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Exploring the idea of advice

Posted: - Modified: | connecting

I’ve been giving a lot of people advice lately (Google Helpouts, lunches/coffee with people, and so on), which is weird for me because I hedge what I say when I’m writing on my own. My blog posts focus more on the “Here’s what I tried, and here’s how it’s working for me” rather than “You should do X, Y, Z.”  When someone asks me a question or describes a challenge they’re facing, though, I have no problems offering suggestions.

I thought about what advice is like and how I can give it more effectively. I realized that there are actually lots of different ways you can help people by talking to them, and it’s not all about saying “You should do X, Y, Z” with minimal understanding of the other person’s situation. Here’s what I came up with:

2013-11-20 Exploring the idea of advice

(Click on the image for a larger version)

I’ve read about and tried a lot of approaches, so I really like the “Have you thought about…” way of helping people. I do that after a few “Tell me about…” so I understand the person’s context and we can build on things they’ve already tried. Sometimes people ask me about how I make decisions too, so I’m happy to walk people through that. (Especially if I’ve already documented it!) On rare occasions, I can tell people the name of the thing they’re looking for (ex: spaced repetition! cloze deletion!) which unlocks all these resources for them. When I’m writing on my own, I like using “Don’t miss… / Watch out for…” to help people save time.

Giving advice still feels odd. I definitely don’t want to become an “I know better than you” sort of person. I like using questions more than declarations anyway. Maybe I’ll find an approach that works for me!

How do you share what you know? How do you help others learn?

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Growing this blog

Posted: - Modified: | blogging

imageSometimes I wonder if I should do more of the “Right Things” when it comes to building a blog. You know the drill:

  • Focus on one or two topics so that people will subscribe because you’re consistent and reliable.
  • Research keywords so that you can optimize for search engine queries and write content that will bring people in.
  • Reach out to new audiences with guest posts, working your way up to A-list blogs.
  • Send e-mail newsletters so that you can build relationships and sell to people later on.

Why? Because it’s a way to scale up. Maybe I can save more people time. Maybe I can learn from more people. Maybe I can create more value for each hour that I spend.

It’s easy to see what success could look like, down that path. Sometimes I’m envious of blogs with tens of thousands of subscribers and hundreds of comments per post.

But then reading and responding to comments takes time, and other people glaze over when they see pages and pages. It’s okay. I like where we are – maybe half a dozen comments or so on a good post, and I feel good about writing many paragraphs in reply. I’m not entirely sure if I’m just sour-graping, but it makes sense. This is manageable. Slightly more is okay too, but we can grow slowly so that I can learn the skills I need along the way.

Sometimes I wonder if this should be more like other blogs. But then that’s a well-travelled path, with lots of other people exploring it and plenty of people willing to sell you courses along the way. I have this amazing opportunity to try something different. I should.

Actually, I already know what I should do: what works for me, what I should do more. The enduring posts on my blog are tech notes (Emacs, Drupal, etc.) and sketches. People also tell me they find this sort of reflective practice—this learning-out-loud—helpful. I can continue like this, growing slowly through links and search results.  Instead of spending hours on blog marketing, I can spend hours on learning and writing.

It’s good to reflect on what works or doesn’t work for you. A clear no saves you time and anxiety. I’ve figured out ways to hack around my introversion, and maybe the same will be true for blogging.

So here, I think, is how I’ll grow this blog compared to the “typical” advice:

    • Typical: Focus on one or two topics so that people will subscribe because you’re consistent and reliable. I’ll write about whatever I’m learning about, covering a variety of interests. People who want a focused view can use search results and category links. From time to time, I’ll work on organizing things to make it easier for people to browse around.
    • Research keywords so that you can optimize for search engine queries and write content that will bring people in. I’ll look at other people’s questions, and the search queries that are already bringing people to my blog. That will nudge me to write about certain topics if I’m curious about the ideas too. I don’t have to compete when it comes to topics outside my interests or experiences. I can start by making it better for people who care about things I care about.
    • Reach out to new audiences with guest posts, working your way up to A-list blogs. I’ll read other blogs and write about what inspires me, linking to those posts. Since many people don’t have their own blogs, I’ll invite people to share their tips and lessons learned on mine.
    • Send e-mail newsletters so that you can build relationships and sell to people later on. Since I find it difficult to send e-mail, I’d rather build relationships through comments (and the occasional e-mail for people who want to have slightly more private discussions). Instead of building a list so that I can sell exclusive premium content, I’ll give away as much as I can of what I know under an occasional pay-what-you-want model. There are all sorts of other non-monetary ways to show appreciation, so that’s cool too.

    So this blog will grow, slowly, sustainably, in a way that feels comfortable for me.


    That said, are there small things I can do to make it easier for you or other people to take advantage of what I know? Is there something I can do to lower the barrier to commenting or help people explore? I’d love to hear from you!

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    Welcome to IBM! Advice for other newcomers like me

    Posted: - Modified: | career

    One of my mentees wanted to know what books I’d recommend for someone new to the business world. I thought about my favourite books and realized that nothing quite covers the insights that people shared with me when I was starting out. So here are some things I’d like to share with her and with other newcomers:

    • Learn as much as you can, even if it’s scary. Opportunities can make you feel nervous, but there are lots of people who can help you figure things out. Your manager and your team members can help you manage the risks. You can learn so much from people and resources in IBM, and you can learn tons from clients too. Take advantage of the courses, webinars, free books, and so on. Ask people questions and listen to people’s stories. Soak up all  the knowledge you can, and then some more.
    • Ask for help. IBM has lots of resources and lots of amazing people. It’s better to ask for help before you get into trouble, but if you do get into trouble, ask for help instead of letting the situation blow up.
    • Find your passion. Yes, you can go through life treating work as just a job, but it’s much more fun and you can do more amazing things if you can find that intersection of what you’re good at, what you love doing, and what  the world needs.
    • Decide what you want to do with your life. Yes, you’ve signed up for a particular job, and your personal business commitments should include the template handed down through  the management chain. But keep thinking about your bigger picture and make sure things work out for you, too. You don’t have to know everything you want to do, but you do have to take responsibility for figuring that out. Look for the big picture of why your work matters, too. It helps to know why what you do is important.
    • Find mentors and role models. This is very important, and it’s one of the best things about working with a large company like IBM. Look for people who are doing what you want to do and who are who you want to be. Learn from them. They’re often surprisingly approachable and quite generous with their time. How do you find them? Watch people’s presentations, read blogs, ask for referrals and introductions, read articles, look for success stories, participate in communities, get into interesting projects, volunteer, show your appreciation, etc.
    • Build on your strengths. Reflect on your experiences and ask your mentors for advice on identifying and building on your strengths. You’ll get much better at them, much faster, and you’ll create much more value than you would if you always beat yourself up over your weaknesses.
    • Resist the cynics. Lots of people will tell you something along the lines of, “Your enthusiasm is nice, but you’re young, and you’ll grow out of it.” Your mentors and role models prove that people can have lots of experience and still enjoy what they’re doing. It’s important to know that awesomeness is possible.
    • Resist the jargon. Many people like using acronyms, technical terms, and weird ways to say things. (We don’t “action” things, darn it!) Don’t let yourself get used to that. Spell things out. Make it easy for people to understand. Don’t use language that creates a wall between you and other people. Think of the people reading or listening to what you share.
    • Remember that you’re dealing with other people. Be patient, open, understanding, and appreciative. Your manager is learning how to work with you at the same time that you’re learning to work with him or her. Same goes for teammates, clients, service providers, etc.
    • Stay happy. If you’re not happy at work, it can leak into your personal life, and vice versa. If you feel stressed out about something, figure out what you can do about it, and do it. IBM has lots of resources you can use, including confidential counseling services. Stay balanced, too. There’s no sense in working so hard  that you burn out – it’s bad for you and it’s bad for the company. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
    • Ask questions. Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you don’t have something to bring to the table, and sometimes that something is a good question. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid because you ask a question. Check your assumptions. Clarify points. Learn.
    • Things happen. Adapt. Sometimes things happen outside your control. Your tool has a bug. A team member leaves for a different company. You can stress out about it, or you can adapt and keep going forward.
    • Share as much as you can. Take notes. Share what you’re learning. Volunteer to share what you know. This makes you more teachable and helps you meet all sorts of incredible people. You’ll learn a lot along the way, too. Share your thoughts on our internal blogging platform, and you might be surprised at how good your network can become.
    • Adjust your lifestyle slowly. It can be tempting to splurge using your new income, but frugality gives you more flexibility and less stress. Look for other good tips on adjusting to life on your own, and experiment to see what works for you.

    What else would you advise new graduates joining IBM?

    Thanks to Kim Liu for the nudge to write about this!

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