Category Archives: career

Dealing with professional envy

One of the things that both rocks and sucks about the Internet is that it’s easy to find people who are better than you.

This is great because you’re surrounded by inspiration. It’s easier to figure out what “better” looks like when you can see it. You can try on other people’s styles to see if they fit you, and when you do that, you’ll learn more about your own.

Being surrounded by all these role models can be hard on your self-esteem and your determination. Not only are you surrounded by all these people who have spent decades into being amazing, you’re also getting overtaken by younguns who come out of nowhere.

Such is life. I could get caught up in it, or I could see it for the game that it is, step outside of thinking of it as a contest, and invent my own rules. I’ve gone through this before, and it gets easier and easier to choose a way to see life.

I’ve been learning about drawing in the process of cataloguing the sketchnotes that are out there. It’s difficult to imagine getting to be as good as the people I see, but I make myself remember that they started from somewhere. Besides, the alchemical combinations of life are what make things interesting. Maybe my technical background or my interests can open up other possibilities.

Envy is good as long as it’s useful. Self-doubt often tries to creep in, but the truth is that it’s optional.

Sketchnotes: Dave Ley, Jen Nolan, Leo Marland and me at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information’s career panel


(Click on the image for a larger version)

Kelly Lyons and Isidora Petrovic invited Dave Ley (CIBC), Jen Nolan (IBM), Leo Marland (IBM), and me (… figuring things out! also, formerly IBM…) for the March 12 career panel for the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information students. People were curious about the job process. They wanted to know what managers were looking for when hiring, and how information graduates could differentiate themselves from people with more technical backgrounds. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had lots of stuff to share about learning, sharing, working with passion, and getting hired even if you don’t have any actual work experience. It turns out a few people were interested in entrepreneurship too. Yay!

I’ve condensed some of the points from the discussion into this graphic, and the organizers say that the video will be up on YouTube sometime. =)

Visual book notes: The Start-up of You (Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha)


(Click image for a larger version)

The Start-up of You is a book about networking and career planning using tips pulled from the startup world, sprinkled with hip jargon such as “pivot” and “volatility.” It’s a decent book for people who are new to connecting or cultivating their network and who also like reading about technology and entrepreneurship. If you’re a fan of The Lean Startup and similar entrepreneurship books, The Start-up of You is like seeing those ideas applied to other parts of life. It’s easy to read, and it flows well.

I liked examples such as the “interesting people fund” and the idea of having A-B-Z plans. There are good tips for asking your network better questions (p208), too. If you’ve read a lot of other networking or career growth books, though, you might not come across many new aha! moments here, but it’s a good startup-influenced view at managing your own career.

The Start-up of You
Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha
2012: Crown Business
ISBN: 978-0307888907
(E-book and audiobook also available. The Toronto Public Library carries this book.)

Are you a visual learner? Check out my other sketchnotes and visual book notes!

Event organizer or conference organizer? I’d love to help you help your attendees remember and share key points. Talk to me about sketchnoting your next event!

Five things I’ve learned from five awesome years at IBM

I was going to write stories from my five years at IBM (one year as a graduate student, four as an IBM consultant) while they were still fresh in my memory. Then I realized I was on page 8 of a single-spaced document and I was still covering the first year. Instead of writing my way through it, I’ll share the five key things I learned during my adventure with IBM.

Happiness, meaning, and career growth are your responsibilities.

Don’t count on people to tell you why your work is meaningful or to arrange your career so that you’re happy. Do that yourself. Make your own vision and set yourself up for your own happiness and success. There will always be plenty of reasons to feel stressed or unhappy about work. Why not focus on what you could do to improve things instead?

As the financial crisis unfolded in 2008, the mood was decidedly down. Clients were tightening their budgets. Layoffs meant seeing friends scrambling for work despite their talents and skills.

I figured things would happen however they happened. I could either be demoralized by it, or I could focus on the things I could control. I learned more about consulting and development, and I had a wonderful year. (Okay, after I got through my disappointment about great people getting laid off…)

Work sustainably.

Fatigue and sleep deprivation lead to mistakes and lower productivity, and the personal sacrifices are too high. Work at a sustainable pace. If your work requires intense sprints, make sure you don’t forget to rest.

From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to burn myself out working 80-hour weeks. Although the occasional business trip involved longer hours, for the most part, I kept to the time I budgeted for work. This forced me to focus when I was at work, and to find ways to work more effectively. It also meant I gave feedback on estimates early, so that we could avoid having projects run behind schedule because of unrealistic planning. Result: less stress and more happiness.

Ask for help.

One of the best things about working with a large company is being able to work with people who are great at what they do. Sometimes you have to find creative ways to compensate or thank people for the time they invest in helping you. A thank-you note that includes their manager is an excellent way to start.

I was working on a client project when I ran into a problem that I didn’t know how to solve. It involved Microsoft SQL Server 2000, something I had never administered before. I tried searching the Internet for tips, but I knew I was missing things I didn’t even know to look for. After some delay, we eventually found an expert who could review my work, we brought him into the project, and he billed much less time than it would have taken me to learn things from scratch.

Practise relentless improvement.

Always look for small ways you can work more effectively. Invest time into learning your tools. If you can improve by 0.25% every day, you’ll double your productivity in less than a year.

Working with other people in an IBM location is an excellent way to learn by watching how other people do things. Attending community conference calls is another way to do that, too. Experiment with techniques yourself, and share what you learn.

Look for scalable ways to make a difference. Intrapreneurship is worth it.

Find yourself doing something repetitive? Solving problems other people might run into? Save yourself time, and save other people time as well. If you write about what you’re doing – or better yet, build a tool that does it for you – then you can share that with other people and create lots of value.

I started playing around with intrapreneurship through blogging and presentations. I was learning a lot, so I took notes and proposed presentations to conferences. Many of my proposals got accepted. This is how I got to go to the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange as a presenter in my first year as an IBM employee. Presenting helped me share what I’d learned with dozens of people at the same time, and uploading the presentations helped me share with hundreds and even thousands over the years.

I like building tools, too. I wrote something to make it easier for me to export data from Lotus Connections communities. This grew into the Community Toolkit that many people use to create newsletters or measure activity in their communities. I wrote a script for doing mail merge in Lotus Notes, and that became popular as well. This resulted in a steady stream of thank-you notes from people across IBM (and even outside the company), which came in really handy during annual performance reviews.

What have you been learning at work?

Pre-experiment potluck

Today was my pre-experiment potluck, organized by Jennifer Nolan. I brought cookies, she brought cupcakes (which she had frosted with flowers), and other coworkers brought food. A few former IBMers made it in, too, and it was great to reconnect with them. Another milestone in my separation from IBM and adventure into entrepreneurship!

When we were planning this, Jen suggested a potluck (more chatting – great idea!). I suggested that we call it a pre-experiment potluck instead of a goodbye lunch. I like the positive approach to the idea. IBM’s been wonderful, and now I want to experiment with ways to build value. Consulting and coding are cool. What else is out there? Hence, experiment!

Anyway, I spent the rest of the afternoon on a bit of a sugar buzz. =)

Five days to go before I start the next chapter in my life. I’ve been braindumping Drupal development and theming tips on Regan Yuen, who’s taking over one of my projects (and maybe another). In the gaps between questions, I write stories I remember from work, post testimonials on LinkedIn, and tidy up whatever else I can before I leave.

It turns out that leaving isn’t actually that scary. =)

Bridging from intrapreneurship

One week to go before I leave IBM and experiment with building something on my own. I realize that I’m drawn to something familiar about this experiment. It’s not freelancing that interests me, although that seems to be a decent way to create value and make money. It’s entrepreneurship. Looking back, I can see how I’ve experimented with it before, and I want to see if I can make it work outside too.

I started with my blog posts, presentations, shared files, and wiki pages. I found out that if I invested a little time into sharing what I knew, people could learn on their own, even while I slept. For fun, I added metrics to my yearly business results: how many people had viewed my presentations, how many people had downloaded my files. On Slideshare, my presentations have been viewed more than 400,000 times. (Holy cow.) I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations of my ROI, considering the cost of my time and the probable value received by others, considering the thank-you notes and links I’d seen. The numbers were pretty good.

I like writing code and I hate doing repetitive tasks, so I wrote myself a few timesavers that turned out to be popular. As part of a consulting engagement, I needed to analyze the forum posts in a community, so I wrote a tool that extracted the information from the Lotus Connections ATOM feeds. This grew into the Community Toolkit, which eventually helped hundreds of community leaders create newsletters of updated content and export information from their communities.

I wanted to send personalized thank-you notes to people who participated in these community-based brainstorming sessions, so I wrote a mail merge script for Lotus Notes. I blogged about it, and it turned out to be really useful for other people too.

So I guess I’ve had some experience in creating value outside the direct equation of time = money. This experiment, then, is about figuring out if I can do that for non-IBMers, and if I can make a good living and a good life along the way.