By the time this post is published I will likely be pulling into the parking lot at the Subway World Headquarters, ready to receive my employee badge. My time with Ascension Information Services, and possibly healthcare IT, has come to an end. I was content with my position. Many of my former co-workers were confused when I told them I was leaving but I was not unhappy. My decision to move on was motivated by decisions around how I wanted my career to move forward.
I spent three months deciding whether I could progress in my previous position and then another eight months job hunting. This extended search was not because of the economy or an inability to find a job. In fact, I turned down two positions that I was offered during that eight months and one of them included a 50% salary increase.
I was only with Ascension for a little over one year. I am not the kind of person that jumps around jobs often. In fact, I felt very bad about leaving. I did not have a contract but I still felt a little bit like I was abandoning my co-workers. Knowing that I would have to face this guilt, whether reasonable or not, I knew that I had to find a position that I could grow with and had the flexibility to expand my knowledge based on my personal career goals.
What do we need?
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological theory of human motivation. The premise is that the higher level needs are better motivators than the lower level needs.
Frederick Herzberg developed a variation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs named the Two-Factor Theory. This theory stipulates that, in the work place, employees are not motivated by the lower levels of the pyramid. The hygiene factors can reduce motivation if they are not satisfied but never increase motivation. Conversely, the upper two levels possess the real power of motivation.
I whole heartedly believe in the Two Factor theory. My position with Ascension met the necessary hygiene factors. This meant that leaving was a risk. Any time you find a new position it is a large risk for you and your employers. You might not end up being the right fit for the company and you might find that the company fails to meet your hygiene factors. If that happens then you jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.
What did I need? – Abstract
My career goals and path require that I constantly move forward. I intend to be my own bottle neck. We all have some biological cap that throttles the pace in which we can learn. There is only so much that is humanly possible. I want to always be the reason that I cannot accelerate. This means that I need to remove external obstacles and put myself into situations where I am expected to perform that levels which are higher than I can currently achieve. Then it becomes my responsibility to improve and grow to meet those expectations. This is how I attempt to maximize my potential.
With these ambitious goals, I need all levels of needs satisfied. This is why I could not continue with Ascension. My hygiene needs were being satisfied but I need to be challenged and I need room to fail and learn. I did not have those.
What did I need? – Explicit
Understanding the concept of self-actualization and motivators is a bit too abstract for a job search. I needed to translate high level needs into criteria for employment. In addition to knowing the criteria, I also needed to decide how I could measure these qualities during my job search.
Hiring is so risky for both the employee and employer because of lack of information. A quick read of a resume, a search of your LinkedIn and BinGoogle presence, and even a thorough background check provides very little information. Interviews can help you detect some red flags but, in the end, you are hiring someone who you do not know or you are being hired by an organization that you do not understand. There is no getting around this issue but I set out to mitigate as much risk as I could by looking for characteristic markers in all of my perspective organizations.
I take that back, the only way to get around this is with networking. Being referred by a trusted source and mitigate both your risk and that of the company’s.
Short or tall
The organization structure is important to understand. In every interview I asked the interviewer to draw the organization chart on the whiteboard for me. I wanted to know the complete path between me and the highest level executive. I also wanted to know how the teams that I may relate to broke out. For example, I wanted to know the team make-up for the server admins, storage admins (if separate), network admins, and developers.
The first trait I wanted to understand was whether the hierarchy was short or tall. I have worked in an organization with four levels; workers, managers, directors, and executives. I have also worked in an organization where five levels above me was the regional CIO and the chart didn’t end there. I couldn’t tell you how many levels there were to be honest, it was a lot.
Being short or tall, neither is inherently bad or good but they do present themselves differently. Typically the structure affects the culture, or maybe the culture affects the structure. It is kind of a chicken or the egg question.
What I am trying to evaluate with these questions is flexibility and who are the decision makers. This feeds into the company’s willingness to accept new or even unique ideas. I will discuss technological flexibility in another section. The key with the organization is to understand if you will be convincing your immediate supervisor to implement something new or do you have to push the argument up four levels.
Over my years as a DBA, I have found that a large barrier to change is person hours. When I analyze a company’s team make-up I first consider the size, do they have enough bandwidth to handle their current work load. Do they have enough bandwidth to take on more? Do they have enough bandwidth to fail? Failure costs time and possibly money. If a team is working at capacity then they cannot take risks, they cannot try something new or crazy because the time cost would actively discourage their innovative spirits.
I needed a team which was properly sized. I also needed support teams to be properly manned. As I mentioned before, I care about more than the database operations team. I care about the server admins, network admins, etc. If I have the time to implement something new but I need the developers to make some changes for it to be compatible, I need them to have the spare bandwidth to be able to help. Lack of auxiliary team bandwidth is the reason that I spent 30% of my last job’s time working on file movement software instead of working in the databases.
Current team size is important but what is more important is future team size. It is important to be able to trust that your team will maintain as long as the company maintains and grow at the same pace that the company grows. I attempted to measure this by looking at current team size and attaching company profitability to it. It might be a stretch but my theory is that profitable companies will have the funds and therefore be more willing to expand your team as they grow. They still might not but you can be certain that a company losing money definitely will not be growing the team. Cost cutting is the first step towards going out of business – paraphrase of John Hewitt (Liberty Tax Service Founder & CEO).
Are they innovators?
If I were to guess, I’d say that the late majority are still using Windows Server and SQL Server 2008 R2. SQL Server 2012 might even be old enough for that classification. I definitely do not know everything about SQL Server 2012 or even 2008 R2 but I needed a company who wouldn’t limit my scope of experience to only nearly deprecated versions rather than a mad dash to upgrade all Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server 2005/2000 servers because they are about to bump up against extended support.
Software version may only be a single data point but it can be very telling if the company resists change until they are forced to accept it. What is more important is how they react to ideas and projects. During my interviews I like to ask about their existing environments. This is useful information all by itself but I then pick out a potential flaw, whether minor or major, and propose a hypothetical scenario. I explore how they would react if I wanted to implement a 3rd party tool or change their backup schedules. Maybe I want to replace Ola’s scripts with MinionWare. What the project is does not matter, I am trying to gauge their willingness to consider a different solution. After seeing their reaction I then try to gauge their willingness to adopt said solution. Never do I declare that I would want to actually make this hypothetical a reality but I ask about the obstacles and who would need to be convinced. Having a specific scenario to talk through helps bring out details which will help me understand how open minded they are.
In my case, I was applying for fairly senior level positions where I would expect to be an influencer, if not a decision maker, regarding these issues. If I detect resistance or closed mindedness, I might reconsider accepting the position.
How do they handle being wrong?
Similar to the innovation point of view, I like to evaluate how open minded they are regarding their flaws. In this case the flaw can be real or imaginary. I’m not trying to be correct, the key is to identify how they react to a challenge. Again, having them explain their environment a bit will give you some ammunition for this one. With my interview at Subway I took a bit of a risk. In part of my interview I could have been called hostile or confrontational. I do not recommend this to anyone, it is very risky but I was fully employed and could afford to lose this job offer if it went sour.
I asked about their disaster recovery strategies and then immediately challenged it, declaring that they wanted to lose over an hour of data in a disaster. The tone and way I said it was a little less than professional. Under normal situations I would never talk to people like that but I feel that how someone reacts to hostility tells a lot about their professionalism, even if mine was lacking in that moment.
I am pleased to say that both of the interviewers impressed me. They handled the unprofessional comments skillfully and in a non-confrontational manner. In addition, they displayed a genuine desire to improve. They were willing to learn from me in the moment despite me giving them good reason to become defensive and/or dismissive.
Are they process mature?
Who likes process? Yeah, I didn’t expect a lot of people to go crazy over that one. Here is the deal, at the conception of a process the process has purpose and solves a problem. Many see process or regulations or governance as a burden or inefficient. In fact, they are designed as protection. This often happens as companies grow. In the beginning there are few processes because the company culture and incumbent workers know the goal and simply work towards it, with little guidance. As a company grows you hire more people and some of the incumbents move on. This muddies the cultural waters. The new hires don’t have the company values and goals soaked into their bones and the incumbents slow disappear over time. This leaves a company with people not following any central goals to accomplish their work.
Enter process. We then build processes and governance to express these values and intentions to everyone and build some enforcement around it. At this point, process is great. Where process gets a bad name is when that process fails to adapt with the times. Now you are left with inefficient processes which solve problems that no longer exist or maybe the solution no longer fits very well.
Basically, I’m saying that process is good but it has to be mature. By mature I mean, there has to be a process for updating the process, people are dedicated to re-evaluating the process, they all understand the process, and there is a constructive mechanism for giving process feedback.
These type of questions are easy to explore and will tell you a lot about the challenges that you may or may not encounter as you attempt to fit in with the company’s work flow.
I always ask about high-level decisions that have been made at the company. As a DBA, I care the most about Recovery Point Objectives (RPO) and Recovery Time Objectives (RTO). The biggest question is whether or not they have these defined. If they do, are they defined per system, per server, or as a blanket statement across the organization?
If they do not have these defined I throw a yellow flag and begin evaluating their understanding of the concepts. If they fail to grasp the concepts I would be concerned. If they understand but have not defined the numbers then I explore further to find out how open they are to answering these questions. I never mind fixing a problem at a new company, it is why they are hiring me, but I need to know that they are willing to let me help them solve it. If they would rather not define things like this, red flag.
Culture is one of the most important aspects but also the most difficult to evaluate. I read the company’s mission statements and other materials before going to an interview. I then ask them what they stand for. There is no wrong answer here but I like to see what scope they assume I mean. Some will recite mission statement. Others will give you their own words and the scope can be department level, company level, or team level. Some still will make something up that clearly sounds like BS.
This question alone doesn’t tell you much but further questions about the culture will help you understand the company silos. If they constantly talk within the scope of the team then they might not be used to considering the department or company as a whole in their day to day work. If they throw word-for-word mission statements at you, you might not see these comments as genuine.
On the other hand, I worked at Liberty Tax Service where their mission statement is, “set the standard, improve each day, and have fun.” Everyone I know at Liberty can give you countless examples of how Liberty upholds all three aspects of that statement. If your interviewer is reciting the mission statement, probe them for examples.
Outside of the interview I do my best to gauge the vibe of the office. As you walk around smile at a few people. See if you receive smiles back, note whether they were smiling to begin with. A couple of other people you should say, “How are you doing,” and stop walking. This is an awkward moment. Typically a quick greeting occurs without breaking stride. When you stop walking the other person has to decide whether to stop and answer you or answer on the fly. These only provide subjective evidence of office moral but I like to do them anyways.
When I interviewed at Subway I had all of the above thoughts in mind. When I got home that night I spoke to my wife and made a couple of declarations.
- If they make me an offer that does not result in a pay cut, I will accept.
- They are going to make an offer.
My first comment feeds into the hygiene needs. No matter how much I liked the people at Subway I would not accept a position which caused me difficulties with my hygiene needs. The second comment was not confidence, bravado, or a guess. I knew that they were going to make an offer because I had evaluated them as people who could see value when it sat in front of them. I know my value and I trusted in their ability to identify talent.
Identifying talent is another important aspect that I didn’t touch on because I didn’t come up with any test for it. A manager that can see talent and potential is a manager that will produce effective teams. Effective teams benefit everyone.
Remember the Two Factor theory of needs. Your hygiene needs should be criteria that can only rule a company out. When they are not met, do not even continue to look into them or see if you get an offer, just leave. If the hygiene needs are met, disregard them. A $10,000 bump in salary is not worth anything compared to the higher level needs.
Make sure you are challenged and the culture is one that you will enjoy being a part.