Archive for the ‘Career and Soft Skills’ Category

I know what I am doing, why do I need a process?

If you have worked in a big company, you have been told “there’s a process for that”. This post will look at why the process, as much as we love to hate it is essential for long term success.

Some people are very good at their jobs! They know instinctively what needs to be done and how to do it. I love working with these people, we all do! Maybe you are one of those people. But, even if I have a team of high performers, I still need process.

Maybe someone on the team is changing roles. Maybe we just hired someone new. A team is usually a mix of junior and senior team members. If you have rock stars on your team, I think a manager would want to bring some junior people onto that team to learn from the top talent!

When different people do the same task the quality is going to vary. Some people will do it really well, some people will do it reasonably well, others will not do it well at all. Those who are underperforming at a specific task may be very talented people but perhaps they are new to role, or this particular task is not their area of expertise. Ever met a great programmer who seems incapable of filling out a time report or expense report correctly?

The result is a widely varying level of quality, the quality level changes depending on who did the task or even depending on how alert and busy someone was on a particular day. (I have days when I write carefully thought out blog posts, and I have days when I knock out a couple of short paragraphs and point to a video to meet a deadline). Quality can vary tremedously as shown in the graph below.

QualityBar

So how does process fit into all this? Well when you define a process, you guarantee a mimum level of quality. By having a checklist or a set of steps that you *must* complete and that you complete *every* time you undertake a task, you ensure the quality never falls below a certain minimum standard. If someone new joins the team and all they do is follow the process, at least you know the task was completed acceptably well. Likely not as well as if it were completed by a senior team member, but it got done! If your junior team members can complete this task that may free up your senior team members to do other things that require their specific expertise!

Basically a process throttles the quality. So  you end up with something like this

MinMAxQuality

The lower red line indicates the minimum quality guaranteed by following the process.  The upper red line indicates the highest quality that can be reached when you follow the process. So, following the process is great for the a new team member or someone who is not an expert on that task because they know following the steps in the process guarantees an acceptable output.  Some of you are cringing at my terrible drawing skills above. But at least I centered the drawing on the page, and I set it to the recommended size for this blog (300-600 pixels wide), and I removed the shadow background on the image. I am a lousy artist, but at least I have a process I follow when I add an image to a blog post. Nobody is going to yell at you for doing a a lousy job if you followed the approved process. If you ever do have somebody accuse of of not doing your job properly when you did follow the process, then it’s clear your process needs updating. This may be an opportunity for you to be a star by being the person who identifies the need to update the process and works with the team to update the process so the next person who comes along doesn’t have the same problem you did!

But what about the rock stars on the team? Do we make them follow the process as well? After all you can see on my professional looking chart above that if I follow the process I limit the quality level that can be reached. My strongest team members may be able to achieve a greater level of success by not following the process! Good for them. But don’t I want the entire team to be successful? Don’t I want my top team member to not only do their job well but to help other people improve? What is it about the process that limits their ability to perform at their best?What information do they have? What tricks have they learned? I look to my top performers to help me improve the process so that everyone on the team does their work better. So for all of you who took one look at my graph and cringed, I ask you: If I was on your team what specific steps could I take whenever I am drawing a graph to make it look more professional? What tool should I use? are there particular colors I should select? a particular font? Yup, I know all those things affect the quality of my graph. (now you are wondering am I really that horrible at drawing or did I do it this way just to provide an example… I’m not telling). They key is that I look to the experts and the rock stars to help improve the process. That way you raise the quality of the output for everyone!

BetterProcess

Now, before you go off to your boss and start suggesting improvements for all the existing processes, I do want to point out another very important aspect of processes! A process can be used to guarantee a minimum level of quality, but sometimes steps in a process are there to ensure we are compliant with the law, or to ensure we can track important information. So if you are trying to convince the boss to remove steps from a process, it’s a good idea to try and find out why the steps are there in the first place!  I hate scanning all the receipts and attaching them to me expense report but since Revenue Canada requires the company to have copies of my receipts we can’t just take that step out of the process. Though I would like to thank whoever it was at the company who improved the process so we can just scan and email them in now. I used to have to send in physical copies. The work doesn’t end when you define a process, you should constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to make the process more efficient and more effective.

So next time someone tells you ‘we have a process for that’, your response should be ‘awesome I am glad to hear it’. If you are new to the task, you have instructions on how to complete your task with the confidence. If you are a subject matter expert then I fully expect you to look at the process with skepticism, and if you think the process can be improved, talk to the process owners! Let’s make it happen and make everyone look like rock stars!

How to pitch an idea to management and executives

This post will show you a great presentation structure you can use when you are requesting funds or resources to help you implement an idea.

pitchpostexecutiveWhen presenting to an executive it’s important that your presentation be clean, concise and to the point!

If you know the individual there may be a format they expect or prefer for presentations. For example, Max Long was president of Microsoft Canada and he believed you could do anything with one slide so when you presented to Max your best bet was to use one slide whenever possible

But not all exectuvies have pre-defined powerpoint templates you can borrow before you meet them. That’s when it’s important to have a solid strategy for presenting a proposal. This is true whether it will be you delivering the presentation or someone else is presenting on your behalf. When I taught ITIL there was a model they recommended when defining a strategy that makes an excellent format for executive proposals. I’ve had great success with this model and wanted to share it with you today!

Slide 1 – The vision

Does your company have a vision? Although sometimes from the ground visioning can seem a little vague and you may wonder why executives go offsite to discuss vision, it’s actually very important for a company’s success. What differentiates you from other companies? Why would someone choose your company’s service or product over another company? What are we good at? What do we want to be best at doing? If you can’t answer these questions it’s hard to set a direction for the company and to make the right decisions as to which opportunities to pursue and which to put aside for now.

One of my favorite quotes is “I can do anything, but I can’t do everything!” This is true for companies as well as individuals. How do you decide which plans are worth your limited time and money? You look for plans that help you achieve your vision. When you have an idea to put forward, you need a vision as well.

A vision is your ultimate goal.  Let’s be clear, your proposal or idea will not achieve this vision, but, it will be a step in the right direction! A vision is something you strive for. I strongly recommend taking a few minutes to look up the vision of the company you are presenting to as well! It can certainly help if your vision aligns with theirs!

I think this will make more sense if we look at a few specific examples:

I want budget to buy everyone new laptops because our existing laptops are out of date – Perhaps your vision is a team of employees who feel empowered and productive! Will buying new laptops make them feel empowered and productive? Not necessarily, there are other factors in play which affect their productivity and sense of empowerment but it will help!

I want to take some software we have in house and make it open source – Perhaps your vision is a company seen as leaders in their field.  Will publishing some open source oftware make you leaders in the field? No, but it shows the development community that you have software in that field and you are confident enough to share that software with the developer community. It should certainly help your reputation (as long as the software is good )

I want to upgrade to the newest version of Office because of the data capabilities. Perhaps the vision is a team with the information they need to make the best decisions!  Once again, Excel doesn’t guarantee you will have the information you need when you need it or that they will make the right decision, but having tools that help you analyze data effectively will help!

So slide 1 should be a single sentence that states your vision and possibly an image that captures your vision.

Slide 2 – Where are we now?

Now that you have presented your vision, it’s time to create a sense of urgency. You want to provide your audience with a feeling that the current situation is not acceptable and something needs to be done. You need to provide an honest assessment of the current situation. If you are taking the time to present to the executive, presumably it’s because you see something you feel needs to be fixed or an opportunity that should be seized. Now is the time to help them understand that need or opportunity!

This is a good time to present data or statistics that demonstrate the need  for change. You want new laptops? Get some data, tell them exactly how old the current laptops are, maybe get some data from the service desk to see if you can find out how many users are losing productivity because of laptop issues.

If you don’t have data, a good story can fill the gap. Was there an incident where a customer was unhappy because your team didn’t have accurate data that shows the need for better data analysis tools? A strong management team understands the value of a good customer experience and the potential negative impact of a bad customer experience so if you can provide specific examples where customers were unhappy because of the current situation that can also demonstrate a need for change

Slide 2 should provide some data or some specific examples that demonstrate why the status quo is unacceptable.

Slide 3 – Where do we want to be?

Okay, slide 1 was your vision, a long term goal you would like to reach eventually. This slide should be a very specific goal you can reach in the foreseeable future. It should be a SMART goal. A SMART goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. Which basically boils down to “what do you really think we can achieve if we implement your proposal?” What exactly will get better?  Will customer satisfaction be 50% higher? Will employees spend 10 hours less a year dealing with IT issues? How long will this take? Will you achieve this goal in 6 months? a year? Ideally you want something that will show a return in a single year, you are going to have a tougher time proposing something which takes multiple years to show a benefit.

If you do have an idea that will help the company in the long run you might want to break it down into smaller proposals. What could you achieve in year one, in year two? in year three? Most companies do their budgeting one year at a time, so it’s easier to approve or finance a project for one year. After your first year you can approach them for a follow up project.

Slide 3 should provide a realistic goal for the end of the project you are proposing. Be specific general statements such as “employees will be more productive” or “users will be happier” won’t cut it. You need something that can be measured such as 15 % less calls to the service desk for this application, 10% increase in satisfaction on the employee satisfaction survey.

Slide 4 – How will we get there?

Okay, you’ve got their attention. They understand the problem, they understand where you want to take them. Now, they are ready to hear your proposal! This is the one section that may take more than one slide, because this is where you pitch your actual proposal. This is where you ask for the funding, the time, the resources, the commitment from other teams to help you, whatever it is you need to execute your plan!

Slide 5 – How will we know when we get there?

On slide 3 we specified a specific and measurable goal we were going to achieve. On the last slide we specify how we are going to measure how close we are to that goal. If you said there would be a 10% increase in employee satisfaction, when will that employee survey be distributed? Will you need to issue an extra survey to measure the success of your project in a timely manner? Will you work with the Service Desk to get reports on the amount of time spent on incidents for the application you are trying to improve?

If you are lucky there is already a reporting structure in place you can use to measure the success of your project, however you may need to work with another team to collect some baseline data now and agree on data that will be collected as the project progresses to make sure you can tell if your project is working!

What gets measured gets managed! It’s important to monitor your progress as you execute your plan. If the reports indicate things are going well, then you have some great data to share with your boss to show that their investment is paying off! If things are not going well, you want to know that sooner rather than later so you can determine if you need to make adjustments to your plan if needed. You don’t want to go up to the executive a year after they gave you the funding and say, oh well it looks like it didn’t work. If at the end of the year your project doesn’t work (which is a possibility, lots of things can go wrong, unexpected barriers may prevent your success) when you go back to your boss, if you can show them you were monitoring the progress and you tried to redirect and adjust when things weren’t going as well as you hoped that’s going to be a much better story to tell than saying, we did ‘x’ then at the end of the year we found at that didn’t work.  But hopefully, the reporting you set up will showcase that you met or maybe even exceeded your original goals!

You may think the reporting is just something management wants, but it helps you as well!  It allows you to monitor the success of your project so you can tweak as needed along the way, and it allows you to concretely show the impact your project delivered when it’s over.

Finding Inspiration

I just attended and presented at TEDx Youth Montreal. An incredible opportunity to inspire and be inspired.

Our first presenter is Olympic medal winner Andreanne Morin. She was on the Canadian Women’s eight team at the London Olympics and came home with a silver medal.  50 weeks of training a year, 6-7 days a week, 3 workouts a day, oh and she’s a law student! Through sleet, snow, fatigue, they trained and worked. When the big race happens your training pays off, especially the most gruelling workouts when you were tired and didn’t think you could do it. Because you know you got through those and you can do it when the time comes!

The next presenter is David Ragsdale, a neuroscientist who pulls an actual human brain out of a bucket! He then proceeds to explain what defines each of us, changing the way we see ourselves completely.

A 13 year old girl named Sophia who has a disease that caused all her hair to fall out and was forced to realize that now she’ll never fit the mold of the perfect 13 year old and explains that since she accepted that and took time to just figure out who she is and stop worrying as much about what others think she’s never been happier. “No-one here fits the mold, we are all different, so take a step back and figure out who you are and break the mold!”

Uhhhh… wait a second, I usually present to a bunch of geeks and explain how to write code, how exactly did I end up here again waiting for my scheduled time to go backstage and get miked up.

I have 9 minutes, no cue cards, and no slides. Why does 9 minutes seem like such a daunting task when I used to spend all day standing in front of a class explaining and presenting.

A video from a TED talk by a man who took fun pictures with his 28mm lens of people in Israel and posted huge photos of them on walls in Palestine, then took pictures of people in Palestine and posted giant photos of them in Israel. Showcasing local everyday heroes and giving everyone a reminder of the commonalities between the two sides.

Next, Sasha Diguilian, a professional rock climber who recently won a gold medal at the Pan Am games. The training is hard, she says, but every time she considered skipping a training session she reminded herself that every training session she attended was a step forward, every one she skipped was a step backwards. Why would anyone choose not to keep moving forwards!

I’m up next. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time preparing for 9 minutes. On the train, in the hotel the night before, in the hotel the morning of, sitting on a bench in the hallway visualizing it in my head, changing only a few words here or there, not wanting to risk throwing off the speech I had written up. I think the last time I wrote every word of a presentation and memorized it was in high school.

My talk, is apps, seriously Susan? I mean isn’t that just your job? How do you make that inspiring? Well, some aspects of my job are inspiring, no seriously, when you see the apps other people create it can blow you away! Do you have a smartphone or tablet? They are everywhere. Of course the apps make them really shine. Anyone can build an app, in an afternoon you could build something simple. That’s a great way to start. Now think bigger, something that could help you day to day. Now think bigger, something to help others day to day. Now think bigger, what app could help a charity. Now think bigger! Could your app have a real impact? Help someone with MS record and report their daily symptoms to their doctor? Take a recording from a stethoscope and send it to a program that analyzes the sound to determine if an infant in Africa has pneumonia so they can be treated in time to save them?

“Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do”

It’s a quote from an Apple commercial, but I love it.

Are you crazy enough?

Dream it! Build it! Live it!

You could see the students in the audience nodding, they get it, they see the potential of the devices they already have in their hands. The students seem to understand it better than most adults! That’s why they inspire me, they don’t see the barriers or limits, they just see the potential. May we all take a lesson from the students and be crazy enough to think that we can make a difference!

My talk might never be posted online, so maybe only 200 people will ever witness a 9 minute talk that took me hours of work. But, no regrets! I will never again share a stage with such an inspiring and diverse group each of whom inspired me in a different way. I can only hope that in some small way I repaid in kind.

I want to be more like Lee Dirks, I’ll miss you

Sometimes even in a brief time of knowing someone you can still feel inspired by them

Lee Dirks of Microsoft Research and his wife died this week in a tragic car accident. I met Lee Dirks at the iSchools conference in Toronto in February. We spent a few hours together talking about opportunities to work together in the coming months, about our kids, and life in general.

Lee was one of those people who greeted everyone with a very big smile, he was thoughtful and courteous. He did those little thing that matter, like standing aside to let you enter the elevator first. Despite the fact that Microsoft is a company where we are all inundated with emails every day. He answered every email I sent his way (that is truly an achievement at Microsoft). He never made me feel like I was being a nuisance, he was always helpful. Put simply, I will miss him. I would like to be a bit more like him. Gone but not forgotten. I am glad I had the pleasure of knowing him and very sad to think I will not see him again.

That said, I believe that when you meet someone you like, somehow a little piece of them stays with you, because there will be moments when that encounter comes back to you and affects how you respond. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who may be a little better for having known Lee, I’d like to think I am one of them.

Revenge of the Nerds

IMG_5205Last weekend I attended Comicon in Ottawa, proof that the geek is strong in this one.

I have never attended a Comicon before, but I will admit I have always wanted to. So when I heard Comicon was coming to Ottawa, how could I stay home. My son (a bit short for a Sith Lord as you can see from the picture), his friend Theo (dressed as Link from Legend of Zelda), and I (dressed as Lady Deathstryke from the X-Men series in case you wanted to know) set out for the day along with another female engineer and her daughter who were dressed as vampire slayers complete with homemade stakes.

If you have ever felt like no-one around you understands you because they don’t know a tribble from a Dylek. If you were the only person in the theater yelling out ‘hey that’s not right’ when Bane died in the first round of Batman movies. If you sometimes find yourself empathizing with Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj. Rejoice for there is a place for all of us who once owned (or still own) 20 sided dice and have a wardrobe of shirts that include computer and Star Wars jokes.  (I like the many faces of Darth Vader shirt…happy vader, sad vader, angry vader)

It was a day to discover and rejoice in being a geek. We admired trading cards and classic toys in their original packaging, we agonized over which nerdy t-shirts to buy (I’m wearing mine today: Schroedinger’s Cat Liberation Front!), we took pictures of people dressed as characters from comic books, video games, commercials, movies, and tv series. We stood in line and paid $40 to get our picture taken with Brent Spiner (Commander Data from Star Trek for those of you not as geeky as me). We stood in lines having  conversations with complete strangers about our disappointment that Patrick Stewart cancelled and they brought in William Shatner instead.

The entire crowd was kindred spirits, it was kind of like attending Teched or TechDays, but this was an event for all ages, geeks of past and future unite! A sell out of 12000 people attended this year’s comicon in Ottawa so I don’t think there’s much doubt it will be back and so will I.

A technical conference is a great place to geek out with co-workers, but Comicon is a great place to geek out with family! Sorry Darth, you are not that boy’s father, that’s my boy, and I may be a geek, but at least in his eyes for now I’m a cool geek! Comicon rocks, come with me next time we can play Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock while we wait in line!

Be a better blogger – Add a Summary Sentence

Adding a summary sentence to the top of a blog post helps a reader decide if they want to stay and read your post.

My team took a great course on writing for the web where we learned a number of tips and techniques to improve our blogs. I want to share some of what we learned so you can be a better blogger

The average user spends 10 seconds looking at a web page before they decide if they want to stay and read it. That means you have 10 seconds to convince them they want to read your post. Now having said that, not every post is intended for every reader. When I write a blog post about the Imagine Cup competition it is aimed at university and college students taking Computer Science or Engineering. Whereas this blog post is aimed at bloggers. You don’t need to hook all readers, just your intended audience.

The easiest way to tell someone in 10 seconds or less what is in your blog, is by adding a summary sentence. I find putting it in a different font size or color helps it stand out.

Don’t believe me? Test it out

Look at this blog post for 10 seconds. Do you know what you will learn if you take the time to read that blog in full? Was 10 seconds enough time for you to make a good decision as to whether you want to read that blog?

Now look at this one. A little intro paragraph at the beginning helps doesn’t it?

Now look at this one. See how the opening two lines give you enough information to decide if this blog is of interest to you?

Now look at the first sentence of the blog post you are reading right now, did that sentence catch your eye? Did it help you understand what you would learn by reading this post?

It doesn’t take long and your readers will appreciate it!

Want Your Presentation to Rock? Hook Your Audience Early!

Every day professors there is a lecture room with someone standing up front talking about Fourrier Transforms or looping algorithms. Whether it’s a class presentation,  a lunch and learn for fellow students, or a presentation on a co-op term, all of us are called upon to present from time to time. When we put together a presentation it can be tricky to deliver the information the audience needs in a way that will hold their attention. You want a presentation that will grab and hold their attention. Luckily there is a very easy 5 slide structure you can use in your slide decks to quickly get the audience invested in your presentation.

I really believe you have to get your audience hooked right from the beginning. Whether you are presenting at a conference, to a client, to your boss, or to co-workers. You want to make sure the audience understands what you will be talking about and why they should care right away! We all have limited time, so when I sit down to listen to someone else present I want to know right away what am I going to get out of this presentation.

The structure I use at the start of my decks is based on the principles in Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson.

Let’s say I wanted to talk to a group of programmers about developing an application for a Windows Phone. A typical presentation might start out with a slide that shows a picture of a windows phone, then it might display a slide that lists the tools you need to download to start developing, then a slide listing the hardware and software requirements to use the tools, you have a few slides talking about the different types of phone applications you can build, then maybe you do a Hello World example, and you do various code examples and demos and finish up with talking about how to publish an app to the marketplace. Sound about right? That’s fine, but it could be so much better! All you need to do is put careful thought into the first 5 slides!

Slide 1 The Setting

The very first slide in your deck should give your audience the setting, telling them where we are right now. Think of it like a sort of one sentence status update, a state of the union. Ideally this setting should be expressed as a single sentence with a single image on the slide to reinforce it. For example

“The Windows Phone MarketPlace offers great opportunities to get noticed” and an image of someone who stands out in a crowd.

Other examples of setting statements

“SQL Server 2012 CTP3 has just been released”

“MVC is becoming a popular model for web development”

“All companies need accurate information to make decisions”

Slide 2 The Protagonist

The second slide should help the audience understand how they fit into this setting, so they can understand how your first statement is relevant to them. Again keep the slide simple, one sentence, one image!

“You know .NET, so you can code a windows phone application” with a picture of a happy programmer, or the .NET logo, get creative have fun with it.

Other examples

“We are currently running SQL Server 2005”

“Our team maintains 15 corporate websites”

“We have 45 databases at our company storing 61 TB worth of data”

Slide 3 The imbalance

This slide should give a sense of the conflict, the problem, it should start to make people feel like we need to do something. Stick with the one sentence, one image format.

“The Windows Phone Marketplace is an untapped opportunity” with a picture of Monty Burns from the Simpsons rubbing his hands together with glee (like I said you can have fun with the images)

Other examples

“We need the business intelligence features in SQL Server 2012”

“None of our websites share code”

“There is wealth of information in our data that can help our company succeed”

Slide 4 The balance

This slide should tell the audience the desired outcome, where we want to be in a week, a month, a year, or even in an hour when this presentation is completed. Oh and guess what format the slide should be…yup one sentence, one image. By the way lets be clear, I do mean an actual sentence, with punctuation and everything, a bullet point is not a sentence.

“We want to develop windows phone applications” with an image of a windows phone showing the company logo on a tile

Other examples

“We need to upgrade to SQL Server 2012”

“We want our code to be re-usable across websites”

“We can get information about trends and patterns from our company data to plan company strategy”

Slide 5 The solution

Now it’s time to reveal what you will really be talking about in your slide deck, the solution, how will we get from where we are now to where we want to be, from the imbalance to the balance!

“You can develop a phone application” with an image of a finger pointing at the audience.

Other examples

“There is an upgrade path from SQL 2005 to 2012”

“MVC will allow us to re-use more of our code”

“SQL Server Analysis Services cubes will help us report on trends in our data”

Put it all together and it comes out like this

The Windows Phone Marketplace offers great opportunities to get noticed. You know .NET, so you can code a windows phone application. The Windows Phone Marketplace is an untapped opportunity. We want to develop windows phone applications. You can develop a phone application

or

All companies need accurate information to make decisions. We have 45 databases at our company storing 61 TB worth of data. There is wealth of information in our data that can help our company succeed. We can get information about trends and patterns from our company data to plan company strategy. SQL Server Analysis Services cubes will help us report on trends in our data

If you were in the audience after these slides, would you know what was coming next? that’s the whole point, now I understand what you’ll be covering, how I am affected, and why we are having this discussion.

Just 5 slides and you are well on your way to a great presentation. An interesting aspect of these first 5 slides: they don’t take long to cover in your audience. I probably average about 30 seconds a slide on these. So they add very little to your overall presentation time yet they go such a long way towards setting the stage for the rest of your presentation. So next time you are firing up PowerPoint, before you jump straight into the content, take a minute to think about those first 5 slides. By the way, if you go back and read the first 5 sentences of this blog post…you’ll see this format can work for introductions to blogs as well Smile

 

This blog is also posted on the Canadian Solution Developer

Conference or Course? Where Should I Spend my Training Budget?

I started work in the era of Stephen Covey and the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ craze. Heck I was even sent on a 7 Habits course and given a 7 habits daytimer! One of the 7 habits was to ‘Sharpen the Saw’ which amounts to the importance of spending time improving yourself and learning. The IT world changes so fast! You have to keep learning to keep up! The smartest employers recognize this and invest in training for their employees.

I am busy getting ready for TechDays Canada, and also preparing to present to Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCT) at the MCT Summit. I spent 10 years teaching Microsoft courses and I have presented and attended numerous conferences over the years. I know that most of us are faced with limited budgets and time for training. You have to make the most out of your training time! Sometimes you are forced to choose between attending a conference and taking a course. I want to give you an honest comparison of the two options so you can make the best decision!

Criteria

Conference


Course

Cost Tend to be $200-$400 a day, but often have significant early bird discounts or promo codes. Tip: Decide and book early! Tend to be $300-$500 a day,
Tip: Check websites or call and ask the sales staff if there are any promotions and discounts.
Travel The bigger the conference the more likely you are to need to travel.Many user groups will organize events locally, for example TechDays may be in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver this year, but we are sponsoring locally organized events like DevTeach in Ottawa, Prairie DevCon in Winnipeg and Calgary. The more specific the course and the more obscure the topic the more likely you are to need to travel.If you are just looking for the basic how to code .NET, how to use SharePoint you should be able to find that nearby.
The Wow factor Imagine if you had attended Build and received the free slates with Windows 8 installed! Keynotes with big names and announcements! Product booths where you can play with the newest tech toys! The wow factor in a course comes from your desire to learn what it taught in that course and having those ‘aha’ moments when you finally get it!
Topic Breadth Conferences will cover a broader array of topics than a course Courses will cover a lot of material on one specific topic
Topic Depth Due to the length of sessions, you rarely get great depth in a conference, but keep an eye out for pre and post-conference sessions that frequently offer deeper dives for an extra fee Courses will go into much more depth on a specific topic
Current technology Conferences are generally the best places to learn about the latest and greatest tools and features Because it takes time to develop courseware, and you need a certain momentum in the market with a product to sell a course, courses tend to be one version behind the current release. But occasionally you can find a one day new features course or a seminar on a new release.
Immediate help with your current role If you pick the right conference and attend the right sessions, you will definitely walk away with something you can use the moment you get back to work. When we pick sessions for TechDays that is actually one of our criteria. If a conference has a partner expo that can be a goldmine as well, those partners have some great tools and resources, not just t-shirts and pens! Check the conference website and look at session lists to make sure this is the right conference for you. If you have selected the right course, you should be able to use what you learn right away.  Read the course outline to make sure this course is going to cover topics that apply to you. For example there are a dozen SQL Server courses, do you want to learn how to write reports with Reporting Services? or do you want to master T-SQL? or do you want to learn how to do backups? Each skill is in a different course. Even if you have already worked with the product for a while, taking a course can be worthwhile to pick up a few new tricks! But if you have 3 years experience with the product, you shouldn’t expect to get as much from the course as someone with 2 months experience with the product.
Help with your career long-term If you are looking to move into a senior technical role, you want a conference that talks about design, architecture, application lifecycle methodologies like Agile (hint: TechDays Architecture track)If you are looking to move into a management role you may want to complement those design and ALM skills with a conference aimed at managers and project management. If you are looking for a senior technical role, you want to try and find a course that talks about design, Application Lifecycle Methodologies, and architecture. I’ll be honest, these courses are tough to find, so if you find one that works for you, re-arrange your schedule and take it!If you are looking to get into a management role, there are lots of courses out there to teach you project management skills.
Asking Questions Conferences will have a Q&A at the end of each session, and a good conference will have some sort of open area where you can talk to speakers (some sort of Ask The Experts zone) but you may have to miss a session to find time to talk to your expert. However you can usually get email addresses for the speakers to follow up with them outside the conference. You will have much more opportunity to ask an instructor questions than a speaker at a conference. It’s simply a question of time and the number of people learning. It’s easier to take questions over a week across 12 students than when you are presenting a session to 150.
Hands On Time with Product More conferences are discovering the value in giving attendees hands on time with a product. For example we have Instructor Led Labs at TechDays where you get to actually walk through an exercise on your laptop during the session. But not all conferences offer hands on product time. Most courses will include lab exercises so you get a chance to reinforce what you learn.
Networking Conferences have more people attending and are generally better for networking. They often have social events, or luncheons where you can talk to other attendees.
Keep an eye out for opportunities to network with the speakers as well at Product booths and Ask The Expert areas
You meet a smaller group on a course, but that smaller group is interested in the exact same topics as you, so you are more likely to find a kindred spirit who has faced the same challenges as you, and don’t forget the instructor is a good contact as well. If you ask nicely, many instructors are willing to share their contact information, as long as you promise not to ask them to debug your code, or architect your next solution for them by email.

THE WINNER IS…

It depends! You knew that was coming didn’t you? Hopefully I’ve given you a few things to consider if you have to choose. If you just started on a new team and have never used the tool, maybe this year you need a course, but if you are simply looking to grow in your current role, get excited about your job again by picking up some new tips and geeking out with some fellow fans of Big Bang Theory. Join us at Techdays! I’ll see you there!

This blog is also posed on the Canadian Developer Connection

How to Get Consensus in a Meeting with the “Fist of Five”

FistHave you ever been in a meeting and asked “Is everyone okay with this plan?” only to be answered with silence. You prompt again “any concerns or questions”?” again nothing. Finally you announce that you are going to assume silence means consent and move on to the next topic. But here is the big question: Is silence consent?

In order to answer that question, think about what happens after the meeting where you assumed silence was consent. After the meeting, did one of the team members turn to another and start pointing out the flaws in the plan? In the coming days and weeks did anyone keep bringing up that same topic again because of additional concerns? In the worst case scenarios when you go ahead with the plan and it does not work. Is there someone who stands up at the Follow Up meeting and says “I knew this plan would never work”? Those are all signs that the team did not reach a consensus.

The Merriam Webster defines consensus as “general agreement” and “group solidarity in sentiment and belief”. It’s that second definition group solidarity you want to reach with your team.  Group solidarity means we all agree to support this decision or plan going forward. That means we won’t walk out of the room and start telling everyone this is a bad idea, and we don’t think it will work. It means that even if it fails you will stand up and say you agreed it was worth trying.

Consensus is not a group vote where majority rules. It is the entire group agreeing to support a decision or idea. There is a very simple technique you can use check for consensus: The Fist of Five.

When you are ready to ask “Is everyone okay with this plan”, each team member responds by raising their fist with one to five fingers.

  • Five fingers – You think this is a very good plan and you fully support it
  • Four Fingers – You support this plan, it’s not perfect, but you strongly support it
  • Three fingers – This plan may not be your first choice, you have some concerns about it, but you understand the arguments presented in the meeting and you agree that given the current circumstances it is a reasonable plan moving forward and you support it
  • Two fingers – There is an issue you feel must be resolved before you can support the plan, further discussion or follow up is required before you can support it
  • One finger – You do not support this proposal, you do not think it will work, it is going to take some serious convincing to get you to change your mind

If everyone is showing 3 or more fingers then you have consensus. If anyone is showing less than 3 fingers ask them to explain their concern and develop a plan to address and follow up on that concern.

It’s simple, and it works. In fact we had a team meeting this week where we were putting this technique to good use as we discussed how to work with user communities, developers and IT Professionals across Canada. Besides what could be better than a meeting technique that sounds like the title of a Kung Fu movie!

All those in favour?

FistFive

This blog post also appears on the Canadian Solution Developer

Why do IT Projects Fail?

I read an interesting article in this morning’s Ottawa Citizen. It says the auditor general has stated the government is mismanaging a number of IT projects. The auditor general’s office found a history of cost overruns and delays and of not delivering on the project’s planned purpose. There are a myriad of reasons that can cause a project to run over budget or miss deadlines. I’d like to hone in one of that one specific point from the article “Not delivering on the project’s planned purpose.”

This one hits close to home for me because for the past few years I was training not just developers but also IT business analysts. A business analyst gathers the requirements for an IT system. A systems analyst on the other hand determines the specifications for an IT system. What’s the difference?

Requirements describe WHAT the user needs from the system. For example, the user needs to be able to know who reported a bug and needs to be able to track the progress of the bug they reported.

Specifications describe HOW the system will meet that need. For example, there will be a SQLServer database and a User table with a ReportedBy field of type VARCHAR, there will be a mobile application which will allow users to view the status of their bugs written using Silverlight and a web service.

Some projects have dedicated business analysts who will gather the requirements and hand them off to the technical team. On other projects members of the technical team are asked to gather the requirements, Sometimes, requirements gathering is skipped and we just start building because “we know what the user needs” You can be successful gathering requirements with business analysts or technical team members but you should never skip requirements gathering because you think you know what the user needs. Even in the agile methodologies the user is the one who drives the content in the sprints.

With our technical skills we are very good at building solutions to meet a specific need or requirement. I have been blown away over and over again with the ability of programmers and system architects to come up with creative ways to meet users needs even when faced with technical limitations. But, if the users needs aren’t well understood in the first place you are headed for trouble.

Indulge me for a moment as I relate a short story from my own work life. I was managing a few programmers and was asked to build a small application for another team to use internally. I sat down with the team lead who wanted the system for about an hour to get a feel for what they were after. Then I walked away, sat down with my team and we designed a solution to meet their needs. That first meeting was the only meeting I had with the other team. We were on a project that was already behind schedule and over budget so there was a lot of pressure to get this application out the door. Since it was an internal application there was no requirement from management for lengthy documentation or sign off. With a lot of long hours and creative programming we turned around the application in two weeks! We were patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, especially with the time constraints! We walked into a meeting with our customers (the other team) to show them this wonderful new application we had built for them. Within 5 minutes it was clear that although our application worked fine, it did not meet the other team’s needs! They got angry because the system didn’t meet their needs. We got angry because we had just killed ourselves for two weeks getting this completely functional solution built and out the door. The result was increased tension and anger on a project that was already under stress and a solution that didn’t actually help the other team’s productivity. Why did it happen? Because we didn’t fully understand the requirements!

I can’t teach you how to correctly gather requirements in one blog post, I can tell you gathering requirements is a critical success factor for any project and requirements gathering is the theme for today’s My 5

My 5 tips for successful requirements gathering

  1. Your requirements will be wrong – No matter how much time you spend on requirements, no matter how many users you talk to, and how many meetings you hold, you cannot get the requirements 100% correct. That doesn’t mean you should just skip requirements gathering because the requirements will be wrong, it just means you need to accept the fact you can’t get it 100% right.
  2. When gathering requirements your goal is to find as many mistakes in the requirements as you can with the time you have – Since you can’t get requirements 100% correct, you want to get as close as you can to 100% with the time you have. How do you find mistakes in the requirements? See Number 3.
  3. Engage the users early and often – Users will forget to tell you something in that first meeting, or a different user will be aware of a requirement that another user will miss. Engaging different users, and following up with emails, phone calls or additional meetings increases your chances of finding mistakes or gaps in the requirements
  4. Get requirements signed off before you start testing – It is not unusual for a project to start development when the requirements are still in flux, but how can you test to see if requirements are met if you haven’t agreed on the requirements yet?
  5. Document in one place only – Since the requirements are wrong, you know you will have to update them as you find the mistakes and gaps. Get creative in how you document your requirements. If you find yourself doing a cut and paste from one requirements document to another, ask yourself how can I document this in one place so that *when* it changes, I only have to update the requirement in a single place.

For more information about requirements gathering, I suggest you check out The International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA). They organize conferences on requirements gathering, and they even have a business analysis certification based on the information in the Business Analysis Book of Knowledge (BABOK) which is chock full of best practices for gathering requirements. Some of the tips in todays My 5 come from material prepared by Noble Inc.

This blog is also posted to Canadian Solution Developer