The big question right? Who are any of us? Folks reading this will probably conclude that I’m a self absorbed yuppie for making this the subject of a blog post. While that may be the case (feel free to judge me if you must), my motivation for writing this post is that I view myself as a mentor and as a mentor, I would like to encourage folks to think a little bit about who they are in their professional careers.

This article likely applies to anyone but it’s important to remember I’m speaking through the lens of being a professional software architect and technical mentor. If you are fond of thought exercises you’ll probably enjoy this article. If you struggle with the hypothetical, my guess is this article won’t appeal to you. You’ve been warned.

Why is it important to think about who you are professionally?

Who you think you are and who you want to become, will greatly shape your career path, and largely determine where you fit into an organization, as well as shape what types of organizations you are likely to be attracted too in the first place. Additionally, if you put zero thought into who you are or who you want to become, your identity and career will likely be determined for you.

In my industry, folks have titles like “engineer III”, “senior engineer”, “product manager” or other similarly generic professional names. While these names might be useful for determining compensation from an HR perspective they do little to signal to the rest of the organization what type of person they are dealing with. I would advise anyone, to do everything they can to avoid the company label trap when discussing who they are, because unintentional or intentional it is a trap that could end up controlling you by controlling your identity. To be clear you will still be labeled by the company as “engineer III” but don’t let that define your role and responsibilities and how you interact with those around you. Try not to fall into the trap of being “Just a ___” fill in the blank

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that taking some time to think about who you are and what you represent and stand for professionally is time well spent. The rest of this article will revolve around some ideas for how you might explore your professional identity.

What is your spirit animal?

Wow! Really Jeff? Yeah I know, this is silly and bizarre and who the hell cares about anyone’s spirit animal? I had this very reaction when someone first brought this line of questioning up to me.

I was working for and we were conducting interviews for a new software developer we wanted to add to the team. We were trying to come up with questions to ask the interviewee and one of my colleagues launched into a story about how he went in for an interview early in his career, and the founder asked him without flinching, what his spirit animal was. We all laughed at the absurdity of it, but then something funny happened. We all went around (half jokingly) and said what our spirit animals were. This of course forced us to think about why a particular animal personified us. The exercise yielded some fun and interesting results.

In the interest of transparency and getting the ball rolling I’ll tell you my spirit animal:

The Emperor Penguin.

The reasons the Emporer Penguin is my spirit animal are as follows:

  1. They are patient (they incubate eggs for up to 68 days in brutal cold weather).
  2. They care about the common good.
  3. They are grounded (they can’t fly, I like to think I’m grounded in my thinking).
  4. They are a bit silly (on land) but it doesn’t seem to bother them.

I encourage you to think about what your spirit animal is and why. It can be a fun / silly way to have a moment of reflection.

What would have been your profession 200 years ago?

This question forces you to think about your values more than your current position. For example, if you are a salesman you might say that you’d have been either a bare knuckle boxer or maybe a fortune teller (I’ll leave the reader to determine what I think about salemen). Try to forget the fact that, 200 years ago most people were farmers, and try to come up with something creative.

To get the ball rolling I’ll go first.

I believe I would have been a bar keep or Inn Owner (truthfully this still sounds like a great option). The idea of operating a hub for discussion and ideas is incredibly appealing to me. Taverns and dinner tables are the original open source in my opinion. Get a few drinks in folks and ideas tend to flow. Taverns are where deals were struck and decisions were made in the absense of a more formal settings.

Lastly, a bar keep is often a sounding board for people’s problems which keeps him in the know about not only that individual’s issue, but also would help one put their finger on the pulse of the entire community. Getting the unfiltered story from a group by talking to them individually can often lead to solutions and ideas that would otherwise prove elusive in a more organized meeting style setting.

Parting thoughts

There are likely a number of other questions that are even better at giving you some clue about who you are or might become professionally.

In closing: My title says “Software Architect” and that is the job that I perform. However, I like to think I approach that job with penguins and bar keeps in mind. Hopefully that approach makes me more effective in my job role and more fulfilled in my career.

Please leave a comment if you have who are you question you’d like to share or if you just want to tell me about your spirit animal :)