Interview and Collaborate: Fostering Human Connection with Sean Tolram (1/2)

This week in episode 265 we’re joined by Sean Tolram (a part 1 of 2). We’ll hear about Sean’s experiences studying biotechnology and his discovery of HTML, how he got into web design, interview tips and how we can connect with others during interviews, ways to collaborate with people from other teams through curiosity, and thoughts on communicating the results of our work.

Original Recording Date: 02-10-2024

Topics – Meet Sean Tolram, A Scientific Researcher Discovers HTML and Web Design, Feeling Unprepared for Presentations, Elements of Interviewing, A Grad Scheme at IBM, Something More Creative, Learning from Others, Communicating Results

2:11 – Meet Sean Tolram

  • Sean Tolram is Head of Mindfulness at HSBC.
    • There is a mindfulness team at HSBC focused on trying to embed mindful ways of working across the organization.

2:40 – A Scientific Researcher Discovers HTML and Web Design

  • Sean studied science in school. Around this time they had started to work with DNA and began talking about cloning. Sean mentions Dolly the Sheep, the first animal to be cloned.
  • With biotechnology seemingly taking off, Sean decided to go and study it.
    • “I then realized working in scientific research was not as glamorous as I thought it would be.” – Sean Tolram, on his work not being what he originally expected
    • Sean remembers starting out spending hours studying bacteria in a hot research lab. He realized continuing in that field would require him to live like a student for much of his life (getting research grants, etc.), which was not what he wanted.
    • Sean eventually wanted a job that paid more money and decided to leave biotech.
  • Sean applied to any company whose name he recognized, not caring too much about the specifics of the job.
    • Sean ended up getting a job at IBM as part of what he calls a “grad scheme.” This was around the year 2000.
  • As for the experience in biotech, Sean tells us every day was a real struggle because he had no desire to be there.
    • He worked through it to pass to be able to go on and do something else.
    • It’s difficult for young people to be able to pick a career they want to do for the rest of their lives. Sean would tell us most will go through several career changes throughout their lives.
    • Sean remembers one of the modules in his biotech course that covered web design. This is when he wrote his first few lines of HTML.
    • “I think it was just maybe a couple of days worth of work, and I found that far more interesting than anything else in my 3 year degree that I did…. Really at that point I knew that web design was the one thing that I’d sort of tried, and I was intrigued and interested to do a little bit more. I just didn’t know how.” – Sean Tolram
    • Sean mentions he reached out to technology companies and pharmaceutical companies after completing the biotech course of study.
  • After discovering web design and HTML, Sean started to tinker with it in his own time. The initial task he was given was to put an image on a web page (nothing more than that), and he explored headers, tables, and bulleted lists next.
    • “I just started to build up the page and add more and more. And it just felt very natural. It felt more natural than anything else I was doing in my degree. And I was finding that I was remembering things very easily.” – Sean Tolram, on learning HTML
    • Once Sean built something using HTML, he could easily remember how to replicate it. He would also think of different ways to do it.
    • Nick can see the transfer of problem solving skills from doing scientific research to building websites with HTML and changing your approach based on the observation of output on the page.
    • Sean eventually moved into user experience where they did a lot of testing. He recalls that his degree was really about running a lot of experiment , testing different things, and learning what works.
    • Sean’s thesis for his degree was a study on the effectiveness of popular types of mouthwash under different conditions. Changing the conditions and testing the results parallels the way Sean’s career ended up progressing.

9:21 – Feeling Unprepared for Presentations

  • It is likely researchers require a lot of documenting of their work. How did that experience improve Sean’s writing skills throughout his career?
    • In the scientific field it’s about documenting the hypothesis, results, method, and conclusion.
    • Sean finds himself using that same principles today. Now that he’s in senior management, a proposal for something he wants to do follows a very similar structure.
  • Nick asks if as part of the program Sean was in they had to give presentations sharing their results to others?
    • It reminded Nick of the challenge Neil Thompson had before starting Teach the Geek. If you would like to listen to the episodes we did with Neil, check out Episode 193 – Communication for Specialists with Neil Thompson (1/2) and Episode 194 – Question Askers and Problem Solvers with Neil Thompson (2/2).
    • Sean says when he was an undergraduate they had to present to a room full of PhD students and senior lecturers.
      • “At that point, none of us had ever had any training around how to speak in public. We’d never even thought about it. Then all of a sudden we have to get up in front of this room where everyone looks miserable. They don’t look like they really want to be there. You’re talking about something they’re probably not interested in, but they have to be there to observe you…. It’s a very intimidating atmosphere…. So most of my presentations at that time were a total car crash…. At the time I just thought wow, I’m really bad at public speaking. I’m never going to be able to get up in front of a room and speak.” – Sean Tolram
      • The atmosphere was quite stressful. caused impostor syndrome and a state of stress, and it was almost a feeling like one was wasting the audience’s time.
      • Sean didn’t understand at this time how stress can impact how we think and behave, but he remembers his heart beating rapidly, talking fast, and feeling sweaty during these presentations.
    • Nick mentions his eighth grader’s hesitance to give presentations and his encouragement to her to keep doing it. The exposure to doing this is a good thing.
    • When we say public speaking, it doesn’t mean giving some keynote at a conference. It starts with a room of your peers or people who have more experience than you (like presenting for a grade in school). It can be intimidating.
    • Sean says his kids (7 and 11) are excited at the chance to speak in front of a room of people and how interesting it will be to watch as they continue their education.

13:37 – Elements of Interviewing

  • Sean tells us the interview process for the role at IBM was not really technical and that it was assumed the company would teach you the skills needed. It was more about personality and culture fit.
  • As part of this “grad scheme” as Sean calls it candidates would rotate and learn various skills like coding, graphic design, testing, and project management.
  • Nick suggests when we are in interviews it is a good thing to ask about training opportunities to increase our depth in a specific area. For example, maybe you know something at a 200 level of depth and the company you’re interviewing with wants more like 400 level. Will they train or let you take training to get there?
  • In his current role at HSBC, Sean conducts interviews. He realizes he likely would not have hired his younger self, feeling that his interactions in those past interviews were not genuine or authentic but rather a bit exaggerated.
    • “For me it’s really impressive if somebody knows what they don’t know and they’re already thinking about how they can get there.” – Sean Tolram, on the importance of showing self-awareness of our skill sets in interviews
      • Sean feels this candidate self-awareness gives them an advantage.
    • Many people might feel showing your vulnerability in this way might prevent them from being hired.
      • If you go into interviews and exaggerate what you know, it “might” work in your favor. But interviews can figure this out by asking the right questions. Sean prefers speaking with people who take an honest approach.
      • Do you have the core of what you need to do the role, and are you showing it to an interview?
      • Sean likes it when candidates he speaks to have researched and understand the HSBC strategy (for being net 0 by 2030, for example).
      • “This is where the business wants to be. This is how I feel like I can develop myself to contribute to that…. Right now, this is there I am. This is what I can do. I feel like I can come in here and I can do a job right now, and I can do it well. In addition to that, I’m aware of those areas where I’d like to improve and I’d like to push myself so that I can continue to grow with this organization.” – Sean Tolram, sharing an example of tying current skill set and professional development to a company direction in an interview
      • Nick would agree honesty with our skill sets and experience is always the best policy in interviews.
      • Researching a company before interviews is always a wise thing to do, but understanding the company goals and thinking about how we can contribute to them by making ourselves better is a great suggestion!
    • Sean did not have LinkedIn years ago after his experience studying biotech. He would encourage us to connect with people at the company where we would like to work.
      • There was a time when Sean was considering leaving HSBC. He connected with people from other banks to find out what they do and even ask for advice. Doing this kind of prep work can help us learn more about a company and what is happening there to stand out as a candidate.
      • Consider also looking at the news about the company, whether good or bad. You can be aware of it and provide your take on it in an interview. Sean calls this out as a great thing we could do in an interview.
      • Nick says putting in the time to research like this shows a level of interest as well. People might find out through research the values of a company clash with their own personal values and would then need to make a decision on working there.
    • Knowledge of the business and organization is one side of interviews. The other side is human connection.
      • We will connect with some people more than others, but being nervous can prevent us from making connections with others.
      • Sean consistently encourages young people to practice interview situations.
      • “The more you practice, the more comfortable it becomes, even if it’s to yourself in front of the mirror…. You do the training so that you perform better in the game. The interview is the big game, so you don’t want to just turn up there with no practice.” – Sean Tolram
      • This preparation and practice allows us to be as comfortable as possible in an interview and allows us to make a connection with the interviewer.
  • Nick suggests connecting with and reaching out to others for advice is a form of interviewing, even though we are the ones asking questions. We should be making sure we ask questions during interviews as a best practice.
    • Sean mentioned it’s been fascinating to learn how the brain works in different situations (part of the reason he got into mindfulness).
    • When we are in an interview situation we are usually in fight or flight mode, and since stress responses are firing up, access to higher brain function may be cut off. We cannot operate at our best in these cases, but being aware that it’s happening gives us the chance to calm ourselves and enable being the best version of ourselves.
      • This is why people’s minds go blank in an interview or in a team meeting, for example. Sean says people can say crazy things when this happens.
    • Sean recounts an interview experience from years ago where the interviewer described the culture of the team and how they liked to go out drinking. Sean was nervous and wasn’t thinking clearly. When asked if he enjoyed doing the same, Sean said “yeah, I drink quite heavily.”
      • The truth is Sean rarely drinks (which has always been the case).
      • “And I said that in an interview because my mind was all over the place, and I wasn’t consciously thinking about the words that were coming out of my mouth.” – Sean Tolram

25:13 – A Grad Scheme at IBM

  • The role at IBM as part of the grad scheme did not match what Sean thought it would be during interviews. He tells us it was a little bit like being back at a university.
    • The incoming graduates (including Sean) were sent around doing all types of training, even getting to do some travel as part of the experience.
    • Once all the training was complete, things ended up being different than what Sean expected. He was sent on a rotation or a “placement” through different jobs for a couple of months each.
      • Some of the roles were roles Sean had never done or had no interest in doing.
      • One example of a job Sean did was software tester for Tesco. He didn’t have an interest in doing it or know if he would be good at it.
      • “But I sat there, I followed the instructions, and I did it. If you do that enough times, it becomes soul destroying because this amazing career that you dreamed of kind of seems like it’s been taken out of your control and you’re just being moved around onto these different projects.” – Sean Tolram
      • Sean says he felt much the same as at the university. He was doing it just to get through it and did not feel it was motivating him or giving him energy. He was getting paid, could support himself, and could live comfortably. It’s a fine balance.
  • What is meant by grad scheme? Is that a special program for college graduates?
    • Each year IBM would bring in a group of 30 or 40 percent graduates and train them / immerse them in the IBM experience. The company had hopes that those folks would eventually become future senior leaders within IBM.
    • IBM was making a big investment, and a number of people did the training and then left the company.
    • “When we did the interviews we didn’t realize fully that that’s what a grad scheme consisted of, so that was a bit of a surprise.” – Sean Tolram
    • Before Nick started working for a technology company 6 years ago he did not know companies had these types of programs for recent college graduates (academy programs, grad schemes, etc.).
      • If you’re in school now or fresh out consider these programs as an avenue to get into tech!
  • Sean now mentors and coaches graduates at HSBC. Young people in school aren’t thinking as much about their future career. They are more focused on getting through school.
    • In the UK, university students can take a year to do an internship at a company and then go back and finish their degree.
    • Doing an internship with companies who offer it can make it easier to get into a company’s grad scheme and end up helping your long term career.
    • Researching companies who offer these types of programs and how to get into them is a very beneficial thing to do.
    • Nick likes the idea of taking a year to do the internship without needing to do school at the same time. It can give you full exposure into the working world.
    • HSBC has global internships as do other large financial institutions and technology companies. They also have grad scheme type programs.
    • Sean tells us he is involved in helping the people who come through these programs get adjusted to the world of work.
    • “That’s the sort of support that I didn’t have back in the day when I was starting. And I think that’s one of the reasons that I didn’t enjoy it because you’re kind of dumped into this environment which is very strange, very unfamiliar. You kind of feel like you don’t belong there.” – Sean Tolram, on supporting people through internships and grad schemes
    • A grad scheme can be competitive to enter. Sean compares it to The Apprentice and mentions it’s a high stress, high pressure environment.
    • Making connections in these programs can be awkward. People want to be friends and make connections but at the same time want to be seen as a standout compared to everyone else to get the best roles. Sean says this can mess with your head and is not really a normal way of being.

32:11 – Something More Creative

  • During the rotation at IBM, Sean realized he wanted to go into something more creative. He had been working with HTML to build web pages that were both functional and looked nice / provided a good user experience.
    • There were not any roles that fit what Sean wanted to do despite communicating what he wanted to his management.
    • Sean was moved around to different roles and would do some HTML work here and there. Some roles allowed for graphic design work in Paint Shop Pro, for example.
    • Sean would do design work and present it to the development teams to apply it to websites.
    • "It was all about building functional websites that worked. Nobody cared how they looked…. The devs just wanted to get it through functional testing so that they could move on to something else. It kind of felt like I was on my own and nobody really cared about the same things. " – Sean Tolram, on the disparities he saw between functionality and design
    • Sean would make suggestions for button placement on websites, suggest a standardized look and feel, customized branding, etc.
  • Nick has seen instances where a company would hire one firm to design the website and a different one to build the functionality based on the design. Are design and build commonly separated like this?
    • Sean has seen examples even in recent years where the priority is on the build. Design would be after this and then content (the words on the page).
    • Having the content team, the dev team, and the design team pulled together working on requirements from the beginning and then building something that does the job works really well.
      • “Throughout most of my career that’s not really how it’s worked. You’ve had separate teams, often managed by different people with different objectives, not really collaborating as well as they could.” Sean Tolram
      • Nick mentions this sounds like the structure of a product team with a product manager, engineers / developers, and designers all part of the same working group or team even if they may have different managers. Sean says this is how he’s seen it working best.
      • At HSBC they have been moving toward job descriptions and roles that are not quite so fixed but rather focused on identifying an organizational need and pulling in the people with the right skill set to help. It’s about managing resources. Sean is seeing this work very well at present.
      • In the past Sean has consistently seen instances where the content team would be left without enough space for the text needed to go on a website because the website was not designed with the content in mind. This has to go back to the dev team, back through testing, and makes the process take longer.
      • Nick sees the design, the content, and the development as analogous to knobs on a sound board we need to set properly to achieve the ideal sound.
  • “As my career progressed, the one thing that I think really worked well for me was learning a bit about all of those different areas…. I was seeing a lot of specialists – someone who only does dev, someone who only does design. I started to gain experience in all of those areas, even SEO, user experience, analytics, A/B testing. I ended up not becoming an expert in any particular area, but I knew enough about those areas. I could work with a team. I could bring people together. I could manage a team of experts. It was when I decided to go in that direction that I started to be put into more kind of management type positions….” – Sean Tolram

38:27 – Learning from Others

  • Did the lack of people caring about the design cause Sean to seek to learn about the other areas?
    • Yes! Sean felt like no one understood him. But he realized he had been doing the same thing as everyone else – thinking his viewpoint or focus (design) was the most important element of a website.
      • Websites had to function properly in addition to looking pretty to be valuable.
      • Sean realized his designs would be better if he understood limitations the dev team had, so he went and learned more.
      • Testing teams were sometimes looked at negatively, but in reality they can save a company money and reputation by ensuring quality.
      • Sean made a conscious decision to learn more about how testers test and what they need to be more efficient to better inform his own work.
    • Sean would spend his own time working with and seeking to understand the roles of other teams. This was in addition to the work he was already doing.
      • Sean would ask members of other teams like the test team if he could shadow them to learn more about the work they were doing. It might be 30 minutes or for a shorter period like 10 minutes.
      • “I consciously spent additional time with those people so that I could understand what they were doing, and what happened was quite quickly I was able to link that to the work that I was doing.” – Sean Tolram
      • The dev team had limitations on button sizes, for example, so there was no point designing a button which did not fit that limitation. Everything was being built using tables, so too much complexity in design based on that would take longer for a developer to build.
      • “And it helped me to build relationships with those teams, and that was the most important thing. And once we had those relationships going they would then come to me and say, ‘Sean, we’re building this thing. Where do you think we should put this button?’ And that’s when it really started to come together.” – Sean Tolram
      • These principles can apply to other departments and groups adjacent to where we work.
  • How open were people when Sean asked to learn about what they did? Were people hesitant?
    • Most took the curiosity as a compliment, while others wanted to get on with their work and did not see value in spending time with Sean.
    • We have to brush it off when people don’t want to talk with us and not waste energy.
    • “It was finding those people who were willing to be helpful, and what I realized was the majority of people…want a sense of community. They want to feel like they’re part of a team. They want nice relationships nice conversations.” – Sean Tolram
    • It helps to compliment others when seeking to learn from them. We should always be polite and respectful when approaching others.
    • Sean would provide positive feedback to a team’s front line manager on something they accomplished, and that was very helpful.
    • “Making time to build those relationships rather than just focusing on my job, that was what made the difference.” – Sean Tolram

43:44 – Communicating Results

  • Nick likes the idea of keeping management in the loop and suggests they would see a benefit from the collaboration described here even if not quantified well.
  • Sean mentions people he’s had managers who became managers due to their technical expertise. Those people were not going to encourage a collaborative team culture because it was not part of their skill set. They were happy to let Sean do that part, however.
    • Sean had to learn how to sell the work he was doing in a way his managers would understand.
    • “I wish I did more of this in my earlier career…. It’s awkward to sell yourself and to try and show people how well you’re doing, but it’s the only way that people are going to know.” – Sean Tolram
    • Sean realized the things he was doing to increase collaboration within the company were important and that he was able to produce good results. He suggests sharing the end result with others (a product that delighted a customer) and letting them know it was possible because of the collaboration amongst those involved.
  • Nick says the persuasion, selling, and pointing out of bright spots to advertise internally we discussed is the on the job training for the next interview someone needs to be in. It’s transferrable to interviews.
    • Sean has started to think more about this throughout his career. When he began his career he was focused more on his own work and doing it well.
    • “I could complete 100 tasks really well, and to me I’d have a sense of personal satisfaction. But it would mean nothing to anybody because it hadn’t got out there. But if I can create a story around those 100 tasks in a simple, succinct way that outlines the value that those 100 tasks have provided, then suddenly you have the attention of the right people.” – Sean Tolram
    • Last year Sean wanted to show how his team is saving HSBC money. The team were simplifying processes and then recording the time savings. At the end of the year, Sean provided not a massive report but a single statement:
      • “We’ve invested 30 hours this year in simplification activity. That will now save us 400 hours of effort every year from now on. And that was it. One statement, and I got more of a reaction from that than any of those massive reports that I’d created in the past.” – Sean Tolram
    • Sean wishes he had known these things earlier. Only from experience and understanding how the world works was he able to figure this out.

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