Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hurricane Triggered by Butterfly Wings

I harbor very little faith in the ability of IT folks to effectively document trouble tickets. I become surprised when I stumble upon rare occasions where succinct and timely documentations happen. In general, IT workers tend to be highly knowledgeable in their specific fields of expertise but view documentation as being superfluous. I've heard on many occasions variations of this attitude--which basically boils down to documentation being "someone else's job." Maybe our voluminous workload precludes us from focusing time on documenting effectively--I admit that I slip into half-assed mode every once in a blue moon.

I experienced an exception to these perceptions last year. While working at the Help Desk, I escalated an unusual issue stemming from an error message on an esoteric clinical system which no one else at the Help Desk knew anything about. I gathered all the information possible from the customer, created a problem ticket, and escalated the mysterious issue to a high-level clinical support group. I did not expect any engineers to provide useful resolution notes for the problem ticket.

Couple hours after the initial call, the same customer called back to inquire about the status. I dreadfully anticipated spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone simultaneously translating engineer-ese to plain English, and performing damage control should the customer become dissatisfied with my answer. I pulled up the resolution notes, and my mouth nearly dropped when I saw a concise, informative description of the resolution. It was written by a system engineer whose name I had never heard of before. Thanks to the neatly-written information, I was able to convey the message to my customer without any problems.

Being pleasantly surprised by the quality documentation, I fired off a quick email to the engineer whom I had never met before. I thanked him for writing a timely, accurate, and easy-to-understand status update. I felt it was good to give credit when and where it was due.

Six months after I had sent the routine follow-up email of gratitude, I participated in a Project Management training class which was attended by two dozen folks from various areas of our vast IT organization. While the attendees were partaking in the introductory icebreaker exercise, I learned that one of the fellow attendees was the engineer whom I had sent the email to months earlier. During a classroom break, I walked up to the engineer, introduced myself to him, and thanked him in person for the superlative work six months earlier. Networking couldn't hurt, right?

What happened next was eye-opening. The engineer then told me that at the time I had sent him the complimentary email, he was employed as a contractor. He had since then interviewed for a full-time, permanent position with the company, and as a part of satisfied customer testimonials, he had used my email as a supporting example to his hiring managers.

What seemed like a trifle at the time turned out to mean a lot to someone else, even though I had no idea at the time. After all, how much impact could a brief email from someone near the bottom of the organizational chart accomplish? Apparently, a lot (as an added bonus, it was good for me to learn not to judge a book by its cover--there are IT professionals out there who possess exemplary communication skills).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Accept No Limitations (Part 1)

One of my recent engaging sources of inspiration is the book The Sportsman: Unexpected Lessons from an Around-the-World Sports Odyssey by writer/photographer (and a recently-retired professional America football player), Dhani Jones. The author chronicles his adventures and observations of challenging himself by immersion of foreign cultures (through engaging in traditional athletic competitions and learning about himself through conscientious globe-trekking). He reflects on how his new adventures have produced personal discovery and growth.
Dhani Jones emphasizes the importance of not letting others' preconceptions and perceptions limit what one is capable of achieving. These limitations can be culturally-ingrained, based on existing stereotypes, or self-imposed. Quoting from the book:

"You don't have to buy into the propaganda, the stereotypes, or the shortfalls people put before you."
I couldn't agree with this sentiment more. One of the worst things that I ever believed was to stunt my personal growth and desire for learning by buying into the limitations that others had imposed upon me. Believing the toxic hype about what I was and wasn't capable of achieving, through beliefs of outsiders and perpetuation of stereotypes, played a role in my failure to realize and achieve my goals. There were so many damaging negative talk which others try to impose. After realizing that none of these claims are credible, I realized that believing in the hype helped me place mental roadblocks in the path of following my ambitions, whether in work or life.
Here are some fine examples of limiting comments:
"You don't have the experience to do this."
Experience is actualized through diligently learning and transforming the knowledge into tangible results. Unless you're going to take away my drive to learn and practice what I've learned (by coersion, force, or decree), nothing is going to get in the way of my desire to acquire knowledge and gain understanding and experience.
"You don't have the authority to do this."
This sounds like what someone who is fixated on org charts and roles would say. If I held the belief that wanting to learn and doing the right thing were secondary to knowing my place in the pecking order of the universe, I would have never experienced what it feels like to think outside the proverbial box.
I've absorbed many useful professional development-related wisdoms while attending conference events that were geared towards management, even though I'm not in that role. I didn't let my job title stop me from learning from and engaging with others.
Recently I witnessed a ghastly two-vehicle collision outside a bar where some friends and I were relaxing and chilling. Without giving much thought, while other bar patrons rushed to the aid of the injured motorists, I ran up a block up the street and started redirecting traffic from middle of a busy two-lane avenue, until the police arrived ten minutes later to take over. I didn't let my lack of authority stop myself from doing what I felt was the right thing to do.
"You're not high up in the organization or important enough to do this."
Again, this sounds like something that a hierarchy-obsessed hater would proclaim. Maybe I'm blessed with cool upper management, but I have built relationships with many people who are "higher up in the food chain" and networked with others in the organization who work in different areas. Last time I checked, that's called "networking." From what I've learned, those high-level folks seem more interested in my ideas and what I have contributed, than my ability to memorize the organizational hierarchy. I have received praises from past bosses for the quality of my work and for building relationships--not for having memorized who reports to whom.
Using team sports as an analogy, I don't ever recall a third-stringer or a bench player on a professional team refusing to achieve remarkable results when given a chance, simply based on her or his position on the depth chart.
"You weren't born to do this."
Of course I wasn't. In the year I was born, none of the technology that I use in the pursuit of my passions existed back then! Same goes for my occupational field.
"You're not cool enough to do this."
I'm not cool enough to buy into what others dictate what I can or cannot do. I'm glad that ignorance paid off back in my youth. I don't recall any other socially-awkward Dungeon & Dragons-playing 110-pounders deciding to try out for the high school football team the following year. The varsity letter jacket, which I still have in my closet, is a nice symbolic reminder of what happened when I defied stereotypes and expectations.
There are other expressions and toxic beliefs that haters love to declare. They will be myth-busted in a future blog post. There is another wisdom from Dhani Jones from The Sportsman which shatter the notion of what one can and cannot do:
"I removed the words 'I can't' from my vocabulary and went to work."
Now, that's how I like to roll.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Interview Rooms

Last week, I experienced the joy of participating in team interviews at work. We brought in seven candidates for two openings, and spent a significant amount of time attending to the process, including an hour-long panel interview with every candidate. Almost everyone on the panel viewed the process as a time-consuming drudgery. I thought it was a great opportunity to break out of the routine tasks and learn new things. There was more to learn beyond taking surreptitious mental notes about "what to do, and what not to do," when I interview for new jobs in the future.

I treat these interviews like serious business, even when I'm playing on the interviewer side of the game. Our typical work atmosphere is casual but participating in the interview process is something that I do not take lightly. I dressed up, complete with a necktie and dress shirt, and looked presentable and ready to kill. Why? 

Contrary to the commonly-held belief that interviews are simply casting calls for potential recruits, it's also an opportunity to sell the organization to the prospects. When candidates asked inquisitive questions about the worplace and culture, I emphasized that my daily work involves making a difference in the work lives of up to several dozens of people a day. Whereas other peers responded to the prospects' questions with details of the nuts-and-bolts minutae of daily chores, I complemented the scenery with big-forest view, complete with connecting the dots between the work that we do, and the impact that our work has on others. 

Learning about the organizational culture (in this case, the institution and the entire IT department) over the years has given me a wider perspective of how my work unit relates to that of the larger organization. It was second nature to describe to the potential hires about recent cross-departmental collaborative projects, the awesome employee guide that our HR people had recently assembled, and various training and learning options and opportunities that are available to us. It felt liberating (albeit strange at first) to sell the global aspects of the organization instead of regurgitating the rote details of the silo life. It's good to give the interviewees a broader perspective. It is ultimately the new peers' decision to take time to understand the organization, or to stay put inside the innards of the workplace silo. At least I have done my part to offer options. I'm fortunate that I networked and picked the brains of other people in the vast organization over the last decade.

Perhaps this isn't a mainstream assumption, but during the interview process, the candidates are interviewing us: this is not a Panopticon. The folks who are entrusted with hiring new employees are seen as the face of the organization--they will tell their friends, peers, and their network what their experiences with the interview process was, as well as their impressions of us. That is why I dress formally and be attentive during the interviews.

Since the world is a small place, those candidates whom we don't make offers to and I may cross paths somewhere in the future. I want these folks to have a positive impression of our team. I hope we left a very positive impression on all the candidates last week.