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Presenting at the Prairie Developer Conference June 2nd and 3rd

The Prairie Developer Conference is the first of it’s kind in Saskatchewan, a 2 day event covering a wide range of topics including things such as cloud technologies, agile development practices, database performance tuning, etc. 

I submitted three proposals for sessions to the conference and two of them were accepted!

  • Agile Development Practices, brief introduction and how they help your business
  • Iterative Development, How it works, Why it works, Who it helps.

I’m very excited to get the chance to present on these topics to a reasonably large group of people from around my own area, as well as raising the profile of Point2 in Regina.

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Personal Investment = Care and Concern

key_to_success How do you get your team members to really care about the work they’re doing?  How do you ensure that they are concerned about the quality of what they are producing or working on?  How do you make sure they’re productive?  How do you make sure they’re happy?

The answer, as you’ve probably guessed already from the title, is to ensure that they are personally invested.  Great, another “how do i”…

We noticed after a period of time, with the help of some valuable feedback, that our development teams were starting to feel disengaged from the work they were doing.  They always cared to some degree about what they were doing, but were missing that added investment that caused them to be really concerned about the finished product (or feel that they had control over how it looked/worked), and the delivery commitments they had set.  Obviously this is an issue that managers will need to deal with throughout their careers, as it’s their job to ensure that their teams deliver quality products/services.

Possible solutions were thrown around and discussed.  One that came early was to have each team present the work that they had accomplished to their stake holders along with all of the other teams on weekly intervals, no matter how impressive or unimpressive their accomplishments for the week happened to be.  The thought here was that teams would not want to be embarrassed with a poor showing compared to the other teams at the end of each week.

After examining this solution, we decided to throw it out.  The problem is that the idea is from the school of negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement doesn’t win you any respect, what it does do is lead to the all too true office space quote “Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired”.  Not exactly the outcome we were looking to achieve here ;)

So back to the drawing board, how do you get your teams to feel engaged and motivated?  We came up with a few guidelines that are required.

  • The team needs to knows what the root problem to be solved is, and understand why it needs to be solved, as well as an idea of what kind of solution is sought (short/medium/long term).
  • The team absolutely must be the ones to come up with the solution and implementation details.  This is the lynch pin of their personal investment in the project.  This may require coming up with multiple solutions and presenting them to the product owner to choose from.
  • The team needs to understand the business reasons behind the motivation to solve the problem so that they can buy in to the value provided by solving it, and be confident that their solution will solve it appropriately.
  • The team needs to trust the product owner, and the product owner needs to trust the team.

With these things in place, the team should have a personal stake in the solution they are implementing.  More than likely the solution will succeed, and the team will be proud that they solved a problem for the business.  The reason it’s more likely to succeed under these circumstances is because the team has a very strong vested interest in seeing it succeed, it was their idea!  They also have more interest in seeing it delivered on time, it was their idea!  Nobody likes to see their own idea’s fail, especially when they know the value that will be gained if it works.

If you have advice on more ways to increase your teams engagement/investment in their work, please share!

Why don’t people like my ideas?!

frustration1 Have you found yourself asking that question?  I’m sure many developers have, although this topic applies universally to anybody in any profession (or personal life for that matter).

So lets take a closer look at the problem.  I’ll assume you’re a smart girl or guy, people generally respect your opinions and level of knowledge, and you’ve got a history book full of good ideas you’ve had in the past.  You have a detailed explanation of your idea, with a detailed list of the benefits you identified that your idea will provide, or a detailed list of the problems it will solve etc.  Maybe you have pretty charts and graphs that you think illuminate important points you thought of.  Despite all of this, NOBODY WILL BUY YOUR IDEA.

This is pretty frustrating to say the least, and I think that a lot of people end up feeling defeated and give up.  Eventually they stop trying to sell their ideas and just concede to following those people who seemingly can sell ANY idea they want to ANYBODY. 

There’s a very subtle although major difference that can help you become one of those people who can sell your ideas to anybody.  Here’s an example of the difference.  Lets pretend you’ve come up with an idea for a rain water collection/purification system that you think is excellent.  You’re trying to sell the idea to a venture capital company in North America.  You walk in, proud as can be of your great new idea, and you give them a long talk about how your new idea is going to save so much money and provide so much good drinking water.  Then one of the people you’re pitching the idea to says “but water is cheap, why would i want to buy this?”….. and all you can come up with is “but it’s a great idea and i know it will work!”.

Sound familiar at all?  It should, i’ve seen it happen numerous times (not with water systems obviously).  So ask yourself, what did they forget to do?  They did what most people do wrong, they failed to look at things from the OTHER PERSONS PERSPECTIVE.  What is a venture capital firm looking for, making money of course!  So it doesn’t really matter what your idea will do or how it works, they want to know how it’s going to make them money, so that better be the question you are ready to answer when you talk to them.  Tell them about how it will collect enough rain water during a single rain in a desert climate to provide drinking water for X people for X amount of time, and that it only costs Y amount to set up and will last for Z years etc etc.  You need to ask yourself “how will this idea provide value to the person you are selling it to?”.

So lets quickly focus in on software development.  Developers often have great ideas, and they often get frustrated when they feel push back from the business side of the company on those ideas.  Often times this is simply because they are not being effective salesmen.  They expect the business team to understand the benefits of their idea from a developers perspective and to buy it, however business people are not developers and do not have a developers perspective.  You must be mindful of who you are selling your ideas to, figure out what their perspective on the idea will be, and adjust your sales pitch to cater to that perspective.  If you do this, you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration and sell a lot more ideas, but don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself!

Failing should be easy

failSounds kind of crazy doesn’t it?  Why would you want failing to be easy?  There’s actually a pretty simple explanation.

Often when people try something, they feel like they are putting their reputation on the line.  If their idea doesn’t work out, it reflects poorly on them, and so they have a vested interest in making sure the idea at least appears to be successful.  You  can sum it up by saying that in general, if one of your ideas results in failure, it makes you look like a failure.

So what are the side effects of that kind of attitude?  Well for starters nobody is willing to try anything that they aren’t almost completely certain will be a success.  Is that good?  You could argue that it is, only ideas with a very high likelihood of success will have time spent on them.  That’s good right?  What about all of the ideas that could have turned out to be phenomenal successes but were never tried because their success was not virtually guaranteed.  Worse yet, what about all of the ideas that never even got voiced because of the fear of having them labeled as stupid or impossible.

So, even if you only try the ideas that you think have a very high likelihood of success, how to you make sure you get to the really successful ones as quickly as possible?  You make it easy to fail.  That is to say that it’s easy to evaluate a projects success, and easy to determine that it is not living up to expectation, and easy to shut it down and move on to the next idea.  There should be no personal feeling of failure attached to this happening, there should only be learning from why it didn’t work out.

Once this has been achieved, people will be more comfortable voicing ideas that they previously would have kept to themselves, more ideas will get tried out, and only truly successful projects will continue to live on, because there will no longer be any advantage to making a project only appear to be successful.

Look around and it won’t be long before you see something that should have been allowed to fail but wasn’t.

Overview: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky (Part 2)

herecomeseverybody Part 2.

In part 1 I focused mainly on some of the changes to how things can get done with the new tools at our disposal.  To follow up to that I want to talk about some of the fundamental paradigm shifts that are happening because of those tools.

Cost to Publish

Previously I mentioned how it was pointed out that anybody can now  be a publisher.  This basically means that there are an infinite number of potential media outlets in the world, many dormant, waiting for the right circumstances to activate.  Traditionally we have only had a few large media outlets that are well known and we expect them to pump out valuable information on a daily basis.  We can hardly expect the same thing from every tiny media outlet that might spring up.  In fact, many new media outlets will spring up around specific events, and then once the event is over, they will disappear. 

That behavior of spinning up a media outlet around a single specific event, and then shutting it down afterwards is really quite a remarkable change in the information delivery paradigm.  Previously if an event did not get covered by one of the large institutionalized media outlets, it would likely never be known outside of it’s small community.  Now, any event can be known worldwide, because a media outlet with worldwide distribution can be created with the click of a few buttons, and articles distributed with the stroke of a few keys. 

The desire to be able to do this has never changed, but it was traditionally to expensive to start a media outlet.  You would need access to a printing press, and a way to distribute your work etc, people rarely have the means to do this.  However, with the advent of the internet, blogs, and services like twitter, anybody can now write and distribute anything they want with a cost that approaches 0.  So the desire has never changed, but by reducing the cost to almost nothing, now anybody has the means to become a media outlet.

Filter Late

So as a consumer of information, there has also been a large paradigm shift.  In the days of mass media, newspapers, tv news networks, I could always trust that the information I was receiving had been properly researched and scrutinized (ok ok, we’d like to believe that was true anyway…).  This allowed me to take anything I read in the news as factual.  The reason for that is because there are editors that work at all those media outlets, and their primary job is to make sure that any information being distributed by their outlet is of high quality to meet a certain standard.  This would be what we call filtering early.

With the ability for anybody to become a media outlet though, we run in to a dilemma.  For most of us, our entire lives were spent receiving information from sources that were presumably trustworthy, so we could take anything they said as the truth.  Today, that is not the case, because anything can be published anywhere, and distributed to anybody.  The net result is that we must now filter information late.  Going forward in society and our culture it will be impossible to control the flow of information.  Information will always be available that has not been checked or verified, and it will be up to us to decide how valid it is.  So instead of having an editor filter information so we only see high quality information, we are now responsible for filtering the information we receive to determine it’s quality.

Cheap Failure

Another side effect of media outlets (distribution networks) being so cheap to create is that it creates an environment where failing is also extremely cheap.  What does that mean?  Well if you want to try starting up a regular news hub, you can do it for almost no cost, and if it doesn’t work out, you can just stop working on it.  You will have lost very little besides time.  You don’t need to buy any fancy equipment, or do a bunch of expensive advertising, or hire an expensive editor. 

The importance of this is that the desire to attempt things doesn’t change for people based on the tools available.  What does change is the cost of attempting things.  Whenever something is not attempted it’s because the cost was perceived as being high enough to deter the idea from being tried.  If you can lower the cost enough, any idea is worth trying.  One of the largest factors in that cost is the actual amount of effort necessary to try it out.  Technology is rapidly reducing this cost for us in many areas.  The other perceived cost is the cost of failure.  If the attempt fails, what will the outcome be?  If you have a culture where failure is accepted or even celebrated (sounds strange doesn’t it, but word it differently, celebrate the courage to try something new, or what you learned by trying it), then you will reduce that cost by another order of magnitude, and you might be surprised by some of the ideas that get tried out.  The more ideas that actually result in some type of action, the more great ideas you will find.

Summary

So overall I really liked Here Comes Everybody.  I would recommend it to people who are interested in how the internet is affecting peoples behaviors and business models.  It is very well written and an interesting read.  You don’t really need much technical knowledge in order to enjoy the material.  Knowing a bit about a few larger websites like wikipedia would help you relate to some of the book better than others, but i wouldn’t say it’s required.

Avoid the Jack of all Trades trap

focus

  Key ingredients to success and career growth, at least the two on my mind right now, are focus and determination.  Why are these things important?  I’ll tell you why, because when most people are asked how to be successful, focus and determination will probably slip off their tongue, however if you were to actually observe them at work and in their personal life, you would most likely see a lack of one or both of these.

Lets start with determination as it seems more obvious.  Determination isn’t really something in and of itself, it’s more of a measurement of what lengths you are willing to go to in order to achieve your goals.  So being very determined to accomplish something really just means you are willing to do certain things to get there which usually will consist of things like; practicing, researching, learning, looking for teaching/coaching and anything else that makes sense.  Many people may say they are determined to accomplish something, but what they really mean is they really wish they could just wake up tomorrow and be at their destination.  That’s an exaggeration for most people, but for many it’s somewhere between that and what’s actually required to reach their goals. 

Focus on the other hand is something that most people probably don’t think about enough.  Determination by itself is not good enough.  The problem is that when your goals are to become an expert at anything, no matter how determined you are you won’t be able to accomplish that goal without focusing on it.  You’ll need to cut out distractions, and stop trying to focus on improving skills that are not related to the skill you wish to be an expert at.  There is an old saying you’ve probably heard before “Jack of all trades, master of none”.  It’s relevant in all industries, and IT trades are definitely no exception.  I’d say it may be worse in IT but that wouldn’t really be an informed opinion so i won’t make any bets on it. 

So, if you take my word for it, lack of focus will result in a jack of all trades.  To be more specific, a lack of refocusing will result in a jack of all trades.  The reason for that is because at the beginning of your career you won’t know what you want to focus on besides becoming a better developer, business analyst, sys admin etc.  Sticking to the development track because it’s what i’m most familiar with, you’ll initially need to focus on how programming works, basic skills related to the industry, and probably try to get a basic level of knowledge on as many things as possible.

So now you’re done school and ready for your first job.  You start out by soaking up as much information as possible, learning everything you can.  You learn about things like object oriented design, service oriented architecture, domain driven design, database design and performance tuning etc. 

Skip forward 3 or 4 years, you’re quite competent in every aspect of your job, you’re a go to guy for your team, you can become competent at a new skill in short order at the drop of a dime.  You have basically reached the epitome of most peoples career, broad competence with the ability to pick up new basic skills quickly.

Now you’re faced with the decision everybody in the industry runs up against, and most people don’t even realize it.  Do I want to keep getting better, and if so, how?  The answer to the first question is a factor of determination.  How much are you willing to do in order to keep getting better?  The answer to the second question is focus.  Up until now in your career you’ve enjoyed getting better at everything, making constant improvement in everything.  Bad news, that’s not going to last forever.  You’re going to have to pick a skill, or subset of skills and focus on improving those skills.  The side effect of this is that you’re going to have to "defocus” on all skills not related to the ones you’ve chosen to focus on.  It’s a large hurdle for most people to jump because it’s easy to understand but hard to accept and work with. 

This will be a turning point in your career.  You’ll either accept the hurdle and jump over it, taking a turn down the road to becoming highly skilled in narrowly focused areas, or else you can understand the hurdle but not choose to jump it (lack of determination) and decide to take the easy path which unfortunately leads to the dead end of being average, the jack of all trades trap.

So to sum up the thought, you’re going to continue to refocus your skills throughout your career.  Every so often you will zoom in on a new area that you’ll specialize in.  Once you have reached a certain level in those skills you’ll zoom in your focus again on yet another area to become more specialized in.  Only you can decide when you’ve focused enough.  The less focused you are the more skills you’ll be able to maintain a specific skill level at, at the expense of increasing that skill level.  At some point the only way to increase skill in some area you’re interested in will be to defocus on another skill and allow your ability in that area to lapse.

Focus and determination.  How determined are you to reach your goals?  Determined enough to allow your skills in something you used to be good at to lapse?  Willing to not be the go to guy for a laundry list of skills?  How many are you willing to drop, how much are you willing to work at the ones you’re going to focus on?  Keep asking yourself this question, it will play a key role in your career development.