Over the past few weeks, several people I’ve had the pleasure of working with have left the company. I used to feel confused and a little disturbed by people’s departures, particularly if they’d tried to find other internal opportunities and the timing didn’t work out. Quite a few of my mentors left IBM, and one of my colleagues even lightheartedly teased me about it.
I feel much less worried about people leaving now. I wish them luck on their next adventure, connect with them through social networks so that we can keep in touch, subscribe to their blogs or follow them on Twitter, set myself a reminder to follow up with them, and perhaps write them a recommendation on LinkedIn.
Here’s what I understand now that I didn’t understand in the beginning: It’s okay.
When people leave for other companies, they colonize those companies with the things they’ve learned in ours. They spread skills and ideas they’ve honed here, while learning even more from new cultures and new situations. New things become possible.
The network grows. Now I might be able to easily reach out to one more company, one more industry. Now I might hear about interesting ideas and trends outside my usual areas of focus. Now I might connect even more diverse worlds.
It’s not all an easy win, of course. People leave behind these gaps, these unfulfilled possibilities. They also leave new opportunities. What will their successors create? How will the organization adapt around them? How will everyone grow?
I still work on helping IBM improve, in my own little way. But now I can properly wish people good luck on their new adventures, and be confident that things will generally work out.
We’re scrambling to respond to a request for a proposal (RFP). We’re not sure if the RFP is a formality and the client is already planning to choose a different vendor, or if it’s a real request, but the powers that be say it’s worth exploring. My manager thinks it’s a good opportunity to develop architecture skills. I like working above my pay grade, so I’m doing this even if it means stretching quite a bit.
It’s interesting to see the applications of the behavioural economics principles I’ve been reading about in “The Upside of Irrationality.” For example, there’s a chapter on finding meaning in work. The perceived meaning of work greatly influences our motivation to do it. If you know there’s a chance your work will come to nothing (cancelled projects and so on), you might be less motivated to work on it, and more drawn to projects where you think you’ll make a difference. Makes sense, right? (Ah, that’s why school projects bored me…)
Recognizing this bias means that I can understand my motivations and tweak them. It’s natural for me to want to spend more time on my other project. I experience flow on it – meaningful engagement. Although this proposal is riskier and I more often run into the limits of my understanding, it needs to be worked on. Here are some possible approaches for motivating yourself when working on risky, uncertain projects:
Break it down into small wins and celebrate those. Don’t wait for that all-or-nothing decision. You might not even reach it. Instead, work in stages so that you can successfully complete and celebrate each step. Share as much as you can during the process, too, while you’re excited about what you’re accomplishing. It’s much harder to harvest assets when you feel like a failure.
Exaggerate the odds of winning. Irrational optimism can be useful. Imagine that you’ve got a great chance of succeeding, and you just might. You’ll still want to have a backup plan in case you lose, of course.
Focus on additional benefits. For example, whether or not you succeed on a stretch assignment, you’ll still learn a lot. Can you find meaning in the skills and relationships you’re building and the experiences you’re collecting?
Balance speculative or uncertain work with solid contributions. Spend some time working on things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. You’ll have the energy and confidence to tackle new challenges.
How do you keep yourself motivated and focused when you’re not sure of results?
Paul Gillin invited me to do a tweetchat on the professional and personal value of blogging yesterday. When I brainstormed some of the things I’d like to talk about, I ended up with a big list: not just the value I get from blogging, but also tips for how you can build that too. I hope you enjoy this blog series!
Blog your work to increase your return on investment or effort by remembering more effectively and by reaching more people.
How much time do you spend solving problems similar to what you’ve encountered before, answering questions you’ve already answered before, or remembering information you need to solve new challenges? Take notes and save that time.
How much time can you save other people if you share your notes with them? Are there other people in your organization, client base, or network who could benefit from your solutions? Share your notes.
Invest the extra minutes in taking and sharing notes in order to increase your ROI.
2. Questions, updates, resources, and serendipitous conversations
One of the challenges of blogging is that you don’t know who’s going to read it. That’s also one of the advantages. When you ask a question, you might be surprised by who answers it – perhaps someone you wouldn’t have thought of asking. When you post an update, you might make an unexpected connection with someone else, and learn about resources you might not have discovered on your own. When you talk about something you’re working on, you might end up in a serendipitous conversation with someone who can make use of it or help you with it. It’s the online equivalent of the lucky hallway chat, except with a lot more people in the virtual hallway.
Make it easy for people to discover your updates or even subscribe to them.
If you add personal touches to your professional blog, you can make it easier for potential clients and coworkers to connect with you through common interests. Write about why you do the work that you do and what you love about it. Write about your other interests, too.
Don’t be afraid of bringing your personality to your blog. Use it to connect with people.
Blog your work to build your reputation. When people read about what you’re working on, they learn about your skills and get a sense of who you are as a person. The next time they come across a challenge that looks like it’s a good fit, they might think of you and refer the opportunity to you. Particularly if you’re starting out, sharing your knowledge will help you build your network and your reputation.
Use your blog to demonstrate your skills and your character.
Invest time into building thought leadership through blog posts, articles, and presentations.
5. Jobs and careers
A blog can help you look for a great job or plan your career. Use it to explore your strengths and figure out how to communicate them. Use it to think about what kinds of companies would be a good fit for you, and where you would be a good fit. Use it to connect with people and ask them for help. Use it to reflect on where you want to go with your career and what kind of value you want to create.
Don’t beg for a job. Use your blog to communicate strength, passion, and professionalism.
Build a network of mentors and friends. Connect with people and ask them for advice.
6. Accountability and transparency
Blogging is a great way to make public commitments and hold yourself to them. You can use this for both personal and professional goals..
If you speak on behalf of a company, then you definitely need a fast way to respond to any issues that come up. With the speed of conversation on Twitter and blogs, you can’t wait for press releases. Establish this channel before a public relations crisis comes up. It’s better to admit a mistake and work with people on resolving it than to stonewall.
Whether you’re an executive or a newcomer, you can influence the culture of your organization through what you share. When you share what you know through your blog, you encourage a culture of knowledge-sharing. When you add a personal touch, you contribute to a culture of human connection. When you show that you aren’t afraid of making mistakes and learning from them, you develop a culture of growth. This can have a powerful effect on your organization, both online and offline.
Consider the fit between how you want to write and what the existing culture is. Be prepared for differences, and modify your approach accordingly. For example, if you want to shift your surrounding culture to share more, anticipate and address people’s concerns.
If you’re a leader, take the initiative in demonstrating the kind of company culture you want to encourage.
I’m working on my first big IBM project, something that goes beyond Perl scripts and Drupal websites. My manager thinks it will be a good assignment for me. The component diagram looks like alphabet soup, and I haven’t worked with any of the pieces before. It’s intimidating.
Open source projects like Drupal or Rails don’t scare me as much, even though they require a lot of figuring out and hacking as well. I think it’s because I’m confident that I can figure things out from the source or from the Internet, and because I can hold more of it in my head. This project will involve quite a few IBM components, and I can’t work with, understand, or even remember everything. It’s big.
But I know this feeling of incipient panic, and I’ve dealt with worse before. It’s the same feeling I got as a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto, doubting myself because I was helping people learn something I was just learning about myself. I remember feeling uncertain. I remember feeling like an impostor. I felt like giving up. Then my department chair set me straight, and I made it through.
I can deal with this. My manager thinks I can handle it. IBM has a great support network and I’ve got plenty of mentors. I’m learning a lot from the other people on the team. It’s going to be okay. And at the end of the day, I’ll learn how to work with a pretty decent-sized IBM software stack, integrate with lots of middleware, work with complex web services, and maybe even turn things that scare me into things that I enjoy.
Here’s what I’m planning to do:
[X] Install Rational Software Architect and learn how to use it to view project designs.
[X] Learn how to use Rational Software Architect for web services.
[X] Figure out what I need to learn for Websphere Application Server or Websphere Portal to make the web services happen.
We’re in the final phases of our two Drupal projects. We’re writing test scripts, fixing bugs, and loading production data. In a week or two, we’ll finalize the source code and save a copy of the database. I’ve really liked working on these projects, and I’m looking forward to working on similar things in the future.
As I wrap up on this project and get ready for future ones, I can’t help but think how working in IBM Global Business Services helps me learn about different parts of consulting. We can help with proposals for new projects. We have an internal marketplace that lists openings and required skills. We can submit our resumes and set up interviews. We need to do a little marketing on our own, and we always have to work on keeping our skills up to date.
Today I attended a call with my resource deployment manager. Her role includes matching people with projects. She shared some tips on how to make the most of our tools, some things we might invest time in if we have some downtime between projects, and upcoming projects we might be interested in.
Here are some things I’m looking forward to doing if I have some time between this and my next project:
Help write proposals for Drupal and Web 2.0 projects
Compile case studies
Estimate Drupal projects
write up and share my Drupal notes
Create and compile assets (Drupal case studies, Web 2.0 overviews, etc.)
Learn more about Drupal 7, AJAX, information architecture, mobile development, project management, and other interesting things – discuss priorities with manager
Maybe work on a conventional skill set – J2EE?
Work on paperwork: project assessments, certification, etc.
Improve the Lotus Connections toolkit
Just like independent consultants need to always be building their pipeline, I should see if I can balance my future project work so that I’m always working on the pipeline for the next thing: helping out with bids, learning a new skill, and so on.
I catch myself talking and writing about consulting as if that’s the way for me to help organizations be more collaborative, as opposed to coding, which is productive and fun but which might have limited effect in terms of changing most people’s experiences of a company. In a way, I’m right. Other people are more likely to seek out and listen to consultants for ideas that they wouldn’t ask an IT specialist or web developer about, and the experiences and skills of consulting would help me understand the complexities better.
Sometimes, when I’m frustrated by internal hurdles to organizational flexibility, I envy other people’s roles. For example, Anna Dreyzin, Luis Suarez, and Rawn Shah get to work on improving IBM and sharing insights full-time. Isn’t that awesome? People tell me I help make a difference too, but it feels small compared to the difference I’d like to make.
But then there’s the joy of coding, the rightness of it, the value of it. Who’s to say that I’m not helping improve the organization’s capabilities, even from here? If I connect, collaborate, and share what I’m learning along the way, then I show what a possible future could be for organizations and the people in them. My work might not directly advance the goal of helping people work together better, but my work might be towards another goal I haven’t recognized and articulated, and there’s value in indirect contributions towards collaboration.
Maybe the model I’ve been using to think about the fit of work has been hiding something from me. Seeing fit as the vector projection of the organization’s objectives and of mine, to see what value we can capture and what value we waste, I can see the directness of contribution, but neither the value of indirect contributions nor the multiplicity of goals.
This realization matters to me because it hints at another goal, which might be to help people make a difference from wherever they are in the organization. That’s one of the things social media changes. I have a soapbox that isn’t circumscribed by my role. In the process of reconciling my love of development with my urge to more directly work on organizational culture, I’m learning things that can help me talk to and about the everyday evangelists of collaboration: those whose roles might not directly relate to helping their organizations be more collaborative, but who transform the way they and other people work by experimentation and example.
And as Torsten Wagner pointed out in e-mail (thanks!), bringing the tools and insights of one field to another (say, programming to consulting) can lead to something awesome and even revolutionary.
So I can guiltlessly enjoy building systems and mentoring developers, confident that this also fits into my big picture. =)