Career Advice: Secrets to Success, in the style of GLEE


gleeOccasionally, I am asked for career advice.  Now, I *definitely* don’t have it all figured out (I work from home, and there are days when I’m still wearing whatever I slept in until about 5 minutes before the school bus brings my kiddo home from school), but I have collected a few nuggets of wisdom over the years.  To make it fun, I started mapping advice to popular songs.  So, here are my secrets to success, in the style of Glee. 

Speak Now (Taylor Swift)

Be vocal.  Some people are nervous to ask questions, out of fear of sounding stupid.  But questions help get everyone in the room on the same page, surface issues, and keep you from being blocked in your work.  I’ve worked with people that I have actually respected more due to the quality of questions that they ask.  So asking great questions can make you seem intelligent. 

Similarly, have you ever experienced participating in a brainstorming meeting, and having some half-baked idea?  Since it’s only half-baked, you don’t say it out loud yet.  The meeting continues and then 15 minutes later, someone else says your idea out loud, and the whole room loves it.  Opportunity missed!  In general, the people who speak up are the ones who are remembered.  Speak up! 

Finally, my #1 tip for doing well in interviews is along these same lines: never stop talking.  I say that half-jokingly (obviously, you shouldn’t talk over your interviewer or completely dominate the conversation), but here are the positive aspects of talking up a storm:

  • It demonstrates passion if you are excited about the role and won’t shut up about it.  Don’t force this if it doesn’t come naturally, but if you have a naturally enthusiastic personality, let that shine through!  Most people want to work with other people who are excited and happy to be there. 
  • Ask questions.  Sometimes (not usually for college students, but for hires with some previous work experience), I ask a purposefully vague question to see if they can follow up with clarifying questions and are able to get to the heart of what’s important.  But even general questions (“Should I optimize for speed or space?”, “What do we know about the user?”, etc.) can help focus your efforts in an interview and show that the details matter to you. 
  • If you’re stuck on a question, talking out loud can help.  At some point in an interview, you may get asked a question that you don’t know how to solve.  If you get that frozen “deer in headlights” look, the interviewer can’t really help you.  If you start to talk through the problem out loud, then you are at least sharing your thought process and how you are breaking the problem down with the interviewer.  If you think of an answer that you know is wrong, you can explain that solution and why you disregarded it (which shows your thought process).  Oftentimes this may trigger other ideas, or the interviewer may explain a miscommunication that gets you back on the right track, etc.  But you can’t make progress until you are talking. 

Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About (Bonnie Raitt)

Your manager needs stories about you to show what his team is accomplishing. 

This is important for any job, but it is absolutely imperative when you work on a distributed team like I do.  I live in Michigan, and my manager lives in Minnesota.  I have teammates across the United States.  On any given day, my manager has no idea what I’m doing.  So it’s part of my job to remember to communicate my results to him.  Remember that your manager’s manager will come to him and want to know his team’s status, so it benefits both you and your manager when he has stories to share about the great work you are doing. 

There are a variety of ways to accomplish this: trip reports, one-on-one meetings, summary status calls or emails, etc. 

Respect (Aretha Franklin)

Treat others around you with respect.  Everyone is smarter than you at something, so look for what you can learn from others.  For example, I’ve had a lot of different managers at Microsoft (11 managers in my 12 years at the company).  Some were better managers than others, but I have learned something from every one of them. 

As a girl, I benefitted from various STEM programs to encourage girls to pursue math and science.  So I was hearing about the importance of diversity from a young age.  But I never really “got it” (understood why diversity was important) until my first real job as a developer at Microsoft.  When I got stuck on a coding problem or algorithm, I would ask 3 different people for help.  One was an old-school hardcore developer with a Unix background (yes, he had a full beard and wore shorts in the middle of winter).  The second was a guy with less formal education, but he had a ton of real-world work experience.  The third was a guy close to my age (just out of college) with a strong formal education from a top-tier university, but little real-world experience (he understood the theory but usually hadn’t done it himself).  I would run my problem by each of these very smart guys, and every time, I would get different ideas and potential solutions from each of them.  Then I could take aspects of one idea and use it to improve another idea.  With all of their advice put together, I was able to build the best possible software.  That is why diversity is truly important – lots of different ways of thinking drive better business results. 

Diversity really is important.  Don’t disregard someone because they think about a problem differently than you – respect that and learn from them. 

Luck Be A Lady (Frank Sinatra)

At a Women in Tech conference that I attended many years ago, a speaker stated that “Success = hard work + being smart + luck”.  As a typical Type-A, I was enraged by this.  Luck was part of the equation?  If I’m smart and work hard, I wanted success to follow…having luck in there added a random element that I couldn’t control.  Unfortunately, I think that speaker was correct.  There is luck in success.  For example, on my team we choose technologies in which to dive deep and become experts.  If my teammate Eric chooses technology A and my teammate Joe chooses technology B to focus on, and technology A really takes off and there is worldwide demand for technical experts on technology A for speaking, writing books, etc., then Eric’s career and visibility could get a huge boost while Joe’s does not, even if they work equally hard and are equally smart. 

So.  Focus on working hard and learning, since those are the things that you can control.  When you are passed over for an opportunity, remember the “luck” element – just keep working hard and learning, and it should hopefully even out over your career (sometimes you are in the right place at the right time, and sometimes you aren’t).  If you are continuously having “bad luck”, make a change to improve your odds (find a different job with a more supportive manager, a different technology focus, etc.). 

Be Prepared (Scar from “The Lion King”)

This one is pretty self-explanatory.  You will win your arguments with facts-based reasoning.  In a situation where a group of people needs to make a decision, be prepared!  Oftentimes people debate design decisions or architectural choices, and no one truly knows what will work best.  If you have any concrete data (market research on user preferences or performance numbers from prototypes), that will go a long way to back up your claim. 

Wind Beneath My Wings (Bette Middler)

The point I’m trying to make with this one is around the importance of mentoring and role models.  (Terminology: I consider a mentor someone that I have a relationship with and can call/email for help when I need it, and role models are people that I secretly worship from afar.  Role models are a source of inspiration to me but I can’t call on them for help.)  I have a lot of mentors.  Many of my ex-managers are mentors to me, and I still bug them for advice occasionally.  I also choose mentors based on something specific that I want to learn from them that I think they are really good at – for example, one mentor for blogging, one for work-life balance, one for agile programming, etc.  So you don’t have to have a single mentor for everything.  My work-life balance mentor is a woman with a full-time high-level job at Microsoft and 6 kids.  She isn’t a hardcore developer, but I get tips from her on how she manages not to go crazy, and tips on tech stuff from other mentors. 

Also, remember that women can have men as mentors too!  This may sound obvious, but I’ve had many well-intentioned male managers hook me up with female mentors just so I would have a female to talk to.  This can be useful in many situations (I was nervous about telling my manager that I was pregnant the first time, etc.) but at the beginning of my career, I had a female mentor who wasn’t very technical and not a lot of female-specific concerns (this was before kids) so our meetings were not very useful to me.  A hardcore technical guy would have helped more at that point, since many of my questions were technical.  So, figure out what you need in a mentor, find someone who is really good at that, and ask them to mentor you. 

Finally, I challenge you to pay it forward!  Mentor others, and at some point in your career, either speak or blog.  I’m giving you the choice because I understand there are some folks that are absolutely terrified of public speaking, and blogging may be a better fit.  But both of these activities establish you as an “expert” in some topic, and enable you to be a role model to others.  Once you’ve found your passion, go out and tell the world about the cool tech that you’re building (via blogging or speaking), and inspire the next generation. 

I Love You Always Forever (Donna Lewis)

Find your passion in your industry.  Whatever made you fall in love with computing – databases, gaming, operating systems, compilers, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, natural user interface, web security…whatever it is, keep the fire burning. 

I always tell students: don’t major in Computer Engineering for the money.  We are extremely fortunate to enjoy a career that is highly valued and pays well.  But if you don’t truly have a passion for it, you will burn out or be unhappy.  Remember that you will be doing your job for at least 8 hours/day (or more) every weekday (or more) for 30 years (or more).  :)  If your work doesn’t make you happy, it’s not worth it. 

Oops I Did It Again (Britney Spears)

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  Learn from your mistakes, but don’t be afraid to take on big challenges and try.  At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2010, Rebecca Norlander interviewed a panel of the keynote speakers.  These women were all amazing - Duy-Loan Le (Senior Fellow at Texas Instruments), Carol Bartz (CEO of Yahoo! at the time), Barbara Liskov (professor at MIT and Turing Award winner…yes, of the Liskov substitution principle).  The last question Rebecca asked was “If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be?”  These highly-successful women almost all had the same answer – they would have taken even more risks in their career.  They credited a lot of their success to the big risks they did take. 

Early in my career, I remember a risk I took.  My manager asked me to be the Security Guru for our team.  At the time, I knew very little about security.  Our team at Microsoft had to undergo an extensive security review of our code before we could ship, and I was responsible for making sure our code was ready for the security review.  I was pretty terrified.  :)  I had to learn a lot about security, but I did it and our code passed the review.  Big challenges and risks are how we grow, so don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. 

Lean On Me (Bill Withers)

We all need support to be successful.  Outsource and delegate what you can. 

I have an amazing group of people that support me: my husband who is an equal partner in running the house, my daycare lady who loves my kids like they were her own, my cleaning lady who enables me to spend weekends playing with the kids instead of cleaning…I would not be able to work my crazy job with its crazy travel without them. 

There is a saying: “Time, money, health – pick two.”  At any given time in your life, you have two of these resources and one that is limited.  Early in my career (just out of college, working with no kids), I was healthy and had plenty of time, but not a lot of money.  At my current point in my career, I’m still pretty healthy and I earn decent money, but between work and kids, I have very little time.  Finally, at some point I’ll retire, and I’ll hopefully have money and time again, but my health may be starting to go.  So, I believe in optimizing for the limited resource.  Right now, it is time.  So I’m okay making that time vs. money tradeoff, and perhaps paying more for convenience.  For example, I might occasionally buy a pre-made dinner (which is more expensive) rather than the cheaper option of making everything from scratch myself, to give myself some time back to spend with my kids, or work, or do something that matters more to me than making dinner. 

Don’t Stop Believing (Journey)

Finally, believe in yourself!  There is a phenomenon known as impostor syndrome, in which high-achieving people feel like impostors or frauds that are not truly deserving of their success.  They feel like they are fooling everyone else into believing they are more intelligent than they actually are, and will one day be exposed as an impostor.  Impostor syndrome affects people across the board, but it is especially common in women. 

I can share a personal example.  Many years ago, a male colleague and I were scheduled to present a day-long event with many technical sessions at a large corporation, and we were dividing the session topics between us.  One of the topics was Silverlight, which had just been released at the time.  I didn’t really feel like I knew Silverlight that well…I had read some blog posts, seen a video or two, and downloaded some demos, but I hadn’t written any of my own code with it yet.  My colleague said that he knew Silverlight pretty well, so we agreed that he would present it.  Fast-forward to his talk: he presented a marketing slide deck to developers (which is never a good idea), didn’t show any demos (since Silverlight is a visual presentation-layer technology, you can’t fully appreciate it without seeing it in action), and didn’t do so well answering questions.  It turns out that he had just seen the Silverlight announcements, and yet he felt confident enough that he “knew” Silverlight from that, whereas I (with more actual knowledge, in this particular instance) did not.

In my job, I have seen so many success stories, especially in the “women in tech” space.  Women who are pregnant during demanding times like graduate school, single moms, women from cultures where they weren’t encouraged to work – these ladies all worked through difficult situations and emerged triumphant.  Don’t stop believing in yourself; with the right mindset, we can all accomplish great things. 

 

Links

This blog post originated as a career development talk entitled “Secrets of Success, in the style of GLEE” where I take 10 popular songs and give career advice that relates to each song.  I have presented this talk at the Kentucky Celebration of Women in Computing 2012, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and CodeConnexx.  I’ve included links to some video recordings (so you can see this material in its original format) and blog posts on this talk with summaries and feedback from attendees. 

Video recordings:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQb1ItLeSKA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XCbAaMwFHk

 

Blog posts:

http://vidkrish.blogspot.com/2012/10/ghc12-how-to-get-there-secrets-of.html

https://blog.mozilla.org/it/2012/11/08/liveblog-secrets-and-success-in-the-style-of-glee/

http://community.anitaborg.org/wiki/index.php/How_to_Get_There%3F_Secrets_of_Success,_in_the_style_of_GLEE

http://blogs.cisco.com/diversity/my-experience-at-grace-hopper-celebration-2012/

http://anitaborg.org/news/archive/regional-conferences-impact-at-grassroots-level/

http://planet.mysql.com/entry/?id=35238

http://sites.duke.edu/dukeghc2012/2012/10/24/mary-emily-the-grace-hopper-convention/

http://sites.duke.edu/dukeghc2012/2012/10/16/day-2-more-advice/

 

Playlist of songs, from Moses: http://www.rdio.com/people/mosesngone/playlists/1550655/CodeConnexx/

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