Category Archives: career

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How to be dispensable, and why you should document and automate yourself out of a job

My out-of-office message links to wikis where people can get self-service information, and backup contacts in case people have other questions. I’ve helped the three teams I’m working with learn more about using the Idea Lab tools I built. I can take my two-week vacation without worrying that projects will be delayed. Heck, I can get hit by a bus and things will still be okay at work. (Although I’ll try not to be hit by a bus.)

Making myself dispensable is paying off.

It’s good to make yourself dispensable. It’s even better when you don’t have to do the mad scramble for documents and tools the week before you leave. I’ve been documenting and automating my work from the beginning.

In a recent presentation to a defense client, I talked about how to develop the habit of sharing. During the discussion, one of the participants asked how that related to job security.

I mentioned a good book on how to be indispensable: Linchpin, by Seth Godin.

But it’s much better to be dispensable and invaluable. Indispensable people are a big risk. Whether they’re indispensable for good reasons (always knows the right thing to do) or bad reasons (hoards knowledge so that no one else can solve that problem), they can derail your project or your organization. People become dependent on them. And then when something happens—vacation, lottery, promotion, sickness, death—the team stumbles. Something always happens.

On the other hand, invaluable people help their teams grow along with them. They make themselves obsolete by coaching successors, delegating tasks to help people learn. They eliminate waste and automate processes to save time. They share what they know. They teach themselves out of a job. The interesting thing that happens to invaluable people is that in the process of spreading their capabilities to the team, they create new opportunities. They get rid of part of their job so that they can take on new challenges. Indispensable people can’t be promoted without disruption. Invaluable people can be promoted, and everyone grows underneath them.

You might be harder to fire if you’re the only one who knows the secret recipe, but wouldn’t you rather be the person people want to work with because you can solve new challenges? The first might save you during a round of layoffs, but the second will help you grow no matter where you are.

So, how can you be dispensable and invaluable?

Document with your successor in mind. Write instructions. Organize resources. Make it easy to turn your projects over so that you can take an even better opportunity if it comes along. Document, document, document. Push the knowledge out so that you’re not the only expert. This will help you and your team work more effectively, and it will reduce the work too.

Automate, automate, automate. If you can automate the repetitive or error-prone parts of your work, you’ll rock, and you’ll help your team rock too. If you don’t know how to program, you might consider learning how to – whether it’s Microsoft Excel wizardry or Perl geekery. Save time. Cut out the boring parts. Make your work easier.

If you do this well, you will work yourself out of at least the bottom 10% of your job each year… and you’ll open up at least 20% in productivity and new opportunities–not to mention the multiplying effect that you’ll have on your team and your organization.

Be dispensable. Be invaluable. Make stuff happen.

Cate Huston has a great post about this, too. Check hers out!

Fit for You: Thinking about my priorities

In a lively mentoring session on Wednesday, Annie English suggested that I fill in the Fit for You assessment, something my new manager had also mentioned. So here’s my quick list of the top five things that satisfy me about work, which I’ll continue to reflect on as I learn more. =)

  1. Satisfaction with work-life balance: I care about free weekends, minimal required evening work, and limited or no travel. I find that placing constraints on work gives me incentives to work quickly and efficiently, and to be realistic with my time estimates. The space also allows me to cultivate rich relationships with family, friends, and my fiance, and numerous personal interests that occasionally turn out to be useful or inspiring. My current role lets me do this quite well, and the occasional workshop trips become more of a treat as I get to meet lots of interesting people. (Very satisfied.)
  2. Development of new skills: I like learning new tools and solving new problems. If I already know how to do something, I’d rather teach it or automate it instead of do it again and again. My current role lets me improve my communication skills, and the Lotus Connections toolkit I’m building for fun lets me play around with new challenges too. (Very satisfied.)
  3. Meaning and significance: I love making a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s saving them time, helping them work together better, or helping them imagine new possibilities. My current work lets me make this kind of difference from my kitchen table – yay! (Very satisfied.)
  4. Connection with clients and colleagues: I like the fact that I’ve gotten to know many IBMers as people, and I’ve gotten to know a few clients as well. I don’t think I’d enjoy working on a technically awesome but isolating and unbloggable project. I love how my current role lets me connect throughout IBM, and how I get to learn from all sorts of interesting clients along the way. (Very satisfied.)
  5. Value creation and compensation: This is somewhat related to #3. I love creating a lot of value. I also like hearing from people about what we’re doing well and how that creates value for them, because that helps us build on strengths. Being compensated for the created value is nice, too. It’s not the money (I save a lot of what I earn, and I like being frugal), but growth is good, and money is one way of measuring growth. I’d be happy to take extra time (as that’s harder to buy), although I know extra time tends to get encroached on. (Satisfied)

Overall: Very satisfied.

These priorities will probably change over time, but at least you folks know the right buttons to press… =)

Limiting my options so that I can focus

We’re fascinated by choice, almost slaves to keeping our options open. Sometimes it’s better to close doors, impose constraints, ignore possibilities. Focus.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I plan the next step in my career. There are so many paths to choose from: consulting? development? management, perhaps even executive?

Constraints make choosing easier.

I want to build a wonderful relationship with W-. This is easier to do with little or no travel, manageable hours, and low stress at work. That probably rules out the kind of consulting IBM tends to do, and the executive career path as well.

I want to experiment and create new opportunities. I’d like to try product development / consulting / coaching / webinars / e-books. People have made that business model work. But I’ve got a great opportunity to help change the way IBM works, and through IBM, help change the way the world works, so I’m focusing on that. I should make sure that familiarity and comfort don’t take me too far away from what I want to do, though: help people connect, collaborate, and learn.

Between following a formal career path and going where no job title has gone before, I think I’d like to explore the latter. I can take risks. I learn quickly, and I’m good at making things work.

This will be interesting.

On finding a great job

Cate Huston blogged:

I have put this huge stress on myself because I really want to have a job lined up for January by the end of September, preferably by the end of August. And I don’t want it to be just any job, I want it to be a greatjob. And this is a problem because my ideas of what I want to do are somewhat vagueI want to make things! I want them to be pretty! I want to make the world a better place! Programmers can do that, I know it!

Ah. Time for me to put my mentor hat on and braindump a few things I’ve stumbled across. =)

Great jobs

The second-best job description is the one that’s been written for you. It speaks to your strengths. It pushes the right buttons. It gets you excited about working on cool things and making a difference.

How do you get it? Well, you convince a manager to take a risk on you. A big risk, actually, because hiring is expensive and turnover is even more so.

What’s better than that, and easier to get into?

The best job description is the one you write for yourself. Even if you start with a generic job role, if you’ve resolved to be a star in that role, you probably will be one. If you’re good, people often want to help you make the most of your strengths.

Yes, there will be things that drive you a little crazy. I didn’t like dealing with finicky cross-browser CSS. But I did it, got things done, and demonstrated to the team that it would be even better if someone else did that part and I did, say, the fiddly system administration tasks that other people didn’t like. Flexibility. If you’ve got a good manager, he or she will tweak your role to take advantage of your strengths and trade your weaknesses.

Don’t worry about finding the best possible project or job description. Find a good manager and a good team.  That’s what your side of the interview is about: figuring out if it will be a good fit. Good managers and good teams can help you navigate the system and get things done.

Pick a job that doesn’t make you die inside. Throw yourself into it and figure out what you can love about it. Make things happen. Rewrite your role. Pack as much awesomeness into it as you can. Create your next role, or evolve it out of what you’re already doing.

You might be certain that you would totally rock if all the stars lined up, but it can be surprisingly fun—and a great deal more practical and confidence-building—to take almost anything and rock it.

Besides, awesome job posts are rare. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to anticipate someone’s awesomeness without the risk of overly narrowing the applicant pool, and so it’s nearly impossible to anticipate what kind of role can make the most of their skills.

For example, a job description to find a exact replacement for me in my current role would involve: strong communication and facilitation skills; some graphic design skills; deep Lotus Connections experience; programming in LotusScript, Java, and Microsoft Excel VBA; wide personal networks; automation; speed-reading (seriously, this comes in quite handy); fast typing; a passion for both consulting and development…

Right. If we ever want me to be able to move on from this role, we need to settle for someone who’s a quick learner. =) Maybe they’ll be awesome in entirely different ways, and they’ll take the role in entirely new directions. (Which would be awesome!)

Also: what I’m passionate about might not be the same as what you’re passionate about. Which is cool. Some job descriptions will emphasize your role in making a difference and changing the world. Some job descriptions (implement and maintain widget X in dashboard Y) may sound boring. But it really all comes down to how good someone is at coming up with and communicating a vision, because even implementing a widget in a dashboard can be pretty awesome if you know why it matters.

Here’s the surprising thing: you can come up with that vision,  that reason why this work matters, even if your company doesn’t tell you.

Business books love sharing those stories. The cleaner at a nursing home? Might hate the drudge work, or might be passionate about it because it makes residents happier to be in a neat place.

Meaning is something you can put into your own work.

It means, though, that job posts for awesome positions sometimes don’t look like they are. On the flip side, job posts that look awesome (a hodgepodge of “cool” technologies! hipster language!) sometimes aren’t.

Figure out if you can deal with the core responsibilities, if you like the team, and if you can grow. Take responsibility for finding meaning.

On not knowing

You don’t need to figure out everything in the beginning. Find something that looks something like what you might like. Use it to learn what you really like and what you really don’t like. Experiment. Improve. Let life teach and surprise you.

On passion and luck

Cate Huston is an Extreme Blue intern who stumbled across her dream project at IBM. She asks:

What if you don’t get so lucky? What if you don’t happen upon someone working on something you’re that passionate about?

Two thoughts. The first: Luck is overrated.

I’m here because of a gazillion coincidences that just happened to turn out this way. I’m working on Innovation Discovery because they liked my work after bringing me in as a workshop speaker on collaboration and Gen Y, which happened because Nicoline Braat recommended them to me, which happened because she read my blog, which happened because she stumbled across me on the intranet (presentations? communities?), which happened because I joined IBM, which happened because I fell in love with the company while doing my research funded by the IBM Toronto Center for Advanced Studies, which happened because I did my master’s at the University of Toronto, which happened because U of T accepted me and offered me full funding, which happened because my future research supervisor met me and was convinced I’d be a good fit, which happened because I met him when we were both in Japan, which happened because I was checking out interesting research groups at U of T, which happened because of my interest in personal information management (and the recommendation of U of T from an old friend who had also been a scholar there), which happened because I got into Emacs and Planner, which happened because I got into open source in university, which happened because I wanted to do more than what we took up in computer science classes, which I took up because I loved programming, which I taught myself when I was in grade school because my sister was doing it and she refused to teach me, which I could do because I loved using the computer, which was because we had an Apple ][e clone in the house, which happened because my parents thought it would be educational… (And there are many other branching coincidences along the way!)

Am I lucky? Yes. Could it have turned out better or worse? Yes. Did I have something to do with that luck? Probably, by casting a wide and deep net: wide in terms of interests that could lead to new passions and in terms of people watching out for opportunities , and deep in terms of building skills that helped me make the most of new opportunities.

You will always walk on the edge of possibilities, an unimaginably complex path culminating in the present and branching off into innumerable opportunities in the future.

Luck. Prepare the soil, plant seeds, and share the ongoing harvest.

Second: Passion is overrated. ;)

By that, I mean that people often hope—or expect—to be swept away by some grand passion, to wake up one morning and find a flame burning in their heart and a job opening that neatly takes advantage of that new flame.

I don’t know much about that because I don’t remember falling in love with my first passion. I’ve been using computers and delighting in how I could use them since before memory.

But I do remember falling in love with writing, because I used to hate it in school. I hated writing book reports and critical analyses that no one else would really read, and that felt like I was just making things up.

Translated into a different context—the very geeky context of sharing code and tips—the love of writing snuck up on me gradually.

Trees start as little seeds and saplings. More often than people expect, passion builds from skill and intention. Sometimes you have to be good at something—or at least decent—before you can love it.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t find work that builds on their strengths and compensates for their weaknesses. Sometimes, though, you can learn a lot about your strengths and surprise yourself with your (non-)weaknesses by applying yourself to something.

No matter what you do, find something to be passionate about and build on it. Build that aspect up as much as you can. When you ride your passion to the limits of your role, you’ll have clues about the next role to take.

Finding opportunities in a big company

DEADLINE: 2010-07-30 Fri 08:00

The Extreme Blue interns are wrapping up and starting their job searches, so Cate Huston asked me to share some tips.

One of the wonderful and intimidating things about being in a big company is that there’s such a variety of opportunities. How do you find the right one for you? I hope these tips will help people at IBM, and they might be useful for people in other big companies too.

Figure out what you’re interested in. Browse through open job posts. Talk to interesting people about what they do and listen for words that resonate with you. Explain what you’re interested in to mentors and ask them to help you translate and connect. (IBM: Follow the “Global Opportunity Marketplace” link on w3.ibm.com to see open job posts.)

Talk to people doing that kind of work. People are often generous with their time and insights, perhaps because they’ve received that kind of help in the past. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask them for short interest interviews. Ask them what a typical day is like for them, what they like about their work, what they would like to change about their work, and what skills and characteristics would make someone a great candidate for that position. If you’ve got specific posts in mind, reach out to people on the team to see what things are like and if it might be a good fit.

Make it easy to keep in touch. You’ll meet a lot of people during your blog search. Make it easy for them to find out about you and keep in touch. Invest time into preparing a clear description of what you’re interested in and a resume highlighting relevant accomplishments, and link to it in your e-mail signature. If you blog, include a link to that in your e-mail signature as well. Subscribe to other people’s blogs to learn more about them and about other parts of the company.

If you give people enough time, they might even be able to create an opportunity for you. It takes a while to get clearance to create a new position, but if you impress the right manager, maybe he or she will create a role that makes the most of your passion and skills.

Be prepared for complications. Sometimes these things take longer than expected. Sometimes you run into odd paperwork needs. Hang in there, and have backup plans.

What’s different about searching for opportunities in a big company?

  • You can talk more openly about what you’re looking for and what you’re learning.
  • You’re surrounded by many potential mentors and contacts.
  • You can look people up easily.
  • Your previous supervisor will talk to your future supervisor probably quite frequently.
  • You can work out your transition plan with your previous supervisor and your future supervisor, instead of keeping it hush-hush.