“You are unusually direct,” Elsa said to me. She was one of the first people I hired in my first management role, in the late 1990s. She said this to me on a few occasions as we worked on a large project together. I took it as a compliment then, but with hindsight I see that Elsa found my forthrightness to be challenging.
I say half-jokingly that I was this direct because I have hillbilly and blue-collar roots. My dad grew up in the hills of West Virginia. His family moved to Indiana to find factory and construction work. Dad worked in a farm-equipment factory while I grew up. In the culture I came from, anything less than saying it straight — no matter how much the words hurt — is seen as being untrustworthy.
I was proud of my direct manner. I believed that my forthrightness was good and valuable. It came from a place of wanting good outcomes for the company, customers, and my co-workers. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but that’s how I was sometimes perceived.
I’d been a manager for about 10 years when the fellow I worked for at the time said it to me: “Jim. You’ve got to stop leaving dead bodies behind when you talk. Learn some tact.” He told me he’d like to see me move up in the organization, but not while this behavior stood in my way.
That got my attention. I had been pitching fastballs at peoples’ foreheads. That boss coached me in throwing drifts that others can catch. I’ve practiced it ever since, and have built reasonable skill. It has unlocked all sorts of opportunity for me. It has helped me build influence and trust.
It took a long time for more nuanced communication to not feel wrong. It turns out I’m not among my hillbilly family, and I’m not working a blue-collar job. I’m working with midwestern professionals, and the rules are different.
I revert to my natural form when I’m anxious, over-stressed, or very tired. Those are not my finest moments.
But there are times when speaking directly is valuable. Emergencies are one such time. A couple companies ago I managed the testing team. Production went down while all of the site operations managers were at a conference. I was ranking manager, so I dove in and, using my natural directness, led the team to quickly find root cause and get Production back up again. One engineer praised me: “You came outta nowhere and crisply and efficiently drove the train back onto the track. I’ve never seen this side of you!”
Another time is when I think I see something critical that nobody else does, and nuanced communication is not getting the ball across the plate. A flat statement can grab attention and change the conversation. It can also blow up in my face, so it’s a calculated risk. I’m hoping it works because it seems so out of character. “Whoa, Jim is really strident about this one. He’s usually so collegial. Maybe we should listen a little more closely.”
Finally, sometimes you have to say a flat “no” to a challenging request. I try very hard to find a way to say yes while highlighting the tradeoffs I or my team will have to make. “Could you deliver this feature two weeks earlier?” “Yes, if I pause work on this other feature.” Or, “Yes, if we trim scope and accept greater quality risk.” Or, “Yes, if we can flow some of the work through this other team.” But if scope, quality, and team are fixed and don’t support the timeline, I’m left to say no, and I do so plainly.
I will always wish I could be direct all the time. It’s how I’m made. But I care more about being effective than leaning into my basic nature.
I first shared this post on my software blog, here. It felt like a general enough topic to share here as well. It expands on a comment I left on another post on this subject, on Johanna Rothman’s blog, here.
My soon-to-be-former employer has been a decent place to work and I haven’t been unhappy. I lucked into a good boss who was helping me see some of my blind spots and was challenging me to grow as a leader.
There were things I didn’t enjoy about this company, things typical of a company in its business climate at its phase of life. And I didn’t see a growth path beyond perhaps a promotion to Senior Manager. But given that it didn’t hurt to work there, I thought I’d soak up as much experience as I could. I’m still early in my engineering-leadership career and I need to build credibility.
About eight weeks ago a recruiter from another prominent local employer of software engineers contacted me about joining them as an engineering manager. I know that this company has completed a business and technology transformation that was starting to pay off in their marketplace. They were also using more modern processes and delivery methods. That’s exciting stuff. But the job was a lateral move at the same pay and I told them that I couldn’t consider a change unless it was for a higher position and more money.
I figured that would be the last I heard from them. I was stunned when they contacted me again a couple weeks later, saying they’d recast the position one level higher with a compensation package to match.
Having worked for many software companies in this market over nearly 30 years, I know people pretty much everywhere software engineers work in central Indiana. So I contacted a couple people I know at this company and asked what they think. They were enthusiastic about the work environment and about the company’s prospects, and said I should join them.
So I went in for an interview. It went well, and they offered me the job. It was easy to say yes. This choice is right for my family now and for my career in the future.
But it feels all kinds of wrong to quit a job after just five months. Having managed people for 20 years I know full well how disruptive it is. I did not enjoy telling my boss, who has treated me well; or my team, which I enjoyed very much, that I was resigning. Fortunately, they took it well.
I’ll come home tonight with my things in box, which I’ll carry with me to my new job on Monday.
I start my new job today, as a manager of engineers in a large software company.
I’m happy to be going back to work. It was nice in a way to have the last month off, unpaid as it was. I needed some serious downtime and I got it. But I felt unmoored. I like to work.
The job search was challenging for a number of reasons. First, in the last couple months of the year many companies just push off hiring to January. I heard it over and over: we could use someone like you during the first quarter of next year. Awesome, but I’ll be homeless by then.
Second, I began looking while I was still reeling from getting the sack. I was fired after a crazy difficult ten months under new executive leadership. I think I did an exceptional job leading the engineers through a chaotic time, and I had been praised for my work. To find myself no longer wanted was deeply confusing and upsetting.
Everyone asked why I was let go, and I struggled to tell the story. As the days stretched into weeks, I kept unpacking what happened and it changed how I told it. No two people heard the same story, though everything I said to everyone was true. Also, I was still angry and really wanted to say some things that, while true, put some people at my past company in an unflattering light. That never goes over well, so I avoided it. But that left gaps in my story, which led to questions I couldn’t answer well.
Third, despite my successes I had a weak story to tell about being a leader of engineers. I just hadn’t been doing it long enough — only 16 months. I had been in QA (software testing) leadership for the previous 18 years.
I was fortunate to shift into engineering, as changes in my industry are leading to fewer QA leadership roles. And I was ready for new mountains to climb — I’d done everything I ever wanted to do in QA.
I have a great story to tell about delivering a very good quality “version 1.0” software product in a short time. It impressed everyone who heard it. But as people asked questions that would reveal my depth, I had to lean on my QA experience, which didn’t connect with them.
Fourth, my technical skills kept being a concern to interviewers. I’m far more technical than the average person, but I lack a deep understanding of the technologies my last few employers used. I am convinced that it’s a rare unicorn who can be deeply good both in technology and in leadership. Becoming the leader I am has required my full attention over the last 10 years and it meant letting my technical skills go stale. But I feel certain that the leader who had focused on technology would not have had the same success I did building leadership alignment on direction, and bringing my engineers through that startup’s “version 1.0” delivery as well as through the chaotic, difficult months that followed.
This reminds me of 18 years ago when I pivoted from technical writing into QA. I’d been a technical writer for a long time, and I’d done all I cared to do in the field. I liked to joke that if I had to write open the File menu and choose Print one more time I was gonna go postal. The company I worked for offered me a QA role, leading a test-automation team and building a lab of testing hardware. I did that job for barely two years, during which time the dot-com bubble burst and September 11 happened. Software companies everywhere went into tailspins. The one where I worked went through waves of layoffs. I got caught in one of them.
After three months of unemployment I got picked up by a large health-insurance company. I was to be a QA engineer, testing software applications for them. My QA story was weak; I had not done it long enough. I think they liked that they could pick me up for cheap. I’m glad they did as it kept the wolves from the door.
It was both a difficult place to work because of its top-down control culture, and an easy place to work because the expectations weren’t high. On that job I built solid experience as a tester, and then as a manager of testers. And then in the craziest thing that ever happened to me in my career, I was fired and un-fired from that company. Read that story here. I eventually left on my own, my QA cred well established. I had zero trouble getting jobs, and had great success building QA practices from scratch at several other software companies.
I hope I’m in a similar place in this job that begins today: about to build deeper experience and credibility as an engineering leader. I’m going to rest on my leadership skills as they are and switch back to learning technology. I will know how the product is architected, will understand what headwinds we face in the codebase, will know how it is deployed to and configured on the servers that run it, and will learn how to do at least basic things in the programming language they use (Java). I was able to do all of these things early in my career, and I know I can learn it all again in these modern technologies. That will set me up well for the rest of my career, wherever it leads.
Another thing happened while I was on my blog hiatus last month. I was fired.
I was Director of Engineering at a startup software company. I had led the building of “version 1.0” of our product. I doubled the engineering staff to an even dozen, put in the practices and processes they used to do their work, and collaborated with the product-idea people to make sure the engineers had solid backlogs of work to build from. In short order we turned a chicken-wire-and-chewing-gum prototype into a real software product that sold well and provided real value to customers. I’m proud of what my team and I accomplished.
Those accomplishments apparently didn’t matter in the end.
To tell you the whole story would probably violate the confidentiality agreement I signed. I’m left to guess at much of it anyway, as they wouldn’t tell me why they were letting me go. Financial considerations could have played a role. My boss and I had lately been at serious loggerheads over some matters and I feel sure that hurt me considerably.
I saw some classic signs that it was coming: of my boss canceling meetings with me, of some of the successes for which I had once been praised being reframed as not so successful after all, and of me being left out of tactical and strategic discussions. My boss even suggested strongly that she was losing confidence in me. I was dead man walking.
I’m astonished by how fast things turned. I had been praised as a key player through about the end of the summer. My performance had netted me an off-cycle pay raise, and there was talk of promoting me to Senior Director.
When my boss messaged me late one afternoon to ask me to meet with her at 8 am the next day, I knew the axe was falling. (The office would have been deserted at 8 — in the software startup world most people reach the office well after 9.) There was no way I was going to toss and turn all night in stress and worry and then make the 45-minute commute just to get fired. So I made her do it that night at a nearby Starbucks.
My exit left me feeling played, brutalized, and ultimately humiliated. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy since then processing what happened and my feelings about it so I can be at peace. I’m not quite there yet but I am close.
Those of us who work in software must simply accept its volatility, especially in young companies trying to find their way. Fortunes turn for the worse and layoffs follow. Strategies change and people who were once key players suddenly find that they are no longer the right person for their role, or that their role is no longer needed. This involuntary exit isn’t my first — in 30 years I’ve been laid off twice (I wrote extensively about the last time, here) and fired one other time (and then un-fired; read that oh-so-hilarious story here).
Of course, I have only so much financial runway. If I don’t take off in another job before about the end of the year, my family will be in challenging circumstances.
I remain well known in the central-Indiana software community, so I immediately started reaching out to colleagues to reconnect with them. I always asked them for introductions to people I don’t know in the local industry. It’s remarkable to me how willing people who don’t know me are to meet me for coffee on the recommendation of a shared colleague. It has been interesting and fun to make those connections. Some of them revealed opportunities that haven’t been made public yet.
I also applied for a couple jobs that were available. One of those applications led to a solid interview. The title is Engineering Manager, so I’d be stepping back a level from my last job. But they’ve given me an idea of the salary and it’s not much less than I was making before. It’s a well-established company, and those generally pay better, job to job, than startups. They like me and tell me they want to offer me the job, but as of today my candidacy is held up in some corporate red tape and I feel like it’s a coin toss whether it will come out in my favor.
I remain charmed by the startup world and would love to hold out for a leadership role at another young company. But landing one of those jobs — any job, really — takes patience and serendipity and I need to support my family right now. Wish me luck. If you’re a person of faith, my family will be grateful for your prayers.
I wrote this five years ago, when my sons were in high school and thinking about their futures. I’m thrilled to see how much of this advice they took, and how relevant it remains today.
Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.
The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.
1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.
How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.
If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.
If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.
But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. There are paths to move up in those worlds but they are hard and slow. This will suck; avoid it if you can.
2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.
Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.
Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.
3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.
Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation – I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play the music from my youth.
But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.
More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.
4. Be who you are.
This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise – be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.
You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.
This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.
5. Following your dreams is overrated.
I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.
Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I was only an average programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks – and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.
You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you – they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.
6. Enjoy the journey.
If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.
You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.
That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.
Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.
7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.
You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.
For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.
Those days are pretty much over.
I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due one month after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.
The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.
But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.
Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.
Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.
You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.
Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!
These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.
I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now he’s weeks away from his final year of college, and I’m thinking about this message again.
I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.
My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.
My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.
Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.
Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.
There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.
What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.
I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 10,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.
Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.