Leaving IBM, and advice for early career IT professionals

This isn’t a post I thought I would be writing. After 22 years, I’m leaving IBM.

A close friend once wrote about a fictitious character, Boliver Rand. Boliver obsessed over IBM. He bled blue and was in it for life. That could have been me.

I have loved my career and the people I worked with! I want to thank all my managers, mentors, coaches, leaders and teams. Without you and your support, I would not have had the opportunities I enjoyed at IBM. To say I will miss you would be an understatement.

Heeding a wise mentor’s point of “Pay mentorship forward!” I have written the below. In the hope it helps people starting out in their IT Careers.

Advice for early career IT professionals

Bruce Springsteen wished for his kids to make and learn from their own mistakes. To not repeat his. Here, I offer a combination of my mistakes and things I learned along the way. In the form of 5 things to help people starting out in their IT careers:

  1. Have a plan that aligns with the business
  2. Find coaches & mentors
  3. Find your fourth batsman
  4. Doing a good job is not enough
  5. Code
  6. Bonus: Be the underdog

Have a plan that aligns with the business

On day 3 of joining IBM, my manager asked me, “What are your career ambitions?”. As a naive 18-year-old, I replied, “3 years to learn new skills and add IBM to my CV. Then I want to go contracting as an IT Consultant”. SHOW ME THE MONEY. If you didn’t cringe, this is the post for you…

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

BIG mistake. My manager tried to dig me out of the hole I’d excavated. Alas, I was so deep I didn’t see the lifeline. Imagine you are my manager. You have 20 reports. I told you my intentions were to leave IBM. The other 19 had ambitions to be IBM Developers, Architects, Analysts, Consultants… How can my manager help me achieve what I’ve shared? How much harder is it for them to support my plan? What’s in it for them and IBM?

Imagine if I had said, “I want to be an IBM Consultant”. How much easier would I have made my manager’s job? My manager could have easily supported my career. We could have worked together to develop my plan, skills and network. The easier you make your manager’s job, the more you both get out of the relationship. A classic win, win, win aligned in a way the business also benefits e.g. becoming billable earlier in your career.

It took me 7 years to become an IBM Consultant. I suspect I could have shaved years off achieving this had I said “I want to be an IBM Consultant”. I didn’t even want to contract anymore. I wanted to be an IBMer.

Early in your career, there are fewer expectations of you. It is time to experiment and try different roles. Even later on, don’t be afraid to pivot or change a plan. They aren’t fixed. Aim to be a consultant and find your true calling as an architect, no problem! The breadth of roles and opportunities is a major advantage to working for a large company like IBM.

The only thing worse than a bad plan is no plan! If you don’t have a plan, how can your manager help you? What message are you sending, “I have no idea why I am here”.

If you have no idea, the first step is to work with your manager. Be prepared for the question. Know your likes and ask your manager to help and share their experience, advice and network. A good manager will help develop and support the right plan for you. A bad manager could put you at the bottom of their working stack. Or, coerce you into a doomed plan to suit their agenda. I’ve been that ‘bad manager’. I tried to get a colleague to do 6 months of testing because I needed a test lead and knew they could do it. It did not end well and was a painful lesson learnt.

Have a plan and align it for you, your manager and the business.

Find coaches & mentors

Grow your network‘ is classic advice for a reason. Find people you admire, in and out of your work. They become trusted people to discuss ideas and sources of high-quality feedback. Building on the point above, work with them to develop your plan and career. Seek their counsel for big decisions and tricky situations. They will knock some of your edges off by sharing their experiences and viewpoints. They will help you think.

These are some of the most rewarding relationships you can have. If you are lucky, your manager is great at both. If you aren’t so manager-fortunate, other coaches and mentors are crucial. Either way, I recommend having some coaches and mentors not linked to your day job. The air gap offers less biased advice and fresh perspectives. For example, an outside view of the business and industry.

Don’t be afraid to ask or approach people. It is nice to be asked. A lot of professions need examples of mentoring and coaching for promotions. You might even be doing them a favour. Likely, they will be busy people. You will need to find a way to interact that works for them. Some will come and go. Some will be useful at specific times. I’ve never once regretted a discussion, email or asking.

I’ve been fortunate. A lot of my mentors are now good friends. I try to live up to their standards and pay it forward (like this blog attempt). When you’ve reached a point you are able, pay it forward; Coach and mentor. 

Find your fourth batsman

This advice is courtesy of Ramesh. Ramesh described my impact on his role as that of a fourth batsman. He felt I enabled him to smash balls as our opening batsman. Safe in the knowledge, that if the worst happened, I was in as number 4. Ready to go in and “save the day”. This describes and names another important relationship; Find your fourth batsman. Someone who offers you in-role advice and air cover. Someone who encourages you to push and take calculated risks. Whilst offering coaching and a safety net should the worst happen. And, when you no longer need a fourth batsman, work out how you can be the fourth batsman to give others the chance to open.

Photo by samarth shirke on Unsplash

You don’t need to be a manager to be the fourth batsman. All teams and squads benefit from a good fourth batsman. Even if that means staying out of the way while your openers hit centuries and bring the team home. Enable and empower more junior members of the team. Encouraging them to excel and grow should be a significant part of being in a senior role.

Thank you, Ramesh! Watching you open has been a pleasure.

Doing a good job is not enough

Who turns up to work with the approach “Today, I am going to do a bad job!”? Accepting everyone has the odd bad day. Most people turn up to work to do a good job. We can assume doing a good job is the average. To be above average requires a blend of: 

  • Overachieving – Keep looking through a lens of how can I add value and iteratively improve. Try to do it in a way that is smarter, not harder. Working longer hours is a short-term strategy. Automating, improving a workflow, re-structuring a squad, refactoring code so it is easier to change and deploy… These are all examples of ways to positively impact your team and work. Overachieving beyond delivering in a way everyone benefits. Made easier by being the underdog, see the Bonus point below.
  • Self-development – Read, listen, watch, train, change, repeat; Soft skills, industry trends/skills/patterns, techniques, productivity, management, leadership…
  • Giving back – This can take many forms. Discuss ideas and suggestions with your manager, mentors and coaches. Check the giveback is valid with your manager before you spend time on it and incur an opportunity cost.
  • *Adhering to company processes and policies – JFDI! Complain about it after but JFDI. And, JFDI it well. Doing it well and being one of the first to do it helps your manager. It sets the right tone. Always ask for feedback and improve your JFDI craft with each iteration. If there is time, because you are doing it early in the process, ask coaches and mentors for their feedback. If there isn’t time, or they are too busy, retrospectively ask for feedback.
  • Making your manager’s life easier – See above and learn what motivates them. How can you make their life easier? Don’t be too needy and don’t be a doormat. Have a plan. Communicate your plan. Collaborate on your plan. Gain their support for your plan. And, don’t surprise them with negative things too often. If you raise an issue, try to raise it with ideas for how to resolve it as well.

*This one was learnt the hard way. I hated IBM’s 360 review process and would put it off. All I achieved in a year was let down by a rushed write-up. Delivered in the closing minutes, or worse, late. You are a manager with your reports submitting their end-of-year reviews. You take these to moderation to face off against your peers and their reports. Is it easier to represent and sell a well-written case delivered with lots of time spare? Or the scraped-together one you had to chase and arrived over the weekend…

Code

Learning to code is often dismissed as a means to be a developer. However, learning to code:

  • Opens new ways to think and paradigms to follow
  • Helps you understand and work with developers better
  • Enables you to automate repetitive work
  • Offers a significant competitive advantage versus someone who can’t

Do it! There are many innovative ways to learn! O’Reilly’s Safari and Udemy platforms are available to all IBMers and offer impressive instructor-led courses. Why work in tech if you aren’t curious about coding? Code is fundamental. Working in tech without a basic level of coding is like saying, “I want to be a journalist but I’ll skip grammar, thanks!“. You would end up writing blog posts like this…

Photo by Chris Ried on Unsplash

Bonus: Be the underdog

Overdeliver versus over-commit. Another lesson learnt the hard way. Say yes to too much or the wrong thing and you start on the back foot. Being too confident on a training course pins a marker on your back. Oversell yourself, idea or plan and you start from behind. Sometimes the pressure is good. But if there is no slack, it is harder to deliver without leading to issues. Issues like burnout or sacrificing too much life for work. Both are best avoided.

People get behind the underdog. Leaving room to overdeliver bakes contingency into everything you do. I have too many examples of this going wrong. Especially in my mid-20s. I was hungry to prove I was the shiz and merely proved I was an idiot. Thankfully, the people I worked with had the patience to coach and mentor me. No one likes the shiz. Worse, no one likes people trying to prove they are the shiz. Good managers can help here. Bad managers can pour fuel on the fire. Coaches and mentors diffuse the risk of all your career hopes and dreams resting on your manager. I was lucky and owe three big thanks in chronological order:

  • Thank you, Jenny! Especially for your magic slate wiping and steering my early career through interesting waters.
  • Thank you, Matt P! I thought I knew what a work ethic was until I met you.
  • Thank you, Jon! For all you’ve coached, mentored and guided me through.

Commit to the 5 points and deliver a bonus sixth. I’m still learning this! As an energetic optimist, I want to do it all :D.

Side note: I’ve mentioned good and bad managers. That’s more for the benefit of telling the story and examples. In reality, the world is less polarising. Few relationships are perfect. Some managers are exceptional for all and everything. For others, it is a more complex juggle of strengths and weaknesses. Theirs and yours.

There are far too many people to thank. It has been a privilege to be an IBMer. With a heavy heart, I’ll say goodbye to IBM. For now…

Olly/Oliver/Boliver

What’s next???

I’m joining Collecting Cars (The Collecting Group) as their Cloud Architect and I’m excited to work with AWS and Cars!!!

The Pivot

Intro

A new starter to the team asked me how and why I chose Node & React. It led to the below…

The Pivot and POV

In 2018 we released our latest and most significant Cognos Application. Next, my manager tasked me with leading the development of a cloud-native app. Our ‘New Tech’ Team was born. Conceived to add cloud-native development capabilities to our repertoire. A future-proofing hedge for our continued bet on Cognos and DB2. I did a lot of research: online training, in-person training, badges, and reading. LOTS. To develop a point of view [POV] for Operations:

Cloud-native Microservices and APIs, delivered using open source & open standards, accelerate our cognitive journey and improve our operational efficiency and user experience.

To test and support my POV, I grew my network and skills.

Internally: Slack, more training courses, and internal resources.

Externally: SlackUdemy, blogs, developer websites and social media.

Around the same time, a mentor offered me some timeless advice: “leave past success” (thanks, Rich A.). Pivoting my career from Cognos to Cloud was a risk. My research, IBM and the market all signalled it had potential.

I used SWOT and Porter’s Five Forces to help select the technologies that best supported the POV. Hat tip to the IBM Technical Leadership Master Classes. They taught me about Porter’s Five and applying this analysis. Concluding on Node and React.

My manager was the first person I shared the POV with. They had a high technical understanding. I knew their concern was the adoption of too much emerging technology. My research and networking revealed IBM had invested early in Node. Including having members leading the Foundation. IBM’s Design Team also invested in the React Framework. These findings helped sell the POV, tech stack and approach.

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

Why did I pick Node and React?

Node

JavaScript/Node topped my analysis. Javascript was gaining adoption and market share. The demand for skilled developers was growing at a similar pace. IBM is part of the Node community. The ascent and the ability to run a common language in the Browser and Server side made it a clear winner. It has since proven easier to teach and onboard new team members. Versus Python and Java, based on experience. It has become the cornerstone of our approach and tech stack.

React

React wasn’t as easy a decision. My analysis and research came down to React vs Angular. I went on training courses and experimented with both (I developed the classic todo app). I preferred React. Especially the way it functions, renders and manages state. IBM’s Carbon Design System also offered React Components. React training was/is available, including the IBM Carbon React badge. In time React has proven to be a dominant JS library and skill. I’ve no regrets. But I check Svelte and other front-end frameworks and libraries. More than I check for Node competitors or replacements.

Lessons Learnt

Scan the horizon – Spot trends and tech shifts. Establish how we can leverage them.

Show, don’t tell – The speed at which we can create things enable us to show rather than tell. There is less need for Slideware/Powerpoint Prototyping. I am keen to keep building our reputation as ‘builders’. React vs Angular vs Vue vs Svelte vs…? Build something and see.

It only sticks if you use it – The best way to learn is to do/practise/experiment/build. Building on ‘show, don’t tell’ above (pun intended).

Give up the past – Clinging to previous Cognos skills would have hindered the team’s progress. My manager and a wise mentor both coached and supported me on this.

Make time for networking – The pivot would not have been possible without connections. New and old. Coaching and mentoring, receiving and giving, enabled this pivot. Sharing our journey and the POV led to more opportunities to network, coach and mentor.

Start with a POV – Taught early on in IBM’s Technical Leadership Master Classes. A POV is an essential tool and a great starting point. Mine resembles buzzword bingo, but the POV has been an anchor for discussions and focus. In one line, it is what we’ve proven with our approach and helped communicate and sell it.

Side Notes

There is far more to the tech decisions than the above summaries. The analysis could fill many blog posts and has evolved. Such is the ever-changing technology landscape. Keep scanning that horizon.

Since 2018, Cognos has had a resurgence and investment from IBM. Our pivot was to hedge, not replace, Cognos and DB2 capabilities in the team. My manager wanted to do both. It was a great strategy that has paid off and better positioned the team for whatever comes in the future.

References

Photo by Bobby Stevenson on Unsplash