Continuing My Search

It has been about a month since my last post and my job search is ongoing.  I have gotten on site interviews and phone screens at a number of places.  Some of the roles have been very exciting, others not so much.  The hunt has become a bit monotonous so I figured I would take a break and recount some observations I’ve made.  Looking for a job is hard.  When it gets me down, these are some of the techniques I leverage to give me a boost.

The wheels of talent acquisition turn slowly

This has been perhaps the single most frustrating piece of the process.  Resumes submitted to a job posting get tossed into a black hole.  People take weeks to get back to you, if they ever reply at all.  As a candidate, this is possibly the first interaction you’ve had with the internal workings of a company and it normally doesn’t leave a good impression.  I have taken to finding folks with “recruiter” or “talent” in their title on LinkedIn.  I’ll write a quick note asking for more information on the role I have applied for.  More often than not, this gets me past the automated resume screening and to a real person.  From there, interviews take days to set up while you’re sitting at home thinking, “Call me right now, I’m ready!”  Remember that they’re working and have other stuff to do.  Understanding this can help relieve the frustration you’re bound to feel.

Keep learning professionally

You can’t surf Indeed and LinkedIn all day every day.  You can’t apply to jobs, tune your resume, and write cover letters from dawn to dusk.  Take a break and keep your skills sharp.  I’ve found Udemy to be a great resource for some cheap training.  I’ve completed a course on Kubernetes and am in the middle of a course on Python.  I’ve also completed a professional certification: Amazon Web Services Cloud Practitioner.  All are associated with my skillset, but only the AWS cert was based on professional experience.  The other two are totally new topics to me and gave my brain something else to focus on while rounding out my knowledge.  Searching for a job is draining and having a distraction for your mind is important.

Keep learning personally

Lounging about is fun and while I certainly do that on occasion, I try to focus on keeping active.  Whatever your passions, devote time to them with intention.  While being unemployed sucks, it is also a time of freedom.  I’ve picked up a new hobby, a vegetable garden, and spent extra time with my chickens and bees.  I also brew beer and work on my 1979 Land Cruiser.  I’ve learned a bunch on small engine repair (my lawnmower busted) and have dropped a few trees that were over shading the backyard.  The last one wasn’t a passion exactly but who doesn’t like using power tools?  You have the time to pursue your passions – do it!

Don’t lose heart

A job hunt can be depressing.  There’s no way getting around it – the majority of places you apply will reject you.  Sometimes you’ll understand why, sometimes you won’t.  It is important to remember that it isn’t personal.  Employers don’t know you well enough and make decisions based on your CV or a LinkedIn profile.  You can’t let it get you down.  I’ve been rejected from ~20 roles at this point, about twice a week.  I wasn’t all that jazzed about all of them but there were certainly some I was excited about.  It is really hard to be told “no” over and over again.  But I know the right role will come along and I’ll be better for it.  As I said in my last post, I can’t settle.

You can review my LinkedIn profile here:

Do you have some other suggestions for keeping positive during a job search?  Please leave them in the comments below!


Back From My Career Break

One of the hardest things I have ever done in my career is handing in my resignation to DellEMC.  I didn’t leave for another position but rather to hike the Appalachian Trail.  I departed work on April 6, 2018 to pursue an item on my bucket list.  I left behind a team that I adored.  They were vibrant, smart, motivated, and kind – best of all, they put up with me!  Saying goodbye on that team call was very emotional and heartfelt.  But, truly, I would do it all again.

I have been working for nearly 20 years in IT and have held positions with only two different companies.  I suppose it is four if you count being acquired – Genzyme by Sanofi and EMC by Dell.  In my experience, staying for long periods of time within organizations is rare in the technology industry.  Folks seem to move around a lot.  I stay put because I like to cultivate relationships.  The bonds of a team don’t form in a year or two and I believe that as a leader, you need to be in it for the long haul.  These relationships are what made leaving so difficult.  But it was something I needed to do.  I felt burnt out, stressed, and wasn’t able to give my best to the job anymore.  For a lot of reasons, a simple vacation wasn’t the answer.  I had tried that and couldn’t get the fire back.  I owed better to my team.  A change was needed and a drastic one at that.  I needed to take a break from working, a break without worrying about returning to a job.  I tried to get a Leave of Absence / Sabbatical but that didn’t work out.  At that point, I decided to resign.  For why I chose to hike the AT, you can check out this post on  Suffice to say, for the first time in my professional life, I was unemployed.

And now I am back.  I cut my hike short because being away from my family proved to be more painful than the joy hiking brought me.  I hiked the southern half of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to the West Virginia / Maryland border.  I learned a lot about myself in those 1000+ miles.  I believe I have returned a better father, husband, and person.  Being free from the responsibilities of daily life, focusing only on one foot in front of the other, was amazing.  It is easy to get caught up in the frenetic energy that surrounds us – be it work, home, or whatever.  We are generally busy people and slowing down brings that chaos into focus.  It allowed me to put everything aside for 10 weeks and just walk.  All I had to worry about was food, water, and where I was going to pitch my tent that night.  I certainly found a lot of other things to worry about, but the simple essentials were what centered me.  I also learned to be grateful for what I had, for others lending me a hand, and for my family and friends for their support.  I didn’t realize the network of care that surrounded me until I had to rely completely upon it.  I learned to be extremely thankful.  All of this has made me more intentional about the balance in my life.

As I return to the workforce, I would like a role working toward an end that I believe in – helping people, solving problems, making a difference in a true and meaningful way.  A company churning out generic widgets to make a buck isn’t for me.  I need an employer that values a balance between work and home.  My family is hugely important to me and I am a devoted father.  I am also a loyal and passionate team member.  I want to bring my rediscovered energy back into my work.  I will run through walls for my team.  I’m hoping to find a role leading a smart group of people doing exciting work in technology.  I am confident in my abilities and know that I will make a positive impact on any organization that I join.  If you believe I might be a fit for a role you have, I would love to speak with you.

– Chris

Dealing With the Stress

The seminal event of the year for my team is approaching and with it, the stress level of most is on the rise.  EMCWorld is a big deal for vLab.  It is our most public event and is, to steal from economic / political dialogue, too big to fail.  Every year we add capacity, functionality, and content specific for the show in support of EMC’s business.  The show basically consumes the first half of the year and places the proverbial “eye of Sauron” directly on vLab.  With all of this attention and publicity comes a lot of stress.  It has, at times, boiled over but for the most part the team does a good job holding it together and to date, each show has been considered a large success.  I want to use this post to comment on how managers can manage not only their own stress but also that of their teams.  Both are critical pieces and merit discussion.

There is a ton of information out there on stress management – a quick google will get you there.  Here are some of the general results:

They all mention a variety of things: eat well, get sleep, learn relaxation techniques, learn your triggers.  All of this will make you more healthy and make things, in general, more enjoyable.  Work is listed as an obvious source of stress and is a trigger for many people.  As leaders, stress at work has an impact not only for ourselves and our own well-being but also on our teams.  Managing stress becomes a benefit for ourselves and for the quality of our leadership.

One observation I’ve made over time is that a leader’s personal stress is picked up on by a team.  A group will take on the tone and tenor of a leader and if that leader is noticeably stressed, the team will be as well.  Having a stressed team, while valuable at times (urgency is needed, even if it adds stress) can erode morale over time.  Managing one’s own stress is an obvious technique for helping with this.  If it doesn’t exist, stress won’t be apparent and hence won’t creep into your team.  Given the impossibility of eliminating stress, we are challenged to isolate that stress from our teams.  This can be done in a variety of ways but one of the most important is to watch tone when communicating with your team.  There are subtle ways that stress can creep in – your temper is shorter, your default urgency level rises, and you can become more demanding.  Many of us also tend toward more of a micro-management style as our own personal stress level increases.  None of these help your team – who in the end are the very folks who will deliver for you, reducing the pressures of the job.  It is important to keep that stress isolated from your team – or at least isolate the negative aspects.  This takes a lot of self awareness and practice – it’s not easy.  We must also give ourselves a break and recognize that stress is a natural reaction to tense situations and can’t be eliminated.  When recognized, I have found that taking the proverbial breath and re-engaging can be effective.  It is also worth reaching out to people if they have been directly affected.  Simply apologizing and explaining why something occurred can go a long way.

I chose the word “isolate” in the previous section for a very specific reason.  Isolate does not mean hide. Being transparent with my team about my stress factors is another means to combat them.  I like to let my team know when I’m stressed and more importantly, why I’m stressed.  This is not done with the full weight of the stress but as information.  Explaining why you’re pushing something or why a deliverable is suddenly very important leads to better understanding within your team.  And I’ve found that when people understand why they’re doing something, they tend to produce at a higher rate.  What we’re doing tends to be easier to do if we know why we’re doing it.  It’s the same reason I was always better at doing the dishes than I was at making my bed.  Doing the dishes lets me eat again, making my bed… not so much.  Discussing the stress also helps to lessen it simply by sharing it.  As a leader, it is not necessary to carry all of the weight for a team.  Hand the team a part of the boulder, don’t drop it on their head.

The last point I would like to touch on concerns stress within your team.  Just as there will be stress in your own life, as a leader, we must recognize that there will be stress within our teams.  We must learn to see it in individuals and respond to it effectively.  Ignoring it will only lead to burn out and responding to it incorrectly only exacerbates the issue.  Ongoing touch points and communication is a key factor in reducing stress.  Simply asking someone how they’re doing goes a long way.  Be sincere and listen to the answer.  You might get some praise or a complete vent.  You have to listen and respond – commit to help if asked.  Some people don’t like to share and that is fine as well.  I have a simple rule around this that I have implemented in many of the teams that I have managed.  I tell everyone, top to bottom, “If you need a break, call me, tell me, and take a day, no questions asked.”  There is nothing so important in our jobs that a day’s delay is worth more than the mental health of someone on your team.  If you want people to produce beyond the next task or deliverable, you have to see ahead.  Don’t focus on the fire that needs to be put out today, save the firefighter for the next ten.  It will go a long way and it is simple.  Give those that work for you the break you’d like once in a while.  We all look forward to the weekend for a reason.

– Chris

To be or Not to be, A Manager

There came a time for me, relatively early in my professional life, when I saw saw two distinct paths I could take with my career.  I could continue in the technical track and aspire to a consultant level role, demonstrating mastery in a particular technical arena.  Or I could pursue a role in management, leading teams and organizations and putting them in the best position to be successful.  I chose the latter based on a number of factors not the least of which was that reading manuals and configurations guides isn’t something that grabs me.  I believe that individual contributors that show leadership ability will (or at least should) eventually be faced with this choice.  Neither path is the de facto correct one – it is based on each individual’s situation and aspirations.  I’m going to address some of the forces at work in this decision, using my own situation as an example throughout.

Owning one’s career path is something every should feel empowered (and responsible) to do.  No one will advocate on your behalf if you don’t step up to the plate.  With this in mind, the choice between a technical role and a management role should be carefully considered.  Some will argue that there are positions that split the difference – often these are called “technical manager” or “working manager”.  While I don’t dismiss the idea out of hand, I do question its validity.  In small organizations, I can certainly see it.  Small team, not a ton of funding, small scope – plausible for someone to manage the team as well as participate in the day to day responsibilities of the group.  As you move into larger organizations, however, “working manager” sounds more like “We know we need a manager but we don’t have the headcount so can you do two jobs at once?”  I believe this is an awful place to put someone and while some may see it as a stepping stone, I fear that this type of role splits time such that to succeed in one set of responsibilities, one must give up on the other.  Or simply commit the necessary hours to be successful at both (bye bye work/life balance).  I’ve laid this out as black and white and I know gray exists.  I’m always wary of job descriptions of this kind.

Assuming you’re faced with a choice between a technical role or a managerial role, what factors should you consider in deciding which road to take?  The primary question here is always a simple one in my mind – “What do you enjoy doing?”  At it’s core, this should really be the driver for your career.  There are other factors that certainly come into play but if you’re not happy doing what you spend 40, 60, 80 hours a week doing, it weighs on you.  While this is certainly a subjective factor, I believe it should come first in the conversation and not lower down the list.  The decision between a technical role or managerial role becomes clarified when viewed in this light.  You’re in a technical field because you like technology – that is a given.  Do you like working directly on technology, developing solutions or do you prefer leadership and growing people?  Do you prefer working in Visio or working in PowerPoint?  These roles have fundamentally different sets of responsibilities which translates to a different “day in the life” and a good indication of which will make you more satisfied at work.  I don’t want to oversimplify this decision as it a difficult one but first and foremost ask yourself, “What is going to make me happy?”

In an ideal world, personal happiness would be the only driver and we wouldn’t have to consider anything else.  But this is reality and of course, there are other pressures.  The first factor that comes to many people’s mind is salary.  Generally speaking, the ceiling for a management track is higher in terms of salary but for lower level management, the scale is usually tipped toward the technologist side.  This changes as one rises up the management career path but generally, you don’t become a Director overnight.  In my own personal experience, becoming a manger didn’t accelerate my salary as quickly as I thought it would.  Of course I was completely ignorant of the facts at the time!  I was lucky in that I also knew what would satisfy me professionally so my personal happiness and financial goals aligned.  If financial pressure outweighs personal happiness and you are leaning toward pursuing the higher ceiling rather than your own fulfillment, I’d caution against chasing the paycheck.  In the end, I don’t think it outweighs going to work with a smile on your face coming home the same way.

Opportunity will also often play into this decision.  If you have been career planning with your manager and have indicated a desire to consider a management role, know that they do not come along often in organizations.  If an opportunity does arise, you need to make the decision one way or the other and know that you are probably making it for at least the medium term.  There is opportunity cost of another type as well.  I’ve often heard sentiment that, “They only knock on the door once, you’d better answer.”  That is unfortunately, for many environments, accurate.  If you are offered a role and turn it down, it likely won’t come around again for a while.  That said, if you have a good relationship with you boss, this isn’t insurmountable.  If a management role is what you want, but you have concerns with the role being offered or your preparedness, be open with you boss.  Look to understand the support you can expect.  Transparency is key in this discussion.  Don’t be overconfident only to flame out.  If you’re worried about losing you technical edge, discuss that too and ways in which you can maintain it.  Management roles provide a constantly changing set of issues and puzzles, akin to the changing technology landscape that technical individual contributors have to deal with.  The skill sets required to tackle each are certainly different but both are challenging.  If you decide to go after a management role, keep the dialogue open with your boss constantly.  That way, when an opportunity arises, you be able to assess it accurately and discuss your concerns openly.

The final factor in this decision doesn’t apply universally but I believe occurs frequently enough to discuss.  Many times, if an organization is inclined to promote from within, you may find yourself in the position of managing people who were once your peers.  While this can be a tough situation, I would not let it dissuade you from taking a role.  If people have issue with reporting to you because you once shared a metaphorical cube, that is their issue and not something your are responsible for.  Open communication is key but do not feel bad if someone doesn’t adjust well.

If your decision is still muddy, there are certainly roles that strike a balance between technology and management.  These roles have titles like technical program manager or team lead or technical lead.  They certainly vary by organization but in general these are roles with some good technical depth but that also layer in the leadership that many find appealing about management (and without the paperwork!)  These jobs are never all technical or all management so if you are unsure about where you career should take you, these are options to help you test the leadership waters without diving in.  They will all help to develop skills necessary in management without committing you to a pure management role.

I have great respect for both career paths I’ve discussed here and while my decision was fairly simple, I know that many struggle with it.  The pressures of personal happiness, finances, opportunity all play into this choice.  Nothing is wrong with either option – you have to pick the one that is right for you.

Balancing Work and Home

This may seem like an odd topic for a leadership blog but I think encouraging work / life balance is an important (and very difficult) thing to do within technology teams.  High performing teams are typically made up of individuals who enjoy what they’re doing for work.  It would be odd to see a team that functioned well if some or all hated their jobs.  For people that enjoy their jobs, the lines between work time and leisure time can become blurred.  As technology is so rapidly changing, technologists may use their free time researching to stay current or working in their home lab.  It is difficult as a leader to, on the one hand, drive the team to meet deadlines while on the other, tell people it’s time for a break.  While certain past experiences (read, burn out) have forced me pay mind to this balance in my own life, I have found it difficult to force those on my teams to do the same.  I suppose vacations cannot be dictated but I believe there are other ways to push people away from work, if only for a short time.  As leaders, this skill is essential to protect the team against overwork, low morale, or even, in the extreme, outright mutiny (that never ends well for the captain).

I believe that technology fields off two unique challenges to the balance between work and home.  The first I’ve already alluded to – it changes so rapidly.  It is necessary to learn outside of normal working hours (as companies usually don’t allow enough time for training) because an outdated technologist is not going to be successful.  Those of us in technology also like to learn and understand the bleeding edge because it is new and exciting.  So while others may surf the latest entertainment blogs or sports sites, we figure out how to write that piece of code or find out if the bug we’ve run into is fixed in the next beta release.  I’m not saying this is true for everyone of us but I believe that, for technologists, a lot of our down time is closer to work than other fields.  This presents challenges for balancing work and home as the line between the two becomes foggy.

The other unique hurdle for technologists (at least those in any sort of operations role) is the idea of being on-call.  While most occupations have set hours with some expected overflow, I have slept next to my phone ever since I joined this profession.  It can ring at any time and it is expected that I answer it.  I’m not putting technology jobs above others, just saying that “carrying the pager” makes technologists different.  We are certainly well compensated as a result but this does however force the lines of work and home to become more vague.  Unless I’m on vacation, I don’t shut my phone off or leave it at home.  Maybe that’s just me and others are better but it makes me anxious to be without that little communication device.  And when I carry the phone, I tend to check and respond to email and thus my workday extends.  The benefits my company gets for shelling out for the device and monthly plan are enormous.

So with these things in mind, how do leaders prevent their team members from tipping the balance in their lives too far toward their job?  This is a huge issue in the US (where success is judged primarily by economic status) and is something I face on a daily basis.  There are a couple of methods I use – one direct and one more indirect – to combat this.

I’ll start with the more indirect of the two.  This idea is around managing expectations and while that may seem a little odd to connect to work / life balance, I promise I’ll get there.  I have a simple rule that I employ with my teams: make commitments and hit them.  If you are unable to meet the expectation on delivery, let me know as soon as possible.  This does a couple things for me.  It makes planning simpler as I generally know when to expect deliverables and if they slip, I know as soon as possible.  As a manager, it is important to deal with misses in a rational way.  Delays will happen, that is a fact.  When they do, reacting with anger or insane disappointment is out of line.  If you do, your team won’t trust you and will let you know of delays only as a last resort.  That only gives you less time to re-plan, reset expectations, and adds tension – not a positive outcome.  Your team must trust in your response and know that you are on their side.  It also helps to guide your team on setting expectations.  If you are forgiving without being a doormat, people will add less padding to their work estimates, ending up with more accuracy.  Reiterating the importance of making and meeting commitments along the way serves to solidify this.  All of this serves to make work more predictable and reduces the chaos of the multiple workstreams / projects / skunk works efforts that are common in a technical environment.  This helps work / life balance tremendously as it fundamentally changes the way the team works.  Rather than jumping from rushed deadline to rushed deadline, the team can plan and when a day to catch your breath is necessary, you can take it rather than having it domino a ton of efforts out of control.  The work itself “slows” and the team knows that their leader has their back and understands that sh*t happens.

The other part of this indirect method is to hone your skill at managing up.  Just as your team will set expectations with you, you must set expectations above.  As you develop trust with your team and get better and better work estimates and flow, your ability to be predictable to upper management will improve.  Ideally, this predictability brings trust and with it, some calm.  Unfortunately, that may not always be the case and many of us have dealt with management that never seems satisfied or appreciative.  In these cases, it is important to remember that, as leaders, we must act as buffers to our teams.  Be honest with them as to the pressure you’re facing and never toss them under the bus to your management.  It is our job as leaders to own that responsibility and manage expectations.  Doing so is critical for both the sanity of the team and your own well being.

The more direct method of dealing with work / life balance concerns being in good communication with your team.  It is important to know how the individuals on your team are doing, both within and outside of the workplace.  You don’t need to be friends with everyone (that’s a personal decision and a different post) but as leaders, it is important to know the pressures facing your team, no matter the source.  The ability to sense work overload or other sources of stress is a critical leadership skill.  In a perfect world work would be stress free and while it can be managed, work is never free of stress.  There are times when as leaders, we must react and do so in support of our team, potentially at a cost to a project.  In the long run, the team will appreciate it and the business will benefit through increased morale and work output.

A couple of examples to illustrate the point… you might have an employee who suddenly changes his or her performance.  Normally she is great and enthusiastic but lately has been quiet and might have missed some commitments.  Don’t delay addressing this as it may compound with time.  Faced with an under-performing employee, some managers will make the conversation simply about that and simply send the “pick it up” message.  That isn’t my approach.  If you have someone that is traditionally a good performer, the benefit of the doubt should be given 100% of the time.  I start these types of conversations with, “Are you OK?”  I mention that I’ve seen a change and want to know how she’s doing.  I do this because I truly care and also because I want to know what I can do to help.  Employees will share to varying degrees based on their personality and level of comfort with you.  Regardless of the degree of disclosure, it is important that your team knows that you care.  Just asking and sensing tone or if in person, body language, can give you insight.  Once you have it, it is important to act.  If you sense someone is over-stressed, pick a day, call her up and tell her to take the afternoon off.  If pressed, it is a reward for a job well done.  These small acts may have more of a positive effect then you know and only come at the cost of a few hours.

Another situation you might run into is an employee who comes to you with a personal concern.  It might be that a parent is ill or they have an auto repair that they need to get done but haven’t been able to find the time.  Given this type of situation, I immediately offer time away from work.  Family has been and always will be more important than the job and as a leader, it is important that you reinforce this to your team.  The belief that one might be viewed as under-performing if we need to ask for time only serves to compound personal stressers and can dissuade us from requesting it.  As a leader, offer it.  It takes a lot of pressure off folks if they know you’re supportive and won’t respond with, “That’s nice, now back to work.”  These situations won’t always be as obvious as I’ve presented here so it is important to build your skill in reading your team.  It takes time but putting the balance of work and home front of mind for yourself and your team will go a very long way.  It is critical to our development as leaders.