"The Real World"
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In a post on their blog, 37signals asked for readers to comment in ten words or less, what the phrase “real world” means. They mention how frequently this phrase is used in IT; in fact overused. The question is, if it’s used that much, does everyone mean the same thing when they use it? Do they even know what they mean by it?

I think that certainly many people who use it have a definition of it deep inside their minds. They may not have vocalized it, and really thought it through, but they are aware of a principle which they refer to when they use the phrase. However, I think there is more than one definition or principle behind it. I think it all comes down to your perspectives and goals.

Some will look at the development principles of Ruby on Rails and think that in “the real world”, Rails can’t cut it. Others believe that Rails is a real world solution, whereas Java is a solution for bloated IT departments. Is either belief correct?

Once again, it depends on the goal. I have been focusing on learning Internet Marketing for the past three years. It’s been great to learn some skills that relate to the Internet world, but from a different perspective than web development. Once you get into the Internet Marketing mindset, much of your thinking begins to change. For one, every minute spent designing, developing, testing, and all the project management, team meetings and team management that goes into a typical IT department, is now seen as costly. When an Internet Marketing entrepreneur sees an opportunity in a target niche, they want their online product delivered immediately, because every day not online is lost money and possibly a lost opportunity. These entrepreneurs talk in terms of days to get some software written and online, as opposed to the months that larger enterprises consider for their project timelines.

It would be amusing to them, not to mention completely unacceptable, to be told that something was going to go through a kickoff meeting, team assignments, UML design documents, development, unit testing, weeks of QA and integration testing before going live. Ten developers, a project manager, three QA testers, a DBA, a system administrator, department managers, tech writers, graphic designers, etc. To these entrepreneurs, this much bloat is not “real world”. It may be considered necessary for a large corporation to be as “safe” as possible, but it’s not agile enough to respond to online opportunities. I’ve seen opportunities to make $250,000 that literally lasted only a month.

On the other hand, if you went to the Java enterprise development team and said, we need to have a web site that manages the following eight sets of data, with user registration (including email verification, lost passwords, etc), functionality for regular email notifications to subscribers, and a nicely designed front end, and we need it in five days, they would respond, “that isn’t the real world!” They probably couldn’t even find time to schedule the kick off meeting that quickly.

In my 12 years of web development experience, I have heard more times than I can count, the marketing department give a timeline from their expectations which the IT department countered was unrealistic and impossible. The marketing department is frustrated with the time it takes to get to market, and the IT department is frustrated with the tight deadlines and long hours it takes to meet expectations. This is the real world. A constant battle between business leaders and developers to get to market fast.

Only you can decide for yourself which real world you want to belong to. Myself, I used to belong to the IT department real world of all the steps needed to get to market, but as I studied Internet Marketing I began to see every minute of my time as cost and delay toward making money. Now I look for short cuts, not in quality, but in process and development time. Streamlining; cutting the bloat that has crept in over the years, particularly, from my point of view, in the Java Enterprise. I prefer a short development life-cycle, keeping the requirements for each cycle short and to the point. The smaller the feature set, the shorter every sub-cycle is (design, testing, etc). I prefer online task management eliminating the project status meeting, where 15 people take turns telling the PM the same information they could have entered into some software in five minutes. I prefer streamlined communications and small teams. Get the product out there, and immediately start working on an update. This provides for more flexibility within the market, and allows businesses to respond to perceived online opportunities quickly. It will also reduce developer stress and burnout. But, it also requires less development technology bloat, that I believe is now a large part of Java web development. Java doesn’t have to be bloated, and neither does the development life-cycle. But it has become that way, and it will take some outside the box thinking, and a different perspective to make the process more efficient, less stressful, more financially lucrative, and ultimately, a whole lot more fun.

How to encourage creativity in meetings
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According to an article on MSNBC, a study was done which indicated that meetings are not a productive environment for creativity. I could have spared them the money and time for the study. Getting involvement from all your meeting attendees is difficult, because people think in many different ways and in many different environments. Some are confident enough to speak up in the midst of others, and some like to think out loud. But, others prefer to hear of a problem, and then have time to themselves to ponder possible solutions. As well, many people are problem solvers, while others are those who like to shoot holes in everything. While that is a necessary skill set on any team, it is inappropriate in a problem solving, brainstorming meeting, and it discourages the creative thinkers from speaking out.

To encourage input from everyone, I suggest the following. Call a meeting to identify the problem, and warn attendees before hand that no solutions will be discussed. The goal for the meeting is only to identify the problem and any parameters involved. Then dismiss everyone. A good manager, who pays attention to the skill sets on the team, is hopefully aware of the team members strengths. After some time is given for creative thinking, call two followup meetings. The first will be with your creative thinkers. State at the beginning that it is a time for creative thinking and brainstorming and that no decision will be made in the meeting. As well, state up front that time will not be spent to critique the ideas and solutions. This is an idea generating time only, and is for your creative, outside the box thinkers.

In the next meeting, you will have your more analytical members who analyze everything without mercy. Present each idea to them and let them tear into them. If they have their own suggestions listen to them, but do not be surprised if they do not have any suggestions, but only propose reasons why none of the current suggestions will work. Record their objections and send them in an email to your first creative group, but do not identify who objected to their ideas. Give them time to consider them, and then convene again to hear their follow up ideas.

Continue this cycle, until a solution is apparent and can be chosen. Keep the two groups separate. If you are aware that some of your team members do not like to speak up in larger meetings, meet with them individually or in small groups of two. This more private setting will allow the less confident to have their say. You may also tell everyone after the first meeting, that they can email you their suggestions as well, again providing a method for them to participate but not in front of the group.

Be sure to keep every meeting focused on the task at hand, and when communicating between each team do not identify the originators of the ideas or the critiques.

This process works well to involve all team members, and to allow each to use their strengths.

Do you have any other suggestions for making problem solving meetings more productive?

Read the article on MSNBC.

Alone and Offline
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Technology changes so fast in our society, that our methodologies, procedures, and comfort zones often lags behind. I’ve discussed the lag in acceptance for Telecommuting in my article, Telecommuting: Old-thinking vs New-thinking as one example of societal trends not keeping up with technology.

Another, is in our form of communication. In the past, we communicated almost exclusively with telephones and in person discussions. Now, we have email, chat rooms, and IM. We can access fellow team members at our every whim, even when they are working remotely. But this luxury of communication has it’s drawbacks. We all struggle with distractions, and these forms of instant communication create even more than we would already have. Focusing on a single issue at a time is generally the best method of completing a task, but being bombarded constantly with requests for help on other issues from teammates, requests for status updates on tasks by project management, and spontaneous team brain storming and problem solving meetings all serve to derail us from our train of thought and prevent us from completing the task at hand.

There must times when team members are allowed to focus on their current task, without risk of interruption in thought process. When developers are problem solving, it takes some time for the brain to get into the problem, thoroughly digest it, and get the creative juices flowing to find a solution. But how any times have you been involved in this process, only to be called into a meeting, get involved in an email thread, or be bombarded suddenly with IMs?

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Do you want to be a successful leader?
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If so, Karen Salmansohn, on her blog, discusses the number one trait of a great leader.

The trait? Fun. She says:

Yes, fun. It made sense. Employees are more inspired to be productive when they work in a fun work environment – than in a tough, serious space which operates on fear and stressful internal competition.

I agree that it is at the very least one of the top traits. Every leader that I have enjoyed working for has made my job fun. That doesn’t mean it was all fun and games, but that I enjoyed my work, and there were frequent lighthearted moments. We all work better in these circumstances (yes, even you serious stick-in-the-muds). I’ve never understood why so many IT Managers want to make their department more efficient so they begin cracking down and toughening up, and essentially taking all the fun out of the job. Motivation slips, passion slips, morale plummets, and soon the best employees leave for greener pastures. I’ve seen it happen in several of my jobs, and it never ceases to amaze me that it continues to be tried as a way to improve the department.

So, current and aspiring IT leaders, ask yourself, are you fun?

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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