Category Archives: career

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!

Decision review: Working at IBM

I joined IBM four years ago today, sliding right from my master’s degree into a position that was tailored to my passions. I wanted to focus on Web 2.0 consulting and open source web development, and I did. I’ve facilitated workshops around the world, coached clients and co-workers, and helped flesh out and implement social media strategies. I’ve gotten pretty good at Drupal, and I’ve done sites in Ruby on Rails, too. I’ve learned a lot about automated testing, system administration, automation, and other useful skills. I’ve been promoted, and I’ve taken on additional responsibilities like estimating effort, preparing statements of work, and leading other developers.

Energy

Well past the honeymoon period, I’ve somehow escaped the cynicism that saps the energy of many recent hires. I see IBM like I saw it in the beginning: an organization with its own challenges, but still fundamentally inspiring and wonderful. When asked how I am, I find myself answering “Fantastic!” – and meaning it.

I’ve kept myself engaged by taking responsibility for my motivation. My manager helps by showing me how to work with the system and helping me find projects that fit me well. In the end, though, I choose how to respond to the small triumphs and frustrations of everyday work. I’m generally good at celebrating successes and fixing annoyances, which helps a lot.

I’ve worked on making my experience of IBM pretty good, and I’ve had a remarkably wonderful time as a new hire. I’ve been lucky that both of my managers have been great allies, and that I have plenty of co-workers and mentors who share their insights and help me figure out IBM. Investing in tools pays off: automation minimizes frustrating work, and an extra laptop makes development go faster. I often find myself saving time by referring to the notes in my blog, and the blog has helped me connect with clients, co-workers, and other developers.

Time

I continue to work around 40 hours a week, which forces me to be good at estimating how much I can do within that time and focusing on doing it. It means that I have time for other priorities, such as life and relationships. It also means that I can bring a lot of energy to work because I don’t feel like it’s taking over my life. I minimize travel, as trips require a lot of paperwork and disrupt a lot of things.

In the beginning, I took on lots of volunteer things: coaching other IBMers on Web 2.0 through the BlueIQ initiative, writing a lot on my personal blog, skimming through everything published in IBM’s internal blogosphere. (Back then, it was possible – there was just one place to find people’s blogs, volume was manageable, and you felt like you really got to know people.) Now, I’m more selective about the things I volunteer to do, and I try to help other people build their capabilities as much as possible. That means the occasional bit of work on:

  • a Lotus Connections community toolkit that makes it easy for lots and lots of community owners to create newsletters, get metrics, and perform other tools;
  • answering questions and sharing resources on using Lotus Connections for facilitating virtual brainstorming
  • drawing comics about life at IBM

I find myself thinking about these side projects like a semi-passive income stream of good karma. I look for places where a little effort can translate into a lot of benefit.

Things I didn’t expect when I signed up, but which worked out really well:

  • I’ve worked on a number of websites for non-profits. More than half of my months at IBM involved one non-profit project or another, sometimes balanced with another project and sometimes as my main focus. It turns out to be incredibly fulfilling and one of the reasons that might convince me to stay around. Wins all around: clients have better web capabilities, IBM gets to help make a difference, my department earns internal dollars, and I learn and use cool skills while working on fascinating challenges.
  • I’ve been able to try all sorts of things. Presentations, blog posts, comics, videos, virtual reality discussions, group videoconferencing, telepresence, research… I guess when people know you’re a positive geek who might come up with related ideas, links or tools, they invite you to check out what they’re working on. =)
  • The system is not that scary. Sometimes things don’t work out or they’re more difficult than they could be. Most of the time, people are great at being flexible.
  • I think I’m figuring out a growth path that doesn’t involve aspiring to be an executive. I’d like to become a good, solid developer like my role models are. I’d also like to train/mentor more people so that we can increase our organizational capacity for these kinds of projects.

Looking ahead

I could happily continue doing this sort of work for years, I think. I like the mix of development and consulting. I might gradually move to leading more projects and training people along the way. It would be a good way to scale up. The kind of projects I love working on – small rapid web development projects – don’t typically involve large teams, though. Growth will probably involve going deeper (say, customizing Drupal and Rails even more), building assets so that we can save time, and mentoring people working on other projects.

I like working with IBM, even though sometimes I grumble about the paperwork. I really like these non-profit projects I get to work on, and it’s hard to imagine having quite the same kind of set-up anywhere else. I learn a lot from our commercial projects, too.

Good financial planning makes riskier choices easier to consider. A different position? A career change? We’ll see. The status quo is pretty darn awesome, though, and there’s plenty of room to grow.

Would I make the same decision again, if a time machine took me back to October 2007? Yes, without hesitation.

Four years. Thanks to writing, I know where the time went, and I can see how I’ve grown. There’s still a lot to learn, and I’m looking forward to sharing that with you.

On people changing companies

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.

2011-04-08 Fri 20:23

Using behavioural economics to motivate yourself when working on risky projects

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?

Get More Value from Blogging, part VI: Let’s Get Down to Business

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Get More Value from Blogging

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!


1. ROI

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.

Tips:

  • 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.

Tips:

  • Make it easy for people to discover your updates or even subscribe to them.

3. Connection

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.

Tips:

  • Don’t be afraid of bringing your personality to your blog. Use it to connect with people.

Example:


4. Reputation

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.

Tips:

  • 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.

Tips:

  • 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.


7. Culture

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.

Tips:

  • 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.

 

Dealing with intimidating projects

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.
  • [X] Stay sane throughout the process. =)

2011-03-01 Tue 16:26