Flocks Focus Fuel

By Sheila Isbell

Sheila Isbell

Sheila Isbell

Career building for me is about flocks, focus and fuel. Are you familiar with the saying, birds of the same feather flock together? I am a big believer in keeping a good flock. Keeping a flock of peers, mentors, and future tech leaders nearby helps with past reflection, present pacing and future goal setting.

I have especially found great help in connecting with women mentors. Career building requires mentors; Technical, business, personal, male, female, married, single, local, remote, formal, and…quite informal. And when I say quite informal, I mean Tech Idols. People in the industry I may not know personally, but I follow their careers for inspiration. When mentors share the challenges they have face, lines they draw, and nuggets of knowledge and truth; it is priceless and often timely. The best mentors are the ones that challenge you, ask the hard questions, help keep your story straight and view your flaws as opportunities for growth. Along with keeping a good flock, career building must be a time to focus. It is about pulling the story together more concisely. Earlier in my career, there was a lot of learning and leaning forward in opportunities as they were presented. Right now, I have a better idea of what I truly love to do, how the projects I work on and efforts I volunteer for connect, and a stronger sense of the interactions and intentions of my associated communities. If my very early career was planning and design, I’m in implementation right now. With all that is going on, career building requires fuel. My favorite interview question to ask a potential hire is: What keeps you up at night? If they don’t have something (that isn’t TV or video games), there is cause for worry. Building a career path is about finding the problems that fuel your technical desires and personal passion, followed by the full pursuit in solving them. Finding fuel provides focus. Flocks keep you afloat. For me, my fuel is the application of technology to improve health information access and promote engagement within underserved communities.

Currently in my career, I am building programs, growing partner relationships, managing teams, and securing funding for project growth. I am able to do this at Georgia Institute of Technology (GT). The university has an applied research arm, called Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) where, as a Research Scientist in the Information and Communication Laboratory, I can be an entrepreneur in a research environment. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work in research institutions, to share grounds with experts in the field; people whose papers, textbooks, talks, and articles I’ve studied. To call them my friends and dare to say we are colleagues. In recent years, I made the transition in role from software developer to project manager. While I miss some aspects of just coding; I am able to maintain my role in designing solutions: in asking questions and thinking critically and creatively. However, in order to provide solutions in a crosscutting area like health information technology, finding and working with partners is essential. Partnering with social science, clinical, public health, and technical researchers who face similar challenges and want to solve the same problems is invigorating because I know we are on the path to affecting the change that fuels me.

Along with career building come challenges. The bulk of which can be categorized under two areas: pains from growth and strains from diversification. The pains from growth were due to the increase of career responsibilities for both me and my partner, along adding two wonderful members to our family. At the same time, in order to further with my career opportunities, I also returned back to school for my advanced degree in Computer Science at GT. I also began working on an international project that took me halfway around the world a couple of times a year. In the 2011 Grace Hopper Conference Keynote Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook had challenged us to ‘Lean In’ but many times, I was on the brink of tipping over. It was so busy; our decisions were more reactive than proactive. Padmasree Warrior of Cisco in the Anita Borg Institute 2009 Women of Vision Keynote speaks about work life integration rather than balance. Balance implies that things are at odds. Integration is more holistic. I didn’t have balance and I’m not claiming I have integration now, but it is something that I am working on. The other set of challenges could be categorized as strains from diversification. Starting up a new focus area within an organization that traditionally does not align with the work or sponsors or culture of community-focused health information technology was a challenge. The faces of my colleagues contorted when I described “warm fuzzy” human problems, instead of purely algorithmic or technical. We had differing definitions of ‘hard’. Jim Gray once said ‘May all your problems be technical.’ With health communication projects, people and policy integration is a large part of system integration. Successfully managing that – is hard.

From early to mid-career, three major skills helped me find my fuel, keep my focus, and mind my flock. Those skills were not programming languages, platforms, or public speaking. They were skills that I learned when I was fairly young and can be found written on my whiteboard above the Dry Erase to-do’s and diagram scribbles so that I won’t forget:

  1. Ask questions. Ask questions of yourself, ask for feedback from your peers, ask for advice from supervisors, ask for the lesson from the failure, ask for the why not to the cannot, ask for help when you know not. But it is not enough to ask questions. You must take action. Next is follow-up.
  2. Follow-up. A plan must be created, even if it’s just a thought on a post-it note or a voice memo on your phone or an email to yourself (I do that A LOT). Don’t just follow-up on work tasks: follow-up in your relationships by participating in your communities in person and on social sites. Follow-up on taking care of yourself. Follow-up with purpose and sometimes…with apologies.
  3. Be Particular. Following the completion of my undergraduate degree at Clemson University, I began moderating book clubs as a social outlet. In one book, there was a character that had a parting phrase: Be Particular. Not goodbye. Not see you later. Not nos vemos. Be particular. If there is one last thing to impart, may it be that.

There are many of important choices that must be made in one’s professional and personal life. In making those choices, I am challenging you to mind your flock, keep your focus, find your fuel, and in doing so, be particular.

4 thoughts on “Flocks Focus Fuel

  1. Sheilah Dallas says:

    I really enjoyed your article. I believe in good flocks too. One really needs to pay attention to whom you are following. Listen to what they are saying and doing. Make good choices for your goals.

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