Collect Your Portfolio with Evan Oldford (2/2)

Welcome to episode 173 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of an interview with Evan Oldford, discussing how to prioritize sleep, how to document your work, combatting perfectionism, and some insight on the genesis of Evan’s book Ghost Rules.

Original Recording Date: 04-21-2022

Evan Oldford is a Senior Director at Cisco Systems of an Escalations group. His engineering team takes issues from support into engineering and they focus on restoring service for customers in the security domain. Evan is also author of Ghost Rules: Unspoken Secrets to Getting Ahead.

Topics – Importance of Sleep, Good Enough; Bandwidth, Time, and a Routine; How to Document Your Work, Delegation and Elimination, Genesis of Ghost Rules, Parting Thoughts and What’s Next

3:30 – Importance of Sleep

  • One of the pieces of advice Evan gives in his book is to prioritize sleep. It seems like lack of sleep is an even bigger problem since the pandemic started with workdays for many getting longer and more meetings on the calendar.
  • If you want to do something you need to schedule it by putting it on your calendar.
    • Evan has a block on his calendar that tells him when it’s time to go to bed.
    • With the pandemic the lines between work and home get really blurry. Being able to set the boundaries between when you will be online and working and when you will be off can help.
    • There will be some tensions at times, but you can set the ground rules on where you will implement the boundaries. You need to feel comfortable enough to be able to do this.
    • Of course, we need to be accessible for a large portion of our days, but the one thing you cannot compromise on is sleep.
    • Evan has sleep scheduled on his Outlook calendar. Though he may not always go to bed right then, he sets the intention.
    • If you don’t set the intention, your bedtime may be very irregular, which according to sleep psychologist Michael Breus can negatively affect health. Breus also wrote a very good book called The Power of When.
    • Evan highly recommends reading Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker.
      • It will make you want to go to bed (in a good way). The author outlines a number of ways we sabotage our sleep.
  • What if it’s time to go to sleep and you cannot shut your brain down?
    • Generally if you perform the shutdown routine we discussed earlier you don’t get this feeling of rumination. It’s out of your head much like David Alan speaks to in Getting Things Done and leads to some quiet.
    • When Evan’s mind is racing on a topic, he finds it helpful to write things down to help stop the racing.
  • How can the extra sleep we got make up for work left unfinished?
    • Evan’s task list inbox never goes to zero (much like most of us).
    • You have to embrace that the work will be there in the morning.
    • There are certainly deadlines where we need to press on and power through, for example. But generally understand there will always be more work, and work generates more work.
    • We need to be able to hit pause and know the work will be there the next time we are ready to do it.
    • Sometimes Evan will intentionally work on a technical problem right before bed, knowing he cannot solve it.
      • He has found that usually first thing in the morning he will have an insight / epiphany to help get past the road block.
      • This is subconscious deep work happening that isn’t so different from the idea of embracing boredom to let your brain continue to think on a problem. See also Episode 144.
      • Nick finds that the times he is fighting sleep the hardest to finish something are likely the times when he needs it most. Pressing deadlines are of course an exception (some may argue even this could have been avoided with better planning).

8:09 – Good Enough

  • Something still being there tomorrow is in line with Evan’s thoughts on work being "good enough."
  • Evan (and many others) has an inner perfectionist who needs to get everything just right.
  • When you look at something you need to prioritize what is most important.
    • Typically in a highly dynamic environment you cannot do all the work on your to-do list to the standard of perfection.
    • You have to figure out if, for example, an 80% solution is good enough for a situation. Some will keep polishing over and over when something is already good enough.
    • But stopping at good enough gives us more bandwidth. There are certain projects where you need to go deep and have an extremely high level of precision (i.e. a higher priority task, for example).
    • For a task, ask yourself what is acceptable instead of whether it is perfect. Acknowledge that it is not perfect. Is it acceptable? If so, lay it aside and get on to the next thing.
    • Evan has seen individuals get wrapped up in the perfectionism and end up operating on a smaller body of work.
    • Evan recommends The Practice by Seth Godin, which highlights the difference between good enough and perfectionism. We want to be shipping our work.
    • We want to ship a good volume of work and to do this need to be able to hit pause on the inner critic and be ok with it. This allows more bandwidth for focus on deeper and more important work.
  • Silencing the inner perfectionist is tough.
    • Sometimes if Evan sees code that is not formatted correctly he needs to reformat it (not a great use of time).
    • Think about the result that needs to come from a task, and consider mentality the priority level.
      • Is this high priority, low priority, or just confetti work?
      • Step back and gain that perspective to help you decide how much effort is needed.

10:49 – Bandwidth, Time, and a Routine

  • There are many techniques on time management that can be utilized (like the Pomodoro Technique, for example) to divide up your time.
  • Bandwidth is more about what can be mentally accomplished during a block of time.
    • Think about what could be zapping your mental energy. It could be a cognitive task.
    • There is only a fixed about of energy per day, and you want to be able to exploit that bandwidth as much as possible.
    • One technique Evan highlights in the book is around a routine.
      • Routines take time and mental energy.
      • Come up with a system that can short circuit this process a little bit and allow you to spend less mental calories making decisions.
      • A very marquee example is Steve Jobs and wearing black turtlenecks. Jobs decided to spend his mental energy on creativity instead of what he would wear the next day.
      • This reminds Nick of a story about the cycling team in Chasing Excellence that utilized small improvements (or the aggregation of marginal gains) to destroy the competition.
      • Maybe Steve Jobs wasn’t so crazy. 🙂
      • Evan and his family use a meal calendar. There is no need to ask what is for dinner when dinner time comes around because it has been pre-planned (including getting proper groceries). It’s all part of a routine.
      • Nick mentions having a special bedtime routine that he and his daughter do daily.

13:18 – How to Document Your Work

  • Evan’s book tells us not only what to do (document our work) but provides guidance on how to do it.
  • Evan created a worksheet (download a free copy of the format here) to break down collecting a portfolio of work into something easy to follow and manage.
  • The end result of the career accomplishments document is something you can cut and paste into a promotion package, onto a resume, etc.
    • In order to get to this point, there is a lot of work to be done on your part.
    • Within the document you need to answer…
      • What are your strengths?
      • What areas are your kryptonite and will drain your energy?
      • What are the problems you’re solving?
      • What are some of the stats you want to accomplish?
    • Working through the questions is a helpful way to add structure to collecting all the activities you are doing and distill it down into what is in the document.
    • Invariably, if in a role long enough you will come up for a promotion or something like that. Maybe you are switching roles and need to ready your resume.
    • Relying on your memory to keep track of all you have done is NOT effective and will provide you with a so-so proof of work.
    • Documenting accomplishments regularly, how you achieved them, and how well you achieved them will improve the quality of output tremendously.
      • Evan updates his career accomplishment document regularly (monthly in his case on the first Wednesday of the month), and it is never complete. It is a practice that keeps you from only relying on your memory.
      • Some projects may be years old, and your memory is not that good.
    • Evan picked up some tips on how to create this document from the Manager Tools Podcast.
    • Evan has been engaging in this practice for about a decade.
      • It’s fun to go back and look at what he has accomplished, and in some portions he has highlighted goals.
      • Filling out the worksheet is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you put the things down in words your brain starts to think about ways to make it happen.
      • It’s fun to go look at something that is 7-8 years old and say to yourself, "that was a really cool accomplishment."
      • Nick believes this is a way to find your gratitude for what you get to do and what you have accomplished (looking at your progress).
      • Evan says the sense of accomplishment helps energize you.
  • What about putting our weaknesses in this document? Why do that?
    • Even the best athlete has areas of specific focus.
    • Part of the exercise is self-inspection of areas where you are strong and others where you are not so strong.
    • Knowing the weaknesses allow you to have a discussion with your manager about things that are your kryptonite and draw away your energy.
      • There may be another person on the team who loves that part of the job (making it a win, win situation).
      • If not comfortable taking the conversation to your manager, find that person on the team directly.
      • This is part of the reason we build relationships. You may find there is something a person on the team is incredibly good at, allowing you to pair with that person to accomplish a task and learn from them.
      • We should still be working on our development areas though they are not necessarily going to be what we capitalize on for promotion purposes. But neglect of these areas / not being able to show progress made in filling gaps could keep you from getting promoted.
      • Progress in a weakness area may not be the best candidate for the daily report we discussed in Episode 172 and might be better served to put in a journal you keep.

19:09 – Delegation and Elimination

  • Knowledge of weakness areas may lend itself to ease of delegation.
  • When a manager delegates, he / she is still accountable for the result and is up to the manager to ensure something will be accomplished on time to the proper standard (can require some follow up).
  • Some tasks you may want to delegate to the floor because there is no value. A report or a task you’re doing may not be something looked at by anyone.
    • In those times, you may want to stop doing something to see if someone responds.
  • How can we be ok with stopping things we have done for a long time?
    • It is tough letting go.
    • In these times, Evan encourages us to take a step back and assess. Something can be a priority but fall below the line of priorities.
    • If it is 13 on the top 10 list of priorities, perhaps you need to put it to the side.
  • What about that feeling of taking something off the worksheet meaning you’re doing less or looking bad?
    • This goes back to bandwidth management.
    • Some people just continue to do the thing and feel like they should be rewarded for continuing the thing. But in reality it might not be valued any longer.
    • People who stop doing things after a while are doing less, but they are not delivering additional value by doing it anyway. They have freed up a chunk of time for other things.
    • This goes back to value delivered to the organization, the greater community, your family, etc.

22:33 – Genesis of Ghost Rules

  • Evan did not originally set out to create a book. He initially was building some content for a team offsite with his direct reports.
  • A frequently asked question from employees was "what do I need to do to get promoted?"
  • Evan’s thoughts on this formed the first draft of the first chapter of his book. The first document created was something he shared with his wife, who encouraged him to run it by his HR partner.
  • Evan had a great relationship with his HR partner and showed her the draft too. She said it was very good but that he could not give it to his team.
    • It was a bit too prescriptive and formulaic in that someone could look at the document, do the things suggested, and expect to receive a promotion by default. That was not the intent.
  • Evan took this and shelved the document in favor of planning the offsite.
  • He started having 1-1s that involved a lot of friction and as a result put his thoughts into a different document.
    • Over a couple of years he looked at the wealth of information created and wanted to give back.
    • Evan worked chapter by chapter, and the topics lent themselves to compartmentalization really well (succinct chapters). He proceeded down the rabbit hole of becoming an author.
    • The publishing part was made pretty easy through modern tools and democratization of publishing.
  • Evan worked on the book off and on for a period of about 2 years.
    • He had pulled together the content already on the side (which took a while to compile) here and there on weekends, writing down ideas as they came to him.
    • His editor was brutally honest, which Evan appreciated. Some chapters needed rewriting while others were eviscerated.
    • The editor helped hone the tone and the content.
    • It was a fun yet challenging process that took probably a year of editing to reach the finished product.
  • If you haven’t read the book, be sure to get a copy on Amazon.
  • The first chapter in the book, Getting Ahead, was what kick started and inspired the rest of the book.
  • The chapter that Evan feels flowed the best is titled Ceilings.
    • In your career there are many different ceilings. Some of them relate to where you are and the structure of the business.
    • This specific chapter was really fun to write, and Evan was extremely happy to share it with readers.
  • If you have feedback for Evan, would like to chat further about the book, or get a different perspective on any topic you can find him on LinkedIn.
  • Evan feels he will continue to write but does not at present have another book idea.
    • He finds the process of writing a way to really clarify a thought and improve your written communication skills (an area where we could all use some work).
    • At present Evan is working on another chapter for the book called Reading the Room (not yet ready), and he would like to add it at some point.

28:56 – Parting Thoughts and What’s Next

  • Higher level managers are looking at how to give back and clear obstacles for the organization and are focused on how to invest more in growth and upward mobility of the organization as a whole.

  • Evan is loving what he is doing right now and not looking to change it up.

  • In the current market there are some very generous compensation packages being thrown around. People often wonder what they should be doing next and what they should be looking for as their next gig.

  • Evan’s advice is find a manager that is looking to invest in you. The technology is not as interesting. It could be a cool company with cool technology, but if your boss is a jerk, there is no longevity there. You will not be happy there.

  • Find an awesome team that has your back and a great manager who will invest in you and give you the keys to driving your career.

  • "Don’t look at chasing that next big salary bump. Find that great manager." – Evan Oldford

  • Don’t forget to get a free copy of Evan’s career worksheet here and check out his recommended reading list with ratings.

  • See also what Scott Lowe had to say about written communication in Episode 152.

  • For a deeper understanding of what HR professionals do and how to partner with them, check out Episode 49 and Episode 50 with guest Marisa Eckberg.

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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