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Entries in People (8)

Saturday
Nov072009

Lessons from the Dogs

My business partner and I both love dogs. In fact, we both have beagles right now. My family dog Sam is pretty experienced, and Matt’s beagle is a puppy.

We recently had the opportunity to get the pets together, and remarked the similarities of the two beagles meeting to people in business.

Milo came to visit Sam in his yard. Sam has the run of the yard. Sam has a Dog Watch invisible fence, so the yard appears wide open. Milo was on a nice long lead. Sam was immediately interested in the new being in his yard. Both dogs walked around each other warily, checking each other out.

All of a sudden Sam’s fur popped up, and he let out a mighty bark, as much as to say, “this is my place, watch yourself.”

Milo wasn’t deterred. He marched over to Sam with an incredulous look, “what’s with you?” Sam took a step towards Milo, and let out another substantial bark, “I’m the boss.” Milo immediately rolled over onto his back.

They did this a couple times, with Sam declaring his superiority and Milo being submissive. Eventually Milo decided this was a silly game, and started to explore other parts of the yard. Sam kept giving out singular barks, and Milo simply ignored him.

Eventually Sam decided to stop barking, and began exploring what Milo was exploring. While Sam could have gone anywhere in the yard, he stayed close to the leashed Milo. The dogs continued sniffing around each other quietly, with Milo occasionally nipping on Sam’s tail.

Sam eventually went about his thing, leaving Milo. With that, Milo let out a mighty puppy bark. Sam largely kept politely ignoring Milo, who let out another bark. Sam then came back over, and the two dogs played with each other.

We then went inside, and Sam took Milo under his guidance. It was lunch time, and Sam holds a Masters in begging. Milo was quickly learning.

After lunch, Sam enjoyed a good nap, while Milo explored the house.

In the workplace, it’s not uncommon for the more experienced team member to be a little wary of the new team member. Even when they are the same “breed”, there’s a getting to know each other period.

It took Sam and Milo about 30 minutes to figure things out and get comfortable with each other. In the workplace, onboarding new team members successfully should be a focal point for any IT group.

Friday
Nov062009

Operating Globally

“Global Experience Needed.” What does that mean?


Having had the opportunity to lead projects in Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, London and Cleveland (I can say that, I was raised there!), working globally isn’t really all that hard. Some basics will help you navigate.


  • People are people – around the world, people want to do a good job. They need to know what you need to help you be successful.

  • Global Companies are not Global – Global companies are made up of various legal entities and while they may share the same logo, local practices often differ from country to country. Be specific. Don’t assume one company acts one way.

  •  Global Companies often outsource – Large multinational companies have a web of local suppliers to deliver services. Find out who is specifically doing the work, and how they are going to be managed. Be clear on whom to hold accountable. This is particular true of communications companies…where the “last mile” is often a “local” provider (often impervious to SLAs established in faraway places.)

    Of particular concern is measuring deliverables. The adage, “Trust and Verify” fits. In some areas of the world, it is unacceptable to discuss project delays. So the status will be positive right up until the missed delivery. As you might expect, people missing status updates is often a red flag for issues.


  • Be specific on specifications – don’t assume anything. Paper sizes are different, power attributes are different, codes are different (“Exit” signs in Beijing must be near the floor. When you think about it, that’s a sensible location especially in a fire!), and “standards” are different. Take the time to make sure everyone is talking the same thing.

  • Look for nuances in language – Make sure there is tacit agreement. While English is often the language of business around the world, be respectful to the party you are speaking with. They may not understand colloquialisms or humor. It’s not (always) a lack of a sense of humor, they may need to translate the English to their language and the translation may not be 100%. So when asking parties to agree on something, it’s often useful to ask the other party in the conversation to “summarize the point.”

    Direct confrontation is avoided in some cultures. Care should be used when the discussion could lead to embarrassment. If you sense this is happening, offer to follow up separately.


    The same rules around email apply here as well. When an email exchange begins around a topic, and a “point-counterpoint” ensues (especially with a lengthy periodic cycle), a quick conversation is indicated.


  • Meeting times must be flexible – Depending on your worldly needs, someone is going to be inconvenienced. Most projects will start out “bouncing” meeting times so everyone is inconvenienced from time to time. The complexities of this shifting rapidly lead everyone to the same conclusion, pick a time and stick to it. This means US based staff team members may need to participate in the evening, and vice versa. Keeping good meeting minutes is very important since some people may be tired and not always at their best.

  • Learn some of the local cultural attributes – This shouldn’t be a massive educational undertaking, more of an internet research exercise. Start with the CIA’s reference https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/

    What you are trying to do is learn about the local culture. You don’t want to unknowingly create a faux pax (For example, asking someone from India to attend a steak dinner. The cow is sacred in Hinduism. Need a quick meal in Hong Kong? KFC is the largest restaurant chain there.)


  • You can work 24 hours a day – assuming different timezones, at minimum you can day extend work on a project. Having handoffs between teams on a “follow the sun” model is important. Keeping documents “in order” is imperative (SharePoint, DocuShare, Google Docs and the like are great tools to help.) Knowing who has the baton at any point in time helps prevent overlap or wasted work.

  • There are great Communications tools – Cisco and Polycom offer high end videoconferencing. Not everyone will have this gear at home! There are other low end solutions (Skype, ooVoo and others) will allow team members to conference in. Video is great for meetings under an hour, and over video becomes mind numbing.

    VoIP allows low cost calling virtually wherever there’s a network. Some companies have VoIP phone systems; others can use Skype, Vonage or Google Talk.

Operating globally is a mix of common sense, heightened manners, and sensitivity. Projects are accomplished every day. Success is achieved by those taking the time to understand the differences and making goals, roles and responsibilities clear.

Wednesday
Nov042009

Delivering Bad News

To:     All Personnel


From:     Information Technologies


Subject:     System Outage

 As Infrastructure & Operations professionals we all delivered these emails or memos to our users. It pains us when we have to communicate this information, but how and what we communicate ultimately defines the respect we receive from our users and senior management.

 I am reminded of an outage that occurred while I was at a seminar in New York City. Our trading system was impacted while data was being replicated to our Disaster Recovery systems. We could not assess the impact of failing over, so we attempted to fix the problem. I was immediately paged and alerted the CIO. It appeared we would not be able to restore the trading system in time for the start of day so I immediately packed and got the 6:30AM flight out of New York. On my way to the airport I informed the team I would speak to the CEO as soon as I landed. I got on the plane (still on the same conference call from 3:00AM), and who do I see 10 rows in front of me, but the CEO. I couldn’t get to him on the flight so I figured I would catch up to him in the airport. Luckily as I was running through the terminal I was informed all systems were operational and business would proceed as usual. I caught the CEO and, relieved from the news I just heard, joked how it was funny we were on the same flight.

Unfortunately, situations do not always end up this way, and you must find ways to communicate bad news to your users. Over the years, the following guidelines served me well:


  • Determine the sender of the message – The sender of the message will also be the person to receive any questions or comments about the incident and status. A message sent from a person, instead of a generic mailbox, will carry more credibility, but will yield more questions.

  • State the problem in the first paragraph – Let people know what happened in the first sentence. Use the second sentence to communicate business impact. Never use any technical terminology and never describe systems by their internal IT name. Always describe systems by the business functions hosted on the system.

  • Identify functional business systems – The first paragraph notifies users as to systems not available. The second paragraph lets them know systems that are available. Users want to know if they can do their job and your communication must not be ambiguous in this context.

  • Give estimated time for recovery or time of next status message – People want to feel informed and in some control. Frequent status updates helps to achieve this goal. If an estimated time of recovery is unavailable, let people know when the next status notification will be issued. Over time, you’ll be able to either have accurate estimates, or will get a “gut-feel” for the length of outages.

  • Designate a point of contact – Users will have questions. Give them contact information. The Help Desk would be our first choice. Questions will also be directed at Desktop Support personnel as they have the most frequent contact with users. Do not forget to notify them before you notify your users.

  • Do not apologize if it was not an internal problem – Sometimes, third-party hardware and software fail. We try and prevent this from happening, but there are times when it is beyond our control. Only apologize when you have something to apologize for.

As problems become more complex and require larger numbers of IT personnel, we recommend using a dedicated Problem Communication Manager for generating both internal IT and external updates. This will simplify the job of the Incident Manager and provide better service to users.

Defining problem communication processes, people, and templates delivers a higher level of service. Users will appreciate the communication and it will be one less task for IT personnel involved with the problem.

Tuesday
Nov032009

Writing Performance Appraisals

I hate writing performance appraisals, or reviews.


In my mind, people sit down twice a year and formally document staff performance. Inexperienced managers often write “nice” reviews, with little constructive feedback. More senior managers often skip writing the performance appraisal altogether, again limiting feedback. Reviews in many ways give an objective appearance to a subjective process.

My personal dislike of reviews has to do with the fact they are generally documenting an extended period. My preference is to have an ongoing daily/weekly dialog, with the review capturing a snapshot of those discussions over an extended period.

When writing a review, I like to start by

having the reviewed submit a self appraisal. Most people are tougher on themselves than you may think, and I find it good to capture what the individual is thinking.

It’s nearly impossible for me to write reviews during the work week. There are simply too many distractions. Reviews are reserved for weekends, in the office, with the music loud.

To pull together the document, I need the:

  • Objectives – objectives are developed at the beginning of the review period. They should be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Trackable. Be aware objectives evolve over time, and your review needs to reflect this

  • Personal 1:1 notes – capturing discussions over the review period

  • Self Appraisal – The reviewees self appraisal

  • Prior Reviews – checking for any prior “messaging”

Your company probably has a format for the review. You’ll need to follow the company format. IN general, you’ll want to:

  • Review objectives achievement - thoughtfully review each objective and the commitments. Be cognizant of any evolution in the objectives (hopefully this is captured). I try to be as objective as I can, recognizing it’s easy to make this totally objective while the better result often lies in subjective analysis

  • Comment on the individual’s progress against a series of skills competencies – if your company doesn’t have these, I suggest using a tool (such as http://www.performancereview.com). One benefit of a tool approach is the commentary around each of the competencies. It’s fast to pull together this section of the review on a consistent basis

  • Write a summary – The summary is often the place where the entire review is captured (hence – summary). Personally, I use a structure of:


    • Opening sentence capturing the review

    • Specific examples of good competency achievement

    • Specific examples of where competencies need improvement


    • Thoughts around related objectives/education for the following review period


With the review written, sleep on it. Give the benefit of a day or two to evolve your thinking. Go back, and edit the review with the benefit of time. Make sure your messages are clear; for a particularly challenging review, have your boss and/or HR review the review.

When it comes to presenting the review, hopefully the messages are very direct and not a surprise. You certainly don’t want the review meeting being the first time someone is hearing the content.

Set aside a time and location for the meeting. I like using a conference room or some other neutral place. I give the person their review, and leave the room for ten minutes to give them time to review (unless the messaging might incite someone, such as a extremely rare review ending in termination.)

Upon return, I then go through the entire review top to bottom paraphrasing each section. To me, the discussion is the most important part of the review. Make sure it is a dialog and not a monolog in presentation.

When finished, I always ask:

  • Did I capture the essence of you? What didn’t I capture? – If I missed something in preparing the review, let’s discuss now.

  • How am I doing? What can I do to better support you? – Always keeping the questioning on how to better the reviewed.

This summarizes writing a performance appraisal in a very short form. Multiple day classes are offered detailing the subtleties around reviews. My biggest message to you is to:

  • Give honest feedback on an ongoing basis – NO SURPRISES

  • Take the time to reflect balanced feedback in the review

  • Make sure the discussion is well rounded.

You are there to help lead your staff, and the performance review is one tool as your disposal.

Sunday
Nov012009

Mergers and Acquisitions

“This is a good old fashioned strategic merger.” I heard those words from the Chairman of the Board in 1990 while working for an office products company. 20 years later, this company’s headquarters building is condominiums.

Companies they had “acquired” over the years heard the same thing…and suffered similar fates.

So while the trends I’ve observed in nearly every combination may not be faithfully generalized in all cases, they are a synopsis of what I’ve personally experienced.

Kelley’s Humorous Laws of Mergers

  1. Mergers are a legal/tax framework. There are only acquisitions.

  2. The acquiring company is the “winner.” Their self image is one of a brilliant staff, and they do many things correctly.

  3. The acquired company is replete with cost savings opportunities. The staff is expendable, and made many errors leading to the company’s demise.

  4. “We will examine all systems and chose the ‘best’.” This is management-speak for saying we will choose one infrastructure and migrate everyone to it. It would take too long to interface disparate systems for the perceived functionality gains.

  5. Some companies let acquisitions run autonomously. This is typically until the senior execs or family selling the company retire and is solely meant to placate the prior ownership.

  6. Companies acquiring aggressively are prime acquisition candidates. Areas not fitting strategically will be divested. “Management buy outs” indicate a non-strategic area, or an area the acquiring company didn’t choose to understand or develop.

  7. Divergent company cultures are often the most challenging areas in an acquisition. Company cultures often reflect the stereotypes of the geographic region.

  8. The first system deployed to newly acquired companies is often expense reporting.

If you work in a recently acquired company, be positive and upbeat and try to make the new organization work. Keep your eyes open, and prepare for a possible plan B (if only updating your resume.)

You could read into this I am against acquisitions. I’m not; the office products manufacturer referenced in the story open was facing a rapidly consolidating retail market (birth of the office products superstore) and wouldn’t have otherwise survived. The acquisition allowed staff the opportunity to gracefully find opportunities rather than suffering through a company agonizingly ceasing operations. Change is inevitable, and an acquisition is simply another change.

Sunday
Oct252009

Halloween

“All groups will be dressing for Halloween,” announced the company President. We were an “east coast” company recently acquired by a “west coast” firm, and the new owners were mandating participation. “Don’t question it, just get on with it,” was the response as the senior team started reacting.

The IT staff had similar opinions. “We’ve got real work to do,” “I won’t participate on religious grounds,” and “I’m diabetic” were some of the comments.

“We have two ways to do this. We can either limp along with it, or we can own it and go way over the top,” was my response. If we’re going to do something, let’s do it well.
The light bulbs started going on throughout the room.

“We can go over the top?”

“Don’t get me fired.”

So the team went to work. There were a bunch of us attempting to pick up the game of golf, so each person implemented a “horror golf hole” in their workspace….even the non-golfers.

Everyone tried to outdo the others. One of my favorite “holes” was a bed of nails…the ball went into the top, and bounced around to a series of predetermined “strokes”. The spouse of this team member is a professional carpenter, and the “props” were first rate.

Halloween came, and no IT work got accomplished. Everyone in IT had to check out each other’s golf hole and costume. Then word got around the building, and the rest of the company had to come down and check out each team member’s golf hole. Then the President gave out awards, and it was no contest. The IT staff carried the day.

Afterwards, the IT staff milled about recapping the day.

“This was a great day. Everyone showed their great potential and talents. And you know, the new owners are pretty cool,” was my summary. Everyone agreed, “We’ve got a year to plan for next Halloween.”

Halloweens came and went, with none topping the first one. Years later, this team stays in touch with each other unlike any other team. Taking an extreme view, what could have been an exercise in corporate compliance became a great team building exercise. You have to let the team establish relationships beyond simply the work environment.

Me? My golf hole was a simple uphill across a river of red dyed water (blood?) I also learned how frightening a chain saw (without chain, of course) sounds in an office building!

Wednesday
Oct212009

Alcohol as a Truth Serum

Alcohol has a strange way of impacting people. For some, it is a truth serum reducing inhibitions around what NOT to say. Others end up weaving great stories when imbibing on some spirits.

Such was not the case when Cindy’s husband approached me during a holiday party. “I don’t like it when Cindy gets paged. She doesn’t get paid for it and it interrupts our activities.”

This was NOT what I wanted to hear.

First, I really dislike Holiday Parties. Tending to the introverted like so many IT types, I’ve conditioned myself to get out of the corner and make a pass through the entire event. Once I complete my tour, I reward myself with a “get out of party” card. Second, having a discussion with a concerned spouse during an event can be an opportunity or a disaster.

Cindy, the Production Control Scheduler, looked on in horror. Her husband is a big burly man, intimidating at first sight. He was raising a concern, one I suspect Cindy had heard about privately on other occasions.

“I don’t like it when Cindy gets paged, either. It’s a bother for our Operators, too. What it often means is something is wrong in the schedule Cindy produced and by giving her direct insight to the issues we place her in a position of addressing them permanently so she won’t get paged again in the future.” Hubby suddenly began to see the light around the accountability Cindy had, and her direct power to impact the results.

It’s important to note we both worked in a manufacturing company having the rules of a Union without the Union…this played into my continuation. “Cindy is entitled to 4 hours pay every time she is paged. I know Cindy feels awkward about putting in for 4 hours if it was a quick call from the operators. I believe she only records “serious” time spent on issues, and on Monday I can sit with Cindy and review our reimbursement processes.”

At this point, Hubby seemed to be more interested in Cindy’s time recording practices than anything else, and I suspect Cindy had further conversations with Hubby in the coming days.

There are couple areas where conversation is good with the subject of on-call.

Companies need to be clear on their on-call approaches and whether any financial or other remuneration is received. My own sense is an occasional quick call comes with the territory. If logging on and researching is needed, we need to acknowledge the impact. Personally, I’m not a fan of rigorous time reporting on these kinds of interruptions. I’d rather be more lenient of someone leaving early to play golf or see the kids play (or whatever the passion is), or taking an occasional day off. (As a manager, I believe such accommodations should be within a week or two of a significant on-call event. I really dislike being confronted with 42 days off accumulated over the last two years.)

Staffs need to make their friends and family aware of what on-call means for them. Few industries have professionals with 24x7 requirements of IT. While “smart hands” may be in a rotation, managers are often called into every major issue and are on conference calls a large part.

Staffs also need to think about the root cause of the issues. Breathing a collective sigh of relief after a remediation is just the first step. Thoughtful analysis of the root case for the issue needs to be performed with an eye towards learning how to prevent issues in the first place. This effort must be focused on improvement, not on a witch hunt. “Post Action Review” is an important concept, where individuals and their managers can present findings to senior IT managers where a lively, thoughtful discussion can take place.

Through thoughtful, reasoned communications improvements can be made reducing issues and outages.

Saturday
Oct172009

The Implications of Being “On-Call”

Dear family and friends,

I have been paged by the Operators at work because there’s an issue requiring attention and I’m on-call.

Being on call is important. Something is broken and needs to be fixed. Since I work in a larger team, I have to cover every once in a while, although it seems my “on-call” periods fall when important things happen. When you ask me, “Isn’t there someone else they can call?” it’s simply that it is my turn.

You need to know I see the disappointment on your face when you hear the paging tone on my smart phone.

The truth is I feel the same way; the page is an intrusion into our lives and often it comes at inopportune times.

You see, part of my job is fixing issues, and the other part is making sure we don’t have issues in the first place. That said, things happen.

Yes, I remember being on a conference call Christmas Eve. I haven’t forgotten leaving the concert so I could get to the closest PC (I guess the wireless card improves that!) Looking at your eighth grade “graduation” pictures, snapped while I was in the hallway talking someone through an issue, makes me sad. That special weekend in Nantucket was ruined with me on the phone Saturday night.

Carrying a laptop around every few weeks isn’t my idea of a good time either. It’s heavy, and I can’t have the freedom to ride the rides, go down the water slide, or just be playful with you.

Some people say, “it’s my job, it pays the bills, get used to it.” While true at some level, the times I’ve missed pale by comparison to a “job.” Systems people get paged, and have to fix things.

Other professions use on call rotations, too. When you are ill, and want to talk to your Doctor, they get a call. Stock traders watch the markets around the world, some even changing their sleep pattern to be “up” for other markets. The plumber was with his family too Thanksgiving when the drain backed up.

When I get paged, there’s often emptiness in my heart. If fixing the problem takes a long time, I really do miss you and often hear you continuing the fun on the other side of the door. And while I’m happy to solve an issue, I also feel really badly when we can’t just pick up where we left off. You see, to me our time together “freezes” when I go into problem solving mode, while you move on to the next thing.

While I’m away, take extra pictures and save me dessert. I’m not being rude, in fact to the contrary I am very torn.

As soon as I get back, let’s try picking up where we left off.