Thursday, February 28, 2008

Feeling trapped!

One of the worst feelings of my career as a software developer was at the four year anniversary of my first job. The company is a software company whose future was in doubt. Layoffs always seemed to be a looming reality and better times seemed like they were a thing of the past. My mentor, and manager, left for another company and I was left supporting the work that my team had done.
It didn't take long for me to get tired of supporting the software. Frequently, issues with the highest levels of visibility would come in and I would need to dedicate my time to addressing those issues. According to the metrics that were used to evaluate me, I was underperforming. I received no credit for resolving critical issues, yet I was criticized for not meeting deadlines for the issues that were displaced by the criticals.
What scared me most is that the expertise that I was developing applied mostly to the domain of the software that my company developed. The only really interested company was one that did consulting on the software that I wanted to get away from.
Other businesses wouldn't take a chance on me. It was very painful for me to come in to interviews and be told that I didn't have the skills they wanted. To me, I heard you're not good enough to work for us.
Some of the people were more polite than others. Some were not very nice at all. In retrospect, it was probably a better thing for me that I wasn't able to get a job then.
At the time though, I was a mess. Unless you've been in this position of not enjoying your work and feeling that you don't have alternatives, it's horrible. There's hope though. I was able to get out of that position.
spent my weekends learning the technologies that businesses are using and making myself a marketable developer. I took jobs that would build on those skills. I am confident that I could easily take a job with a number of other companies if I needed to.
Even when I have days that are not very enjoyable, I don't feel trapped. It's amazing what options can do for an attitude.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Job wish lists

A VP from my first development job gave me some great advice during my exit interview with her. She recommends that we keep lists when we start a job and when we end them of the things that we like and the things that we don't like. In keeping this list active we have a better idea of what aspects of a job are important to us.
I've tried to keep a list and as I feel I may be on my way towards shopping again I'm adding to the list. So without further ado, here are my lists of important things to me:
Good things:
  1. An environment that promotes creativity, collaboration, and innovation. Being free to be creative and productive is reward in and of itself.
  2. An organization that empowers and supports individuals to improve themselves. Training, making opportunities available, and promoting growth are ways to make people feel comfortable in a position. If I can see opportunity for growth and the position looks like something I might want to do that's a good thing.
  3. Valuing efficiency. This is something I'm really looking for in my next opportunity. Ironically, my current company as a whole wastes very little, however they often times get caught in the "penny wise pound foolish" situation. For me it comes down to an organization valuing my time, I prefer to spend my time adding value.
  4. A socially stimulating environment. Simply put I want to work with good people who are enjoyable to be around. On only one occasion have I worked with someone for whom the thought of him still makes me angry. I never want to repeat that experience.
  5. Competent and effective management. This should be higher on the list and it's a bit of a catch all. I'm not even sure what it entails entirely. There are a lot of things that a manager can do wrong, but a good manager is one that is trusted and respected. Everything else is secondary to those principles.
Things that I don't want:
  1. An unhealthy atmosphere--facilities, social, or otherwise. Life is too short to put up with the problems that any of those things can cause.
  2. Marginalization--there's nothing worse than having problems, being unable to fix them, and having an organization that is unwilling to correct them.
  3. Innovative inertia. Having an organization that is unwilling to try new things or encourage the current practices to be challenged.
  4. Not having a choice of hardware and software configuration--this is one of the worst places where a company tries to save money. Saving a few bucks on an extra monitor, or an ergonomic keyboard is a wasted opportunity. Some developers will bring their own hardware in. If they believe it's that important to them, think how grateful they would be if a company catered to their preferences.
That's a pretty good list. I'm open to more suggestions.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

tough row to hoe == tough road to ho

A tough row to ho refers to hoeing a row in a garden or field. Roots, rocks, and other obstructions can make hoeing that row difficult. Hence the phrase 'a tough row to hoe', which means a difficult task.
Many people mishear this phrase and assume it to be 'a tough road to ho'. I find it amusing that if you take that phrase into the context of modern speech that it means, a difficult street to whore.
If you think about it, it really means the same thing even though it is taken out of context and used metaphorically.
My new challenge is to try and find a clever way to use this in conversation.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A conflict of culture. A conflict of market forces

It's still not a certainty, but I think I'm going to be shopping for work in about five months. I can afford to be very selective for the first time. 

Previously, when I've looked for work I'd been motivated to do so because I did not see opportunity in that situation. I currently work for a very successful company and from all accounts, they are very happy with my contributions. In a sense I do see a limitation of my opportunities within the company though.

If I were to point a finger at what is driving me to look around it would be culture and the disparity between the job markets of my local office and corporate headquarters.

My company is based in another state where there is not a very active market for technology workers. I live in a very competitive market.

My colleagues down there say you either work for my company or about two other companies and that's it. They worry about job security with the company because they believe their options are limited. Their resistance point of shenanigans for leaving the company is much higher than people who are in an environment that has more opportunities.

Workers in an environment that has more opportunity will have a much lower shenanigans threshold. Once the demands that are put on a worker outweigh the gains that the worker believes that she can get somewhere else, she will start looking for work somewhere else.
The workforce around the senior managers are going to be more complicit with the demands that are put on them. They have less with which to bargain because the prospect of leaving the company is not as real as it is in an environment with more opportunity.

I see this a lot in my own company. My own division is almost exclusively staffed with people in my office, all of the management positions up to the vice president are in my office. Within my division the norms and underlying values are very similar to what I'd find in other companies in my area. If I do say so I think we have a productive, creative and highly functional group of people in our division.

A neighboring division that is managed exclusively from the corporate office and staffed with a mix of people from my office and from corporate is very different. I hate to use the rats from a sinking ship analogy, but I will. When that team was formed from a reorganization all of the local contractors who can have their pick of employer left in short order. The rest of the employees who are competitively skilled found locally managed internal positions to transfer to. Almost every single one of them. There are many reasons for this, but I believe the following explanation describes the reasons behind what happened.

How do these forces affect the cultures in the locations.

From my own observations I would say this: people in the other office, as a whole, are far more averse to taking risks. The perceived cost of failure is far too great to justify deviating from the safety of following convention.

In the competitive environment the perceived cost of failure is much lower, as such workers in that environment are far more likely to take chances.

This is just one example, but I believe the economic conditions between the two offices plays a key role in the cultural differences.

The most powerful conflicts to the people in the competitive office is that there is more managerial power in the non competitive office. Those managers are far more aware of what is around them than what is not. The perceptions they make of their nearby environment influence the way they deal with all of their reports. They are more likely to create a culture based on the norms and values of the non-competitive office and extend them to the competitive office. Some of the norms of the competitive office will transfer to the other as well.

So, in the case of the neighboring division. Well, the managers there were not accustomed to having employees who are able to quit. The managers shenanigans exceeded those people's thresholds and they left as quickly as they could.

What does all of this mean to me? To me it means that my company's culture and behavior towards me is not as favorable to me as other companies that are based within my market do.
What does this mean to you? When you look for work, try to find an employer that is based within your market or based in a more competitive market. Your experience will tend to be no worse than most of the companies around you, and with a stronger likelihood of exceeding the local market.

Try to avoid employers that are based within less competitive markets. Your experience is more likely to be less favorable than a locally based company.

This is a simple model and a simple axiom. There are many more factors to take into account than this one component. It is a very strong component nonetheless.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Is Management The Answer?

My days are probably numbered at my current company. I'm beginning to feel tired. I plan to finish my current project--about 4 months or so--then consider my options then.
I feel that I will leave within a year because I don't see myself enjoying working at this company as my career progresses. I just don't see the things that aggravate me changing. I do my best to fight the good fight, but I feel like I'm in one of the lone non-dysfunctional divisions of my company, but the dysfunction is creeping in.
When an incident that occurred in a neighboring division was used as a negative example of how to innovate at a conference I think I got the hint that my talents may be better utilized elsewhere.
So I've made the decision to leave. I'm currently in a leadership role in a project that spans to the Summer. I would like to finish the project. That gives me a pretty nice time frame. A lot of hiring seems to happen in the summer.
Ok, the target timeframe is set, what am I looking for?
There's always the more of the same approach. The environment would need to be much more akin to what I want for me to consider that option.
I'd really like to try my hand at managing. At the level of a manager or director I think I could really make a difference. I could try my hand at running a team or a department in the way I'd like it to be run.
How would that be you ask?
That's my assignment. Well, that's the million dollar question.
I would like to have a team that is innovative and dynamic. I want a team that is able to think abstractly and strategically. They need to be able to see opportunities for change and act on it. They need to value quality, but also be aware of deadlines. This team would excel in coming up with creative ideas.
Yeah, this team will be awesome. So if you know of any openings to lead such a team please let me know.
Ok, since that boat will probably never hit the harbor I'm going to prepare to build that team. I see my mission as two fold: environmental and behavioral. I will need to find the right environment for this. I will also need to prepare to lead such a team through my actions. Since it is easiest, I will look at environment first. More to come...