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That’s Why They Hired You

Frustration!I think that we’ve all been to the place of being frustrated at work. There are lots of sources of frustration, but today I want to talk about a specific kind of situation.

If you’ve ever been a consultant – either for yourself or others – you may have gotten the chance to work on a large project rather than a staff augmentation role. There are basically two reasons that a company would hire a consulting company to tackle a project for them. Either their plate is too full to perform the strategic work or they do not have the proficiencies in their staff to tackle the project. Honestly, most interesting projects fall into that latter category. And *that* is what I want to talk about today.

To win the project, you probably responded to an RFP and you had to demonstrate your experience and proficiencies with the technologies at hand. You may have had to be interviewed and show prior work, proving that you didn’t just Google the thing on the way over. Basically, you are the closest thing to an expert in this area that the company has contact with. Since you are the chosen one, you should be able to just come in there and do your thing, right? Surely, they won’t have any opinions on technologies that they are entirely unfamiliar with?

Of course not and of course they do.

I’ve been on a few projects where the consulting company was brining entirely new expertise into an organization. That never stopped that organization from asking questions… and they should ask questions. Where the frustration arises is when you make a thoughtful and careful decision, write a recommendation showing why you went that way and you still have to defend it. Not against solid questions that you forgot or didn’t think to address in your recommendation, but questions that come about because someone with a lofty title Googled “{insert technology} sucks” and just read you objections to the technology.

Those discussions can be fun, but not when the antagonist can never take the discussion beyond the surface because that’s all of the research that they put into the topic. Here is an absurd (made up) example of what I mean:

Sample Conversation:

Them: “Why don’t you use MongoDB, I heard it was Web Scale?”
Me: “The requirements call for this application to be used by your accounting department, which consists of 8 people.”
Them: “But, what if we want to put this in the Cloud to make it Web Scale?”
Me: “None of your systems that this needs to talk to are Internet-facing and you have a corporate restriction against having point-to-point VPN connections with machines that you don’t control or machines that aren’t in CISP certified data centers.”
Them: “Fine, why can’t we run MongoDB locally.”
Me: “You could, but your entire organization runs on Oracle. Why wouldn’t we just put the 3 tables we need into your existing database, saving costs, implementation time, etc etc?”
Them: “I don’t understand why kind of consultant you are if you are if you are afraid of modern technology.”

And… scene.

Fortunately, I haven’t had exactly that conversation, but I’ve had some conversations that make about that much sense and have been accused of worse. It is very easy to get frustrated at that point. But, I’ve found that it is best to take a step back when this happens. Why are you expecting them to ask you questions like they are an expert when they brought you in to be an expert? They are asking questions about an unknown thing because they are curious, or because their butt is on the line if you mess up, or just because they want to do “due diligence”.

Remember, if they already knew all of the answers, they wouldn’t have needed you. They would have set their own direction and if they were understaffed, they would have just gotten some warm bodies to meet demand. Instead, they hired you for your expertise, so try to remember that during your discussions and explanations.

Bonus tip: For the love of all things, don’t be condescending in your discussions. You might say, “Of course”, but I can promise you that it happens and many times it was not your intention. Guard your words and your attitudes and you’ll be appreciated.

Time to Leave Your Job?

The Future Awaits - from
An article was posted over at Mashable titled 8 Signs It’s Time to Leave Your Job. I can see their perpective on all of their points, but to me their 8th point was the main point.

You are no longer passionate about your work and dread going to the office each day.

That is my number one criteria for looking for new employment. Do I dread going into work? Am I excited about the kinds of things that I get to do at my job? Not every day is a mountaintop, but if you have a prolonged period of dreading work, then you should consider moving on. All of the other points roll into that one. They talk about politics and high profile work, etc. Different strokes for different folks and some people aren’t affected by the same things that affect others. It all comes down to whether or not you die a little inside when the alarm goes off in the morning.

Assuming that you’re getting paid basically what you can make elsewhere (give or take a few percent) and that your benefits are fine, the only other consideration in my mind is whether or not your skills are being allowed to grow, or whether they are stagnating.

For example, if you are a .Net developer and your workplace is still working on the .Net Framework 2.0 and you are only using Web Forms and you are on SQL Server 2000 with no chance of an upgrade, you should think about going even if you are happy. Your alternative is to get very involved in “new technologies” in your spare time so that you don’t become easily expendable.

The days of working somewhere for 40 years and retiring with a gold watch and a pension are basically extinct. If you allow a job to manage your career for you, you will find a time where it is 2013 and you are looking for work and you have been doing FoxPro 6 or Classic ASP for 15 years and now you can’t find a job that will pay you anywhere near what you need to support yourself and possibly a family.

So it is all summed up very simply as to whether or not you like going to work every day. If you love the place and it is feeding your career, then you already know that you shouldn’t be looking anywhere else.

If you love the place and it is strangling your career, consider whether or not you have the time or inclination to put in the work “off hours” in a very big way to gain the requisite experience in “new technologies” that you may or may not use professionally. If you don’t have that time or inclination, look to move on, even if you love your job.

If you don’t love waking up in the morning to go to work, get out. Life is too short for almost anything else to matter.

A Mobile Strategy?

Harvard Business Review published an article at the end of last month titled Building a Mobile App Is Not a Mobile Strategy. The TL;DR; version is that mobile is not an item to be marked off of a checklist. It is bad if your company just created a mobile app so that you can answer “yes” when the CEO asks, “Do we do mobile?”.

I heard someone speak at a conference here in Ohio who was making this same point. Some time ago, the best visual medium for advertising was the print ad. Since that was the end of the standard understanding, when the web came about, people set out to put up what we now call “brochureware”. Basically taking their magazine ad or brochure and putting it up on the web. No real interaction and no reason to ever have a repeat visitor. Hey, but at least they had an “Internet Strategy”, right?

The same thing is happening now. Mobile is hot, so people are trying to create mobile apps that are nothing more than advertisements or brochureware for their product or business. Not a lot of people “get” mobile yet, so the good ideas are coming slowly. However, just as companies began to create interactive websites that provided a service or amusement while educating or advertising their service, that time will arrive for mobile, too.

Sit or SquatEven now, forward thinking companies are getting it. The article mentions Proctor and Gamble’s sponsorship of a 3rd party application called “Sit or Squat” that helps locate public restrooms wherever you are, while at the same time keeping Charmin at the forefront of your mind and associating it with the best possible restroom experiences.

Having an idea or a strategy for what you will do to “accomplish” mobile is great, but the Harvard Business Review article pretty much stops there. In my opinion, the key to having a dynamic and impactful mobile strategy isn’t just how you will market to consumers. It encompasses how your employees will be productive. What sorts of applications could your employees use “on the go” (in meetings, during travel, etc) on a smartphone or tablet device? How will you deliver those applications to them?

The other big key to a successful mobile strategy is integration with your existing business platform. What sorts of services or APIs does your organization have exposed to allow mobile applications to integrate with your systems? If you have none, what would it take to create them? This to me is the heart of a Great Mobile Strategy in the Enterprise. It is mobile as an integrated natural evolution of your systems in a way that encourages productivity and growth. And that is the hard part.

If you aren’t in a place where new applications can integrate with you, then you are in a place that is stagnant. If every new application has to tear down and throw away what came before it, you are asking to fall behind. A Great Mobile Strategy starts with a Great Overall IT Strategy that allows mobile to become not just something “checked off” or “bolted on” but a full-fledged member of your company’s application stack.


'Overtime' from
A while back, I read a blog post on Big Bang Technology’s blog written by Max Cameron titled “Why We Don’t Work Overtime“. I will give a full disclaimer here at the outset, I probably work too many hours, so I have a little bit of skin in this game. Namely, I could be accused of only responding because my work choices were being invalidated by someone else. That certainly isn’t my impetus for this blog. I merely wanted to offer a different perspective to Max Cameron’s blog post.

Cameron is writing from the perspective of a Startup Company. He does make an exception to the overtime rule for the founders, but for his employees he says,

There are no heroes at our office. When the clock strikes five, 
the team goes home. If they try to keep working, I tell them that 
the game's over and they lost. They either put too much on their 
plate, got taken off-task, or were wasting time. None of those 
justify working past five, on a holiday, or over a weekend.

I certainly applaud his motiviations. He sticks to this rule even when clients ask for it, when they’d need it to win new business, etc. It is one of his company’s core values and they stick to it. Everyone realizes that when an employee (especially a salaried one) works overtime, he is “doing more than he agreed to” and is “taking away family time” and “upsetting the work/life balance”. However, what I find interesting are some of the reasons that their company takes that choice away from their employees.

One major reason that Cameron cites is that to persuade employees to work overtime, the noble concept of “sacrifice” is invoked. In his mind, soldiers, firefighters, and police officers sacrifice, and to try to align that concept with “expected overtime” is a dangerous habit to get in to.

He points out that the employees who work over are the “heroes” and those who don’t are “losers who let you down”. In his words, “Yearly reviews just got a whole lot easier”. Later he says, “How could I promote a loser when they’re surrounded by winners?”.

I want to deal with that point first. He is obviously being rhetorical and a little sarcastic with those last quotes, arguing his point to ad absurdum. However, I think there is a point to be investigated there. My current boss has taught me a lot about managing people and the value of making “the hard decision”. It sounds to me like Cameron is welching a little bit on managing employees. Sometimes, you have to make the hard choices. As my boss likes to say, “Who do we pay to do the hard stuff?”.

Imagine on one hand that you have an employee who works only 40 hours and is very productive, gets along well with others, is a leader, and so on. Now, imagine you have another employee who works a ton of overtime, but you know that it is because he isn’t very efficient. He has a good work ethic and to make up for his lack of efficiency (and “social time” during work hours), he tries to even it out with that overtime. Now, if you are a manager who can’t promote Mr. Productive Forty and explain to Mr. Compensating why he didn’t get the job, you aren’t much of a manager and should rethink your career path.

Let’s pretend there is another scenerio. This time, you have two very equal employees. One of them is a “5:01 Developer” (gone by 5:01 every day) and the other works over to make sure things get done on time, or to add special features off of the “nice to have” list that never gets prioritized ahead of “big projects”. In that case – all else being equal – why wouldn’t you promote the overtime guy?

These kinds of decisions are why you are the person writing the reviews.

A point that Cameron makes alongside this one is the concept of burnout. This is definitely a very real problem. However, I feel that he’s again arguing to take the “copout” path. He seems to be claiming that it is impossible or would require too much work to monitor and make sure that his employees aren’t burning out. There is a big difference between running a guy at 80+ hours a week for months at a time, working 1 or 2 60-70+ hour weeks before huge release, and regulary working 50 hours a week because that’s what you are comfortable working.

As I admitted earlier, I definitely work overtime. I am soon taking my first vacation week in years (only because the company stopped paying out for unused time – I have to “use it or lose it” and I’m too practical for that ;) ). However, I’ve been going at this pace for about five years straight now, across 2 companies. I’m not close to burnout. You can’t manage people homogeneously, you have to manage to the individual. I’m more of a sports car, not a minivan, there is no danger of running the engine at a little bit higher speeds.

I’m not bragging. My point is that I’m different than other people and a team needs all kinds of people on it. The Apostle Paul actually writes to this point quite eloquently in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 12:14-21:

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Now if the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, 
I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason 
stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, 
"Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it 
would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? 
If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 
But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of 
them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, 
where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head 
cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 

There are things I do well and things that I don’t do well, and I realize that I don’t always see them clearly. The way that that is remedied is that my team is made up of all sorts of people. The person building the team knows what he has, and fills the gaps appropriately. The fact that I can easily work 50 hours a week or more without burning out is just a tool that my company has at its disposal, just as all of the other skills of employees are at their disposal.

One point that I just could not grasp in Cameron’s blog post was the fact that he is willing to let his clients down because of this overtime policy. Even if the work completed because of overtime would win their clients more business or help solve a serious problem that they are having, overtime is still off limits.

I see nothing wrong with working over to win new business, for you or for one of your clients. Your client has likely worked with others who cannot deliver these things and you make yourself indispensible to him as someone who can deliver them. But again, there is the potential for abuse, but that relies on your client service managers or account representitives to “do the hard stuff” of recognizing and stopping abuse before it gets anywhere.

As I was discussing this topic with a good friend of mine, he pointed out to me that one problem he had with overtime was that it “excused” or “covered up” poor planning. For instance, if a project was projected to have 15 features and be delivered in 2 months, but was estimated poorly, that can be a problem. Proper Agile philosophy is to have the business either extend the date based on the metrics from the iterations, or cut features. Another approach is for it to still spend the hours, but spend them in 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks to meet the deadline. That’s a “death march” and no one really wants that.

However, sometimes it is politically expedient to deliver the project by working the overtime. Not everyone works at a company that can afford to turn down external clients or at a consultancy that can easily refuse work. A good deal of software development is done as part of an “in-house” shop that develops software for “an enterprise”. There are 100 ways that you can curry favor by seemingly doing the impossible and those who don’t see the value in that don’t have a very mature view of the “real world”.

However, the issue then comes if you don’t learn a lesson about your estimating and back yourself into those kinds of corners on project after project. Again, I fall back on “Who do we get to do the hard stuff?” If your Project Managers can’t control these projects from the outset, you probably have the wrong people in there.

This has definitely been one of my longer rants and I know that a lot of people will disagree with me. Feel free to leave a comment below, or blog your own responses. If you do a reaction blog, please link it in the comments so that I can read the discourse and the other readers may benefit, as well.

Contented Cows

Contented Cows Give Better Milk
I got the paperback version of Contented Cows Give Better Milk 8 or 9 years ago when I was working for a large financial institution. It was popular at the time to buy these by the crate and give them to anyone who was responsible for people. So, I did like any responsible employee… and finally got around to reading it this week. Better late than never, right? I want to warn you that this post is going to run a little long because I’m going to include several quotes from the book after I share some general thoughts and before I conclude.

I’m not much of a “business book” guy. In my experience, too often these books are “educationally low fat” and more about stuff that just about everyone already knows. Even this book draws some conclusions that I had already reached, however I know that I’ve worked for many employers that still don’t “get it”. In my opinion, this books deserves the reputation it gained and I think if more employers followed its guidelines, the average worker would be considerably better off. It covers topics like employee hiring and retention, productivity, corporate reputation, and enabling employees to do something great. Let me let the authors speak for themselves. (My thoughts or interjections are in bold italic)

On Hiring

“Contrary to popular belief, there really is an ample supply of conscientious, hardworking, capable, honest people.”  “You can (and must) find others like them.  You’ve got to expend a little effort doing it because ‘eagles don’t flock,’ but they are out there.” – p.37
(I love this quote, especially the notion that “eagles don’t flock”)

On Training

“We have an earnings problem, so we’re going to work out way out of it by ‘dumbing down’ the organization with less skilled, less competent people! Now the only problem will be to find dumb customers to purchase our goods and services and even dumber investors to buy our stock!” – p.154

In talking about an organization’s fading training program for air traffic controllers…
“At some point this practice was amended in favor of a train-to-proficiency approach, and the end result is now that nobody ever gets sent home or, as our friend Alex Nicholas calls it, de-selected.  Instead, you wind up with a situation where people who would have washed out under the old system are still in training and on the job years later, and every day must have their work carefully overseen by an experienced controller.  A competent employee ends up babysitting an inept one, making them both, at best, marginally productive; and both are making the same money!” – pp. 160-161
How many of you have l i v e d this?

“Why is it that no one ever ‘flunks’ a corporate training program?” – p.165

On Corporate Policies

“If you believe that most people who come to work for you are lazy, stupid, untrustworthy, inept, and just downright contrary, that assumption can’t help but show up in the way you run your business.  You’ll have all kinds of rules and regulations designed for numbskulls who couldn’t pour milk out of a boot with the directions printed on the heel.  You’ll no doubt have a supervisor for every six or seven folks, and will inevitably attract just the kind of people who will live down to your assumptions.” – p.35

Talking about how companies make mistakes and how policies can ruin a company:
“We do it through policies that are just plain dumb; systems that treat intelligent people like they’re complete morons; and cultures which ensue that no mistake goes unpunished.” – p.168

“In their private lives outside of work, your employees are heads of families, civic leaders, army reserve officers, mortgage holders, and a host of other things. Day in and day out they somehow manage to feed themselves and their families, pay their bills on time, stay out of jail, and behave normally by most reasonable standards.  In short, they tend to be rather competent individuals with a clear picture of the difference between right and wrong.  Why then, when at work, must they face a continual barrage of not-so-subtle signs of our mistrust in them as individuals?” – p.183

“If you’re unwilling to give credence to the employer/employee covenant by taking this important step, then by all means save your time, money, and breath.  Go out and hire dummies whenever your company has a job vacancy, pay them as little as possible, and don’t even think about training them–just hire a supervisor to stand guard over every two to three people.” – p.192
Wow… I know some places where this is basically the policy!

“There was no correlation between the reviews and terminations.”  Only three out of 986 people let go for poor performance received poor ratings on their prior review. “Incredibly, roughly two-thirds of these same people had also received merit increases in the six months preceding their termination!” – p.101

On Reputation

“Organizations which don’t measure up tend to be viewed as an employer of last resort; nobody with any brains, ability, or motivation wants to work there!  When this occurs, only two things can happen.  Either the organization is forced to pay market-premium wages and salaries in an attempt to secure better applicants, or it must accept the lower quality applicants, or do both” – p. 25

“We submit that inordinately high wages, salaries, and unwarranted benefits not only aren’t the answer, they are often a large part of the problem.  Moreover, they are often used as a counter-balance or way of compensating for serious deficiencies elsewhere in the organization.” – p.93

My Conclusion

Certainly not every developer is going to have an opportunity during their career to define many of these policies at their organization. However, with that said, we should not also have our heads in the sand when it comes to business. We should also remember that a strong majority of us are not paid to make software for software’s sake. We are paid to solve a business problem. These principles can help us find good solid companies to work for as well as making sure that we do our part to make the company great while we are there via the software that we write.

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