Episode 119 – Feed Your Curiosity and Learn How to Look After Your Mental Health in a High Pressure Workplace with Sonia Cuff
Phil’s guest on today’s show is Sonia Cuff. Sonia has been working in the IT industry since 1995, in various roles and was awarded the Most Valuable Professional by Microsoft. For many years, Sonia ran her own business which helped all kinds of businesses to adopt new technology. She is a conference speaker, blogger and author. Today, she works for Microsoft as a cloud advocate.
(1.02) – So Sonia, can you expand on that brief introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Sonia explains that when she got started in IT, she had to learn everything on the job. In those days she was working on Office 365 and productivity and went on to get involved in virtual CIO consulting, as well.
Last year, she joined Microsoft and is now one of their Cloud advocates. In that role she is involved in working with IT communities, helping them to figure out how to make their lives easier. Primarily by showing them how to run the stuff they normally do in a hybrid or cloud scenario. It is a role that she really enjoys.
(2.28) –Phil asks Sonia to tell the audience more about her developer advocacy work which is a part of this role. Sonia explains that Microsoft has been running an advocacy program for some years now. They have been reaching out to developers regardless of what language they work with. Their approach is to go to wherever people are programming rather than just stick to working with Microsoft user groups.
Her team focuses on interacting with these communities and getting feedback. They want to learn what’s tripping developers up and how Microsoft’s products can be improved. This information is then fed directly back to product engineering.
It enables them to improve their products. Importantly, it also identifies new products that need to be developed. Developer advocates take feedback and inspiration from numerous sources including conferences, talks and blogs.
(4.43) – Phil asks if that role has given her a new perspective on software development. Sonia says that it has and that she is noticing a lot of common threads between different areas.
(5.16) – Phil asks Sonia for a unique IT career tip. Sonia comments that the further she has gotten into her career the more she has realized that the simple things are true.
For her “always be learning” is the tip that sticks in her mind. She has tried to do exactly that and feels that taking that approach has really paid dividends for her career.
Sonia is not a programmer, but does not let that stop her from working to understand as much as possible. Today, she still can’t write code from scratch, but knows enough to be able to look at something like PowerShell script and understand what it does.
Even after 20 years, Sonia still finds herself having to learn new things from scratch. But, she feels comfortable with that. In fact, that is why she loves working in the industry. She enjoys being challenged and the fact that she is always being challenged and learning.
(7.00) – Sonia is asked to share her worst career moment with the audience. Sonia starts by explaining that she ended up turning her worst career moment into a talk, which she delivered at Microsoft Ignite, Florida, last year.
Her worst moment happened when she was spreading herself too thin. She was so stretched that she seriously considered jumping on a plane, leaving the country and not telling anyone where she had gone, including her family.
She knows that she is far from the only IT professional to find themselves reaching breaking point emotionally and mentally, like that. Sonia has also realized that talking about this experience is important because it can help the IT community as a whole.
(8.15) – Phil asked what she learned from that situation. Sonia explained that, these days, she ensures that she makes her colleagues and manager aware of her workload. In the IT industry, there is a get things done, no matter what it takes culture, which can sometimes be detrimental and put people under too much pressure.
She is also careful to make time for important things outside of work. For example, going to the gym or walking the dog. These two activities help her to switch off from tech, clear her head and get the beneficial endorphins flowing. Basically, doing this helps her to get the work-life balance right.
Sonia does not believe you can achieve perfect work-life balance every week. But, you do need to strive to do so over the long term. Inevitably, you will find yourself under pressure some weeks. But, you must make sure that does not go on so long that you do not get time to unwind and take care of your personal life.
Phil agrees he has found it to be more about integration. He describes it as being about how you fit all of the pieces of your life together and make it work for you.
(10.28) – Phil asks Sonia to share her best career moment. Right now, that was getting the chance to give her speech at Microsoft Ignite. When Sonia gave her talk, the response was extremely positive. She had people coming up to her straight afterwards, in the corridor and talking to her on social media.
From there, things have really snowballed. She has travelled to Australia, the USA and head office to talk to different groups about mental health in IT.
Microsoft’s response to the issue of mental health problems has been very positive. They have taken it on board and are clearly passionate about helping.
The fact that so much has come out of giving just one speech is fantastic. Currently, it is Sonia’s career highlight.
Landing her dream job at Microsoft is her second best moment. She still gets a buzz from arriving at a Microsoft office and discovering that her blue badge lets her in the door. It thrills her every time.
(12.43) – Phil says that he believes that companies like Microsoft now understand that mental health issues are a problem within the industry. They are taking this more seriously.
Sonia agrees, but, thinks some firms are still struggling to reach out to employees and ask them what do we need to do to support you? The problem is that these sorts of conversations still have not been normalized.
Also, there is still some stigma surrounding the subject. People need to feel that they can share the fact that they have had a bad week and are under stress with their colleagues. Most people do not do this. Mostly because they feel that they will get a black mark against them for admitting that they are struggling.
This is why Sonia believes that it is not enough for the company owners and management to change. Individuals need to do so too. The culture has to be changed one person at a time. Everyone has to be supportive and be open about their issues too.
(14.33) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? Sonia really enjoys the fact that things are always changing, even more so than years ago. She feels that the pace of change has accelerated, drastically.
This is especially the case when it comes to Cloud platforms. Today, the platform owners are very much in control. As a result, they can change things whenever they want and do so as often as they want.
Sonia says that she is looking forward to seeing more self-healing systems. She believes that in the not too distant future AI will remove a lot of the more mundane tasks.
(16.31) – What drew you to a career in IT? Sonia’s path into IT was far from typical, it certainly was not planned. One day, she was asked if she wanted to join the IT department. The guy she was seeing at the time was located there at the time. She ended up saying yes, and discovered she had an aptitude for the work, the rest is history.
(16.51) – What is the best career advice you have been given? Strangely, the best career advice Sonia has ever been given was “pace yourself”. It is good to be enthusiastic about your work, but you need to make space for the rest of your life too.
(17.24) – If you were to start your IT career again, now, what would you do? Sonia jokes that she kind of feels like she is starting her IT career again, because she is learning so much new stuff, at the moment. But, she goes on to say that she would probably focus on PowerShell and automation, if she was brand new to IT.
(17.42) – Phil asks Sonia what new objectives she is focusing on. Sonia is currently trying to work out how to have the most positive impact on the IT community. Currently, she is trying to measure whether blogging, engaging in forums, social media or public speaking is best.
(18.09) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Sonia feels that being a parent has helped her the most. This is because you have to deal with the fact your kids do not always want to do what you want them to. So, you have to find ways of persuading them. That means taking the time to explain things to them and you have to be able to do so in a way that they can understand. Being a parent hones all kinds of skills that come in handy for your career.
(18.42) – Phil asks Sonia to share a final piece of career advice. Sonia says that you should remember that IT is a big industry. There are so many things you could be doing, within the sector. So, there is no need to be afraid to dip your toe into a different area. There is nothing stopping you from experimenting and changing direction, to see what fits.
(5.26) SONIA – “The further on you get down your career; you realize that the simple things are true.”
(6.51) SONIA – “You need to get comfortable with the fact there’s there will always be things that you don’t know. And that’s an exciting part of the industry.”
(12.47) PHIL – “Mental health is something that’s gaining more visibility. And I think companies such as Microsoft presumably are, taking it more seriously”
(19.15) SONIA – “Don’t be afraid to dip your toe into a slightly different area of tech, even within the infrastructure area. Just see what fits.”