December 11, 2019

Day 11 - When to Take a Chance on Someone

By: Annie Hedgpeth (@anniehedgie)
Edited By: Tyler Auerbeck (@tylerauerbeck)

The second week of Advent traditionally represents HOPE. This post is dedicated to those whose hope is likely in your hands - hope for a better life, hope to better support their families, hope to get out from under the crippling weight of debt, hope of having greater confidence to do things they know they can do if only given the chance.

When I first began my career move into tech, I knew it would be hard and that I’d need a few pieces of good luck along the route. I’ve had the luck I needed and have made it to the other side, so to speak. However, what has surprised me the most since the move is how infrequently what I did actually works. This is totally just my observation, but I’ve seen people successfully make the move maybe 1/4 to a 1/3 of the time. The biggest hurdle these brave souls need to overcome is in large part out of their hands; it’s convincing people to take a chance on them. This is way harder than you’d expect, especially when you have little to nothing in common with your interviewer.

This blog post isn’t for those searching for their first big break into tech, though. It’s for those who hold the power in their hands. Most of you, I would wager, want to be able to give someone their big break. The problem is that you don’t trust yourself enough to decide who would be a good candidate on whom to take that risk. Your heart is in the right place, but you don’t quite feel qualified enough to make a decision that puts your reputation and the company’s money on the line for someone who is a bit of a mystery to you. And this is why we largely hire people that look like us. We are obviously more familiar with people that are just like us. Therefore, if someone comes in who looks, sounds, acts, and has the same background as us, then we know what we’re getting. This, of course, is where we fall prey to having implicit bias and later hate ourselves for it.

Then how do you break the cycle? How do you bring a bit of humanity into the resume vetting process and into the interview room? How do you learn to understand humans more wholly? Regardless of what is or isn’t on a person’s resume, we need to see their humanity. Resumes are great at disclosing that information, so we need to figure out how they confront challenges so that we can begin to see them in the context of their whole lives.

The following are not interview questions. They’re simply questions to train you in to open your eyes to ways in which people’s different backgrounds could very well be an asset to your team. Think about these things as you meet people and begin to see how a person’s background can help and not hurt. Listen for clues of strength, character, hard work, and problem-solving in the stories that people tell you in your day to day life. You will likely relate to the humanness of these stories, but you are likely not used to equating those things to busines outcomes.

What do someone’s gap years say about them?

Most people think of gap years as something reserved for women taking off to raise kids, but let me tell you about a different scenario.

About ten years ago a friend of the family, Chris, was an assistant pastor at a medium-sized church in Texas (probably considered a large church anywhere else). He was wanting to get back into the corporate world as church leadership was taking its toll on him. He had been pastoring for about 7 years and was not able to get any interviews due to this “gap” from the corporate world on his resume.

My husband Michael, a software engineering director at NCR, however, knew this guy, knew what pastoring a church really meant (especially assistant pastoring, as you tend to get all the administrative duties) and what skills were needed for such a job. Many people who read his resume may have thought that Chris was on a sort of sabbatical or break and was taking it easy. His life was anything but easy. He was keeping a church afloat amidst a myriad of challenges. Not only was he being a successful leader, but he was also able to write several novels during that time (one being a very touching memoir about his father after his death). Chris’s years as a pastor enriched his life, grew him as a leader and mediator, and gave him skills he would have a hard time growing in the corporate world. He took a huge risk leaving the corporate world for church leadership. He took a harder path in search for of a bigger picture outcome that he was after. That says a lot about his character. He’s willing to do the more difficult thing for the more meaningful outcome.

While some may have read that these 7 years were a sort of sabbatical, my husband Michael knew differently. His company at the time was in need of strong product managers and that Chris was looking for a break. He took a chance on him first as a technical writer, and soon after Chris flew through the ranks into product management on an important new product within their portfolio. He is leading a successful career today in Georgia in product management thanks in large part to the skills he built as an assistant pastor.

What does one’s education say about them?

Personally, I have gone back and forth with whether or not to lament the fact that I got a film degree. If I had to do it all over again, would I? I don’t know, but let me tell you what it says about me in hopes that it sparks your curiosity about what other people’s non-technical degrees say about them.

First of all, neither of my parents went to college. My dad has an 8th grade education, and my mom graduated high school with my sister in her womb. They did not have the ability to coach me into thinking ahead or thinking about what would make the most sense. My mom’s only advice was to follow my heart and my passion (I have since read Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You and agree that this is misguided advice). Growing up as a hardworking creative type who loved writing and watched a lot of TV, I wrote scripts in my head all day long. Naturally, I wanted to be a TV or filmmaker. I knew that it was risky, but I just thought that I’d figure it out as I went. Do I regret it? Meh, I don’t know. Would I have done it differently if I had to do it all over again? Maybe, maybe not. I love all the knowledge I have stored up because I have an Art/Film degree with a minor in Theatre. I wouldn’t want to give all that up.

Today I can walk through a museum or go to the theatre and appreciate it and connect with it in a way that I don’t know would be possible without those years of study. Creativity is not a mathematical equation but a human pursuit. And because of that human pursuit, I’m a really well-rounded person who connects with people and sees deeper meaning and connections in things, largely in part because I hold artists like Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Jackson Pollock, Tom Stoppard, Baz Luhrmann, Ant Farm, and so many more in my heart and mind all the time! When I travel to see my client in Chicago, we have jubilant well-attended happy hours in honor of my travels because I genuinely care about people and humanity, and that draws people into connection with me that rarely exists in tech. I’m not just saying that to blow smoke, but it’s truly just what people have observed. I like that I’m able to bring something special like that to the table. It’s fun for all involved. And don’t you want someone that thinks outside of the tech box and brings somehting unique?

What does one’s reaction to change say about them?

When I was a kid and my dad drank away all of our rent and we had to skip town in the middle of the night, I experienced big changes frequently. We moved 13 times between the time of my birth and when I turned 11. Change was a part of my normal life, and there were several formative events that shaped me because of the things I determined in those moments. For example, one time in the mid-nineties we were driving down the highway in my dad’s 1972 Buick Skylark. It was primer gray with one gold fender on the driver’s side. He saw his friend pull up beside us, so naturally he decided to race his buddy down the highway. My sisters and I, teenagers at the time, were in the backseat with no seatbelts because it was an old car and they didn’t work. Our clover-leaf exit was approaching, so my dad hit the brakes and we went spinning onto the elevated clover-leaf. I honestly thought we were about to die spinning off of the bridge. When we finally came to a stop and I attempted to scold my dad for his irresponsible and unreasonable behavior, he laughed it off and told me I was over-exaggerating. In that moment, I determined to put my future kids’ well-being and sense of safety above my own - always. I dealt daily with challenges that were largely beyond my control. I hated not having control, so I developed a strong enough sense of myself by understanding what I could change. I resolved to have the better life that I desired and deserved. The challenges that I resented so much really helped me develop resilience, strength, and determination.

In a life where someone else’s rash decisions affected my day to day, I was led to constantly overlook my present circumstances in search of better ones. Over and over again, I was determined to make better choices for my life. I may not have known what the best choice was, but I would experiment and iterate until I found it.

When I grew up and had kids of my own, staying home with my kids was one of those experiments that lasted 10 years (speaking of GAP years!). I kept challenging myself to be different and be better. I taught myself new skills, like carpentry and how to fix small electrical problems around the house. I learned to bake bread from wheat I ground myself, make yogurt, buy produce from a local organic co-op, and was constantly iterating on parenting techniques. I learned all I could about healthy living for pregnancy, nursing, and raising kids. Constant improvement and growth was my path.

And today, in everything I do, technology included, my reaction to change is to learn more about my own potential and pursue it with abandon. I don’t seek to take the easy route but the one that will get me to the end that I want. Life is hard, but I can do hard things! I’ve proven it to myself over and over again. If a person came into my interview room with an attitude toward life like this, then I know that they will be successful at anything they do. Anything.

What are ways in which people deal with fear and struggle in their lives?

A byproduct of my upbringing was an overwhelming sense of shyness. I feared people to an unhealthy degree. Some of this fear was warranted as I was around some pretty questionable people growing up. Other times, it was simply my lifestyle that invited criticism. I remember one time in the sixth grade in the passing period a popular boy in my class passed by and said, “Hey, nice jeans.” I felt pretty good because they were my favorite Lee jeans that my Granny had bought for me the year prior for my birthday for $35! Then to my horror after a long pause he threw in, “High waters,” with a sly chuckle. It turns out I had held onto those jeans for a bit too long, without money to replace them, which led to being called out in front of everyone. The constant embarrassment over my situation at the time led me to being overly shy, a trait that actually wasn’t natural to me, but I wouldn’t realize that until much later.

During this time, however, I was developing this inner strength that knew that I had things to offer the world that needed to be shared. I couldn’t keep them inside any longer; the pressure was growing and growing to share not only my talents but my feelings. My two biggest outlets for creative expression when I was a teenager were singing and poetry. Instead of being paralyzed in my fear and insecurity, I felt the fear, acknowledged it, and moved forward with my expression anyway. It was the only way to be true to myself.

I moved past fear and insecurity and sang solos for my school choir and for my church, and I developed a strong singing voice that grew in passion and character as I shared it with the world. The shaky little voice of my youth turned into a strong soloist able to sing in front of thousands of people over the next twenty years. I was even able to use that voice and my growing extrovertedness as I grew my community by singing without fear or insecurity with my Chef friends at ChefConf over the years. Every show of confidence counts when you’re networking your heart out!

Similarly, a wonderful outlet for self-expression in my tween and teen years was poetry. I had some lovely surrogate grandparents in my life, one of whom was a professor of literature at Incarnate Word University in San Antonio, who took me to poetry readings at the university campus when I was developing my voice. I became inspired to write all the time. It was great therapy for me. I developed quite a strong voice for such a young girl, and was encouraged by the professor to keep at it because there was raw talent there waiting to be sculpted. I let the pain and hurt of the years of growing up with an alcoholic father spill through the lines of poetry until they turned into healing and resolution. Even as a young girl, something inside me felt that other people needed to hear these words, that maybe it would help them in some way. The poetry turned into journalling, and the journalling turned into blogging - raw, honest, and full of conviction - whether I was writing about lifestyle, parenting, budgeting, or later technology. I’m always honest and vulnerable with my readers because that’s my expression of humanity. I can’t help it.

And why should you care about that as an interviewer? You should care because it says that I’m honest and I care about helping other people. Yes, I’m a consultant, but it is not in my DNA to bullshit you. I just can’t. This is something that just won’t be conveyed in a resume alone.

That same writing voice today works through complex technical problems and shares them with compassion for the reader, empathizing with their struggle because sometimes tech is hard. I’m thoughtful to be sure that I explained it in such a way that my readers both understand and be able to use the information. And it’s beneficial to me as I cement my own learning along the way, just as my writing before benefitted me, too. Blogging about my learning and discoveries is the only way to be true to myself in the face of fear - fear of failure, fear of being an imposter, fear of looking dumb, fear of losing it all. I feel the fear and move forward anyway.

This is exactly why my life experiences make me well suited for devops. I envision myself to be a better person and do what it takes to be that. Shortly after I started my journey into technology, I was on a podcast with no business being there because I had a sense of urgency and knew I was better than I thought I was, so I acknowledged the fear and stepped out anyway. It started when I was sitting in the back of my dad’s spun-out car knowing I could do better with my life.


No one is single-faceted. We are complex beings with so many opportunities for growth every day. How do you find those people who take those growth opportunities and run with them? You can teach and learn the technology, but it’s much harder to teach and learn how to grow and adapt to change and be a good human.

When you’re facing that internal struggle of knowing when to take a chance on someone, seeing them as a whole person and assessing how they deal with life is key. If it’s someone who adapts to change and grows and loves people, then your risk goes way down. If it’s someone who is thinks and has a wide array of interests that they pursue with excellence, then the chances of them pursuing their job with excellence are probably pretty high, too. If it’s someone who looks like they have their shit together because they won’t be caught unaware, then that’s a good sign that they’re responsible and can probably be trusted to deliver.

My challenge to you is to grow this skill of detecting the humanity in people. Start by taking small risks until you trust yourself as you grow this skill. Your team needs it. Your company needs it. And these interviewees need it. They need you to be a better, more responsible gatekeeper into good jobs. You have the power to change their lives. You have a societal mandate to be better at this. You have power; use it wisely.

Thanks for reading! I’m honored to be a part of SysAdvent. You can find me on Twitter @anniehedgie, and find much more about my journey on my blog. Happy Holidays!


HybR1d said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HybR1d said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story!

Everyone strives to be perfect in school, delivering a task at work, aligning with the majority, having a perfect body etc. But the reality is that we miss that target 99% of the time. We feel shame. We are inadequate. We don't value ourselves. Our comfort zone shrinks.
But each individual is unique and their colors should be celebrated and embraced. That's where the real value (otherwise known as magic) is.

This is especially important now days, when we're rapidly losing the human touch and when we can't hold an eye contact for more than 3 seconds.