“Finding your purpose and living a meaningful life”

BatsA friend recently shared a letter from Hunter S. Thompson on finding your purpose. I found it to be quite insightful, especially on how he emphasizes a person should focus on “choos[ing] a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES.” Choosing a goal is less important than choosing a way of life. I remember when I was chatting with my father about how he chose his career, he stated that in a world of choice you should choose some invariants and evaluate options based on those invariants. They don’t have to be job invariants, though sometimes they are. But if you don’t have a set of fixed standards, you run the risk of chasing after shiny objects again and again, or, worse, contorting yourself to some goal that previous you had settled upon. After some thought during this transition, these are mine:

  • Technology is the most fun and best when it helps people. I remember the joy of this in my first professional software project (mail merging insurance renewal letters). Watching people helped by software I built has been the highlights of my career.
  • No one every wishes they’d worked more on their deathbed. Work to live, don’t live to work.

It’s scary for me to lay out constraints because that means that you are ruling out possibilities. For instance, if a high flying Silicon Valley startup ever read this, they’d probably pass on my application due to my desire to not work 80+ hour weeks for the chance at winning the lottery. But that’s precisely the point. If the opportunity doesn’t meet my invariants, no matter how nice the paycheck or good the perks, it’s not a place that I’ll thrive.

PS Hunter S. Thompson also warns that every person’s advice is drawn from their experience and should be treated as subjecting–as Miles Law states: “where you stand depends a whole lot on where you sit“. Or to use Internet-ese: YMMV.


Leaving well

Bird leaving eggLeaving a company in a way that is fair to both you and your company can be difficult. When employed, we spend a large portion of our waking hours at work. You may be leaving a group of people you loved, a toxic environment, a place you’ve outgrown, or a place you’ve loved and just need to move on from for personal reasons. Because of the amount of time invested and the multiplicity of emotional circumstances, it can be difficult to leave well. Below are some thoughts on this career transition, however, I’m not writing about why you should leave, just how the process should go once you’ve made that decision. (Note that some of these apply to transitioning positions within a company.)

Before you are thinking about leaving

  1. Prepare to leave well before you think about leaving by documenting your decisions, processes and systems. This has the added benefit of letting you do better in your current position. When you write down how you do a task, it gives you the chance to review it and consider optimizations, as well as revisit it in the future and perform the task just as well. Make sure to date all documents. When you revisit a system or process, revisit the document.
  2. Watch how other departing employees are treated. Expect to be treated in a similar manner. Some companies want to usher folks out quickly (to the point of just paying their standard two weeks notice immediately and having them depart) while others will be more flexible. Some managers will treat departing employees with compassion and respect. Others may not.
  3. You won’t be able to effect change at the company once you have publicly decided to depart. If you want to effect change, stay at the company work within the system.

Once you’ve decided to leave

  1. Save and put that money into a liquid savings account. How much? As much as you can. This will make the transition less scary and allow you greater flexibility.
  2. Decide on boundaries and stick to them. Being helpful with the transition doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat.
  3. It’s always easier to find a job when you have a job. Think about reactivating old networks, inviting folks for coffee, and checking out the job market while you are still in your position.
  4. When you decide to leave, give as much notice as possible. Since you’ve been observing how folks are treated and you know your own situation, adjust for those factors. However, I’ve found letting managers know about my departure with plenty of notice ensures a smooth departure. Personally, I’ve given up to two months of notice.
  5. I’ve never had a counteroffer, but I’ve read that accepting them is a poor choice.
  6. Make a plan with your manager. Take point on this, as you are the person who knows your job best. This plan should be your first task after you’ve told your manager you are departing.
  7. Keep a spreadsheet of departure tasks including owner, date to be completed and description. Sometimes important things are overlooked. This is where having documentation (see step 1) is helpful, but also look at your to-do lists, your and calendar entries.

Telling your fellow employees

  1. Let the company control the narrative about when you are leaving, including when to tell the team. However, if you are approaching your departure date and no one on the team knows, push your manager to publicize it.
  2. You will likely have many reasons for your departure. Pick a major, true, banal reason or two and answer with that when team members ask why you are leaving. There’s no need to get into every grievance, reason or issue you had.
  3. Your decisions will have less weight once you announce your departure. This is natural; team members that are staying discount your opinions because you won’t be living with the consequences. Prepare yourself for this.
  4. Consider offering to consulting to the company if it makes sense for you and the timing is right. Charge a fair market rate. Realize that stepping into this role may be difficult emotionally.
  5. Once your exit is public, your focus should be bringing other employees up to speed so they can do your job when you’re gone. It may feel good to bang out one more bugfix or initiative and if you have time to do that, great, but your primary focus should be on documentation and knowledge transfer.
  6. Realize that this transition will feel momentous to you, but that it is far less important to everybody else (both inside and outside the company). A company should have no irreplaceable employees.
  7. Treat everyone as fairly as possible. Remember that you may be working with some of these folks in a few years’ or decades’ time.
  8. Be professional and courteous (I can’t think of a time when this is bad advice, but at moments of transition it is especially important).

Leaving a job is a very personal decision and will impact your career. Spend time thinking about how to leave well, treat everyone with respect and have a plan.


Questions to ask interviewers

Person in suitI’ve been doing a fair amount of interviewing lately (looking for work, not hiring) and there’s always that moment when the interviewer asks “so, do you have any questions for me”. Here are some of my favorite questions:

  • How long have you been working at company YYY? This helps me understand their perspective on the company. If they are new, they’ll have fresh eyes. If they have been at the company for years, it’s interesting to understand why they’ve stayed. This can also lead to a discussion of turnover.
  • What is a typical day like for this position? This helps me understand what the company emphasizes. This can also lead to a discussion of the development cycle (weekly releases, etc).
  • Who are your typical customers? When talking to a company, I always want to know who they sell to. This shows I have an interest in the company beyond just the tech work I’ll be doing. I want to hear words like “wide variety of clients”, “we find most of our customers by referral” or “we’re focused on niche YYY”. Of course I can always do research and see how the company markets itself and see if what I am hearing from the interviewer is consistent with how the company presents itself.
  • What do you do when folks are on the bench (if it is a consulting company)? “The bench” is where consultants who aren’t making money for the company are. What kind of projects are they working on? How often are folks on the bench?
  • Finally, what is the worst part about working at company YYY? This is the inverse of the “what is your biggest weakness” question that is sometimes asked. But every company has its warts. I’m probably going to find out anyway, but it’s good to ask and get the interviewer’s perspective.

What are your favorite questions to ask interviewers?


What is your BATNA?

When you are negotiating, you always want to be thinking about your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). This applies in any negotiation, whether business, personal or even with yourself. When you have a better BATNA, you have more negotiating leverage and are more likely to get what you want out of it.

This is why when I was a contractor, I always had more than one client. Even if I was working with a good client who paid well, on time and was fun to work, I had more freedom if I had another client. Things might go south at the first client and I wouldn’t be out on the street. It’s also why I would always start looking for a contract 6-8 weeks before my current contract was finishing.

It’s why you should always get competing job offers. If you have a job offer and your best alternative is to keep job hunting, that’s not appealing. If, instead, you are choosing between two job offers, you are in a much better position. (No duh!)

It is also why it’s always easier to get a job if you have a job. The BATNA of declining a job offer when you have employment is, well, you remain your current position. Your current job may not be all that awesome (which is why you are looking) but for most folks being employed is a better alternative than being unemployed.

How can you use the concept of BATNA to improve your life?

First, be aware of the concept. Start to look at decisions in your life and think about the BATNA. Even small decisions, like ‘should I get coffee or nothing’? Or ‘what happens if I ask my wife to take out the garbage’? Or ‘should I ask for a raise’? In all of these cases, you can expect some kind of negotiation, and you can think about what the alternative is if that negotiation fails.

Second, take actions to improve your alternatives. If you are unemployed and want more leverage in the job hunt, start consulting. If your wife won’t take out the trash, can you improve your BATNA by making it easier to take out the trash yourself (maybe move the trash can into the garage)? Or building some kind of trash chute?

The concept of a BATNA is key to getting the most out of any negotiation. If you have good alternatives, you have more leverage to leave the negotiation, and if you don’t, you will need the negotiation to complete successfully.

More about BATNAs and salary negotiation here.



Do your research

The internet makes some things frighteningly easy.  Trolling, for example.

But the fact it makes research easy is a win for everyone.  James Altucher has a post on how research helped him win a deal.  I remember when research meant you had to head to the library, look in a card catalog and/or ask a librarian, and skim through books.  If you wanted to take the information home, you used to have to check out the book.  Some books were too valuable to leave the library, so you had to make photocopies of relevant pages.

That’s all changed, obviously.  Now you can research a person or entity without leaving your home, though you still can leverage what libraries provide.  And you can research non famous people in far more depth than you ever could in the past.  When you meeting with a potential business partner, interviewee, or client, you can google the heck out of them.

The benefit of doing so is twofold.

  1. You have a better idea of how the person operates and how serious they are at whatever endeavor you are discussing
  2. You can connect to them and discuss their needs and ideas more intelligently

These are both worthwhile goals and will lead to better outcomes.  If you don’t do any research, that sends a message as well–“I don’t care much about this meeting” or “I’m too busy to do any research.”  That may be OK, but be aware that you are sending these messages.

So, if you want to do research on someone, how do you go about it?

I’d start with setting a time limit and a goal, otherwise you can get bogged down or sidetracked.  An example: “I’m researching this client and want to know their key business goal.  I’m going to invest an hour of time in this.”  Write this down, and check back in as you do your research to make sure you are heading towards your goal and not down a rabbit hole.

Then, start digging.  I used the term “google” above to refer to searching, but I’d suggest using more than one search engine, as they each give a slightly different view of the web, and I’ve definitely had useful results pop up from Bing or Duck Duck Go.  If this is a business meeting, LinkedIn connections can be useful.

If the client maintains a blog or social media account, spend some time reading that.  You don’t have to read every tweet, but getting a feel for what’s on their mind, especially in recent posts, can be illuminating.

The amount of effort to put into such research depends on how much it will help you and how important the interaction with the research subject is.  That is, if you are discussing going into business with someone, research the heck out of them.  If you are interviewing for a very interesting job, spend some time.  If, instead, this is a random coffee meeting, you may not want to invest any prep time.

You may find something disturbing in your research (a conviction report for example).  Integrate this into your decision making process, but be aware that the content may not be accurate, or may not apply to the research subject, or may be far enough in the past to be irrelevant.  Also be aware of any discrimination laws that may apply, such as employment laws.

If you find an interesting blog post or article that is relevant to my audience, you can promote it before the meeting (post it to Hacker News or Reddit, tweet it out).  Your research subject probably won’t notice, but if you’ve already done the research and found something of value, you might as well share it.  And on the off chance they do see the post, they’ll likely be flattered.

When the meeting occurs, feel free to casually mention some of the research.  I’ve been on the other side of it (someone read a blog post I wrote and mentioned it in an interview) and I can tell you it was quite a pleasant surprise.  And it can be a great starting point for a conversation.  But don’t get bogged down in discussing something the person wrote years ago, just use the research you found as a way to connect.

No matter how thoroughly you research someone online, realize that online we are all painting some kind of picture of ourselves.  Some people and companies are more transparent than others, but the mere fact that you have to pick and choose what to post means that you’re getting a curated view.  Non verbal communication matters too  If you’ve done the research, you’re ready to go into that meeting and take the connection and the relationship to the next level.


The power of December challenges

I am in the final stretches of my December blogging challenge.  I’ve done this with other challenges in the past (exercise, meditation).

While some folks start their New Year’s Resolution’s in January, I find that December works better for me (maybe July will be better for you).  A challenge is different than a resolution, because a resolution has no end date, where a challenge stops.  Also, because of the holidays, this month is already choppy.  That means if I take some time each day to do something new, it’s not going to impact other obligations as much as it would in a less choppy time.  December is also the darkest month in Boulder; having a task to ‘check off’ every day feels like progress, and that feels good.

You can either pick a new thing or a task you’ve tried to do in the past.  All of my experience is with the latter.  New things are often exciting enough for me that I don’t need any kind of push to experience them.  But something I’ve tried lackadaisically that I intellectually know is worth exploring–that kind of challenge is perfect for a month.

A month is long enough to give a new habit a chance and to learn some of the benefits and warts of it. It’s also short enough that you can gut your way through it.  I read about people doing challenges for a year, but I am not sure I have the mental stamina to commit for that long.  After some December challenges, I was happy to drop the activity, because I didn’t get much value from it (or not enough for the effort).  Others I picked up later.

As far pure mechanics, I’ve found that a PDF calendar that you can ‘X’ out each day is helpful.  Post this someplace you will see it (by your bed or your desk).  Get a big sharpie and enjoy the ‘X’ing out process.

I also think it’s important to publicly state any kind of ‘I’m doing this for a month’ goals because that external pressure will help you when encountering a day where you really don’t want to do the task (like today, for me. haha). “Public” can mean announced on Facebook, Twitter or a blog, but it could be a conversation with your roommate or SO or family members.

I know that this is a bit late for December 2017, but hopefully it will inspire you in the future–there are plenty of months for a challenge in 2018.


Happy Holidays!

Just wanted to wish everyone a happy holiday!  The meaning of Christmas has changed for me over the years.

When I was a kid, it was about the presents (I remember you, bike with the red banana seat!).

When I was a teenager, it was about the time off from school, and nintendo video games, and poker with friends.

When I was a young adult, it was about the time off from work and family time and connecting with friends who were back.

When I was in my thirties, it was about family and friends.

Now that I have a family of my own, it is about family and connecting with the chain of ancestors.  It is also about creating our own traditions.

May your Christmas be whatever you want it to be!


“Wave a magic wand”

wand photoThat was what a previous boss said when I would ask him about some particularly knotty, unwieldy issue. “What would the end solution look like if you could wave a magic wand and have it happen?”

For instance, when choosing a vendor to revamp the flagship website, don’t think about all the million details that need to be done to ensure this is successful. Don’t think about who has the best process. Certainly don’t think about the technical details of redirects, APIs and integrations. Instead, “wave a magic wand” and envision the end state–what does that look like? Who is using
it? What do they do with it? What do you want to be able to do with the site? What do you want it to look like?

Or if an employee is unhappy in their role, ask them to “wave the magic wand” and talk about what role they’d rather be in. With no constraints you find out what really matters to them (or what they think really matters to them, to be more precise).

When you think about issues through this lens, you focus on the ends, not the means.  It lets you think about the goal and not the obstacles.

Of course, then you have to hunker down, determine if the goal is reachable, and if so, plan how to reach it. I like to think of this as projecting the vector of the ideal solution into the geometric plane of solutions that are possible to you or your organization–the vector may not lie in the plane, but you can get as close as possible.

“Waving a magic wand” elevates your thinking. It is a great way to think about how to solve a problem not using known methods and processes, but rather determining the ideal end goal and working backwards from there to the “hows”.




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