Notes from my exit interview with IBM

I had my exit interview yesterday. It was more of a follow-up, as I had found a list of common exit interview questions, drafted a blog post with my answers, and sent it to Joyce Wan (my interviewer) to see if there was anything sensitive that I shouldn’t share. She was amazed by the feedback. After consulting with the HR partner, she told me that I could definitely share it with my manager, and it was up to my discretion whether I shared it on my blog.

The exit interview was straightforward. Joyce had mapped my e-mailed answers onto the standard questionnaire, so we spent the time on follow-up questions and other things I hadn’t covered. She thanked me for the honesty of my feedback and reassured me that whatever she would keep whatever I said confidential. I told her about what an awesome time I’ve had at IBM, and that it was okay to share my feedback.

There were a few questions about compensation. I told Joyce that I was happy with what I had earned at IBM, and the intangible value of working with the company was amazing. Besides, compared with the median salaries for people my age in Canada, in one of the toughest times in recent history… we did pretty darn well. We chatted about my plans, her own experience of leaving and returning to the company, and about the steps in separation.

Here are my answers to typical exit interview questions, fleshed out some more.

1. Why have you decided to leave the company?

(My “elevator summary” of why I want to leave: I want to experiment with entrepreneurship pre-kids rather than post-kids. At this, every person I talk to nods and tells me it’s an excellent idea.)

I want to experiment with business. I’ve read so much about entrepreneurship and freelancing. I’ve talked to so many people about their experiences. Over the past four years, I’ve applied many ideas I’ve learned inside the company. I’ve looked for internal ways to create scalable value, like the Community Toolkit. I’ve loved the rewards of thanks, recognition, ideas, and mentorship that I’ve received from people all over IBM. I want to see if I can create similar value outside.

2. Have you shared your concerns with anyone in the company prior to deciding to leave?

I love learning from people, and I’ve talked to many people both inside and outside the company. I was concerned about possibly reintegrating into IBM, but I talked to people who had joined or rejoined IBM after other jobs and even other careers, and they had good experiences to share. I was concerned about my ability to make it in the marketplace, but mentors and potential clients reassured me that my skills were much needed.

My main concern now is how to gracefully transition both my work responsibilities and all the wonderful things I’ve had the privilege of helping with at IBM – community toolkits and comics, analyses and initiatives.

3. Was a single event responsible for your decision to leave?

No. I’ve been interested in entrepreneurship and freelancing since I was in school. I also really loved the scale at which we get to work at IBM, and the wonderful learning opportunities it offers. The main reason I’m planning to experiment with entrepreneurship now instead of staying with IBM is that it’s easier to experiment with that before we have young children instead of after.

4. What does your new company offer that encouraged you to accept their offer and leave this company?

The chance to have my own company, to build things and fail and learn from them, and to do so with reasonable risks.

5. What do you value about the company?

I love what we work on at IBM and why we work on it. I’m constantly amazed at this living, breathing organization that works around the world to help our clients make their customers’ lives better. This is a company that helped put men on the moon. IBM invented so many things that transformed business.

I love the scale at which we work. I love the fact that I can help out with things that touch hundreds or thousands of people’s lives inside the company. I love the fact that we can work with all these big companies that touch millions of people.

I love the people we get to work with at IBM. I love the way you can find an expert on just about anything, and that you see people of so many walks of life and so many stages in their career. I love the gender balance and not feeling like I’m the only woman in the room. I love the way I’m surrounded by role models and inspiration, and that mentorship helps me reach for things beyond my grasp.

6. What did you dislike about the company?

I wish I could be in more than one place at the same time. There are lots of interesting opportunities, and I can’t help with all of them. But that’s not IBM, though, that’s me!

7. The quality of supervision is important to most people at work. Are you satisfied with the way you were supervised?

I have gotten along very well with both of my managers and with the rest of the management hierarchy. Both Robert Terpstra and Ted Tritchew have been great advocates, helping me navigate IBM and make the most of the opportunities here.

I have a deep respect for the managers, project managers, team leaders, and resource deployment managers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. They’ve helped keep a lot of potential headaches out of my way. They sometimes have to balance many conflicting demands, and I think they’ve done a good job at it.

8. Is there anything we can do to improve our management style and skill?

It would be fascinating to see how we can further streamline the miscellaneous work managers need to do. If we can pare the workload down to the essentials, then they’ll have more time for building relationships with both employees and clients. My managers have done a great job of this, but I hear that other people might not be as lucky.

9. What are your views about management and leadership, in general, in the company?

I’ve seen so many inspiring examples of leadership at all levels: the researcher who goes the extra mile to connect with students and industry colleagues, the consultant who shares his knowledge even without a billing code, the software developer who sees not just the widget she’s building but the reason why it matters. I like that about IBM.

Sometimes we trip. Like all companies, IBM is made up of humans. I believe most of our people want to do the best they can (or at least that’s true of everyone I’ve come across!). Sometimes it’s hard to do so under fear, uncertainty, doubt, or stress, but in general, they do. Sometimes short-term stresses make people forget to put in that extra effort to communicate their vision. It happens. As more people learn how to work with the structure and how to reshape it to make it better, I think IBM will do even better.

10. What did you like most about your job?

I loved working directly with clients, building systems that helped them save time and make a bigger difference. I also liked working with open source software and sharing as much as I could about what we were learning from these different projects.

11. What did you dislike about your job? What would you change about your job?

It’s a pity that I can’t easily experiment with entrepreneurship part-time, but I understand the reasons why the Business Conduct Guidelines avoid potential conflicts of interest. So I wouldn’t change that, although it would be interesting to find a structure that works. Maybe coming back in as a contractor for a few things? We’ll see!

12. Do you feel you had the resources and support necessary to accomplish your job? If not, what was missing?

Yup!

13. We try to be an employee-oriented company in which employees experience positive morale and motivation. What is your experience of employee morale and motivation in the company?

I think I’ve been the luckiest and the happiest IBMer I know, possibly even the happiest in the history of the company. Part of that comes from all the wonderful ways people reached out to me and helped me. Part of that comes from the things we get to work on and the difference we get to make. And yes, part of that comes from a conscious decision to remember that IBMers are human, so even if things get messed up or if things aren’t as well-communicated as they could be, I can still translate that into what people probably meant. (Handy skill. Everyone should learn it!)

14. Were your job responsibilities characterized correctly during the interview process and orientation?

Yes! Actually, since Robert Terpstra helped customize my first consulting position to fit my passions and interests, I think the interview job description was along the lines of “Be Sacha.” I’ve grown into even more capabilities, thanks to IBM.

15. Did you have clear goals and know what was expected of you in your job?

Absolutely.

16. Did you receive adequate feedback about your performance day-to-day and in the performance development planning process?

Yes! Both my managers can tell you that I talked to them about performance regularly, and planned my growth with a lot of help from them.

17. Did you clearly understand and feel a part of the accomplishment of the company mission and goals?

Totally. That’s because in addition to my GBS consulting work, I was connected with all these other groups and business units through my extracurricular interests. I felt part of Research’s explorations of social software and collaboration, part of SWG’s development of tools and business cases, part of CHQ’s campaigns and collaboration discussions, part of S&D’s strategy workshops. It was awesome.

18. Describe your experience of the company’s commitment to quality and customer service.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who helped delight clients. Sometimes we let internal considerations get in the way of really doing what’s best for our clients, but that’s part of the growing pains of any organization.

19. Did the management of the company care about and help you accomplish your personal and professional development and career goals?

Totally! I wish everyone had the kind of guidance and mentorship I enjoyed.

20. What would you recommend to help us create a better workplace?

I care about helping people share knowledge and collaborate more effectively. I’m looking forward to seeing how people take that further. I heard that our new CEO encouraged people to use Lotus Connections to share ideas on IBM’s strategies – exciting!

Out of self-interest, I’d love to see a more permeable interface, too. Make it easier for people to move in and out of IBM depending on what fits their life, or scale their work up and down as they want. Treat contractors and part-timers better. I hear sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s a hassle, but I think we could be more consistently awesome for people to work with.

21. Do the policies and procedures of the company help to create a well-managed, consistent, and fair workplace in which expectations are clearly defined?

Yes, at least in my experience.

22. Describe the qualities and characteristics of the person who is most likely to succeed in this company.

In addition to all the usual stuff, like being passionate about client success, I’d suggest: Curiosity, compassion, deliberate optimism, and the ability to negotiate the system. That’s an interesting idea there, negotiating the system. Part of it means being able to navigate the system, but part of it also means tweaking the system.

23. What are the key qualities and skills we should seek in your replacement?

Many management books say that you should hire for passion and train for skills. Do that, and I’m sure you’ll find people who will be even better for IBM. I’d love to hear stories about their new adventures!

24. Do you have any recommendations regarding our compensation, benefits and other reward and recognition efforts?

Get better at showing more people how they’re part of the vision – or helping them make their own vision. Treat them better. It doesn’t have to involve money. Real appreciation, transparency, respect – that takes people far.

25. What would make you consider working for this company again in the future? Would you recommend the company as a good place to work to your friends and family?

I’ve loved working at IBM. I’d happily recommend it to other people for whom it would be a great fit. I’d be delighted to come back to IBM if it turns out that I want the scale and power of IBM to make the kind of difference I want to help make.

26. Can you offer any other comments that will enable us to understand why you are leaving, how we can improve, and what we can do to become a better company?

If I could be in two places at the same time, I’d continue working with IBM while experimenting with these ideas. But I want to do the right thing by IBM and our clients, and the right thing is to leave in order to do this experiment instead of trying to do it under the radar or letting it distract me from being fully committed. I think this will turn out wonderfully.

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15 responses to “Notes from my exit interview with IBM”

  1. Patricia says:

    This is actually a pretty useful article in more ways than one. It’s primarily a great resource for people who may want to know what exit interviews are for and how they should be approaching those if they’re at that stage of their work life. For me though, it’s an interesting viewpoint from the other side – what are the factors that are important to employees, and how can I help them remain satisfied and happy. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Sacha Chua says:

    Patricia: You’re welcome! I’ve been an unusual employee, I think. I’ve been lucky to have been adopted by so many mentors throughout the organization, and I’ve enjoyed great working relationships with my managers and coworkers. I hope other people’s experiences of their companies can be like mine — or better!

  3. Mylene says:

    Wow. I was so surprised to see this “Exit Interview” of yours Sacha. It has been a while since I last visited your blog. I think I last visited your site sometime in October last year. I have been so busy in my project lately that I haven’t had time to check your blog. Anyway, I have never thought that you would be leaving IBM so soon. That’s why I am a bit surprised to be reading this post. Well, actually I haven’t really finished reading the post yet but I just wanted to put a comment anyway (I’ll finish reading later). :p

    I’m curious about why/how you arrived to this decision so I can’t wait to check your older posts… :) You know that you’ve been a huge influence to me and you’re one of my inspirations in pushing through with my dream of working as a software engineer. Whatever your plans may be, good luck and continue living an awesome life! :)

  4. Rich Ehmer says:

    I found this blog after you posted kind words for my Android app. I made a similar decision 1.5 years ago. I’m happy for you because I know that in 1.5 years, you will be proud of whatever you have decided to build.

  5. Welcome to the world outside IBM — really looking forward to seeing what you do with all that energy and talent.

  6. Juhyung Lee says:

    As a fan of your posts about emacs, I was surprised to find that you’re going to quit your job and find something cool outside. Good luck.

  7. Susan Bulloch says:

    I am so happy that I got to meet you while we were colleagues. I am not surprised to see you fly off on your own and think that IBM was fortunate to have you stop by for a few years on your path. Stay creative, passionate and always be a Nerd Girl! You’ll succed no matter where you go, but I will add my best wishes for your journey anyway!

  8. Kathryn Everest says:

    Hey Sacha! Best of luck in your new career! I couldn’t agree more with your timing. Since we’re both in the same city – there is no excuse for our paths not to cross. Would love to hear more about your entrepreneurial ideas – let me if/how I can help. Being the social maven you are – you know how to get in touch. Best, ke

  9. Sacha Chua says:

    Kathryn: Certainly!

    Susan: Thanks for adopting me during Lotusphere 2011. =) Hope you had fun at this one.

    Juhyung: I hope to write more about Emacs. =) Thanks for reading.

    Jean-Francois: I’ll definitely keep folks up to date. The adventure promises to be exciting.

    Rich: The UI improvements might draw me back to Tap Log Records. Neato! I still have code for importing it into quantifiedawesome.com for my activity-tracking.

    Mylene: The summary: Entrepreneurship is actually pretty low-risk for me at the moment. I’m curious about it, and I want to experiment with it pre-kids rather than post kids. =)

  10. Pascal Blancquaert says:

    Hi Sacha,
    Sorry to see that you are no longer IBM-colleague,,, however, very happy to see that you are progressing into this wonderful world of people … :-)

    Also interesting to see that even so “long” after you left, you still get very nice reactions on your “Notes from my exit interview with IBM” | Sacha Chua | Feb. 7, 2011 |
    ;-)
    All the best !!
    Pascal

  11. bukkas says:

    Very Useful information. Commented by Bukkas

  12. buddy says:

    You clearly had a better experience at IBM than I did and I am glad for you. This is my last week with the company. I have worked there for 1 year and 1 month. In my opinion I can’t leave fast enough. I knew it was bad when I can sit in my office and listen to other people on the phones conducting phone interviews with other companies trying to get out of there. I started looking for a new job about 3 or 4 months after I hired into IBM. Worst mistake I have made to date was accepting the job offer from IBM.
    The best part about IBM was the flexibility and the intelligent people I worked with – but the disorganization and desire to shove you on any project they can and your skills and interests be damned got old real fast. I am a Java programmer, I can program in C# and other languages as well – but have no skills or interests when it comes to Windows Server Administration; which is exactly what I have been doing for the past year at IBM. My complaints were ignored and I was just told I have to start somewhere and work my way up to Java programmer. I am not sure how Sys Admin will get me there – perhaps the solution is in the 3 batch files I wrote over the course of the year.
    I will pass, Let someone who wants to be a Windows System Admin have the job.Unfortunately my replacement also doesn’t want the job, he also was hired as a Java developer; and the closest he has ever been to Batch scripts were Linux Korn Shell Scripts. Oh well, as long as the customers keep paying and don’t ask us any technical questions about our jobs its all good. Unfortunately they do ask those questions, and thank fully they only asked me in email form so I had time to Google the answers.

    1. Sacha Chua says:

      Yeah, so much depends on having a good fit with your manager and with the work that your team is expected to do. I spent most of the time working on the kinds of projects I loved, but I had to struggle through two projects where I felt like a fish out of water: one J2EE, one that involved Windows SQL Server and IE6(!). Fortunately, other projects came in that specifically requested me, so I wrapped up those projects and focused on those instead. One of the things I like about being on my own now is the ability to choose my clients and projects so that I only work on stuff I really want to. =) Good luck finding your next adventure!

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