I’ve heard that book authors do one of two things: they either leave the book in the shipping package, refusing to acknowledge it for months. Or they immediately rip open the box.
I was asked via Twitter to post the content of some career advice talks I’ve done for college and high school students. At first, I thought, nah, my content isn’t that good. I’ve read a lot of better stuff out there, namely Philip Su’s post which is incredibly good. But then I started thinking that maybe something in here could help someone else out and that would be worth sharing.
The last time I gave this talk was in February, when I was back visiting Mississippi State University, my alma mater. I was trying to build up the courage to blog this content. Again, I was thinking it post wasn’t good enough to share, when a good friend from college contacted me out of the clear blue. He is just getting started with his blog . I was giving him some advice on getting a blog up and running when I realized that I haven’t blogged in nearly a year. With the emails of “are you still alive?” piling up, I realized I needed to get my act back together. So thanks to Clay for motivating me to get this post out there once and for all.
Career Advice I Learned the Hard Way
Be responsive – Something I learned from Prashant Sridharan – Always be responsive on email. I always try to respond as soon as I possibly can, even if it is a “hey, I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, but I’ll look into it.” Just a quick 2-second reply can do wonders. It comforts the other person just acknowledging you got the email instead of them worrying if it ended up in your junk email folder.
Take pride in your work – And the second thing I learned from Prashant – If you love what you do, work on the project as if today was your last day. Or another way of looking at it, strive to do your best on a project, because your name will be associated with that project until the end of time. So make the extra effort to polish your work, like making sure there are no spelling errors, using a nice layout or template other than just a plain text look and feel, and so forth.
Listen to others – One thing I learned from years of customer support is to acknowledge what the other person is saying. You might not necessarily agree with them, and in some cases they could be completely misinformed. That doesn’t matter. What actually matters is that you acknowledge what the other person said. For example, just saying, “I am sorry you are having trouble with <issue>” can go a long way. Usually, this causes the other person to think, “wow, they actually understand me!” and if knowing is half the battle, then acknowledging the other person is at least 80%.
Just a bit of caution. This doesn’t mean cut and paste this as a script, although most of the time you might get away with it. But if someone realizes what you are doing, it can be disastrous. What I’m trying to say here is actually try to understand it from the other person’s point of view, even if it is a tiny, tiny bit. For example, we can all relate to the very basic things, like feelings of frustration. We’ve all been there when we’ve urgently needed to get something from a website, only to discover its fail whale image. It’s that little bit of sympathy when you say, “I am sorry you’re having issues. It’s definitely a frustrating experience that I wish to correct as soon as possible” that goes a long way. As I’ve said many, many times, “It is easy to hate a product. It is very hard to hate a person who is trying to help you.”
So, listen to others. You might be surprised by what you hear.
Seek Perfection of Character – This one comes from karate. “The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the characters of its participants,” quote by Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi. People constantly ask me, “So to get your black belt or to get a rank, do you have to beat someone in a sparring match?” I have to explain it isn’t like that. I describe it like competing in a “best in show” event. The dog isn’t competing against the other breeds. The dog is competing against how close it is to what is considered the perfect example of the breed. Same in karate, you are trying to get as close as you can to the perfection of the art, regardless of how good the people are around you.
So much of karate training blends into the real world, and this is one of those times. The most successful people I’ve ever met had this same mindset of seeking perfection in their jobs, their hobbies, and their relationships. So what are you doing to get your black belt in the things you care the most about?
Challenge yourself – Again, another sports analogy. The only way to physically grow muscles is to challenge them outside their comfort zone. And I’m not saying that just because you can run a 5K doesn’t necessarily mean train for a 10K. But what if a runner tried swimming? It’s definitely an excellent idea to be able to swim when you’re injured from running!
It doesn’t take much. Spend just 30 minutes a day learning a new programming language. You might just end up with deeper insights (or deeper appreciation) for your primary programming language.
Career Changes – A general manager once told those of us on his team that the biggest mistake people make in changing their careers is that they make too big of a jump. For example, he said to consider Red Cross. A lot of people may be inspired by the work Red Cross does, so they put in their resume. But what’s contained in their resume is what they are doing today in their day jobs (e.g. coding) that isn’t bringing them that sense of satisfaction they want. But what is Red Cross going to do? Red Cross is going to evaluate them based on their current day job skills, and match them with more coding jobs, so nothing has really changed.
Another manager reiterated the same thing to me, but in a slightly different way. He said, “Only make one major change at a time.”
I debated whether telling college students this advice, but decided to throw it in after an experience I had on a plane a few years ago. I was sharing this advice with someone sitting next to me (I want to say it was a coworker returning from a conference, but I can’t recall). I noticed the lady seated in front of me desperately trying to overhear what I was saying without appearing too obvious. I thought if a random stranger was willing to press their ear between two plane seats, I should share with college students before it got to that point for them. J
Integrity above all - Never sacrifice integrity. IMO, it is the only thing you can steal from yourself. And I’m talking about the simple, ever day things. Once again on a plane, there was a young woman, in her late teens or early 20s, sitting next to me listening to her iPod. When music can be heard from your earbuds, it is too loud. The flight attendant asked her for the 3rd time to please turn off the music as we were preparing for take-off, and she grunted at her saying, “It’s off.” I just rolled my eyes. Really, is it worth sacrificing your integrity over a 15-minute pause in your music?
There’s a famous story about Theodore Roosevelt that I read in How To Win Friends and Influence People. He once fired a rancher who stole some neighboring cattle and added them to Roosevelt’s herd. When asked about this by incredulous friends, Roosevelt simply replied, “A man who steals for me will also steal from me.”
Be agile - I’m stealing a philosophical belief from agile methodologies. Again, I’ve heard this numerous times from numerous people. In the real world, there’s no time for ‘A’ game. Do your best 80%. Get feedback on the other 20%.
Now, this might seem counter-intuitive to my “Take pride in your work” advice, but it is not. You can still take tremendous pride in your 80% work and have it look polished and well-written with no spelling errors. There’s a fine line here. My advice is to know when to be on which side of the line.
Be humble – Humility goes a very long way. But we all know that. So, I’m going to explore another side of this coin. Never dishonor someone by saying you don’t deserve some recognition. If someone is taking the time to honor you, reciprocate the honor by acknowledging the honor and thank them for it. Just like a birthday present, you’d never say, “Oh this isn’t for me. I don’t want this.” (at least I hope not). Same goes for honors and recognition.
Probably the most humbling moment of my entire life was wearing an Olympic gold medal around my neck. The Olympian was giving a motivational talk to those of us about to do our first triathlon, and wanted to share with us what a gold medal feels like.
You are not a fake – We all suffer from this, the imposter syndrome, that we’re not good enough for our jobs and one day we will be found out and fired. I have struggled with this the majority of my career, so I guess that makes me a fake too.
As I prepared this talk for the first time last year in a hotel bar close to midnight, a college grad student next to me leaned over and asked, “Does the impostor syndrome ever go away?” And here’s something to know about me. If I’ve had a few beers late at night, I will give you a straight, most direct, unsugar-coated answer. This time was no exception. I leaned over to her and said, “No it doesn’t.” She looked so stunned, like I told her that there is no Santa or the shot in the arm actually did hurt. I remember being a bit surprised by her reaction, because we developers are very analytical creatures. She asked a question; I gave her the most correct answer possible. Then I realized she was looking more for support rather than a correct answer, so I recovered with “What I mean is it doesn’t go away but you learn to deal with it. The first step is just to acknowledge it is there. Once it is acknowledge, and that’s the biggest challenge, the rest becomes easier and clearer on how to deal with it. In fact, it is a good feeling to have, because it means you are still growing. Just like sore muscles, you’re growing outside your comfort zone. It also means you have passion for what you do, and passion isn’t something you can fake (not for long anyways). So, figure out what is making you afraid, write those things down, and figure out how you can grow in those areas, like finding a developer mentor, doing toastmasters to practice giving a speech, etc. For example, I was so scared of public speaking when I first got started. I figured everyone would laugh at me just walking out onto the stage because they would know immediately I was an impostor. It was this bizarre ‘everyone will laugh at you before you even get started’ that was so paralyzing. So, I decided to face it head on by doing karaoke. I cannot sing to save my life, but I had to face the fear of “what if they all laugh.” It was one of the best things I could do to get over that fear, and the impostor syndrome was once again placed in check.”
I still think she wished I had just answered “yes, it goes away.” J
“How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie – Why on Earth it has taken me this long to read this book is beyond me. This book should be required reading for all, especially for us super-analytical folks. The hands-down most important sentence in that entire book is “There is only one way under heaven to get anyone to do anything, and that’s by making them to want to do it.”
Stop whatever it is you are doing now, including reading this blog, and get that book. To put into perspective, it was initially written in 1937 and still relevant today!
It’s all about the people – I wish computer science curriculums would spend extra time on interpersonal skills. It’s so easy to forget we’re talking to a human being with feelings and emotions, rather than a compiler or interface that we can simply be black and white, extremely correct or logical. Sometimes being extremely correct is not the best route to take.
I remember when the story mentioned below was happening, and I recall checking out the site, but I never once thought about the person who created the site. I had no clue he was going through this. I wished I had done something to offer my support, even if it was just a quick email.
“Amidst some LCA controversy around “Dr. Who(m),” a site I worked very hard on creating after hours, I arrived at my office to find a handmade two-foot-high Dalek. Someone had taken the time to print, cut, and tape together a mascot to support me. What inspires people to this sort of kindness? I still don’t know who did this for me – but if you’re reading this, thank you.” – Philip Su’s blog.
Luck = hard work + opportunity – I can’t remember where I read this at, but it is so true. Work hard and be ready when the opportunities present themselves.
Meet your heroes – If you ever get the chance to meet your heroes, I definitely suggest that you allow them to be themselves. Talk about spot-on advice. I got to meet one of my heroes once. Not sure how comfortable I made Lewis Black when I made him depressed, but it was epic nonetheless.
Get a personal trainer – When I first entered the corporate world, I was overwhelmed. Work was just one part of it. The bigger issue was the real world stuff, the stuff they don’t teach in schools. One of the biggest mistakes I made was that I passed up the opportunity to get a personal trainer right out of college, but didn’t think I was worth the money to hire a trainer for myself. Oh to go back to my 23 year old self and punch me in the jaw (provided my karate skills have improved in the past 10 years). I struggled early on with this sense of “needing permission to do things,” even if it was what was best for me. Nowadays, I won’t go without a trainer, mostly because I need someone to tame me. But again, speaking to a group of college students, “Invest in your health, the sooner, the better. You’re worth it.”
But don’t go to the other extreme where you never enjoy life. I once had a doctor walk into the exam room holding my blood work in his hands yelling, “Do you have any idea how healthy you are!? You are too healthy!” It was a very odd conversation. My takeaway from that is that it is okay once in a while to splurge. My guilty pleasure is In-N-Out burger. Probably not what my doctor had in mind, but what’s the point of all that exercise if I can’t enjoy a burger every once in a while.
QED – I hope this was helpful.
The best moment when writing a book is not holding the book in your hands. The best moment is getting an email that says, “Congrats! Your book has gone to printing!” Then you know the book-writing process is finally over! Well, at least until the next one :)
Thanks to Zain Naboulsi for doing the lion’s share of the work, not to mention keeping the blog series going! I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I even learned things about the Visual Studio IDE while working with Zain. This is the book to have if you want to master Visual Studio.
And of course, thank you Sean Laberee and Rob Caron! This wouldn’t have happened without your help early on.
And yes, I plan to once again donate my portions of my author royalties to the Save Waveland Scholarship Fund to send Hurricane Katrina survivors of my hometown to college. Because that’s how we roll in New Orleans.
I feel like a zombie. My blog is coming back to life. Words I never thought I would say. But after 8 years of non-stop blogging, I needed some time to catch my breath. Or best put by R.E.M., “it’s time I had some time alone, and I’ll be fine.” A few blog post ideas have queued up long enough, so no better time now than the present. That, and getting a new Mac Air greatly improves motivation (which it is awesome, btw).
And my thanks to many of you who have emailed me, asking if I was okay or even still alive. I appreciate all the kind words.
On the subject of zombies, an XKCD cartoon (http://xkcd.com/896/) was making the rounds not too long ago.
Even at 33 years old, with 10 years of software development behind me, this cartoon got to me. And not just about computers, but about everything I’ve ever been passionate about: Sports. School. MacGyver.
The key line is “if you like doing this stuff, you are not alone.” Maybe things are different today where a simple Google search yields instant proof that there are other liked-mind people in the world. I don’t know. But what I do know is that every kid should read and understand what Zombie Marie Curie is saying. It’s not a sentence to be taken out of context.
Many young college women have asked me for advice. I always tell them that hands-down the most important advice I can give is to be honest with yourself and do whatever it is you want to do. And if you are still here after that meeting with yourself, then we can talk about specific tactical suggestions.
Which is the subject of my next blog post – specific tactical suggestions, or what I like to call “career advice I learned the hard way.” In the past year, I’ve given several talks to high school and college students on general career advice. It was suggested on Twitter that I post the talk, because the contents could be relevant to more than just college women.
And so here we are. Hopefully there are a few of you left that are still subscribed!
Hey all! Long time, no post, I know…
Right now, you’re probably wondering one of two things: “Who are you?” or “This is very interesting.”
Let’s start with my backstory first, to catch the first group up. Then we’ll go from there.
I’m a developer, born and raised. My first computer was a Texas Instruments 99-4A, where I became addicted to Scott Adam’s Pirate’s Adventure (Say Yoho!) text-based RPG. I named my short-hair collie Cecil after Final Fantasy II (US-release version #), the greatest RPG story line ever (not to mention the greatest dog as well). I double-majored in Computer Science and Mathematics at Mississippi State, where I worked as a developer on the WebTOP project, using VRML and Visual J++ to simulate physics lab experiments on the web.
But let’s just get to the interesting part…
Upon graduation, I went to work for Microsoft. Yep, Microsoft, where I was for the past 9 years. (Don’t worry, it’s cool. Keep reading.) I ran RedHat in college, constantly hitting freshmeat.net (“never dot-com, never dot-org,” as I was warned) as my one-stop shop for all things Linux. Next thing I know, I’m graduating and moving to Seattle for personal reasons, so I decided to interview with Microsoft to check them out. I ended up joining the Visual Studio team as a developer on their automation framework. I’ll never forget my first day, where I asked my officemates, “um, what’s the command-line equivalent of ‘ls’ to look up files in a directory?” If you want to talk about some strange looks, come find me sometime.
OSS @ MSFT
Roughly 5 years ago, I decided to move from engineering to program management, because I wanted to work more with communities. I’ll never forget being asked by my first PM manager, “Do you want to work in the forums, or do you want to work with Visual Studio plug-ins as open source projects on this soon-to-be released forge site called CodePlex.com?” (I’m heavily paraphrasing, btw.) I’m so glad I said “open source,” because I wouldn’t trade my OSS @ MSFT adventures for the world, like getting to spray paint “Embrace Open Source” on my Microsoft office window to jumping off a building to promote Open Source at Microsoft.
But imagine 5 years ago. A program manager trying to figure out how to open source development from within Microsoft. I was fortunate enough to attend OSCON 2006 and take back some incredible lessons. We even filmed the discussion of me bringing back the info I learned and the changes we would make to our development cycle, while having a member of the Microsoft Open Source Software Lab in the room. (Link to video and presentation). When CodePlex.com went live around that time, my team had 3 of the first 28 projects up there. Here’s my 1 year recap of lessons learned if you’re interested.
Not long later, there was an opportunity to become the Program Manager for CodePlex.com, Microsoft’s open source project hosting site. At the time I joined, there were about 2800 projects. When I left the team in February 2010 to move to NorCal for warmer, sunnier weather, there were around 13,000 projects on CodePlex. I had also managed 28 deployments in 2 years using our agile progress, which followed about 90% of XP (extreme programming). I had to pause for a second during my relocation to think, “wow, I watched 10,000 open source projects get created on a forge hosted by Microsoft during my tenure as the Program Manager.”
Where Agile meets Community
I fundamentally believe that agile is the single, most important thing you can do to significantly improve the user experience of your website. And I’m not talking about Wagile (Agile sliding back to waterfall) to Scrumbut (We do scrum, but…), but “real” agile.
I believe a large part of the success I’ve seen comes from utilizing agile methodologies to respond to community feedback via site enhancements.
Community is my passion. I believe in being transparent (where we are with feature priorities) and in being responsive (we can’t do everything overnight for everyone, but I guarantee each and everyone one of you a timely response). I’ve had tremendous role models, like Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu Community Manager and author of The Art of Community, and Ross Turk, former Community Manager for SourceForge, give me guidance over the years in what makes communities successful. I’m both thrilled and humbled to have this chance to work even more closely with community leaders in open source.
Paging in Ohloh
An idea I’ve always had running in the background was this concept of a “one-stop shop” for all things open source, regardless of development platform, language, or business model. As a Microsoft employee learning to do open source and trying to figure out my place within the OSS community, I gave this talk at OSCON 2008 Towards a Stronger Open Source Ecosystem to discuss my personal views.
I view being the Product and Community Manager of Ohloh the chance of a lifetime. Ohloh is an incredible opportunity for me to put together my agile development experience, my “lowering the barriers to open source” experience, and my 7 years of passion and experience in online communities. Additionally, Black Duck’s KnowledgeBase has been a longtime curiosity of mine. As a developer, I’ve always wondered what’s in there, what sort of data do they have on 300,000 OSS projects, and how to utilize it. And finally, getting to incorporate an incredible site like Koders (Hi @Haacked!), a code search engine of 3 billion(!) lines of source, the potential of Ohloh is HUGE.
As I’m sure every one of you reading this is curious, here’s my short list of //TODOs.
- Start fixing top priority bugs - We’ve been in the forums already, resolving your login issues, license identification issues, and most importantly enlistment issues. We’re also working on a list of top bugs while we work on our data center migration.
- Getting out into the community by listening to your feedback, setting up the best feedback loops, being transparent with our priorities and updates, going to various user groups in the Silicon Valley area.
- And on a personal note, start learning Ruby on Rails and join a local Ruby user group in Silicon Valley. As a born and raised developer, I can’t stand not being able to see at least some of the code in my head when I talk to developers. Who knows, maybe the Ohloh devs will let me check in one day! I have 133 lines in Visual Studio and I got to write some HTML for CodePlex.com, and I didn’t break the build on either one. ;-)
If you feel something is missing from my short list, please let me know.
Here’s where you can currently find and contact me
- The Ohloh blog
- My Ohloh Profile
- Right where ya at! Here on my personal blog is mostly for geeking out over shotokan karate, triathlons, Doctor Who…
Let me know where else I need.
BTW, in case you’re Googling me, wondering where my past blog content has gone, I migrated everything to http://saraford.net. It was important to me that I would be able to continue to respond to readers on my previous blog.
Thanks! And as I said above, I’ve committed myself to Ohloh’s development and service as the most comprehensive, most trusted, free site to the open source community.
I’ve implemented a new comment policy that comments won’t be allowed on posts older than 2 months. I hate doing this, but last night i deleted 200 spam comments (since i have comment moderation turned on, you didn’t see them), only to get another 200 this morning waiting for me to delete 10 at a time.
So, out of the 400 comments, i found approx 4 that were legit. not good times.
First time since i started blogging 3 years ago that i’ve had to enable comment moderation. These sites for rape stories have been comment spamming me, and i’ve finally had enough.
For just a little while, i’m going to enable comment moderation. I really hate to do this, but i’ll try my best to check for comments every morning. Once this wave of spam attacks is over, i’ll turn it back to a free-for-all model for commenting.
I’m free for lunch for the rest of the week. Anyone want to join me? My goal is to each lunch every day with a new customer to find out more about your experiences (both good and bad, and what you want to see included) with Visual Studio. I was planning to just go up to a random table and sit down and start talking with customers, but a coworker suggested that I post here, in case people were interested. Afterwards, i might have dessert at a random table =)
For the rest of the conference, here’s my schedule.
Product Pavillon – Visual Studio Extensibility Booth from 10am – 12:30pm
Track Lounges – Tools and Languages from 2:30pm – 6:15pm
Product Pavillon – Visual Studio Extensibility Booth from 9am – 12pm
Ask the Experts – 6:30pm – 9pm
Come by and say hi!
Despite all of the hurricane chaos, i’m here at PDC. Here’s where you can find me.
Product Pavillon – Visual Studio Extensibility Booth from 11am – 3pm
Product Pavillon – Visual Studio Extensibility Booth from 10am – 12:30pm
Track Lounges – Tools and Languages from 2:30pm – 6:15pm
Product Pavillon – Visual Studio Extensibility Booth from 9am – 12pm
Ask the Experts – 6:30pm – 9pm
Feel free to contact me at SaraF@microsoft.com if you want to sync-up. I’ll check my mail as frequently as i can.
Hope to talk to you soon!
I’m not sure whether this counts for being scoblized or not. Robert Scoble mentions in this post about my upcoming interview with Channel 9, but he didn’t link to my blog. It feels like I’ve almost been scoblized. <smiles>
Two weeks ago, Robert interviewed me about being a tester on the Visual Studio team and working with Accessibility. The interviews should go live this week on the Channel 9 website. In the meantime, you can check out Scott Swanson’s interviews with the Channel 9 team. Scott is a Program Manager on my team, working on the help system.