Few people I know in the standards space ever planned to be where they are now. That goes for me in spades. If you had told me in my misspent youth that I'd be reading House, Senate and Conference editions of healthcare bills in the same week, or that I'd be commenting on federal regulation and be taken seriously, or that the work I'd been doing would impact as many lives as I think it does now, I'd have laughed you right out of the room. I never planned to be in this career, but once I found it, and acknowledged it as a calling, I latched onto it hard and with great passion.
That's my first tip. Be passionate about what you are doing. Being passionate is not just about loving your work, or having fun at your job, it's about taking it really seriously, and loving it at the same time, even when it sucks. If you don't love doing this work, you won't succeed in it. There will be times that what you have to do to get a job finished sucks: It may be tedious and boring, impossibly frustrating or just plain painfully unrewarding. You have to learn to take your rewards from a job successfully done, and done well, and with the impact that it can have on people. Financially, the job can be rewarding, but if financial reward is your measure of success, this job isn't for you.
Become an Expert
What do I need to learn? You need to learn something at the expert level. That requires a good deal of commitment. It's not just about spending 10,000 hours on something, but being passionate while you do it. And by something, I mean something that others will value enough to seek you out for your expertise. I can't tell you what to learn. I can tell you to pick something where people are already confused and seeking help. It's helpful to have another expert to rely on to help you out, but that isn't necessary. It's a lot easier to become first in a field of one than it is to become first in a field of 10. And if there are already 10 experts in your chosen field, branch out a bit. What good is one more expert when there are already 10?
To learn something at the expert level means that you have to understand how the parts it relies upon work together. You have to be more than a novice at XML before you will ever become an expert in CDA. If you don't understand how XML and XML Schema work, there will be things about CDA that you just won't understand. If you don't understand how a combustion engine works, you'll never become expert on motorcycles. That doesn't mean, by the way, that you need to have expert skills in the underlying components, but it might. The closer ties that the two things have, the more you need to know.
Have other Experiences
Being an expert about X is useless if you cannot apply X to problem Y. You need to learn enough about problem Y as it relates to X. I have skills in database management, natural language processing, data compression, digital signal processing, text processing, text and graphics rendering, text markup, and document analysis. Those skills were developed over a twenty year career before I ever got into CDA and Healthcare.
Some of the best CDA experts in the world got their start in SGML. At least one CDA consulting firm I know is made up of numerous people who had SGML, or similarly related skills first. CDA experience (and subsequent expertise) came with the job.
Learn something new as part of your routine. Challenge yourself. Read a book that you don't understand fully. Skip the parts you don't understand and then go back and read them again later. One of the coolest things that I love about my job is when two (or more) things I've read go click, and all of the sudden, I gain a new insight.
Develop a Network
When I work on a problem, you don't get just me. You get Glen and Charles and John and Harry and Lori and Gila and Bob and Tom and Rob and Tim and ... the rest of my network. You aren't alone, don't act that way. Call on your friends and colleagues to get their advice. Listen also to your critics as well. Then make your own judgement, and use what you found valuable. At the same time, when others call on you, offer your best efforts to help them out when you can.
The Health IT standards world may look like the good ole boy network, but it's not because the entry criteria is different. That's where being an expert is important, because experts often need other experts, and will work well with other experts they respect, even when they disagree. Some of the people I most respect in this field are ones I also have the most interesting arguments with.
Find (and Lose) a Mentor
I can count on one hand the number of mentors I've had in my life, and the number of people I've been a mentor too. It's a very special relationship, and incredibly valuable on both sides. If you want to advance your career, keep looking for mentors. Don't expect to find one after a short search either. I've been seeking my next mentor for years.
At the same time, there is a point in time that you will have to fly on your own. Losing a mentor is not a sad event (usually). Every mentor/mentee relationship I've ever had ends in the same state, in a strong relationship between friends and equals, where both are better off than they started. In at least one case, the person I was a mentor to quickly surpassed me in my chosen career, and that was one of the prouder moments of my life.
Be Patient and Insistent
Patience by itself is a virtue, but doesn't gain what you need. You must be not just persistent, but insistent to get what you want. The persistent person will try the same thing over, saying this must be the way out. An insistent person will try different approaches, saying, there must be a way out. Keep your goal in mind and be patient and insistent in achieving the goal, rather than any specific solution, and you will find what you are looking for.
This is probably not the answer you were looking for when you asked me that question. If you want a simple formula, I simply don't have one. I meandered through mine fields to get here. It was through incredible luck, incredible mentors, and incredible patience and