Sean Alley started out in the Navy. He was a search and rescue swimmer and an operations specialist. It was intense. “When you’re stuck in the middle of the ocean and you have been for months and months, there’s no ‘I think today I’m just going to call it quits and go home’,” Alley said. “Taking your mind to that place is really interesting. Things get clearer.” It changed the way he thought and how he faced problems in many ways. We sat down with Alley to talk about his background, where he is now, and how he’s balancing his schedule between life, school and working full-time.
After the Navy, Alley received a bachelor’s degree from UW Bothell and started working in the Amazon warehouse. He worked his way up to a policy control role in the global security ward. Alley was fascinated by globalization. But he felt things starting to stagnate. “When you start to get good at something, the by-product is that you kind of plateau,” Alley told us. “You’re smarter and more efficient, but you just aren’t working as hard.” That kind of complacency wasn’t going to work for a Navy veteran used to pushing his mental and physical limits. “I thought: If I am going to take the next step professionally, how am I going to replicate the tension or the intellectual challenges I had when I was in the Navy?”
The answer? Completing the UW Foster Master of Supply Chain Management program while working full time. “I’ve been extremely pleased by the takeaways of this program. The content is current and relevant at work; I’ve been able to translate a lot into my direct day-to-day,” he said. “But making it all happen has been a big time challenge.” Alley shared some tips with us on how he balances 40-45 hours a week at Amazon with the rigorous MSCM workload:
1. Compartmentalize your schedule and your mind.
Schedule time for schoolwork weeks in advance by putting 1-2 hour study-time blocks on your calendar throughout the week. “If I open up my calendar on my phone and that time has been pre-allocated, it helps maintain that discipline,” Alley said. He also advised getting into the practice of focusing your brainpower on one thing at a time. “Some days I am rushing to campus coming off of a high-intensity meeting with leadership at work. I just had to get in the practice of shutting it off and turning it on. My time in the Navy prepared me for that, so it was not unfamiliar. But oh my goodness, I had to relearn that skill!”
2. Make deadlines and stick to them.
Students with full-time jobs will have much tighter constraints on their time. Get into the habit of creating self-imposed deadlines for study and classwork milestones, as well as creating solid start- and end-times for team meetings. “Self-imposed deadlines are a skill that I feel professionals have to learn. The ones who are good at it really help the businesses they work for,” Alley said.
3. Accelerate towards a minimum viable product, then iterate with your team.
When working on projects, reign in the perfectionism. “There just isn’t time for that,” Alley told us. Instead, he recommends working as efficiently as possible towards a product that is 80% finished. Then take that draft to your team to work through the final 20% together. “The people who are good at getting to 80% quickly are the ones innovating, iterating, executing and moving quickly. By taking it to the team at 80%, you get the benefits of collaborating to polish it off and end up with a far better product. A team can finish that 20% off in minutes and incorporate multiple minds and viewpoints. That’s leveraging teamwork. It’s wasteful to think that you can do it by yourself.”
4. Communicate with your full-time school classmates.
Different people come to this program with different expectations, constraints on their time and levels of experience. Full-time students with the luxury of spending unlimited time and energy on classwork might not be thinking from the perspective of their busier working classmates. Communicate with your teams! Talk about the benefits of deadlines, compartmentalizing, schedules and getting to 80% quickly. The sooner everyone is on the same page, the more effective the team will be.
Alley’s other secret weapon? “My wife,” he laughed. “She’s my biggest advocate and supporter. She also works full-time and still stabilizes our family schedule and most importantly, keeps me sane. This wouldn’t be achievable without her.” There you have it! Compartmentalize your schedule, set deadlines, shoot for 80%, communicate with your classmates and show lots of gratitude to the loved ones helping you through the process!
Ready to jump in to a career in supply chain management? Check out the UW Foster School of Business Master of Supply Chain Management Program.