From 13 to 3: Lessons I’ve learned

Yesterday was my last day at IBM after 13.5 years. While it’s hard to believe I have spent my entire professional career in one company, the different roles and opportunities that have been afforded me make it seem like I’ve worked in at least 5 different places. Not to mention, I grew up while at IBM: I started as a new grad, living with her parents; now I am a wife and mother living in a house with the family I have built.

For what it’s worth, I feel like I’m a kid pretending to be an adult every single day.

I have spent the past weeks reflecting on the key things I’ve learned so far in my career that I know will serve me well moving forward. I hope by putting it in writing I can share it with a wider audience (though I’m not sure who reads this). And even if I’m the only reader, this exercise will help me to remember what I’ve learned to be true, and carry these lessons forward in my next adventure.

So, with that I give you my top Three lessons learned over Thirteen years:

Lesson 1: A job fit is as important as the work you are doing

I quit after my first 6 months at IBM. I was miserable. I had amazing technical challenges to work on, independently evaluating a new IBM technology and how it could be applied to my product area. In theory, the challenge and independence was exactly what I wanted. But I was desperately unhappy. I decided that the problem was me – obviously, I was incompetent and destined for failure and bad at work.

At that time IBM had both a career coach and a career directions workshop that helped me understand the role I was in was not a good fit for me and my values. To start, I needed to be working with other people, communicating, and having an impact I could see. I was not the problem! I needed a role that was a better fit.

I quit (which ended up being a leave of absence) and when I return I explained what I needed from my next role. I moved to the first Agile team in my area, and piloted something called Scrum. What followed were my most fun years at IBM, working on a high visibility project closely with a small team who I loved. I presented at conferences on Scrum, became a Scrum Master (Mistress?), then Product Owner, and helped scale Agile across my organization.

In this new role, which was a great fit for me and my values, I thrived.

Lesson 2: Ask!

This can apply to so many things in my career. I often sit in meetings with a question on the tip of my tongue that I think is so completely obvious that everyone else in the room must know the answer. Then, after the meeting I’ll ask a peer and he’ll (yes, I used he. I work with virtually all men) say “hm, I don’t know. That’s a good question” and then I feel like a dummy for not having asked. I’m working to use the five second rule to ask more of the time.

The other important thing I’ve learned is to ask my managers for promotions, opportunities and recognition. As a new hire I thought that eventually I would be promoted if I waited long enough. Then I found out that managers aren’t like teachers – they’re not just watching their employees, but are super busy too. The book Why Women Don’t Ask is one I was directed to many years ago and has helped me in my career to ask for things and sometimes even get them.

Lesson 3: When you find good people, hang on to them.

I have worked with some amazing people at IBM and will miss them a lot. When you find people you respect, and click with, keep them close. When the going gets tough, it’s great to have people you like working along side you (or at least available to you) that you can laugh with, complain to, and most importantly, learn from. Even if you aren’t on the same team, or even at the same company, your network is very valuable and worth investing time into maintaining.

Bonus lesson 4: Extra curricular activities are still important

I have gotten so much out of my extracurricular activities at work. As a newer employee in particular, they gave me a way to meet people from different areas of the lab and work with them on projects that interested me. For example, I created a “speed dating” event in 2005 to introduce early career employees with more senior mentors. This gave me a chance to develop and use project management skills, and I also got exposed to a lot of senior folks (the mentors!) as I put things together. Extra curriculars can give you the opportunity to grow your skills and your network in a meaningful way for your career. It can also help you get more enjoyment out of work by allowing you to use your energy towards things that excite you, like encouraging Girls and Technology – I’ve stayed involved with EXITE camp since 2003 for that reason 🙂

I could keep going forever. I tried to keep this brief, both the number of points and the explanation. If you want to discuss in more detail, feel free to reach out!

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