I can’t believe it’s been almost six months since I started my  job at ZS Associates outside of Chicago.  Where has the time gone?!  At least a half a dozen times I have started a post about what work is like and how different it is than what I was doing before.  But in reality, our move from the Philadelphia area to Chicagoland has had such a huge impact on our lives that it’s been hard to step back and reflect.  With the exception of Christmas, today is only my second vacation day since I started at ZS.  I spent yesterday at Legoland with my oldest, and today I’m using the time to catch up on … well, the whole rest of my life!

When I try to distill what the changes have meant for me on the work front, what I keep coming back to is the pleasure of being picked.  I chose my boss and he chose me, so there is plenty of mutual appreciation and respect.  I spent most of my career at SAP as a hand-me-down, and it’s just not the same as a mutual selection process where both people are appreciative and highly cognizant of the fact that there were other choices.  And I really enjoy being valued!  I think sometimes when you’ve been in one place for so long, people do take you, your energy, your talents for granted.  As much as I enjoyed working at SAP and I loved the team I left behind, I don’t think I was really valued and appreciated in the same way that I am now.

I have made about half of my new hires for the year, and I’m enjoying the process of building a team.  At the same time I remain super aware of what it is like for all the people working for me that I inherited.  I don’t pretend to know them well, or to understand what makes them tick … or to presume that they enjoy working for me.  I know all too well what’s it’s like to be a misunderstood hand-me-down.  The mutual appreciation and respect will (hopefully) emerge over time.  In the meantime, I am doing my best to make sure that members of my team don’t feel alienated by my arrival.

So, the change is good, but it is not easy by any stretch of the imagination!  The transition for my family  (into a new house, new neighborhood, new schools) is one thing.  And the new job is interesting and good.  But what continues to amaze me is how different the work culture is.  I frequently joke that I’m spending as much time unlearning as I am learning …

  • The two founders (Andy and Prabha) started ZS as an extension of their research and consulting work at Northwestern.  There is a strong spirit of intellectual curiosity, appreciation for the exchange of ideas, while at the same time a strong orientation to our clients (mostly pharmaceutical and medical device companies).
  • ZS headquarters are in Evanston, and our offices are in a building that belongs to the University.  Evanston is a city of 70K, but the area right around the university is very pretty, walkable, and lively.  There are lots of good places to eat, and the people watching is good too.  It was unseasonably warm a few weeks ago, and when I sent a spontaneous note to everyone in our team, I was able to get about 15 people to grab lunch and go sit on the shore of Lake Michigan for lunch. It was beautiful and fun!  SAP’s U.S. headquarters were on a beautiful, 350-acre campus, and in the Spring and Summer people often walked or ran on the trails around campus.  But we had to carpool to have an offsite lunch, which just isn’t the same!
  • The organization is a democracy.  The most critical company decisions are made by a select group of individuals who have earned partnership status in the firm due to their tenure and their contributions.  The Managing Director is elected by the employees.  The profits are re-invested and/or shared with employees, and when money is tight, the most senior people take  bigger financial hit, because they recognize the leadership and management is their responsibility.  I knew that being privately held would make a difference, but it’s been super interesting to see how it plays out in practice.  The only real downside I can see is that there is sometimes the need for a lot of lateral alignment before things can get done, and for someone new to the organization, it can be hard to discern who the actual decision-maker is (or if there even is one!).
  • My boss is a Principal and the Chief Technology Officer.  I can’t say enough what a pleasure it is to work for someone who is senior, seasoned, calm and understands the value and discipline of User Experience.  Oftentimes when I describe a problem, he’s able to use his experience to deduce what the root cause might be … which in most cases is consistent with my assumptions as well.  His experience at both Intuit (where he ran the Turbo Tax division) and Claris (which is/was the software division of Apple) have given him exposure best practices that we’re trying to bring to ZS.
  • The company is about 2000 employees, and there are about 120 of us in the Software Development (SD) group.  I really enjoy being around developers!   The individuals I’ve worked with so far are logical, calm, thoughtful, practical, easy to work with.  The men on my paternal side were engineers and scientists, so maybe it’s just familiar and comfortable … who knows!    I do know that (with the exception of situations where we have productive systems down) there are very few fire-drills.  I am sure that is not quite the same on the consulting side, but at least in SD we have a sense of urgency but very few emergencies.  As our product management organization gets more mature, I think it will become even more that way, since we’ll have a long-term, shared understanding of our goals and plenty of time to get prepared and manage expectations.
  • At least in part, that predictability comes from our growing commitment to work in an Agile way.  We have four main solution areas, and those development teams are at varying degrees of maturity around their use of Agile methods and processes.  The teams that are fully committed to it are doing well – both in terms of team spirit and their achievements.  And the other teams are trying.  Although there some challenges in bringing User Experience and Agile together (more about that in another post), in general I feel like Agile creates a healthy, positive climate for the developers (who represent the majority of the organization).
  • The composition of my team is also different.   When I arrived, I was given responsibility for managing several designers and front-end developers.  There were no researchers on staff (those are the positions I’m hiring for now).  At different points in my career at SAP, I managed an operations staff in Bangalore and in our U.S. offices, Solution Architects and Technical Analysts, Program Managers, and User Experience professionals.  I really miss having experienced program and project managers on staff!  But what I am getting into and enjoying is the management of experienced front-end developers, and in particular how it’s deepening my understanding of what it takes to make good user experience real.  In the end, that was one of my hopes in taking this job, so I’m really enjoying that aspect of my new role.
  • The layout of the office is very different.  We have a kitchenette (which we share with other departments on the same floor), including a refrigerator, microwaves, dishwasher, dishes and silverware.  The company supplies hot and cold cereal, milk, coffee, and an assortment of Snapple.  There is no cafeteria but there is such a nice selection of places to eat in Evanston that it’s just not necessary.  The main part of our floor is an open area with windows along one wall, where the developers sit in pods.  There are also a couple of tables and small seating areas where people sit together at lunchtime to talk, play Magic the Gathering, or board games.  There is a fair amount of interaction, but when they are deep in their own work, many of them work with headsets on, staring intently at their three (yes, three) monitors.   As people get more senior, they earn spots closer to the windows, shared offices, and eventually private offices.  A very few people (myself included) have private offices with windows.  I love love love having an office!  It’s the first time in my career, and I feel extremely lucky to have this beautiful space with three windows, a giant whiteboard (to the left off the frame in the photo below), and the ability to close my door when I don’t want to be interrupted.

  • One of the other things that is so different for me is having almost everyone I need to work with within a short walk of my office.  I will eventually have more members of my team in Pune, India, but for now everyone that works for me is based in Evanston, and we all come into the office five days a week.  Because there is just a little less craziness than in my old job, I have breaks in my schedule that enable me to walk around, stop in and talk to team members, and interact with many other members of the team.  That is so different fro my last team at SAP, where the majority of the organization was in Germany and/or India.  The U.S. team was a satellite team, and people worked remotely to varying degrees (somewhere between three and five days a week).  I did my share of complaining about the cubicles, and since a lot of my time in the office was spent in one-on-ones or team meetings, I spent almost all my time in the office in a conference room.  The upside of that was almost everyone that worked for me was in the office on the same cubicle row.  It was easy to check in with people in the morning, to spontaneously exchange ideas or see who wanted to grab a coffee or lunch.  So, I did see the benefits of that layout and I miss it to some degree because there is virtually no unplanned interaction with members of my team.  And, in reality the offices are not that quiet.  There is a fair amount of activity in the hallways and nearby conference rooms, and the walls are thin enough that if you really want to tune out the noise you have to listen to music.  Which I have been doing a fair amount at work, and I’m really enjoying it!
  • One of the side effects of both the pace and the co-location is that I have almost completely stopped using my Blackberry. I do use it to monitor email if I’m away from my desk for a few hours or out of the office for some reason, but it almost never rings for work, and I’m not chained to it the way I was before.  In fact, sometimes I forget to charge it because I have so little need for it!  In the past it was ringing all the time, and I had to keep abreast of email.  I also used it while I was in transit to handle issues with India and Germany (during my commute in) and with California (during my commute home).  As I and my team interact more with the consulting organization and with our end-user community, I’m sure that will change.  And of course as my team grows I’ll likely get busier and busier.

In the meantime, I am really enjoying my new role and the organization.  I also really appreciate the fact that it leaves me with energy and enthusiasm for my life outside of work, including my family and my hobbies.  At the office I’m working on new challenges with interesting people, and at a pace that allows me to be thoughtful and thorough about solving the problems in front of me.  I am looking forward to sharing more with you about my work and our current projects going forward!

8 Comments on “Picked”

  1. I totally enjoyed reading about your work. I know how hard has been with the move but I am glad you are enjoying your new job. The office looks ideal. I hope you accomplish your goals at work and at home . I wish Steph could find her place but that will take time. I love you. Joanne

  2. Great article that I really enjoyed. In fact, the only enhancement request that comes to mind is using a picture that isn’t quite so graphic ;}}

    • Thanks Bill, glad you enjoyed it! Yes, I also thought about using a picture of my own kids, but felt that was TMI (too much information) about what goes on at my house. 🙂

  3. Natalie, how enlightening it is for me to see how you respond to a new work environment after so many years at SAP. I had a very similar experience, finding good and bad in my new work situation. Well, believe it or not, I was lured back to cubicle land. At least I have one in a quiet place (Germantown, how funny is that?) looking out at greenery.

    • Elke – I had no idea you were back at SAP, that’s funny! Glad you’ve found a new role where all your great background and skills will be leveraged. Who knows … I might end up back at SAP, too, someday. I certainly don’t harbor any ill will – it is a great company and a good place to work. It was just time to try something new, and I’m enjoying the learning and growth that my new role affords.

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