There is no such thing as Career Insurance


“Hogarth, what are you doing?!”


Hogarth looks up from where he’s causally perched on the corner of my desk. Holding up a piece of paper he asks, “Did you know your resume is three years out of date?”


“Not now, Hogarth, I have a report to write, then I have a beta planning meeting and tonight I’ve got to fix the garage door.” I shoulder past him, to drop into my chair. “Besides,” I say, “this job is nice and stable and I don’t have any plans to go anywhere else.


My gorilla blinks at me, “I’m sure the Titanic didn’t have any plans to run into an iceberg either.”


I pointedly ignore Hogarth and started typing up my meeting minutes.


Hogarth lets out a deep sigh. Sliding off his desk he gives a shrug, “Yeah sure don’t mind me, I’m just the 800 pound gorilla in the room.” Shuffling off to the far side of the office, he mutters “man my cousin has such an easy gig.”


Unable to quell my curiosity I look over, “Cousin?”


Hogarth thumps down in the corner, “Oh yeah, he’s got a great gig with AXA Equitable. Getting paid the big bucks to be the ‘are you ready for retirement gorilla.’ TV Commercials, print, web, you name it. You can watch his videos on the web.”




“I’m already saving for retirement, Hogarth. Besides, I’m not getting paid to update my resume or network, I’m getting paid to manage this project. I just don’t have time to worry about my resume.”


Holding up his watermelon sized hands he says “Oh I’m not gonna talk to you about retirement, I’ll send my cousin over to do that, but let me ask you something, do you have life insurance and pay money for it?”


I sigh, “Yes, but…”


“Do you have car insurance and pay money for it?”


“Yes, but…”


“Isn’t it true that time is money?”


I let out a deep, resigned sigh, “Yes.”

*****************************************

Yes folks, welcome to the ‘career management plan’ gorilla. It has got to be one of the most prevalent and avoided gorillas of all times. I know I’ve done it, I’ve watched friends do it, and enough people are making scads of money to help people with it, that there is no denying that this is one big gorilla.

Now folks, let me just start with saying, I’m not saying anything new. The very nature of gorillas, is that they are not new or ground breaking concepts. They are those things we don’t want to face, and are often old and well known.

Michael Auzenne and Mark Horstman have made a business of advising executives and managers on the art of career management. Their Manager Tools podcasts are a must listen for any aspiring executive and a should listen for the rest of us. The November 2009 edition of PMI Network quoted John Challenger, of Challenger, Gray & Christmas when he said, “You should spend 5 percent to 10 percent of your time engaged with organizations and meeting people in your field or industry outside of work.” There isn’t a job board out there that doesn’t advise you to keep your resume current. And if you talk to any successful executives, maintaining their network will be one of the top priorities they list.

Yet, especially in the high tech industry, we task focused professionals all too often bury ourselves in our work, wrapping it around us like a thick blanket of denial. It takes a market upset, a lay off you just escaped or that all frightening appearance of the HR person outside your office who says, “Can I speak with you?”, for most of us to even think about anything but our job, the next release, the next project. Time was, at least so I’m told, that your company and your manager were as focused on your success as they were on the success of the company. Now I don’t want to cast a blanket aspersion on managers, or even companies, but the hard truth is most companies worry about the company as a whole, or the bottom line and managers are often taking care of their own career insurance.

So as I had Tweeted – “Gorilla Talker Tip #2- There is no life insurance for careers, if you don’t manage your career, no one else will.”

So here are some tips I’ve personally found useful, vital and effective. (Again, nothing new, almost everything is something I learned from somewhere else, I’m just the guy talking to the gorilla.)

Listen to the Manager Tools podcasts: I discovered these not long ago and the light that went on, when I started listening, was incredible. I highly recommend “Your resume stinks!”, “Building a Network”, “How to handle headhunters”, and “Contacting Recruiters”, but I am personally in the process of listening to everything in their catalog.

  • Maintain your network: 500 people in LinkedIn is not a network, it’s just a tool. You need to keep in regular contact with your direct network. Set yourself a reminder to contact them at least once a quarter (Horstman calls it the “CTL-SHIFT-K rule”, for the keyboard command to create a task in Outlook). On the LinkedIn front, if someone sends you a INMail or request for an introduction, respond! See the next rule.
  • Give more than you take: Part of keeping up that network is being ready to give of yourself. Whether it’s acting as a reference, sending a job lead someone’s way or even more, don’t keep score and you’ll find it will come back to you.
  • Own your own computer!: I’ve known friends who showed up for work and found the building locked, never to re-open again. I’ve seen people ushered from their cubes, only to return after IT has removed every piece of technology from the cube. You need your own computer and not just to find that next job. You need a secure place for your contacts, your personal career documents, your private email.
  • Maintain a private email address: Don’t just have it lying around for a rainy day. Keep it active, check it often, make it a way for people to get in touch with you. It should be professional! No “I_rock@izzy.com”, get yourself a nice professional address at a mainstream provider or with your own private, but professional domain. For example jbancroftconnors@yahoo.com or Tom@Masterson.com.
  • Point your LinkedIn to an email address you use: How many times have you heard “Oh sorry, I didn’t see your invite, I don’t check this email very often?” Point your LinkedIn to an active email account. Oh, and while we are on LinkedIn, treat this like a resume. Keep it up to date, keep it active and for heavens sake, keep it in sync with your actual resume (more on resumes below).
  • Save your contacts: I’ve committed, this sin, keeping all my contact data in my work Outlook and then losing it all. In today’s internet society, we have no excuse. Once a quarter sync your contacts with your Yahoo, GMAIL, Plaxo, whatever. But to add to that, print it out! Technology is great, but tech fails. Woe betide if you don’t follow the ‘own your own computer’ and you can’t even call people. Oh and cell phones don’t count, not only do a lot of us use company phones, but they are one of the least reliable places for long term information storage. Sure I have an iPhone, but the contacts are from my Outlook and I’ve had to reset my phone more than once.
  • Keep your resume up to date: Better yet create a “Career management document” (CMD). Depending on who you talk to a resume should be no more than one or two pages. A strong career will have a lot more than two pages of information. You could have half a dozen accomplishment that don’t apply to your current work, but if you don’t capture them somewhere, you might lose them. Used to be a crack shot at budgets? Guess what, budget skills are in style again. Still remember your accomplishments from 1998? I personally use a Mind Map. Each box is a job I’ve held and I then have bullets for all the accomplishments I have for that job. When I need a resume, I can pick and pull from each job, to tailor my resume to the position. The other part of this is to maintain it. Once a quarter, 30 minutes a quarter, go through your resume. Not just updating your last job, but the whole thing. Maybe you were working on an integration project and you remembered how you were given a commendation for integration work, ten years ago. Add that to your CMD for that old job. You never know when it will come in handy.

In the end remember the most important rule- Your current job could end at any time, a new once in a lifetime opportunity could come out of the blue, your spouse has to move to Australia, the list goes on. Only one thing is certain…

Change happens.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to talk to a gorilla about a horse.

I’m Joel BC, Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk about your gorilla? Send me an email

*-Special thanks to Mark Nottage, my excellent proofreader and all around skilled tech geek.

Too many cooks in the program team

I can feel my eyes slowly glazing over. I’m not trying to, really. I am doing my absolute best to stay focused and present. After all, technically I am facilitating the meeting, right? Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email




Tuning back into the conversation… discussion… okay let’s call it what it is, the knock-down, drag-out argument. I determine that, yes they are still on the exact same topic and neither side is relenting. I can almost hear the announcer’s voice:


      “And in this corner, weighing in with an MBA from Wharton and a BS in Computer Engineering 
      from UC Santa Cruz…The Product Manager!”


     “In the other corner, with a Masters in Computer Engineering from CalPoly, an electrical engineering
     minor, a minor in physics, and founder of two start ups…The Engineering Manager!”


I try to remember, how exactly the functional spec review devolved into ‘passionate’ discussion on whether one feature should be implemented with Java or .Net. The Product Manager is currently white boarding exactly how the feature would be coded in .Net. Meanwhile, the Engineering Manager is not only disagreeing with him, profusely, but is adamantly stating the feature isn’t what the customer wants and trying to push his own user scenario.


At this point Hogarth leans over and quietly confides in me, “So…just so I’m clear. The Product Manager is trying to engineer the product, the Engineering Manager is writing new user scenarios oh and executive staff isn’t even bought in to the whole product, because our competitor isn’t doing it yet? I got that about right?”


“Shut up Hogarth…” I mutter.


“What? Okay, fine just ignore me. I’m only the gorilla in the room.”

Welcome to the “too many cooks” gorilla. When everyone in the program team is part engineer, part product manager, an expert in QA, and of course a natural salesman (I mean how hard can it be to sell our awesome product, right?).

When exactly did it happen? Take the Product Manager role, for example. Today, if you want to be hired as one in Silicon Valley, you have to be an expert in business and engineering. If you don’t have a double major, you can practically say good bye to the job. Okay so I exaggerate a bit, but it just underlines a trend I’ve watched for the last ten years.

I guess I blame the Dot.Com era. Now maybe that’s using a convenient scapegoat, but it is true that the late 90’s start ups required everyone to wear multiple hats. When I was a product manager, during that time, I had to be not only a product manager, but a business development manager, a salesman, a trade show AV expert, a project manager, a QA tech, a user interface expert and even desktop IT to my coworkers. We all got so used to wearing so many hats, that we started thinking we were good at everything we did. I guess we all forgot the second half of the famous saying. “I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none.”

Flash forward ten years and I’m watching the Engineering Managers trying to shape the product, while Product Managers are trying to code the product, and absolutely nothing is getting done. It’s almost like we’ve lost the ability to trust that the other guy can do his job and we can focus on doing our jobs.

“Isn’t that what I just said?” Hogarth asks in a deadpan voice.

What advice can I offer?

This is one of the biggest and most difficult gorillas that I’ve ever had to deal with. As a project manager, you can easily identify he’s there, but talking about him is not as easy. You certainly can’t tell the Product Manager to “mind your own business and let the engineer code.” Sure it would feel very satisfying, but not all together productive. There are two things I’ve found to be helpful, in facing this gorilla.

1- Support the expert: Of course you can’t come out and say “The engineer makes that decision”, but you can provide support to the expert for a given task. Not only can you facilitate meetings to focus on the ‘expert’ for a given discussion, but make sure you have clear process documentation, with task owners (Engineering owns the functional spec, PM owns the user scenario), clear definitions of documents (what exactly should a Market Requirement Document (MRD) do, as opposed to what an Functionality Requirements Documents (FRD) should do.) It may seem subtle, but it can go a long way to clarifying roles.

2- Ask the right questions: “How does using Java change the user scenario?”, “Don’t you have market data on why this feature is critical?” You’re not really asking questions of course. In true Socrates fashion, most of the questions you ask, you already know the answer to. You are just bringing the answer into the light. Remember though, the questions should support the expert.

And there is one more way to avoid this gorilla. That is to know what you are good at, know what your job is and put faith in your team mates to know the same. But then we are all doing that already, right?

Have any tips for dealing with the “too many cooks, not enough experts” gorilla? Share them here and bring out your inner gorilla talker.

Until next time I’m,
Joel BC
Professional Gorilla Talker
 

WHO IS HOGARTH?

WHO IS HOGARTH?

Welcome to the weekly team meeting!

It’s six months to go until the product ships. We just finished a gripping argument on what constitutes a pass in the QA test benchmarks. I’m not sure but I think we settled on 95% pass rate, it might be 90% I’d have to check my notes. We are now doing a review of outstanding product change orders. Engineering wants to remove a major feature? Their argument is the project is behind schedule and this feature will take to much work. As arguments start to dive into yet another rat hole, you realize that no one is even mentioning that your chief competitor is stealing market share hand over fist with their new release. A new release that is already better then your next planned release.

Not even with Hogarth sitting there the business paper open to an article all about our competition.

Oh, right! Meet  Hogarth. He’s sitting down the table, wedged between the QA director and the product manager, quietly reading his newspaper and ignoring everyone else. It’s a bit of tight fit, but what do you expect from an 800 pound gorilla?

Say hello to the “gorilla in the room”.

The phrase itself is a modification of the English idiom, “the elephant in the room”, Wikipedia defines this as – “An obvious truth that is being ignored or goes un-addressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem no one wants to discuss.  It is based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there might be concerning themselves with relatively small and even irrelevant matters, compared to the looming big one.’  (From Wikipedia )

Like many people in the ‘Valley’, a good friend of mine and fellow Project Manager Wendy WorthingtonBarnes*, likes to call it the “gorilla in the room”; as so often that gorilla takes on the power of the 800 pound gorilla,  “an overbearing entity in a specific industry or sphere of activity” (From UrbanDictionary.com). Just as Microsoft is the 800 gorilla of consumer operating systems, the teams abject denial of the competitors new release is the 800 pound gorilla in the meeting.

I like to refer to the gorilla in the room as “that looming problem that has the power to crush your project into dust and leave the team wondering what was the license plate of the bus they were just tossed under.”

As project managers, we find ourselves facing the gorilla all the time.  Often we are the only ones even willing to address the gorilla, and we run into fascinating challenges in how to get everyone else to face the gorilla. Sometimes it isn’t possible and/or worth trying to talk to people about the gorilla.  When that happens you just find yourself staring at him, doing your best to manage around him and sometimes, since no one else will listen,  talking to him.

That’s what this blog is all about. Observations and stories about the various and sundry gorillas I’ve encountered within my years as a high tech professional. So welcome to my observations, ideas, challenges and triumphs in dealing with the “gorilla in the room”.

Wendy calls her gorilla Stanley.

I call my gorilla Hogarth.

What do you call your gorilla?

Joel BC

Professional Gorilla Talker

 

*- The title of this blog was inspired by Wendy WorthingtonBarnes and I would be remiss without giving her the proper credit. When I wanted to start this blog, my thoughts for a title were very disconnected with what I wanted to do with the blog. She reminded me about the gorilla in the room and how often we face it and the rest, as they say, is history.