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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Skydiving without parachutes…

The other day I posted a comment that “The only time skydiving without a parachute is dangerous is if you were planning to use the parachute.”, and this raised a few questions.  Some were regarding my sanity – which is to be expected – but others were more of the common variety and centered on project management, several people wanted to know how I dealt with the issue.  So, what did I mean by that? 

If your being told by management “You’re going skydiving.”, the first thing you’re going to want is a parachute.  Unless of course things dictate that parachutes are not allowed… in which case it’s just a very cool backpack that serves no purpose, and the whole process of packing it, carrying it, etc., is just something that gets in the way. 

There are, to my knowledge,  only two ways to survive skydiving without a parachute… the first is planning, the second, is insane luck. 

Planning, Planning, Planning… it’s all in the planning…

And you may, quote me on that.  In fact, make that your mantra.  Just wander the halls mumbling “Planning, Planning, Planning…” – it won’t solve your problems but it will get you on Youtube, and that’s always fun right?

Now, what will solve your problem is getting details and planning.  The first thing you need to do in any planning, is get information.  “Can I even survive skydiving without a parachute?”, and “If I can, and even if I can’t… what are my options and what are my next steps.”.  So – plan, define options, and know what’s coming – even if it’s the ground at high speed. 

Options and Context are your wings…

If you have options, and you understand the context of the problem – odds are you will locate solutions you didn’t know you had.

A classic example of this is one I had tossed out at me in an interview yesterday.  The question was framed as a ‘no-win’ scenario.  You have the project defined, and you’re already over booked.  You’ve got 4 features, you’ve got 35 bug fixes, and you have 3 week test cycles with 5 weeks to ship – and management says, “New Feature MUST get into this release.”.  

You cannot change, resources, you cannot move or slip your ship date, all of the features are promised and Pri 1’s so can’t cut them… what do you do?

Well first thing – don’t panic.  Second thing, determine the priority on this “new feature”, next look for ways to improve efficiency to use the resources I have, and then – ask myself if my team really needs to be the one that actually creates it – maybe I can license it, maybe someone else has solved the problem for me.

No one ever said the feature HAD to come from me.  Granted, and this is something I felt was arguable – I am adding resources effectively by doing this.  But it’s an example of reviewing the problem – and checking if it can’t be solved any other way within the context – can it be solved outside the context?  What variable is the best one to change? 

Was this trip really necessary???

What are my real options?  If this is not the first question asked when an unreasonable request (like jumping out of a plane without a parachute) is asked of us… you have serious problems which require medical attention.  Really. 

I sometimes think people need to tattoo this on their forehead so they’ll never forget it… There are NO obvious or stupid questions!!  Asking if you really have to do something – and finding out WHY you really have to do it is always acceptable.  If you don’t know why you’re in this position – then you need to find out, because you can’t determine the context of the problem – until you know the context of your own environment.  Maybe you find out that the plane isn’t actually leaving the ground – or that you’re skydiving in one of those wind tunnels – and a parachute isn’t needed.  Find out context, discover the problem, ask questions, and discover your options.

Now, I’m not going to go all rosey picture here… sometimes, you will discover that you have none.  No Options.  It’s  a real plane.  It’s really at 10,000 feet, and you really are jumping without a parachute, glider wings, air bags… heck they just handed you a cinder block and pushed.   There is NO way out of this one. 

Which brings us to…

Sometimes… bad things happen to good projects…

Really – they do, you’re not imagining it when it happens to you, bad things – sometimes really bad things, happen.  Sometimes, you are, effectively Ordered to jump out of a plane – with no parachute.  I have done this several times (not literally – just metaphorically in the sense of project management).  It’s not fun, but it does happen.  Be prepared for it.   Plan for it.  Part of that plan… will be what you plan on doing – after you fail. 

You will need a response.  You will need forward steps from that point.  Make that a part of your plan.  Maybe you can’t win this one, but you can do it with professionalism.  Own it.  Make it yours.  Don’t lay blame, don’t point fingers.  You were responsible for the project.  Doesn’t matter what happened when it failed, people frankly will care less about that – than they will about how you handle it. 

If you want to be a leader.  You have to lead.  Leaders own things, that includes failures.  So be willing to support the findings of your root cause, and be willing to accept responsibility for the project failure.  If you’re the PM – make no mistake, you owned that.  Why it self destructed, or the fact that it was doomed from the moment they handed it to you – will not matter.  YOU own it. 

So own your failures with the same pride you would your successes.  Don’t stand around moping – provide the next steps from there, and move on.

If you do this, often, most people will never remember your failed projects – because they’ll only remember that you had next steps.  To them – and most people – it may even look like you just saved it.  Really.  I’ve seen it happen many times.  The only way you can do that – is if you plan for it.  Know what you options are – even if it’s hitting the ground, and provide the next steps.  Open-mouthed smile

Occasionally, we all get something that there is no way around, over, under, or through.  Like the Skydiver approaching the ground without a chute – if they haven’t planned for this event – then all they can do is curl up in a ball, hope for a miracle, but expect dirt at 180 mph (give or take) followed by crunch and a splut kind of noise.  If they’re really lucky… it’s over quickly.

So the question is – do you want to know you’re about to die and there’s nothing you can do about it early?  Or just before you hit?  Or not at all?

Studies actually show, believe it or not – that people react, and handle bad news early best.  In fact, they tend to add to the bearer of the news’ credibility rating, making them more likely to trust that person in the future.  That, by the way is sort of the ‘good news on bad news’ studies because they also show, that bad news – can be as damaging psychologically as a full blown psychological disorder and people (sometimes within minutes of receiving the news) go through pretty much the same stages as people being told they are dying. 

They will need to move through these stages – before they can move on.  Which, is another reason why you need to tell them as soon as you are sure and have your facts.  They can’t move on with their projects – until they’ve gone through that.  Really – sounds silly doesn’t it?  But studies show it’s actually true within minutes of hearing a project has failed people who are stake holders often go through… Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. 

Be prepared for that – it’s coming.  You may, ironically, when you first realize that you’re going to die… err… crash …err fail – go through these as well.  But most certainly all the stakeholders will, there will be Denial, there will be Anger, there will be Bargaining, and finally Depression and Acceptance.  Once you’ve seen all five of these – you know the worst is over and it’s time to move on. 

In fact, people will WANT to move on.  So, know what the next steps are so you can give them one.   

Studies – btw – also show that if you know your about to experience pain (physical or emotional) that you actually feel it less if you know precisely what’s going to happen and how bad.  So, don’t sugar coat – be honest, not brutal, and tell the truth to everyone as soon as you’re sure of your facts.  Present facts, not speculation – and you’re actually doing them a kindness as well as increasing your credibility with them. 

Surviving the fall is easy.  Just get up and walk – not away from the project – but to your next steps.  This is very very important.  Because in reality it is the only 100% method I’ve ever had that actually works every time to survive skydiving without a parachute.

Never walk away from where you land.  Have a plan, and walk to where you want to go. 

That’s my thoughts on it.  They were the last thing that went through my head… never mind… bad joke.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Why do we have a box?

We all know the term “Think outside the box” and we all like to think that the best of us are capable of doing just that.  On our better days we make valiant attempts to do so.  But when it comes to thinking about who uses the products, the services, the ideas we create how often do we really do that?  And more importantly, are we really capable of thinking outside the box … When we never even question why is there even a box in the first place?

We are, here in the states, trapped in a desperate economy with all businesses trying to fight for a greater share of a rapidly dwindling market.  From cell phones to fruits and grains, the fight to create and sell products the world wants has become a tedious and somewhat endless display of copying whatever is selling at the moment and the truly innovative products are seemingly fewer and farther between.

In the late 1990’s Bill Gates stood before a packed CES trade show and declared the age of the web browser was dead and the future was the tablet PC.  The reception he received was, to say the least, less enthusiastic than that of ten years later.  Which is when Steve Jobs, unveiled the iPad to the world, gave pretty much the same speech and the world has proceeded to snap them up like candy. 

Bill Gates and Microsoft in 2000, clearly were the innovators. They were a decade ahead of the planet and the thumping that they received from the market is largely why they seemingly are, in all irony, late to the Tablet party – even though they created them 10 years before the iPad was even a twinkling in the eye of Steve Jobs.  You can argue the interface on the iPad is easier to use and all kinds of things… But the fact is, in 2000 we just weren’t ready for Tablet PC’s.  No one had a need.

Microsoft was thinking outside the box. They just never asked first … “Why do we have a box?", “Who needs a box?” and “What the heck is a box anyway???”.  This the is the difference between something that is innovative… and innovation.  Innovation, is bringing together what is needed – when and where it’s needed, not just coming up with the product first. 

Its that synchronicity between demand for something new, and having something new.  Which is harder to achieve than you might think, and in a zen like irony – easier than people might think.  The trick… is to stop thinking and start observing. 

The core of user experience is not placing a product in the hands of the user and saying, “Show us how you’d use this.”.  It’s spending time with the user and seeing what they do, how they do it, and then designing something based on that.  This is what is missing from much of our businesses today.  We are so busy creating a product, we aren’t asking if anyone out there uses it – or if they need something completely different from what it is we make.

I see everyone from Google to Apple these days looking at “the future”.  What I don’t see, are boots on the ground just … people watching.  The next great product, will not be an iPad, or a new Search system for the Internet.  It won’t be an operating system.  It’s not going to be a cell phone or mobile computing experience, or a nano-molecular vaccine against cold sores.

It might be… clothing that is self cleaning.  It might be an app that connects all your banking needs with your shopping in an easier to use form than we’ve seen today.  It might be a self cleaning coffee mug.  It might be any one of a thousand things but the one thing I assure you it will not be… is a box.  So thinking outside it?  Waste of your time.  If you started the thought process by even acknowledging that you have a box, you’re already behind the game.

We now live in a global economy, where 75% of your potential customers are only partially literate.  So, all that cool wording on your packaging to describe the features?  That was most likely something that could have been handled better by large pictures of people clearly using the features – which wouldn’t require translation.  We live in a global world where most of your newest customers live in countries where getting to the bank?  Really hard to do, and probably neither safe, or effective since many of the banks there close due to panics regularly.  (Really they do. You think our financial issues are bad?  Just wait till you see what it’s like in the 3rd world.)

The “box” has no meaning in the global space.  It’s only purpose is often as a method of short term housing.  Where $100 USD is an upper middle class months salary.  That’s the reality.   That is the market that we need very much to be addressing.  Because that’s the 3 billion extra customers that we’re looking for.  And they often can’t read.  And they often do not own cars, and sharing housing with 2 –3 other families isn’t uncommon.  This is the global economy ‘box’ you need to think outside of – it’s not a pretty box. It is the fastest growing market on the planet.

If you have a scrap yard in Atlanta or Wyoming or North / South Dakota with old truck or car parts you can’t sell? Guess what?? Here’s your market… here’s your box… fill it with the stuff this market needs. Food, clean water, power, cheap and affordable shelter, tv’s and entertainment. The trick is not to come out with the next super awesome $500- $2400 computer. It’s to come up with a decent disposable $100 computer that has internet.

It’s not to offer a $50-100 pair of designer blue jeans. It’s to offer a designer label pair of inexpensive $5-10 pair of jeans.  It’s all about reaching that market – and that markets needs.  In ‘our world’, our ‘box’ the idea of a cell phone which has 2 SIM chips built into it that let you use 1 phone with 2 different carriers has no purpose.  But in the world without a box – these sell like hotcakes.  Better to sell 5,000 of something at $5 than to sell fifty of them at $250 – that’s the reality.

The world without a box is the largest potential customer base out there.  The world without a box that sits in an almost dystopian world torn from a William Gibson novel were it cross-bred with the Grapes of Wrath.  Technology coexists with poverty.  And poverty – is changing so rapidly, that in 5-15 years they will be nearly up to our standard of living, up to our ‘box’.  But even then – their cultural, their personal, professional and daily needs, will not match up. 

If we are not considering this brave strange new world that culturally is vastly different from what we perceive it to be.  When we learn to market to that very large and very much willing to buy segment, when we begin to innovate for that segment… we are tapping into a market which right now, seemingly has nothing but sheer raw numbers.  Not hundreds of thousands of customers or millions of customers, but billions of customers.

When we stop trying to live within the confines of a box, and think outside it for solutions… and instead remove the box and think of just straight solutions to problems we can see, hear feel, touch taste and understand – we develop the greatest products that will have ever existed.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Stupid Email tricks…

One of the tricks I use on reports is to create an email form letter, and then send it out.  I’ve talked about this imagebefore and it’s a pretty simple feat to pull off.  You just create your cool looking email, either in an HTML editor or MS Word and copy it into Outlook,  or you can even just skip the middle man and create it in Outlook itself… complete with graphics and all the pretties (a while back I even showed how to incorporate Excel Spreadsheets or MS Project plans into them).

But it occurred to me that I’ve never actually talked about how to create a report – and auto generate the email output from this.  This is a real time saver trick if you have to do regular status reports and you’re pulling the information from several sources because you can just create it in Excel, click a button… and have it pull data from an external source and then … wallah – instant status report for 30, 50 or 500 people, and it looks good every time.

imageFirst, you need to have something to autogenerate or autopopulate the HTML into Outlook with.  You can do this from Excel, or any number of progams using a macro. There are dozens of these around, but this is probably one of the more useful ones I’ve found.  In it, you’ll find the code to create an Outlook Email and attach files to it. 

The code that I’ve been using on my JobHunter program – cheats a bit, as it already knows the email it’s replying to, so I can actually pull who I need to reply to and other information directly off the jobHunter form and input it into my emails, and this I do by imagecreating ‘tags’ like HTML tags that I embed in my email.   But you can do this with any Macro, so don’t feel like you need to create some advanced program or Outlook addin to do this. 

Something simple like a Excel macro will do just fine.  Since the code for one, is very similar to the other I’ll show you the code I’m currently using to generate the email you’re seeing here.  Keep in mind, this code is part of a Outlook Add-In, so it’s hooking into functionality you don’t have access to.  But the basics of this code can be used on any Macro since it’s pretty much VBA code.

 

 

        Dim oMail As Outlook.MailItem
        Dim oFSO
        Dim oFS
        Dim newApp As New Outlook.Application
        Dim sText As String
        Dim sFname As String = Left(tb_recName.Text, InStr(1, tb_recName.Text, " "))
        If newApp.Application.ActiveExplorer.Selection.Count Then
            If TypeOf newApp.Application.ActiveExplorer.Selection(1) Is Outlook.MailItem Then
                oMail = newApp.Application.ActiveExplorer.Selection(1).Reply
                oFSO = CreateObject("Scripting.FileSystemObject")
                oFS = oFSO.OpenTextFile("C:\Users\Robert\Documents\hello_new.html")

                sText = oFS.readall
                'Here we get rid of those nasty extra characters that are in the HTML file
                sText = sText.Replace("", "")
                sText = sText.Replace("’", "'")
                If sFname IsNot "" Then
                    sText = sText.Replace("<replytoname>", Trim(sFname))
                Else
                    sText = sText.Replace("<replytoname>", "")
                End If
                oMail.To = tb_recEmail.Text
                oMail.Attachments.Add("C:\Users\Robert\Documents\RobertAJakobson.doc", Outlook.OlAttachmentType.olByValue, 0, "RobertAJakobson Resume")

                oMail.HTMLBody = sText & vbCr & oMail.HTMLBody
                oMail.Display()
            End If
            End If

Now, notice that the HTML file is brought in as text, and like any text, I can then use replace, either as with VB.net code, or the more common Replace("my text string", "what I’m trying to find", "thing I’m trying to replace")  which is what you’d use in VBA with Macros. 

You might also notice that I’m also using the .Attachments.Add to add my resume to the document (although you could add any file that you want to attach using this trick.

The end result is a visually appealing email. 

imageNow, it’s not like there aren’t some downsides to these kind of emails.  For one thing, the images need to be stored on a web server somewhere.  When I design these, I do so with an HTML editor – for this I use Microsoft Expression Blend and I create the email first on a web server and view the web page from that server.  So even though I may save the HTML file onto my hard drive for the script… I make sure all the links in it – are pointed to the web server’s image directory.

The reason why this is needed is because if the images can be seen via the internet, then you can see them from your email.  Image pointers which point to your hard drive – viewers of the email can’t access because they have no access to your hard drive.

imageAnother trick which makes the pages load vaster is to eliminate images completely and just use CSS or clean typography.  By eliminating images, there’s no load time.  And with a bit of careful planning it’s more than possible to make visually appealing emails without images.

The email shown here (left) has no images.  Even the gradient text, is done with some crafty use of coloring with the FONT tag in HTML.  Play around with things, you can do some amazing things and make yourself look very impressive.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Recruiting in the IT bidnez…

Anyone who works in IT much knows about recruiting firms.  Love them, hate them, they’re a part of the industry. 

I have, in general, more of a love for recruiters and a hatred for the recruiting industry as a general rule, and this is pretty well known.  I have several people I consider “professional friends” who are recruiters.  I respect them – and admire their dedication. But, as with any industry, you can’t judge the entire industry by one or two bad eggs.  On the whole, recruiters work in an industry much like that of Used Car Salesmen and Personal Injury Lawyers.  Really.  We all know the stereotypical recruiter.  I don’t even have to give you a mental picture… you know what I’m talking about right?

The problem with stereotypes like recruiters, car dealers and lawyers… the truly great ones are the exception – and it’s the industry as a whole that behaves like a bad stereotype. (Which before all my Car Dealer, Recruiter and Lawyer friends attack… that is WHY there is the Stereotype.  People didn’t come up all those jokes and twisted views because they were bored.)

This week was particularly frustrating for me dealing with recruiting firms as I had two positions I was forced to pull out of or avoid a double submittal.  For those unfamiliar, a double submittal is just that, when two different recruiting firms submit the same person for the same job.  It’s heavily frowned on.  In fact most major companies have specific hiring policies for when this happens.  At the very least you can be dropped from consideration, in some cases your name is black listed for a period.  So it’s a pretty serious matter, and if you’re really smart… you just pull your name from consideration to avoid the train wreck entirely.  It’s a bit like committing suicide to avoid certain death – but you get the idea. 

I had two different positions this happened with… and so, we’re talking on 2 occasions, in one week, two different recruiting firms who approached me with the same job, talked to me on the phone about it, emailed back and forth, and got a right to represent… and at no point did I realize it was for the same job.

Now, if you will recall, I’d been working on my jobHunter toy is supposed to allow me to avoid this because it reads the emails, and it does all kinds of things and it stores it all in a database so I can quickly review and avoid such shenanigans.  And it failed.  It didn’t just fail a little – it completely missed this… twice.  Which to me, is pretty horrendous.  The reason why all of this failed is simply… if you build a better mousetrap, you get a better quality of mouse.

In this case, the recruiting firms are not actually to blame … at least not entirely.  Or at least we’re going to pretend like that is the case, because otherwise our only compensense for this foolery is they’re complete goits.  So, assuming they’re not… (Really they weren’t. Trust me, I’d call them a far worse than a goit if they deserved it…) Ahem… where was I?  Oh yeah… Assuming they’re not … and they weren’t… the cause was simple.  There was no error. 

It’s not that I’m infallible in my logic and work flows, far from it.  The process I use is only a few steps from waving a headless chicken over a campfire while chanting in Urdu… believe me, I have no illusions that it’s not flawless.  But, it is very good at one thing which is comparing texts since it uses a Levenshtein distance matching algorithm.   So if there’s two job descriptions – it’s pretty easy to pick them out if they match.  These had a matching value that was so far apart they weren’t even in the same zip code.  The distance on these was so far apart, I would have called the Space shuttle up and had them see if they could give me a reading on it from space but unfortunately WE NO LONGER HAVE ONE.  (Yes I’m whining… but I miss our space program.)

So why didn’t I pick up on it until the last minute?  Simple.  The job titles provided, the job descriptions provided – weren’t even close.  They were in fact, completely different jobs.  But each recruiting firm – in gathering the job requirement from the client, listened and heard completely different needs and recorded those.  (Both sets of needs, I’m thoroughly capable of performing ironically.)

As they say, you can’t plan for the impossible.  But you can check to see how often the impossible happens and learn to at least duck faster.  In this case – not possible.  You see, no matter how good the recruiters are… they would still have gone into things and gathered the requirements differently because they interviewed the manager differently, and so got different results.  Complicating things the hiring manager wasn’t sure what kind of title they wanted to give the job… so there really wasn’t a title for the job.

And that leads us to why the job hunting tool will probably never be available aside from if people want to play with it – and tweak it for their own needs. 

Because you cannot fix what is not broken.  The tool worked fine.  The recruiters did their job.  But things broke in two places.  1) I never solidly said, “Hey I have to have a specific ID or way to identify this position.”  – I relied on my tool for that, and it bit me.  In order for a tool like this to work it requires that there be for each position a specific and readily identifiable ID for each position.  Some commonality that can be shared among all recruiting firms to identify the position.  2) The recruiter’s client was not specific enough about the position with each of them so as to provide a consistent idea of what the job was.

I’ll keep trying to crack this egg… and maybe I can… but for now.  I’m going to be far more harsh with recruiters about the specifics of all jobs submitted for my consideration.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Uncategorized