A Portable Career

Constant change surfaces seven major life lessons

by Greg Hutchins

I’m updating a book, Working It, which I wrote nine years ago and revised twice. Now I’m revising the book again to apply to a more surreal work and job climate.

In the book, I’m trying to distill what I’ve learned over the last 30 years about work, jobs and careers. It is difficult because things have changed tremendously in just the last nine years, with offshoring, outsourcing, commoditization of work, salary compression and loss of high-end jobs. These are some of the hard lessons I’ve learned:

I started out of high school doing manual work. My first job was as an ordinary seaman in the Merchant Marine. I worked on rust buckets off and on for five years. This manual work was very hard and, frankly, not suited to my abilities, temperament and goals.

1: Do what you love and develop an aptitude for it.

I then earned a liberal arts degree in political science. That was great, but what was I going to do with a degree that pointed me—a libertarian—to politics?

2: Have a vocation and an avocation. The vocation is your portable meal ticket, and the avocation is something you love to do that doesn’t necessarily pay the rent.

Because I needed a vocation, I migrated to engineering in my mid-20s. I became a licensed mechanical engineer—a great decision. I had loads of fun as an engineer helping to build things: oil terminals, high-pressure pipeline and process facilities. That worked until the oil bust. Then, I couldn’t get a job to save my life.

3: Things change, so be prepared.

I stayed in engineering but reengineered my career horizontally. I became proficient in mechanical, manufacturing, quality and industrial engineering. I learned I had the ability to glue words together, so I even started writing books on these subjects. These geeky tomes were full of multisyllabic words that were the identifying trademarks of engineering professionals.

4: Messages about inherent abilities come from unexpected quarters. So, listen carefully.

On my own

During this period of my portable career, I worked for a number of "my way or the highway" bosses. This management style clashed with me, so I left big business to become an entrepreneur—something for which I was totally unprepared. I had been trained, nurtured, promoted and reinforced for geek abilities. I mostly had a safe corporate home. Entrepreneurship requires new skills.

5: Degeek. Technical abilities—accounting, law or engineering—get a job done but don’t necessarily support entrepreneurship. I had to learn how to sell and schmooze—in others words, I had to grow horizontally again and become a people person.

So, now I’ve written about 10 books. Some bombed. Some floated. One or two actually made money. I’ve also founded a number of businesses including Greg’s Outrageous Cookie Co., a publishing business and loads of others.

6: Do, do and do again. Learn from mistakes, then do things differently until the magic is discovered.

So here I am. My company now does homeland security work. We had been conducting IT audits for the Oregon legislature, which wanted us to certify its cyber security. No one was doing this—there is too much liability, especially in IT systems, which are notoriously susceptible to intrusion.

This led us to Washington, D.C., where we got certified under the Department of Homeland Security Safety Act to conduct critical infrastructure protection audits, including forensics, assurance and analytics. It’s an interesting area with huge need. We are early adoptors in conducting critical infrastructure audits.

Serendipity happens. We couldn’t provide a critical client with the assurance it needed and ended up in D.C. doing Homeland Security work.

7: Take risks. What you think your life or career arc will be will change. Enjoy the journey.

Greg Hutchins is an engineering principal with Quality Plus Engineering in Portland, OR. He is a member of ASQ.

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