IT, Age, and Skills Training

September 27, 2010

I was honored to be interviewed by Dave Webb for ComputerWorld Canada in this piece titled; IT doesn’t handle aging well (registration required)

The interview covered my dislike for how the technology field tends to throw out skills and buy new ones, rather than educate or train;

“We do have a bad reputation (in IT) as body shops, looking for two years’ experience in a six-month-old technology,”

And from a second interviewee, Lori Keith;

“without exception, classmates from the IT field were there on their own nickel”

Other industries don’t do this – why IT?

On Context Blindness

September 21, 2010

I am sure most of us have had this happen; you run into someone familiar and then stand there drawing a blank.

You are completely lost for words.

You know that you recognize this individual, but you  just can’t place from where.

Then the light bulb clicks on! the familiar face is a child’s teacher, the owner of your local dry cleaner, or the gas bar jockey you see twice a week.

This disconnect when we see people that we are familiar with, but outside of the context that we usually see them, well – it can throw us for a loop. Our mental circuitry seems to have difficulty in making that association without that associations familiar context.

Let me relate a story, and then ask how this type of context blindness may be affecting us as leaders and managers in our businesses.

A Tech Guys Context Blindness (mine)

It started simply enough, about two years ago we bought a new, fairly high end refrigerator. Over the past couple of months we have been getting frustrated as this new machine has been acting up. The first service call had the technician basically tell us that nothing was wrong. (lets not get into service call ‘sometime between 9 and 5’ here)

But the issues persisted, so we called for service again.

I gave the service technician the outline of what the symptoms were, and the technician instantly replied;

I know this area, you have lots of power surges out here….

Before he finished the above phrase – it smacked me like a punch in the stomach.

Because?

#1 I have been in technology for 20 years, and I know rule number one!  And that rule states that if there is a computer style circuit board anywhere in a device, put it on an electrical surge suppressor to protect it from power spikes.

#2 Logically I knew that the refrigerator had a computer circuit board, simply because all of its controls for the temperature settings,  automatic defrost etc. are all digital!

The Blindness

Simply put – my mental context of protecting computer circuit boards with electrical surge protectors, failed to connect the mental dots between what I know about protecting electronic devices, and what I know about this refrigerator.

And yes – the problem with my refrigerator? that circuit board had blown, usually caused by power spikes.

And Our Business?

Do you have a context specific form of tunnel vision? where you know A and you know B, but is there a piece missing that could turn out to be a new product or service?

Have you mechanized your thinking too the point where you cannot notice the pain point that could be crying out for a solution?

Have you been desperately searching for some way to purchase innovation, when managing this missing context is right before your eyes?

The SMB Takeaway

I am entering this week determined to take a new look at everything that I know within the context of our business. Because who knows if another piece of context blindness is lurking around.

PS, I purchased a new computer grade surge suppressor for my refrigerator.

For many IT leaders in the SME space, thinking about technology is easy.

But thinking about how technology affects the goals and problems of other parts of the business, or external customers is harder.

Technologists tend to look only in the mirror. This type of business introversion is similar to the old adage; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

To improve IT performance smash that mirror and start looking out the window. If you want to borrow another old adage; walk a mile in their shoes.Walk in their shoes

Can you describe the goals and problems facing your sales team? How about marketing? Now how about your customers?

If you can’t answer those questions, observe, research, and ask.

What if you can describe their problems and goals?

Congratulations on a great start, unfortunately that is the easy part.

Influencing and proposing methods to improve ‘the way we always do it around here‘ beast is the harder part.

But it is still the part that has to be done correctly.

Image credit ppphotographs via flickr

On Meetings

August 11, 2010

In last weeks book review about ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson I mentioned that you may not agree with every point the authors mention.

I think the one point in that text I don’t fully agree with is the one on meetings.

The authors, to paraphrase slightly, state; don’t have meetings at all, except in an emergency.

For most of us SME’s, there are good reasons that you should have meetings.

1) In many small to medium businesses here is the primary disconnect I often see when dealing with IT staff or suppliers.

The business management responsible for IT?

Well, they never speak to technology staff unless something is broken. For non-technology managers (ie COO, CFO etc) responsible for their IT, if you are not in regular communication and demanding both tactical and strategic updates, I consider you to be abdicating, not delegating your technology function.

2) You know the old story of the blind men trying to identify an elephant when they can only touch very small pieces?

In our fast paced world, many of us travel, many of us also work solo – often not even in the same location. We can begin to get a feeling of The big picturedisconnect, a feeling of absence. We begin to lose sight of the bigger picture. We begin to be like the blind men, never seeing that bigger picture.

An occasional meeting (even with only video) can help keep people feeling connected and ‘in the loop’. Enabling them to take a look at that elephant.

3) Simply enough – Ambiguity.

Have you every been caught in email CC (carbon copy) hell as people argue, negotiate or discuss?

I am sure most of us have!

Email or other non-visual methods of communication when the issue is explicit instructions or a request, I agree – no need to waste time on a meeting.

But if there is any form of ambiguity? if participants need to negotiate? to discuss? to resolve? (even on a one to one basis) Get it on the table, and get it cleared up quickly. Don’t sit through eight hours of back and forth email hell.

The Caveat

With the above being said, I disagree with vague, useless, time sucking meetings just as much as any body else!

You don’t need everybody in the company to attend a meeting, only the people required for a decision.

Proper agenda, and follow it. Don’t wander off track.

Explicitly clarify and repeat what was decided – and what was not decided – and summarize the  next steps and each deliverable.

The SMB Takeaway

There are many really, really bad meetings going on in most of our businesses, yes – you need to fix them! but a blanket No meetings! is usually not the right response.

Photo Credit decafinata via flickr

Book Review: Switch

July 13, 2010

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is HardSwitch

Chip and Dan Heath provide an easily readable text on change. and in this case, the definition of change being both organizational change and self actualization.

Written in made to stick allegorical format, (the elephant and the rider) the text explains much of the psychology of change in an easy to read, easy to understand format. And let me clarify – they are not attempting to demonstrate some pop-science idea, they use current learning in psychology and behavioral theory  and package in a way that makes it intuitive for those of us who did not major in psychology or the behavioral sciences.

One interesting concept they explore is what behavioral theory calls self fulfilling prophecy. Simply put; if you think of yourself, (or more importantly, about others) in either a positive or a negative fashion, the more likely that we (or they) begin to act or to behave in a fashion that matches those positive or negative perceptions.

And a statistic that the authors identify?

..in an analysis of 558 emotion words – 62 % were negative

So at least in the English language – we humans seem to come pre-wired to think negatively about ourselves or others rather than positively. We demonstrate this by relentless focus on problems, or what was wrong, we don’t look at solutions or what went right.

To paraphrase the authors, four A’s on a child’s report card always seem to be eclipsed by the one F grade don’t they?

The SMB Takeaway

Problems are easy to spot, progress and success is  much harder. So make an effort to celebrate the successes. Celebrate the positives.

You may find that they become more visible, and more frequent.

PS: the italicized made to stick is a reference to the authors first book of that title!

Do you have a front line workhorse toiling away in your organization? Most of us do.

Whatever their title, or wherever they may be in the organizational chart, that he or she is the go to person in many businesses.

Think of that experience! Think of all the details they know about what really happens in your organization!

And now he or she is leaving.

This scenario is happening right now in a friends organization. In this case, that go to person was in customer service, and now she is retiring.

Being the face of that businesses customer service department, it may not have been daily, but frequently she bore the brunt of dissatisfied customers.

And Technology?

I know, you are asking where am I going with this!

But I see two things that many small to medium businesses often overlook when it comes to their customer service teams.

First, Looking Outside Your Walls

Your customer service teams have to deal with dissatisfied customers, that is a given; But what did you do to reduce that dissatisfaction?

We already know that no matter how we wish for perfect customer satisfaction, all day, every day, that is probably an unreasonable expectation. There will always be someone who is dissatisfied. Customers can be dissatisfied because the product or service did not truly meet their needs.

And finally, the biggies; dissatisfaction can occur if customers are not aware of, or don’t know about certain constraints with your product or service, or because they could not understand something.

As an example, consider that customers who purchased high definition television sets report being dissatisfied because they were not aware that to get the full benefit, they have to have high definition compatible services and devices from their regional cable or satellite television provider.

So during the 20 year tenure of your go to customer service individual, have you tracked the issues that they have been dealing with? Are there common refrains that you could have avoided by placing frequently asked questions on your web site?

Then, Inside your walls

Are you collecting information to learn?

During those 20 years of customer service calls, did you actively document them?

Did you look for broad themes that could drive improvements to your product or service? If you received the same complaint multiple times, don’t you think there might be something to learn from?

There is an old saying.

If one man calls you a horses ass. Ignore him.

If two men call you a horses ass. Think about it.

If three men call you a horses ass. Buy yourself a saddle.

Are You Learning?

Photo credit neoporcupine via flickr

It was back in late 1995. Basically my second junior position when I got into the technology field.

I was given a relatively easy task; on one of servers that stored everyone’s work data we were running out of space.  I had to make the space available bigger.

This process is not overly difficult, but it is destructive. Meaning you have to have a server backup first because you will be destroying everything while you recreate the spot for everyone’s data. (in tech speak, I was re-partitioning the drives)

Yes, I had done my backup of that server hard drive! – but I did not test it properly. And that was a failure on my part.

As you may have guessed,  I lost much of that data because the backup did not restore all the data to the new disk properly.

Lesson Learned – in spades

Backups are absolutely useless until you have tested your ability to restore them.

And to this day – I try to ensure I have more than one before that kind of destructive work.

The amazing part is that I was not fired.

(thanks Scott)

The SMB Takeaway

Backup is useless without testing the restore. So test that on a regular basis.

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