Four months have passed since I exploded upwards, launching myself out of my comfort zone. In some sense, I’m still in mid-flight, looking for a landing spot. From another perspective, I’m looking down unable to see the ground and I am saying to myself: “Oh shit, what have I done?”. In another sense, I am totally euphoric and absolutely love my new job. At times, I feel like I am in a dream in which I’m falling and don’t know how to stop the descent. In the dream, I don’t know when I’m going to land, but I know that the outcome will be good.
When you completely disrupt your life to pursue your professional passions, things don’t always go as expected. As you consider making such a dramatic change, your brain has a way of telling you that things will simply be OK. You convince yourself that your family members will follow you because they trust you. You believe that wherever you go, you will find a place to live that creates a new comfort zone for you and your family. Those are the thoughts you have as you consider leaving the comfort zone.
This story attempts to explain the reality of the changes that can occur. Many of the changes I have experienced are in contrast to the idyllic world that my brain envisioned before I decided to make the changes that I made.
Getting Back to the “Finding the New Job” Story
How did she “find” my resume and how did she know that I was the right guy for the job, I wondered?
Upon continuing our conversation, I found out that Chiquita (the lady that called me) was a recruiter for General Motors (GM). When she told me she was working for General Motors, I had a momentary recollection of that night several months earlier when I told my wife Toni that I had just read the perfect job description for me. I quickly made the connection between that resume submission and this phone call. That was the same resume submission that I completely expected would lead nowhere and never be recognized.
Chiquita had found and reviewed my resume over the weekend and determined in her mind that I was a great match for a job she had to fill. The job involved advanced analytics, research, big data, problem solving, using tools like Tableau and other techniques that I had listed in my resume. Essentially, she saw things exactly the way that I did. She believed that I was the right candidate for the job. After a couple of minutes discussing our similar histories of growing up in Chicago, we agreed to have a more lengthy discussion that evening.
The Pre-Screening Interview
During this pre-screening interview, Chiquita had me read the job description, line by line. As I read each line, I had to explain how my experience had prepared me to fulfill this job. I had real-world experience for each item listed in the job description. After about 30 minutes of hitting each topic in some detail, she abruptly told me to stop. I heard the minute hand on the clock go tick, tick, tick, just like the beginning of the TV show 60 Minutes.
Just as suddenly as she said “stop”, I suddenly felt like I blew the interview. I felt that I must have been too wordy, or I must have rambled past some unknown time limit. It figures, I thought to myself, because my wife Toni always tells me that I talk too much! For me, time momentarily stopped as I waited to hear what she was going to say.
Her next sentence, however, was delivered with such clarity that I still hear her words as though she just spoke them to me a minute ago. She said: “That was the most-perfect interview I have ever heard and you will be moving on”. My time started ticking again and the sound of the ticking clock faded away.
The term “moving on” meant that my resume was going to be forwarded to department managers that were staffing a new advanced analytics division within GM. At the time I originally found the job description, I thought that this job was just an isolated position within GM that filled a specific need within the company. I believed that the job was being posted so that they could “hire” that person from within. I had no idea that GM was in the process of reinventing their Information Technology (IT) division by building a powerhouse team of over 10,000 employees.
The GM IT Revolution
For the past 2 to 3 years, GM has gone from being a firm that out-sourced about 90% of their data management (reportedly several billion dollars worth) to a firm that in-sourced 90% of it. To do that required hundreds of millions of dollars in IT investments. The investments included building a big data center in Michigan followed by four IT Innovation centers in Austin, TX, Phoenix, AZ, Warren, MI and Atlanta, GA. The investment also meant hiring a lot of people to complete the mission.
GM has hired about 2,500 employees per IT Innovation center over a three-year period. The total number of IT employees hired is approaching 9,000. The first two-years were spent principally hiring people that would work on the EDW teams (Electronic Data Warehouse). That wave of hiring occurred in 2013-2014. These people began the process of building the infrastructure and loading the pentabytes of historical and current GM data onto the Hadoop, Teradata, Aster, Oracle, DB2 and other database systems that exist in the EDW. Scores of programmers were also hired to facilitate data management, to develop custom codes for working with data to help design cars and trucks, and to create custom software for the operation of the vehicles that GM builds. Click here to watch a short video that discusses the goals of this transformation.
To begin to make sense of all that data, a special group of people were formed beginning in mid-2014 to work on a series of 10 specific data initiatives with GM. These people work directly for the Office of the CIO (Chief Information Officer). The advanced analytics group that I am now a part of is managed from Austin, TX, with workers both in Austin and in Warren, MI.
Within this group, there are four or five sub-categories of specialization, with 10 to 15 people per sub-category. I was hired in one of those sub-categories but my work spans all of them. On any given day, I can be working with tools like Alteryx and Tableau to solve problems, or I can be accessing large databases to pull information, or I can be working on making predictions.
The scope of work we have before us is immense, interesting and technically very challenging. To do this work requires my full complement of analytics, mathematical, and programming skills, and then some. My technical title is “Senior Analytics Researcher”, which implies I have some liberty to be creative in my work by inventing new approaches to problem solving. Most of that innovation that I achieve on the job occurs because of the seemingly unlimited capabilities I have working with Alteryx combined with Tableau.
I have found that every one of my projects so far has required the combination of Alteryx and Tableau to lead to solutions. The data complexity and the challenges of pulling together disparate data have demanded the use of Alteryx on a daily basis. The business managers that I have worked with around the company have very much liked the “real-time analytics” that I have shown them using Tableau (typically with Alteryx-prepared data). I have heard on multiple occasions upper-level managers say something like: “I have never seen anything like this before”, when we deliver insights on company data by answering their questions real-time. The powerful combination of Alteryx and Tableau have allowed me to gain insight into various aspects of GM operational performance that heretofore were not possible.
I have also had the privilege of helping many people within GM either learn Tableau or to learn more advanced techniques. I have taught introductory to advanced courses for Tableau using GM’s video conferencing capabilities. Our instant messaging system has delivered to me my own community of several thousand Tableau users that can ping me for help in solving real-time Tableau problems. Just about every day I have someone ask me a Tableau question that they have struggled solving. Some of the questions have been very interesting and will surely be subjects of upcoming blog posts. That aspect of my job has also been really fun so far because it challenges me to continue my learning in Tableau.
So with all this employment-related euphoria, what is going on that requires me to write this article? If I have hit on a nearly perfect job situation, why is it so damn hard to be living outside of my comfort zone?
Life Outside the Comfort Zone
Once my resume made it to the hiring managers, things moved very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I did not conduct an in-person interview in Austin. I did remote interviewing, which ultimately has caused a part of the problem I’m now experiencing.
The last visit I made to Austin, TX, was in 1984. That was over 30 years ago. As I have found out, a lot can change in 30 years.
In 1984, I was an undergraduate student and had an opportunity to visit Austin as I distributed resumes throughout the major Texas cities of Dallas, Houston, and Austin, as well as other smaller places like Lufkin. I remember having breakfast one morning in a small Texas cafe, as I prepared to visit the companies that day. I had to ask a fine gentleman that wore a big cowboy hat if he could show me how to put-on a tie! I was not business savvy. I was a college kid. Back then, Texas was a very big and very interesting place to me.
At that time, I was driven to enter the oil industry, as most geology students were trying to do. Recent downturns in petroleum, however, made working as a new petroleum geologist difficult to do unless you had an inner connection in some big company. For a Chicago city boy like myself, there was simply no way for me to get into the petroleum game, so to speak. Instead, I turned to groundwater science and continued my education for a few more years.
In 1984, Austin was a much smaller place than it is today. It seemed to me to be a really cool place at the time, much different than the megacities of Dallas and Houston. I vividly remembered the geology building at UT Austin, thinking how beautiful it was with all the fossiliferous limestone walls. Those memories were still fresh in my mind in early 2015, when my wife and I decided to explore this job opportunity with GM.
Getting Ready To Go To Austin
Once the decision was made for me to take this incredible job with GM, I wrote about blasting myself out of the comfort zone. My wife and I began the process of getting ready to move. We sold many of our belongings, made donations, and tried to simplify our lives as we prepared to move to Austin. We worked hard for many weeks in a row to accomplish those things. Once we received Flat Stanley in the mail from my Niece’s son Noah (Figure 1), we knew that the time was quickly approaching for us to leave for Austin.
In early February, we loaded the pickup truck and the little dude (Figure 2) and headed 1,000 miles west (southwest) to Austin to see if this job was indeed the right job for me and our family. The hardest part of this was leaving Sarah and Colton behind to continue their semesters at UT Knoxville. Toni and I both felt like we were being split in half. So as we began this journey, we had uncertainties in our minds whether this job and/or location would be the right choice for us. I think those feelings of uncertainty are natural for anyone that has lived over 30 years in a wonderful place like Knoxville.
Upon arriving in Austin, we were met with conditions that really surprised us. Maybe the term “surprised” is a bit of an understatement. Rather, we were shell-shocked (in a negative sense) by the existing real estate situation in Austin. We were shocked in the positive sense by the natural beauty of the hill country.
To find out why we have been shocked in both directions, you will have to wait for the next installment in this series. For now, I’ll say that you shouldn’t believe the web-sites that do cost-of-living comparisons from one city to the next – especially if the new city you are investigating is one of the fastest-growing places in the country! Once again, this story will have to be continued …