Designing my Dream Job

by dave on June 27, 2011


"Thomas Alva Edison, three-quarter length...

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One benefit of being gainfully under-employed is having those brief bursts of inspiration that allow you to get on paper (or blog) those streaming bits of ideas that could change your destiny.  Perhaps there’s a bit of hyperbole worked in there (ok, a whole lot) but the fact remains, when the mind is allowed to roam a bit, inspiration comes.  Given my background in cognitive sciences and such, this is either one of the most dangerous things to allow or one of the most precious.  Having gone through close to 30 interviews (that’s counting people, not companies) since Cirtas let myself (and 20 odd others) go on April 15th, 2011, I can tell you that one of the most commonly asked questions has been: “If you could do anything, what would it be?”  (For comparison, the most asked question is: “Explain the switch from psychology to enterprise IT.”)  It can be relatively hard to nail down what exactly I view a dream job to be, but given the relatively wide variety of experiences I’ve had over the years, I’ve come to rely on a few common characteristics which I’ll highlight in the following paragraphs.  However, along the way, newer ideas and concepts have come into view and for your enjoyment (and to annoy my wife who’s trying to sleep while I type this) I’ll try to drag them into the light.  With all the precursors aside, then, let’s get into the meat of what this post is about: designing my dream job.

Dream Job: The Components

Here’s my global plan for what I’d love to do followed by some careful unpacking (knowing that I’m in process on a few things as I sit here and write this).

Skunkworks

In what is perhaps one of the most overused quotes on earth, Thomas Alva Edison noted that “genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I’ve somewhat taken this to heart in my life in that I’m admittedly not the sharpest tool in the shed.  I make up for it, however, in attempting to be the most useful and to a certain extent, I nail that 99% perspiration mark pretty bang on. That being said, I’ve always had a vision for creating my own little “skunkworks” team dedicated to finding, breaking, designing, manipulating, etc. technology. Part of this vision has always been on emerging technology but grounded in what is available today.  This truly becomes a fulfillment of Edison’s credo mentioned previously.  This skunkworks team would operate free of a type of technology and would seek innovation through perspiration to hopefully inspire genius.  I see this as being a chartered group INSIDE of a larger enterprise, not just a small consultancy tied to linecards.  So, let’s tear this apart a bit more, shall we?

The Core

Having read about the humble beginnings of Dell, HP, Apple, Microsoft, et al., I have noticed a dogged pursuit of an idea (and much more) tends to be their overarching focus.  As I envision the core of this skunkworks team, I want to ensure that I create an atmosphere that allows ideas, however conceptual or nascent, to have their full voice.  Consistently, this usually requires voices that aren’t just engineers but practitioners as well.  The functional aspects of the team are to create from something (not often from nothing) so, having folks that have keen insights into technology in general are important.  I’d probably class the team membership as functional engineers rather than process or systems engineers.

The core also needs to be agile.  I don’t give a flying rip about ITIL, Scrums, etc. but flexibility in thinking outside the box is vital.  I don’t envision this as the frenzied reality of a startup but rather a nuanced understanding that even at 1130pm (when I’m writing this post) innovation happens.  Living outside the confines of a 9-5 become vital and in a global economy, it also becomes worthwhile to have an international team.

The Gear

Any skunkworks team, whether aerospace or marketing, needs gear.  I can write on the back of napkins all I want to capture the germination of an idea, but if I have nothing to start working against, that idea can die pretty quickly.  I know my attention span and I know what is needed to tease the most out of it.  To capture ideas relies on more than mind mapping, Evernote, Dropbox, Facetime, and a napkin.  It relies on an environment that allows for quick exploration and easy clean-up.  I’ll leave this section vague for now, but considering I’m interested in technology, a few racks of servers, storage, and fabrics shouldn’t hurt.

Summing it up

Wrapping the sections above up into a tidy package results in the following:

My dream job would consist of being part of (or leading) a small, agile team of technologists chartered to develop creative solutions to customer problems.  This would be a combination of customer facing solicitations (e.g. the “problems”) along with formative lab and personnel access.  This team would be chartered and equipped to operate outside the political bounds of an enterprise “host” (defined as the parent company) in order to free itself from artificial and unnecessary political dalliances and structures.  This team would be measured on innovation and the ability to solve extant problems, not based on sales.  It would truly be an incubation tank for innovation with productization a distant objective.

Dream Job: The Characteristics

So, I’ve put a few components of my dream job on paper (core team and gear) and summed them up nicely.  However, the physical assets of a team are only part of the equation.  I’m going to attempt to unpack a few more intangibles.

Challenging

I wouldn’t have waxed poetic on my skunkworks team if I didn’t believe there were real challenges to be solved.  In this emerging cloud world, there are plenty of opportunities that present themselves and solutions to be wrought.  Half of the battle in determining value is answering current challenges while proactively seeking to head off future “threats.”  There is challenge in sustaining a product for sure but there is also a feedback loop that needs to take sustaining activities and feed them into a proactive engine that seeks to remedy the same while looking ahead to variants.  Any job that I step into needs to encompass this value; that is, challenges feed both the proactive and the reactive. Any job I evaluate, then, needs to embrace those roles as distinct but interdependent functions and seek to maximize the knowledge that can be gained from each.

Accidents

While I was working for EMC, I had the privilege of running a small lab in Hopkinton.  This was truly the “mad scientist” think tank for me and allowed for a lot of trial and error testing all in the name of productization.  This where I shot the Cisco C200 M1 unveiling video (see it here) and had a lot of fun with testing new technologies (some that I can’t talk about).  Getting back to the point, this lab offered a chance to grow by allowing room for failure.  Any job that I step into needs to understand the role of failure as a learning process and weight its value accordingly. I (along with everyone else on this glorious planet) are human and we make mistakes.  Mistakes are valuable as learning tools and when they happen within appropriate bounds, they can be formative and powerful.  I am in NO WAY advocating that a job should have a built-in “mistake factor” but that acceptable risk and reward must be present.  To offer anything else is frankly working against the nature of mankind.

Personalities

Since I’ve already mentioned “agile” above, I felt I should clarify things a bit more.  Classic business has always existed with the idea that strong, measurable goals equate to the best performance. However, as organizational psychologists have been quick to point out, maintaining this type of environment invariably leads to a squelching of capabilities since there are such a wide variety of personalities and capabilities.  Any job that I step into needs to have an understanding that I am not a cookie cutter individual or personality.  My “gift” (if it can truly be called that) is that I’m another lens that you view your product through.  I’m Dave Graham and I see… <insert pun of your choice here; “dead people” was my personal favorite>.  Point being, I’m going to be unique and I very well can be that missing perspective you need.

Fluid

Just because the business has “always done it that way” doesn’t mean it’s the best way.  Albert Einstein was quoted as saying “insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Applying this to organizations, rigidity has always been “the same thing” and enterprises have constantly tried to turn what they have always done into something new.  I’d argue that some of the products that are being introduced in the converged space today match this criteria perfectly.  Consequently, any job that I step into needs to understand that the old way of doing things isn’t necessarily the best and that sometimes, new perspective is needed.  Putting lipstick on a pig results in a pig with lipstick; patently useless to anyone except for the Miss Universe pageant and perhaps, Donald Trump.  Then again, sometimes the old way is best. Let’s find that out together, shall we?

Summary

This may seem like a 1500 1672 word op-ed piece that isn’t worth your time but, as you work through your career, if you’ve not considered who you are and what you want to be doing, you’re missing a golden opportunity.  Learning what works and what doesn’t is a constant challenge and finding an environment that fosters this type of introspection and growth is hard to come by.  What I hope I’ve been able to do (outside of keeping my own prospects intact) is to get you thinking and to use that thinking as a springboard to greater things.  Comments and feedback welcome.

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  • Not sure how i missed this post!! But Kudos on it!!

  • Dottie

    I’m working with a career/life coach and part of my initial assignment is to design my next assignment.  I found your blog with a Google search.  It seems that you and I are looking for the same values and needs in our dream job.  Great read1