API Advocate Suffers Workplace Identity Crisis

Image Creative Commons: Pizamanpat — http://bit.ly/2wp35OT

Anton Chekhov once wrote that “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”

Where you fit in your organisation can affect how much you get to practice your chosen discipline. What if you have some knowledge but you are struggling to put it into practice?

According to my work records I am a Senior Consulting / Principal Software Engineer. The role that I applied for initially was API Evangelist but soon afterwards I would introduce myself as a Developer Advocate. Last week at an offsite meeting I was introduced as an API Architect to colleagues in another department. On my LinkedIn profile, I have chosen to use Enterprise API Advocate.

With the proliferation of APIs in recent years, why does this API Advocate suffer a workplace identity in a digitally transforming enterprise?

Finding my ideal role

I joined Mendeley in October 2013, a few months’ post acquisition by Elsevier. A new API platform was commissioned and some of my responsibilities were to contribute to the development of high quality services and more excitingly be an API Champion. Get out amongst the peeps, travel to conferences and meet-ups. No more endless ceremonies around sprints and cards for me. Finally, I felt that I had a job more suited to my extroverted personality.

In September of 2014 we rolled out the new developer portal to accompany our new API platform. We reinvigorated a dormant developer community and our list of clients’ integrations was growing. We ran a weekly API meeting which focused on best practices and outreach activities to help with our goal of expanding our list of third party integrations.

Our small leadership team was highly motivated because we had shared values and a shared vision of what success would look like.

We continued to fly under the radar of The Mothership, not yet feeling the full impact of the acquisition.

Feeling frustrated

Meanwhile, during this time the Mothership was beginning to land. She had plans for us, a sizeable budget and aggressive roadmaps so as expected we had a massive growth spurt and hired lots of new developers and contractors. We moved out of the dingy, overcrowded office of startup days into a new glossy office.

Our little leadership team dissolved, the technical lead had left (I’ve still not forgiven Matt) for pastures new and my manager had a new Big Data Platform to build. I was left with managing of the developer portal and as I understood it I still had a duty of care for the quality of the APIs being deployed.

I found myself becoming increasingly angry and frustrated:

“Why are they doing it this way? I’ve told them they can’t do it that way, it’s not in line with other APIs”

“Why don’t they trust me when I say their approach is wrong and mine was right?”

People get angry for a myriad of reasons but often it can be if they feel threatened, frustrated or powerless. I felt all 3 of these emotions daily. I no longer had any authority and I struggled to figure out my role in my new organisation. Everything I worked on beforehand was no longer a priority. Why didn’t they get it?

For everybody’s sanity I withdrew from the weekly API meetings and left the teams at it.

Dark times

Now what?

As the months rolled on, I was becoming increasingly restless and worried. It seemed everybody was busy and the office was a hive of activity, except for me. Never feeling overly confident in my development skills meant that it’s not something that I particularly enjoyed. This limited my opportunities around API advocacy or evangelism.

So, what was I? How do I describe myself? What role did I want next?

I felt trapped, isolated and deskilled.

Obviously, I’m in the wrong career. Finally, I was being exposed as a fraud. A fraudulent woman who managed to get so far in a technology career but couldn’t wing it any longer. I talked a lot about wanting to run away to the countryside to become a yoga teacher / postwoman / health coach / park ranger. Any role that didn’t involve software development.

My current work situation consumed most of my thinking leaving me exhausted and emotional most of the days. Everything felt insurmountable and compounded my feelings of being trapped.

The feelings of panic were becoming more acute on a daily basis and then I had a series of panic attacks which left me reeling. Genuinely frightening, lonely experiences.

With the encouragement of a friend I took myself to a therapist and my opening sentence was: “I have no meaning or purpose in my job”.

As it turns outs I was suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

Taking ownership

I’m a big fan of taking ownership and so I got to understand my anxiety and followed the suggested treatments. I joined a yoga studio, quit booze, ordered a veggie box and continued with therapy for some time. Hilariously enough, the job ended up being a massive factor in my recovery. I had a supportive manager who gave me the space and time I needed to recover. I had no milestones, deliverables or a team to let down therefore no stress. I put job hunting on the back burner.

Currently, I’m working with the Lead Architects providing consultancy and leadership in API Best Practices. Apparently, ideal roles for my personality type are roles that require enforcing rules or upholding standards so this suits me for now.

Lessons learned

Our motivated team broke down any barriers and thrived on adding value for developers and clients. We had a duty of care and we took pride in our work. We could take ownership and were empowered to act. The negative impact of acquisitions on its employees is well documented. People can feel isolated, lost and struggle to adapt to change as barriers and ownership is stripped away.

This is a very personal story where I’m struggling to find an identity in a large enterprise. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and on reflection I was very naive in some of my thinking but here are some of the lessons that I learned:

Figure out where your organisation is in its transformation journey.

It’s so goddamn obvious but the organisation needs to be ready. I had the right ideas but it was the wrong time.

I cornered several senior managers across the organisation to discuss how we might exploit APIs. Everyone agreed it would be great and had ideas on what they could do but the organisation was not able to support this right now as there were other priorities.

As it turns out the Mothership was getting her affairs in order and was preparing for her transformation. There were big plans and I found myself on a flight to New York with the senior architects to discuss the role of APIs in our future transformation.

If you think you can stick it out, then prepare for when the organisation will need your expertise or find a new job.

Use downtime to study and broaden your knowledge.

APIs is an extremely broad topic so find the bits that interest you and broaden your knowledge.

I finally read Mike Amundsen’s book on Building Hypermedia APIs, reviewed API best practices from across the Web and made sure I understood concepts like Content Negotiation, Linked Data, JSON-LD, versioning and a whole bunch of other topics around the Business of APIs.

I improved my business terminology and curated exemplars on how to express strengths/weaknesses of APIs using business terminology. Here is a great talk on this exact subject: Andrew Seward — How To Talk About APIs?

Ask for a role.

I failed to follow my own advice of asking for a role.

I recall being asked by the company manager in one of my first interviews in London if I had any further questions. I looked him straight in the eye and said: “Yes, I’m asking you for this job, please give me this job”. I made an impassioned plea of how I believed in their work practices and I wanted in (this was the in 2005 when XP was still in its infancy as an adopted practice).

This maybe a difficult ask for those of you who are not so forthright but people need to get over being shy about their goals. Spend some time thinking about:

  • Your vision for the role.
  • Internal / external contacts that you expect to interact with e.g. Marketing, Product Strategy, Product Management, Technology
  • Roles and responsibilities

I emailed our Lead Architect asking for opportunities to use some of my skills as I knew there would be some common ground.

Seems obvious, but often people are afraid to ask.

Think ahead.

What is it people will need when you are pulled into a meeting to discuss APIs? What have you got to point to?

I had a hunch that if I stuck around long enough that the Mothership would finally come around to my way of thinking. Personally, I learn best by writing down what I understand on a topic. I look at it as portfolio building. I had documentation to point to when I got pulled into projects as an API subject matter expert.

I took some old API standards and reinvigorated them much to the delight of the Architects.

Imagine if X asked you for a presentation, what would you show them? So I prepared some presentations that I might one day give to senior executives. It outlined the benefits of APIs and practical steps for existing teams to take to be more API First orientated.

Recognise effects of imposter syndrome.

Most individuals will experience imposter syndrome in their working life at some point or other. Recognise it and figure out how to deal with it.

According to this article there are 5 types of imposter syndrome and I fall into the Perfectionist category (I won’t tell you how long I’ve been working on this blog post). I over prepare for everything, to the point that it can cause me increased levels of anxiety. I’m aware of it and the effects it has on me.

A few weeks back I suffered with low self-esteem and feeling like a fraud after speaking with one individual. This was not the fault of the individual of course. I found this article and followed some of the suggestions. I reframed some of my thoughts and concluded that I should help the teams that need my help most. I didn’t think I could help that guy but I knew of others that I could so I should just do that.

Get a career coach.

For the price of a weekend city break you can get yourself a career coach. I can’t recommend this enough if you are in a career rut.

Two friends of mine were having great success with a career coach so I thought that would be prudent. This is when I got introduced to Jeanne Patti. I learned more about myself with Jeanne than I ever did in therapy. Understanding my personality type, strengths and weaknesses has given me some much-needed joie de vivre. I have insights into what I need to thrive in any role. With this clarity, I could see why I was lashing out. It had nothing to do with the individuals but everything to do with no longer being able to control the outcomes of the developer portal or delivery of APIs.

I work best in structured environments with clear goals and deadlines so a start up environment is probably not best for me in my next role.

I’ve learned that I’m a thinker, not a feeler which means that I fail to value emotions or take feelings into account. This can come across as lacking in empathy. It also may explain why I favour male dominated environments.

Working with Jeanne was such a positive experience. She made me feel like a superhero each time we talked. I may have to buy a cape!

Check in with your mental health.

Women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder as stated by Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This statement chimes well with the findings in the 2014 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS). Highlights include the widening gap between women and men where common mental health problems are more prevalent in women.

With such exponential growth in IT then there is increased pressure on individuals to keep up with the latest technical advancements. In my current organisation, I have come across several cases of anxiety and/or depression and often work is a major contributing factor.

As a manager or a leader in your organisation then it’s easy to support individuals with their recovery from mental health issues by allowing them to work from home or shorter days.

However, consider that for every individual who ends up in the therapist’s chair there is an entire team / department who suffer every day. They suffer from belligerent managers, impossible deadlines, increasing workloads, ill-conceived projects, not feeling valued, not being heard and must deal with terrible levels of bureaucracy.

It’s easy to point fingers at the large “evil” enterprise during an acquisition but what about the behaviours of the target company? Some colleagues refused to acknowledge that they now worked for Elsevier, often keeping to themselves yet all the while happy enough to take the pay cheque each month. This would have caused some distress for the Elsevier colleagues who had to deal with them. Empathy is a two way street.