Wednesday, February 04, 2009

College: What a Joke

My mind wandered during a meeting today and I began to think back at my past jobs.  I started thinking about what I learned at each job and how unprepared I was for the real world.

College, like all school before it, was just a chance to hang out with friends.  There were some projects, homework, studying.  But I've thought about what I've learned, what I've been taught in the years since.

I am definitely not saying that all of these places practiced all of these, in many cases, I learned from negative experiences.   I'm also going to miss a lot, I'm not trying to write a primer here, just sitting here a little bummed about how little I actually learned in school.

Entertainment Internet Startup

(1) Manage Up - the more informed you can keep your boss, the less a surprise can come back to bite you.  Especially if you've made a mistake.

(2) Think Before Sending - sneaking into your boss' office and deleting an email you've sent is really a last resort.  Better to just put more thought behind stuff.  (After that incident, I always instructed Eudora, Outlook and Groupwise to delay sending of messages for 5-10 minutes.  Haven't been able to figure out how well that does or doesn't work in Lotus Notes.)

(3) This is a team sport - trying to get ahead, trying to accomplish only your own goals?  Good luck with that.  You need to support the team, pull in the same direction.

(4) Without a common vision you're dead in the water - we would veer off in any number of directions, seemingly on a whim.  There may have been a plan behind it, but management didn't share it with us, making it difficult to know whether our work was beneficial to the organization.

(5) Don't be part of the problem, be part of the solution - if you discover a problem, try to come up with a possible solution before you share the bad news.

Large Chain Video Rental Store (simultaneously with above)

(1) Honesty is not the best policy - a particular incident in where I technically temporarily stole was part of the result of my downfall.  The reasoning was justified and the wrong righted at the earliest possible opportunity, but had I not remedied the wrong, I wouldn't have gotten in trouble.

(2) Never joke about money, especially with someone who doesn't know you - especially if your till always balances because you're really good at your job.  A joke about splitting any overages won't go over well.

(3) Good enough is too good - If you're doing an hourly job, you're not in a position to improve things, you're just a drone.  At least that's how it was with this and other previous hourly jobs.

Major Studio, Online Division, Advertising Support

(1) Regular meetings in a closed room are a must - people need to vent, people need to blow off steam, people need to ask questions that they think might make them look clueless.  An informal, regularly scheduled meeting helps people have an opportunity to bounce ideas, ask questions, whine, complain, etc.

(2) Beware anything outside of the organization's core - They said regularly that the studio existed to make movies, so it should have been no surprise that 300 of us got laid off on one day in the dot bomb.

(3) Beware the weak boss - I loved my immediate boss, the sweetest woman, really nice, really kind.  Her boss, a real hard driving pedal to the metal always going East Coast timezone guy.  I didn't report to him, but since I had a dual management/production role (I did the same role as the people who reported to me), he was one of the salespeople I supported.  I had to clean up his messes to the best of my ability.  By the end, we were playing Rainbow Six for several hours a day almost every day.

(4) Beware not having enough work - see #'s 2 and 3

(5) The ability to translate between English and English is an underappreciated skill -  In some cases, this was dealing with Russian programmers and Middle Eastern developers, but in other cases, it was just the ability to listen to a conversation and see that two people were both missing the point and helping them by being able to restate things in a way that each of them could understand.

Semi-Mega-Church

(1) Be clear on expectations - I was led to believe that I had a lot more potential for say than I really did.  For five years, I did have a role that for much of it, allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted.  However, since I thought I had the power to change things, I was constantly butting heads to with my boss to the point that I finally had to quit and move out of state for my own sanity.

(2) Let someone else prioritize - If you have too much to do and it's all being dumped on you by a person or people above you, present all of the assignments to them and let them decide priority and importance.  If they refuse to or say they're all important, quit now because you're screwed.

(3) Embrace the system / plan for the future - Whatever you're doing today will have some bearing on the future.  Try to avoid doing work that will have to be redone in the future.  On the other hand, if you're not sure you'll ever get to that future state, no sense in building out stuff that won't get used.

(4) Wait until the customer asks for it - if you have a great idea, don't do it and then expect others to love it.  Prepare and plan for it, but wait until it's asked for.  Otherwise, you're wasting your time and their rejection will weigh you down.

(5) Look for patterns - if something is cyclical, there may be no reason to reinvent the wheel.  You may be able to work off what you did last year.  Just don't do exactly the same thing you did last year.

(6) You're not the first - someone's already been here, done that, faced this particular problem.  The more you can learn from others (books, site visits, interviews, peer groups, etc.), the faster you can come to a workable solution.

(7) It's ok to say "I don't know" - You give someone the chance to share knowledge and sometimes it can get you out doing stuff that's not suited to you, rather than trying to fake it.  (However, see below.)

Major Non-Profit

(1) Everything is interconnected - there is no stand-alone.  Everything you do has ripples and implications.  Your job is to understand and anticipate those implications, to understand who's involved and to understand how to get them to buy-in.

(2) How to say "yes" while really saying "no" - I actually just learned this phrase today, but it's explained something I've been learning in this new role.  People will make requests you cannot fulfill.  Softening the blow with an alternative, is a big help.

(3) At times, it's ok to fake it -  there does seem to be some times where it's ok to act like you know what's going on and then circle back with someone later to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.  There has to be a comfort level and a reasonable certainty that you're not going to be called to speak on it before you've had a chance to learn more.
 
(4) If you can't measure it, you can't report on it - and if you can't report on it, you can't tell if things are getting better or getting worse.

(5) You should always be planning for growth (got this off of a blog, not at work) - if you're not growing, you're declining, there is no statis and if there were, it would be a backwater pond with no freshness and funky stuff would be growing and that's bad.  

(6) Projects do not come one at a time - you need to be able to keep a lot of balls in the air.  This requires a good sense of organization, prioritization, delegation and the ability to know when it's ok to drop a ball or temporarily catch a ball in an empty trashcan.  Not saying I'm an expert at this, I'm just seeing that this it the case.  The demands on your time, the expectation others have of you, etc., will always exceed what you have to give.  (Back to the "no" "yes" idea.)

(7) Good documentation will save you every time - put everything you might ever need into a system that's easily searchable, like a wiki.   Then all you need to know is how to search to get it back out.  This will save you from having to spend a lot of time organizing the repository, and when someone stands next to you and sees how effortlessly you find it, they soon learn they can try that first before coming to you.

(8) Make time for you - in this particular job, I actually block three hours out every day - an hour for lunch and an hour at the beginning and an hour at the end of the day.  These two hours are no meeting zones.  During that time I am at my desk working.  It also serves to offer "office hours" to people who otherwise complain that they can never find me.

(9) Don't accept same-day meeting requests sent via the calendaring system - just don't do it.  My experience is that it's either (a) not worth a meeting (and could be handled informally during office hours), (b) the person is either unprepared or panicked and in a rush and it won't be productive or well-thought out.  If it is really urgent, someone's going to find you in person and say "We need to meet.  Let's go find a conference room."
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Like I said, this is by no means a guide to career life, and it's in no way comprehensive, just something I started mulling over as my mind wandered today during a meeting.  In all, it made me disappointed about my college experience in that I think something more prepatory would involve a lot more group work, a lot more emphasis on things like prioritizing, managing (tasks, projects, people), interpersonal skills, how to find the "good enough," long-term planning, understanding of systems and interconnected ecosystems.   Things like that.
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