Archive for the ‘career’ Category

Right job, wrong city– getting and keeping a remote job Part 1

map-of-north-americaI have accepted a new job at Microsoft. I work for a team in Redmond, but, I still live in Ottawa, Canada. I have spent the last 5 years working remotely for Microsoft Canada. I won’t say I’ve mastered the art of working remote but I’ve learned a few tricks to help manage a successful career remotely.

In Part 1 I will discuss:

  • How did I end up working remote?
  • When do you tell the hiring manager you won’t relocate?
  • Why is working remote such an issue?

Coming soon…

  • Why would a manager hire me as a remote employee?
  • How to thrive in the company as a remote employee?
  • Staying sane as a remote employee
  • Does working at home impact your career?
  • Is it worth it?

How did it start?

5 years ago I got a phone call from an employee at microsoft. At the time I was teaching programming, database and business analysis courses. I was a frequent speaker at Microsoft events. I figured the call was a request to present or help out at a local event. Instead the first words I heard after the usual greetings were “Have you considered your career”. To be honest I hadn’t given any serious consideration to working for Microsoft. Any jobs of interest were in Redmond, Washington (Microsoft head office).  I had two boys in school, and a husband with a good job in Ottawa. For me, moving simply wasn’t an option.

This call was a little different. It was for a job as a technical evangelist at Microsoft Canada. Canada! So no need to move to the US. The title alone was too intriguing to pass up. I submitted my resume and went through a gauntlet of interviews.  But once again location was an issue. They wanted me to move to Toronto. First things first, I convinced them we should go through the interviews and then discuss location. I never told them I would move to Toronto, I simply asked them to talk to me before deciding having me work from Ottawa was a deal-breaker.

When do you tell the manager you won’t relocate?

interviewRule number one: Don’t lie! I have never told a hiring manager I would move just to get to the interview.  I certainly don’t open the conversation with “by the way I won’t relocate”, but I never lie or mislead them just to get an interview.

When I find a position of interest, step one is always to find out more about the job. Set up a short call or informal meeting with the manager. In Microsoft we refer to this as an informational. It’s a chance for you to learn more about the job, and for the hiring manager to learn more about you. It’s a good idea regardless of whether you expect to work remotely or not!  It is hard to tell from a written job description what a job entails, and it’s also a chance to find out if you and the manager are likely to get along. I’d rather have a bad job with a good manager than a good job with a bad manager (of course what I really want is a good job with a good manager! but I’ve experienced all the possible combinations in my career). If the meeting is going well, i.e. I still want the job and the manager is encouraging me to apply, that’s when I break the news. I explain that I have some bad news, I am interested in the job, but relocation isn’t an option and would they consider hiring me as a remote employee..

More than half of the time, the opportunity ends there.

When the manager says remote is not an option, I always ask if they could wait until after the interview process before making a final decision. I encourage the manager to wait until I have deeper insights into the job, and the manager has deeper insights into my skills. During the interview process we can discuss the specific concerns around having a remote employee and strategies to alleviate those concerns. But, understand, that there are some jobs that do require an in person presence. If this is one of those roles, you are wasting your energy and the manager’s time pursuing the role. Accept it and move on. Finding a role you want remotely requires patience and persistance.

Why is working remote such an issue?

teleconferenceThere are a number of reasons a manager may not one someone working remotely. Understanding these concerns can help you determine if the working remotely is a deal breaker or simply an obstacle to be overcome.

 

The job

Some jobs are better suited for working remotely than others. Does the job require regular access to special equipment? Does the job require organizing in person events? If a job frequently requires your physical presrence in a particular location, then you are facing an uphill battle. In these situations you are unlikely to get the job without relocation.

Company culture

Does the company and the team already have remote workers?

Some companies are very open to working remotely, others actively discourage working from home. If the company has never had a remote worker you will run into all sorts of complications: How do you get IT support when you are having issues with your computer? What is the policy for expensing travel to and from the office? Does time spent in transit count as working hours? If there is an Annual General Meeting, a big in person announcement by the CEO, or a company holiday party will you travel to the office for those occasions?  Does the company understand the impact on your personal life when you have to travel to the office?  Are you expected to travel on weekends? What are the accepted methods of travel (plane? train? car? first class? economy?)

If the company does not have remote workers, do they have people in the office who regularly work from home?

Companies with a work at home policy are more likely to have a way for you to connect to the company network from home, an IT support team who can help you solve issues remotely

Does the company have customers they work with remotely?

Companies who work with remote customers are more likely to have tele-conferencing capabilities so you can easily present screens from your laptop and collaborate with co-workers remotely.  Office rooms as more likely to have cameras and microphones in meeting rooms so you can be a part of larger meetings as well.

Team culture

Just because the company has policies in place for remote workers, doesn’t mean the team you are applying to knows how to deal with it. If you join a team in the habit of walking down the hall for impromptu meetings, making decisions in elevators, and having all their meetings in person, you have a challenge ahead of you. Best case scenario you will often find out after the fact that decisions were made, because they simply forgot to start up the conference bridge, or just had a quick chat in the hallway and didn’t think it was necessary to bother you. It’s not malicious! It’s simply human nature. Everyone is trying to get things done, you get caught up in a good conversation you don’t always stop to think, wait there is someone who isn’t in the room we need to call in! The simple fact you are not physically present means there is a risk you end up out of the loop. Worst case scenario (and sadly this can happen) you have someone on the team who actively takes advantage of your absence to make themselves look good an make you look bad. So far as I know, that’s never happened to me! So assume best intentions!

Your work habits

Have you worked remotely before? It’s a different life waking up every day having breakfast and walking 10 steps to your office. No-one popping by your desk to ask if you saw the latest episode of Game of Thrones. No donuts in the kitchen (though you still get the email telling you there are donuts in the kitchen at the office). No-one to sit with at lunch. Instead you have your home with all its distractions: dirty dishes, laundry, house cleaning, weeding, tele marketers calling, odd jobs to be done, maybe kids coming home from school before you finish your work day? It’s not for everyone, and not everyone can thrive in that environment. It takes some discipline to get your work done and stay connected.

Networking

At many companies networking is key to a successful career. It can help you get things done. It can help you get credit and visibility for the things you do. It can help you find little projects that are ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ that get you the raise, the award, or the promotion.  It is also how you will your next job in the company. When you work remotely networking is more difficult.

Your success

I am very fortunate to have work at a company and to apply for jobs with managers who really want to see me succeed. Some of them have had remote employees in the past who were unfortunately unhappy and unsuccessful for one or more of the reasons outlined above. Some teams at microsoft are very dynamic: roles and responsibilities change frequently. The job I am applying for might work remotely, but what happens in 6 months when they re-org? What if my original job disappears? You want to be sure you join a team whose goals you can support in different ways. You don’t want to get caught in a position where there is only one thing you can do remotely. How will you grow? How will you get promoted? How will you keep yourself challenged and motivated?

Elevator meetings

Sometimes the most important conversations don’t happen in the meeting room, they happen immediately afterwards when you are walking out of the meeting and discuss the meeting in the elevator on the way back to your desk. Sometimes a chance encounter in an elevator gives you a rare opportunity to talk to a senior team member in person. Remote workers don’t have this opportunity.

Budget

If you work remotely how often are you going to visit the office?  Will you travel by plane, train automobile? Hotel, meals, and transportation costs add up fast! Spending money for you to visit the office may mean less money for doing business! 

Stay tuned for part 2…

Ranking priorities is easier than you think

Whether you are prioritizing your to-do list or requirements for an application. It helps to have a simple way to prioritize, in this post I’ll share my favorite method.

I’ve seen many different methods to rank items on a requirements list or to-do list. Priority High/Medium/Low,  ranking priority from 1-5.  When doing everything isn’t an option (and it never is!) somehow you have to decide what comes first.

When I taught Business Analysis, I came across a wonderful and simple way of ranking priorities: Must, Should, Could, Would. What I love about this method is the fact it is self describing. However, I still find it helpful to describe each category to co-workers when we are trying to decide what to do first.

MUST 

For requirements

When I am considering requirements for an application, anything identified as a MUST is a feature that is worth delaying the release to get. Put simply, the application MUST have this feature or it is not worth building the application at all!

For my to-do list

If I don’t do this I am not doing my job! I am not talking about forgetting to file an expense report, I mean my core reponsibilities, what I was hired to do! Sometimes there is a MUST on my to-do list that I dread doing, but when I acknowledge to myself it’s a MUST do, I have to set aside time to do it.

For exercise

We all know we should get some exercise. Some weeks it is easier than others. Did you know that as long as you exercise every third day you are improving? If you exercise the 4th day you are at least maintaining. So for me, a MUST exercise day is when I’ve gone 3 days and haven’t done anything. On Day 4 I MUST do something, otherwise I am actually getting less fit. Of course a must varies depending on your goals.  When I am training for a marathon, the MUST is the long run because that’s the run that you will regret skipping race day)

SHOULD

For requirements

Anything identified as a SHOULD that is not included in a release is going to make users unhappy and may even make them mad! They will be able to use the application but you had better give them a date when the SHOULD requirements will be added. Some of the SHOULD features may be pushed back a release or two but you know the users are going to be complaining until the SHOULD requirements are released.

For my to-do list

If I don’t do this task, one of my co-workers or maybe even my boss is going to be unhappy. Maybe it’s data I promised to try and put together so they could complete a plan. Maybe it’s something I promised to follow up on. My boss isn’t going to start yelling at me because I didn’t do it, but somebody out there will be unhappy if this doesn’t get done.  I certainly try to do all the SHOULD items on my to-do list. But during a crisis, they may get pushed back until everything is under control.

For exercise

If you get exercise every third day, then you are improving. Shouldn’t we all strive to get fitter rather than just maintain our current level of fitness? Getting in a workout at least once every three days is something we SHOULD all do. When I am training for a marathon, hill work falls into the SHOULD category. I know if I do my hill work it will pay off on race day (there are very few marathon courses out there without hills). But if I don’t do my hill work I’ll still finish, it’s just going to be a lot tougher.

 

COULD

For requirements

This is how you make users happy! When you start adding the features a system COULD have the result is a feature that will make the users happy. Something the old system perhaps couldn’t do and caused them frustration. Something taht will make the users lives easier

For my to-do list

When I get to the COULD items on my to-do list I am making the people I work with happy. Perhaps even going a little bit above and beyond. Maybe it’s taking the time to write a little email to their manager thanking them for helping with a task. Maybe it’s taking the time to put together a really awesome graph or report that summarizes the work we’ve done in the past year or the work to do in the coming year. When you manage to get a few COULD items on your to-do list completed you may start to get a little recognition for your effort, even if it’s just a ‘Thank you this is really helpful’ email from a co-worker.

For exercise

Ahhh, now if you can get to the COULD do items on your exercise strategy you should actually start to notice improvements. You could take a few minutes each day to do some situps or push ups. You could add some cardio to your routine, or if you do cardio maybe add a little strength training to your routine.  But, if you want to make it a habit to get to the COULD items on your exercise routine, I strongly recommend doing it with a friend, or making sure it’s something you can turn into a routine. When I am training for a marathon I COULD add some strength training to improve my core and some stretching. I can run a marathon without doing situps, but I’m going to look much stronger in that finish line photo if I can fit it in. Hmmm, since stretching will help me prevent injury, I guess I should really bump that up to the SHOULD list!

WOULD

For requirements

When you interview users and ask them for their list of requirements for a new system, every now and then they will say something like ‘you know what would really be nice’ . These are the WOULD like to have priorities. These are feature we will include if it turns out we can do them without really spending any serious amount of money or time doing it. Every now and then the users request a change that will take very little time to implement,  it may be a feature that already exists in the software but wasn’t implemented or well understood. We don’t often get to add a WOULD to a system, but when you do, the users smile and you get the satisfaction of knowing you made them happier without a big investment of resources.

For my to-do list

Ahhh, I have so many WOULD like to do items on my to-do list. You know all those articles you want to get around to reading, or the things you want to sit down and learn when you have time. When you do have the opportunity to tackle a WOULD item on your to-do list, the result is YOU are happier. You had a little time to tackle something that you wanted to do for you. Keep an eye out for easy WOULD like to do items that won’t take much time. Once in a while you may find a little window at the end of the day, when you really don’t have the energy to tackle the big to-do items and giving yourself 30 minutes to work on a WOULD like to do can re-energize you and remind you why you like your job!

For exercise

What exercise do you actually enjoy? Is it yoga? kickboxing? (I love kickboxing) cross country skiing? A walk along the river? Find a little time here and there to do something you enjoy that happens to be exercise, rather than doing it because it is exercise. When I am training for a marathon, going for a run wiht no goal pace or distance is such a pleasure especially with a friend! Itgives me a break from the gruelling training runs and reminds me why I took up running in the first place.

Women in Tech–10 Tips for balancing family and business travel

ViewFromAPlaneAfter twenty years of working in high tech and just about every one of those years involving business travel, I won’t even pretend to have perfected the family/work balance but, if you are about to embark on a job that involves travel, I have a few tips that might help.

1 – Accept you may catch some moments in reruns

First steps, losing a tooth, scoring a goal at the hockey game, as a parent you will get to witness many amazing moments in your child’s life. If you travel for work, you are going to miss some of those moments.  It’s not the end of the world, find pleasure in listening to your spouse or child tell you all about that awesome moment. They will be thrilled to have an opportunity to relive it with you when you call or get home.

2 – Find a farewell routine

Life is easier when you have a routine. It helps to have a routine when you leave on a trip. My routine is fairly simple, when I leave town I give the kids (and my husband) a bedtime kiss and hug for each night I will be gone (a little tougher now the boys are teenagers). This is my way of letting them know that even though I am not home, I am still thinking of them. It also gives them a sense of how long I will be gone. A 3 year old doesnt really understand the difference between a 2 day and a 5 day trip. But, kids figure out quickly that only one extra hug meant a short trip. I still remember the night before a two week trip, my 7 year old son stepped back and looked at me and said ‘that’s a lot of extra hugs mom.’  Some people count sleeps until mom or dad gets home. You could make a countdown with post it notes or tear out pages from a day by day calendar and leave them behind one per day. Whatever works for you. Just make sure it doesn’t require too much work beforehand, if you are travelling regularly, you won’t always have the time and energy for complicated rituals.

3 – Do what you can to make your time away easier for your spouse

Leaving for a week? maybe you should call a cleaning service to come and clean the house while you are away, or arrange for someone to mow the lawn. Maybe, the best way to help is by getting someone to help get the kids to and from their various activities. I try to make arrangements for someone to drive my son to his hockey practices so my husband has doesn’t have to manage supper, dishes and driving to and from the arena. Sometimes I can make his life easier by doing something as simple as baking the kids favorite cookies before I leave, so there are peanut free snacks to put in the kids lunches. When I had a two week trip I made arrangements for a friend to come to the house and take the kids to dinner and a movie over the weekend, so dad could have a night off. (We don’t have the luxury of grandparents in town to help out, but if you do, they could also be a great resource to give your spouse a break when you are away)

4 – Set expectations on when you will call home

In this world of text messages and Skype, there are lots of ways to stay in touch when you are on the road. But, it’s still a good idea to just have a quick chat with your spouse to manage expectations. Will you be available during the work day to exchange a text message or an email? A call may take some planning. What nights will your spouse be busy with kids activities?  When will they be busy with bath time?  When will you have privacy for a voice call? a video chat? Are there nights when you have evening commitments on your trip? Are you going to talk every night? Are you caliing to talk to your spouse at one time and your kids at a different time? In my early days of business travel (pre cell phones) my husband used to call my hotel room in the evening, on my first couple of trips I missed the calls and came back to my hotel room to a blinking light and it was too late to call back (don’t forget to factor in time changes as part of your planning). You may be busy on your trip, but your spouse is still at home dealing with all the day to day activities and may be craving some adult conversation, or a chance to unload after a bad day. Sometimes you can just call on the spur of the moment, but it’s good to have a couple of pre-planned times just in case!

5 – Don’t buy everyone presents on every business trip

If travel is going to be a regular occurence, you don’t want the kids to expect a gift every time you go away. Don’t hesitate to bring home a little something from time to time, but you don’t need to be rushing around the airport gift shop every time you have a flight. Like everything else you need to find a balance. My approach was to pick up a gift when I am visiting somewhere new or out of the ordinary. Of course, sometimes you stumble across something you just can’t get at home, a favorite brand of chocolate bar, an interesting bottle of wine, a cool pair of socks (no seriously, my son loves wearing funky socks, and I never know when I will find a cool pair). When it’s unexpected it’s a bigger treat.

6 – Share your travel perks and points with your family

If you have status on the airline, make a point of going to the airport with enough time to visit the lounge with the family (assuming your kids are old enough to get a kick out of the free cookies and drinks). Can you cash in some air miles to get free admission to the zoo? How about using your hotel points to stay at a fancy hotel for one night, cash in your upgrade coupons on a family trip and give your spouse a turn in first class. If your kids are older and are well behaved travellers, consider giving them a turn in first class as well. Please remember that smaller children should not be sent up to first class on their own, I have a friend who when upgraded ended up sitting next to a 3 year old (not sure of the age, but he got my friend to cut his meat up for him so we are going to guess the 3 year old range) this boy was providing his own loud commentary as he watched the in flight tv, was rude to the staff, kicked the seat in front of him, and was generally loud and disruptive. Meanwhile his father was somewhere in economy oblivious to the whole thing. My friend was getting the dirty looks because they thought he was the parent. So while I applaud taking kids on trips and giving them the opportunity to experience first class, with younger kids that should only be done supervised by mom or dad. But I digress, the main point here is your family is affected by your business travel, it’s stressful for them, so if you get a few perks try to share the benefits with them.

7 – Listen and ask questions

When you come home from a trip or you call home during a trip, chances are your spouse or kids will have news to share. Even if you had an exciting day/trip listen before you tell your story. Ask about the science test, the doctor’s appointment, recess, bath time.

8 – Try to be home before bedtime

I’ve discovered that if my kids see me before bed, they don’t consider that a day away. So sacrifice a little sleep in the hotel bed to catch that early morning flight so you can be home by suppertime. When going on your trip, try to avoid those early morning flights so you at least have breakfast with the family before you take off. 

9 – Set limits on your travel

How much travel is too much? Best to discuss that with your spouse before it happens. You should also ask yourself which family events should not be missed. Sometimes the answer when the boss says ‘can you do this trip’ is no. I call it my domestic air miles balance. When I take a trip I am cashing in domestic air miles, and when I get home I need to earn them back. Occasionally, if I am travelling somewhere really interesting or in a city where I have friends or family to visit, I cash in a few extra domestic air miles and spend an extra day in the city to explore. If I have had a few trips back to back and another one comes up I might tell my boss that I have cashed in all my domestic air miles and need some time to earn them back before I travel again (If you do turn down a trip, tell your spouse you did it, I’ve discovered letting them know I said no to a trip helps me earn back a few more of those domestic air miles). Saying no from time to time is not going to hurt your career. If you have accepted a job with very heavy travel, then it’s important to stop from time to time and discuss with your family if the job is worth that much time apart. 

10 – Give your spouse a chance to be an awesome parent

When you are away, the household routine may vary. maybe the kids get ice cream as a bedtime snack instead of fruit. Maybe they get to watch a tv show you normally don’t let them watch, or they get more video game time than you would normally allow. A little rule stretching can actually help the kids feel a little closer to dad. Maybe there is a restaurant, tv show, or movie that you don’t like but they do, what better time to do it then when you are out of town! They will still want to spend time with mom, and tell you about their days and adventures when you get home. If the kids get a little quality time with dad and bond doing something you wouldn’t normally do, even some minor rule breaking, maybe that’s okay. I honestly believe that my kids are a little closer to their dad because I am occasionally out of town.

Jobs which require business travel can be exciting and great opportunities, but they will absolutely impact your life at home. A little foresight and planning will make it easier on everyone! Safe travels and share your tips as well!

Learn from improv–it’s not about you!

There are some basic rules in improv comedy that more of us should apply to the workplace!

I know when you think of improv you have visions of Robin Williams or Whose Line Is It Anyway? They may make it look easy, but there is a lot of practice and training required, along with some quick wits.

Some of the rules you are taught when you explore improv comedy are rules we should apply in the workplace as well. Here’s one of my favorites:

You look good if you make your partner look good

DSCF6051If you didn’t watch that Whose Line is it Anyway clip, watch it now. Notice how Colin & Ryan set each other up?  Neither one is trying to steal the scene. When they set up Wayne to sing a song they give him song styles that play to his strengths. Fans of Whose Line will know Wayne is good at  songs in the style of Tina Turner, Prince, and Sammy Davis Jr, the rest of the cast are fully aware of his go to characters and give him every opportunity they can to work them into a song.  If it’s Brad singing, they will throw him a B52 number, because he does a great impression of the lead singer of the B52s. They know that if the song works, the skit works.  An improv skit relies on the whole team and when one team member tries to control the entire scene,  hog the stage  it falls apart.  If a team member sets up a team member to fail the entire scene fails and they look bad too.

How does this apply at work? Imagine you are doing a joint presentation with a co-worker. During the presentation a demo isn’t working and an audience members asks a question that is the area of expertise of your co-worker.

Let’s suppose you are focused on making yourself look good:

Maybe when your co-workers starts their part of the presentation you tune out, maybe you are reading ahead on the slides to review your upcoming topic, or you are having a side bar conversation with an audience member when your co-presenter’s demo goes wrong. They end up spending 5 minutes with the audience watching as they try to fix it. Your co-worker is getting flustered and the audience is getting frustrated. Now later an audience member asks you a question when you are presenting, you think you know the answer but get something slightly wrong.  Your co-presenter who is an expert in that area realizes you’ve made a mistake in your explanation and either has to correct you in front of the audience, or leave the audience with misinformation.

What happens if each of you is trying to make your co-presenter look good?

You are paying attention as they present, nodding and looking attentive. When they start having trouble with their code demonstration, you can give them time to fix it by discussing a related topic while they dig through their code to get it fixed or restart the demo, or perhaps engage the audience to help out pointing out that live code demos are always a challenge (my go-to joke is “the number of typing mistakes you make is directly proportional to the number of people watching you type”). The audience is focused on your discussion not the struggling co-presenter, or they are sympathetic to the co-worker and trying to help out a fellow coder. Later, when you get a question on a topic you know is their area of expertise, you pass the question to your co-worker who provides a complete and accurate answer.

For the record, I think of myself as a pretty good presenter, but I have been guilty of the acts described in scenario one. We all slip from time to time. Hopefully this post will help keep me honest in my future presentations!

Think of it this way: instead of trying to be more successful on your own, you are trying to be more successful as a team. A succesful team can accomplish much more than a successful individual. How well would Whose Line is It Anwyay skits work if there was only one actor on the stage?