Staff Spotlight: Darren Nowell

Darren Nowell
Financial Administrator III
ME

Where are you from and what brought you to Georgia Tech?

I'm a native Atlantan and I graduated from Georgia State in the late 90's. I had a job at a book store for a while, putting myself through school, then I thought "You know what? Amazon.com just opened" and it didn't take a genius to realize I needed to get out of the retail book industry. I came to Georgia Tech and worked for a year in the architecture library, doing desk service basically.

Then I transitioned over the financial aid department and worked there for about a decade. Then I came over here as an accountant. I kind of fell into managing money. Now that's what I do.

What did you go to school for?

I have a theater degree with a minor in philosophy, so it was a natural transition into finance of course. I've gone back to school and I have a second degree in business administration from Georgia State.

What do you like about your work environment?

It's never a dull moment in our department. I've had days in other departments where it's the same old grind, but here there's always something new and unusual going on that no one has ever faced before. There's always a new challenge to take on and solve or fix. It's fun. 

These are all good challenges, right?

Of course. We have excellent faculty members and there's nothing crazy going on, but with the nature of work they do there are some interesting requests. Trying to figure out how to get a request through the existing bureaucracy at the institute and state level can be tricky.

Have you had any particularly unusual requests?

Once I had to help with purchasing a solar collector from Switzerland. It was about half a million dollars and had to be delivered from Switzerland. It was shipped over via boat and involved lots of work with customs. When you push the button on an order that size your heart panics a little bit. 

You have a reputation for being fun to work around. Did you really dress up as a super hero for an office Halloween party?

It is. We have social events for the staff and we had a Halloween thing. I do a lot of cosplay at DragonCon and other cons. I'm a big scifi nerd and I make no apologies about it at all. I'm into superheroes, and I have a Greek warrior version of a Wonder Woman costume, so it's a gender crossplay costume. It gets a lot of attention, because when people see it they assume it's being worn by a woman. I have relatively hairless legs, so I get mistaken for a girl. I call it my Wonder Whoa Man costume, because people see it and say "Whoa man..." It makes for some funny moments.

I also have a Star Trek costume, I have Star Wars and super hero costumes. I have medieval steampunk costumes- I basically have one for every occasion. I have Invisible Kid from the Legion of Super Heroes, which is very quirky futuristic sci-fi. I'm getting an Aquaman made soon, and I have Green Lantern.

How did you get into cosplay?

It's a hobby in which you're able to just dress up and let things go. People spend their money doing a lot of different things, things that give them an outlet for all of the stress from their regular day-to-day life. We all go to work and pay our bills, and work can be a challenge, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in unintended ways. If you don't have a creative outlet outside of these walls or you don't have something else you do on the side, what are you going to do when you retire? What else in your life brings you meaning? That could be kids, a social life, church life, or whatever. For me- I like dressing up and acting foolish. It's a good time, and I really enjoy it. It helps me shed the stress and frustrations of my work life.

What conventions do you attend?

I'm going to Dragon Con on Labor Day weekend, I went to two in May, including Timegate, a Dr. Who convention at 85 and Clairmont. MomoCon is another big one the last weekend of May, and it's down at the Georgia World Congress Center. There are a lot of cons right now with plenty of opportunities to get involved locally. We even have a Walking Dead convention here, since it's a locally produced show. It's a great way to have fun and meet other people. 

DragonCon is the big one though, and I take the whole week off of work. People know not to call me. I will not be available and if I am you won't want to listen to me. I'll be acting foolish. It's what I do during DragonCon.

Aside from dressing in costumes, what's your approach to keeping work fun?

I've worked in several offices in which the approach from management was "Let's beat the fun out of this. You are here from 8am until 5pm and you are just a cog in the wheel designed to produce results." It's fine to expect results- that's what we're here for- but there's a way to get that message across without sucking out the will to live.

Subject matter experts don't always make great people managers- those are two very different skillsets. Some people who do become managers because of their knowledgebase sometimes miss out on the nuances of managing an office and managing employees. How do you make them feel like they're contributing, and that they're important, instead of just showing up when something goes wrong? There are going to be highs and lows. Mistakes are going to be made- we're people. That's the price of getting business done. But when the overall timbre of an office is so down that you can feel it's an oppressive environment, it's a miserable place to work. My goal is to make the place I work as happy as possible, while still focusing on getting work done.

I try to be a morale booster and I'm a big believer in talking to people about their performance outside of review time. My style is to focus on getting things done and expressing frustrations in a conversational, supporting way, and people can express their frustrations to me too. We're on the same team and we have the same goals, especially as we approach fiscal year closeout. We have to get it all done, and that can be tough. Going into it with a good attitude makes it a lot easier. We can laugh and have a good time, and then leave the work behind us at the end of the week.

And that's when I use my hobbies to blow off steam and be foolish.

The caveat is that you have to know who you can have fun with in the office and who you can't. You have to know the boundaries and be careful not to overstep them. I'm very quick to apologize if I do. You have to take ownership of that and be able to say "That was never my intention." There are people you can joke with and those you can't. Personally, I use a lot of self-deprecating humor. If I show people I can make fun of myself then they know there's nothing sacred and they can say what they want to me. If people are going around making fun of other people that's entirely different and can turn into something mean-spirited very quickly.

As long as people know you are being serious about the work you can bring a light-hearted bent to it, and that makes you easier to deal with. I work in finance and we're frequently the bad guys who are saying no all the time. I try to say no with a reason, or no with alternatives. You have to be forthright, and I use humor as a tool. I want to be known as someone people enjoy interacting with as much as possible. I don't want them to dread talking to me.