Models and Mentors

The thing with a blog is that its public, so sometimes there are things that happen in my life that I don't write about here - especially when these are work-related. So instead I'd like to chatter about people I have met in my professional life who have influenced me.

Mentors

Mentors come in two flavours - official and unofficial. An official mentor is part of a formal agreement and may even be regulated by your employer, and an unofficial one is someone you adopt and turn to for advice; I have one of each.

My offical mentor is Lig. my "Big Sis" from phpwomen.org where we run a Big Sis, Little Sis scheme. I expected this to involve a lot of technical input but the biggest thing I've got out of this relationship is moral support and an introduction to the wider php community - who in turn provide more of the aforementioned moral support in addition to the raft of technical information you'd expect, and serveral more rafts that you wouldn't!

My unofficial mentor Mark is an ex-colleague from Snowdrop. Whilst we've only met a handful of times in person I took over the Oracle DBA stuff at Snowdrop from Mark and spent a lot of time on the phone/jabber/email with him with that and various other projects. Although we're both now working elsewhere, live far away from one another, and have other distractions in our lives we still stay in touch. Mark is my "professional" mentor - although we work in different fields of technology, I tap into his business experiences to inform my own choices and deal with situations that are new.

Models

Models are people whose behaviour you learn from or emulate in order to extend your own skill set, either by being actively coached by that person or by learning by observation. I have learned from a senior manager that to stutter endearingly while delivering bad news can work surprisingly well (not an approach to use every day!). When I worked as an administrational temp one summer, I was told to smile when on the phone - something which came in very handy when I worked on a technical helpdesk a few years later. I've also learned numerous tricks and techniques from the old hands in the technical departments in the various places that I've worked. These battle-hardened geeks can be hard nuts to crack, but they have so many stories to tell its worth it - and some have grown to be real-life friends.

Sometimes you have to ask to be taught something, this can be tricky to do if the person is busy or you are shy. On other occasions you may be able to learn from observation or the other person may mentor you of their own accord. However it happens, I try to make the most of the positive role models and coaches around me. From these people I have learned so many of the skills that I use day-to-day to perform my role and I'm grateful!

Small Company vs Big Company

When choosing a career move, whether its your first job out of university or the next step on the ladder, the type of organisation you work in will make quite a difference. Different sectors are all different and each has their own culture, but the size of the organisation is a big factor as well. So far I’ve worked for companies of 6 people, about 120 people, around 2000 people, and now there’s about 18 of us at my current workplace. I have also spoken with friends with different experiences.

Big Companies.

The advantages Larger companies tend to be better at paying overtime or booking holiday because they have systems to organise this. They are also more set up for supporting employees because there is an HR department and some policies and procedures for getting things sorted out if the need arises. They can also usually cope with people on maternity or long-term sickness leave without too much impact on the business and the other employees.

The disadvantages Large companies, certainly here in the UK, have a bit of a one-size-fits-all attitude to employees. The results tend to be silly things such as if one person is thought to be covering their poor timekeeping by changing their shift pattern a lot, the whole company will be stopped from changing their shift pattern more often than every three months, for example Each role in a large company tends to be quite well-defined and you will not find yourself outside of your job description very often.

Small Companies

The advantages If you like variety and hate bureacracy then a small company is for you. In small companies I have variously rewired phones, assembled furniture, cleaned kitchens, crawled on the floor, sold products and even ordered stationery. I’m a software developer by trade so that’s quite an impressive list. Whether this suits you or not is very personal; I thrive on it but its not for everyone. The other big advantage of a small company is that they tend to be quite flexible, in terms of changing job roles or working patterns. This is something to do with being quite reasonable and judging each case on its merits rather than feeling like they have to be uniformly inflexible in case anyone feels hard done by. And you can all go to the pub together on a Friday.

The disadvantages They’re the same as the advantages! There will be days where you wonder what your job specification actually is. There will be days when your flexible employer will expect you to be flexible too and you’ll be in the office 12 hours after you arrived. If you don’t get on well with a colleague then there is no getting away from them, because the organisation is so small. If you like to have an organised, well-defined job which will not bother you when you leave at the end of the day, then probably a small company may not be the right place for you.

5 Things I'll Miss About My Job - And 5 Things I Won't

In case you missed it I’m leaving my job. I’ve been with the company one year and its had its ups and downs, I thought I’d share some of each.

Things I’ll Miss

  1. My colleagues. It took them months to speak to me at all, and more months for me to realise this is a function of a truly dreadful office layout and not because they are unfriendly.
  2. Oracle. My new job doesn’t involve use of Oracle and I’ll miss it. I have worked with this database quite a lot and although I’m looking forward to polishing up other database skills I’ll miss the confidence of knowing the odd tricks of syntax really well until I get to the same standard with the others too.
  3. Walking to work. Its a very civilised way to live.
  4. Walking home from work (I’m running out of things I’ll miss)
  5. No I really can’t think of another one

Things I Won’t Miss

  1. Office facilities. There aren’t any! I drink warm tap water and scummy instant coffee made with sweetener and longlife milk; everyone eats at their desks. I haven’t actually checked but I’m hoping my new workplace can better that.
  2. The “recruiting girls” joke. My manager insists he will only interview women if he can see their photo first. It isn’t funny.
  3. The software assembly line. The company makes kitchens, and they are good at it. To make a cupboard, you need certain pieces which can be found in set locations. They get delivered to a production line where each set of cupboard bits is turned into a cupboard and moved along, then placed in the correct bay to get allocated for delivery. The software gets made the same way: A non-technical person thinks of a new page they’d like added, they write about it, I type the code to make that happen, they test it and then we put it live. No iteration, no architecture and certainly no input from me.
  4. Clocking in. Its not that I mind clocking in as such, its that with our system you can only get negative points from it. I’m sure its a helpful, non-judgemental system for people who are doing jobs where everyone must be there at once for the job to get done, but for knowledge workers let me tell you that it just doesn’t work.
  5. Restricted internet access. A bit like clocking in, I can see the point but as my job is primarily web development then reasonable internet access allows me to keep up with new developments and the community as a whole. The assumption that anything collaborative is always employee insubordination or timewasting is kind of scary … technical information on forums and even Google Groups is unavailable as a resource to the developers here. Perhaps its an internet generation thing but I find it unnatural to restrict open resources.

A Recruiter Dropped Me In It

I resigned last week1, and my manager said he wasn’t surprised. A recruiter rang him a few weeks ago and announced “I have the perfect candidate for you! ... oh wait, she already works for you … sorry …”

Can you spot the one word that identifies which member of the team is leaving?

SHE. The ratio of women in IT is small to vanishing so it wasn’t hard for my boss to guess which of the two (two women on a twelve person team is a very positive statistic) women in his team might be looking for another option.

So it was that when I resigned1, he wasn’t surprised and told me the recruiter story. I know I am not alone in having a recruiter story to tell – please add yours in the comments or better still blog it and drop us a link!

1 I’ve resigned! I’m moving on and start my new job on March 5th.

Office Dress: Bags

In the final in this mini series of office dress, I’ve covered suits, shoes, and now its the turn of bags.

I am a hoarder of all things, not least of handbags. I’m forever buying beautful bags and then finding that actually the one I was already using is more useful/comfortable/practical. The best solution would clearly be to use my pink Berghaus rucksack for work just I like I do in “real life”, but it doesn’t really fit in that well with my office image :)

For work I think there are some basic requirements which a bag needs. One is to be pretty spacious as I need my umbrella, wallet/phone/keys combo plus a cardigan or scarf, hairbrush, tissues, gum, lip balm and painkillers. In addition I often pack my mini flask of coffee, maybe a snack or even some lunch, maybe to drop off at the postbox, a music player, and who knows what else (knitting, notebooks, maps, assorted gadgets, penknife, kitchen sink, you get the picture). It must fit onto a shoulder or shoulders, I used to be fine with bags to hold in my hand but since having some RSI problems it isn’t comfortable. Oh and they need to shut at the top to keep the rain out!

Pretty bags are a complete non-starter, they quickly get dirty and often are designed for looks rather than strength. I’m not geeky enough for a briefcase and anyway since I don’t carry papers its completely the wrong shape. I have one I use for intervews and rectangular just isn’t useful! On dry days I have a largish turquoise coloured bag with two sections and handles long enough to put them on my shoulder and tuck the bag under my arm (just). My other favourite is a black leather (actually plastic) record bag which at least keeps most of the water out and looks good with my suit.

I am constantly changing between handbags though, and leaving things behind in the old one! It doesn’t help that I don’t dress remotely smart at weekends and there’s also a weekly office dress-down day to complicate the issue. Maybe I will just give up and go back to the rucksack – it worked when I was a student – what do you think?

Office Dress: Suits

Suits are the friend of the office-dress-rule-constrained person. At a few places I’ve worked, its been shirt, trousers and shoes for guys, and “appropriate dress” for girls. That’s no help to anyone, its such a vague description. I want a uniform that comes in multipacks of similar pastel shades with no thought required as well!

For some reason I am significantly colder-blooded than most of my (male) colleagues. They seem to sit about in the office in shirts all year round, but after about October, I’m freezing! I’m not a big fan of knitwear as office wear – not in general, but for me personally. The soft, stretchy clothing bundles up around me and turns my curves (which never look great sitting down) into worse rolls than I really have! Jumpers and cardigans are never long enough either and they just stop at a really bad point, making me look heavier than I am.

The solution is simple: trouser suits1 are the way forward. They’re warm, comfortable, and are like wearing trousers and a coat to the office except they match. Its acceptable to wear normal t-shirts underneath a jacket. They don’t look bad with flat shoes. Actually the only downside that I can think of is that they reek slightly of power-dressing. I’m blessed with the ability to look untidy and uncoordinated in every possible situation though, so I doubt I look overdressed!

I have a series of similar black, mostly pinstriped, suits. Dorothy Perkins do a longer leg length in trousers which fits me fine. They are all machine washable and disintegrate after about two years of wearing one or two times per week each. I finally found my uniform and I’m happy … although I’m sure I would produce much better code in jeans, slippers and a pony tail :)

Does anyone else have any tips to share?

Edit: You can also read my thoughts on shoes and bags

1 Machine-washable trouser suits, to be specific.

Office Dress: Shoes

This is the first entry in a planned mini-series on the issues relating to looking presentable at work when you have to walk there. The article mostly relates to women, since I am one. When I last moved jobs I went from stepping out of my house into my car and out again in the company car park, to a half-mile walk across an exposed section of park, so I’ve had to adapt quickly.

Shoes are all about aesthetics vs. practicality. High heels look great but I’m a programmer, not a model, so I don’t feel obliged to wear high heels for work. Also since I have large feet (a UK size 7), pretty shoes just don’t end up pretty when they get to this size and flat shoes become long – like a clown’s shoes! There are some lovely shoes out there this season but many seem to be soft-soled. That’s all very well but if you actually walk places in them other than indoors, the soles wear away in no time!

Smart office shoes are often rather uncomfortable and I do walk some distance in shoes each day. I love my berghaus walking boots but can’t get away with wearing them to work. In addition I like my feet the shape they are so I won’t wear shoes that hurt.

This winter, I’m wearing these hush puppies – they’re fab!

What do you wear on your feet for work? I’ll be jealous if the answer is “slippers” ....

Edit: you can also read about suits and shoes

How to get your best projects at work cancelled

Pretty much the worst thing that can happen to any geek is for a project they are working on to be cancelled. If its something they have already put a lot of work into and believe in, then it isn’t surprising that it hurts them. I think most of us have been there at one time or another … its canned, and you have an anger inside that is too big for what just happened.

This has happened to me on a number of ocassions, and each time I feel that I brought it on myself. I’m a great believer that if something is to be done, it should be done properly. Which means that when I get given a glimmer of hope that something can be improved or replaced, I push too hard to get too much changed. This makes my superiors (or their superiors, depending) uneasy and they pull the plug.

As I get older and gain wisdom (hopefully!) throughout my working life, I hope that one of two things will happen. Option one is that I’ll care a bit less, remember that this is my job and not my life, and keep it in perspective. The other is that I’ll get better at making my managers feel like they are in control at all times and that this is all their great idea. Ronald Regan is supposed to have said

it’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who takes the credit

And I think that’s true. Perhaps I need to fly further under the radar when I’m working on something interesting?

Coffee Politics

There are some coffee politics happening in my office right now1. I’m not going to write about that though, at least until it blows over. I thought I’d share a couple of previous coffee politics experiences though.

Spare-hand Drink

At one workplace where I had a temporary job one summer, the vending machines were paid for and the etiquette was this: When you decided you wanted to fetch a drink, you announced this fact and opened offers for the spare-hand drink. The person who shouted first (or loudest) would then get the hot drink that you could manage in the other hand from the hand you fetched yours in.

Silver Spoon

Another workplace had us all sat in a long, narrow office and facing outwards. Someone who sat a long way away used to rattle his spoon against his mug repeatedly until someone made him a cup of tea if he was thirsty and thought it wasn’t his turn. That got annoying after a while!

Speedy Operation

A co-worker of mine at a previous job managed to master the art of fetching the tray, offering a drink to each of twelve people in the office in turn and leaving the room with the cups – in the time it took me to visit the ladies! I did enjoy the times that people deliberated on whether they’d liike a drink or not and he didn’t quite make it. I was never quite sure what to think about him …

1 Unless you like warm water, room temperature long-life milk, instant coffee and sweetener added to your cup in that order, this is entertainment rather than deprivation

Work Hygiene

Someone in my office moved desks today (someone left last week so there’s a little reshuffle going on as every takes another step along the hardware/seating improvement path). She1 took one look at her new seat last week and came in today with J-cloth and cleaning fluid and cleaned out the whole desk surface, window sills and inside all the drawers.

Just to clarify, we do have cleaners, its just that they trail down the middle of the office with a hoover each evening and if we’re lucky they also empty the bins, but that’s all. You can imagine that the rest of the office has got pretty dirty in the 15 years or so since the immovable furniture was fitted!

The opportunity was too good to miss borrowed the cleaning things and cleaned my own desk. I’ve been with the company nine months and I understand my desk was empty for some years before that. I wiped the worst off with some tissue when I started but today I moved everything and gave it a good clean. The grime was amazing but the difference it makes to me is astonishing. Visually there’s no change but in reality its a complete turnaround. My workspace is clean and safe, and I’m ready to get on with the task in hand with good humour. I guess this is what they mean when they talk about Hygiene Factors in the workplace!

1 Yes, there is another woman on my team.