|The Leading Source for Global News and Information Covering the Ecosystem of High Productivity Computing / September 15, 2006|
You've been through 12, 16, maybe even 20 years of education, and after countless lectures, projects, tests, and late night cram sessions you are finally ready to start your career. You've been taught what you need to know, and now you just need to start doing it. Right? Probably not.
The education that most of us got after high school centered on the technical skills we'll need to get in the door at a new job. But very soon after you start your career you realize that products and projects aren't finished by individual contributors. This change happened in other parts of IT a lot faster than it has happened in HPC, but it's finally true in HPC as well. Technology today is simply too complicated for one person to start and finish a significant project on their own. Getting things done takes teams of people, and your success depends upon successfully working with others to reach a common goal.
What I'm talking about here is leadership. And it matters to you, even if you don't want to have your name on a parking spot some day.
Thanks to thousands of years of social conditioning we think in hierarchies. If we aren't at the top of a hierarchy then we don't exert our leadership because "it's someone else's responsibility." But leadership is not about titles, fame, money, power, or position. It's about followers. A person is a leader because other people follow the example he or she sets. It really is that simple.
Being an effective leader is good for your career in the trenches or in the board room
Even as an individual contributor or small team lead, you care about what you're doing and you'd like to see things done the way you think is best. Developing leadership skills will help make that happen. As a person who builds teams I cannot tell you how much I value -- and how rare it is to find -- people who can see the big picture and know the part they play in it. Developing your leadership skills can help you make sure that you can be successful doing the things you love, even if you never want to manage a team larger than yourself.
In addition to adding a secret weapon to your Ninja Worker arsenal, developing effective leadership skills can also get you into management faster if you want to go that way. Pursuing a management track isn't for everyone. But if it is for you, mastering leadership skills is one of the fastest ways to promotion.
Let's look at a few ways that you can start developing your own leadership skills right now, even if you're just starting your career in HPC.
1. Seeing the big(ger) picture
One of the most common traits that employees lack at the beginning of their careers (and sometimes later on, too) is perspective. Most of us are confronted each day with more things to do than time to do them. A key to your success -- and the success of your entire team -- is recognizing which things are important enough to take priority and actually get done. In order to do this you've got to be able to see the bigger picture.
Try to understand how what you are working on right now fits into the picture at least two levels up from you. You might "just" be working on a piece of software to write out the new output file format, but if that piece of software is needed before your lab can send out results for peer review in advance of some new missile test, you need to be totally focused on getting that work done.
2. Understand what could be better today
A trait most often desired in strong leaders is vision: the ability to look around and see how things could be, not just how they are.
Developing a vision that is powerful enough to inspire others while remaining concrete enough to actually accomplish takes practice. You can start getting that practice right now.
Look around at your work environment, tools, and processes. Ask yourself how could things be better? What one change could you envision that would make you more productive? Or more relevant to the company? How about for your whole team or division?
You want to be careful here, especially at first. You might get fired up about some of your ideas and want to run straight to your boss and fill him in on all the great stuff he should be doing. There are often reasons that things are the way they are, and you or your boss may not be able to change those things right now. For example you might all be able to work together a lot more effectively if you all shared a single large office. But many supercomputer centers are Federal facilities and have to follow Federal rules about mixing contractors and government employees. Doesn't necessarily make technical sense, but there is a reason that you don't already share one large office, and it's a reason you probably can't do anything about.
The key is to take the time to do the thinking. Then, as time goes on, look for appropriate opportunities to share your ideas with those around and get their feedback. Then, when you're at that staff meeting and out of the blue the boss says "How can we make things better?" you'll be ready.
Take responsibility for your own actions. For example, when someone compliments you for a job well done, accept their thanks or congratulations humbly. By the same token when you make a mistake, don't make excuses or try to avoid the blame. If you submitted 1,000 one processor jobs all at once, swamped the queues, and kept the machine from running large jobs over the weekend while it backfilled with your jobs, then own up to it when someone calls you on it. Or better yet, go find the people you inconvenienced and apologize. Admit your error, learn from it, and don't fail in the same way again.
4. Recognition and reward
We all like to be recognized for our contributions. But this recognition doesn't just have to come from the boss. When a coworker meets a milestone or stays all night to pull the team out of a jam, say "thanks" or give a word of congratulations. It doesn't have to be fancy or formal. It's enough simply to acknowledge that you recognize the value of what your teammate has achieved, and to let them know that you appreciate what they've done.
This is a great habit to form early in your career, and giving this kind of peer support also provides a low penalty learning environment to discover what kinds of praise and recognition people respond best to.
One of the most valuable aspects of leadership is the strong desire to help others reach their full potential. But, again, you don't have to wait until you are the boss to start practicing this.
As you learn and develop, look for opportunities to pass your skills on to others. For example, let's say it took you several weeks to get comfortable with your team's configuration control system, and this is something that every new employee on your team is going to have to master. Would it be valuable for you to spend a little time and create a one-page quick study guide? How about spending a few hours with the new guy to get them over the hump faster than you were able to get over it on your own?
Helping others develop is immensely fulfilling, but it's also great for your team and can help establish you as a trusted expert with your peers and a valuable leader to your boss. Just don't spend so much time helping others that you don't get your own job done!
John West is the director of a Top 20 supercomputing center and author of The Only Trait of a Leader (www.onlytraitofaleader.com), a book and blog about leadership and career skills for technology professionals.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
www.onlytraitofaleader.com Leadership and career skills to help scientists, engineers, and technologists find success doing what they love to do. No time to keep up? Subscribe to the RSS feed!