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Career Lessons 7,6,5 – Leaders, Pragmatism, Reflection

Seven - courtesy 'Fotolia'

Seven - courtesy 'Fotolia'

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

7      Follow the leaders

Over the last decade, I have switched jobs a number of times.  Some were good, and some were bad.  They were all great learning experiences, with their own sets of challenges and rewards.  Looking back, what would I have changed?  I would have been much more careful about which opportunity to accept, based on who the leaders are in the organization.  The jobs that were most rewarding were those where the leadership team had a common set of values and shared mission – and were supportive of my role in the team.  The jobs that were least rewarding were those where the leadership team was weak, and dysfunctional.

My guidance to anyone looking for a new job is ‘Follow the leaders’ and make sure that they share values and a mission that align with your own beliefs.  How can you do this?  Talk to people who already work there, or who have worked there and find out more about the team culture and the backgrounds of the key leaders in the group.  In today’s environment, your job will change continuously.  If you are in a team with great leaders, you are more likely to be tackling the right set of problems and be supported in your role.  It will make a huge difference to your career ROI.

6      “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”

We have all worked on projects where ‘the end always seemed to be another month away’.   I pride myself on my pragmatism today.  But, there was a time when I would not compromise on ideals and led my teams on quests for ‘project perfection’.  Let me give you an example.  About 9 years ago, I was on a project where we had to make a call on whether to proceed with a release or fix a few more bugs.  The bugs were relatively moderate and would occur only in corner cases.  Nevertheless, my senior technical team was pushing to get the bugs fixed.  They were a proud bunch and did not want to release anything with bugs.  On the other hand, upper management was pushing me to compromise and get the release out the door next week.  You can guess what I did…. I buckled in and decided to bravely conquer the last few bugs.  We worked all weekend.  By Monday morning, the problems were still not solved.  Worse, we had introduced new bugs into the system which were far more severe.

That’s when a colleague of mine called me aside and said ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’.  It really resonated with me.  We quickly backed out our changes and reverted back to the ‘moderately buggy’ version of our release.  Out it went – on time.  Not perfect, but good enough.

My lesson learned?  Balance between getting things done well and getting things done perfectly.  It has served me well to this day and has enabled me to release numerous high quality releases on time (although none were perfect!).

5       Know when to leave and when to stick it out

Sometimes we get so caught up in the day to day routine of getting our jobs done, we forget to look at the big picture.  This is what happened to me a few years ago.  I had led a team to successfully release some cool functionality over the course of a number of years.  The energy from that success drove me to expand the scope of team.  What I completely missed was that the world had changed in the span of 3 years.  There were new technologies, and new opportunities outside my immediate field.  It was when I took some vacation; I finally had the time to reflect on what was really going on.  I could either stick it out in my area of comfort, or move to a new expanding area where there were more potentially new opportunities.  I decided to move on.  By moving to a new area, I opened greater career opportunities for myself, increased my marketability and value to the business.

My lesson learned?  Take time to step back periodically, and evaluate what you gain by staying vs. leaving.  Although you may be invaluable in your current role – there may be something far better and more rewarding waiting for you.  Given the rate of change these days, it becomes more important than ever to ask ourselves ‘what else is there for me?’ Just by asking you may stumble upon something far more interesting that you currently have.  Or you may stay.  But, at least you make a conscious decision to do so.

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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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One Response to “Career Lessons 7,6,5 – Leaders, Pragmatism, Reflection”

  1. Lucky are those who have enough job mobility in these tight times to change jobs when things are not working for them personally, or for the company they work for. I was fortunate to have spent a good deal of my career in times when more opportunities existed, but unfortunately at the time unaware of Mala’s advice. I should have made some changes on a number of occasions, but I was hung up in the good aspects of the job. Listen to Mala!

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