Saturday, April 9, 2016

career advice 3

As I've mentioned before, I've read the book "Friend & Foe" by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, and I went to see their talk too. It's an interesting book on the psychology of competition and cooperation. But some examples from it and their interpretation struck me as odd.

In particular, they have a story of Hannah Riley Bowles who got an offer for a tenured position from the Nazareth College, decided to negotiate for some better conditions, and had the offer retracted (to her surprise). Perhaps she'd followed the advice similar to Tarah Van Vleck's: "never accept the first offer". What went wrong? According to Galinsky and Schweitzer, there must be some evil afoot, it's all because she's a woman.

But is it? The whole story as described in the book strikes me as a sequence of bad decisions. I'm not the greatest expert on negotiations by far but I know a thing or two about them. For example, I've negotiated for a year about one of my jobs. For another job, I've negotiated through 3 different engagements over 6 years. And basically in the story about Hannah I see both the glaring mistakes on her part and the mistaken pre-suppositions in the narrative.

The major mistake in the narrative is that by negotiations you cannot lose ("never accept the first offer, it's always lower by 10-15% than the final offer"). It's not true. If you decide not to accept the first offer but start the negotiations, you have to be prepared that the other side would turn around and go away. It has no relation to gender, happens to everyone, and is nothing unusual. It's something you've got to be prepared to. I've had it happen on multiple occasions in my career.

If doesn't mean that you shouldn't negotiate. The negotiation of the future salary at a new place is the best way and time to raise your income, after that a 10% raise will be considered a huge one. A 10% raise did happen to me once, but again, it was a very unusual thing, and much easier achieved by negotiating at the hiring time. But you've got to place a realistic goal in front of you, what kind of raise would be worth changing the jobs, and go from there. If the offer is way below this goal, there is no point in taking it. If it's way above, you've achieved your goal, there's not much more to desire. Extra negotiation can bring extra money but can also break the whole thing. If someone offers you double the current money, it's probably reasonable to just take the offer and not risk it.

And yes, the offer of double money did happen to me but it came with a catch: it was for a 6-month contract, with a long commute and not a particularly exciting job. So it wasn't a no-brainer, it took me some thinking. In the end I've decided that if I get double the money for 6 months and then spend another 6 months looking for another job like my current one, I'd be still ahead, and I took it (and in result the things have worked out better than expected).

To give an example of when things didn't work out, let's look at that 6-year negotiation story. When I've talked to them for the first time, I went there for an interview, I've talked to the HR about what kind of money I want, and a week later I get a form letter saying that they're not interested. Well, overall fine with me (except for one point that I'll return to later), they didn't look particularly interesting anyway. When their recruiter contacted me next time, I've asked them: you people didn't like me once already, why are you calling me again? And he said, no, the technical interviews actually are marked pretty good, so it's got to be some other reason. From which I could only conclude that the money was the problem.  And then I've tried a bit different approach to find out what kind of money they had in mind, and it turned out that yes, there was a major disagreement. But the important point for Hannah's story is that they didn't make me an offer for half the money I was asking, they just turned around and went away.

Making another digression, this kind of confirms Tarah Van Vleck's advice "never name your number first". Or does it? Remember, in this case our expectations have been off by a factor of 2. If they made me an offer for half the money I thought reasonable, I wouldn't have taken it anyway, just as I didn't take when I found it out during the second engagement. By the way, yes, there are disadvantages of naming your number first but there are also are other issues, and there are some advantages too: if you overshoot their expectations by a reasonable amount, you'll have a lot easier time in defending this number in the further negotiations. If they name a number and you say "I want 10% more", they'll figure out that you're just trying to stretch it a little, and they might either stay firm or maybe settle at something like 5% more. If you name a number 20% more than they were expecting to offer, you'll probably get if not all 20% then at least 15%. And it's not just me, I've also read it in some book (Galinsky&Schweitzer's? Cialdini's? Karras's?) that the first number named sets the tone for the negotiation, which is difficult to move afterwards. It can be moved but not by 15%, if you want to make progress you've got to start with something like "this is laughable! my reasonable estimation is 50% more!" and get maybe extra 30-45%. And of course bear the risk that the other side would go away, so I'd recommend doing this only if you really do see the initial offer as laughable.

If the other side thinks that your demands are unreasonably high (or low, for the other side, and yes, I've done things like that from my side as well), they'll just go away. But of course from my standpoint the requests have been perfectly reasonable, I would not have agreed to their low-ball offer anyway, so I haven't lost anything. This is a problem only if you're bluffing.
Now turning to Hannah's mistakes. Sorry, but she led the negotiations in a very offensive way, as offensive as it can get without calling the prospective employer names.

The first major mistake was that she responded by writing of a letter with the list of requests, and in such a formal tone. Negotiation in the written form is bad, it's highly prone to cause very negative feelings in the counterparty. The good way to negotiate is over the phone.

The use of the formal tone is even worse. It's guaranteed to offend. Returning to that example above, receiving that form letter had pissed me off very much. If they simply said "No, we're not interested" or "No, we're not interested, we don't think you're good enough for us", it would have been OK. But receiving a page-long form letter in legalese created a major grudge. For a few years after that I wouldn't even talk to the their recruiters.

The right way to negotiate is on the phone, and try to keep as friendly a tone as possible. The point of negotiations is to convince the other party that your viewpoint is more reasonable, not to fight them.

This brings us to the next error, but here Hannah had no control: she had to negotiate directly with the college because the college had contacted her directly. The negotiations go much, much better when conducted through an intermediary.  An independent recruiting agent is the best intermediary, the company recruiter is the second best one. Negotiating directly with the hiring manager, as Hannah essentially did, is fraught with peril. The recruiters are the professional negotiators, they understand how the negotiations work, and transfer the information between two parties while maintaining friendliness on both sides. You can talk more bluntly to them, and when the message reaches the other side, it will become formatted in a friendly way. On the other hand, the hiring managers tend to take offense easily. Many of them are technical specialists but not really people persons, and for quite a few of them the feeling self-importance goes strongly to their head. Might be even worse in academia than in the industry, at least judging by what I read. The even worse part is that she had to deal with a committee. The problem with committees is that there is a higher probability that at least one member will be a self-important moron who will take offense.

Ironically, this went so bad because from the tone of the letter Hannah doesn't appear to be a people person either, but one with the self-importance gone to her head. It's hard enough to negotiate when one side has this attitude, and much harder when both sides do. For all I understand, the tenure positions are coveted in academia, so when the committee made an offer to Hannah, they likely felt that they're making her an honor. Which is expected to be accepted humbly.  Responding to the offer with the words "Granting some of the following provisions will make my decision easier" is the opposite of humility. It's the negotiation from the position of power, implying that they've made a humble supplication of her, and she is considering whether to grant their wish. I hope you can see by now how they felt offended.

As you can see, great many things went wrong with Hannah's negotiation, and none of them have anything to do with her gender. All of them had to do with the communication mistakes, character of the people involved, pride and prejudice of academic nature, and lack of an experienced intermediary to calm down the tempers.

What could Hannah had done better? I'd recommend first thing going there, looking at the place, and meeting the people. A personal contact always makes the following remote communications much more personable. And then making her requests either in a face-to-face meeting or over the phone. Making them in a personable tone of requests, not demands. Like "hey, and how does such a thing run at your college? would it be OK if I do it like this?". Perhaps, making some of the requests through the HR department people. And what could have the college done better? After the hiring committee had made the decision, they could have used a professional recruiter from HR to communicate between the committee and Hannah.

Of course, yet another way to look at it is "do you want to work with people like this?". The point of the interview is that not only candidate is a good fit for the company but also that the company is a good fit for the candidate. If you think that the company behaves unreasonably in response to your reasonable requests, it's probably best not to work there: obviously, your ideas of what is reasonable differ widely.

And this also brings the point about whether the women are undeservedly seen as too aggressive. I'd say that Hannah's example demonstrates exactly the kind of over-aggressiveness. It's not that she tried to negotiate for the better conditions, it's HOW she tried to do it. Instead of building the mutual rapport and convincing the counterparty of her goals in a friendly way, she saw it as a fight. It's not the perception of the aggression that is the problem, the problem is in the aggression that is actually present.

I wonder if it might also be connected to another effect about negotiations. As described in the book "The negotiating game" by Karrass, and as I can anecdotically confirm from my experience, when a good negotiator gets the major thing he wants, he goes soft on the opponent and doesn't mind giving up some minor points, to keep the relationship happier. On the other hand, the poor negotiators keep hammering non-stop even if they've got the negotiating power and already managed the good conditions, they still keep trying to squeeze everything possible out of the opponent. Perhaps the second case is the same character trait that is seen as high aggression, the irony being that the higher aggression brings less success.

career advice 2

For an example of a good career advice, I want to point to James Whittaker.  I've attended his classes "Career Superpowers" and "The Art of Stage Presence", which also are available as books. He is a great presenter (and hopefully a good writer too, I didn't read the book versions).

I wouldn't say that I've learned a whole lot from the class on Career Superpowers but that's because it largely matches what I already know from my experience. But I really liked it being presented in a systematic fashion, and I did learn some things (and perhaps I need to exercise more of following them).

Or you might say it the other way: maybe I've liked it because it matched my own thoughts so much. Either way, he's done quite a career, much better than me.

And that's one of his points: it makes sense to follow the advice of someone who know what he's doing and draws this advice from a success. Well, there are lots of caveats too. One, the career recipes are different by the times and by the industries. Following the advice of a CEO from the auto industry in the 70-80s won't help you in the software industry now. James's recipes are for the software industry, so if you're in the auto or financial industry, they might be a bad advice for your situation. The second caveat, you want to follow the advice of someone of who is analytical. Succeeding by following a good instinct is one thing but breaking this experience down into an advice that can be transferred to other people is a whole separate feat.

Friday, April 8, 2016

career advice 1

I went to see a book presentation by Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack on career advice for women in technology. And I think it's all bad advice. It's not that everything she said is wrong but even when she starts with something that makes sense (like "always negotiate"), the details end up as a bad advice. If women really follow the advice like this, no wonder that it would create the "gender gap".

I also have another story on the subject with another book, "Friend & Foe" which I think was also giving weird career advice. I wrote a letter to its authors, and after some editing of the personal details, it might be entertaining to publish at some point, as an example of what I see as the good career advice.

But getting back to this one, I've got a couple of interesting points that are completely separate from the advice as such.

The first one is that she was talking a lot about the "nerd culture": board games, videogames, cosplay, comics books and what not. She seems to imply a strong connection between the nerd culture and the engineering. Which I don't think is true. If someone is into the nerd culture, it doesn't necessarily mean that they would be good at the technical jobs, and if someone is good at technical jobs, it doesn't mean that they would be into the nerd culture. For the sake of the point, I don't think I'm into the nerd culture as described. I'm more into the real books, cooking, racecars, and lots of other small hobbies. Well, there are different opinions about this, as one of the girls I dated said that I'm so nerdy, but her reference point was different, she was really from a redneck background. I like to play sometimes at pretending being a redneck (you could say that it's my cosplay) but I really am not one by a wide margin and I know it.

Let me tell you an old Russian parable by Kozma Prutkov (a collective pen name of a group of writers): Once upon a time there was a gunsmith who had built a wonderful new rifle with great many features. With it you could clean a game, cook it, unfold the rifle into a table and utensils and have a very nice dinner. An absolutely great experience. This rifle had only one drawback to it: it couldn't shoot.

I really like applying this parable to everything. If we call something a rifle, the extra features might be nice to have with other things being equal, but first and foremost it must shoot. And to be a good rifle, it must shoot well.

Let's now apply this parable to the nerd culture. There seems to be a lot of pressure saying that if you're into the nerd culture, you should look for a job in engineering. And that to look for a job in engineering, you have to subscribe to the nerd culture. But in reality to look for a job in engineering and make a good career out of it, first and foremost you should be good at engineering. The nerd culture doesn't really matter: you can like it or dislike it or whatever, it won't affect anything. (And that's by the way is the real meaning of diversity in the good sense: as long as you do the job well, what kind of culture you belong to doesn't matter). This pressure causes the people who are into the nerd culture to go into the engineering. And some turn out to be no good at it and fail. And become very frustrated, they feel that they've done everything right, as told that they should do, and still failed (or succeeded only very moderately) for no explainable reason. There must be some evil forces at work!

But the real reason is that they've been given bad advice and the wrong kind of pressure. If you're good at drawing the comic books, or playing video games, it doesn't mean that you're any good at engineering. You might be good at both but there is no guarantee whatsoever. I'm fairly decent at engineering but I'm not any good at drawing comic books. If you enjoy drawing comic books and don't feel any particular attachment to actual engineering, perhaps a better career choice would be to go into something connected with the drawing of comic books, or with the drawing in general. If you're good at action videogames, this skill might be connected to being good at driving a racecar or flying a fighter plane but not much with the engineering. And the same bad advice works the other way around: some people would feel that if they're not into the nerd culture, they shouldn't even try engineering.

Another related thing is that there is a big difference between being interested in something and being good at something. I like racing cars but I understand than I'm no Michael Schumacher, so I don't even try to make it into a career. It's a hobby where I waste money, not make money. You don't get paid for being interested, you get paid for being good at something that is useful for someone. Being interested is something that gives you a push towards trying something, and stimulates you to spend time and effort on improving, but by itself it doesn't make you good. In reality when people get good at something they become less interested: after the skill gets learned it becomes "same old, same old", and the time comes to find some next interesting thing (or at least the higher more difficult level of the previous thing). And, well, the people who keep being interested but never become good, tend to try being around things they're interested in. And there is a big difference between doing things and just being around them. I think I've read a good rant by Steve Yegge about it a few years ago. But people who are around things don't really understand the difference, in their view they're in the very midst of activity. And when they're not appreciated that much compared to the people who do things, they don't understand why and feel frustrated. There must be some evil forces at work! I've learned from Tarah the new phrase "officewife", which describes someone who contributes to the social dynamics of a workgroup and say brings donuts but is not taken seriously for the work contribution. Which I think is a salient example for this paragraph. Of course, people can be labeled unjustly and incorrectly by social inertia, but this I think is where the phrase grows from. It's not limited to any gender, I've seen plenty of men in the same role.

The second point is that Tarah said that she is not afraid to be a bitch, and well, she really comes across as one. Or I better like a gender-neutral term she also used, as an asshole. No big deal by itself but there is an interesting connection: there is this widespread moaning (including in the book "Friend & Foe") that "if women try to be assertive, they're seen as bitches, while the men aren't". Or I'd rather say assholes because I don't see any gender difference. I mean, assholes are assholes, and there are plenty among men. There is a difference between being assertive and being an asshole.

What's this difference between "assertive" and "asshole"? I think a lot of it is about being analytical versus being blind to the world.  One thing is when someone builds the plans from the experience, then pushes to implement these plans, recognizes the feedback when something goes not up to the plan, and does the corrections. Another thing is when someone comes up with a load of crap and unloads it unto the wold, often being mean for no good reason along the way.

This is by the way the communist tradition of management by assoholism (for all I can gather, still popular in the former USSR, and also in the Arab world): if you're the boss, scream, make tantrums and abuse the underlings until they do something.

All kinds of prophets and proselytizers also tend to be major assholes. If someone had come up with The Great Truth and decides to blindly spread this Great Truth throughout the world, he is an asshole. But if he (or she) pauses sometimes to listen to the reasonable comments and objections, and think about this Great Truth, and give a reasonable response, and maybe sometimes modify the Great Truth, then perhaps this he or she becomes merely assertive.

To give another example, "I want this done because I said so" is an asshole, "I want this done because I see such and such good reason" is assertive. Or as yet another example, when you see a blog where the commenters get banned simply for disagreeing with the author, you can say for sure that the author is an asshole.

Circling back, to the second point,  it could be that the reson for "if women try to be assertive, they're seen as bitches" might be because they try to follow the bad examples, and there seem to be quite a few bad examples abound spreading bad advice. If someone follows the advice on how to become an asshole, they can successfully become an asshole and not even know it.