Sunday, November 16, 2008


Both in my line of work and in my personal life, I get quite a few requests for advice. The most common of those requests is from someone looking to make a significant change. The motivators are often negative, like getting laid off, or having a relationship fail. In my experience this is because most people are reactive, instead of proactive about many aspects of their lives. Yes, I am aware that I fall into this category pretty often, just like the next guy.

Recently my regular self-examination led me to realize that I too was getting stuck. Essentially, I was reacting to situations around me, instead of being deliberate about my choices. It seemed like a good idea therefore to give myself a recap on some fundamentals. I've included them in this post for those who might also find it helpful.

Grab A Habit
In this case I'm not talking about a nuns attire, but rather a practice or activity that you exercise every day. You might like something active like pilates, yoga, or swimming. Or perhaps you choose to write or do a puzzle. The actual habit isn't important, only that you establish some consistency. You need consistency so that your input and analytical processes can take a breather for a while. Doing something routine can help smooth the process of adopting changes.

Know Your Motivations
If you want to get somewhere else, it helps to know where you are and where you've been. You need to be very honest and clear about your situation and your future. It is important to understand what has been motivating you and driving your world view, because that is producing the situation and circumstances in which you find yourself.

Embrace Reality
The hardest thing most people will ever do is face the truths about themselves. You see this mirrored in the number of people who fear public speaking, and the lengths people go to hide themselves and their natures. Being able to accept yourself for precisely the person you have been will allow you to exert control over your own behaviors. We often need to be released from our own constraints and misconceptions so we can see the world as it truly is which is a requirement to be able to move fluidly within it. When walking around your house in the dark, don't pretend it isn't a cluttered mess. Rather know intimately where each pile and obstacle lies so that you can navigate smoothly.

Experience The Change
The best part of self-evolution is the process you will go through. Don't focus solely on the end-game. Drink in and savor each new habit, each new challenge, each little success. This doesn't just serve as a check-point to make sure you are on track. It's a vital part of growing and necessary for self-awareness. So relax and open yourself to the adventures. You won't just be more effective, you'll be more likeable and will like more as well.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Subtle Path to Perfection

The past couple weeks I've been having many conversations with employees about career planning and their future growth. As I was thinking back and reflecting I noticed a recurring thing that was worth discussing.

Generally speaking, people tended to focus on the specific skills (or in this case technologies) as a means to differentiate and advance themselves. They pick an area of their behavior they want to work on and create a plan for how they might get better at such a thing. For instance, they might desire to work with a particular product, or in a particular industry. The more time they've spent and the more competent in their technical skills, they more they tend to look at the softer side. For instance, they might want to focus on leadership positions, or managing teams of a particular size. Regardless of their intent, they generally try to find a behavior or a skill that they can practice and demonstrate proficiency with. This is all well and good.

The slant I've been thinking about are those who are the more successful. Especially those of indeterminate specialty and generic capability. How do the mediocre continue to be successful and advance? How can they progress without ever refining specific behaviors and skills to a level superior of those around them? Simply put, they don't work on the skills, they work on their environment.

Inherently, the successful team leaders have demonstrated through their successes that it is less about personal ability, and more about the abilities of those they work with. By matching themselves with like-minded people, they increase their productivity, compensate for weaknesses, and enjoy more consistent performance. In the marketplace today, consistency is often worth more than risky potential regardless of promised returns.

To be clear, this isn't about delegation, or choosing team members or the usual obvious tripe. It is much less about how you manage downward and instead about how you manage your peers, customers, and those above you. Recognizing when an environment doesn't match your working style is certainly one part of a successful career path. Being aware when an organizational structural supports your ideals is another. The oldest tigers are the ones that don't just hunt well. They know how to avoid the traps as well as the over-populated areas of the jungle. They know how to back down from a fight, and when a territory no longer supports their needs.

None of us are perfect. But given a supportive organization structure, a means of interaction that supports our style, and responsibility that matches our accountability, even those with mediocre ability can be very successful.

Just look at McDonalds. Lowest skilled worker, a smooth organizational machine, and they deliver a consistent product.

So the next time you're thinking about which behavior of yours that you would like to perfect, spare a moment and look around at your environment. Consider if changing who you work for, or who you work with, might not unlock more of your potential and let the skills you do have, really shine.

Friday, September 12, 2008

We Should All Sleep Alone

In my web wanderings I came across an interesting article about sleeping. Namely it was an extract about an Austrian report that found that sleeping with someone else makes you more tired the day after. Well, duh!

Read the article here.

As someone who is often coaching younger professionals in the more fringe aspects of professional consulting, the topic of getting enough rest comes up often enough. From advising them to curtail the drinking the night before a big presentation, to reminding them that showing up for a meeting still flushed from a morning run can also be bad for business. The art of presenting a reliable, trustworthy, and professional image is certainly a mixed bag and everyone has their opinion. Every situation and client is different, and the techniques and approaches to deal with them are varied. One thing they all agree on is that being well-rested is certainly a key.

I led with that article sort of tongue-in-cheek, but in reality the points you can extrapolate from it are very real. You may be just fine sleeping with your partner, but are you taking the other time you need to recharge and focus on yourself? For many people, their only down time is while they are sleeping. If that time is interrupted, they'll naturally find themselves completely missing out on personal recoup altogether.

Remus, if you're reading this, I'm sure the gender of the person you sleep with isn't relevant, and besides the sleeping thing was just a teaser for my personal-time talking points anyway.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Interviewing Tips

Recently I was asked to give interview tips to someone I've been
working with. As I dug down to recall it previous writing and training
about the subject, I was able to provide him a fresh summarization of
this somewhat difficult topic.

Interviewing is very similar to one-on-one selling. There are two
things you can generally rely on to help with both.

Yo start with you have to appreciate what is actually taking place
when interviewing or selling. Being interviewed is rarely about
actually demonstrating a particular skill, talent, or ability. It is
usually about determining trust. If they trust you, then they'll want
you to work for them. If they don't decide they can trust you then any
demonstrations or resume entries will be overlooked and discounted.
When viewed from this perspective it becomes clear the role that
confidence plays in the process. It is widely accepted that confidence
breeds trust. Obviously this is a simplification, but it brings us
quickly to the first point, which is to be Quick.

Being Quick is about the responsiveness and timing of your answers. If
you don't know the answer or don't have the information desired, just
say so quickly and simply. Don't preamble your answers, when you do
know. Just spit it out right away. If you need to think, let them know
right off that you are considering the request and formulating a
response. Using words that don't provide information so you'll have
time to think is often seen through and will make you appear shady.
Packaging your words with flowery or ambiguous language can leave
people with the feeling that you aren't or won't speak straight.
Remember you are trying mostly to win trust.

The second point is to be Succinct. This us very different than being
brief but has a few things in common. Put simply, use as few words as
possible to precisely provide your response. Overly flowerly or
lengthy answers have the pitfalls we discussed previously. But there
are two additional goals to consider.

The less you say, the more precisely you interpret and respond, the
less chance you will offend. There will simply be a smaller chance
you'll say something that can be disagreed with or break you out of

The other upside is that the less you talk, the more they'll talk.
This one is really key. When they are talking you can be learning and
tailoring your responses and approach to build more trust and cement
your rapport. When they are talking they are doing something we all
generally like: talking. So they will actually feel good because they
are doing an activity they enjoy.

You put this together and in your interview you'll learn a lot by
getting the interviewer to talk, you'll have said only things that
reflect positively, you've clearly admitted your shortcomings, they've
enjoyed talking and will end with a good feeling.

There is obviously much more that could be said on the subject, but
maybe remembering just those two points will help.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Middle-Wait Class

My friend Harry always calls me an ambulance driver. I didn't realize how much the term had grown on me until I used it about myself when he wasn't around. He's sneaky like that.

I'll explain the term, by way of explaining how it came to be used. For a long time I have little phrases, some might say mottos, that I use when giving advice or talking on particular subjects. A simple interesting phrase allows me to anchor the idea or concept; then depending on the forum, the time available and the particular audience I can tailor the message appropriately in real-time. As someone who spends a lot of time in reflection, I found it helpful to have a handful of these anchoring statements to organize and summarize my worldviews.

The particular behavior that Harry observed, we spoke about frequently, and ultimate won me the label of ambulance driver was this:
It's either the gas or the brake, but it's all the way down.

I'm not sure if I heard it somewhere else, or like many of my phrases, it just spewed forth in some conversation one day and I liked how it sounded so it got added to the repertoire. In any case, it is definitely a frequently exercised one.

To be practical, a phrase like this shouldn't need much explanation, and I have found this one resonates with most people pretty quickly. Not that they agree, but that they understand and can see how I strive to apply this to my life. On the contrary, most people disagree with varying degrees of vehemence.

Generally speaking people strive to be risk averse. They want to compromise and counter their need for change with a passion for passivity and a sense of stability. We do this in our personal lives, we do this in our careers, and companies (which are clusters of individuals) do this with their strategies.

Sometimes understanding a new view on the world or being honest about the underlying views that are actually driving us, requires we step back and introduce some objectivity. To that end, let's examine the corollary to the previous motto that applies to design choices or corporate strategy:
The Middle Always Costs More
This one may have been so obvious as to be blinding so let's examine how this applies to companies.

Generally speaking innovation inside a market happens similarly every time. The first mover is often an outsider because they have the least to lose. They have no market-share to risk and much to gain with even small successes. The next group are the current leaders. Sitting on top of their market, they can generally afford to make the investments and manage the risks. They have the unique insight that is only accessible to the guy sitting on top of the pile. Lastly, those in the middle might work up the gumption to delve into the fray. Usually the just wait and watch to see how things shake out before moving.

This last group of middle performers, of compromisers, are the ones who need assurances and guarantees. Being afraid to fail, they won't move until it becomes clear (to them) where success lies, which 'bets' will pay off, or that their current plan really is pulling a Dodo bird.

When you only take 'bets' that are sure things, you aren't really betting. When you aren't betting, you can pretty much predict the mediocrity of the outcome. When you only move because you are forced to because the market is self destructing, you'll continue to sit in the middle of any market you make it into. And your company will be all the other mediocre middle-waits.

It is the ambulance drivers who get to the scene first. They are willing to take calculated risks. They drive fast but very controlled. They break rules, but within constraints and boundaries. They put a single focus first and set aside all other conventions and norms in the headlong pursuit to achieve it. And they do it without a racecar. They do it with all the tools and gear they'll need so when they arrive on the scene, they can really add value. They don't just get themselves there, they bring help with them.

Usually when I get on the scene, it is a big bloody mess. Sometimes the patient dies in the back before we get them to the hospital and that is sad but unavoidable. It's the valiant effort, the commitment to try, the desire to really help and to do it regardless of what everyone else sitting in traffic has on their agenda that makes an ambulance driver effective.

You might not always enjoy riding along with an ambulance driver, but everyone hates being stuck in traffic with all the other middle-waits.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Keeping My Square Edges

When you hit crunch time on a project, the stress increase has the wonderful effect of showcasing the individual contributions which aren't always apparent. Strengths and weaknesses are illuminated most when risk (and therefore stress) is highest.

You may have heard others talk about stress as a way to weed out those who can't cut it. To identify those people with weaknesses and therefore cull them. Increasing stress works both ways, you can spot both weaknesses and strengths this way. The difference between smart people and lazy people is what they do with this information.

Surely, you can remove people based on their weaknesses, but is that really the best way to get top performers? Not in my experience, and I'm not the only one. A whole slew of authors are writing about this balance between strength and weakness. For example, Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham, or Teach With Your Strengths by Rosanne Liesveld , Jo Ann Miller , and Jennifer Robison.

Historically, the path to improvement has always been through building up your weak areas, not downplaying them (or better yet, avoiding them entirely!). We give people feedback on the areas they aren't performing, ostensibly so they'll get better.

When was the last time you got a review or feedback that focused on what you did well and only glossed over how you could improve? We have been obsessed with it, and therefore churn out contributors who try and be well-rounded or generic, living in constant fear their weaknesses will be exposed. Because of this close-mindedness, they are never able to pour themselves headlong into their strengths. Like a fly buzzing around, they are constantly distracted by their weaknesses, so they never put full force into their punches.

This is most definitely not how I give feedback. If I'm going to spend energy and time to think about and communicate my analysis of someone else, it is going to be practical. We will celebrate your accomplishments and spend time talking about how you can use the things you do well to really knock peoples socks off and be smashingly successful. Then maybe if you have really pissed someone off or are offensively negligent in some area, we'll mention how you can either avoid those situations, or how to minimize the damage when they happen. There is no sense trying to make a surgical scalpel into a hammer.

For my own performance, the same rules apply. Certainly I am critical of my failures and short-comings, but only as they distract from my ability to perform with my strengths to their maximum potential. Rather then dwell on not being a white guy with shiny, gleaming, perfect teeth, bushy hair, a perfect handshake and who looks at home in a suit, I play my geeky, straight-shooter, mushroom-like role to the hilt. And then I bring a white guy with full hair, a nice tie, and a firm handshake to the meeting. He talks his white-guy talk and does the secret handshakes so I can focus on the important details necessary for us to actually deliver.

When we try and force people into being generic and "well-rounded" we are really asking them to knock off their typically square edges so you can shove them into your round holes. I like my edges and try to respect the edges of others.

No one can do it all. Recognize what you can do really well and then avoid or compensate for the rest.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Expert Road

There are a few things I'm really good at. One or two I am extremely great at. And a host of things at which I suck horribly. I know you are thinking this is totally obvious, but stick with me. I'm going somewhere with this one.

Generally speaking, you can drop people into of three categories concerning any skill. They're either Novice, Experienced, or Expert. When you are first learning something you are a Novice. You don't really know anything and you have no muscle or long-term memory for the skill at this stage. Once you have developed some proficiency you can move past the Novice stage and enter the Experienced stage. At this point in development, you either commit or you give up. Those who commit can eventually become Experts. Those who give up stay in the realm of the Experienced.

Whether it is about building products and services to be consumed, or in your own development, identifying when the commitment point occurs is key to understanding your adoption rate and capability for advancement.

Being a novice sucks. When you are just learning any new skill you always stink. At some point, with practice or just time, you stop being awful. That's the point when you move into Experienced. Unfortunately, sometimes we are willing to settle at the proficiency level we have reached simply because the effort to advance is too great. I don't want to try and get better, because trying something new means I'm going to suck again. After all the effort I put in so I don't stink as a Novice, if I move to the Experienced bracket I'm just falling right back into being horrible again.

If you aren't passionate or motivated, if the costs to get better are just too high, you get stuck. But the reality is, the better you get at something, the more fulfilling it will be. The more successful you are with a skill, the more joy and excitement you will feel from exercising it.

So how do you make sure your product or service won't lull people into this middle ground? How can you un-stick yourself when you realize you are settling for mediocrity?

For products and services you need to understand your Attrition Rate. What percentage gives up? What features were used or not before attrition? When considering the effort involved in adoption, what can be provided to help speed the transition into experienced?

For yourself it can help to keep your eye on the end goal. Remember that passion can ebb and flow, especially as you reach each new level and realize how much further your progression can go. It's natural to be daunted because you suck with something new. Focus on the result, establish the habits daily so you aren't fighting yourself everyday. When you do reach a new level, revel in it for a while.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Size Matters

When you are buying property, how much property you are talking abut really does matter. If you want to buy a house to live in, they care about your income, your personal ability to pay the mortgage. If you are buying a 20 unit apartment building they care about the occupancy rates and your ability to keep it occupied. It really as simple as that. The deal factors change with the size of the deal. But within certain ranges, the factors don't change at all. Buy a 10 million dollar house to live in, they still care about your income. Buy a 1000 unit apartment block and they still only care about occupancy rates and your management experience.

Now, I've estimated, planned, negotiated and sold dozens of technology deals that exceeded 3 million. I've done the same for a double handful of 10+ million dollar deals. And I've worked on one or two that reached the 50 million mark. The thing they have in common is that when it comes to the estimates, the plans, and the negotiations, the factors don't change. The delivery changes drastically, the oversight and number of hands in the pie sure change, but the actual work involved doesn't. The steps you go through, questions you ask, information you need to digest is basically the same regardless of the size of the deal. Which you only realize if you've successfully done it a few times.

Just like my friends who are think buying a 5-unit townhouse is the same as financing their second mortgage. You can always tell who has come out the other side having learned something by the way they approach their next deal. The ones who only survived their deal, who came out the other side but weren't changed, haven't evolved, who didn't learn anything, they're the ones who approach every deal the same way. They have a hammer that works, and they just keep whacking away assuming they'll hit some nails eventually.

If you want to make sure you aren't one of the un-evolved ones, make sure you are seeking first to understand. That's a little phrase I picked up from someone much smarter than myself, but I find myself using it way to often. In my mind, it sums up the attitude of the nimble among us. It separates those who are continually learning, from those who think they've got it figured out and are waiting for the world to agree with them. When you play in the realm of architects and executives, you see both attitudes often enough. Most of being a great architect or executive is being willing to make decisions, to hold a vision in your head and be articulate about that vision. This means there is a very fine line to walk when you are surrounded by ambiguity and collaborating with numerous conflicting opinions and personalities. You have to be very nimble or you'll quickly end up on the wrong side of the line.

If you are seeking first to understand, you will spend more of your time upfront listening and questioning. But you can't spend all your time there. At some point you have to discern the relevant information, express some decisions, be willing to wrong and allow others to correct you, and then drive for consensus. You must engage first to understand, but if all you do is understand and can't utilize that information, the value vanishes. You can be told the difference between financing your home and a multi-unit dwelling, but if you don't chance your approach and act on the information, you've lost the value. You are just as effective as if you kept hammering away with your single tool.

When it comes down to it, it is the size of your ears that matter most. But a nimble attitude and brains are also needed if you don't want to look goofy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Line Between Good And Great

Staffing a project can be a unique sort of puzzle. It can be very similar to the exercise many start-up companies go through trying to find talent. The problem is that it can be really hard to recognize talent on paper. And when it comes to building solutions or delivering real business value you often need engineers who can do more than just cut code. Consider what Paul Graham wrote:
But when I think about what killed most of the startups in the e-commerce business back in the 90s, it was bad programmers. A lot of those companies were started by business guys who thought the way startups worked was that you had some clever idea and then hired programmers to implement it. That's actually much harder than it sounds—almost impossibly hard in fact—because business guys can't tell which are the good programmers. They don't even get a shot at the best ones, because no one really good wants a job implementing the vision of a business guy.
-- excerpt from The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups by Paul Graham

This is a spot on concern as it relates to start-ups, and is a pretty good summation that the world at large has with separating real technical talent from mediocre technical resources. To help with this, I've written down what I consider to be the key points that separate the great engineers from the herd.

First and foremost it has to be the Love of the Game. Some people call this Passionate or Enthusiastic. Regardless of how you refer to it, you know it when you see it. When an engineer truly likes being an engineer, they exercise that passion whether they are getting paid for it or not. These are the people who light up when they have a chance to explain some nuance of a solution or problem they are working on. Even when polite company would have recognized that a topic was becoming to specific or technical and gracefully glossed over the details, an engineer of passion may just not care about the social graces and bore full steam ahead unconcerned.

The inverse of this is the engineer who has a job. The get enough tech talk at work and go to "training" when they are told they need to learn something new. Engineering pays their bills, if they could make as much money doing something else, they would. When you see someone who has had the same job for years and years, has worked with the same technology, on the same application or platform and doesn't see the need to change, recognize that they may be competent but they lack the potential for greatness.

An enthusiastic engineer naturally leads to a Self-Reliant engineer. When you love something you want to know all about it. You genuinely like that there is always something new to learn. With engineering, there is the added benefit that technology is always evolving. When their heart is in it, nobody has to tell an engineer how to keep up. They do it naturally, on their own. They know that the best way to learn is just to leap in and embrace it. They don't wait for someone to send them to training, they experiment and create of their own accord. When they come upon a new technology they don't wait for the explanation, they don't need to be taught, they just jump right in and learn.

The inverse of this is the engineer who constantly needs help. They need the complete manuals, they need training materials, and samples. If they are always talking about how difficult something is to understand because of the lack materials at their disposal, if they want to get trained before they embark with a new technology, they may be competent, but they lack the potential for greatness.

Engineers who are or can be great, seek to be Wise. Anyone who has learned to be self-reliant understands (even if only subconsciously) the difference between Wisdom and Knowledge. Knowledge is the set of facts, data, or concepts that can be learned, taught, understood. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. For most people, with experience comes wisdom. The more they attempt to apply their knowledge to the world, the more they the learn about which knowledge is meaningful and practical. Knowing what you need to know and how to identify what you don't know in a particular circumstance is the most useful thing to understand when faced with the new and interesting. It is this constant self-refinement and search for the application of knowledge which can easily lead engineers to be considered socially inept. Socializing is often about compensating for differences, and celebrating commonalities and trivialities. This is completely juxtaposed with the engineers pursuit of practicality and usefulness. Engineers who are great will be able to switch their communication style between the practical and the social when appropriate.

The inverse of this is the engineer who knows only for the sake of knowing. When the emphasis is on the tests they've passed or certifications they hold, you might take a closer look. If they can't focus quickly on the criteria for success (or risks of failure), or if they aren't objective about the usefulness of their new widget then they may be competent, but they lack the potential for greatness.

To really leverage these talents an engineer should be Diverse, they should have a wide Breadth. Even early in their career an engineer with great potential will find opportunities to jump from problem space to problem space. They will find that they need more than one toolset on one platform. They'll have experience in applying their knowledge to more than one type of opportunity or industry. Any engineer who is truly experienced, will resemble an onion with layer after layer of different experiences, most of which won't be covered by a resume. They will invariably be able to find parallels with their past experiences, and will constantly be remembering skills and aspects of their work that are applicable now but which weren't significant enough to write into their cover sheet. To a great engineer, the fact that they had to write a multithreaded performance test harness, or an attribute injection lex, or an exception word map isn't really important. It was the sum of the parts they delivered which was interesting. To them it is just an assumption that to get the end result they'll have to do all the other things in between. Many of these in-between problems are significant and meaningful in other contexts all by themselves.

The inverse of this the engineer who spends all their time in the parts or focused on one technology, platform, or industry. They know all about how to make NUnit do interesting things, but have never shipped anything. They know how to build data entry applications but have never concerned themselves with how the reporting system does what it does. That database guy who doesn't really know how the front-end works should give you pause. The UI guy who draws brilliant graphic but stays away from "the backend" may be competent, but they lack the potential for greatness.

A caveat with this last one is that we all have specialties. From time to time we all need a real pro at just one thing, and it can take time to truly master some aspects of engineering. The distinction isn't that they don't have a specialty, it is that they have branched out into all the supporting and complementary areas. If you want to truly master something technical you need to understand how it overlaps with, supports, or is supported by other technologies. An amazing looking UI that takes to long to boot up, or doesn't integrate seamlessly with its data providers will ultimately be useless. Likewise the most efficient library design is worthless if consuming engineers find it hard to use.

Being having these other attributes becomes less useful if the engineer isn't Social. To be valuable long-term they need be someone that people can work with and form relationships with. In any environment, Trust is essential to mitigating risks and allowing velocity to increase. Further, independent contributors without a sense of community or social responsibility will leave their biggest value on the table. It is one thing to be able to do a thing well, it is much more valuable to be able to teach others to do it equally well. Sometimes this is referred to as leadership or mentoring but ultimately it is about being able to inspire trust and earn rapport. Often this is a latent talent that can be spotted very early by contributions that person makes to the community at large. A willingness to be trusted, a desire to connect with others about their contributions are often signs of a valuable resource.

The inverse of this is the engineer who only works independently, has trouble establishing rapport or eliciting trust, and isn't interested in the contributors around them. If they don't see the value in community boards, hoard their specialized knowledge and aren't interested in teaching or mentoring, then you have some warning signs. The loner who solves hard problems but doesn't care to explain how and is less effective as part of a team may be competent, but they lack the potential for greatness.

An engineer with a majority of the previous traits will likely be Opinionated. Simply put, the pursuit of greatness requires an ability to recognize when things are not great. An engineer who doesn't have strong preferences and habits is neither going to be decisive nor efficient. Efficiencies are only capable when you can rely on habits, known patterns, and economies of scale. These things require some level of standardization and best practices in place. A key trait of someone with the potential for greatness is that while they may often be wrong, they are rarely in doubt. It is this confidence in their ability, proven by their experiences, backed with their reason and intellect that allows them to make progress where others have stalled, to act quickly while others are paralyzed. It isn't that they are rigid in their preferences and opinions, quite the opposite, they may change their course much more often than seems normal. Being able to have an opinion is important, so is being able to change or let that opinion go when appropriate. The best engineers can assimilate the opinions and preferences of others which allows them be more accurate in their reasoning, even on an unknown landscape.

The inverse of this is the engineer whose opinions are too rigid, who holds to standards and habits long after the need or advantage for change is apparent. If the mind is too closed, reason will inevitably fail. Consider the age of toolset the engineer chooses and the terminology they use. If you arbitrarily alter the assumptions in a problem space and witness a lot of discomfort or inability to change tactics and approach quickly then you should be cautious. An engineer who presents the same tools and approach to every problem may be very competent in that space, but they lack the potential for greatness.

This list is more a guide to potential. The wrong situation, personality fit, or environment can make a great engineer useless. A healthy environment can take someone with mediocre skills but strong potential and give them an avenue to be great. Of course, that's just been my experience, YMMV.

Hopefully this list can help you spot competent engineers if that is what you are looking for; they certainly have their uses. After all, everyone can't meet the standard of great. You don't have to staff your team or project or company with only great people. If you have competent people, and a few people with the capability to become great, then the right environment will allow their potential to be realized. If you can't afford the risk, get at least one great engineer, and let them find the other competent engineers to round out their team.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Just Walk 10 Feet

An experience at a hotel in the last couple of days prompted me to resurrect a topic that I find myself addressing over and over at client sites. When your business is service-based (sounds redundant, I know) you need to have someone who does nothing but put themselves in the perspective of the customer.

Let me explain.

Firstly, not all businesses are truly service businesses. Most are just transactional. You go into a convenience store you aren't exactly looking for service, you want some products at your convenience (hence the name). When you walk into Wal-Mart you know there is no such thing as service, they live almost exclusively in the space of Price. They just dump the DVDs in the bin because you'll dig through them for a low enough price. You rent a car based on price and maybe for a select few some intangibles like the reward program or convenience, etc. Airline tickets are price-sensitive and location specific. From time-to-time, the real travelers will discuss aspects of service (I like the Southwest attitude better!) but in reality we are driven by non-service factors. And the list goes on.

In a service-business, however, it matters How You Are Treated, and what the Experience offers. A good example would be a restaurant or hotel. Not fast-food, I'm talking sit-down, atmosphere, ambiance, etc. If it's too loud, you won't want to socialize there. If the waiter is abrupt or inattentive, you may not return.

The example that prompted today's rant was a hotel. When I checked in, I asked to be given access to the special floor which meant I would get to have free breakfast in the morning and appetizers at night. They also let me print for free, and a few other amenities like free bottled water. The nice lady checking me in, said they didn't have room on the floor, but she didn't bother to ask me if I just wanted into the lounge. Why the hell else would I want to be on a specific floor? Naturally, I want you to hook me up with the special key card! In reality, about half the time they charge me extra for it and I don't care, I want the service. But she didn't even offer. Just nope, you can't stay on that floor. So they miss out on a chance to make me happy (a very regular customer with options) or alternatively a chance to up-sell me to a higher rate. She just wasn't listening.

Once I'm in my room I take the stroll around and can't find the switch for the blackout shades. This is because some genius mounted it directly behind the lamp so that you can't see it until you are standing up against the wall actively looking. This would be the same wiring savant who put the only outlet for the desk directly behind the desk so you can't see it, and getting to it requires gymnastics. Who would think that someone using the desk might actually need to plug something in? What else do you use a desk for in this day and age? Crafting letters on the non-existent stationary?

This solitary desk outlet hidden in the nether regions behind the desk also has the lamp plugged into it. What traveler doesn't need a place to plug in their phone? Everyone has a phone, everyone needs to charge them over night. Except to have both the computer and the phone plugged in requires unplugging the lamp. This room layout is brilliant! Not one to be defeated so easily, I look around for a plug near the bed, but rather than place it near the night-stand, it's practically in the hallway so I have to lay the phone on the floor. Which means in the middle of the night I'm either going to A) trip over the cable and bang my head on the wall, or B) step on it and crack the screen, or C) all of the above. As somewhat of an overachiever, I chose C.

In the bathroom, which is stunning by the way, and huge, they have beautiful bordering on gorgeous marble floors. What they don't tell you is that marble is really flippin' slippery when it gets wet. In here though, someone at least tried to think ahead, they give you a two foot floor mat that you can lay down. You can either A) put it in front of the shower and then hope you are dry enough when you get the sink so you can brush your teeth without breaking your neck, or B) put it in front of the sink and then twist an ankle trying to leap out of the shower across the room onto a two foot square floor mat, or C) start in front of the shower and then shimmy it across the floor to the sink. Having gone to a good university, I naturally chose C again.

Back in the living room, the beautiful flat screen TV caught my eye. I don't really watch TV but it would be an expected ability to hook my computer up to it and watch a DVD later. No chance. Evidently the TV Gestapo is allowing no uncontrolled use of the display device and they've locked it down tighter than an Alabama tick. Why on earth would you disable a perfectly good display? What could possibly be gained by denying me access to something that costs you nothing and would increase my satisfaction? They are just missing the opportunities all over the place. They are making the Experience feel transactional, instead of like a service.

There are hotels that understand this distinction and I patronize and recommend them as much as possible. The inverse is also true.

The point of all this isn't (just) to rail on the short-comings of this particular hotel. What they missed is having someone who would walk into the room as if they were a customer and see what we see. Oh sure, we talk about being customer focused and so forth, and in truth this hotel normally does a great job with personal connection. But they weren't listening. They aren't listening. They haven't walked where I've walked. I don't think my expectations are very far out of line. I simply expect to be catered to and thought about, and I'm willing to pay for the privilege. Even if trade-offs have to made so I don't get what I want, at least make me feel you are listening. Give me insight into the why and options to change my experience. From time-to-time, we all have bad experiences, a big part of your reaction is How You Were Treated, not just what the Experience entailed.

Are you in service business? If so, how do ensure that what you think of as good service is the same thing your customers will think of as good service? Who in your organization is specifically chartered to represent the customer viewpoint? Are you relying on one of your core-values being Customer-Focused to handle this for you? You don't have to walk in my shoes, and you don't have to walk far. Just walk a little from my point of view. Ten feet or so ought to do it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Pick Any Two

Need something built? Problem solved?

You can have it done:
1. Quick
2. Cheap
3. Correct

Pick any two.

The above adage is something that gets brought up pretty regularly in the consulting world. Along the way, I've added a few more elements to flesh out some more guiding principles about what it takes to maximize deliver along all three fronts. These are in no particular order.

  • If it works, it works. Conceptual isn't relevant. Theory is only interesting if during the discussion, the participants are allowed to drink beer.
  • Simplify. There is no code that runs faster than No Code. Use fewer words and as little fine print as possible. If you can't hold the whole thing in your head, it's too complicated. If you need more than one diagram that can be read from a single sheet of paper, you've over done it. If there are more than three If's involved, you need to remove, restate, or reorganize.
  • If it isn't written down, it isn't real. If it can't be measured, it can't be written down.
  • Measure consistently. When your measures stop moving, then you've stalled and you should kill the [project/idea/initiative/report/product/etc.]. Or you've simply been measuring the wrong things. The later is more likely.
  • One voice, one vision. No great idea or product in history was ever conceived by more than three people. If your working group (or decision-making authority) is larger than that, you might as well quit now.
  • Intuition rules. You know what you know, don't second-guess. If you don't have an intuitive response, learn more about the subject until you do. Habits and standards always beat new, slick, and fancy when it matters.
  • Change consistently. It isn't that you should seek change or avoid change, but accept it when the opportunity presents itself. Whether you go gracefully or kicking and screaming, make sure your reasons are rock-solid, repeatable, and right.
  • If you can't change or compete, then compensate. We like to think everyone should be good at everything. Which is complete crap. If you need something done that you aren't good at, get someone better to do it. Don't like doing something? Pay, entice, or swap with someone else. You don't have to be good at everything if your address book is big enough. Stick to what you are good at and surround yourself with people who will compensate for your short-comings (as limited as they may be).
  • Going pro? Go big. When you decide to pay someone for their experience or specialized skills or knowledge, choose wisely and don't hesitate to pay well. Then shut up, listen, and learn. There is a sign in the garage that says: Oil Change $10, Oil Change While You Watch $50, Oil Change While You Help $200.
  • Kompromise Kills. Don't even start.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Startup Stereotypes

The last couple of days I've been giving a friend some advice as he tries to flesh out a startup. Having spent a decade or so playing in that arena with some good successes (and even more valuable failures) to my credit, I'm doing what I can to make his transition into the ranks of the entrepreneur less volatile than mine. From time to time, I use this place to spew thoughts that seemed to be helpful to him and might be useful for others.

In the technology workspace there are a couple stereotypes that have evolved. The first is the Developer. The technical guy who solves engineering problems, makes the impossible a reality, and knows way more details about how things work than most of us will ever care to acknowledge. The best ones are often very temperamental, strong-willed, and emotionally volatile. Their opinions and decisiveness, an un-erring determination of their own correctness or failings, and unflagging curiosity are their hallmarks. These traits are what spur them to the feats of creative genius and startling leaps of intuition which are why they are tolerated. As a sweeping generalization, the more valuable and miraculous they become the harder they are to manage.

The other major stereotype is the Manager. The general purpose resource who can direct activities, plans details and contributions, and makes the decisions. The best ones align themselves with contributors and seamless funnel opportunities and remove roadblocks in their relentless pursuit of specific outcomes. They are cheerleaders and priests, mothers and big brothers. They protect their people when necessary but make the hard choices on who to throw under the bus when necessary. Being social and flexible, easy to speak and quick to learn are key traits. As a sweeping generalization, great Managers sell themselves and their people, and act as information insulators.

In the startup world today you need both types of people. If you are somehow able to find both in the same person, hire them immediately. If for some reason you can't hire them, send them my way and I will.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Fleecing

As someone who travels full-time as part of my career, I am no stranger airports, hotels, taxis, and rental cars. Few things stick in my craw as much as the way the rental cars fleece their patrons. Except perhaps the insurance industry.

My recent bout with Hertz just really got to me. The rental car had serious problems so it had to be returned. The lady on the phone was extremely short with me as if my trouble with the car somehow inconvenienced her. When trying to figure out the best way to handle it she just said take it back to the airport. Which by this point is 30 miles away in the opposite direction I need to head. No alternatives, no sympathy even, just take it back. She didn't even offer to call the facility and ensure they'd be ready to exchange my vehicle.

So I make my way back to the airport and lacking any other information proceed to the rental car return location. Which as it turns out is only for returning cars, not for exchanging them. Don't ask me what the difference might be, they couldn't explain. Further, they never offered to explain where the heck I should have gone to do an exchange either.

While filling up the gas tank, I took the time to read the contract terms and noticed that had I not returned the car full of gas they would have charged me $7.49 a gallon. I had to read it twice to be sure I understood. Yep, more than DOUBLE what it would cost me to fill the tank up! Or I could purchase an entire tank of gas at 10 cents a gallon cheaper than gas on the street. Evidently they have decided it is okay to bend over their patrons simply because they can.

Either you save a meager few cents but make up for it by buying an entire tank of gas, or you do it yourself, or they'll rape you when you return. Why? They obviously have a sunk cost already in they guy who will fill it up if I return it less than full. With the volume of cars, surely the get a discount on the fuel as well. They can certainly continue to make a profit by simply performing this service for a small fee instead of the bitch-slap of more than twice the cost of gas! Why not simply charge me a few cents more per gallon? If they can offer me an entire tank for twenty cents per gallon less, why not charge me twenty cents per gallon more for a partial tank?

Simply put, it is because they can. Because rather than be a good company that provides great service for solid value they choose to be an evil company that provides minimal service for exorbitant fees. They might not have to kill the golden goose, but that doesn't mean they can't choke it a little and give it a flogging from time to time.