The calm before the (happy) storm.

(I’m going to focus on professional stuff for a little while here. Thanks for reading.)

The past several months have been more challenging than any since I started my current job. There’s one major reason for this — my team and I haven’t been able to get to work on the initiatives that would deliver the highest impact and that we’d find most fulfilling to help realize. At the same time, this fact rests comfortably within a nest of contextual factors, which sum up to what has felt like a precarious perch.

When I started here in 2010, I felt like I was getting back on the more or less linear track I had started in college. I didn’t originally think I’d make a career in information technology, but it turns out I have some affinity for it. So I started as a student, fixing hardware at the campus computer store. (I recently learned from an old colleague that the store is now fully closed because anything they had could be procured online instead. So my career beginnings aren’t even available anymore.) I was like a nerdy DJ, with two spinning tables in front of me (they simply had broken-down computers and monitors on them instead of records). I really enjoyed the work, even as I frustrated my manager by being completely intuitive and un-methodical. I’d jump from step A to G, and being right more often than not only fueled my arrogance.

Unfortunately, none of my experience there helped me with on-campus recruiting. Basically, I lacked the GPA and had limited skills in telling my story (and why my distinctive experience would be an asset). So I got to the end of my senior year without a permanent position lined up. Thankfully, my time in hardware service meant I met many IT people on campus, and one of them offered me a job the week after finals week. Phew! And now my career path was set — desktop support to systems administration to management to leadership. I stayed on this path for ten years without issue.

And then… <cue ominous music> layoffs. The Internet commerce company I was at had already gone through two rounds and was forced into a third by the parent corporation. So my VP called me into his office after our best Thanksgiving ever (275 million web pages served, no infrastructure failures), and haltingly, almost tearfully let me know I was being let go. I had a week before the announcement (in which two others on my team would also be laid off), and then two extra weeks to wrap up due to my position. I was calm then, but panic set in soon enough — Virginia was employed, but on contract, and while everything seemed okay, it wasn’t stopping me from lots and lots of anxiety. Because this layoff round was unanticipated and unwanted, the company’s CEO went out of his way to help. He was contacted about a technology infrastructure consulting position at a startup and made the connection for me. Two weeks later (and a day or two before my last day), I had a new position. Phew again! However, it was the first time I took a sideways turn in my career — I wasn’t managing people or leading big projects anymore. I was instead responsible for all IT matters for our client, which was blissfully straightforward for about nine months. But I wanted a team again, and wanted to get back to higher education, so I started a casual search and (very fortunately) found the position I took at Northwestern. Back on the straight line!

The first two years were very much what I expected. It was challenging (but not too much so, as I had previously taken on the kinds of projects we faced and organization I inherited), fun, and rewarding. The department really responded to my mindset and ideas, and we went from a loose confederacy of people to a true team. We started to push ahead of the pack in what an IT group could accomplish and provide, and set a new standard for the community.

And then the person who hired me left and a new person was hired into that role. He joined with the intent of creating a strategic plan and effecting change throughout the College. I had studied strategy in business school and was starting to think about what more I could do to contribute, so I suggested he and I meet regularly to discuss planning. (Also, I had discovered he liked to blend work and social, so these meetings happen at the end of the day and almost always involve beer.) We eventually began the planning process with a small team and a faculty working group, which was awesome. I felt like I was being challenged again and learning so many new things.

And then it was all put on hold when our dean left (for which I’m extremely happy for her — she completely deserved the position she took). But in academe, this means a year-long process to find a new dean, and an interim leader throughout that time. And without a strong leader, efforts like strategic planning fall by the wayside in favor of short-term, more siloed priorities. Plus, strong leadership is required to galvanize a group of people who don’t necessarily pull together on their own, and set a course that everyone believes in and commits to. This especially manifested when it was proposed we start on a few strategic projects. The backlash was abrupt and stunning. My proposed role as a contributor outside IT was basically rejected. I might as well have been told to return to my corner. (It’s been months, but it still stings.)

So why is the storm happy? Our new dean starts next week, and I’m optimistic for what happens next. We’ve gotten up off the mat and gotten a few tactical things done that help show what we’re capable of. I’ve taken the time to reflect on what’s been accomplished, which reminded me that I could succeed in this new space. So here we go.

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