Navigating ambiguity is just one skill among many

Many jobs, especially professional jobs, have some rubric in which you are required to be comfortable with ambiguity, skilled in ambiguity, thrive in ambiguity, maybe enjoy it or love it. It makes sense. There’s a lot of unanswered questions out there, it’s not surprising that some jobs want you to answer some of them.

But there’s risk in holding this up as the standard of succeess, the single skill to grow in. I have been trapped, and seen others trapped, in very unhappy situations, either saying to ourselves “this situation is ambiguous, why aren’t I thriving?” or worse, having others say to them “this situation is ambiguous, why aren’t you thriving?”

Not all ambiguous situations are alike, and your expectation that you can navigate ambiguity, or even your experience of successfully doing it in the past, does not mean that you should either seek out or stay in ambiguous situations.

The key thing about navigating ambiguity: it is a useful skill, it is not the only useful skill. A situation being unusually ambiguous, or being more ambiguous than other places you could be, does not mean that it is the right place for you, a place where you need to force yourself to be in order to be the best you can be, or progress in your career, or make the most difference.

After all, what skills are you giving up or not using while you’re spending all this time navigating ambiguity?

Is there a reason for the ambiguity?

There’s an extreme version of wanting people to thrive in ambiguity that amounts to loving ambiguity itself, and creating it where it isn’t needed. Ambiguity can be necessary and good – the single worst mistake of my career was forcing a decision from a set of alternatives when the bad alternatives were a clue that I needed to spend more time exploring – but it’s stressful. Successfully navigating necessary ambiguity is different from “it’s all ambiguity all the time”.

Is resolving this type of ambiguity a skill you have?

Ambiguity can vary widely. Is this a defensible case or should I plead guilty? Is this skill one I should turn into an income or develop as a hobby or volunteer to teach to others? Is the wind going to move before the fire reaches here? Which of the two warring factions should I have tea with?

Your background, interests, training, support system equip you to navigate some types of ambiguity and not others. I can arrange a workable response team structure to an infrastructure software outage pretty quickly. I can design a passable fundraising strategy for your small not-for-profit and I have a bunch of general skills I can put to use in many situations.

But I am not remotely the right person to turn to in a humanitarian disaster to perform either medical or resourcing triage. I also have no experience navigating the changes in children’s fashion to figure out what your line should be 12 months from now. The mere fact that there’s ambiguity there and I have at times succeeded in navigating ambiguity does not make me an effective person in those situations. If you want to be able to navigate ambiguity better, play to your strengths in choosing what ambiguity that is.

Is resolving this type of ambiguity a skill you want to have?

Maybe you’re in a situation a little closer to your experience than children’s fashion futures are to mine, but still you’re not quite at home in this level of ambiguity. There’s more hurt, more money, more people involved that you’re used to.

Since ambiguity is a useful skill, perhaps this is a situation to stick around in, but you’ll want to have support. Do you have access to training, advice, mentoring? What’s the situation for you if you fail, or do a less than perfect job? Is there a way out if you decide it’s beyond you?

If not, again, you have a decision between whether navigating this type of ambiguity, with this level of difficulty, and this amount of risk, is the skill you want to be developing right now, compared to all the other things you could be doing.

Is this ambiguity one you have the power to resolve?

This is the big one. Regardless of how skilled you are in the domain, or how subtle your ability to draw out the opinions of others, if the structures around you don’t let you be part of resolving the ambiguity you’re going to have a very rough time.

For example, if you are in the midst of a humanitarian disaster, and you don’t have a network of local contacts, transport, communications, and, potentially, defence, there is likely a pretty low limit on what you can achieve even if you have coordinated other disaster responses.

A version software companies often run into is expecting new or junior or solo staff to be able to resolve major problems with the product or its infrastructure without access to hierarchical power (ie an inattentive, disempowered, or non-existent management chain) or a structure of intermediaries to work with. Being able to find and navigate the undocumented and hidden decision-making channels in these situations is a very useful skill but it’s not an easy one. Dragging something great out of this situation may not be a great use of your time and skills.

Navigate right on out of there?

There’s plenty of times that navigating ambiguity isn’t the right match for you, right now. Go ahead and navigate ambiguity by navigating yourself right out the door and into a situation with less ambiguity, different ambiguity, better help with ambiguity, or a focus on a skill that isn’t navigating ambiguity.

Book review: The Wife Drought

My quest to be a paid book reviewer remains stalled for two reasons: first, I’ve never once asked anyone for money to do a book review, and second, this book review comes to you express, hot out of the oven, fresh from the year two thousand and fourteen.

Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought: Why women need wives, and men need lives is titled and marketed on the old “women need wives” joke, ie, an adult in their home to make meals and soothe fevers and type manuscripts for free.

Crabb is also a well-known Australian political journalist — the ABC’s chief online political writer — who is best-known for hosting a cooking with politicians TV show, and probably next best known for her comic writing style, eg:

Right then. The parliamentary consideration of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has concluded. The nation has experienced the special thrill of watching its elected representatives fight like ferrets in a bag over a legislative clause even John Howard couldn’t get excited about, and can now dully register the fact that all this fuss has produced exactly zero changes to the clause in question.

Annabel Crabb, There is nothing free about Mark Latham’s speech, April 1 2017.

One or the other of the title’s reliance on the hackneyed complaint about women needing wives, or Crabb’s journalist persona, caused a lot of people I know to write off this book unread. The marketing runs with this too:

Written in Annabel Crabb’s inimitable style, it’s full of candid and funny stories from the author’s work in and around politics and the media, historical nuggets about the role of ‘The Wife’ in Australia, and intriguing research about the attitudes that pulse beneath the surface of egalitarian Australia.
Penguin Books Australia

I suggest you don’t write it off, at least not for those reasons. It’s quite a serious book, and Penguin has buried the lede: intriguing research about the attitudes that pulse beneath the surface of egalitarian Australia. The research is central to the book: Crabb did a lot of one-on-one work with demographers to extract answers to questions that no one had answers to about gender, work, money, and career progressions in Australia. Some of the findings the book contains are in fact new findings prompted by Crabb’s questioning of demographic collaborators (who are acknowledged by name, although not as co-authors).

I found two discussions especially interesting: the way in which Australia makes part-time work fairly readily available to women with young children and the many limits of that as a solution to pay and career progression disparities between men and women; and the evidence suggesting that, contrary to the widespread perception that men are hailed as heroes by men and women alike for participating in the care of their young children, they are actually discriminated against by their workplaces when they do so.

After that Crabb’s writing style is just an added bonus to keep you going through the book. If you’re going to read a demographic exploration of gender and labour in Australia in the 2010s, it’s certainly a nice bonus that it happens to be written by Annabel Crabb of all people. Instead, the major caution I would give is that it’s very middle-class in both point of view and content, without much discussion of that limitation; and is largely focussed on women partnered with men. Assuming that the work lives of middle-class women partnered with men in Australia is of interest to you, recommended.

Learning more about a remote working position

I’m in the process of wrapping up a long period of working remotely at least part-time from home, beginning in 2006 when I enrolled in a PhD program and continuing through my time at the Ada Initiative and at Stripe to this year.

My take on working remotely in future is really “it depends on the details” (and likely different details for different organizations). To that end, I contributed some suggested questions you could ask to Hypothesis’s Working remotely guide, which they’ve incorporated in a slightly edited form. Here’s my original questions; I’ve also added a few more at my end after some feedback from Andrew (himself a veteran of around seven years of remote work).

Introduction

Before you start working remotely at a new organization, you should explore how they structure remote working and if there are any expectations mismatches between you and the organization. A particular remote job may or may not be a match for a particular remote worker.

Important: I don’t think there is any one right answer to any of these questions. It’s a question of fit between your working style, the position itself, and the relationship of the position to the rest of the organization. But the answers are worth knowing so that you can evaluate your fit and make plans for effective remote working.

Sources of information

This entry has a lot of questions, too many for a “do you have any questions?” section of an interview. But you can use other sources of information to get most answers, especially about organization-wide questions:

  • the job description, and descriptions of similar roles
  • the organization’s website, particularly the About and Careers pages
  • the section of the employee handbook dealing with remote work
  • the LinkedIn pages or websites of your future manager and colleagues
  • longer, separate, conversations with your recruiter or hiring manager
  • your offer conversation or letter, or your contract

Some questions you also may only need to ask if you hear of concrete plans to make a change to the organization (eg, you learn that a new office is about to open near you).

Questions

How are you remote and who are you remote from? This post is using ‘remote’ to mean something like “most days, you are not in face to face contact with any colleagues.” But you should be aware of the details: will you be working without in person contact with teammates or with the wider organization almost all of the time? Do you have any colleagues in your team or your wider organization in your city or region, or who regularly visit? Will you work on any joint projects with them? Will you be able or be expected to sometimes work with them in person even if there’s not a permanent office space?

Separately, is in-person contact with vendors or customers part of the job?

Is your immediate team remote? Is your manager remote? Being a remote member of a team that is all working remotely from each other is different from a team which is mostly located in an office with each other. Likewise, being managed by someone who is in an office has some potential advantages (for example, access to information circulating through verbal grapevines, being able to access answers from colleagues for you quickly), as does being managed by someone who is themselves remote (a direct appreciation for experiences specific to remote workers, a personal interest in advocating for them).

How many remote workers are there at the rest of the organization? What percentage of teams you will work closely with are working remotely, and what percentage of employees overall are working remotely? Working as one of very few remote workers for an organization where most employees are in an office together is different from a mostly or entirely remote-working organization.

What’s the future of remote work at the organization? If the organization is mostly or entirely remote, are there any plans to change that? If the organization is mostly office-based, are there any plans to change that? If an office is likely to be founded in your city or region soon, will you be able or be expected to work from it?

You may be considering a job on the understanding that the remote work will be of very short duration (eg, an office is opening in your city in two months time). Is there any chance the time will be longer, and are you OK with that?

What is your manager’s approach to remote workers? How frequently will they speak with you and through what media? Will they expect you to travel to them? Will they sometimes travel to you? Have they managed remote workers before?

How long have there been remote workers for? Is the organization new to having remote workers or has it had remote workers for a long time and bedded down a remote working style?

What is the remote working culture like? Is most collaboration over email, text chat, phone, video conf, or some other means? Are there watercooler-equivalents like social IRC channels or video chats? How active are they? Are remote workers mainly working from home or from co-working spaces? Are there occasional team gatherings for remote workers to meet colleagues in person and are they optional or compulsory?

How flexible are the hours? Not all remote work has flexible hours; you may have mandated work hours, or core hours, or shifts, as in any other role.

Are the remote workers spread across multiple timezones? If so, are your team and closest collagues in your timezone or another one? Are you expected to adapt your working hours to overlap better with your colleagues? How are meetings and other commitments scheduled across timezones? Do they rotate through timezones or are they always held in a certain timezone? Are you ever expected to attend meetings well outside your working hours, and if so, how often is this expected and do your colleagues in other timezones face the same expectations?

What are the benefits for remote workers? Will the organization reimburse any of your remote working expenses, such as membership of a co-working space, home office furniture, or your home Internet connection costs? If you’re working in a different country from most of your colleagues, will you get equivalent benefits to your colleagues (eg, health insurance coverage)?

What are the travel expectations for remote workers? Are you expected to travel to headquarters or other offices or customers, and if so, how often and for how long? What are the travel policies and allowances for remote workers? How do these travel expectations compare to those of non-remote colleagues?

Sometimes you will be remote from an organization with an office or even headquarters in the same city as you. Will you be able or expected to visit the office? How often? Will there be resources for you (eg, hot desks, meal provisioning)?

What are the career progression possibilities for remote workers? As a remote worker in a partly non-remote organization, could you move into more senior positions over time, such as team leader, middle manager, or executive? Could you move into other teams in the organization, and if so, which ones? Are there some roles that are closed to remote workers? Match these answers to your own career goals.

What’s the training process like? Must you or can you spend a period of time in an office or visiting a colleague for training? Must you or can you do your training remotely using documentation, videos and similar? Will a trainer or colleague have some time assigned to remotely train you?

Is there support for first-time remote workers? If you haven’t worked remotely before, will the organization support you in learning how to work remotely, and if so, how?

See also

A very partial list of resources, focussing on individual remote workers and their experiences and strategies:

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Learning more about a remote working position by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Tech interviews, too much homework, and the motherhood question

There’s a fascinating discussion around technical interviews recently; would both candidate experience and hiring signal be improved by revising the current round of (basically Google-inspired) non-runnable algorithm-centric coding examples completed under time pressure?

I’ve been following Thomas Ptacek’s tweets about it for a few months, for example:

Then last week Julia Grace wrote A Walkthrough Guide to Finding an Engineering Job at Slack:

We’ve put a great deal of effort into designing our interview process so that it is comprehensive and consistent, and are working hard to remove as many points of bias as possible. To date we’ve found it successfully identifies people who will succeed here — those with a high degree of technical competence who also embody Slack’s values: empathy, courtesy, craftsmanship, solidarity, playfulness, and thriving[…]

We’d like to get an idea of how you write code in the real world, since we feel this is the best indicator of how you’d write code day to day here at Slack. Granted, the Slack codebase is larger and more complicated than any technical exercise, but we have found the technical exercise to be a good indicator of future performance on the job. There are great engineers at big name companies and at small ones, so this gives everyone a chance to shine independent of where they are now.

This varies by position, but generally you’ll have a week to complete a technical exercise and submit the code and working solution back to us.

Uncritical praise of take home exams started to ring alarm bells for me. I recall take home exams from university; one of my majors was philosophy, which tended to assign a long essay (eg, 4000 words) to be completed over 6 weeks or so, and a take-home exam (eg, 2 essays of 1000–2000 words) to be completed with a four day deadline. I moved out of a rural town to go to university and lived on my own. From age 19, I also financially supported myself. I loathed take home exams, because I was competing with people who would get the exam, go home, and work on it all week in the house they lived in with their parents. No job. No housework. (Admittedly, no self-imposed decision to take 125% of a normal course load every year for four years of university either, that one was on me.)

And that was before I had two children. I’m not at all excited about tech interviews moving to a model where I’m doing a huge amount of work in my own time, because I do not have a huge amount of free time. Anecdotally, I have already heard of people spending in excess of 20 hours on Slack’s coding exercise. Freeing 20 hours in a week is a non-starter for me, especially if I’m not a clear finalist for the job. Slack is administering these take home assignments prior to on-site interviews, and is a very sought after workplace; it’s quite possible their process will be widely copied and people will regularly be doing a couple of days of coding before in-person interviews, for many many jobs.

To be fair, I have also read through Steve Yegge’s Get that job at Google and estimate that, at my current levels of free time, it would probably take me a couple of years to complete the preparation he recommends. (I have an undergraduate degree in computer science and mathematics — the philosophy major was a separate degree — and a PhD in computing, but at this distance I am far from passing an exam in discrete maths.) But I also wouldn’t be required to submit work samples proving I’d spent that time.

I am also aware that other positions require extensive preparatory work for job interviews for senior candidates, such as preparing sample budgets or strategy presentations or similar, but it’s at least more common only to give such large amounts of work to later-stage candidates for the position.

Let’s not get uncritically excited about adding (yet another!) screen for “isn’t a mother of young children”. I am thrilled that Camille Fournier has made several similar points in Thoughts on Take Home Interviews (also available on her blog):

On twitter, a discussion ensued about whether asking people to spend time at home doing exercises didn’t itself cause bias, against those who did not have a lot of spare time to be doing take-home exercises. Julia mentioned that they expect it to take 2–4 hours, but admitted that some people got really into the project and spent far longer than that[…]

The creative take-home also seems likely to select for those with free time, because if it is really an exercise that some people want to overdo, they will overdo it and you will have a hard time not rewarding that enthusiasm (why shouldn’t you!). And while it’s ok to ask for a few hours, building something that rewards those who can spend far longer is likely to bias against those who have, say, kids to take care of after work and on weekends, or other activities that limit their free time.

Gaëtan Voyer-Perraul also notes in a reply:

If this thing catches on, then it’s going to become a gating mechanism for every developer job in existence. New grads will be faced with hundreds of hours of “take-home” work that goes into the same black hole as their resumés.

Also worth a read: Rod Begbie gives a postmortem of a take-home interview question he used to administer.

I’m excited about revising the technical interviewing process, which will require both experimentation and evidence. While experimenting, and as the tech industry actively seeks candidates from under-represented backgrounds, the ability of candidates to interview with your organisation without tens of hours of free time for take-homes in addition to time for on-site interviews should be a core design principle for your interview process.