Experimenting with Workplace Environments
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For years I’ve questioned the stubbornness with which companies cling to the Industrial Age’s workplace environment and management strategies. In an age of new technology, new work skills, and a new desire by employees for an opportunity to go beyond being simple workers, to creative influences with input and ownership of their projects, so many companies and managers continue to treat their employees like expendable resources that can be burned down to ash and simply replaced with a new job posting. As well, work environments are stale, don’t inspire creativity, and fail to treat the workers as responsible adults (which, by the way, inspires them to trust you and perform at a higher level).

Two articles were published this week on these topics. First, from Robert Dempsey of Rails for All and Atlantic Dominion Solutions, with his article The Changing Role of Managers, in which he discusses how his role as Project Manager has evolved through trial and error, and describes his main role as PM with these words:

The main role of the scrum master [project manager] is to remove impediments that hold back the development team from being productive. Impediments might be lack of tools or clients taking a long time to respond. The scrum master also ensures that there is as little outside interference as possible.

He goes on to say that the manager’s role is that of leader, and that trust is a major element in team success. He provides a list of books he read as well on the topic.

In the second article, from Jason at 37signals, titled, Workplace Experiments, he discusses some of the new benefits they are experimenting with to keep their team fresh and happy, and thus in the end, far more productive than the teams that work away their lives (not to mention cutting down on the high hidden cost of employee turnover). 37signals is experimenting with:

  • four day work weeks
  • helping pay for their employees to learn new things and expand themselves; everything from learning to fly to learning to cook
  • credit cards for discretionary spending (books, conferences, software)

Not all experiments may work, nor be affordable forever, but I loudly applaud the effort to shake things up, treat the employees like you really value, respect and trust them, and make an effort to look for new ways to enrich their lives and help them fulfill their passions.

Remember:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
~ Annie Dillard

Improve Your Career…Right Now
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The Simple Dollar has posted an article titled, “15 Things You Can Do Right Now To Help Your Career”. My favorites from the list are:

Make a list of all of the things you did today/this week/this month to help your organization, and file them away.
I started this several months ago, with a private WordPress blog. I keep a record of my work accomplishments for the week, which I can later use to update my resume. I also keep track of my personal daily accomplishments, which I update at the end of each day. It’s a great way to look back at the day, and be reminded of success, as opposed to looking at the unfinished items still on your task list, which tends to have the reverse effect.

Design some classy business cards
I planned to do this for a long time, and ironically, I just sent the design to the printer last night for my cards.

Send a thank-you note
I’ve done this before after interviews, but it’s an interesting idea for around the office thanks. The article suggests that the handwritten thank-you note implies you put more time and thought into it, than the pre-printed or emailed note.

Now that my business cards are at the printer, I plan to do a note card that matches the style, that I can use as a thank you card.

Work on your writing skills
Keeping a personal journal, as mentioned above, can also help you work on your writing skills. Since I started my personal journal a few months ago, I’ve written over 90 posts. They aren’t necessarily as well thought out as they would be if they were for public consumption, but a few of them have already gone from my personal journal to being posted on one of my blogs.

Send a quick contact email
I like the idea suggested here. It’s difficult to know what to say when contacting someone like this, but the suggestion is to simply update the recipient on what you have been up to since the last contact, and ask what they have been up to.

Note: 37 signals has just launched a new application, called Highrise which is designed to help you manage your contacts.

Clean your work area
I did this at work recently. I spent some time and money to decorate my cube (I’ll post some pictures soon), including some matted pictures, plants, etc. It looks cleaner, and more like I care, and is much more comfortable to work in.

Make yourself more presentable
I like the suggestion to wash your face again in the afternoon, and brush your teeth after lunch, if not only for hygiene, but just as important for that fresh feeling, which might help you get through a long, tiring afternoon.

Also, along with this is to dress nicely too. Even if you don’t have to dress up for work, but prefer tshirts and jeans. Ensure your jeans are good quality, ironed, and your shoes are new looking, etc. You can dress down and still look like you care.

The full article, and the other eight suggestions, can be found at the Simple Dollar.

The beginner mind
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“I am defeated, and know it, if I meet any human being from whom I find myself unable to learn anything.”
– George Herbert Palmer

I’m sure we’ve all worked with someone we found it very difficult to learn from and someone who seemed to do everything with the sole purpose of proving their knowledge and worth.

On the web site Escape from Cubicle Nation, the author Pam Slim explains two types of mindsets: the beginner and the expert. She relates the differences in the two ways of thinking to Entrepreneurs, but the same advice applies to the IT industry.

She explains that the beginner mindset is curious about how things work and why, is interested in other’s opinions and why they have the opinion, is interested in how others think, and is always seeking to learn more.

Whereas, the expert is constantly trying to prove to others that he/she already knows what needs to be known, and is always seeking to teach others and to be understood by others. The expert frequently sees training sessions and certain discussions as a waste of their time.

It’s easy to let it happen in an area where you have a lot of experience, but we should strive to always have the mindset that we can learn and learn from anyone. Sometimes you can learn from the most unexpected people.

From my own experience it is when I have the beginner mindset that I am most engaged with what I am doing, and it results in a strong passion to continue to improve and learn. Whereas, when I let myself fall into the expert mindset, I tend to get bored with what I’m doing; I subconsciously convince myself I have nothing left to learn and when that happens, I lose interest.

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.”
– Thomas Szasz

To read Pam’s original article, visit her web site.

10 Tips for Your Next IT Interview
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Here are some helpful tips if you are preparing to interview for your next IT job. These tips come from Carolyn Kepcher, Donald Trump’s left hand woman in most episodes of The Apprentice.

I have the best job in America!
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Or at least that is what Money magazine claims. I’m not sure I agree with their ratings in each of the categories.

Low Stress?
I suppose compared to being shot at, or having someone’s life in your hands it’s low stress, but I’ve experienced plenty of stressful situations in my career, including going through two mass layoffs (both of which I escaped without job loss, but not without stress), countless overtime hours, ridiculously imposed deadlines, outrageous client demands, writing software that is vital to a company’s daily success where one bug can bring it to its knees, poor Project Management (ie. micro-management), and constant shifting skill sets required to maintain “hirability”.

Flexibility
I don’t know what they mean by flexibility. I see they say, “Telecommuting is quickly becoming widespread.” However, I have found extreme resistance to telecommuting. Ten years ago I thought by now most Software Engineers would have the option to work from home. But old habits die hard, and human psychology changes much slower than technology does. While countless studies have shown that working from home improves productivity and reduces employee stress, many old school managers are still resistant to it, and somehow feel you aren’t working if they can’t see you in front of your computer in your cube. Thankfully, I’m currently enjoying telecommuting, and as long as it lasts, I plan to stay on my current contract. I have as flexible hours as I could want, so for me, right now, yes flexibility is a benefit. But, from past experience, and hearing from others in the field, I’m surprised a study would show this to be a strength.

Creativity
This category has been one of my biggest complaints over the years. It really depends on your management. In many environments you are told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to have it done by. That doesn’t leave much room for creativity. I have had the good fortune to be on some projects, including my two year project at IBM, that gave me great freedom for creativity. But I have also had many projects where I was completely constrained to follow antiquated architectures, development methodologies, and project management styles, that squashed any hope of thinking creatively and allow for problem solving. Tip for IT managers: Software Engineers will work harder and with more passion if given the chance to be creative!

Ease of Entry
So on this category they give it the worst grade and yet this is the one category I’d give an A to. Why you ask? No, not because I think its an easy to skill set to pick up, but because IT managers seem to think it is, and hire just about anybody. They either hire because someone memorized an API (but can’t use the API, learn on their own, problem solve, etc), or because they seem to have great potential (aka. they came cheap). This field should be a lot harder to get into than it currently is.

I thoroughly enjoy my job, when I’m on the right project, but I’m not sure the grades from MONEY magazine are accurate, but this is what so any are told in high school, so its no surprise that seemingly millions and millions get into this field every day.

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