Episode 175 – Learn to Develop Empathy and to Constantly Challenge Yourself to Become a Better IT Professional with Neil Killick
Phil’s guest on today’s IT Career Energizer podcast is Neil Killick. He is a Lean/Agile software product development practitioner, who also coaches.
Neil has used Lean, Agile and Scrum working methods in most of his roles. Currently, he is working as a consultant with a focus on digital business and UX analysis. He works to foster great team practices and deliver software flawlessly.
Neil is also an experienced keynote speaker. He has delivered talks at Agile events, across the world.
(1.10) – Can you please tell us about your involvement and focus on Agile, Scrum and so forth. How did you get into that? Right from the start of his programming career, Neil had naturally worked in a way that fitted in with Agile. So, when 15 years into his career he came across Agile principles adopting them was really easy for him.
His interest in Agile coincided with him taking on a programming role in a Scrum team. So his interest in Agile and Scrum started around the same time.
(2.35) – So do you see yourself as a bit of an evangelist when it comes to Agile and Scrum and Lean and so forth? At the start, that was probably the case. Naturally, Neil still writes about those topics and gets quite heavily involved in problem-solving for practitioners. Today, he is more of an advocate than an evangelist for those working methods.
(3.52) – When we were chatting earlier you also mentioned, it’s about the outcome as much as anything else. Neil agrees that is true. He started his IT career with IBM, which meant that, right from the start, he was used to solving problems for customers.
Neil has never simply implemented what was passed down the chain. He has always tried to first fully understand the problem his customer is trying to solve. When he started working in the IT industry programmers were expected to analyze the problem and come up with the solution before sitting down and starting to program.
Ironically, the rise of Agile has resulted in developers being kept apart from customers. Business analysts look at the issue then tell the programmer what is needed.
(4.56) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Neil’s advice is to experience as many ways of working, languages, and platforms as possible. You have to grow to stay relevant when working in the IT industry.
He has moved around a lot in his career. The maximum time he has spent working anywhere is about 3 1/2 years. This approach has ensured he is always learning and never gets bored. His advice is for others to do the same. Or, if they do want to stay with a single company to step up and take on other roles. Simply, drifting along, doing the same thing is not going to be good for your career.
Periodically, you need to pause, think about what you are doing and change things up as soon as your career starts to stall. That can easily happen without your realizing it. Often, it is not because of laziness on your part. Sometimes the needs of the business nudge you into this situation. Either way, it does not matter. You need to get out of that rut and keep on learning.
(9.11) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Over the decades, Neil has worked in all sorts of businesses, including quite a few startups. For the most part, this has worked out well for him.
But, he did make a serious mistake, at one point in his career and ended up working for a firm that lacked direction. They spent a lot of money on hiring the very best developers but kept on switching focus. As a result, Neil and his team would frequently be part way through a project only to be told to throw it all away and start again.
This way of working was frustrating for everyone. Inevitably, it ended up creating a toxic work environment. The developers ended up never actually producing anything. This was because the leadership kept cancelling things. But, somehow that was forgotten and the development teams started to be seen in a negative light.
To solve the perceived “problem” a team of traditional project managers was bought in. Ten minutes into the first hands-on meeting, the Agile way of working was scrapped. Worse than that, the decision had clearly been made before the first meeting was held. Within a few minutes of the start of the meeting a Word document was produced which said in the first paragraph, Agile working was a waste of time.
They moved to a task-oriented working method. This turned some team members into product owners. While some became testers and the rest wrote the code. Effectively the cross-functional team they once were was broken down into silos. Suddenly, they were people who worked independently of each other. They no longer had an overview of the entire project. Inevitably, they ended up butting heads rather than working as a cohesive whole, so productivity suffered even more.
Fairly quickly, the firm stopped paying superannuation. Not long after that, salary payments stopped too. Yet, they were still hiring new personnel. Initially, they paid those new workers.
All firms and projects have their ups and downs. But, for Neil, that situation was the worst experience of his career. If something similar were to happen now, Neil would be able to see it coming and move on before things got too bad. But, at the time, he was relatively young and new to the industry.
These days, he can tell when management is hiding things from their workforce. So, can easily work out when it is time to move on.
(15.16) – What was your best career moment? Neil has been working in the IT industry for 23 years and has been lucky enough to have quite a few great experiences. But, his favorite moment was when, in the early 2000s, he was part of a team that delivered one of the earliest viable trip planners. One that took into account traffic flows to provide accurate journey estimation times.
He really enjoyed the field work. Getting out there to test routes to work out what data was relevant when working out trip times was fascinating. Many of the standards they came up with are still used today.
Neil enjoyed the work and working with people who were smarter than him. It felt great to have complete autonomy and to be left to solve the problems as they saw fit. Without a work environment like that, they would not have been able to innovate as much as they did.
(19.02) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that there are so many different roles available is what excites Neil the most about the IT industry. Technology now touches every part of every business.
IT techs are no longer the weird geeks that work in the back office. They are there at the forefront of the business, working as part of every internal team.
Nowadays, you learn about how the business works. You are no longer confined to sitting in the corner programming.
It is a change that is also opening up the world of IT to more people. The industry is recognizing that diverse development teams make sense. So, men, women, young, old and people from all cultures are all valued and sought out by the industry.
(22.55) – What drew you to a career in IT? When he was a kid, his dad bought Neil a BBC Microcomputer. He soon became proficient enough in BBC BASIC to write a snooker program. So, for Neil, pursuing a career in IT was a natural progression. It enabled him to follow his childhood passion.
(23.52) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Neil says that when he became a program manager, a friend of his warned him not to accept too many meeting invites. He explained to Neil that he would be bombarded with invites, but, should resist the temptation to do what most people did and say yes to them all. It was vital that he made doing his job a priority.
Neil has worked for dozens of firms and is surprised by how often attending meeting after meeting is worn as a badge of honor. It is not an efficient way of working. If you are in meetings most of the day, doing your job properly is impossible.
(25.45) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Neil explains that he would follow the advice that he gives to graduates and people who are looking for internships. People who are at that stage of their careers need to take on roles that expose them to as many experiences as possible.
Once they start work, they need to identify people whose work you can follow and learn from. That does not necessarily mean sitting down and formally asking them to be your mentor. You just need to take an interest in what they are doing, how they work and ask plenty of questions to be able to learn from them.
It is also important to get on with things and actually do the work. Doing is the only effective way to learn.
You have to accept and be ready for the fact that, at first, you are going to suck at it. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the learning process. It is very important to accept that and not let it put you off. Failing or doing things badly, initially, is part of everyone’s growth journey.
(30.22) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Being empathetic is vital when you work in IT. Empathy enables you to put yourself into the shoes of the people you are working with and for. This is vital for success.
Taking this approach ensures that you are giving people what they really need instead of simply following a set of instructions. You are constantly thinking about the impact what you are doing is having on your end customers.
Empathy makes you a better colleague and manager. It enables you to create a work environment that is conducive to success. When you are empathetic with your workforce it ensures that you never push them too hard. That, in turn, means that everyone can work to the best of their ability and consistently produce exceptional results.
Everyone can develop the skill of empathy. Neil believes humility is a useful skill to have too. But, he realizes that this is more of a personality trait than anything. So, developing it is not something everyone can do as easily as they can with empathy,
(32.06) – Phil asks Neil to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Neil says that you need to be humble about what we know. It is all too easy to see yourself as an expert in something and end up dismissing other people’s view on things as a result. We all have a tendency to evangelize and try to change people’s minds to better fit in with our way of thinking and doing things.
In the past, Neil has made this mistake. He, like many in the Agile community, has tended to think that if people are not working in the Agile way they are not working efficiently.
Today, he realizes that thinking like that is not productive. Now, he is careful to sit down with an open mind, learn about how others work, so, he can see the merits and understand their approach. Looking at things in this way enables him to quickly identify how he can help to improve things. Those potential changes and improvements can then be discussed in a respectful way. Neil is very careful not to try to push people into working the way he does. He guides instead of simply telling.
(3.47) NEIL – “I’m a big advocate of Agile thinking, Agile mindset and Agile ways of working.”
(6.29) NEIL – “Just immerse yourself in as many experiences as you can, in your career”
(7.42) NEIL – “Keep looking and keep striving for growth.”
(17.46) NEIL – “Surround yourself by people who are smarter than you, because that’s how you grow and learn new things.”
(25.26) NEIL – “Only accept meeting invites if it’s very clear what the purpose is, and it’s actually going to be a value add for them and for you.”
(26.45) NEIL – “The only way that we can get experiences in things is to actually just go and do it.”
(31.15) NEIL – “We need to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of other people in every aspect of our work.”
(35.23) NEIL – “Nowadays, the best traits are humility and empathy, because we are working with people. We are no longer just the geeks in the corner,”