Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Running Diary: The college speaking gig

I have shocking news: Pizza attracts college students.

I know, you're probably thinking that pizza and beer would do better, but I couldn't exactly justify an alcohol expense for an official company visit to a college, now could I?

My boss has teleworked from Vermont for about 15 years now and is an active alumnus of the University of Vermont, having chaired the advisory committee to the school of engineering. When she had her staff out to the Trapp Family Lodge for the second year in a row for a multi-day planning meeting, we had the idea that I could come out a day early and do a talk at the university. I also did some interviews while I was there as well, following up from my University of Wisconsin job fair experience a few months ago in an attempt to be active in company recruiting.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I worked closely with some very nice folks at the UVM Career Services department (ask a Vermonter to explain why "VM" is the correct initials for the school) and the chair of the Computer Science Department. I was given an hour in a conference room and some in-class advertising. A few people emailed me resumes ahead of time who were interested in interviewing after the event was over and I was told that about a dozen people would show for the talk. Given that there were 80 students in the department, that wasn't too bad a number, really.

When it came to the room selection, I neglected to follow my own advice on appreciating the perspectives of others. The department chair insisted the talk take place in his main building instead of at the career center. I was willing to do whatever they wanted me to, but I didn't understand why it was such a big deal to walk across campus for a talk. Then I got there:




This was not the 60F temperatures I enjoyed in my college days in San Diego. The UVM campus is charming and many of the buildings have a beautiful colonial style you just don't see outside the New England area, but it was freaking cold. Now, I admit to being a weather wimp having been raised in California, but the morning wind chill was -15F that day. Hence, the reluctance to walk across campus.

The more speaking I do to completely cold audiences (as opposed to presentations I do for my normal work experience where I usually have a relationship with half the crowd already), I'm discovering that a key is to warm up the crowd a bit with informal conversation before the structured talk begins. I did this in my recent trade show presentation I did with Slawek and found it worked well here too. There was 1 student in the room already when I arrived and engaging him in some small talk seemed to gradually ease everybody else who came in into the setting.

I suspect had I just sat there and waited to start until everybody came in, I would have come across as stogy and condescending. But because I got a chance to talk to a lot of people and just be myself before presenting any material, I think it relaxed the atmosphere quite a bit. That and the pizza, of course.

Starting out, I did about a 15 minute spiel about what my schooling was and what we studied back in the day (lots of C programming, the cool kids were doing object oriented stuff with C++), how I had been lucky enough to land in a place out of college that turned out to be on the forefront of web development, and how that enabled me to grow into my current role with an important sounding title (stressing, as always, that it sounds a lot more important than it is). I talked a bit about what HP's web architecture is like and then took questions.

It went exceedingly well. Inquiries ranged from what I thought of web development techniques today to the importance of testing to what big company life is like. I plugged the idea that soft skills are important and specifically recommended Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home to people. We went so long that we got kicked out of the conference room and about half the audience followed me to another room so the session could continue.

It was there that I got the best question of the day. One student wondered how much latitude people are given in coming up with their own solutions. Are we given the problem and are allowed to solve it any way we want to or are their restraints on what you can do? The example he gave was with what programming language he could theoretically use if he were working for me, as he was a big LISP fan.

When I told him that there are limitations involved in those kind of choices for replacement resource reasons (when he leaves or gets promoted, now I have to go find a LISP knowledgeable replacement which aren't nearly in as high supply as a Java developer might be), he remarked that it seemed a bit too restrictive. I took that opportunity to tell one of my favorite engineering stories, on how restrictions led to creativity when building Disneyland's Haunted Mansion.

I felt good about how the session went and so did the department chair. My boss and I had dinner with the dean of the school of engineering and he seemed satisfied as well. My hope is that I get a chance to do more of these in the future.

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 5:55 AM   0 comments links to this post

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