Category Archives: career

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The power of no: being completely* unhireable until 2017 (and possibly longer)

When I started this 5-year experiment, I didn’t know if I could stick with it. My track record for sticking with interests is not that good. I’m delighted to report that (semi-)retirement gets easier and easier. I am learning to say no.

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By coincidence, two of my mentors (who had moved on to separate companies after IBM) got in touch with me one after the other to find out if I was interested in some upcoming job opportunities. Good stuff. Right up my alley. Wonderful people.

I said no. Actually, I said something along the lines of: “Thank you for reaching out! That sounds fantastic. However, I am semi-retired and completely* unhireable until 2017 (or possibly later), so I’ll just have to wish you good luck on your search. I’m sure you’ll find someone awesome out there. If I think of returning to work, I will be sure to reach out to you right away. Thanks again!”

*If a significant financial need comes up, I have no qualms about suspending this experiment and returning to the wonderful world of work. I enjoyed working with excellent teams. I’d love to do it again. While I have the opportunity and privilege to work on things entirely of my choosing, though, I should do that. Not everyone can do so, and I shouldn’t waste the chance.

Learning how to say no is amazing. I used to feel guilty about this. I wanted to be in more than one place at a time. Then I realized that I am not a special snowflake and there are other awesome people out there who can make things happen. Sure, they might not bring my particular configuration of skills, but they’ll bring other useful combinations. This makes it easier for me to say no, because it leaves room for someone else to say yes.

Pre-making decisions helps a lot. When I was preparing for my experiment, I thought about the conditions in which I would stop or reconsider. If something happened to W-, I might go back to work. If our expenses didn’t stay in line with my projections, I might go back to work. If, if, if. If everything was going fine, though, then any qualms or anxieties would just be the product of my irrational lizard-brain trying to run back to the safety of the known, familiar, and explainable-at-cocktail-parties. (Not that I go to cocktail parties, and not that “I’m in consulting” was really an explanation. But it checked the right conversational boxes, while “I’m semi-retired” throws people for a loop.) Knowing my lizard-brain helps me work around it.

I often sketch out basic decisions in advance. It’s the programmer way. If this, then that. Check for warnings and errors. Handle exceptions. It means not having to worry as much, which is great. It means knowing when I might need to reconsider so that I’m not blindly following the same plan when circumstances change. In a way, I live through many possible lives.

It’s been a year and a half since I started my experiment with semi-retirement. My living expenses are almost exactly on track. My aspirations are definitely off track. I hadn’t expected to be this comfortable with writing and learning, and I’m excited about where this is going. This is good.

The road isn’t lonely at all. W- has been absolutely wonderful and supportive, and I’m running into more and more people on some kind of sabbatical or early retirement. The path is surprisingly well-travelled, the kind of secret trail that you might not hear about in your guidebook but which gets passed on from person to person in whispers and geocaches. I say no so that I can say yes.

Image credits: Crossroads (Mopic, Shutterstock)

Sketchnote: Managing Oneself (Peter Drucker)

Xiaoxiao asked me to sketchnote Managing Oneself, a classic article by Peter Drucker. Here are my notes. Click on the image for a larger version.

20130822 Managing Oneself - Peter Drucker

Please feel free to share this! (Creative Commons Attribution License)

In addition to sketching a visual summary, I thought I’d reflect on the points discussed in the article.

What are my strengths?

I’m happy, optimistic, appreciative, and resilient. I reflect a lot on what I do, how I do it, and why. I learn quickly, thanks to speed-reading and note-taking skills.  I know how to adapt to many of my characteristics, such as introversion and visual thinking. I’m comfortable with numbers, words, and drawings. I embrace deliberate practice and continuous improvement. I’m good at setting up little experiments, taking calculated risks, and finding ways to improve. I’m frugal and I’m decent at questioning assumptions. I work on being more rational and compensating for my biases, and I’m not intimidated by research.

Feedback analysis: I periodically review my decisions through scheduled decision reviews, blog archives, and other reflections. I’m good at breaking decisions down into smaller ones that I can try out or test. I can get better at involving other people in my decisions. I tend to discount things that are unscientific or that seem dodgy, but that hasn’t really gotten in my way. The main thing that gets in my way is my tendency to flit from interest to interest, although I’m dealing with that by learning how to create value in smaller chunks. I’m planning to improve my feedback analysis process by scheduling more decision reviews.

How do I work?

I learn primarily through reading, writing, and trying things out. I find it difficult to absorb information by listening to lectures or talking to other people. My preference for team or solo work depends on the project: for most development project, I prefer to work with at least one other person whose skill I respect, because I learn a lot more that way. I’m also comfortable working on my own. (I’m learning how to delegate, though.) I’m more comfortable making decisions than giving advice. I prefer some order and predictability in my daily schedule, but I minimize commitments. Routines give me a platform from which I can go wherever my interests take me. I enjoyed working in a large organization, but I’m also fine working on my own.

I know that it’s easier to make things happen if I adapt to my idiosyncrasies rather than wish I were someone else. I’m good at passing opportunities on to other people, and helping people see what might fit me.

What are my values?

I value learning and sharing as much as I can of what I learn with as many people as possible, which is why I prefer to share information for free instead of locking it down in order to earn more. I value equanimity rather than excess.

Where do I belong?

Where I am. (Yay!) This experiment is going well, and I’d like to continue it.

I know I worked well in large corporations too, and I think I’d get along with small ones. I definitely don’t belong outside my comfort zone (that time I had to do some Microsoft SQL Server admin? Yeah…) or in high-stress, high-travel, workaholic environments. (Which, fortunately, consulting wasn’t – at least for me.) I do better in situations where it’s okay to ask forgiveness instead of always asking for permission, and where 80% is okay instead of trying to get to 100% the first time around. I do well with some discretionary time to work on useful projects or help people outside my typical responsibilities.

What should I contribute?

I think people could use more examples of this sort of smaller-scale life, because it’ll help free people from assumptions about what they need or how much they have to sacrifice. I’d love to make it work and to share what I learn along the way.

I also care about helping people learn and think more effectively. Visual thinking is one way to do that, so I want to help people who have the inclination for it discover tools and techniques that they can use.

I care about learning in general, which includes learning about different topics and then creating resources or mapping concepts so that other people can learn them more easily.

Books, blog posts, drawings, presentations, and coaching are some ways I can make progress in these directions.

In addition to those five questions, Peter Drucker also gave these career tips:

Taking responsibility for relationships

One of the things I learned as a kid was that you can take responsibility for the way you interact with people and you can help them get better at interacting with you. (Yes, I was the kid reading Parenting Teenagers for Dummies and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.) At work, it was great explicitly discussing communication styles and motivational preferences with my managers, who helped me tweak things to play to my strengths.

The second half of your life

… why wait until your forties? Winking smile

I’m a big fan of having at least two good things on the go at any given time. I learned this as a software developer. That way, when you run into a setback or delay, you can always work on the other thing in order to keep yourself moving forward.

For me right now, there’s writing, drawing, and software. In the future, who knows?

How about you? What do you think about managing yourself?

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

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(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)

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(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?