Selling Your Soul

“Is it more important how much money you make or how you make it?”

That was the question posed by my 8th grade history teacher. After an awkward pause, a student chimed in that the amount of money was most important.

“Drug dealers make a lot money”, the teacher shot back.

He didn’t need to explain. We all understood his point that how one made a living is as important, if not more, than how much one earns.

I thought back to this exchange while I had lunch with a friend today. Both of us are close in age and about halfway through our careers, most of which has been in technology. We both have young families, and spouses who have put careers on hold to raise young children.

He asked me what direction I planned to take my job search. I asked him what he’d do if his company kicked him to the curb. Neither of us had an answer, but I suspect the days of selling our souls to a big company are over.

When I moved to Seattle in 1994 there was a buzz in the air. The internet was set to take off, and a new version of Windows was around the corner. Netscape was about to become a household name and kick off the dot com era.  Microsoft had replaced with the carrot with stock options and was dangling them in the face of anyone who could help them crush the upstarts.

With Boeing locked in labor issues, Microsoft and Amazon were seen as saviors. Thousands of small companies sprung up to ride the internet wake. And if that didn’t work, ride the coattails of these two titan of tech. I worked for one company that partnered with Microsoft, and two that didn’t. Guess which company is still in business?

Jobs were plentiful. So plentiful that I never really had to look for a job because the job would find me. One recruiter took me to lunch to sell me on an opportunity. He asked if I had a resume, and I shrugged, “Why?”

When nearly every company is hiring and wages are high, it’s rare that one considers the flip side which is what’s happening today. Microsoft has laid-off over 5000 employees over the past couple of years. Sure, they have hired back some of those, but many more have left on their own before being forced out. In the mid 90’s Microsoft was the place to work in Seattle. Now it’s just another big company “optimizing itself for shareholder value”.

This brings me to the question posed by my history teacher.

One of my jobs at Microsoft was to share information about the direction of our software with partners who directly increased sales of our products. It wasn’t always easy to determine who was selling for our against us. But I had information they needed to innovate and stay out ahead of us. Those companies that received the information lived to do business another day. But many of those that didn’t were crushed by our next release.

If the two ends of the spectrum were drug dealer and school teacher, I have little doubt which I was closer to. And yet, part of me feels relieved that I worked for a large company who cared enough to at least save their friends, or at least friends who increased revenues.

By starting my own company, I’ve inched my way towards the middle of the spectrum. It may take a few more years before all that corporate greed and grime is out of my system. I love not having a boss who tells me to “remove the human element” from the decision and do what’s best for the shareholders, as if the two are mutually exclusive.

I wish jobs were as easy to find as the last time I was searching. They are harder to come by today, but that’s given me time to consider what I stand for and how I intend to support my family for the second half my career.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know my focus will more on the how and less on the how much.

What Accomplishment Are You Most Proud Of?

By referral from a friend, I got a call from the HR manager at a large Seattle based company that’s not Microsoft or Boeing. Or Starbucks. Although, working for Starbucks could be fun, I don’t think I could attain the required level of jauntiness each morning.

She asked if I’d be interested in a number of open positions with her company. After she explained the positions I told her I was interested.

The hiring manager emailed me two job descriptions. I prepared for the interview as best I could which wasn’t difficult because I’ve been a customer of this company for many years and am familiar with many of their products and services.

The first few interviews would take place over the phone, and I had my first one last week. I kept my answers short since I couldn’t count on nonverbal cues to assist me there. Most questions were the open ended scenario type. For example, “You recognize a business opportunity that would drive significant revenue. How do you pitch it to your boss?”

And then the interviewer tosses in a few hurdles as I explain my plan. But nothing too intense.

I felt the interview was going well, as best I could tell. But I’ve been hired after what I thought to be a poor interview and been passed over after feeling confident I rocked it.

And then she asked me a question that caught me off guard a bit: “What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?”

I know the game. This is where I’m supposed to spout of a well rehearsed tale of how I took the reigns of the over-budget software project and gently guided it to completion. Or how I flew across the country to placate an important and upset client thereby saving the account and our quarterly bonuses.

I had a list of inflated stories to tell recruiters right out of college so surely I’d have a collection of real-world Superman stories to tell fifteen years later. Certainly they’d be right there on the tip of my tongue.

But they weren’t.

So I gave what felt was the honest answer: “The accomplishment I’m most proud of being the father of four children and, with my spouse, raising them to be cheerful, confident and productive adults one day.”

As those words escaped my lips, I immediately thought, “Oh crap,what did I just do?”

I don’t know what answer the interviewer expected, but if the silence on the line is any indication, I don’t believe it was the answer I gave. And that’s OK, because it’s the truth. Because I’m done answering interview questions with hyperbolized answers even if that means I don’t make it past the phone interview stage.

When I interviewed for my first job at Microsoft, I’d been prepped by a squad of handlers who wanted to see me join their team. I’d memorized all the requisite buzzwords and knew what questions to expect. Of course, I nailed the eight interviews only to land in a position I dreaded.

So I may not get this job at this large Seattle company with great benefits and well prepared interviewers.

But I’ll still be Superman at home.

At least until the next time my son conks me on the head with a Nintendo controller.

What’s a Real Job?

“Are you going to get a real job?”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question. I believe most people define a “real job” as one that requires reporting to an office at a designated time each day to participate in the rituals we all recognize from Office Space.

I’m don’t know how to answer the question because I don’t know what a real job is anymore.

But whenever I’m asked the question, I’m reminded how much time I’ve spent sleep-walking through life. I don’t know if it has to do with how I was raised or the church with which I’m affiliated or my natural inclinations. It’s probably a combination of each. But I feel as though many of my friends and family are supportive of my decisions as long as I color within the lines when it comes to managing my career.

And not just my career but many of the major decisions I’ve made over the past 40+ years. When faced with a decision, I’ve often selected the path of least resistance because, well, explaining a desire do otherwise leads to confused looks and far too many questions. Only later do I kick myself.

I’m not saying that many decisions didn’t turn out well. Just that some were made giving no consideration to alternatives. Some of these feelings come from being raised in a Mormon family where members are taught to fall in line, turn the other cheek and don’t do anything outsiders could consider batsh*t crazy.

Despite all that, I’m happy with how how my family is evolving. It’s not always smooth, but I like what I see in my children day to day. Until a few months ago, 60 hours of my week was spent outside our home. At best,  I was a part of their lives for a few hours each weekday. Now I see them more in a day than I did in a week.

Kim and I walked around the track at our local middle school last night. Our kids played on the football field as we walked. Every few minutes one of them would run over to us, tell us something in their out-of-breath voice, then run off to play again.

Other than Luca begging for ice cream,I don’t remember much of what they said. But I enjoyed how they kept us involved in their conversations.

We walked a few miles before loading the kids in the van and driving home. When I pulled into our driveway and turned off the car, my 3-year old son began yelling, “Get me out, Dad, get me out!” 

I know the feeling. Wear, say, and behave this way. Get me out!

I want to raise children who color outside the lines like Anna who twirled her way around the football field last night.  I want to encourage them to respectfully question the status quo. I want them to do well in school but not at the expense of suffocating an inquisitive soul. I want them to be as mindful of how they treat others as they are about their assignments and grades.

I want each of them to figure out what brings them joy and pursue that. I don’t want them to be like me at 43 years old and say, “I wish I had become a teacher.”

But that would put a stop to the “real job” questions.

Just Make The Phone Number Bigger

A few years back when business owners decided to jump on the blogging bandwagon, I was asked to come up with ideas for starting a company blog. When our CEO got wind that he’d be expected to occasionally post his thoughts online, that plan was nixed.

The company I worked for at the time created technical training courses, and it made sense that our customers would expect to learn about, sample and purchase our products online. I decided if I couldn’t talk the executives into getting behind a company blog, I’d convince them to allow me to update the website.

Sales through the website were considered a necessary nuisance. Most sales came over the phone and were easily tracked to an employee earning a commission. But sales through the website weren’t easily tracked back to an individual. No whipping boy. Sales would increase for a few months and then stagnate over a holiday weekend. Someone needed to be held responsible for the poor sales and yelling at a website isn’t as enjoyable or effective as yelling at sales reps.

Once I gained approval to update the site, I recruited a designer from another division to help me. Over the next few weeks, we updated the branding, layout and product descriptions. Basically, we gave the site a more modern look while simplifying the navigation.

The new site went live and sales soared.

I was excited. My manager was excited. At the next company meeting, our CEO gushed over the sales totals for the month, and I expected everyone would be happy for us. And most were.  Near the end of the meeting, anyone could chime in with suggestions such as which products to spotlight on the homepage. I often collected customer testimonials at this time, and would later add them to the site.

After a short discussion, the sales manager said, “Just make the phone number bigger”.

Clearly, she viewed the website as a billboard. Customers would come to the site to locate our phone number and then call one of our sales reps. She did not view the site as a tool to drive more sales.

A few years after this experience, I found myself working at another technology company that did not have a website. That’s hard to imagine, but in 2008, we did not have a website open to the public. I worked with the same designer to create a website that provided information about the services we provided. It was a very simple site but served our needs.

At the final review with my manager, before we took the site live, I asked for his input. All features had been locked so what I was looking for were bugs and/or obvious mistakes. That’s when my boss said, “Can you add a scrolling stock ticker to the top of the homepage?”

It was difficult not to burst out laughing. But he was serious. He viewed the site as a portal such as My Yahoo or iGoogle and wanted a site that employees would set as their default homepage. I viewed the site as a way to inform and interact with our customers.

The lesson I learned was that company execs often view the power of the web much differently than those of us who grew up immersed in technology. While we view the web as a tool to improve sales or market our services, others shun the impersonal nature of it. We have no problem posting our opinions on Twitter or blogs. But not everyone is comfortable with that level of sharing or promotion.

The sales manager who asked me to make the phone number bigger was afraid how her crew would react if the phones stopped ringing. Once we worked together to figure out a way to compensate them for sales that came through the site, they got on board with us. We updated the site to focus on the quick sale while encouraging those interested in our more expensive products to call us for discounted pricing.

Next time I’m asked to assist in the creation of a company website, I’ll build in time to educate those who don’t know Flash from Silverlight.

More Time For Rollerblading

Just over 11 years ago, I jumped off a bus in the middle of downtown Seattle. From there I walked the last few blocks to my office located in one of the older buildings surrounded by modern sky-scrapers. Honestly, my morning walk was the most interesting part of my day.

Would I catch the woman placing her wooden sign on the corner announcing to the neighborhood her flower shop was open for business? Of course, the coffee shops were bustling with suits desperate for their morning brew. The post office didn’t open till 9 am but patrons began lining up at 8:30.

These were the people that become part of my morning routine.

 mrSmiley

But this morning would be anything but routine. As I made my way up the well-worn stairs of the Skinner Building, I was met by our HR manager. I didn’t know her well. I joined the company during its infancy. A time when an HR manager was a luxury we could not afford.

“Don’t go easy on them” was all she said as I passed her. Don’t go easy on whom?

As I made my way down the hall, I noticed a group had gathered in our only conference room. What was going on? It wouldn’t take long to find out.

The company had run out of money. Nor could a suitor be found to keep us afloat. The president of the company announced that today would be our last day of work. The Seattle office would be shut down. The HR manager’s words now made sense: “Don’t go easy on them.”

Yet there was little that could be done. Today’s paycheck would be the last. Medical benefits would cease, and the company would not provide severance.  Only a few people asked questions. I stood there in a daze hoping my paycheck would clear before walking down the steps and back into the city.

My brother-in-law and I worked together for the last few months and decided to celebrate the company’s demise by Rollerblading at the park. As we made our way down the path leading out of Woodinville we chatted but said little about what had happened earlier that day.

But we both knew the day was coming. Our managers stopped coming by the office. The phones stopped ringing and there was constant talk that paychecks wouldn’t be cut on time.

So when the news hit, it’s hard to imagine many were surprised.

I compare that moment to what took place two weeks ago. This time in a conference room in Redmond with about 25 employees hearing their jobs with the company would shortly disappear.

But this time nobody saw it coming. Anger was replaced with shock. As I tried to comprehend how I’d explain the situation to my spouse, I looked around the room at the faces I know well, many of which I hired. And not only hired, but convinced to join our company with hopes of acquiring valuable technical skills and and the opportunity to see various parts of the world.

As I began my job search last week, I thought back to that care-free, Rollerblading spirit of years past and realized that break and chance to clear my mind is what I needed at the time. It helped me worked off the frustration and disappointment.

And even though I have four young children counting on me to support them financially, I feel at peace as I begin my search. I have no idea what I’ll do next. I have a few weeks to figure it out. Which leaves plenty of time to strap on my Rollerblades.

Searching For My First Real Job

This time of year I spend a good part of my day interviewing young men and women for full time technical positions within my group. Many have recently finished college, and this is their first real job with benefits. This is one of my favorite parts of the job.

I try to remember how I felt as a newly minted college graduate walking around Salt Lake City searching for someone who would recognize my potential. Looking back, I wasn’t prepared for the realities of post-college life. I’d spent a lot of money on books and tuition not to mention the Addams Family and Fun House pinball machines.

One afternoon I was browsing the job boards at the University of Utah and noticed a job posting seeking graduates of all disciplines. It wasn’t uncommon for recruiters to narrow their search to graduates with majors in marketing, finance or economics. Although I’d taken courses through the business school, I majored in German which locked me out from interviewing for a number of positions.

I saved up enough money to purchase a blue blazer to go with some dress slacks I already owned. The position was for an editor with a major publishing company with offices in downtown Salt Lake. Although I knew the downtown area well, I arrived an hour early for my interview.

When it was time, I met with the HR manager. She asked me the same basic questions I’d heard from dozen of campus recruiters. One fringe benefit of making it through college was that I became a professional interviewer.  I got to the point where I could predict the questions. Interviewing became second nature.

I interviewed with two women and one gentleman that day. Each of them seemed genuine, and I enjoyed discussing the position and asking questions of them. I felt good about the job and company when I left.  I returned home feeling optimistic. A few days later HR called and invited me back. This time I would meet the managing editor who would put me through a quiz of sorts.

I met the editor who had little to say. She handed me a newsletter and a red pencil and said, “You have 20 minutes to find the mistakes and circle them.”

Seemed simple enough. I went to work finding and circling misspelled words and awkward grammar. It wasn’t long before the editor returned and yelled, “STOP!”

I put my pencil on the table, looked up and handed her my work. She glanced over the first page, her eyes moving from side to side. I was anxious but confident. She moved on to the second, third and forth pages. So far so good.

Until she come to the fifth page. That’s when she grabbed the red pencil and drew a large “X” through the page.

In past blog posts, I’ve written that I’m not a fast reader. I comprehend well. But I don’t zip through books like Kim or my mother. That’s how I’ve always been, and it’s not due to lack of reading. I’m just a slower than normal reader but not to the point where I’d consider it a disability.

“You’re accurate but slow.”

Of course, I already knew that. But it stung coming from the woman who would decide if I’d get the job. As you can probably guess but now, I did not receive a job offer.

It’s been nearly 17 years since I put on my blue blazer and didn’t make it to page 5. But I’ve not forgotten how I felt as I watched the giant “X” was scrawled across the page. When I interview people today, I never want them to leave with the same feeling I left with that day no matter how their skills fit the position.

Committing to Less

“Yes” is a dangerous word. It sounds polite and helpful on the surface, and in many instances it is. But it can also lead one down the road to over-commitment and exhaustion.

It’s difficult to say “no” once you’re expected to say “yes” to every request, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time.

Over the past few years and especially since we started a family, life has become more complex to the point where it’s difficult to keep track of responsibilities, commitments and schedules for six people. Kim and I discuss our coming week’s schedule on Sunday evening. And yet by Monday night I’m asking, “Now, what do we have going on tomorrow?”

This past year something changed.

 blueberrieskim
Kim picking blueberries in Auburn, WA

In an attempt to gain a modicum of control of my schedule and maintain my sanity, I began turning down requests for my time. This has not been an easy adjustment. I seldom remember my father saying no. He’d run from one assignment to the next. I have friends that are able to function with this level of chaos. I’m not one of them.

There are times when I feel bad saying no, but it’s better to be upfront and deal with a little discomfort than partially commit. That’s what I used to do. I’d say, “I’ll try to make it” and when I didn’t, it was a bigger disappointment than had I said no from the start.

This past year I’ve said no to some travel for work. I’ve taken on fewer projects at work and church. I’ve turned down opportunities to meet up with friends. We even cancelled our summer vacation to Utah because we felt overwhelmed at the time. We needed some time to catch our breath. So we picked blueberries and spent time doing absolutely nothing at the beach.

But I’d like to believe there’s much to gain by saying no and committing to less. For example, by committing to fewer projects at work, I’m able to give my full attention to the two or three projects that will provide the most value to my team. Picking a couple of projects forces me to weed out all the clutter and really focus on projects that will drive results. It’s actually much easier to complete a bunch of crap projects than one that’s difficult yet comes with a large payoff.

That reminds me of the first time I went through the review process at Microsoft. My manager had left the company so the job of reviewing our group fell to the VP over Office. I’d spent the past six months planning one event and was certain he’d dock me for not completing more tasks. But he surprised me when he said, “Your manager’s job is to overwhelm you with projects. Your job is to figure out the one or maybe two that must get done and ignore the rest.”

I’m not saying it’s a particularly smart move to ignore projects that come from your boss. But you can explain why completing fewer but more critical projects beats finishing a dozen of dubious value.

Committing to less allows me to carve out time with my spouse and children. That results in life balance that’s difficult to obtain when you say yes to everyone. Look for a manager who values results instead of sheer number of hours spent behind a desk. I’ll take the employee who spent two hours writing a script to manage the backups over the one who spends four hours each weekend doing it by hand. Find a manager who appreciates the first type of employee, because that’s probably you.

I still struggle finding that balance. But I’m able to recognize when I’ve let the pendulum swing out too far in one direction. Sometimes there’s very little I can do about it. But I know it’s there and I’m always striving for it.

Managing By Manual

During my last quarter of college, I applied for a job as the manager of a large chain of gift stores. As part of the application process I was asked to take a series of written tests. I was told these tests would “quantify my potential” to become a successful manager.

I didn’t question the test at the time. I was tired of living on Ramen Noodles and Campbell’s soup and couldn’t wait to earn a paycheck that would cover more than the bare necessities plus a few games of pinball.

Yet even then, “quantify my potential” didn’t sound right. How could any test quantify what I might become? Sounded like Tony Robbins speak.

There were no materials to help prepare for the test. The only instruction I was given was to answer each question honestly. I had as much time as I needed.

As I made my way through the multiple choice questions, I began to see the same question asked more than once. Some questions were asked four or five times with the only difference being that the answers were tweaked just slightly.

One question I recall went something like this:

If you confirmed that one of your employees was making long distance phone calls on the company’s line, would you:

a) Ask the assistant manager to deal with the problem.

b) Give the employee a verbal warning.

c) Consult the Manager’s Handbook

d) Fire the employee

With a few exceptions, each questions had at least one clearly wrong answer such as A in the above example, followed by two that sounded good and one confusing option, such as C.

About an hour into the test, I decided the whole process was a fraud. Some management consultant had convinced an HR manager with too big of budget that giving this test would weed out poor managers.

In most cases, I selected the answer that required some action and/or common sense. I would probably warn an employee who made long distance phone calls but I’d fire someone who took cash from the register. I finished the test and awaited the results.

A few days before graduation, I was offered the job. My first job out of college would end up challenging me in ways I never thought possible. I’d never been a manager before and wasn’t sure how to act. To showcase my newfound title, I wore a freaking tie on my first day of work which I promptly slammed into the cash register during my first hour of training.

I was shocked to find out that I was responsible for 15 people right out of the gate. I had no idea what I was doing.

So I winged it.

I hired students who loved to work with the public. I found a great assistant manager who enjoyed digging into the details of the business, which was not a strong skill of mine. We had pizza. We had parties. We worked late and supported each other. Basically, we had a lot of fun while selling a lot of cards and gifts.

Not once did I crack open the manager’s handbook. It sat there on my desk gathering dust like an outdated phonebook.

At my first manager retreat, I had dinner with the manager who gave me the employment test. She’d recently been promoted to regional manager and was kind in her words towards me. She complimented the performance of my store and my team. And then she said something that stunned me.

“I’m glad we hired you even though you failed the manager test”.

I didn’t know what to tell her. She went on to explain that my answers did not trend towards the corporate. My decision to select the answer that required action on part of the manager was the wrong strategy. To score high, I needed to select the answers that required the least amount of decision making and common sense. The best answers were of the “advise HR” and “consult the manager handbook” variety.

Since that time, I’ve come to appreciate the backing of a strong HR department when dealing with serious matters. Large companies love to create to large manuals. But manuals don’t make a good manager.

When it comes to managing people, I’ll trust my instincts over any manual.

Anyday.

Strength in Few

Left to their own devices, the kids will turn any room in the house into a blanket and cushion fort. I don’t mind it because it reminds me when I used to the do same thing with my parent’s brown and orange couch.

When it was time to pickup, I used to call the kids together to explain how they needed to work together to clean the room. But, over time, I found the kids spent more time debating who would fold blankets or arrange cushions than cleaning. Each task required a mini-meeting, and each child felt he/she got the worst job. A simple task that should have taken 10 minutes took 30. And nobody was happy.

Lately, I’ve changed my tactics. The goal remains a clean living room, but I’ve found a way to accomplish it in half the time:

Assign one child to the task.

For example, when I asked Lincoln to take down the latest fort, he didn’t spend the first five minutes telling Anna she was folding the blankets all wrong. Anna wasn’t around to drive the other two crazy by whistling the Smurf’s theme song. And Luca wasn’t able to sit on the couch and bark commands like a drill sergeant.

Lincoln was able to figure out the most efficient way to clean the living room with no distractions from his sisters. If he did a good job, he’d garner all the praise. No sisters stealing the spotlight. And that’s exactly what happened. Strength in numbers? Not in this case.

I’m convinced the same situation plays out every day in nearly every business. A job needs to get done so a committee is created, and more time is spent in meetings than solving the problem.

How many times have witnessed a  software projects drag on for months with little to show afterwards? I’ve seen this scenario play out at nearly every company I’ve worked for. The assumption that the more people you toss at the problem, the faster you’ll reach completion is false. The opposite is true. Each person you add will want to make his or her “mark” on the project. The more people you invite to a project, the longer it takes to reach consensus (if you ever reach it). More people = more meetings = less time spent doing actual work.

I spent years trying to create a team to create a company website. I recruited a number of talented people to help me. But it was impossible to get everyone together. No one felt like taking ownership. And why should they when any accolades they might receive would be diluted by the size of the group. There was always another project that was more important. So nothing got done for many years. It wasn’t until I convinced my boss that I could create the site with the help one friend that we finally made progress.

When a project comes in at work, I now intentionally figure out how many people I need and cut that number in half. It’s not easy to do because I’ve been taught that adding more resources will result in a shortened schedule. That’s usually not the case. Just because you can add more resources, does not mean you should.

Think back to the last time you created and finished a project that made you proud. Were you part of a large team? Were you part of a small group? Or was it only you?

Studying Ants

I spend a good chunk of time each month writing performance reviews. Last month our company installed a new online review process. But the old system was shut down for nearly four months. I ended up with a backlog of reviews I’d written in Word.

Well, I wasn’t happy when I found out I’d have to transfer the reviews I’d stapleralready written to the new system. This was a tedious process of cut and paste and pray the formatting wasn’t botched. I often ended up writing the entire review over.  

The group I’m responsible for consists of about 20 technicians, but I have another 20 who work part-time during various times of the year. I often feel like an HR manager given the mountains of paperwork I create for each employee. There’s nothing green about my job, that’s for certain.

On my way home from work last week I was thinking about all the time I spend completing paperwork. Every hour I spend pushing papers is one less hour I have to spend with my team. It means less time to train, encourage or just observe how they work together.

And then I flipped on my iPod and began listening to a talk given at the Ted Conference by a women who has spent her career studying ants. Not reading about ants or dissecting them in a lab. She goes to the desert and digs up colonies full of ants. She counts, marks, and teases them in order to learn about their behavior.

I’ll bet the ants gang up and bite her every chance they get. And who can blame them if she’s breaking into their living room each day. It’s only natural they’d be upset and exact revenge.

One fact I learned is half the ants in a colony stand around doing nothing. They are backup ants that seldom get called into service. Kind of like Matt Leinart.  The ants you see carrying leaves and crumbs are foragers. They are hard working colony contributors. But there are just as many lazy ants inside the hill just kicking back with a cold one watching Family Guy.

Suddenly all that paperwork doesn’t seem as tedious. And it’s only a few hours each week. My perspective changed over the course of ten minutes listening to this woman talk about freaking ants.

And so far, not one colleague has bit me.