Last year I wrote about some of the lessons that can be learned from a music festival called Floydfest in the Appalachian Mountains near Floyd, Virginia. This was illustrative of the more general point that we should always be learning and learning should happen everywhere. The festival was a role model for many business concepts (https://jeffglass-engineeringmanagementblog.com/2012/08/). This year, not so much. Of course the situation did not fundamentally change from last year to this year but some external events and internal decisions conspired to make the festival a real challenge this year. But the point is still the same as my blog post last year – you can learn from every experience! So what happened?

If you live on the East Coast, you know that the weather this past spring and early summer was not typical. The amount of rain we had was much, much greater than usual. As such, an outdoor music festival probably needs to consider this as a potential issue and have contingency plans for handling the crowds during a rainstorm. And to be fair, I am sure that Floydfest leadership did consider this as it has rained many times during the festival in the past. Thus, achieving safe electrical power in a rainstorm, stages that can protect people and equipment, and temporarily halting of the festival all seemed to be considered and utilized. But something that might be loosely considered a local “Black Swan” event occurred at this year’s Floydfest and it was not in the contingency plans. The concept of a Black Swan event involves an ultra-low probability event; an outlier. It is an event “that is unpredictable yet has wide-spread ramifications. Not only are Black Swan events difficult to predict, but [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb also argues that we human beings have certain psychological limitations and biases that prevent us from foreseeing these events, while also thinking that the events were perfectly predictable after they occur” (http://www.black-swans-explained.com/). There are many articles about Black Swan events so I will not try to cover them here (as recently as the terrible floods in Colorado last week and as general as “rogue waves”; phenomena have been described by the Black Swan concept). If you don’t know about Black Swan events, start reading up on them because every manager should be aware of this concept (rogue waves are pretty interesting too so you might want to check them out). My interpretation of this in an engineering management context is that we need to be careful about relying on our analytical tools when predicting the probability of an event. This is not related to the tool itself but, as always, it is the assumptions we use in the tool. For example, most of us have experienced a very surprising coincidence in our lives. Perhaps you meet someone from your home town on the other side of the world in an airport. The probability of such an event may seem vanishingly small, entirely unpredictable. However, if we consider the total number of possible encounters across the entire population and the amount of travel the entire population participates in, it is clear that someone at some point in time is going to run into someone from their home town somewhere on the other side of the world. It is just a matter of time. So when planning for the future as an engineering manager, one must consider not how to predict what ultra-low probability events will happen but rather are your processes robust and flexible enough to overcome a Black Swan event? Since the event is not predictable it is not useful to conduct scenario planning and try to have the right contingencies for the event. So how is all this related to Floydfest?

In the middle of the festival, on top of a ground that was already saturated and a water table that was likely higher than it had been in decades, a monumental rainstorm struck the area overnight during the festival. It rained for hours and turned fields being used for parking into literal mud-pits http://www.roanoke.com/living/music/2107669-12/rain-wreaks-muddy-havoc-at-floydfest.html). Even walking at the festival became impossible with mud up to a foot deep on the main walking path. In between almost falling multiple times and losing a shoe to the mud, I took the opportunity to do a little research during all this – i.e., I went people watching! But the main problem was the parking lots. Cars were stuck everywhere and numerous accidents littered the parking lots on festival grounds. Near misses of cars sliding into pedestrians made the situation undeniably dangerous. So leadership of the festival did the prudent thing; they shut down all parking near the site (including handicapped parking and prepaid expensive VIP parking). They began busing people to and from very remote (but relatively safe) parking lots up to an hour away, not including the wait times. The situation was so dire that volunteer workers were taking the buses into town to go to Laundromats to clean and dry their sleeping bags because their tents had filled up with mud! I spoke to some people who wasted more than 3 hours driving to the remote lots and waiting for buses to bring them to the festival. VIP customers that paid hundreds of dollars for special parking and closer access to the performers were being turned away from their usual parking areas and being told to drive up to 60 minutes away and then take a (yellow school) bus back to the festival were confused and frustrated (OK, they were angry!). What went wrong? Was it just bad luck or could it have been handled better?

If the rain and resulting “mudfest” was not really predictable, if it was a local, let’s say “mini-Black Swan,” event, what could the organizers have really done differently? It is all about process. That is, if the actual event is unpredictable then your processes must be set up to react quickly, flexibly and effectively in the event of a crisis. I think this also implies that you need to have a way to move from a decentralized empowered management style to a centralized, command and control style in short order. Exactly how centralized you need to be depends on the scale of the Black Swam event. If the entire festival is experiencing the crisis then control needs to go to the top; to those with the visibility to see the entire picture, from the venue to the artists to the vendors to the attendees. This change requires GREAT communication and clarity about how decisions will be made in a crisis. Your front-line staff that have the most interaction with the customer need to know what is going on, how their jobs have changed and how to respond to questions. I noticed that when staff were clear and empathetic, the customers were reasonably satisfied, even when being told very bad news. When the employees had an attitude of: “good luck, we don’t have any idea what is going on either” (yes, that is a quote) then the customers became rather belligerent. Staff had no directions to the new locations for parking, no idea which buses to take to get to the right parking area and in some cases, no idea that different parking solutions even existed! So it seems that the leadership did not disseminate the decisions effectively and did not train the staff how to manage customers in the face of bad news. In fact, why didn’t the leadership also communicate directly with the customers when they determined that the situation called for drastic measures? They had emails for all of the attendees and many of us were finding ways to check email during the concert (including a VIP booth just for that purpose and a special internet company tent that gave free Wi-Fi access that was full of attendees throughout the festival!).

In summary, analytics are great but they cannot predict everything. Understand that extremely low probability events can and do occur. Especially in the world of technology and engineering we should not fool ourselves that probabilities tell the whole story. Black swan events do happen. They are not predictable but you can still prepare for them by being flexible, responding quickly to your environment and developing a process for how to make and implement decisions in a crisis. Great communication will also be critical.

As promised in the previous post, below is part B of an insightful piece from guest blogger, Brandon Sights, on how he has used his MEM degree and generally how to apply yourself and navigate various opportunities in your organization….

How I Have Used My MEM Degree (Part B) by Brandon Sights


In order to complete the MEM program at Duke, you must be able to communicate effectively. This is not typically a strong skill for engineers, especially when communicating with people outside of the engineering department. In several instances, I have utilized skills learned in the program to effectively communicate with various stakeholders, including customers, fellow engineers, marketing personnel, and members of the upper management in both Trimble and our largest customer.
My job often takes me to a customer’s farm where I spend time observing, diagnosing, and fixing problems that the support team has been unable to resolve. This means that I have to be able to communicate with the farm manager to understand what is important in terms of fixing their problem, while discussing the issue in non-technical (software and control systems), yet agriculturally correct, terms. This skill was discussed in several classes, including Commercializing Technology Innovations. In that class, my team contacted laparoscopic surgeons to better understand their needs with regards to hand held tools that could improve patient outcomes while reducing costs. Because we were unable to discuss specifics about the device that we were evaluating the commercial potential of, we focused on the surgeon’s needs in the hand held laparoscopic tool space, as described with a surgeon’s vocabulary. Being able to communicate with customers about their needs, utilizing vocabulary specific to their situation, is a tool that I learned in the MEM program.

When I am fortunate enough to spend time with farmers and farm managers, I try to gain a better understanding of several aspects of their experience with our products, including:
• Outcome versus expectations, beyond just the problem we are working on that day.
• Features they wish the products had.
• Features they wish the products didn’t have.
• Their level of comfort with new technologies that we might be able to implement to bring value to their operations.

These topics were covered in several courses, including Marketing, Designing the Customer Experience, Project Management, and Innovation Management, and this is one area where I believe my MEM degree sets me apart from other engineers. I understand that the most important aspect of my job is making the customer’s experience with our product the best it can be, not just checking boxes next to a list of tasks every week. This primary reason for creating a product in the first place also translates into how I deal with our largest customer.

The largest customer of the Precision Agriculture Division at Trimble is a large manufacturer of heavy equipment. The machines that they sell often cost an order of magnitude, or more, than the Trimble products that are installed on them. Over the course of the last year, when integrating our products onto new platforms, or troubleshooting existing problems, I have discovered that although the farmer puts a huge emphasis on how our component of the total product performs, the resources allocated by our largest customer to ensuring our product exceeds the farmer’s expectations are lacking. This is because they are looking at our components in terms of revenue, not in terms of user perceived value. Because of the discussion on customer touch points in Designing the Customer Experience, and the benefits of favoring customer retention versus customer acquisition (it’s cheaper and more profitable) from Marketing, I have focused the discussion related to fixing the problem I have been testing in Arizona on the importance the auto guidance system plays in the farmer’s ultimate decision to purchase one or more pieces of equipment from our largest customer. Communicating this fact effectively has also used several skills I learned in the MEM program.

Already three times this calendar year, I have found myself leading the effort to resolve high visibility issues with our guidance system on one of our customer’s most important product lines. Each time, I have had to take complex control system data and system performance analysis, and communicate it to various stakeholders, from engineers to executives. In order to do this effectively, I have leveraged the report structure utilized in Project Management, and lessons from Presentation Zen, that was studied in Designing the Customer Experience. These resources have greatly affected the quality and effectiveness of the message I have presented. As an undergraduate engineering student, and an engineer, I often only focused on finding the answer to a given problem for myself (or for a class grade). Rarely did my answer need to be explained. One of the biggest lessons I learned from the MEM program was that there may be several answers to a given problem, because of the tradeoffs to fixing the problem that go beyond just the engineering analysis. The customer experience, profit margins, and intellectual property rights are three aspects which also need to be considered when making a recommendation. Being able to recognize the other, non-engineering, constraints that affect the resolution to a problem has enhanced my ability to create and communicate problem resolutions to all the different stakeholders. The “Analysis of Alternatives” section of the report outline in Project Management is the epitome of this ability to think about, understand, and make decisions based on the tradeoffs of different solutions. Communicating and convincing people that the chosen solution is the best solution is a difficult task, especially if they are biased towards another answer. In order to overcome this problem, I have utilized what I learned from Designing the Customer Experience to create presentations that thoroughly explore the tradeoffs between solutions. These presentations have been used with little modification all the way up the chain of the command of both companies. The Marketing Director of Product Management at Trimble even asked in the middle of a meeting who did my great slide designs, so I loaned him Presentation Zen.

Intellectual Property Law

While still working as a senior software engineer, I accepted a stretch assignment as the free and open source software (FOSS) representative. The role was a great way to combine my software engineering background, with the coursework from the Intellectual Property Law course, and required me to work with people from different functions throughout the company. I often found myself involved in detailed discussions of intellectual property law with engineers and project managers who had never considered the subject. It also helped me to understand the importance of ensuring that a company does not find itself in a litigious situation due to improper use of open source software packages. Overall, my efforts helped two projects deliver their systems on time, and elevated me to a position of intellectual property law authority inside of Autonomous Systems. I also saved the corporation money by performing the initial data gathering and assessment of open source licenses, saving expensive lawyer billed hours. I recently interviewed for a similar full time position at Trimble, Open Source Software Architect, but turned it down because it would have taken me away from working on vehicles on a regular basis.

I have also used lessons learned from Intellectual Property Law while trying to get my own startup company, inSightful Robotics Corp., off the ground. From using Non-Disclosure Agreements when sharing information with potential collaborators, to making sure to mark documents and emails as “Proprietary,” IP law has been a huge concern for the young company. However, the most comprehensive use of the material in Intellectual Property Law took place when I filed a provisional patent. Based on what we learned in the class, and with Dr. Boyd guiding me during my Independent Study in Entrepreneurship, I searched existing patents that may prevent my filing, drafted the initial description, diagrams, claims, etc., and took my draft to a respected law firm to finalize it. Even though they only had to make a few minor changes to the provisional patent filing, they still charged me the full law firm price. When the time came this year to file a full patent based on the provisional patent, I used what I learned in Commercializing Technology Innovations, and the fact that a recent court decision failed to uphold a similar patent for a competitor, to decline to spend the resources to file, on the grounds that it would not have been defensible. Having IP law knowledge saved inSightful Robotics Corp. time and money.


Flying back to Colorado, I’m in a good mood, despite my sore head, neck, and wrist. The data we have collected is exactly what we need to explain the tradeoffs in solving the problem we traveled to Arizona to test. The MEM degree is exactly what I needed to perform well in this role. Skills learned in the program will help me convince all the stakeholders of the best solution, the solution that best meets the customer’s needs and situation. Just in time to fly on to the next challenge.

We are very fortunate to have a guest blogger today, Brandon Sights, a graduate of Duke’s Master of Engineering Management program (the distributed version – http://memp.pratt.duke.edu/distance). While having dinner with Brandon recently in Denver, he started recounting all the ways he had used his MEM degree and I could not resist asking him to write them down to share in this post! The anecdotes are very insightful and provide excellent teachings for all early career engineering professionals, not just those who have an MEM degree. There is a lot to cover so today I will post Part A and next time we will finish off with Part B. Thanks Brandon!

How I have used my MEM Degree (Part A) by Brandon Sights


I’m sitting in the cab of a tractor in the 113 degree heat of the Arizona desert, trying to figure out what just happened. A few minutes ago, my head was slammed against the pillar and my wrist was bent impossibly backwards trying to keep myself from being thrown from the cab. A few days ago, I had voluntarily slammed my own head against a table in the Chicago-Midway airport when I heard that the problem we are working on now in Arizona was going all the way to Italy, to the chairman of the conglomerate that owns our largest customer. The head of our division was flying to Italy as I was flying back to my home base Colorado. That was how I found myself today at the proving grounds of our largest customer, reeling from both physical and mental pain in a tractor nicknamed “Sweaty Betty,” because the air conditioner struggles to fight the heat outside.

A little over a year ago, I had joined Trimble Navigation as a software and control systems engineer in the precision agriculture division. Now, I am leading the effort to meet the needs of our largest auto-guidance customer. I negotiated my move to Trimble Navigation during the final residency week and graduation from the Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program at Duke. Since then I’ve tackled numerous problems, often traveling to places I’d never heard of before, and immediately being thrown into sink-or-swim situations directly in front of a customer. The last year feels like a blur. Luckily, I have been able to utilize skills learned in the MEM program to plan ahead (to plan is everything), to think on my feet (but a plan is useless), to communicate effectively with different types of stakeholders, to maintain the focus on customer needs, and to appreciate that I’ve found work that suits me.


One of the most important skills that I learned in the MEM program was discussed during the very first day of the first residency: Self-Reflection. This was also a major theme of Dr. Ryan’s Management in High Tech Industries course. It wasn’t that I completely lacked this skill before joining the MEM program; I simply didn’t put much weight into my own opinion. Luckily, many of the activities and workshops in the MEM program, such as the Strengths Finder 2.0, Myers Brigg, and team feedback exercises, such as those in Project Management, helped me to understand myself better. In the end, I placed a heavier emphasis on evaluating my choices and actions, and combined that evaluation with the new things I learned about myself to make changes in my career. The largest change I made was moving to Trimble Navigation just after graduation from the MEM program. This change was largely influenced by new insights into what made me tick that I recognized while taking Management in High Tech Industries. For example, I realized that I had two major components of my personality that were not being met before moving to Trimble: Achiever and Responsibility. The job at Trimble promised me the freedom to produce as much as I wanted, whereas my previous job was very stringent on the number of hours that a person could work in a day without violating federal contract law. Also, in my previous positions it seemed nearly impossible that I would soon find myself in a true ownership situation for something that really mattered to the company. Plus, the organization and communication structure were very hierarchical, not a great place for someone with a “just git-er-done” attitude.

In direct contrast, I can now work as hard as I want to achieve a given goal, and my efforts will be appreciated. I have directly responded to emails from the Vice President of Innovation with suggestions and even corrections to his documents, based on topics covered in Innovation Management, such as creating an effective innovation pipeline, and received responses from him encouraging more input and personal interaction. Further, I have quickly found myself responsible for making our largest customer in the Precision Agriculture division happy with one of our most important products. This is another area where I have used self-reflection to improve.

When I first started at Trimble, the auto guidance partnership with our largest customer was quite abrasive, with the rapport between the participants lacking. When I was tasked with leading the weekly auto guidance status meetings from the Trimble side, I originally continued the practice of treating the meeting as a conflict instead of a collaboration. Upon reflection, I realized that this attitude was only harming progress, and so I made an effort to change not only the tone of the meetings, but the whole collaboration, into an open discussion with the focus being a joint effort to make progress and solve problems. I put together a list for the director in charge of collaboration between the two companies of the common reasons why joint efforts between companies have poor results and also made recommendations as to how we could improve the effectiveness of the collaboration, all based on the curriculum in Innovation Management. Communication and effectiveness improved immediately. The Director of Quality at Trimble, who sits in on most of the weekly status meetings between the companies, commented to me that the meetings were the only ones that felt like a team working to resolve issues together. Clearly, self-reflection has made a big difference in my happiness and effectiveness at work.

[In the next installment Brandon will share his thoughts on Communication and Intellectual Property. Stay tuned for Part B next week.]

The renowned author Malcolm Gladwell has a book titled “What the Dog Saw” which is a compilation of his New Yorker Magazine articles. One of these articles (Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information, The New Yorker, January 8, 2007) intrigues me with how it applies to engineering management. In this piece he describes, based on Gregory Treverton’s work, Puzzles vs. Mysteries. He applies these terms to various situations such as analyzing information on the location of a terrorist or the collapse of Enron. A puzzle has a specific solution that we are trying to “find”. With more data or the right data, one can solve a puzzle. A mystery on the other hand is unsolvable. We can only make educated guesses as to what is behind a mystery. For example, the future cannot be definitively determined no matter how much data we gather. Our predictions may become better with more data but it is still a probabilistic issue whereas a puzzle, with enough data, can be definitively solved.

From an engineering perspective I would say Gladwell’s argument is similar to saying that a puzzle is deterministic whereas a mystery is stochastic.

The search for an individual is a puzzle. They exist in a specific location but you do not know where that is. The more data you collect about the individual (think Osama Bin Laden or a fugitive) the closer you are to determining their location. The data collected electronically attempts to narrow down their whereabouts to a particular region, making the search much more tractable. This vastly limits the data needed and the search can move into a different type of data collection; direct surveillance for example.

Gladwell argues that Enron may have been more of a mystery than a puzzle but we have treated it like a puzzle. That is, Enron’s activities had many open-ended and uncertain outcomes. The leadership did not attempt to hide information that would have solved a puzzle for the investors and thereby would have uncovered a house of cards. There is no doubt that the leadership pushed boundaries but it seems they were not illegally hiding information that would help solve the Enron puzzle. Rather, perhaps the financial situation was so complex that it was a mystery – the outcome was uncertain regardless of how much information was available. Predicting the future of Enron would have been probabilistic, even if you had all the information that came out in the trials.

Regardless of what you feel about Enron or the words “Puzzle” vs. “Mystery”, there are some learnings for us here in the context of engineering management. As managers or as educators, our goal is to take the mindset of the early career engineer and move it from a classroom orientation to a leadership and customer orientation. Doing this includes moving:

– from closed-ended problems to open-ended problems
– from solving problems to defining problems
– from gathering more data to working with imperfect data
– from technical solutions to customer solutions

I think this is similar to moving from a puzzle mindset to a mystery mindset. This is exactly what is needed as we move from a classroom problem-solving orientation to a real-world leadership and customer orientation. People are complex and messy. There’s no deterministic solution to most problems that require or involve employees. Even customers are known to misunderstand what they need. I think it’s fair to say we are moving from a deterministic to a stochastic mindset as we become more adept at working with people and real world engineering issues. Perhaps the trick is to do that while simultaneously treating the people as real, important, feeling individuals; not a set of probabilities. That is called empathy and is a major part of leadership. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Each year I post my speech from the Master of Engineering Management Graduation Hooding ceremony so this is my post for 2013.  As always, it was great fun to see our students excited to receive their degrees and to be able to meet the many friends and family members who have been so supportive of the students.  The main Duke ceremony was also particularly exciting this year where Melinda Gates gave the graduation speech and received an honorary degree.  I was able to meet Melinda Gates before the ceremony due to our Gates Foundation funding for a project which our MEM students have contributed to over the past year.

To the Graduating Students

For the first part of my message I just want to say THANK YOU.

Thank you for the time and effort you put into the program, into your teams and into the relationships that you had to build to make your time at Duke a success.  I am sure there were times when you said to yourself: “I do not have the energy to finish my part of this assignment… make it to the team call… go out with my colleagues during this residency activity…” or whatever it was but you did it anyway.

Thank you for the efforts you have put into the program beyond the classes, whether it was talking with a perspective student, helping to organize an event or providing feedback on a program activity. And I also thank you for being open-minded and even vulnerable during our diversity training or the ropes course.

And finally, thank you for attending graduation this weekend to participate in the events that mark a milestone in your education and no doubt your careers.  With so much to do in our work and personal lives, we do not always take the time and effort to reflect on even the big accomplishments.  And you miss part of the value of these milestones when we fail to take that time.  And I know we, that is all of us who help to run this program, would certainly miss part of the value if you did not take this time.


To the Friends and Family

As special as this weekend is for the students, I know it is just as special for you.

As much a period of transition as this time is for our students, I realize it is just as much a time of transition for many of you,

As much a time of hopeful but nervous anticipation for our students I know it is just as much so for you.

I can assure you it is the same for us!  We feel that the “home away from home” for our students will miss them when they leave Duke.  Just as you have missed them since they left their real nest.  But we can all be comforted by the hope, dare I say the fact, that the many things they have learned from us will now benefit the rest of the world.  Simultaneously it will enrich their own lives and ensure they have the skills and knowledge to take on the very real challenges of our time.  As their family and friends, you created the vessel, the platform, upon which these graduates have been building and enabled them to take advantage of the opportunities in this program and beyond.  For that I thank and congratulate you along with the graduates.

What the graduates may not yet realize is how enduring the bond and the mutual support are from all of you.  With the hind sight of many more years than our graduates, I can say that I have been pleasantly surprised, with the benefits that the relationships established from an early age have enhanced my life decades later. The longevity of these relationships is truly amazing. For our graduates, these relationships will now also include their fellow graduates!

Some Graduation Thoughts

In addition to the welcome, I want to provide some brief thoughts about life after graduation.  What can I really say in 5 minutes that has impact?  Will any of you really remember what we say today?  Or are you too euphoric to actually internalize it anyway?  I guess the ultimate hope is that your friends and family will remember and then in a few years when you go to them for advice they can say “Remember that graduation message…”

So what is my message?  So much to learn, so little time…

So much to learn, so little time…

This may seem like a strange message at the END of an educational program but I assure you it is not.  I know that those of you destined to have the greatest impact on your organizations and on society are already thinking about what you need to learn next; what are the weaknesses that you need to overcome for your job or for the next job that you have not even started looking for yet.

So much to learn, so little time…

As anyone who has been working in a typical organization these days can confirm, there is so little time outside of work.  And work is intertwined with every aspect of our lives.  There are no semesters and no “summer vacations”.  Time off is squeezed into the few precious vacation days we have. Holidays are more of a scheduled catch-up than time off.  And yet the work environment keeps changing and more and more is expected of us every passing year.

So much to learn, so little time…

I vividly remember the alumnus who called me after working for a few months, exasperated by the fact that she had no time to do the things that were so easy to get done in the past.  I asked what she had in mind and she went through the list:  “You name it” she said.  “Laundry, reading, renewing my driver’s license, cooking, cleaning my apartment” and the last one, the worst, the one you cannot allow yourself to be too busy for; “calling my family”.  She did not even mention keeping her knowledge current in her chosen field.  I am sure that would have simply been overwhelming to think about.

So much to learn, so little time…

But you have just spent the last year or more learning, is it really necessary to keep learning?  Can’t we just use the knowledge we have accumulated, just for a while?  Unfortunately, no way, not even close, no chance, don’t even think it.  When learning is no longer a priority, self-improvement is not far behind and career progress stalls.  As Newton Baker said: “The person who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after”.  This is truer now more than ever due to the pace of knowledge creation and technical advances.

So I simply want to leave you with this message – continue to challenge yourself, and measure your achievements partly by what you learn; how you expand your expertise.  It is difficult because there will not be sufficient hours in the day but make this a priority.  You will not regret it.

The Year in Review

I wanted to conclude my comments with “the year in review” but I realized I did not have time!  Then I thought, well 2 seconds per word, 30 words per minute, 150 words total might just work so here is my year in review….

accounting, accounts payable, acquisitions, accrue, alliances, balance sheet, balanced scorecard, Blue ocean strategy, branding, business etiquette, business model, business plan, capital, cash flow, change management, channel management, client, collaborations, commercialization, communication, competencies, competitive analysis, conflict resolution, constraints, constructive conflict, consulting, consumer behavior, control, copyrights, corporate culture, corporate governance, cost allocation, creativity, cultural bias, data mining , debits and credits, decision-making, deliverables, developing countries, discovery, disruptive technology, dividends, early adopter, elevator pitch, emerging markets, emotional intelligence, ethics , fast follower, financial engineering, first mover, fuzzy front end, global anything, goals and objectives, group dynamics, habits, heuristics, implementation, incentives, infrastructure, innovation, intellectual asset management, investors, knowledge management, lead user, leadership, manufacturing, margin, market opportunity, market segmentation, mergers, milestones, model, monte carlo, motivation, myers briggs, negotiation, networking, new venture, non-profit, one click patent, online selling, operations, optimization, organizational structure, partnerships, patent claims, patent litigation, patent prosecution, patent strategy, performance, planning , porter’s five forces, portfolio, presentation skills, pricing, product design, product lifecycle, product placement, professionalism, profit, proforma, project financing, project scope, proprietary information, quality control, resource allocation, restructuring, revenue, risk, self-awareness, sensitivity, service management, simulation, social benefit, spreadsheet, stakeholder, stock options, strategy, Strong inventory, supply chain, team charter, teamwork, teamwork, teamwork, teamwork, teamwork, technology assessment, the long tail, the S-curve, time to market, timelines, trade secrets, trademarks, uncertainty, user experience, valuation, viral marketing, virtual teaming, web 2.0, and the acronyms, MBWA, NDA , IT, IP, JIT, PR and Gant chart (OK, not really an acronym but everyone thinks it is) … and don’t forget the emotions interspersed with all this, elation, fear, fatigue, anger, satisfaction, more fatigue, joy.

I don’t usually recommend business books unless I am specifically asked to because a person’s reaction to such books is strongly influenced by our individual preferences and experiences.  But in this case I will ignore my general rule and highly recommend the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg.  This is a book about women and leadership with many insights on gender differences in the workplace. As such, it is important for all of us who strive to understand how to work more effectively with our colleagues; male and female.  And I would argue this book is also about gaining a better understanding of the business environment irrespective of gender issues; including how to navigate that environment to enhance your career.  This is because there are many exceptional lessons in this book about career development and advancing in business.  Sheryl provides excellent advice about climbing the corporate ladder (or corporate jungle gym as she aptly describes it) without any judgment about those who choose not to or have other priorities.

Lean In provides excellent advice on general differences between the way men and women approach business situations.  For men managing or working with women, this advice is invaluable.  Some of the stories recounted in the book are hard to imagine in today’s society and yet they occur all too frequently.  Of course, with respect to gender differences, we cannot say that every woman or every man has the same perspective on a given business situation.  Nonetheless, throughout the book, men will learn to reconsider their perspective on the decisions and actions of women they work with as well as the unintentional biases they themselves have.  

I found myself relating very directly to some of the ways Sheryl indicates that women approach many of these situations.  Many of these situations will resonate with both genders and provide advice to be followed by male and female alike.  Such areas include: i) crying in a business meeting (it is not as bad as we think to show genuine emotions – Howard Schultz’ speech when he returned to Starbucks is a good example), ii) take a seat at the table (many of us literally do not sit at the conference room table during meetings and miss opportunities to maximize our impact on the meeting and the organization), iii) first impressions with new colleagues are critical (asking for something, even if it is reasonable, may not get the relationship off to the best start), iv) frequently ask for feedback (few people like to give you negative feedback but if you ask, they usually will and you will be better off), v) no one below you in the hierarchy of the organization wants to tell you when you are wrong (you need to constantly and diligently work on developing a culture that encourages your employees to tell you when you are wrong!), vi) you sometimes need to negotiate even if you are worried it will damage a relationship (this was specific advice for woman but I also approach negotiations the way the book recommends and feel it has worked well in most cases).

In summary, I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to expand their understanding of what women face in business, how women tend to react to many business situations and, for men and women, how do you develop your own career.  Men in leadership positions have numerous opportunities to help resolve the gender gap in business.  This book will help these leaders find and address such opportunities.  Of course, I do not agree with every perspective in the book and in many cases a balance between one approach and another must be achieved which is sometimes missing from the anecdote, perhaps for the sake of clarity.  In addition, addressing common traits for an entire gender, male or female, has its limitations.  Nonetheless, this book is a must read.  Men and women, leaders and followers; will enhance their careers by considering the career advice in Lead In.  Do yourself a favor and take the time to read (or as I did, listen to) this book.

Our previous post was the first part of a very insightful piece by Duke MEM alumnus Charelle Lewis.  It was very well-received so I am particularly happy to post Part B.  For Charelle’s bio and Part A of her Career Development Insights please see the previous post on this blog and enjoy her additional insights below.


Career Development Insights – What I Would Tell Myself at 22 (Part B)
by Charelle Lewis

Be Mindful of Your Reputation

This seems obvious, but you would be surprised by the number of people who commit reputation suicide. Keep your “Digital Image” clean, this means Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In. While you might not agree with it, employers ARE monitoring their employees’ activities on social networking sites. Remember, once something is out in the digital universe, it’s almost impossible to get it back. Play it safe, don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.

Learn how to be a Team Player. . . You need to follow before you can lead.

Know Where You Stand

Career Development is YOUR responsibility. Take the time to create a Development Plan and make sure you keep it current. Constantly ask for feedback (real feedback, not the fluff that is often exchanged).  Tell your manager about your career goals and get their advice on next steps.

Whenever you are given advice, remember to “Keep the meat, and spit out the bones”.  Translation: Not all advice is good advice. Respectfully listen to the advice, but only act on the things that make sense given your situation and desired outcomes.

Keep a file of your job history, rewards & accomplishments.  Job applications are much easier when you have all your personal information in one place and you can copy and paste to tailor the application as needed. Also, keep your resume up-to-date. Updating your resume is a lot less painful if you have a 6 month cadence around it.

Learn The Art of Bragging

Learn how to humbly publicize your accomplishments.  “Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horne w/o Blowing It” is a great book on this topic. Once you learn how to brag, find Advocates/Mentors who will do the same.  The REAL difference between an employee making $40K and one making $400K is perceived value.  If you are not perceived as valuable, you won’t last long. Share stakeholder feedback about your performance (especially unsolicited feedback) w/ your manager (and their manager) to confirm your strengths.

You’re Not Supposed to Know it All                                                            

You Don’t Have to be an Expert, but Learn Who the Experts Are. Surround Yourself with “Smart People”. Like the President, build a strong Cabinet of knowledgeable individuals who can advise you on every aspect of your responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to borrow shamelessly (as long as you provide credit). Don’t reinvent the wheel; spend your time and effort on things that don’t already exist.

Last but Not Least…Know Where You Draw the Line

At some point in your career you will probably face a situation which causes you to question someone else’s actions and/or integrity. Make sure you take the time to get all the details and act according to your moral compass.  Document everything! By focusing on facts and data, you eliminate the confusion emotion often brings. Your integrity is one of your most important assets, once it takes a hit it is really hard to restore.

These key principles have helped me acclimate and excel in many different roles, but this of course is not the only recipe for success. As mentioned previously, “Keep the meat, and spit out the bones”.

We are very fortunate to have guest blogger Charelle Lewis provide numerous insights on Career Development for this post and the next. Charelle is a PMI certified IT Project Manager for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Durham, North Carolina. A native of Houston, Texas, Charelle moved to Durham in August 2000 to attend Duke University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in Computer Science with a minor in Mathematics. After graduating from Duke, Charelle entered the IT Development Program at GSK. While in this program, she earned her Six Sigma Certification and gained experience as a Business Analyst, Process Improvement Analyst and Project Manager. Charelle then began working in the Strategy, Architecture and Information Group in North America Pharma IT (NAPIT). In this role she served as the Program Administrator for the NAPIT Innovation Team, founded and chaired GSK’s Global IT Innovation Committee, and Co-Founded the Early Career Network for GSK’s Research Triangle Park campus. She currently serves as the Program Manager for the “IT Transformation” initiative which will launch multi-functional Business Service Centers in Kuala Lumpur, Poznan, West London and Delaware Valley. During her 8 year tenure at GSK, Charelle earned a Master of Engineering Management Degree from Duke University.
Career Development Insights – What I Would Tell Myself at 22 (Part A)
by Charelle Lewis

As I continue to progress in my career, I find myself giving advice to not only recent graduates, but frankly anyone who will listen. I am far from an expert in career development, however, as I reflect on my career I can think of so many things I wish I had known when I first started. In an effort to spare others from the pitfalls of my journey, I would like to share the following advice. . .

Get Acclimated As Quickly As Possible

When you start with a new company, it is imperative to get acclimated as quickly as possible. You will be expected to start contributing far before you become an expert in any given area, so you will need to quickly understand the landscape. Start networking immediately! Find a mentor or a buddy that is not afraid to tell you the truth about the Dos and Don’ts. This should be fairly easy since everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, loves to give advice. (Side Note: The quickest way to make a friend is to ask for advice)

Get a clear understanding of the Company Culture and learn as much as you can about the Corporate Politics. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of Corporate Politics as a negative thing, but rather an opportunity to understand the motives and objective of your stakeholders. If you don’t understand the underlying objectives of your stakeholders, you will never be in a position to influence them.

Look for Extracurricular Activities that will expose you to people and areas outside of your immediate group. People come and go and organizational structures change often so don’t get too attached to the group you are initially assigned to. It is also good practice to work in several different areas throughout your career to broaden your network. The broader you cast your net, the better.

Finally, ask about Periodicals on the Industry/ Subject Matter. This will help you bring the big picture into focus by not only giving you insights into your company but helping you understand where your company fits in the broader industry.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

You will never know what you are capable of until you force yourself to move out of your comfort zone. Actively seek-out challenging assignments. Have you ever heard the phrase “All you can do is ask, all they can say is no”? Sometimes understanding the worst possible outcome gives you the courage to ask the question. Don’t shy away from asking for challenging assignments even if you think the answer will be no. Get your name on the “Next in Line” List by asking your Manager, Director, and Vice President to consider you for the next challenging opportunity (and trust me, there is always an abundance of challenging opportunities). Make sure you Manager (and Advocates) know your interest. Most companies have ”Open Door” policies so take full advantage of one on one sessions w/ members of your management. You want to make sure when new opportunities arise in your area of interest, your name is the first thing that comes to their mind.

Don’t be afraid to try things you aren’t sure you will like. Knowing what you don’t like is sometimes more valuable than knowing what you do like. Don’t be Afraid to (respectfully) challenge the Status Quo. Your company hired you for your new ideas and fresh perspectives so don’t be afraid to share them. Remember it is better to phrase opposition/challenges as questions, not statements. Statements make people defensive while questions make people think.

Stay tuned for more advice from Charelle in the next post…

Self-awareness is critical in any organization. It has been determined to be a key attribute for great leadership. This is also true for “leading yourself” which is a critical step in becoming a leader of others. For example, when you are trying to maximize productivity it is important to understand how you work best. In particular for the theme of this post, how do you react to deadlines? Do they increase or decrease your productivity? I was reminded of this over the holidays when there are no real work-related deadlines. Is this good or bad for your work style? I noticed how I managed this and thought I would share it in this post.

So how do you react to deadlines? Some people lose focus and judgment when under excessive stress with a looming deadline and their productivity drops dramatically. They are less able to prioritize tasks and solve problems that arise. They need to constantly monitor deadlines to ensure that their tasks are done far in advance to manage their stress and maintain their productivity. I have worked with many excellent people who fall into this category. On the other hand, I have also seen many who ONLY work well when a deadline is upon them. They support the old cliché, “if it were not for the last minute, nothing would get done.” Admittedly, I fall into this category. I work best with a deadline. Fortunately, I have also always wanted to accomplish as much as possible, as quickly as possible. In fact, I really beat myself up if I procrastinate. These two traits are somewhat orthogonal. Thus, over the years it has been critical for me to develop strategies whereby I can accomplish as much as possible every day even when I do not have a significant looming deadline. It turns out this isn’t so hard. It requires a little self-deception or brainwashing but it is all for the good of your work and career! I simply give myself a series of deadlines every day. In fact, I work from one deadline to the next constantly. Usually I work best with at least two deadlines in the morning and two in the afternoon!

So what kinds of deadlines am I referring to? The deadline can be simple and even artificial: “I need to finish replying to all my emails by 10:00 a.m. when I have a conference call” or “my course syllabus needs to be completed before lunch” or “I am going to finish this report before I leave work.” The point is, deadlines that are somewhat artificial and fairly short-term still work extremely well at keeping me motivated. They work almost as well as a “real” external deadline. Meetings, phone calls, etc. can act as great time barriers for me to queue on; working hard to complete some other task before I am required to begin that next activity. Of course, when a report is due to your boss by a particular time then there is nothing artificial or simple about it. In that case, the trick is not to start on the report too early or too late. Too early and you will procrastinate or unnecessarily refine the report and too late will create too much stress or a low quality report.

Another interesting and important aspect of how you respond to deadlines is understanding how your colleagues respond. When people who respond in opposite ways to deadlines are on the same team, it can be problematic. Don’t misunderstand; it can be very good for the accomplishments of the team if managed well but if not, it can waste time and cause interpersonal conflict. The person who does not want to ever be caught near a deadline manages tasks and priorities well ahead of the deadline to ensure everything is done early. The other type of person is wondering why their teammate is wasting time when the deadline is days (or even hours!) away. They are not motivated to work on the project until the pressure begins to build as the deadline approaches. If the team mates know themselves and can articulate their needs, a work flow can be developed that takes advantage of both styles. Early efforts can ensure that no surprises catch the team at the last minute and efforts near the deadline can be used to polish and refine the work product so it is an A+ effort. Diversity is good.

Holiday Reflections

The holidays offer us time and perspective for reflecting on our activities in both our career and personal lives. In today’s world, it is difficult, and perhaps not even desirable, to maintain a rigid separation between your work and home life. This is particularly important during the holidays;

Many of us have both business and personal (family and friends) holiday parties to attend. In fact, our business parties are likely to have friends in attendance. There are a few mistakes to avoid during this time of year with respect to these parties. First, for the business holiday party, don’t assume that because it is a party, many times with alcohol, it is OK to drink too much and act unprofessionally. Of course it is fine to have fun and even be more casual than usual. But you need to think about where to draw the line; use your judgement and consider the organizational culture. Err on the side of caution if you are not sure.  I have literally seen careers derailed due to bad behavior at a party. On a related note, don’t assume that because it is an optional party that it is fine to skip it. A holiday party offers an excellent time to build relationships and develop trust with your colleagues, many times by sharing more information than you can at work. Attendance may be less optional than you think.  With respect to your personal gatherings with family and friends, early in a career it is easy to feel that you are too busy at work to take the time for the family gathering. Be careful. Of course you need to be putting in the extra hours and the fact is, the more hours you are able to work (at peak performance), the faster your career will progress. On the other hand, you cannot get that time back. Be sure you consider the consequences of skipping the family gathering. All choices have consequences so it may still be the right choice for you but consider; what if time were running out for you or your family, would you make the same decision? Since time IS running out (none of us know how much time we have!), think hard about this choice.

This brings up the bigger question of balancing work and home life. This balance is never more omnipresent than during the holiday season. I believe your goal should actually be to make this balance very difficult. Not because you have too much work to do or because you have tremendous ambition and don’t want to take a minute away from your career – either of which are likely. The goal should be to have both a personal life and work life that you love! Thus, during the holidays the only complaint you should have is that you are having too much fun. This is not as hard as you might think but it requires a relentless focus on creating consistency between your values and your activities. It also requires substantial self-awareness to understand what is consistent with your fundamental likes and dislikes.

Another holiday activity that you should consider is the chance to reconnect with people. We all have many business acquaintances and colleagues that we meet over the years but rarely have a chance to interact with. The holidays offer a wonderful time to briefly catch-up with such colleagues through a short holiday note letting them know what you have been up to and expressing appreciation for your past interactions.

Another part of the balance required for an effective career is the balance between short-term and long-term activities. Many times the short-term and urgent items on our plate crowd out long-term but more important items. The holidays offer a great opportunity to examine this balance and ensure that long-term activities are not being ignored. Of course this includes the relationships you build and maintain over the years but can also involve items such as training, reading those books and articles that you have been putting off, organizing your task lists and even your cleaning up your office just to name a few.