The Job Title: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? – As a kid, everyone used to ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Some kids change their answer every few weeks, but not me. I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian because then I could play with puppies all day.

I was fairly certain that was, in fact, their entire job. After an unfortunate incident involving my dog and a neighbor’s car, I learned that vets also sometimes killed dogs—or, to use their delightful euphemism, “put them to sleep.” I decided that, although I would clearly get to play with puppies the rest of the time, it didn’t quite make up for the whole dog-murder aspect.

So, there I was, yet another 10-year-old with an undecided career path. At age 14, I decided to enroll in a programming class. (“Decided” is my own personal euphemism for an argument with my mother that went something like “but programming is stupid,” followed by her saying “too bad.”)

Four years later, this was my ticket into Microsoft, and eventually into Apple and Google. Few, especially outside of engineering roles, have this sort of focus; that’s OK.

Talk to people, research positions, and start figuring out what’s important to you. Ask yourself the following questions to start understanding what career path makes sense. What Do You Need? Our society contradicts itself every day.

On one hand, we are told over and over again, “money doesn’t buy happiness,” and we have the disastrous lives of celebrities to drill this into us. On the other hand, we’re also told that we really do need that new jacket. Let go of what you think should matter, and be honest with yourself.

The Job Title: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

How much do the following matter to you?

Money

Money may not buy happiness, but it does buy your kid’s college tuition. And a house in a nice neighborhood. Or maybe just a nice bottle of wine after a hard week. Does that matter to you?

Be careful with looking too heavily at money. While you can be fairly confi dent that your teaching dream will never bring in the big bucks, you can’t be as certain about many other career paths. Passionate, driven people can earn a good living in unexpected ways.

Recognition and respect. Many people who shun the spotlight still desperately crave the admiration of their fellow people. How much do you care about what others think of you? Would you be OK with people giving just a courtesy smile when you say your profession? Work/Life balance.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a nice, stable, 9-to-5 (or in the tech world, 10-to-6) job. You want to be able to enjoy a nice day out on the boat during the summer, and that’s fine. R

emember, no one went to their grave thinking, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the offi ce instead of with my family.” If you fi nd your answers learning away from a job for some reason, ask yourself why. Is there something you need from the job that you wouldn’t get?

How Do You Enjoy Working?

I’ve always thought that, had I lived before computers were invented, I would have majored in architecture. The structure of the work seems similar to what I ended up doing: computer science. I could lead. I would create something.

And, while I would have supporting teammates, I’m not glued to someone’s side to complete a project. How do you enjoy working? Teamwork vs. independent work. Everyone loves to say, “Teamwork is the best!,” but deep down, you see the problems. Coworkers letting you down or just getting in the way. Needing a consensus just to make a decision.

Managing everyone’s emotions and expectations. Is this really something you enjoy?

Creating vs. maintaining. While software development is creating a new product, testing is maintaining it. There are no tangible results of your work; it’s more like pulling up the plug in a sink while the water’s still running. It’ll just keep coming and coming. How important is it to feel that you built something?

Remember that even “maintenance” jobs (like being a surgeon) can have huge impacts on the world. Leading vs. joining. Leading is great, but it’s the joiners who get their hands dirty. Do you want to lead, with all the joys and responsibilities that come from that?

Or would you rather relax a bit more and join someone else to accomplish a task? What Are You Good At? Even if you don’t know what fi eld you want to go into, you probably have an instinct as to what your skill set is. Which of the following are your strengths?

Numbers. Numbers come more easily to some than to others. Are you the kind of person who can understand real-world word problems and whip up a spreadsheet to demonstrate?

Don’t worry about prose and poetry; it’s rarely relevant to the professional world. It’s more important to be able to communicate effectively, both in speaking and in writing. Creativity. Creativity stretches beyond artistic skills; it’s also about how you solve problems.

When faced with an issue of releasing a software product in China, can you brainstorm other revenue streams to dodge the nearly 100 percent piracy rate? People skills. Being good with people is more than just being likable (though that’s certainly part of it). It’s also about reading people, knowing how to encourage them, and knowing when you might be pushing them too hard.

Those who are especially good with people may fi nd themselves well suited for management positions. Most people’s college majors have little to do with their eventual career path, so don’t feel constrained by your major. Your skill set is so much more than your raw factual knowledge. Analyze your success and failures.

Think through actual projects or jobs where you’ve been particularly happy or unhappy. What was it that made the difference? The answers to these questions will help point you in the right direction. And You’re on Your Way . . . On my last day at Google, I packed up my final belongings in a single box and was reminded of everything that’s great about tech companies.

The Pranks

My teammates had decorated every inch of my desk with pink tissue paper. Even the bottle caps, which we used to pelt each other with, were individually wrapped. Rather than leaving a gap in the tissue paper for my monitor screen, they had taped up a printout of my Facebook page—only they had replaced my smiling face with a Photoshopped picture of me in a princess dress.

With wings. They must have spent hours doing this, but no one would have batted an eye. This sort of prank is normal for the cultures of most tech companies.

The Fun

No one batted an eye, either, at having a few cocktails to celebrate my last day.

I lined up a drink shaker, a few fl avors of Absolut, and mixers that were borrowed from the company fridge. I began taking orders. Just because it was my last day didn’t mean that I was not going to contribute some good, honest work.

The Impact

I spent my fi nal day (pre-cocktails, of course) preparing a document about my work to facilitate someone else taking over my responsibilities. I explained the current progress, challenges, and the relationship with our external partners.

I knew that I had contributed tangible value to the team, and to the company. One day, our I’d-tell-you-but-I’d-have-to-kill-you product would launch, and I couldn’t wait for that day to come.

The Network

People stopped by regularly to wish me well and ask me what I was off to next. The truth is, other than a vacation to Costa Rica, I didn’t know.

I wanted to set aside some time to travel, something that I didn’t get the chance to do after college, and then I would look for opportunities at start-ups. They said to keep in touch, and they meant it. A few suggested that they, too, were considering leaving and wanted me to let them know what I was up to.

Hint, hint? As much I enjoyed my experience at Google, and at Microsoft and Apple, I knew that I’d never return to a big company.

They had helped grow me as an engineer and as a businessperson, and had given me the credibility to work almost anywhere, but I knew that I belonged at a smaller company. I bade them all farewell, and went on my way. Never failing to have the last word, though, my teammates left me with a fi nal remainder of my days with them.

They snuck an annoyatron—a tiny device that emits beeps at random for the sole purpose of driving someone crazy—into my car. I drove for months unsure of what the beeps meant and if my car was on the verge of breaking down.

Finally, I found the gadget affi xed to the underside of my seat, and recognized it immediately. I had started the Battle of the Annoyatrons months earlier, and they had ended with a simple act on my fi nal day. Touché, team, touché