Friday, 20 March 2009

Life after IBM

Finding a new path to follow

Every now and then you come to a point in your life when you are at a fork in the road, you have a choice before you and you know that whichever choice you make, your life will probably end up very different - for example, when you decide what University to go to, or move in with a partner. For me, that is exactly how it feels at the moment. Not so much the decision to move to Canada - of course that was a huge decision to make, but more the decision to leave IBM and "do something different" that came with it.

Thoughts on leaving IBM

I know a number of people who've left IBM in the last year or two - Roo Reynolds, Robert Berry, Ian Hughes and Alan Lepofsky to name just a few (A search on Google reveals many more). Usually there is a good reason - the offer of a fantastic job or the fruition of a plan to set up your own business. I think there must be a "physical law of IBM": An employee will tend remain there unless acted on by an external force!

For me, the choice was not a career choice so much as a lifestyle choice - to be with my wife and help her get her career off to the best possible start with a postdoc position in Canada. It wasn't possible to move to IBM Canada because there was no "pull" from the Canada side. I hoped at first I might do the same job remotely, but that proved impossible. But once I accepted the reality that I would need to leave IBM, thought processes began about what else I might do, I became more and more excited about the possibilities of a fresh start.

I got a huge amount out of working at IBM - experiences of the whole software development cycle, of designing & developing software, leading teams and projects, improving collaboration and productivity, working with customers and users, and developed technical skills in a number of areas, from Java and databases to Web development and Voice technologies. Over 7 years at IBM I grew in confidence from a junior coder to a senior all-round developer.

What next?

I've realised that IBM has given me a fantastic start to my career, and while I could easily continue on that road, this 3 years in Canada is a great opportunity to broaden my skills and experiences and try something completely different. Some people think it's a big risk I took to leave the stability of a job with a multinational, without a job lined up to step into, especially in these times. But I've found that leaving that job behind has opened a lot of doors for me, and given me the time and space to take stock and consider what I'm really passionate about, and what my ideal job would be (an idea I've talked about before in the internal Productivity@IBM podcast and in a previous blog post). As Charles DuBos put it:

"The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."

I've spent a good deal of time considering what really drives me, what kind of work I enjoy most, and what job I would choose. Starting out in a new country is a great time to do this kind of thinking, because anything is possible, and I have no commitments to distract me from any endeavour I want to throw myself into. I've drawn upon various sources for inspiration; one book I've found incredibly useful is "What Color is Your Parachute?".

I'd recommend this book to anyone considering a change of career, it is full of practical tips and takes you through a series of exercises to help you work out what your ideal job is, based on the things you've been most successful with and most passionate about. The main exercise involves writing down a number of things you've achieved that you really enjoyed and are proud of, and then breaking them down to see what skills you used. Once you've done that for several of your successful projects, you can pick out recurring skills, and prioritize them. I came out with this list of my top 6 skills (favourite/strongest first):

  1. Following through, getting things done, or producing in a group
  2. Enabling others to find or retrieve information
  3. Instructing, tutoring, training or teaching an individual
  4. Persuading a group, debating, motivating a group
  5. Translating, programming, developing, improving
  6. Empowering, advising, coaching, counselling, mentoring an individual

Coming up with this list and seeing it written down gave me a great insight into myself; I completely identified with it and thinking back I can see that almost all the things I've worked towards and been passionate about, inside and outside of work, can be linked to one or several of these skills - from promoting the use of wikis and other knowledge sharing tools to improve collaboration inside IBM, to my volunteer work with Nightline and On the Level, and most recently with the work I did overhauling agile process and tooling in IBM's Voice team.

I took further inspiration and insights from John Osborne Hughes and his Creative Visualization Workshop and just this week I caught a podcast by Jonathan Fields at SXSW on being a Career Renegade - that is, someone who makes their own career based on what they're passionate about and making it profitable. I'll certainly be reading his book very soon. Getting used to empty days

You've probably guessed by now that I have figured out my ideal job, but before I reveal my thoughts on that, I wanted to share a little bit about my experiences here for the last month. I found that the adjustment to being without a job and not having a routine has been very hard to get used to - that has been much more difficult to adjust to than getting used to life in a new country. As many of you know, I've been on something of a personal productivity quest for the last couple of years, and I always had that feeling of "if only I had more time". Something that's been a revelation to me is that it's really not about the amount of time you have - for over the last month my time has been pretty much unlimited - even though I've had more time, I've still experienced the same "not quite getting round to things" or not being as organised as I'd like. Mrs Alex has outdone me in terms of keeping a blog up to date for friends and family back home, even though I have had more time as she's been at work. I did have an excuse of almost no internet access for the first two weeks, but the reality is that actually, even though I'm pretty good at getting things done, I'm not that great at starting things, especially when the number of possible things I could start is pretty huge. I think the feeling I've had is best summed up by my very good friend Meg in her blog post Which Dream? where she wrote:

I am used to working every day surrounded by lots of people, where there is always a friendly face, and lots of scheduled work to do. [...] I am not used to working with a completely blank sheet where I imagine, design, create and run every single piece of work that I do from scratch [...]

That's exactly how it's been for me. Even though I have had all day every day to work on whatever I like (once all the household matters were sorted), I have been somewhat paralysed by the number of choices before me and the sense of having a completely clean slate. It's somewhat like when you finish University, and you know you can go into any career you like - the hard thing is deciding on a path and sticking with it. Possible future Alexes

Mentally, I'd drawn up a list of a number of different things I could do in Canada, some short term and some longer term. I've taken small steps towards all them, to kind of test the water a little. Here's my list:

  • I could tutor people in computing - web design, programming, fixing your own computer or helping students with their learning
  • I could work freelance to design & build websites for peple
  • I could coach people on personal productivity
  • I could build tools for collaboration and sell them
  • I could work with teams to make them more effective
  • I could help out with demonstrating/supervising or even research at one of Montréal's 5 universities
  • I could make a website idea I have into a viable business
  • I could just get another tech job.
  • I could do something completely unrelated for a day job, leaving mental energy free for personal tech projects outside of work

Some of these are beginning to seem more possible than others. The Craigslist site has been incredibly useful, I've met someone who will teach me French in exchange for computer help, and someone else who has two web projects which need work (one paid, one bartered for with designer clothes). The forums there show a huge community of people offering services and provide a practical way to offer my services. So being a freelance coach or web designer could be very possible. On the other hand, I spoke to McGill University about helping out there - but they don't employ non-postgrads for supervision work. Since networking will be key for many of these, I've also got involved with tech networking communities and begun to meet local people in the tech industry. My ideal job - Team Productivity Catalyst

Business Team from Flickr
After having had plenty of time to think, I have realised with a lot more conviction what my ideal job is. There is a common thread running through almost all the work that I've done, and that's about helping people, particularly teams, to be more effective and productive, through using better or more customised tools, more sharing and collaboration, listening to people to understand the real problems, and updating processes and approaches accordingly. I now know that my calling is to work with teams to help them become more productive, through a combination of coaching, interviewing, listening, group exercises, installing new tools or even designing and building custom tools where none exist. The job title I have thought of for this is "Team Productivity Catalyst" - though I am open to improvements!

I am not really sure if this exists as a profession - but I'm not going to let that stop me. I am convinced there is a need for this kind of service, there are plenty of teams out there not living up to their potential.

There are personal productivity coaches, but these are a bit different, focussing on individual work management not teams. This would be a subset or slightly tangential to my vision. There are also management consultants, who help managers to manage their teams better. My vision is different from this too - I want to work at a grassroots level, understanding the people in the team and their problems, and work with them to deliver the right combination of training, tools and advice to make them work better. And also there are team-building companies, who specialise in running activities to help teams function better. I think that would certainly be an element of what I will do but my focus will be as much on systems and processes as it will on the individuals and helping them bond.

If you have any thoughts on this idea, I'd love to hear from you, especially if you know of someone who is doing this or something like it. Next steps

So there's the vision. The challenge of course, is making this a reality. I thought that blogging about it might help make it a little more tangible. In the meantime, I think there are a few things I need to do towards bringing this to fruition:

  • I need to get experience of how teams work here in Montréal, how they tick, what problems they face
  • I need to understand the local business climate and how I might sell such a service into it
  • I need to find others who have done similar things, and learn from them
  • I need to bring some money in while getting this off the ground
  • I need to improve my skills around team training and the people side of team building (to complement the systems/process side)

I have been offered, and accepted a web development job with a medium sized company here in Montréal. I start on Monday. This will help me grow my technical & web skills but also help to understand the tech business environment in Montréal. Who knows, there might even be some opportunities to improve team productivity within my role. It'll also give us a more comfortable lifestyle as we'll have 2 incomes instead of one. I am going to work towards a future career in team productivity coaching as a full time pursuit outside of my day job, as Jonathan Fields recommends. So watch this space for future developments! How to combat procrastination

Procrastination on Flickr
I'm going to finish off by sharing a couple of things I've learnt while I've been here and not been working. I've found a trick to help combat procrastination and get stuck into things. I read this on a blog recently but I'm afraid I can't remember where. If there is a job you are not getting started on, all you do is get everything ready to start the task. Open the book, get the necessary paperwork laid out, create the blank document in your Word processor, get those addresses to hand, or whatever you need to do the job, and tell yourself it's ok if that's all you do. Once you are all set up, the resistance to doing the task is actually a lot less and you'll probably end up doing some, if not all, of it. It sounds so simple and unlikely but it really does work!

My other tip is making sure you have clearly defined goals each week. Have a clearly defined list of projects or activities that are your priorities for the week, keep it clearly in focus daily and track your progress towards the goals you've set. This will always bring you back to what is important to you. I'm using an agile development work tracking tool designed for agile teams to set goals for myself and am running one-week sprints with myself! It's working very well this week - as my higher blog output this week is testament to!

Until the next time...


Heri said...

I also went through the same questions; not easy at all to redefine yourself... but you do get stronger from these

For your ideal job, sounds great altough you'd need probably to tell how exactly this is going to benefit businesses. and you'd need to target precisely what businesses you'd like to work with

by the way, speaking of meeting people, there's a 5 à 7 tomorrow you should come up and we'll talk

Alex said...

Hi Heri, Thank you very much for the encouraging words.

I think you're absolutely right, this will succeed or fail on the basis of whether there is a need for it, whether it's something businesses will get benefit from.

I do believe that most teams could benefit from an objective eye to iron out inefficiencies and inspire positive change - but I can see that selling me as the solution to that will not be easy. At the moment I'm researching the area and considering different possible ways of making it work.

I'm definitely coming to the StartupDrinks tonight, so I'll look out for you, look forward to meeting you.

Thanks for reading!