Balancing Work and Life

Balancing work and home life is nothing new; we’ve had this challenge for a long time. But in recent months when so many companies are streamlining operations and asking their employees to do more with less, the challenge has gotten noticeably more difficult. I recently interviewed someone who had struggled with this in a mighty way; he’d worked more weekends than not during the past twelve months and had reached a point of burn out.

In addition to the direct work requirements of our jobs, there are also the quasi-work activities of blogging, attending user group meetings, learning new technologies, and volunteering in the community. All of these are good activities, but they take time. And that time has to come from some where.

Priorities

In Cheaper by the Dozen, Steve Martin’s character, Coach Tom Baker, faces this dilemma when his boss, Shake McGuire, demands more time from the Coach despite the pressures at home. Shake is surprised when Tom Baker resigns from his dream job. Tom Baker summarizes his rationale very succinctly. “If I screw up raising my kids. nothing I achieve will matter much.”

Priorities matter. Balancing work and home matters.

So how can we better balance our work life and home life? I suspect you already know the answer to that question. It’s the doing of the answer that’s difficult.

Tips For Balancing

  • Realize That You’ll Never Get Everything Done. I’m a doer. I like checking items off a to-do list. But I’ve learned that my to-do list will never reach zero. There will always be something else to do. I will not be able to finish everything before I go home for the day. Once I made peace with that, some of the self-imposed stress that accompanies open items and drives me stay late at work begins to melt away.
  • Place Your Family Events On The Calendar. I learned a long time ago that if an event is not on my calender, it will not happen. I’m too busy to remember everything that is important to me. So I put family events on my calendar. Boy Scout events? On the calendar. My daughter’s piano recital? On the calendar. You can mark them private if you wish, but staking the claim on the calendar will prevent others from scheduling meetings during important family events.
  • Learn To Say “No”. This is one of my biggest challenges. I want to help with each request that comes to me. And considered in isolation, it’s easy to think that it’ll only take a small amount of time. But all of those little items add up. Learning to say No at work, at home, and at volunteer events will help to add some much needed margin to your life.
  • Make Up Your Mind Ahead Of Time. As Socrates once said “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Take the time to know what is important to you before you are put in a situation that challenges you. If I’m asked to attend a SQLSaturday when I have a family commitment, I won’t go. Family is important to me.
  • Time Box Your Activities. I can write a magazine article in four hours or it can take four days. It all depends on how much time I allow. Parkinson’s Law states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Perfectionists are really susceptible to Parkinson’s Law. Time boxing is the practice of allocating a set amount of time for an activity. When you reach the end of the time, you’re done. This prevents you from revising and revising again and wasting time with only marginal gains in the output (aka the Law of Diminishing Returns).

Beware Of Too Many Good Things.

The challenge in putting these ideas into practice is that most of the time, the things that we are doing are good things. Speaking at conferences, staying late to go the extra mile for a client, teaching a Sunday School Class, leading a Boy Scout troop, are all good things. And all have their place. But too many of them too often can lead to problems.

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The Three C’s Of Interviewing

A client of mine recently asked me to help fill a junior-level position in their organization. This isn’t uncommon; I regularly help clients interview and select qualified IT Professionals to join their ranks.

Usually I’m usually given a detailed job description with very specific requirements. The manager frequently believes that the requirements for the position are very unique, very specific to the organization.

Sometimes this is true; often it is not.

As a result of this perceived uniqueness of the position, many hiring managers mistakenly settle for the first person that meets their minimum requirements. Sometimes, they even settle for less than their stated minimum.

This is unfortunate. It is a disservice to their organization, to the ill-fitting candidate that’s hired, and to the other candidates who would have been a better fit in the organization. The organization has to suffer through a lackluster performer. The person hired is put into a role where he has little chance for success. And other, potentially really qualified, candidates loose out on a great opportunity.

Past Performance Is No Guarantee Of Future Success

When I interview candidates for a position, I ask questions that help me to gauge their likelihood for success. Predicting success is not easy; it’s a difficult undertaking. But trying is important for the obvious reasons.

Much has been written about interviewing techniques and asking good questions so I won’t go into a lot of details on this subject.

I will say, however, that I like scenario-based questions. These kinds of questions reveal quite a bit about how a person approaches his job.

What are some scenario-based questions?

  • “Tell me about a time when you and the development team didn’t see eye to eye on an issue and how you handled it.”
  • “Describe a time when the budget you were given was far less than needed and how you adapted to the new limitations.”
  • Think back to a time when one of your projects was at risk of missing a deadline. How did you approach the problem and what did you do?

Although these kinds of questions will not guarantee that you’ll find the rose among thorns, they do offer some insight into the candidate’s experience and outlook.

What To Look For When Interviewing A Candidate

As I interview candidates, I’m look for what I call The Three C’s of Interviewing. Before I recommend a candidate for hire, I want to make sure that both the client and I are comfortable in the following three areas.

  • Competency. Does the candidate have a good base onto which to build? No one is likely to meet every single requirement. And even if he did, he’d still have to learn the specifics of this environment. So it’s important that he has a good foundation on which to build, that he can learn quickly, and that he sees opportunities not obstacles.
  • Compatibility. Will the person be a good fit with organization? Can he get along with the others? Perhaps the role requires a significant amount of individual work without the input of others. Can he work alone? Or can he function as a member of a larger team if required?
  • Core Values. Is the person trustworthy? Does he have a good work ethic? Do I believe that he will take ownership of issues? Will he work hard? Is he a go-getter, or does he lack initiative? Can I trust that he can and will do what he says that he’ll do?

These are the qualities that I look for in a candidate. Yes, experience with specific tools and technologies is important. But don’t overlook the the intangibles of the Three C’s.

Question: What do you look for when you interview candidates for an open position in your organization?

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The Importance Of Managing Expectations

Have you ever taken a sip of sweet tea only to discover that it was soda instead? Eeww! What an eye-opening experience!

Don’t misunderstand; I like soda. But when I’m expecting sweet tea, the normally pleasant taste of the carbonated beverage is face-wrenchingly awful.

Thus, the importance of expectations.

What To Expect?

When working with your clients, your boss, your spouse, your kids, and everyone else for that matter, it’s critically important to set expectations. Let them know what to expect. Let them know when to expect it. Let them know any caveats that may exist. It gives them a sense of comfort.

As with the beverage example, expectations are important; the same result can be interpreted as good or bad depending on expectations.

If you promise a client that you’ll provide a deliverable in ten business days and you deliver it in seven, they’re very happy. Conversely, if you promise to deliver in five and you don’t have it ready until the seventh day, they’re disappointed. In both cases they receive the deliverable in seven days, yet in one case you’re a hero and in the other case you’ve failed.

How Can You Manage Expectations?

Managing expectations is not difficult. In fact, it’s straightforward.

  • Under Promise. Don’t over commit yourself. Examine your workload, your capabilities, your own expectations, and then build in some margin.
  • Over Deliver. This go right along with Under Promise. Going the extra mile and exceeding expectations is a nice way to give them a sense of “wow”.
  • Communicate Clearly. It’s been said that there are four components to communication: the sender, the message, the medium, and the recipient. A breakdown and any of those can lead to a misunderstanding. Make sure that the message that you intend to deliver is the one that is received.
  • Communicate Frequently. Providing timely updates about the progress along the way is just as important as setting the initial expectations. Any delays, any changes to the initial expectations should be communicated early in the process.
  • Be Honest. As the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy. Best honest with others. If you are unsure of the outcome, tell them. It’s better that they know this up front.

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Book Review: The Lazy Project Manager

“There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.” Some attribute the axiom to Frank Lloyd Wright but others are adamant that he’s not the origin of it. Whoever said it had a somewhat elitist or cynical perspective about the general population.

At times, however, the saying has proven itself to be true. That’s why sometimes it’s best to state the obvious, rather than taking it for granted.

In his book “The Lazy Project Manager“, Peter Taylor doesn’t tackle the basics of Project Management as a profession. Do don’t buy the book as a Project Management how-to guide; it’s not intended to be that. Taylor rightly observes that much has already been written on the topic. He even provides list of resources that he’s found helpful in the back of “The Lazy Project Manager”.

Instead Taylor attempts to supplement the purely academic studies of Project Management with practical and actionable approaches.

A Common Sense Approach

“The Lazy Project Manager” focuses on the subtle nuances of how to shepherd a project from its initial phase through to its completion. Taylor concentrates on working with your team to move the project toward success. He advocates using humor to diffuse a situation, evaluating the team personnel, and remembering that communications is more than just the message.

Much of what he shares should be considered common sense, especially to a seasoned professional. However, the advice proffered will likely be helpful to many who are new to the project manager role.

This short book is replete with anecdotes from Taylor’s experiences. He shares some of his successes as well as his miscues over the years. He recounts his missteps and what he’d do differently now that he’s on the other side of the mishaps.

Proper Planning

Despite the intentionally eye-catching title, the book’s premise can be distilled down to the old adage of the 7 P’s: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Pitifully Poor Performance.

Taylor contends that most projects require an awful lot of work up front and if done well, the long middle part of the project goes very smoothly. Eventually every project wraps up with a flurry of concluding activities at the end.

The book models this as well. The first portion of the book sets the stage. Then Taylor offers to let the reader skip the middle section and just right to the end of the book where the final two chapters summarize everything that you may have skipped.

Overall

I suspect many who buy the book can easily skip to end without missing anything; I certainly felt as though I could have. Others may find the middle, though it sometimes wanders a bit, to be helpful.

The eight reviewers on Amazon give the book a 4.5 out of 5 stars. I think that’s a bit on the high side. I’d give it a 3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars. But then, I’ve been self-employed 15+ years and I’ve managed hundreds if not thousands of projects.

Whenever there is a hard job to be done I assign it to a lazy man; he is sure to find an easy way of doing it. – Walter Chrysler

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Opportunity Cost versus Real Cost

One of the hardest lessons to learn and put into practice as a self-employed consultant is that of Real Cost versus Opportunity Cost.

Let’s consider an example.

Real Cost

Real Cost is straightforward. If the water pipes in my house freeze and burst due to the cold weather, I can fix the leak myself or I can call a professional plumber. Those are my options. Sure, I could do without running water, but I’m fond of modern conveniences. So, let’s way I want to fix the leak.

Which is the better option – fixing the leak myself or hiring a professional? Assuming I have the know-how, fixing the leak myself sounds less expensive. In terms of Real Cost it is.

When I repair the bursted pipes myself, my only outlay is for the supplies required to stop the water from squirting out. I’ll need to run down to the hardware store to buy some replacement pipe and perhaps a couple of shiny new tools. That’s the extent of my Real Costs. Then I can roll up my sleeves and dive into the repairs.

If I call a plumber to come to my house and do the job for me, I don’t have to go to the hardware store. I don’t have to buy the materials myself. And I don’t have to find and fix the leak. But I do have to pay him to do these things for me. I have to pay for his time plus the materials he uses to remedy the problem.

So, calling a professional costs me time and materials whereas doing it myself costs only materials.

But that’s not really a complete picture. There’s an Opportunity Cost associated with the project.

Opportunity Cost

If I spend three hours repairing the ruptured pipes, that’s three hours that I’m not doing something else like working for my clients or spending time with my family. The things that I give up by not choosing them are the Opportunity Costs.

There are Opportunity Costs associated with every decision you make. Choosing one thing, by definition, will come at the expense of another.

In this case, the Opportunity Cost of fixing the burst pipes is the time I spend doing the work myself. A professional plumber can probably do the job in half that time. So from an economic perspective, I’m spending time doing something that I’m only marginally skilled at instead of focusing on areas where I’m more skilled. That’s underutilizing my effectiveness.

So in effect, I am paying for time and materials even when I do the job myself. I’m paying with my time rather than buying the plumber’s time. So the question becomes: how much is my time worth to me?

Unless the plumber charges twice my hourly rate or I don’t actually have the client work to do instead of fixing the broken pipes, it actually costs me less to pay someone else to do the job.

Applying The Calculation To Business

Real Costs versus Opportunity Costs apply to business as well. For example, should I outsource part of a project to another consultant?

Let’s say I’m a database consultant and I’m somewhat skilled in application development. I can do the application development work, but my area of expertise is in the database. Spending time developing the front end application is not a good use of my time. Someone else can do it better and faster than me. I should focus on the things that I do well.

The same goes for bookkeeping, web site development, and making reservations.

The concept also applies to managers and their team. If a manager does something that he could have delegated to a team member, it’s actually costing the organization. He could have delegated the task and had someone else do it, allowing him to focus on the things that only he can do.

There’s More To The Story

We must remember, however, that not all decisions are solely based on finances. Spending time with my family, working on the fence in the pasture, and volunteering as a Scout Leader all have Opportunity Costs associated with them. Despite being intangible, the results are well worth it. I’m not going to outsource some things.

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Book Review: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said once when accused of playing both sides of an issue. It’s good to see a politician with a self deprecating since of humor.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame and the writers of The Office have some hysterical views on corporate politics. They poke fun at the corporate incompetence and the silly politics to which many in the business world can relate.

Et tu, Brute?

Unfortunately there’s very little funny that’s to those who find themselves in a back-stabbing, alliance-building, sell-your-own-mother-if-it-wins-points-with-the-boss world of office politics.

As a consultant, I’ve worked with thousands of people at all levels of an organization and across most every industry. I’ve seen corporate politics in action. I’ve witnessed some of its brutality and the carnage it leaves in its wake. It’s painful to watch someone trample another as he protects his own little fiefdom.

Fortunately as an “outsider”, I’m seldom the target of such attacks. Nevertheless, I thought it would be good to do a bit of research into the topic. So, I turned to the grand daddy of all books on politics: Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Applying Princely Advice To Office Politics

Much like Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, The Prince is considered by many to be a timeless classic that’s as applicable today in business as it was to governance in the period that it was originally written. When read with a discerning eye, it’s chock full of savvy advice for leaders.

For example, when you notice a subtle, slowly escalating issue, Machiavelli advocates confronting the issue sooner rather than later. There’s no sense in ignoring the issue and allowing it to gain momentum.

Therefore, the Romans, foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head…

Likewise, Machiavelli proposes that the wise Prince will seek counsel from those around him albeit under very restricted conditions.

The only way for a prince to guard himself from flattering adulation is to make it understood that he will not be offended if he is told the truth.

and,

…this is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice…

A warning against complacency is also made.

Princes who give more thought to luxury than to arms often lose their principality.  In fact, the quickest way to lose a principality is to neglect the art of war, and the best way of acquiring one is to be a master in this art.

Take Some Advice With A Grain Of Salt

Not all advice proffered by Machiavelli is beneficial in my opinion and it should be measured against your own moral compass.

At times, Machiavelli’s advice can be calculating and callous. He seems to be of the opinion that the ends justifies the means no matter the cost. For example, when assuming power over a principality,

Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

Additionally according to The Prince, we should not grow colleagues and direct reports.

From this a general rule is drawn which never or rarely fails: that he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.

In Summary

I’m glad to have read The Prince. It’s a classic in every sense of the word. I must say, though, that it’s not an easy read. The sentence structures used can be rather complex at times even though the tone is fairly conversational.

Even some 500 years after its writing, it has some good insights into politics. Just being aware of these issues is good, even if you choose not to follow them.

Vote For The SQLRally Pre-Con Seminars

Do you know a real-life Pointy Haired Boss? Maybe you don’t work for him, but I bet you’ve met one.

In my consulting practice I’ve met a lot of them. They were once good technical people. So good in fact, they got promoted; it’s the natural progression in business. But they didn’t make the transition well. They knew how to do techie but they didn’t realize that moving from techie to a technical manager would require some new skills. When faced with pressure and stress they withdraw and do what they do best, the technical stuff, and ignore the real source of their stress, the managerial stuff. And they fall flat on their faces.

Voting Booths

Surely Smart People Can Be Good Managers

They can, and don’t call me Shirley (rimshot).

This is the premise of a series of blog posts called “So I Got Promoted, Now What?” that I’ve been writing recently. In the series, I’m discussing how technical people can leverage and build upon the skills that they already have to succeed in their new role as a technical manager.

I’m also adding to that and turning the concept into a one-day seminar that I can deliver to clients and in other venues like SQLRally May 11-13, 2011, in Orlando, Florida.

Vote For The SQLRally Pre-Con You’d Like To See

My Pre-Conference Seminar submission for SQLRally was selected as one of the three finalists for the Miscellaneous (aka the Professional Development) category. Now it’s up to the community to vote for the session you’d like to see.

Voting doesn’t mean you’re registering to attend. It doesn’t even mean that if you do attend SQLRally, that you’re obligated to the Pre-Con. It simply means that you think that the session you voted for would be of interest and is needed in the community.

There are three really good sessions from which to choose (listed in the same order as on the ballot).

  • Finding Your Dream Job by Chris Shaw and Steve Jones (1/2 day).The job market is becoming more and more competitive all the time as employees become more and more efficient at accomplishing more work and employers look to reduce their headcounts. This session will present the attendee with practical tips, tricks, and skills for enhancing their marketability. They will learn how to better use networking to their advantage, both online and offline, develop a technical blog, and build a better resume. Once someone has an interview, we provide them with techniques to prepare for the interview, and how to not only impress the potential employer, but also assess if this is the job they really desire.
  • So I Got Promoted, Now What? by Joe Webb (full day). “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” That’s the premise of Dr. Laurence Peter in his 1969 book, “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.” We’ve all seen instances where someone who is very good with technology is promoted and flounders. Horribly. And the worse they do, the more stress they feel. And they flounder even more. So what happens? They don’t make changes in their daily work required by the new position. In this session, you’ll learn how to do your job better once you’ve been promoted. You’ll become aware of the new dynamics required by your new role so you adjust and excel. You’ll learn how you can leverage the same successful tactics that made you a great technologist in your role as a director, manager, or team lead.
  • Leadership and Team Management Skills for the Database Professional by Kevin Kline (full day). Most IT leaders earned their promotions based on technical competency, not on leadership or managerial skills. Technical leaders rarely advance into leadership positions with the complex mix of social and soft skills that best facilitate their success and the success of their teams. Successful IT leaders require a combination of: Earning the respect of your team, A deep understand of effectively motivating technology professionals, Specific skills to lead database professionals competently that broadly fall into the categories of: Coaching team members to effectively meet goals and deadlines, Facilitating change and navigating organizational disruptions, Promoting communication within the team and with management Keeping teams and projects on task and within scope, Dealing with difficult team members, Practicing good team time management techniques. This one-day seminar equips attendees with training content, fun exercises, and reference material to further develop their leadership potential and achieve excellent results, both for themselves and for their teams.

Of course, I’d like for you to vote for my session, but frankly speaking I don’t think you’ll go wrong with any of them. I know the other speakers. They know their material and do a bang up job presenting.

What I do ask is that you make your voice heard and vote for the session you’d go to if you were to go to a session.

So I Got Promoted, Now What? Get To Know Your Peers

[This is part four in a series of posts about how to effectively transition to your new role after being promoted.]

Series Outline

How do you recognize an extroverted IT professional? Answer: He looks at your shoes when he talks to you.

That’s a harsh joke. It’s certainly not true for the people I know in the IT field, but it does illustrate a point. Those of us in the IT realm are not known for our exceptional interpersonal skills. It’s not that we don’t have interpersonal skills. It’s just that we tend to be more at ease when “interfacing” with other techies.

Being comfortable amongst similar people comes naturally. I’m reminded of the old sales axiom: People buy from people they like, and people like themselves.

Why Should I Care About My Peers?

Getting along with other IT folks may have been sufficient in your prior role, but as you get promoted up through the ranks you’ll need to extend your comfort zone to include a broader swath of the organization. Business is relational and you’ll need to be as well to succeed that landscape.

Why? There are many reasons. Here are but a few.

Learn From Your Peers

If someone has been in a position that’s similar to your new role in the organization, it stands to reason that they may have picked up some good insight during their tenure. I’m not suggesting that they’ll be perfect or that you’ll want to follow their lead. That’s probably not the case. You need to be true to your own style and make your own mark, but they may be able to help you navigate around potential land mines as you adjust to your new responsibilities in the organization.

Establish Lines Of Communication

In most organizations, a certain level of cooperation is required from multiple teams and departments. You must work with other groups to push the organization’s goals and objectives forward. It’s much easier to work with someone else when you’ve already established a professional relationship with him. People are more willing to go to bat for someone else if they know him.

Prepare For Future Conflicts

When two people interact regularly, there will eventually be conflict, even under the best of circumstances. The likelihood of conflict is escalated when put in the context of a stressful or demanding project. Some would even argue that the conflict helps to produce s better outcome. Regardless, those conflicts are less intense and are more easily resolved afterward if the two parties have already established trust and mutual respect for one another.

Vet Your Ideas Before Unveiling Them

As we come up with ideas for our department or the organization, it’s good to have a trusted colleague with whom we can share those ideas and get good and honest feedback. An idea that we conceive may have downsides that we haven’t considered. Vetting the ideas before announcing them will help you to improve the ideas and lay the groundwork for better acceptance of them when announced.

Expand Your Network

Let’s face it, business can be turbulent. Mergers and acquisitions, reorganizations and outsourcing, recessions and contracting economies all make for a very dynamic workplace. In such an environment, it’s good to have an extensive network of people who can help you if needed, or who you can help.

Ok, But Who Are My Peers?

That’s a good question. I’m reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan where a young man asks “Who is my neighbor?” and learns that his true neighbors extend far beyond his confort zone.

Getting to know your peers means getting to know others both inside and outside of your current organization, those with whom you work regularly and those you only see occasionally, those who are in the same industry and those who work in complementary industries. In short, most anyone you come into contact with can be considered your peer for these purposes.

However, that’s a pretty ambitious target so let’s narrow it down a little for starters.

Peers At Work

The peers at work are primarily your colleagues at the same level in the organization. If you are the DBA Manager, your peers may be the Dev Team Manager, the Customer Service Team Manager, and the Quality Assurance Team Manager. Don’t limit yourself to one department or physical location; reach out to peers in other departments and locations.

You may also go up the promotional ladder a rung or two, depending on the culture of work environment.

Peers In The Same Industry

Trade shows and conferences offer great opportunities to meet other people in the same industry as yours. If you go to these types of events and only consume the information presented in the break-out sessions, you’re missing out of one of the most important aspects of the event. Networking (in the best sense of the term) is probably the most important aspect of these events. You can even participate when you’re unable to attend in person.

Peers In Complementary  Industries

During the course of your business day, you’ll likely meet people from other walks of life. Getting to know your suppliers, your customers, your service providers will help you to work more effectively with them.

How Do I Get To Know My Peers?

Getting to know your peers is not really that difficult. Little kids seem to have an innate ability to do it. If you go to a playground and watch for a few minutes, you’re bound to see a new kid arrive. At first he tentatively plays near the other kids, then before you know it he’s joined their game.

As we grow, we sometimes convince ourselves that it’s much more difficult than that. We start believing that meeting new people is hard. It’s not. If a little kid can do it, surely we can. Initially you may have a certain level apprehension or even anxiety about striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know very well. As you practice, it will become much easier.

Lots of books have been written about the subject. If you’re looking for a good starting point, try the classic How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It’s a good common sense approach for becoming a good conversationalist. In general, it’s simply finding common ground and becoming a good listener.

Some specific examples of situations where you can get to know your peers may be:

At Meetings

Meeting are pervasive in business today. Our calendars are full of them, so why not use them as an opportunity to meet someone new? Arrive early and introduce yourself to someone else who’s early. Spend a few minutes talking with her before the meeting. Afterward, send a short follow up email. Something simple like “Hey Darlene – It was good chatting with you before the meeting earlier today. Here’s a link to the resource I was telling you about. See you next week.”

Small Tokens

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers with little acts of kindness. For example, if you occasionally bring bagels or donuts for your team, buy some extra and give them to your peer for his team. Let him be the one to give it to his team. “Hey Marc – I was at the bakery this morning picking up some bagels for my team and thought your guys may want some too. Enjoy.”

At Lunch

Of course, lunch is one of the more common ways to get to know your peers. “Let’s do lunch.” as they say. But you’ll probably want to be more genuine than that. I find that it’s typically easier to establish a working relationship with my peers first and then invite them to lunch. For example, after I’ve met and talked with someone a few times I may ask “Hey – I was thinking of trying the new Mongolian place for lunch today. Have you heard anything about it?” And then you can invite him to join you.

Start Today

The best part about all of this is that you don’t have to wait until you’ve been promoted to begin getting to know your peers. You can start reaching out to your co-workers, customers, suppliers, and colleagues in other industries now. What’s stopping you?

The Lone Ranger And Data Integrity

Many IT Pros can relate to the the Lone Ranger. With the aid of but one trusty side kick, the Lone Ranger stands to protect the unsuspecting townsfolk from the wayward derelicts that plagued the American frontier. He also ate bacon three meals a day.

Like the Lone Ranger, IT Pros ride the fast-paced trail of the business environment, protecting key business systems from improper access and malcontent users. We’re often alone in our quest for data integrity, the lone voice standing out against complete and utter data anarchy. And we love bacon!

But I Neeeeeeeeeeeed It

Ok, I maybe overstating the issue slightly. Most users don’t awaken each morning with the hopes of bringing complete and utter data anarchy to our systems. They simply need something that’s beyond the current capability of the system. So they make do as best they can.

Secondary Systems

Some store data in Excel spreadsheets or Access databases (gasp!). Most of these secondary systems start off as a simple way to help one user track certain data. Over time, however, they can grow and spread like wet Gremlins. A second user discovers the existence of the neat new work-around. Then another, and another.

The next thing you know, the single-user, temporary, and unplanned work-around has become a team-level or department-level mission critical system. It’s frequently inaccessible to others who would benefit from the data, it’s difficult to back up, and it’s now yours to support.

All of this leads to disparate systems and silos of data. Maintenance becomes difficult; accurate reporting, impossible.

Getting Creative

Other users get creative with how they store data in the system. They find and exploit areas of the supported system to accomplish what they need to do. Sometimes they shove multiple pieces of data into one column; for example, they store two are three email addresses in the one allotted field. Or worse, they save two completely different types of data in one field; for instance storing a telephone number and an email address in the email address field.

Users can also repurpose an existing column for their own use under certain circumstances. They may put the customer’s email address in the P.O. Box field if they customer doesn’t have a P.O. Box.

Both techniques make producing reliable reports from the nearly impossible. Some of this can be controlled with data validation, but not perfectly. Users can still find ways around most protective measures.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Why, oh why, do they do this to us? Don’t they realize that taking such liberties with data makes it impossible to have consistent and dependable information? Surely they’ve heard “Garbage In, Garbage Out” Oh, but they do it anyway.

But before we lash out and condemn them for making our lives miserable, we should first look in the mirror to see if any of the blame lies with us.

Have their requests for changes to the supported system continually fallen on deaf ears? Are their changes perpetually on priority level D? Have they asked for a newer version of the supported software, but been denied because we’re too busy to test and install it? Do we default to no rather than to yes?

It’s Not Us Against Them

Unfortunately in many organizations, the IT department has an almost antagonistic relationship with the departments and people they support. This is counterproductive, both to the organization and to our own goals. It makes life difficult for everyone.

So, don’t be the Lone Ranger. Reach out and work with users to support their goals. Strive to understand their needs and then look at the technology and processes that may help to fulfill those needs. You won’t be able to solve all of their problems, but building that relationship will help to solve some of your own problems.

So I Got Promoted, Now What? Employ the Same Successful Tactics

[This is part three in a series of posts about how to effectively transition to your new role after being promoted.]

Series Outline

Constant Change

It seems that Moore’s Law is on its seventh double espresso. The law, which was originally described by Gordon E. Moore in 1965, primarily relates to advances in computer hardware. But given the dizzying pace of changes in all technology , I think it’s more broadly applicable to other areas today. The affects on IT Professionals is fairly obvious.

Can you name a database administrator, a solutions architect, a seasoned developer, or any other highly skilled, highly technical IT Professional that views his job as a run-of-the-mill 9 to 5 position? I can’t. Most successful people in our industry realize that in order to do their jobs, a certain amount of continuing education is required.

So over time, we’ve developed ways to keep up with the latest trends in our field. We listen to podcasts, read blogs, attend conferences, participate in user groups, and take training classes. These sources, among others, help us to do our jobs better.

There’s A Lot To Learn

It’s important to realize that once you’ve been promoted, your job has substantially changed. Many IT Professionals fail to recognize this shift and languish in their new role as Team Lead, Manager, or Director. I’ve seen it countless times at the companies where I’ve consulted.

Need proof? Think back to the first few weeks or months as a new database administrator or application developer. How much did you know, really know, about your job? At the time you may have thought you knew it all, but if you’re honest with yourself, you didn’t. Think about how much more you know now.

The same applies to your new job. You may feel like you know how to manage others and work at a higher level in the organization, but trust me when I say there’s plenty more to learn.

New Job, Same Preparation

That’s not to say that everything you learned in your last role is now obsolete. On the contrary, we can supplement that expertise with newfound and complementary knowledge and once again prepare to excel in our new role. The good news is that you already know how to do this – just take the same approach that landed you the promotion.

Dive Into Your New Role

In much the same way you seized your prior technical role and sought out every bit of information you could in your area of expertise, you can and should do the exact same thing in your new role. How?

  • Seek out podcasts on how to manage a technical team. I like Manager Tools series of podcasts.
  • Look for blogs that are dedicated to effective management.
  • Attend a non-technical conference. Once again I hear good things about the Manager Tools conferences.
  • Read books on effective communications and leadership. There are classics like anything from Peter Drucker and Dale Carnagie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People as well as more contemporary books like Good to Great.
  • Join associations.

Expand Your Horizon

In your prior role, you may have found it valuable to learn some ancillary technologies to help you do your job better. The same is also true for your new role.

  • Get involved with ToastMasters International.
  • Read books about making presentations. Presenting to Win describes how to create an engaging presentation.
  • Learn more about negotiations tactics.
  • Look for opportunities to improve your budgeting and financial skills.

You Can’t Improve What You Don’t Measure

As a database or network professional, you may have found that capturing statistics and benchmarking data paid off in many ways. Metrics help determine when things are begining to depart from the norm. They can be used to help predict when upgrades will be needed. And they can be used to identify where the problem really is, and more importantly where it isn’t.

Metrics can be used in your new role, too. Capturing metrics can help you to justify new expenditures, identify gaps in your current levels and processes, and benchmark your areas of responsibility. Remember the adage: you cannot improve what you don’t measure.

Show Me The Money

Redundancy, high availability, and up-time are all good concepts and even measurements in some cases for technical people. We can see how they naturally help us to achieve our goals. However, oftentimes those concepts are a bit too abstract for other people, particularly those who may hold the pursestrings. In those cases, putting the concept or technology into financial terms often helps. For example the cost of a High Availability solution may be $200,000. That sounds expensive until you realize that the cost of being down for just one day is $500,000. In that case, $200,000 maybe well worth the investment depending on the probability of an outage.

The same tactics can be employed in your new role. Learn to associate your projects and requests with financial measures. Calculate the Return On Investment. The practice will help you to better understand the real need (or lack of real need). And it’ll help form a good basis for your request to your boss.

Carpe Diem

Although I couldn’t find a reference for it, I believe it was Tom Peters that once quipped “Nothing begets failure like success.” I believe he meant that once a company was successful at one endeavor, it was in danger of always trying to repeat that success and thus stifling true innovation.

As individuals, we are susceptible to that as well. If we, in our new job, continue doing the exact same set of tasks that made us successful in our prior role, we will doom ourselves to failure. However, we can employ the same fervor, the same passion, and the same tactics that lead to our prior success in our new roles and seize the day.

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