“What does the ‘T’ in Jack T.  Colton stand for, anyway?”

Jack: “Trustworthy……”

What was most memorable about that line was that the way that he delivered.  He was clearly dangerous and his voice reminded us that he was anything but trustworthy, if you missed that show.  If you don’t remember that line, its taken from Romancing the Stone, an 80’s classic starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.

As business partners, we all strive to be considered trustworthy.  Working without trust is incredibly difficult, and earning someone’s business without their trust is next to impossible.  If I were to ask you how you earn someone’s trust, how would you respond?  I think that most people would not hesitate to respond, but perhaps say earning trust is about past history or “track record”.

I think that’s a reasonable response, but I think that  trust is earned through demonstrated transparency while conducting business.  People want to do business with those that they do trust, but new relationships are forged every day.  How do you quickly earn the trust of someone who you’ve just met?  I say that it’s about relationships and connecting with people, demonstrating humanity and of course, doing good work.  My advice:

  • Be yourself
  • Do not fear being transparent
  • Own your mistakes

Work is about delivering good outcomes and connecting with others.  All of us are human and hyper-aware of how we are perceived.  Be confident that you’re there to do a good job, but flaunt your vulnerabilities.  It’s an opportunity to connect with other people, and that’s very important.  In starting my new job, one of my co-workers came me after a kick-off meeting: “I can’t believe you brought up that you are new to our company!”. 10 years ago, I would have never done that, but this world has no secrets, and I knew that I was there to do good work.  I told my co-worker, “Hey, I’ve got no secrets. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”  I brought it up because I had the opportunity to manage the message and connect.  Why sit back and let someone discover this information on LinkedIn and judge me for my lack of transparency?  All of us have started new jobs, so why not use that as a means to connect with others?  You have to believe in yourself, of course, but ultimately, I knew that my “newness” was not going to make or break me, but it might earn me forgiveness if I made a mistake  early on.

Mistakes are another opportunity. Assuming that you’re doing good work and getting results, being transparent about your mistakes is a great way to earn trusted status.  Many times, the temptation around a mis-calculation is to  “gloss over it” or somehow turn it into a messaging thing.  Its unnerving to explain an error, but in most cases, others will be surprising understanding and appreciative.  It tells them that you can be trusted. I believe that its important to own your mistakes, and to be transparent in how a mistake was made, what the mistake is, and most importantly; how you plan to rectify things.  This can be stressful, but it’s also an opportunity to earn trust if handled on the table, professionally.  People know that you will mess up.  What matters is how you handle it. Your relationships get stronger if your business partners see you surfacing mistakes rather than hiding them.  Rarely are mistakes successfully buried. Even if you avoid the conversation, it does not mean others did not notice, and mistrust is the result.


The curse of the interchangeable part

Its interesting how everywhere you look, process efficiency is king.  I’ve been interested in lean principles ever since diving into the scrum project method, several years ago.  In general, lean principals such as small batches, reduced inventory, etc. tie directly to assembly line processing but also also equate to processing any type of work.  Its a fun topic.   I was hanging out with one of the dads at my son’s baseball games this past week.  He worked for a major fast-food name and was educating me on the innards of that business and how it worked in the restaurant.  Before I knew it, he’d mentioned “the line”.  I stopped him and asked: “Did you just refer to making sandwiches as ‘the assembly line’?”   “Yep”, he said with a big smile.  He went on to save that they setting up the line in ways to save seconds was the name of the game, giving me very amusing examples.

One of the great successes of the last 150 years has been the concept of interchangeable parts.  Its part of what makes the assembly line a reality and part of what makes a sandwich taste exactly the same (in a good way), each and every time.  The challenge with interchangeable parts is that the sum of those parts rarely leads to anything extraordinary.  Consistent, yes.  Extraordinary?  No.  As we apply these ideas to professional services, we consider people as interchangeable parts.  We do this by moving them from project to project as individuals, and we do this by training them in common standards for delivery, as well as the standard tech skills.  We’re seeking commoditization, yet we know that no amount of process and standardization can make up for what truly “great people” can do.

We know that there are 3 things that make a project team really work well:

  1. Experience with each other
  2. Experience with the business partner
  3. Experience in the business domain (data, terminology, business rules, calcs, and the like)

More simply, how often have you ever discussed staffing a project and had someone get excited about things when it was realized: “Yes! Jim and Mike worked together already on X project and it went really well.”?  Experience with people matters.  Relationships matter.  We all know it.

On the other hand, we as consultants, are experts in creating and destroying teams.  It is what we do.  Its the business, and we work hard to do that as efficiently as possible.  We are generally successful in pulling together people of varying disciplines, from multiple geographies who have never worked together and making a “go” of it.  We’ve pared the resourcing (yes, i used that word on purpose) of the project back to the smallest known interchangeable part that we have, a “person”.  We want all persons to be interchangeable.  Interchangeable parts are cheaper and easier to replace.

Some pie in the sky to follow:

What if we’re looking to get something a little better than a “Model T”?  In creating and destroying teams, we don’t have the ability to consistently choose our business partner, nor our domain.  However, we do have the opportunity to control one pillar, experience with each other.  An interesting and bold proposition for the consulting firm:  Keep your teams together.  Introduce them to new client domains and business partners as a team,  because you must.  Assign them and measure them collectively, and challenge them with new opportunities as a group.  Market them as a group, and represent the ability to deliver experienced teams as a true means to differentiate.  Charge more, in order to not split your teams.  Measure the results.  Is this worth paying for in the marketplace?


Access 2013 Web Apps

A colleague and myself recently embarked to build a small application for our own purposes.  He, being more SharePoint-centric than myself, was an advocate of building it using Access 2013, which has newly added capabilities to live as a web app, in SharePoint.  I scoffed at the notion, after noticing that it was a very scaled-back version of Access that lives in his Azure environment.  What got my attention is how powerful this idea is.

We all know what SharePoint is good at.  No, not document management. Well, at least thats not what I’m thinking about right now.  Its a brilliant list manager.  List managers are key, implemented successfully across alot of the Microsoft stack:  MS Project, Outlook, TFS, Excel of course.  Each has list-management qualities.  Lists are not great when you have truly relational data.  SharePoint has some great portal capabilities.  We know that part of the demise of MS Access has been the power and ease of SQL Server, but the main culprit has been the product’s “desktop” stigma.  In this day, very few databases can simply live within the domain of the desktop.  Even the app that I’m building with a colleague has shared data, and a need for centralization.  Yes, there are approaches to this in Access desktop apps, but they are convoluted at best.

Dismissing Access Web Apps, I turned my attention to viewing my solution as a web application.  In doing that, you realize, being “done” just got alot further down the calendar.  Our needs were not that sophisticated, from a data capture perspective.  In revisiting Access 2013 Web Apps, we saw a model tied to the concept of designating a field as “lookup” data type, in order to associate it with other tables, establishing standard one-to-many and many-to-many relationships.  Once those are setup, building the UI becomes some simple drag/drop operations, yielding a nice database and basic UX within a couple of days.  Whats amazing is that deployment to SharePoint means native data in SQL Server, not Access.  Nicely, that means SSRS reporting, scalability perks, and feeling a bit decoupled from Access in the traditional sense.  Our goal, being to get the UI completed quickly, was to leverage the data in order to populate an Excel sheet, perform some data analysis and begin making use of our new data.  Check it out, if you get a chance.

The Importance of Shipping

One of the things that I encounter often is obsession with perfection.  Whether that is a product or a piece of code, perfection can be elusive and cost you in terms of value that you deliver.  I’m speaking high-level because these lessons apply to everything thing from product development to blogging.
What does “shipping” mean?  It means allowing value to be recognized or realized by others.  It means putting your words, ideas and products out in the world to be seen, critiqued and appreciated.  It can mean attaining unintended and feared success.  It can mean being first.  Above all, it means clearing your plate for the next thing, the next step, the next iteration and allowing for feedback to help you get better.
Something blocks us from shipping psychologically, and I’m guessing that my description above has made you think of something that you had failed to ship, or that you’d shipped too late.  I see this in my industry when a particular software product is not being managed and delivered iteratively.  Rather than paring off a chunk of viable functionality, committing to a date and the implied imperfection, the product manager holds the product back.  The uncertainty, concern and fear that this creates in the end-users is undeniable.  The level of risk taken on multiplies over time as this product accumulates in size or complexity over time.  Nobody (including yourself)  assuredly knows “where the product is at”.  Meaning, where its really at, in terms of completeness and quality.  Value is not being realized.
Shipping is like working out.  It gets easier. It gets more routine.  It becomes something that you just “do”.

The tyranny of being picked. Pick yourself!

The tyranny of being picked. Pick yourself!

Seth Godin asserts that we are in the midst of a workplace revolution.  This is one of his best ideas.

Code Mastery 2013

The planning for Code Mastery is under way for this year across Magenic.  Chicago’s event registered over 160 attendees in 2012.  The Microsoft Downers Grove facility was full.  Rocky Lhotka, Magenic’s CTO, and the marketing department asked me to help with Code Mastery across all regions of Magenic in 2013.  That’s a new challenge, so we’ll see how that goes.  I’d blogged last fall about some interesting promotion techniques that we’d used, but taking a step back and tackling Code Mastery at the Magenic-level is a different animal.  We shall see.

This spring, I’ll be working with Rocky and his team to do this event bigger and better.  We’ve set a tentative date in May for Chicago which we hope to announce shortly, and look forward to aligning a great speaker lineup.  San Francisco will be doing their event in April, whereas the Boston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis events are TBD.

I did want to say thanks to all that helped us get the word out on the 2013 event: namely, Keith Franklin and Aaron Lowe, for getting the word out to the 2 communities that trust them both greatly: Chicago SQL Server User Group and Chicago .NET User Group.  The event wouldn’t have been the same without their help, and of course, the promotion work done by our entire Chicago Office.

See you at Code Mastery!

Learnings from Autism

Some of you know about about my family, having 2 children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.  My boys, Ben and Matthew are 5 & 7 years old respectively.  I’m proud of them, of course.

Ben is the more noteworthy of the 2 boys as it pertains to ASD, Matthew being nearly typical.  When Ben was just 11 months old, he stopped walking.  This went on for 3 days.  He couldn’t tell us what was going on.  The doctor sent him to the hospital. After multiple tests on Ben, the best that could be determined was that he had a viral infection.  He recovered after several days and began walking again, but his world changed.   It was like the world disconnected from him.  He no longer delivered eye contact and his speech ceased.  Months later, he was diagnosed with Autism.  I knew very little about this affliction at the time.  If you Google the keywords: regression/autism, some kids who are afflicted experience this pivotal moment like Ben experienced.  I felt grief for months about Ben in 2010.  You have dreams and aspirations for your kids.  It was even harder on my wife, Michelle.  Then we learned that he has extreme food allergies.  It was clear that Ben was going to face challenges in life.  One night in 2010, I was speaking to our head recruiter, Carole Cuthbertson, via IM.  She has faced similar challenges in her life, and has been a good coach over the years.  She told me something that I’ll never forgotten, “Dads want to fix them. Moms…just want to love them.”  It was new perspective and it was part of my turning point.  Sounds like the title of a book to me.

Some of you have met Ben.  He has a lot of determination and heart.  He’s truly unique, and is blessed with a very upbeat demeanor and a curiously mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses.  He has an endearing persona which is not typical of ASD kids.  He’s a computer whiz and loves the iPad.  He can Google and navigate Youtube like a pro.  He happily eats yogurt made from coconut milk.  He eats all sorts of gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free specialty foods.  He gets a lot of help from speech and occupational therapy.  He uses more supplements than you could possibly imagine.  Three years later, Ben can speak some basic sentences, tell you want he wants, and answer yes or no questions.  He learned to peddle a bike, with training wheels.   He’s getting better every day.  My wife, Michelle, is his biggest champion, from fighting for his rights and services at the school to shuttling him to appointments.  I’m proud of her, and hope that Ben will realize how lucky has been to have her.  Ben’s story has gotten so much better over the past few years.  He is truly becoming the best that he can be, and I’m quite good with that.

Life does not always take the “typical” path but things do work out.  I’ve gotten better at identifying and valuing the best efforts set forth by others.  Ben has taught me that challenges can be overcome, reminded me of the value of perseverance.