Category Archives: career

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.

Technology evangelists: What we do, how to find and hire one, how to become one

I had a great chat with Simon Law yesterday about technology evangelism. A startup approached him looking for a tech evangelist, and I gave him tips on how to find and develop one. I’ve learned a lot about technology evangelism through IBM, where I get to work with and learn from amazing people.

What do technology evangelists do? We help people understand and make the most of new technologies. It’s not as straightforward as showing someone a new tool and expecting them to hit the ground running. We look for success stories and share those. We look for people who have the potential to create success stories and we support them. We look for patterns of use that are working well, and we experiment to make them even better. We write, make presentations, and even develop tools. We cheer people up when they hit the troughs of disillusionment in their personal Gartner hype cycle. We help keep things going. We coach people. We also help people navigate the organization, connecting people with developers, sales teams, experts, or other people as needed.

Technology evangelism goes beyond technical support. It’s more about proactively engaging people, working with the social factors, and collecting and sharing both data and stories. Sometimes you’ll see this formalized in a role. Other times, people volunteer.

How do you find technology evangelists? You can start by looking for vocal supporters of your product or service. There’s a difference between being an enthusiastic early adopter and being able to share that enthusiasm with other people. Look for people whom people already ask for technology or productivity tips. Productivity? Yes. Because mainstream adopters who want to find better ways of doing things don’t ask, “Are there any new tools that can help me do this?” They might look for people they look up to as really productive. Sometimes they ask for advice about methods. Other times, they pick up new tools and methods by osmosis – looking over someone’s shoulder. Early adopters might think about tools, but the rest of the world cares about what you can do with the tools. Find someone who’s good at talking about what people can do instead of just what the tool can do.

Interviewing technology evangelists: You’re looking for passion, great communication skills, empathy with challenges, insights into processes and social factors, and patience without condescension. Pick a target user persona and ask your prospective evangelists to convince that person to use your product or service. Look for the people who talk about benefits and tell stories instead of listing features. Ask them to tell a story about how they helped address someone’s challenges. Ask them to tell a story about finding a usage pattern that works for one group and translating it to fit another group. Ask them to tell a story about how they helped someone enthusiastic about a tool, someone so-so about a tool, and someone actively resisting a tool.

A note about passion: People don’t need to talk like caffeinated bunnies in order to show passion and enthusiasm about something. In fact, someone who can explain things clearly and calmly may be a better fit for your target audience. It’s easier to spread a technology or idea when people can identify with the evangelist.

There’s probably a fundamental optimism in technology evangelism. You’ve gotta believe that change can make things better. The most effective technology evangelists can be simultaneously optimistic (encouraging, enthusiastic) and pessimistic (anticipating and dealing with potential challenges).

How to become a technology evangelist: You don’t need a formal job title to be a technology evangelist. You do need to be passionate about helping other people work more effectively. It’s like sales. It’s not about selling, it’s about helping people buy. There are a lot of different ways to get started. You can coach people around you (potentially frustrating if a tool isn’t a good fit). You can find and coach people who want to learn. You can write blog posts and tutorials, describe patterns, and record success stories. You can make presentations, podcasts, and videos. You can answer questions in discussion forums.

How to get hired as a technology evangelist: Find a company that makes something you’re passionate about. Evangelize it. When you get good at it and develop a following, talk to the company about formalizing your role. Benefits of being in-house: better access to developers and other people who can help clients rock, better feedback loops, wider reach.

Other thoughts on technology evangelism?

Sooner or later? Expertise and the new

I will learn how to sell, sooner or later. The question is: sooner, or later?

Years of experience can help a lot when you’re selling. You know your stuff. You have war stories. You might even have a great reputation. So there’s a good argument for getting into sales later, when I’ve got years of consulting experience to back me up.

On the other hand, for the areas I’ve excelled in, I’ve done so without decades of experience. (I’m 26. I can’t have decades of experience.) In my current role, I’ve made a big difference in the way we find experts and hold innovation conversations. In my previous project, I picked up a new platform. Less than a year after I started, I spoke at the developer conference. Same for my past interests: computer science education, wearable computing, and so on. A little passion and effort, compounded, can result in a lot.

I like working on the edge, where things aren’t clearly defined. That’s where I can get the most scale by sharing what I’m learning, and where there are the most opportunities for the newcomers.

One of my mentors advised me before to keep looking for the new areas. After all, when a field matures to the point of having IT architects and specialists with decades of experience, a relatively recent hire like me is at a disadvantage. But when everything’s new, I’ve got a fair shot at helping make a difference.

I remember feeling that ol’ imposter syndrome when I was one chapter ahead of the students in the course I was teaching. I hated not being able to bring lots of depth to the class. But work doesn’t have to be like that. Not only can I reach out and find experts and mentors, I can also learn on the job.

I think we can make this work. Not only that, I think it will be awesome. =)

Career growth in a large company

I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch.

But there is something really cool about exploring career growth in a large company. For one thing, I can talk about it. I can simultaneously love my current work and be curious about the possibilities. I can get advice from mentors and votes of confidence from colleagues.

It’s also pretty awesome that I can read through lots of intranet resources. When I was a graduate student applying to IBM, I used the intranet to read about behavioural interviews and other techniques. Now, in my current position, I can look for deeper information about Global Business Services and about Lotus.

The blogosphere is great, but lately it seems like there’s a consensus that working for a company is bad. Perhaps it’s just a change from grad school, but working for the right company is awesome. There’s access to resources and expertise that I wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s diversity of opinion that’s really helpful. There’s constraints that require creativity to work around – yesterday that led me to more deeply consider my solution.

- Working for the Man, Cate Huston

Big companies can be awesome.

Book: Making Peace with Your Office Life

This is the first time I’ve read a comprehensive guide for debugging your work environment. “Making Peace with Your Office Life” by Linda Glovinsky (ISBN 978-0-312-57602-8) has a great way to track and analyze your work envirnoment. It’s packed with concrete advice for each situation. Not only is a book to keep, it, it’s a book to give to friends who need the help.

The table of contents is too high-level, so I’ve written down the situations described in pages 175 to 304 to help you decide.

Peace with the Place

  • I feel like I’m in jail: Confinement
  • All I do is sit: Inactivity
  • I’m sick of beige, white, and gray: Sensory Deprivation
  • I’m working in Grand Central Station: Sensory Overload
  • My ____ hurts: Ergonomic Issues
  • The &^%@#! _______ is broken again!: Equipment Issues

Peace with the Chaos

  • I can’t find that report: Paper Management
  • I have 400 unread e-mails: E-mail Overload
  • Oops! I lost that file: Hard Drive File Problems
  • I don’t have the information I need to do my job: Information Access Issues

Peace with the Overwhelm

  • I never get caught up: Unrealistic Workload
  • I’m not allowed to make a mistake: Unrealistic Quality Standards
  • I’m getting it from all directions: Conflicting Demands
  • I’m constantly hitting roadblocks: Obstacles
  • People keep barging in on me: Interruptions

Peace with the Tasks

  • I hardly ever do the same thing twice: Excessive Task Variety
  • I’m afraid I’ll get fired if I don’t look busy: Task Insufficiency
  • I do the same things day after day: Repetitiveness
  • I’m working on an assembly line: Task Fragmentation
  • Why did I go to college?: Intellectual Deprivation
  • I just can’t do this: Daunting Tasks
  • I have no control over how I do my job: Autonomy Issues
  • I can’t tell if I’m doing a good job: Lack of Measurable Outcomes

Peace with the Disconnect

  • I miss the people I love: Separation Issues
  • I don’t really know the people I work with: Isolation
  • I’m nobody, who are you?: Status and Identity Issues
  • I just had a huge fight with so-and-so: Conflict
  • So-and-so and I got our wires crossed: Communication Problems
  • I hate serving on committees: Meeting Issues

Peace with the Boss

  • My boss expects me to be a mind reader: Unclear Instructions
  • My boss watches every move I make: Micromanagement
  • My boss is an idiot: Incompetence
  • My boss doesn’t know what I look like: Avoidance
  • My boss is a crook: Ethical Issues
  • My boss is a wuss: Lack of Authority
  • My boss is the boss from hell: Bullying

Peace with the Coworkers

  • If my coworker does that one more time…: Annoying Little Habits
  • I can’t get my coworker to do anything until the last minute!: Procrastination
  • My coworker always has to win: Competitiveness
  • My coworker always does things by the book: Rigidity
  • My coworker doesn’t toe the line: Laziness
  • My coworker is an idiot: Incompetence
  • My coworker is a slob: Messiness
  • My coworker is a whiner: Griping

Peace with the Culture

  • I have to wear a mask: Anonymity
  • Why do even the smart people talk like idiots?: Office-speak
  • I hate having to wear a tie: Clothing Issues
  • I don’t know what the rules are: Romance and Sex
  • It’s just because I’m…: Discrimination

Peace with the Game

  • They don’t pay me enough for what I do: Financial Issues
  • I only hear about it when I’ve screwed up: Lack of Encouragement
  • The performance appraisals aren’t fair: Unjust Evaluations
  • I’m just a secretary: Low Prestige and Rankism
  • I don’t believe in what this organization is doing: Meaninglessness

“Making Peace with Your Office Life”, Linda Glovinsky (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010; ISBN 978-0-312-57602-8)