Monday, July 23, 2007

Home technology

There was a time when computers existed only in the business work-place. The closest thing we had to a computer at home when I was growing up was a Texas Instruments programmable calculator bought in my senior year, yikes!

Do your employees have better technology at home than they have at work? With high-speed cable/DSL internet to the home, you may be fighting an uphill service battle, since your employees may be downgrading their expectations daily. One of the smarter things IT has done is follow a 3-4 year replacement cycle for PCs, since this closes the gap with a new home computer. But if your supporting a remote office with a T1 connection, you may be toast in comparison.

On the other hand, home computers have increased end-user tolerance to technology issues. Everyone has experienced desktop issues first hand, and most probably had a bad customer service experience with a Dell rep in India. Our users seem to now view desktop issues as beyond the control of the IT department. The trend to internet-based business applications also supports this view.

This is no excuse for not providing stellar desktop service, but you should be thinking about what you are being compared and contrasted to.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Meeting Face-to-face

In this day and age of email and conference calls, we often miss an important tool at work, the face-to-face meeting. (Note: my apologies to anyone for whom this is obvious, but I've found many technologists to miss the obvious before, including myself).

I was in London recently for a series of business meetings, and again realised just how important in-person can be. As we work more and more with our international offices, we immediately jump into email and conference calls with people we've never met. While this is a hard reality of business, I've found that making the effort to meet has incredible benefits and prodcutive outcomes. It also greatly improves future email and phone conversations.

A good friend of mine had an explanation for this. He asserts that our individual relationships, whether business or personal, rely on a visual image of the person. Without that image, we are less related. I haven't done any further research on this, but it feels true as I've seen personal evidence to support it.

While it would be great to have an online visual image of someone, we are probably a long way from this. Just from my experiences with video conferencing, I find it difficult to get an impression of someone I've never met (it does work if I've met them first). Also, there is no online equivalent of going to dinner or having a drink.

The facebook/myspace generation may break through this barrier, but in the meantime, I'll include face-to-face in my business relationships.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Celebrating wins

With your teams working hard and driving hard to meet deadlines, its important to celebrate wins when they occur. The best kind to celebrate are the ones that have significant impact and visibility for your end users.

Email is a standard way to do this during the ordinary course of business. Collect positive comments from your beta users and managers, and send out an announcement email to business execs explaining the business benefits and comments from their own staff (anonymous is fine). The more enthusiastic the comment, the better (my current favorite "Dancing in the streets").

It's also important to stress that the project was a partnership between technology and a business group, which allows the business to deservedly share in the celebration.

Make sure not to over-use it (weekly is definitely too often), otherwise it will lose its impact. You'll find that your teams will appreciate this public acknowledgement as they dive into their next project.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Lost in Translation

Apart from my CTO job, I am also a mentor in Columbia University's Masters of IT program in continuing education. A former boss introduced me to Art Langer, who co-runs the program which is novel in that every master's student (fully employed technologist on management track) gets an executive mentor who works with them over 3 semesters on a business presentation of their final thesis. This presentation is grueling, as the students get just 10 mins to make the business case.

Having worked with 2 students prepare for 4 presentations, and having sat as a judge/executive for dozens of others, I've observed a recurring theme for technology presentations to business executives, that is that they get "lost in translation". This is not restricted to students, I've personally experienced this for my own presentations.

Technologists are great thinkers, but frequently don't know how to make their case to non-techies. My favorite student example was 5 mins into a presentation, I asked "do you mean water?", to which the other judges exclaimed the same thought. The presenter had never once said water, even though the proposal was about selling excess water for power generation. Make it simple! Techie's get so complicated and sophisticated so quickly, they leave out the simple explanations.

Here's an idea. Show your next presentation to your aunt, spouse or next-door neighbor, and then ask them these questions:- What is it (ie subject-matter)? What is the proposal or goal? Why? If they can't answer, then your executive audience probably won't either.

Monday, July 9, 2007


NMI is an acronym for "Non Maskable Interrupt". For those who programmed Apple Macs back in the day, there was a switch that connected between the vents on the side of a Mac. If a new program stopped responding, you would press the NMI switch to open up the Mac (hex?) debugger. On proprietary hardware I worked on, we mimicked this with a plunger button, giving me the sense of power to "detonate" on the frequent times my code went awry.

Do you have an NMI with your staff? Are you approachable and interruptable? Or do you go into an "infinite loop" when in meetings with your team? You need to make sure your team knows you are interruptable, even mid-sentence, and that you will listen (and not be annoyed!).

As a programmer, I used the NMI switch frequently, I clearly wrote a lot of run-away code. It was easy to press the NMI button, since computers never get offended, but not so easy in the real world. The key is to make being interrupted acceptable, and to have a protocol to deal with it (ie defer till later, take offline, etc).

Remember to have your own NMI switch. Trust me, you are going to want to hear what your team has to say when they interrupt you.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


I am writing this from my July 4th week's vacation (which explains my lack of posts this week).

It's important that everyone on your team gets the appropriate downtime, a chance to recharge their batteries. There were times in my career where I described myself as 7/24/364 (I took Xmas day off!). In retrospect, my productivity at times waned, and I would have been more productive in general if I had taken a week off a few times a year.

Downtime is important for technologists, especially those who are typically on call 24/7. If your teams don't want to take the time, force them. Schedule time off well in advance so projects and deliverables can be scheduled around vacation time. And downtime is about being ready to jump back into the thick of projects full force, recharged!