Sign In

Communications of the ACM


Smart Career Advice; Laptops as a Classroom Distraction


Early in her career as a manager at Hewlett-Packard (HP), Patty Azzarello was put in charge of a software development team whose product life cycle took two years. It was "a ridiculously long period of time" to develop software, Azzarello says, and the length of the development cycle left both HP's sales team and its customers unhappy and frustrated. Azzarello revamped the team, reinvented its operating mode, and reduced the software cycle to nine months. The successful delivery of the new software life cycle's first product coincided with Azzarello's annual performance review, and she expected to receive a healthy raise as the economy was strong, HP was performing well, and Azzarello herself was awarding significant raises to her top employees.

Azzarello's own raise, however, was zero.

When Azzarello asked her boss why she wasn't receiving a raise, he replied, "Because nobody knows you."

Azzarello told this anecdote during her keynote speech at a DAC 2010 career workshop titled "More Than Core Competence...What it Takes for Your Career to Survive, and Thrive!" She learned from the experience, and proceeded to flourish at HP, becoming the youngest HP general manager at the age of 33, running a $1 billion software business at 35, and becoming a CEO at 39, she says. Today, Azzarello runs her own business management company, Azzarello Group, and gives career advice, which brought her to DAC.

Like Azzarello early in her career at HP, many employees believe that if they do their job and work hard, they will be recognized and justly rewarded. Not so, says Azzarello.

Azzarello's career advice for employees is to make sure the work that you do is aligned with the company's goals, bring your accomplishments to the attention of your superiors, and create a network of mentors who will guide you and ensure you win a spot on the company's list of employees who are the leaders of tomorrow. Her advice is tersely described as: Do better, look better, and connect better.

Do Better. "The most reliable way to advance your career is to add more value to your business," says Azzarello. You need to understand what is most important to your company in terms of your job—whether it's cutting costs, increasing Web traffic, or improving the delivery of software products—and focus on that. Everything else is less important.

However, too many employees, like the younger Azzarello, fall into the trap of being "workhorses." They do everything they're asked to do, and often more, but the end result is "you're being valued as a workhorse, not as a leader," Azzarello says.

To get ahead in the workplace, Azzarello says it's important to figure out how to deliver your work but also how to create free time at work during which you can manage and advance your career. After all, if you spend all of your time working, you won't have the time or energy to understand the company and its goals (which can change), promote yourself and your accomplishments, and build relationships with mentors and fellow employees.

The most successful employees learn how to be the master of their work and not let it control them. They understand which aspects of their job are most important to their company, and focus on them. "It's essential to be ruthless with your priorities," Azzarello says. "Refuse to let your time get burned up with things that are less important."

A critical lesson Azzarello learned in her career at HP is that the "most successful executives don't do everything. They do a few things right and hit them out of the park."

Look Better. The second step of Azzarello's career plan involves making your work and accomplishments known to your immediate bosses. After all, if you deliver excellent results, but no one above you in the company is aware of them or doesn't connect the results with your job performance, it'll be difficult for you to advance in your company.

Azzarello recommends creating an audience list of the people in your company who should know about your achievements at work and a communication plan for how to inform these key players about your work and what you've accomplished. The audience list should include the influencers who have a say in your career—your bosses and your bosses' bosses—and any stakeholders who are dependent on your work. And your communication plan should describe how you will inform these influencers—usually via conversations, reports, and email—about your job and what you've accomplished.

For your achievements to be appreciated, Azzarello says it's vital that they are relevant to your company's goals. "Your priorities must be relevant to their priorities," says Azzarello. "Your work must be recognized as matching the business's goals."

Connect Better. The third step of Azzarello's career plan involves connecting with key players at your company, which involves building relationships with mentors and creating a broad network of support. "Successful people get a lot of help from others," Azzarello says. "You can't be successful alone."

Azzarello stresses the importance of mentors (note the plural) at your company and outside of it, and says employees "shouldn't attempt career advancement without mentors." Not only can mentors help you understand a company's culture and goals, but they, and other key players, can help you get a spot on the company's list of employees who are viewed as up and coming.

All of this is about visibility. The company president or other top executives must know or know about you, or you must have a relationship with mentors or others who are connected to the company president and key executives.

This step involves networking, and many people (and Azzarello admits she's one of these people) are uncomfortable with meeting new people for the purpose of networking. If you're one of these people, Azzarello's advice is to network with the people you already know.

If Azzarello's career advice sounds like a lot of work, you're right—it is. Which is why she urges employees to create a yearlong plan for implementing these three stages.

For many employees, Azzarello's advice is a real challenge. The alternative, however, is rather unsatisfying. After all, who wants a zero raise?

Back to Top

Judy Robertson "Laptops in the Classroom"

Do you ever find yourself checking your email during a boring meeting? Do you drift off on a wave of RSS feeds when you should be listening to your colleagues? Do you pretend to be taking studious notes during seminars while actually reading Slashdot? In fact, shouldn't your full attention be somewhere else right now?

I find it increasingly tempting to do lots of things at once, or at least take microbreaks from activities to check mail or news. I do think it's rude to do so during meetings so I try to stop myself. My students don't tend to have such scruples. They use their laptops openly in class, and they're not all conscientiously following along with my slides, I suspect. In fact, in a recent study, "Assessing Laptop Use in Higher Education Classrooms: The Laptop Effectiveness Scale," published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 70% of students spent half their time sending email during class (instant messaging, playing games, and other nonacademic activities were also popular). They did also take notes and other learning tasks, but they weren't exactly dedicated to staying on task. If you're interested in surveying your own class to find out what they really do behind their screens, the study's authors provide a reliable, validated questionnaire tool about laptop usage in education.

Of course, there have always been distractions during class—as the margins of my Maths 101 notes demonstrate with their elaborate doodles. It's just that laptops make it so easy and seductive to drop your attention out of the lecture while still feeling that you are achieving something. ("I simply must update Facebook now. Otherwise people will not know I am in a boring lecture.")

Unsurprisingly, laptop usage in class has been associated with poorer learning outcomes, poorer self-perception of learning, and students reporting feeling distracted by their own screen as well as their neighbors' (see Carrie Fried's "In-class Laptop Use and its Effects on Student Learning"). Many educators get frustrated by this (see Dennis Adam's "Wireless Laptops in the Classroom [and the Sesame Street Syndrome]") and there is debate about whether laptops should be banned, or whether the lecturer should have a big red button to switch off wireless (or to electrocute all students) when he or she can't stand it anymore.

Bear in mind, though, the studies I mention here were conducted in lecture-style classes and the students were not given guidance on how to effectively use their laptops to help them learn rather than arrange their social lives. It is possible to design active classes around laptop use (if you can make sure that students who don't own a laptop can borrow one) thereby making the technology work in your favor. For example, my students learn to do literature searches in class, try out code snippets, or critique the design of Web pages. And, yes, some of them still get distracted from these activities and wander off to FarmVille. But at least I have given them the opportunity to integrate their technology with their learning in a meaningful way. They are adult learners after all. It's their decision how best to spend their brain cells in my class and my job is to give them a compelling reason to spend them on computer science rather than solitaire.

Back to Top


Jack Rosenberger is senior editor, news, of Communications.

Judy Robertson is a lecturer at Heriot-Watt University.

Back to Top



©2011 ACM  0001-0782/11/0100  $10.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2011 ACM, Inc.


No entries found