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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.

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.

Setting things in motion

The more people I talk to about my plans for leaving IBM and experimenting with business, the more real the idea becomes. The more excited and confident I get about it, too, which is a good sign.

Today I sent my formal resignation e-mail, the one that kicks off all the associated HR processes. I named February 17 as my date: four years, four months, and two days after I joined IBM.

I expect to feel more nostalgia as the date approaches, and perhaps uncertainty. That’s all normal, which is why I’m brainstorming and writing down my reasons. The notes will come in handy if I hit a slump. It looks like all systems are go, though. It’s clearly a good idea for me at this point in time.

I’ve found people to take over all of my extracurricular interests. I’ve been braindumping enough throughout my time at IBM to not worry as much about transitions. I’ve always worked on things with the lottery/bus factor in mind: would the project be endangered if I won the lottery or got hit by a bus? (The lottery is highly unlikely, since I don’t buy tickets; I usually look both ways when crossing the street, but one never knows what could happen in the streets of Toronto.) I’ve written lots of notes and shared as much as I could as publicly as I could, and now it’s easy to link things together in a knowledge map on a wiki page that people can even update after I’m gone.

My manager told me of ways back in, and contracting companies that IBM is used to working with. It might be an option. I’d like to spend some time up front seeing if I can develop a business. Freelancing sounds like a reliable alternative, but it’s similar enough to what I currently do at IBM that I think I would learn lots more from trying to build a proper sustainable business with compounding value.

One step at a time. The project that I’m working on looks decent in IE8, IE9, Firefox, and Safari, and it looks a heck of a lot better than it did when I took it over. I’m on track to wrap that up well. Then there’s some HR paperwork to take care of, and more braindumping of memories and thoughts before they fade into fuzziness. Then the transition! Then slowly easing into experiments and feedback cycles and little bets…

Getting ready for my next experiment!

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It’s been four years of awesomeness at IBM. I’ve:

  • helped companies and communities collaborate
  • facilitated brainstorming workshops with executives from leading companies
  • built web apps in Drupal and Ruby on Rails
  • created popular tools for community newsletters and analyses
  • drawn comics that made people smile across IBM, and
  • learned from and shared with people around the world.

It totally rocked. Thank you!

Mid-February 2012, I’ll be on to my next experiment. I want to help people save time and make better decisions. Let’s see how we can make that a sustainable business!

I’m looking forward to learning more about business, and sharing the adventure with you. =)

Stay in touch!

Stay tuned!