most frustrating role I’ve ever had in my career. I pride myself on being a subject matter expert. Being uber-prepared and respected for the value I bring to the team is important to me. At that moment, I had none of that going for me. I had never worked with this technology, the terms and concepts being discussed were totally foreign to me, and when among people who had been doing this for years, I felt like the weakest link.

l felt completely ineffective and lost and went to my manager and told him that I couldn’t do the job and needed to transfer. He told me that he believed in my ability to do the work and would teach me what I didn’t know. (Sidenote: He became a friend and mentor to me: If you don’t have a mentor, get one today.) I decided to tough it out and two years later, I had mastered it and picked up some valuable lessons along the way.

I discovered how interesting call center technology is. Whenever I dial a toll free number, hear all the options, get placed on hold, yell “representative” and finally reach an agent (or voicemail), my mind instantly goes to how it was all designed. I never would have done that before. More importantly, I found that it was possible to reinvent yourself and your skillset and take your career in a totally different direction.

And that’s when Red Hat called looking for someone with the experience I had just mastered. That most frustrating role led me to the greatest place I have worked in my career.

A now-prized IT leadership skill: Operating in the gray

How I arrived at Red Hat (and the wonderful culture I have experienced since then) taught me to be bold and fearless when it comes to accepting new challenges and opportunities. After my initial role implementing technology that was used all over the world, I was tasked with figuring out what Red Hat needed to do to comply with a data privacy law that was quite complex and far reaching. It was very much a “figure it out as you go” and “trust your instincts” kind of thing to determine what needed to be done - like many other roles at Red Hat, but with a bit higher stakes (like up to a 4 percent annual revenue fine for non-compliance, for example.)

Several people passed on the role (their loss, my gain!)

Several people passed on the role (their loss, my gain!). It allowed me to work with people all over the company and later led to an opportunity to support Mike Kelly (Red Hat's CIO) as part of the team working on the acquisition of Red Hat by IBM. I worked with senior leaders every day and participated in weekly meetings with the Red Hat CLT (Corporate Leadership Team). I asked Mike why he asked me to be a part of the team and he said “You can make sense of ambiguity and operate in the gray. Those skills will be invaluable as we take this on.”

One of my biggest responsibilities was working with my IBM counterparts to facilitate a massive amount of data, information, and knowledge sharing. I had to figure out how to disseminate hundreds of requests to every Red Hat organization (and help them get clarity when needed), while ensuring that compliance processes were followed and the information was transferred in a secure and timely manner. I also had to create a framework for executive-level status reporting and ensure that already very busy Red Hat senior leaders were prepared and ready to present. It was herding cats on steroids - and it was critical to the success of the acquisition process.

While a role like this might seem intimidating (and it was at times), I found it exhilarating to have a front row seat to the largest software acquisition in history.

Lessons from the twists and turns

As I reflect on my career path, I’m reminded of the following:

  • The world changes fast. You have to adapt and change or you will be left behind.
  • Trust and respect are everything. When people believe in you, good opportunities will come your way and great things will happen.
  • Think of your career as taking the scenic route on a trip. There will be speed bumps and wrong turns, but those are your growth opportunities. Embrace them.
  • You can try to map out how your career is going to go - and you will probably be wrong. That’s okay.

So when a crazy offer is presented to you, don’t say no. Take a look at it. In fact, you should probably accept it. When no one else wants the role, it’s either made for you or you are made for it.

The twists and turns of my career are not anything I could have ever imagined or predicted that night 19 years ago. I’m glad fate led me to that card table; otherwise, I might have missed out on the entire thing. And I’m not knocking debits and credits, but snagging a ticket to a $34 billion affair (the price IBM paid for Red Hat) is a pretty sweet deal.

[ What are the key trends in IT talent? Read the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

Clarence Clayton is Senior Manager of the Global Privacy Team at Red Hat, an open-source software and services company headquartered in Raleigh, NC. He has been with Red Hat since 2013 and leads a team responsible for the management, implementation, maintenance, and growth of Red Hat’s data protection and privacy program and ensuring the organization complies with global data privacy laws.


Great article! You are a very talented leader and it is of no surprise that you have adapted to all the career twists that have come your way. Keep moving forward and accepting the challenges.