The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Career Lessons 4,3,2 – Intuition, Impact, Community

The countdown - 4,3,2... courtesy "Shutterstock"

We are counting down my top 10 career lessons of the past decade.    Here is the next set of memorable lessons…

4     Trust your intuition

We have all been in situations where we have been asked to do something – but, for some reason it just doesn’t feel right.  Let me give you an example.

A while back, I was asked to represent my team on an external forum.   My upper management wanted us to gain greater exposure to this external forum and had explicitly requested me to bring in other members.  I met with this forum a couple of times and concluded that it was a total waste of my time – and it would really not make much sense to expand the participation.  However, there was a certain cachet in being associated with this group, and there were political reasons to keep the relationship. Plus, of course, there was that direct request from my upper management.  My lead engineers were also keen to participate – they thought there was actually something meaty going.  These were the same engineers who were occupied fully on several critical projects.  So, I was caught between encouraging them to participate and strongly advising them against it.  My intuition was that if I advised them against it, they would resent it and it would impact their morale and productivity.  I had to find a way to make them see the light.  So, what I did was invite them to a 1 day session of this forum so they could see the group in action.  I also advised them it was completely optional – ie. if they did not find it useful, they could simply leave.  Well, needless to say, most of my engineers left before the end of the day and later informed me (and upper management) that they were not interested in direct participation.

I made some excuses to the organizers of the external forum so that they would not think ill of us and continued to participate.  My team knew that I was doing them all a favor by attending this on our behalf – and appreciated me for that.  Their time and sanity was saved.

I learned to trust my intuition even more after this!

3     Make a difference

Are you working on something that matters? I call this my “career ROI”.  And, I must admit that I did not always ask myself this fundamental question.

There was a time when my career ROI was not on top my list.  I was a typical engineering manager.  As long as I was working on something that was technically challenging, and ‘next generation’, I was quite happy.  Never mind that we had little chance of making a real difference to our revenue or business.  As a result, I spent many years working on things that were interesting, but really did not make the impact they should have.

Over time, my sentiments changed.  My basic observation was that if you worked on something that mattered, it led to greater recognition and rewards.  Furthermore, it was much more fulfilling to see your creation being used and adding value to the business.  This realization drove some of my recent career decisions.

At present, I am part of a small team that is driving broad based changes in how solutions are developed and delivered.  We are developing a whole new way of doing business and opening new revenue opportunities.  A lot is at stake, and there is potential to add tremendous value to the business.

My lesson learned?  Make a difference, and impact the business.  It will increase your job satisfaction and career ROI!

2     Surround yourself with good people

We spend a lot of time at work.  Spending that time with people who you can work with, learn from and trust makes a tremendous difference to our job satisfaction.   Believe it or not, there was a time when I would put up with less than ideal ‘team conditions’ in order to stick with a cool project or role.  Certainly, there are times when I had no choice.   Whenever I have been in this situation, it has led to less than ideal results.  In one such role I was in, it seemed that the team could not get its act together – there was just too much infighting and lack of trust.  Our business results were abysmal. And, I was deeply unhappy. Nevertheless, it was tough for me to move, because I really liked the technology and many other aspects of the role.   There were also very limited job opportunities.  But, I was not having much fun and we were not able to have a positive business impact.  Of course, I eventually moved on.

So, how do you choose a ‘good team’?  Ask around, do your research about the company, the leader, the team before you accept the job.    Are there people in that team who are like you – ie. have a similar background, share the same experience, values ?  How are they faring?  By doing some basic detective work about a new role, you can save yourself quite a bit of headache down the road.

My lesson learned?  The people you work with have a huge impact on your job satisfaction and your career ROI!  I especially like Kimberley Wiefling’s African saying – which I think is very appropriate for this lesson: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a team.” The future is a place – a place we’re going – and we are going there together. Supported by each other, we’ll be able to handle far more than we ever could alone.  Thanks for that Kimberley :)


About the Author

Mala Devlin is a Senior Software Development Manager at Cisco systems where she is responsible for development tools & methodologies to increase engineering productivity. She is also the author of a book on engineering leadership and building great teams - "The Software Soul". She is currently responsible for marketing, engineering, deploying and supporting a variety of engineering productivity tools and applications across 15,000 engineers. She has extensive experience in directly and matrix managing global, cross functional teams - and driving change across organizations. Mala has been at Cisco for the last 10 years, and has worked in the areas of enabling large-scale componentized development/release models, enabling hitless software upgrades, and managing QoS. Prior to Cisco, she worked in a variety of engineering and product management roles for 10 years at Bell Northern Research in Canada.
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