Friday, July 31, 2009

What's next?

For the past few months I've been thinking about what truly excites me. I don't think sitting in front of the computer is the coolest thing in the world (unless you are reading otherwise I wouldn't be asking myself these questions. I think what's important about these questions is thinking about the answer, so I started thinking and I realized that one of the things that I'm most passionate about is visiting other countries and experiencing other cultures.

Today I signed up for a Mandarin class and a Bread Making class (did I mention I live to eat?). So I'll let you know how the class progresses and what kinds of bread I make. The Chinese class is ten weeks long, so I'll be done in early December and maybe I can go to China early next year.

A few other things on the agenda are learning how to play the guitar like Paco de Lucia, getting my pilot licence and continuing my SCUBA adventures (have I written about that yet?).


Saturday, April 4, 2009

It’s Your Ship - An interesting read

If you are looking for a motivational book with practical examples of how to challenge the status-quo and innovate to enhance performance, I have a book for you. I just started reading It’s Your Ship by a Captain Michael Abrashoff and I’m gladly surprised by the quality of the advice and the clear/concise writing.

I first picked up the book about a year ago when the library at work was closing and giving away books, but I didn’t bother to open it until now. It looked like the typical management fad book with a bright red stripe with big letters on the cover. I totally expected it to suck as much as the last book I got form that library, A Visionary’s Handbook, which had half-baked ideas and obscure references to events from the late nineties that I have to recollection of.

When I first started reading It’s Your Ship I braced myself for a dry and obsolete lecture on the value of discipline in forming character (or some other square-minded, armed forces brainwasher) but instead I found a lively and practical story, which I have enjoyed so far. The main idea that the author tries to get across is quite straightforward: Motivated and empowered people can do great things. He uses specific examples from his career in he Navy to encourage the reader to challenge obsolete norms and build the confidence of all of those under your management chain (and through improved performance, the confidence of those above).

I specifically like the examples of how to “save taxpayers money” by taking suggestions from the performers and going outside the conventional channels to implement them. In one example he details how he reduced the number of times the ship had to be scraped, sanded and repainted from six times a year to once every few years. The interesting thing is that he did so by taking the suggestion of a sailor of replacing regular iron bolts with stainless steel bolts. To do so, the captain had to go to the local hardware store because the Navy didn’t carry these fasteners in stock and the bureaucracy to get them through the regular channel was stifling.

I am looking forward to implementing the ideas I’m picking up from this book in my day-to-day work. The specific of challenges I am faced with are much different than those faced by Abrashoff but the general concepts are universal.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Who's insane?

Why does the government insist on spending the money it doesn't have?

I want to share an interesting article that reminds me of that quote from Einstein: "Doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity".

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Harder than it seems

I want to lead a team on a successful business venture. That is my long term professional goal. Loosely defined like that it seems so easy, but I am quickly finding out that it is much harder than it seems. I have been working in my new role, with much more responsibility, for about a month now and I have come to realize how hard this is. Leadership has many dimensions, such as strategy, future planning and motivation. The dimension I have been worrying about recently is management: people and project management.

Although people and project management go together - because people are the ones who work on projects- I will focus on project management on this post. One of the things that I have struggled with the most in recent weeks is setting appropriate timelines for a project. It is not hard for me to set timelines when I am the main performer, because I know my strenths and limitations, and if necessary will stretch myself to meet my self-imposed deadline. Setting timelines for a project where the performers are others is a totally different story. Eacy performer will have his own goals and motivation (or lack there of), skill sets and experience. Furthermore, if I have never performed the task that I am creating the schedule for, I don't know how long it would take me to do it, and I can't ground my estimates.

I have found a few things very helpful when setting expectations for a project, and they mostly center around communication. They range from attitudes (such as putting your self in the shoes of both the performers and the stakeholders) to pieces of software (such as MS Project).

The first thing I learned, and have been trying to do, is to get the assessment of an expert. IF your project is to develop a piece of software, then look for someone who has coded and tested software in the particular language you will be using. If at all possible you want someone who is an outsider to your project to ensure an unbiased opinion. I find that people are usually very willing to help, especially if you are in the same department or company.

Another important step in the process is to clarify expectations with all the stakeholders involved and make sure they agree. Maybe a "successful" project does not require you to deliver all items from A-to-Z, so you want to know exactly what is expected. Furthermore, if you are in charge of the project you want to drive a hard bargain between what is really important and what is just icing on the cake. Making the 80-20 calls explicit to everyone (higher-ups and performers) is very important for a successful project. I have been pushing the team very hard to meet a deadline and also pushing back on the expectations of higher ups in one of my current projects, until I realized (just yesterday) that their definition of "complete" was different that mine and that we were much closer than I thought. This was a terrible flaw in communication, but I'm glad we all re-aligned our expectations.

Lastly, you need to be explicit about the work that each individual needs to accomplish. Everyone has to know exactly what they are responsible for and when the due date is. Some people require more detail around expectations that others, and this can be hard to provide when you are unfamiliar with the details of the work, wich you should be. Creating a project plan with specific tasks and deadlines is a tough job, and sticking to it is even tougher, but at the end each week/day you can look back and know exactly where you stand agains your project plan. This way you will quickly realize when you are slipping and do something about it.

It is important to note that these timelines should not be created in a vacuum. You have an assessment from the expert on how long it should take, know exactly what the deliverables are, but should always consult with the performers themselves whether or not the expectations are realistic. It is not fulfilling to have someone impose timelines on you, and it is also not satisfying to have people underdeliver and then tell you "You never asked me if I could deliver X in two days".

For this particular project we are supposed to be using the Agile methodology, so there is not an explicit progression of tasks, and things kind of just get done and then we assess the accomplishments and iterate. It is a very popular methodology in software development and my guess is that it works well there because of the young and creative types doing the works. Personally, I like to work with a very explicit set of goals and timelines (which I am admittedly not so good at creating) against which to measure progress. Maybe I just haven't spent enough time trying to study and understand the Agile method, but so far it hasn't worked for me.
In essence, good communication is the key to setting timelines, and plays an important role in delivering them.

Next time I want to talk about developing team members to reach their full potential and managing extremely smart/talented people (Which I am trilled to be doing now).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Learning to lead

I have been hearing a lot about leadership lately. The latest edition of the HBR talks about reinventing leadership, I downloaded a few podcasts on leadership, and of course the nation is changing “leaders”. If that were not enough, I seem to have become a leader myself.

After working on the same team (my first job out of college) for a few years and steadily gaining recognition, experience and influence, I have reached a position where I am responsible for the performance of two great analysts. One of them has been working with me for a few months and I have acted as a mentor for him as he navigates the fresh waters of a new job. The other analyst has some great experience on areas very different than my own and the only business interaction I have had with him has been very positive.

While I’m trilled about this challenge, I have been somewhat slow to fully embrace my new role. It is easy to do analysis and produce great results when all you have to do is stimulate yourself, but now I need to figure out ways to motivate OTHERS to perform, and do my own work at the same time. I am looking forward to learning about how to accomplish tasks successfully by means of other people (or insert your own definition of leadership here).

I’ll keep you posted on my progress, but in the meantime I would like to hear your thought on the subject. Tell me some anecdotes about your first people management experience. What do you think about ‘friending’ your directs on Facebook? What works for you to keep your team energized and engaged? I respect the available literature on the subject, but I know you have a lot of knowledge to share and to complement the established schools of thought. Don’t be shy.

Hope to hear from you soon.