Having a Career – Where That Education Led Me

dogbert  call center drone

 

 

 

“To love what you do and feel that it matters–how could anything be more fun?”
– Katharine Graham

The place was Ohio Northern University (ONU), Ada, Ohio, the year was 1984, and there I was in my cap and gown with my new diploma in hand ready to conquer the “professional” world. I was both excited and nervous at the same time. Having work experience and having supervised people gave me an advantage, but at the same time I also had the disadvantage of venturing into the uncharted waters of the office environment.  So it was with some trepidation that I began interviewing for positions with local CPA firms. As I commenced the interview rounds, I saw a small posting in our local paper for a position with a local Accounting Software company.  I diligently sent a cover letter along with my resume. Within a week I had two interviews lined up.  The first interview was at a large local CPA firm that supported the majority of the businesses in our community preparing their taxes, giving financial advice, doing their payroll, etc. The second interview was with the Accounting Software Company for a Customer Support Representative. I don’t know which was more exciting, just getting the interviews or the fact that they were both in areas that were very interesting to me.

The interview at the CPA firm came first. I thought it went well. During the interview I found that the offices were plush (by 1980’s standards) and the dress codes as well as the work environment were very professional. I would need my high heels and hose for this job. The only downside was that the owner was an older gentleman who chewed on his cigar during the interview and called me “girlie.”  I can live with that, I thought.

Then came the interview with the Accounting Software Company.  I drove past the office a few times before I realized it really was that pole building in the middle of the corn field just outside of town. The building also served as the offices of an Engineering firm.  I later found out that one of the initial investors and founders of the software company was also the owner of the Engineering firm, so it made sense for him to “donate” office space to this fledgling software company.  The offices were not plush by any standards, but were typical for a small privately held company just starting out in the business. The dress code, while still professional, became a bit more relaxed after you entered the section that housed the programmers.  But I was interviewing for a Customer Support position, so my dress code would be a bit more like that expected at the CPA firm.  The atmosphere was where everything differed. The founders, the managers, and the entire staff were young and excited to be a part of this little company. While everyone did work long hours, they all seemed to be happy to be there and having fun.  Several of the systems programmers even were alumni of ONU.  I felt at home.

After a few days of chewing my nails and waiting for the phone to ring with an offer, it finally did ring and twice. I was offered both positions. So I did what I normally do when making a big decision. I started a list of pro’s and con’s. On the side of the CPA firm the two big ones were Pro- it was extremely professional and was focused on my first love Accounting, but on the Con side I’d be greeted every day with “hey girlie.” The list for the software company was a bit different. The Pro – an exciting and energetic place to work was balanced by the Con side it was sitting, answering phones and listening to customer complaints all day.  Even today my husband is still amazed that I chose the software company. He knew that I hate sitting all day, I especially hate the telephone as a means of communication, and don’t even get me started expressing how much I hate to hear customers complain (remember those darn frozen turkeys). But I did choose the software company and I am extremely happy that I did. My only concern was that when I started work I found out my “office” was a small room shared with my manager and three other support staff and to top it off they ran out of real desks so mine was a makeshift desk made up of two sawhorses and a door thanks to the engineering firm owner. However, the shiny new computer on my desk more than made up for my office and desk.

So that’s the short story of my entry into the professional world and the door to it was opened by my degree. That paper was worth all of the hours spent gaining it. While I left that first software company behind many years ago, at the time I left it was receiving a lot of positive press and awards for the features and quality of the products I had helped produce.

What I learned from all of this is that sometimes what you think is not the perfect job may lead to that perfect job in the future. In my case, I am happy to say that is what happened. I am grateful for those early years and all of the things that I learned both personally and professionally from the founders, the management, and staff at that small software company.

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Hitting The Books

hit books

Over the years we all have a few life changing moments. One of mine came to me around the tenth year of quartering yet another frozen turkey. It was right after I finally came to the realization that they were never going to promote me to Head Meat Cutter no matter how many times our department came in first in the Zone in sales nor how many times I smiled as I sawed up those turkeys. But I can say that I never would have had the courage to go to college if my family had not pushed me to make that first uncomfortable move.  It started with just a few evening classes at the local technical school. I thought I would turn my love for math and managing by the numbers into a lucrative skill. Little did I know at the start that this would lead to a lifelong love for learning and a fascination with computers.

Two years flew by while attending night classes and working full-time still cutting up those turkeys, but now I was focused on funding my education. On graduation day I wore that cap and gown with pride as I receive my freshly minted Associates Degree in Accounting. I was ready to conquer the professional world! Much to my dismay the jobs for me with my new degree were few and far between and none of them could compare with the wages I was making as a part on the Union.  It would have been even more disappointing if I hadn’t taken that last computer class and discovered that I had a knack for programming – in COBOL – but hey it was still programming. I took exceptional pride in the fact that when I loaded my deck of punched cards into the hopper my code ran first time every time with no errors. It was with the memory of this that I decided to continue to invest in my education by attending a local college and getting a degree that would open doors for me to travel beyond the frozen turkey days. So again with my family’s support, I now start school during the day and switched to nights and week-ends for the turkey travails. Other than a full course load and many stops at school for lab after work, those days included doing the nightly clean-up of the Meat Room. I think I hold the record for the fastest time breaking down the slicer and the band saw and hosing the whole room down with disinfectant and yup you guessed it putting it all back together again just to quarter another frozen turkey. Did I mention that in between times I did my homework standing up in the meat room shifting from one foot to the next trying to stay warm in that 40° room.  Thanks to many cups of black coffee I never fell asleep at the wheel on the drive home.

The next two years went by in a blur, maybe some of that was from the steam in the Meat Room. Now I was really armed and ready to launch into a professional career. So long turkeys! I bought a suit and the requisite nylons and heels and started the interview rounds. After a few weeks I was faced with one of the biggest decisions of my life. Should I take the job at the CPA firm doing taxes? Or should I take the job at the business software startup where I would answer the phones and listen to customers complain? To this day my husband still can’t believe that I chose the latter. I remember him saying,” you hate to hear people complain, you hate the phone, and you really hate sitting all day, now tell me why you took that job again?” The answer was easy. I would have my very own bright and shiny new computer and I could play with software all day long.  Except for the complaints, the phone, and the sitting, it was a job made in heaven. Lucky for me and the customers, my management talent (or simply maturity since I was the oldest employee in the office) and my penchant for breaking the software made me the perfect candidate to start the companies first ever Quality Assurance Department. I’d love to say that was my brain child, but in reality it was due to a critical contract with IBM (the real IBM this time) that required having a QA group that led to my move into management.

It was also around this time that I decided that to really get ahead in the professional world I needed to have some initials after my name. During my senior year at college I had sat for but not passed all parts of the CPA exam. Never to be one to leave something unfinished, I kept on studying and passed all four parts on the second and third tries. One night, fueled I am sure my much black coffee, I applied for and was accepted into an Executive MBA program. It was back to night school I went for more black coffee and rubbing elbows with “C” level wanna be executives.  After a few years I now had CPA and MBA after my name. It doesn’t get any better than that!

So what might you ask did I learn from all of this hard work and study? Let me sum that up for you. It pays to have a loving and supportive family. It’s one thing to get an education but quite another to apply it well in the work environment. And lastly, doing it at light speed like I did, you have to be a little crazy and that comes from drinking too much black coffee!

sydneyjharris104885_m

Business anytime anywhere made possible by Sage!

Business anytime anywhere made possible by Sage.

Many of my friends know that I work for Sage but you may not know exactly what we do. This video
does a great job of explaining our vision and what we do as a software solutions company!

Be sure to “like” it and put your comments on the Facebook page in the video.

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet? That Is The Question.

 

 

Do you know what Lady Gaga and Barack Obama have in common? Probably not difficult to figure out given the title for this post!

Okay, I admit I too have a Twitter account , but seldom use it. It sits there in the same realm as my Facebook account. Once in a while I brush off the cobwebs and do actually post a comment on Facebook, but I view this as a “personal” tool and in that light I leave it up to my husband to keep his Facebook current with family news. He does after all have the largest family and extended family. Just within the Amstutz’ clan there are enough Facebook connections for me to play Word With Friends for hours using his account. They now all think he has an extraordinary vocabulary.

Back to Tweeting, perhaps I should examine this more closely and determine the how, why, and what I might use it for. I know from the below link that Lady Gaga is the supreme Tweeter with the most followers.  Just to be considered in the same league with her leaves me breathless. What would be next for me? How about a new carnivorous wardrobe?  Nope, don’t think so. Well, what then might I get out of a steady Twitter stream? Would I gain valuable knowledge? Would I be able to impart nuggets of my wisdom daily in addition to my weekly posts?  While I ponder this a bit, you might want to view the link for some interesting fast facts about Twitter.

I see the use of Twitter as a marketing engine, I see it as a way to quickly send a sound bite to family and friends in one fell swoop, I see it as a way to stay connected with current happenings when at a conference with a group of business associates, but I just don’t see it as useful for me.  Does that make me less technically adept? Or does that just confirm what my closest friends and family already know? I would prefer to think the latter. Let me clarify, I am by nature an introvert, yes, that’s right, I have that “I” in my Myers-Briggs profile. But even so, I am open to change. While I do prefer reading a good book to going to a party, I am open to the fact that the whole world seems to be Tweeting away and I might just be the only twit who does not Tweet daily.  So in my mission to continually grow and expand both personally and professionally, I will be examining the cost (time) benefit (visibility) equation of Twitter.  With Lady Gaga and Barrack Obama at such opposite ends of the spectrum and both of them Tweeting prodigiously, why would I not want to join their ranks?

As I begin this adventure of Tweeting discovery, I will be happy to share with you what I learn along the way, or better yet just follow me @DAAStutz as I Tweet my journey. Hey, I think I just may have found a use for my Twitter account after all!

http://www.baselinemag.com/c/a/Intelligence/40-Fast-Facts-on-Twitter-890793/?kc=EWWHNEMNL05232012EOAD

Fostering Creativity

Albert Einstein once said: “If I had an hour to save the world I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions” And I find in most organizations people are running around spending sixty minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t matter.”

~ Stephen Shapiro

What do scotch tape, sand paper, golf clubs, and smart phones have in common? That is the challenge I presented to you in the last post. Did you figure it out? No? Okay, if you really are keen to know, then you must read the book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. Oh, not up for more reading? Then follow along with me and I will explain a bit about how creativity works according to Mr. Lehrer.  While doing this I will also give you the answer to why these seemingly disconnected items are really connected and a bit about where the very ideas for them came from.

Last week I spoke about the need to stay focused, but this week I’m going to talk about why it might be good at times to be more “defocused.”  In the book Lehrer cites many studies done by psychologists at leading universities into the way the brain works. What was found is that those sparks of creativity happen most often after periods of intense focus and then when frustration ensues this is the moment when the left brain gets tired and the right brain takes over. He explains that this mental shift often works because the struggle forces us to try something new. “Because we feel frustrated, we start to look at problems from a new perspective. You’ll see people bolt up in their chair and their eyes go all wide….Sometimes, they even say “Aha!”  before they blurt out the answer.”  This is the time when our brain gets a bit “defocused” and shifts the activity to the other side, to explore a more unexpected set of associations.

In the book, Lehrer talks about the ability to make separate ideas coexist in the mind and that this is a crucial creative tool. It is termed “conceptual blending.” This act of recombination was a key to Gutenberg transforming his knowledge of the winepress into an idea for a printing machine, the Wright brothers’ knowledge of bicycles into inventing the airplane, and Dick Drew’s invention of masking tape from his knowledge of sand paper and low sticking factor glue.  Drew was not just a “one hit wonder” he went from being a sandpaper salesman to being a full-time researcher. From his interaction with a colleague who told him about a new packing material called cellophane he connected his knowledge of glue to create what we know today as Scotch tape.

This brings me to my challenge from last week, this process of conceptual blending has been repeated again and again at 3M (yes, Dee you were correct in part with your comment last week). The adhesive used in industrial-strength masking tape gave rise to sound-dampening panels used in Boeing aircraft. Those panels in turn gave rise to the adhesive foam used in golf clubs, and the concept of Scotch tape inspired another 3M engineer to invent the touch-screen technology used in smartphones. There are many more examples in the book, but this should give you enough to understand the importance of conceptual blending.

At 3M, this is taken so seriously that they regularly rotate engineers from division to division to keep the good ideas circulating. In the software development camp, the new “open cubicle” concept and SCRUM teams help foster interaction across disciplines. This is part of building an environment that encourages creativity and should also make conceptual blending possible. There are other interesting approaches that they take at 3M to foster creativity and I am thinking hard about how we might apply some of them in our Software Engineering organizations. These alone have made this book interesting reading. I just need to get past all of the drug induced inspiration of poets and the alcoholic haze of musical lyrics to pull out the creative environmental opportunities that might apply to our work environment.

As for setting up conditions to support creativity, research has shown that the color blue automatically triggers associations with the sky and the ocean bringing with it a mental relaxation that makes it easier to daydream and pay attention to insights where we are less focused on what is in front of us and more aware of the possibilities in our imaginations. Other research has shown that creativity at times is inspired by other people or in other words a collaborative process. I call this “getting together to paint the restrooms blue.” How many of us have had ideas spawned by casual interactions with others as we head to the restroom at work? Well I would suggest that if we had only one central bathroom location in the building that this would force these interactions and if we could paint all of our bathrooms blue, well that would be creative nirvana.

Please excuse the brevity of this post. I need to send an email to our facilities management to request closure of the upstairs restrooms and volunteer to paint the downstairs restroom blue. Do you think they will approve my request?

To read more from the author of Imagine, below is a link to Jonah Lehrer’s blog. http://bigthink.com/humanizing-technology/undisciplined-the-creative-insight-of-the-outsider?utm_source=Big+Think+Weekly+Newsletter+Subscribers&utm_campaign=695f3944b5-The_Creative_Insight_of_the_Outsider5_4_2012&utm_medium=email

Here is link to an interesting post on problem solving with a reference to the Einstein quote. http://litemind.com/problem-definition/

Keeping The Squirrel’s Tamed – Staying Focused

As I was reading my 500th email the other day, I came across this blog http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2012/04/coping-with-email-overload.html by Peter Bergman the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.  I did like I usually do and stopped everything to not only read his interesting tips for how to better manage my daily glut of emails, but also to read the first chapter of his book and download it to my iPad. While doing this I kept on reading other emails that had piled up since I shut down the evening before at 10 p.m. and did I mention that I also had started to read my emails from home at breakfast at 6 a.m. that morning?

Don’t we all love this information age where we are inundated with so much valuable information that we can’t get anything done? As I was doing all of this triple tasking, (did I tell you I was working on a project at the same time?) I came across another blog that talked about Agile Development – we use this here at Sage – and the need for the teams to be able to stay focused. In this second blog, I noticed a section headed “Squirrel” that immediately caught my eye. Right about now you’re probably asking yourself what the heck is she leading up to and why can’t she stay focused? Well, that’s because every email that comes in dings and for me that is just like yelling “Squirrel!” at your dog. You know, when you are out for a walk and he sees one of these bushy-tailed creatures and he immediately breaks from his “heel” and goes nuts trying to catch that pesky critter.

The light came on for me, not only was I responding to that email ding like my beloved dog responds to squirrels, but I was also guilty of shouting “squirrel!” to the team during our sprint reviews. For those of you not familiar with Agile, a sprint review is conducted after a pre-defined period of intense work. For us, this is every three weeks. The sprint review is where the team gathers to show what they have accomplished and celebrate meeting their goals. As it would happen, my epiphany came on a Monday morning right before we had our Product Owner/Managers meeting – another Agile driven meeting – and this gave me the opportunity to ask for feedback and explain that I thought I probably was guilty of getting the teams distracted by yelling squirrel. They of course were very nice to me, but did give me some great feedback — in my heart I know I am guilty of the squirrel gig. What we worked out was a process for me to give the feedback at the right time to the right person so that the team would not be distracted.

Now it’s time for you to do some introspective thinking. When have you yelled “squirrel” to your team? When have you jumped up and responded to the squirrel call? Both are equally bad as the first distracts others and the second is personally worse because it keeps you from being focused and productive.

I would encourage you to read Mr. Bergman’s blog and put his suggestions to the test. As for yelling “squirrel!,” make sure that if you do it is because he is really as dangerous as the picture at the top of this post.

Be on the lookout for next week’s post. In it I will give you some examples where being too focused might limit your creativity and at the same time let you know what scotch tape, sand paper, golf clubs, and smart phones have in common.  For those of you who are creative types and have the answer to this feel free to comment here on your thoughts about the commonality.

Supporting Innovation

 “Innovation— any new idea—by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience.” — Warren Bennis http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/citycar-hiriko-fold-car-future/story?id=15472566#

For the video: http://www.necn.com/02/24/12/A-fuel-efficient-fold-up-car/landing_scitech.html?blockID=657652&feedID=4213

I’m reading a new book this week, The Wide Lens: A New Strategy For Innovation, by Ron Adner. As I am reading I thought of the above article and video I saw a while ago on the new Hiriko, a fold up car.  Right about now you’re probably asking yourself “what does this have to do with leadership?” I think that no matter what type of business you are in, as a leader you need to be thinking about innovation. Whether it’s the next new item you put on your fast food menu, the newest software product, or the most fuel-efficient car design, all of these innovations have something in common, the need for support of the innovation by their surrounding ecosystems. Whether it’s the baker of the buns for the burger being able to accommodate the new square 10 inch bun requirement, the software sales partners building the new skills required to set up and install the software, or the need to have recharge stations installed in parking curbs for the electric car.  Leadership is about makings sure that all of the ecosystems are thought about and in place to sustain the success of these new innovations.

In the book, there is a story about Michelin’s invention of the “drive flat tire.” When I read this I thought “wow” I’ve got to get those tires, but then as I read on I realized that the problem with them was they were really expensive, there were no tire repair shops that had the needed equipment to repair them when I had driven my 50 miles on the flat (it never is really not flat you can just continue to drive on it for a while), and that it was unlikely that either of these things would change in the near future.  But as I continued to read, I realized that there were several peripheral inventions developed at the same time that I am already taking advantage of in my Honda Insight. One of these is the system that tells me my tires are running low on air. I won’t spoil the rest of the book for you, but you get the picture.

As I continue to read the book, it has started to dawn on me that as a leader it is not enough for me to encourage innovation. I must also be aware that support for that innovation needs to be a part of “selling the idea” to the executives.  While this at first might seem daunting, it is absolutely necessary. I would go on to claim that it is just as required as understanding the market segment for the product and the pricing models. If you don’t have a bun big enough to fit your new burger, then you’re never going to get it into your customer’s hands. Well, let me rephrase that, you might just literally get it into their hands, but you’re certainly not going to be able to claim a premium price for it unless you make it a protein burger and wrap it only in lettuce. The same is true if you can’t sell your software because no one can support it or your new car is just left to languish by the side of the road when the battery runs out of juice. This last assumes that you don’t also invent a really long extension cord that will stretch to the nearest Costco that has an electric car plug-in station.

I am not recommending that you squash your innovators by burdening them with thinking through all of these details. I am, however, taking the position that we as leaders must think ahead and act in concert with our innovators. We must support them, build a creative environment for them, and nurture their inventive ideas. Then, when we take the best of those ideas and sell them to the executives who need to buy in and fund the efforts, it is our job as leaders to also think through the ecosystem support that will be required to see a successful launch in the market.

There are a lot of books about innovation, but I highly recommend this one to help you build your thoughts about what we each can do as leaders to support the innovation that is definitely required in this economy to sustain our long-term business growth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book and the ecosystems that you need to support innovations for your business. Just remember, like Warren Bennis has said, this requires “courageous patience.”

Sharpening The Saw

This week when I read an excellent document written by one of my management colleagues, I was reminded of the need we all have to keep our skills up dated. I’ve included selected excerpts from his document here for all of you to consider the value that you continue to bring to your employers.  I think this is applicable no matter what position you hold and no matter what company you are working for.   Your call to action (and mine as well) is to look over your shoulder a bit and determine what professional goals you should set for this year in order to “sharpen your saw.”

..” As you are no doubt aware, corporate philosophy is changing.  .. .  Throughout the industry, and not just in software development, corporate philosophies are changing to adapt to the current economic facts of life.  Whether you blame it on the prolonged recession, high unemployment, or off-shoring, companies need to be extremely high performing and agile in order to compete in today’s economy.  Average is no longer adequate, as we have seen multiple companies fail over the past several years because they chose not to stand out.  From bookstores to big chain department stores to restaurants, companies struggle to survive and ultimately fail because they are only average.  The companies that do survive are the ones that are the most innovative and have enthusiastic, engaged employees building their products.

.. The hard, cold truth is that what used to be valuable is now common.  This happens over time with almost everything, except for maybe gold.  Take salt for example.  The word salary actually originates from salarium which is Latin for the money used to pay Roman soldiers to buy salt, an extraordinarily expensive necessity of life back in the days without refrigeration, pasteurization and a host of other modern advances making food safe.  Now salt is obviously readily available at your local supermarket for mere pennies. 

To use a more modern reference, you only need to look at your computer.  What used to cost millions of dollars and required huge rooms with massive air conditioners can now be compressed into the size of a phone that fits into your pocket.  Technology is constantly making strides to be faster and cheaper regardless of what it’s being used in.  Moore’s Law is as applicable today as it was almost fifty years ago when Gordon Moore described the trend in relation to transistor counts. 

What this is boiling down to is that your skills as a developer, designer, QA, etc. are also losing value.  If you think about it, twenty years ago, you needed to have a degree and know assembly language or something like C, Pascal or Fortran to be a programmer.  Now, a fourteen-year old can take an iOS development kit and build one of the most popular games available on the iPhone.  That’s not to say there are legions of fourteen-year old children waiting to take your job.  What it does mean is that the technology is out there for those who want it.  To paraphrase Seth Godin, there’s always going to be someone else out there doing the same work as you except for less.  Even if you’re at the top of your game, there’s someone behind you looking to take over that top spot.  This applies to both individuals and companies.  If your skills are remaining static, you’re actually falling behind.

So what does this mean for you?  There are several clichés floating around like “Good isn’t Good Enough” or “Raising the Bar” but it really boils down to “What are YOU going to do for the company.”  … The higher your position in the company, the more value you need to contribute year-over-year. 

(on goal setting)… What value are you offering to achieve this goal that is above and beyond what your job description or core competency is expecting of you?  You’ll notice that this starts to get increasingly more difficult as your position increases within the company.  … Here are a couple other things to consider.  First, not all goals are created equal.  There will be some goals that have more impact on your performance rating than others.  As the adage goes, Quality over Quantity.  Second, just because you completed a goal, doesn’t mean that you successfully accomplished the goal.  Take into consideration the process in which the goals were completed.  For example, if you’ve completed a goal but managed to alienate everyone associated with the project, this does not equate to success.  Working in a team environment, accepting criticism and feedback, negotiating differences in opinions to everyone’s satisfaction are all factors that make a goal, and a project, successful.  Finally, quality is always an underlying issue.  Completing a goal but allowing it to release with significant issues cannot be considered successful, even though it may not be easy to determine this right when the product is released. 

… Remember that your success and the Company’s success are related and intertwined.  The company’s continued success cannot be achieved without energized, motivated and engaged employees.”

Life is Like a Game of Angry Birds

For those of you who know me you understand I am fascinated (addicted might be a better word) by the game Angry Birds.  I am proud to say that I have three stars on all of the games. If you wonder how I have had time to play this game, I have found that I can function on as little as six hours of sleep a night. Now with all that background, back to the topic of this post. Along the way I have come to the realization that life is like a game of angry birds.

As you fling your bird into the air toward those pesky squealing pigs, you cross your fingers and hope your aim is true. That you have found that vulnerable spot in the structure that will let your bird break through and bring the end of days to the pig buried inside. Each bird has his own specific skills and you must learn these along the way in order to make best use of them to annihilate the pigs that lie within.  Back to the parallel to life, as with the game, if you just keep randomly flinging solutions at issues and don’t take time to consider  the value of each solution in and of itself you will likely take much longer to resolve the issue or perhaps not solve it all (pigs with helmets fit this category).

What I have found works best is a studied approach. Assess the skills best suited to meet the objective and look for the proper point in time to use them. Just as you need to review the structure holding the precious pig and fling your best bird at the weak spot, so must you put your best people with the right skills on the task to find the solution that fits the problem.