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Category: Soft Skills

Various discussions on books, goals, personal growth, finance, wide variety of topics.

Working from home…without letting it take over

Working from home…without letting it take over

Hello all, so I know this follows a little bit of a departure from the technical posts, and I promise to get back to that. But I have been asked by a couple of people about working from home, and how you do it? So I thought I’d through a post out here on how to do it.

So I’ve been fortunate enough that I have had a job where I “work from home” for the past 4 years. I say that in quotes because some of those years involved traveling to end customers. Some of those years spending 4 days on customer sites, and 1 day a week at home. I will likely do another post about working mobile, or traveling for work.

But for this, we are going to focus on working from home, and how to do it. Like I said I’ve been doing this for a few years and learned a lot about how to work from home without it taking over your life.

Lesson 1 – Recognize that it’s an adjustment

So let’s not mince words here, working from home is an adjustment, and very much not like working in an office. You will hear some people tell you it isn’t, but I would disagree with that. The adjustment is compounded further if you are in a situation where you have other family members at home. So its important to know that you are going to have a period of adjustment and plan for that.

Another element of this that is important, especially if you have family at home is to have an open discussion with them about this transition. You need to make sure you have open lines of communication and that expectations are set appropriately between yourself and others. This will help make sure that “working from home” becomes a benefit to everyone, and not a curse.

Lesson 2 – Define your work hours (at least to some extent)

I know, most people will tell you that part of the benefit from working from home is flexibility, and that is absolutely true. But this prevents a misconception that a lot of people have.

There’s a lot of saying around how “if you don’t define your priorities, others will define it for you.” and I would argue that the same is true of schedules. Now that you work from home, in a lot of cases, you have a lot more control of your schedule. And in the beginning I strongly recommend that you define when your work hours are.

Let’s be clear here, the term is Work from home, not perpetual vacation. You are expected to get work done, and deliver results, just the same as if you were in an office, working a 40 hour week. You just don’t have to go to a building to do it.

By defining a work schedule you end up accomplishing the following things:

  1. Helps define a mental space for you to make sure work doesn’t take over your life. (more on this later)
  2. Helps communicate to family members that during specific times you are working, and therefore unavailable to run errands.

So let me give you an example, my family knows that I start work at 8:00am and work until 4pm every day. And that means that during that time period, they understand that my priority will always be doing work and items around my job. So in the event that I need to run an errand or help say for example, take one of kids to an appointment (to help the amazing miracle worker who is my wife) they know that I will do my best to help, but during those times I have to make my job a priority.

Now I’m not saying this has to be ironclad, but it should be the rule, and other times are the exception. This helps to also make sure that my family understands me needing to make trade-offs. Like for example, this past December, my son had a Christmas concert in the morning. I absolutely was not going to miss that. But my wife knew that I was either going to make the time later in the day, or take PTO for it.

This is the key that working from home, does give you huge flexibility, but especially in the beginning its really helpful to setup rules like this to communicate appropriately.

Lesson 3 – Realize how much you work

This sounds odd, but it is true. When I first started working from home, I would go to work when I got up when I normally did for work, about 6:30am, and then I would be done at 5.

But you need to realize that during that day your commute was all of 5 minutes when you walk to the office, which means that I was working 7am (shower / breakfast) to 5pm which is a 10 hour work day. But it was easy to fall into the routine and not think about it. If you want to maintain a work-life harmony, you do need to know how much you are leaning one way or the other.

Lesson 4 – Have a defined workspace

This goes to the mental state I mentioned above for working. You need to have a defined place where you work, or else you will never be able to separate work from home in your mind. Not being able to separate the two will cause a lot of issues with stress in your life.

So you need to make sure you have a place that is defined as “your office”, whether that is an actual room, or corner. It should be away from where you live normally. This will help because you will get your mind used to boundaries.

Lesson 5 – Don’t eat at your desk

This one sounds bizarre until you think about it, and honestly it’s something I’ve only implemented this year. But its very easy when you work from home to get pulled back to your desk during your lunch hours, you run down to the kitchen, grab something quick and go back.

In a normal office setting, this is a little harder as you can talk to Coworkers, get invited to lunch, etc. But when you work from home you are on your own.

If you’re like me, there will always be something you could do that will pull you back to your desk. It happened when I was at an office, but it got worse when I worked from home. You need to make sure that you take a mental break in the middle of the day to prevent stress and burn out.

Lesson 6 – Build exercise into your work day

This is one I’m trying to do, but I noticed that when I worked from home, I saw my body weight increase originally, and to be honest it makes sense. If you think about it, normally you would do a lot of activities, like commute to work, walk around the office, go out to lunch, commute home, etc.

This has been replaced with…Walk down the hall…Walk to the kitchen / bathroom…Walk down the hall

See the problem, you need to make sure you get out of the house, have a break mentally, do something healthy. These are all essential to your well-being.

Lesson 7 – Allow for context switching

As I’ve mentioned above, part of the adjustment to working from home is mental. And you need to make sure to take steps to allow your mind and body to switch context from home to work and vice versa. This is not a trivial thing. For example, I have steps I take to start my day that are designed to help me get into “work mode” and then steps I take to close out my day before I leave my office. This helps with my stress levels by allowing me to have the ability to be present in both elements of my life.

Lesson 8 – Stay organized

It’s important to remember that when you are at an office, you have others around you to help you stay organized. They will help you stay focused on priorities and context of situations around you. When you work from home, you still have communication mechanisms, but really its more reliant on you to make sure that you have the systems in place to stay organized. I use apps like Microsoft To-Do to manage my life, and that helps me to make sure that things don’t get lost in the cracks.

Make sure you take time to setup these systems to keep things organized for you.

So that’s my lessons I’ve learned from working from home. I’m sure there will be more to come, but honestly it something that both I and my family have really benefited from, and I hope you can to.

Goal setting and the year in review

Goal setting and the year in review

So it’s officially 2020, and a new year brings with it all kinds of things. Retrospective, hope, dreams, and a variety of other feelings. I’m not a big party-er and have never been a massive fan of New Years Eve, but I do have to say in recent years, I have really come to appreciate two elements of new years as an important time of year for me. The first being retrospection, its a chance to look back at the year and be honest with ourselves about how things have gone. A chance to look at what worked, and what didn’t and have an honest conversation with yourself.

The second part I’ve come to enjoy is planning for the new year, sitting down and looking at my life and finding new ways to grow as a person, and improve things for the better. There’s something very empowering about sitting down and seeing a wealth of possibilities and excitement about the future prospects and opportunities that are ahead.

Now for most people, this is where the most dreaded word comes up, and its RESOLUTIONS. We’ve all heard it, and probably had it happen to us. The grand self-lie that is a resolution. Believe me over the years I’ve left a path of broken resolutions behind me, and as those who read this blog regularly know. I tend to read a lot on the subject of success, goals, and similar topics. I don’t claim to have an answer here, and over the past few years have come to the conclusion that everyone’s mileage on any option for trying to grow will vary.

Now I want to be clear about one thing here, I’m going to use the ever present weight loss example, I consider myself overweight, it is something I have struggled with I do not have the answer, and am not cla,am “throwing shade” on people who use these systems and find success. My experience only.

But what I can do, is call out some of the things I’ve tried, and how they worked out, and tell you what I’ve been finding lately:

Setting SMART Goals:

We’ve all heard this one right, making sure that your goals are “SMART”, they practically drill this into us in grade school, the only “good goals” are SMART goals. And what does SMART mean:

  • Simple
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Reasonable
  • Time Bound

Now, the idea behind this is a good one, the idea behind this approach is make sure your setting goals that can be reached, and that you can verify that you have hit milestones on the path. Believe me, I do love the mantra “What gets measured, matters”, and this is based around it. It’s also though built around the satisfaction of achieving your goals. If you set something that’s measurable and attainable, then you feel pretty great when you hit that goal.

Let’s talk about an example, so an example of a “bad” goal in this model would be, “I’m going to lose weight” to steal the oldest resolution in the book. Now why is this a bad goal, because its not defined, its not something that I can measure (in a meaningful way). So a better goal would be “I’m going to lose 10 lbs, by June.” I can measure it, it has a deadline, its not outlandish by any means. Should be great right.

For a lot of people, this is a great system, and it helps them, but for me, it caused a lot more damage than it helped. The reason being is that a human being can tolerate anything for a time boxed amount of time. Look at people who have survived unimaginable conditions and then are able to return to their lives. But the problem for me, is that by doing this with the new year you aren’t doing anything to make a permanent change in your life.

Let’s go back to our weight loss example, as I’ve got to be honest, this isn’t hypothetical, its what really happened to me (more than once). You set this goal and in January you go after it…I had a coworker once who used to say “Let’s seize the day with vigor and determination never before sen by mankind.” And we’ve all been there right, we all hit the gym, get up early, and go after it.

And then a couple of outcomes happen:And then a couple of outcomes happen:

You start doing great, and by end of january you are down 5 lbs. Feeling amazing and saying “I got this”, at which point you end of convincing yourself “I can slow down, I don’t need to work as hard” and it all falls apart. And before you know it time flies and it’s June, you look at the number and say “I’m a failure”.

You start doing great, and middle of February, you hit your goal of 10 lbs down, you’re proud of yourself, and smart goals works. You move onto other things, and before you know it you fall into bad habits, and June hits and the scale looks pretty familiar, you look at the number and say “I’m a failure”

You stay on track, do what you set out to do, get to june and are down 10 lbs. You feel great, smart goals worked. You have a fun summer and end up back where you started, or god forbid worse off, look at yourself and say “I’m a failure”.

And now your probably saying “For loving the positive elements of new years, this is pretty damn depressing. And I’m not trying to be a debby downer. But this is my experience and as I said above, part of this process is honestly and retrospective. This has been my honest experience.

This is my problem here, SMART goals are built to be very short term focused to get a “job” done, but when it comes to personal growth, the job is never “done”, so the approach is fundamentally flawed. And at the end of the process those words / feelings of “I’m a failure” have a damaging and demoralizing effect that is completely counter productive.

At the end of the day, growth is a journey. And if you continue down this road and you miss your goal you are left with nothing, and feeling like you failed with nothing to show for the effort. I believe there is an old adage about eggs in a single basket for this.

10x Goals:

This is one that got a lot of attention, I’ve read the book the 10x Rule, and I have to say it is insightful,and I found it to be very interesting. For those not familiar the idea is this, take the idea of SMART goals and turn it around a bit. Keep the same ideas of goals being measurable and time boxed but instead of making them attainable, you make them 10x what the attainable goal is.

So take our weight loss example,, instead of saying “I’m going to lose 10 lbs by june” I would say “I’m going to lose 50 lbs by june”. Now before anyone jumps on me, I can do math. The idea is what could you do if you put in 10x the effort. So the idea then is if I put in the work and try to lose 50 lbs by June, one off two outcomes occur:

  • I lose 50 lbs and cheer my success.
  • I lose 30 lbs and I’m still better off than the 10lb goal.

In my experience though the problem is still the same. I haven’t changed behaviors or grown at all, I’ve hit a very finite and fixed in time goal, but the success won’t last. And at the end you still feel like a failure. And now you feel like a bigger one, because not only did you miss the 10x goal,but likely the 1x goal too.

Finite Systems / Infinite Problem:

The crux of the problem I have with the above problems is that they are systems built around finite objectives, being applied to an infinite problem. I don’t want to lose weight, I want to be healthier, I don’t want to learn one thing, but build a foundation for learning. And at the end of the day, we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Personal growth isn’t something that can be timeboxed like that.

Simon Sinek covers this in his book, the “Infinite Game”, which I admit I am still reading now, but here’s a video that gives some of the highlighting principles.

The other problem I have is that in my experience this creates a lot of stress and pressure on yourself, and those words “I’m a failure” whether you say them aloud or not are devastating. If you become too fixated on goals, they can start to feel like a drug high. And I’m speaking from experience here, they become this thing where your life becomes about setting goals, pushing too hard, getting them and that feeling of euphoria, and then its on to the next one.

I was 100% in that boat, for better or worse, and don’t get me wrong I’m proud of any accomplishments I’ve made, but it really does take a toll on you mentally. While it can be satisfying to reach those goals, it isn’t always fulfilling. And if you find yourself questioning where to go next, that can be crippling in a lot of ways.

And now I’ve done it again, we are at the “Kevin, still depressing. Goals are meaningless, growth is meaningless, life is pain…”

Not quite, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and researching and had lots of discussions with people a lot wiser than me, and I’ve found something that in my opinion seems to be working better.

The final problem I have with these systems, is they make one basic assumption, and that is that pursuit of these goals exists in a vacuum. And what I mean by that is take our weightloss example, we say “I’m going to lose 10 lbs by march”, but then I get hurt, need surgery and spend 6 weeks in a cast, and then physical therapy. I know that the goal became unattainable, but I still feel like I failed.

Now again, not just weight loss, but let’s say I said “I’m going to put my phone away after dinner to spend more time with my family”. And then I get a smart watch which lets me check email without my phone, or I work with customers all over the world that have to call at off hours, then I feel like a failure due to circumstances outside of my control.

Goals vs Values:

Now I can’t take credit for this, there is a psychological principle called value based living, and the idea being this. Here’s a video that does a way better job than I ever could at summarizing it.

So looking at the above, if we get away from these ideas of goals, and look more at what we as a person value. That is what drives us, and that is what matters. And as long as the actions we take align with those values, the journey is part of the reward. If you watched the video above with Simon Sinek, this probably sounds familiar, and that should be no surprise. There is a direct through line between his concepts of actions being driven by values and value based living.

So the next question is how does this work any differently? How do I grow and push myself without goals? Is this just symantics at the end of the day. I don’t think so, but let me talk about what this journey has been like for me, and you can judge.

Step 1 : Change your definition:

One thing that my wife and I are really trying to embrace is a family mission statement, and we are in the process of writing that now. When we are done I will probably do a blog post on that too. But along with that, we as a family have focused our energy and decisions about what we do around this motto for lack of a better term.

There are only two outcomes to any action, success or you learn something.

That’s it, not ground breaking, and truth be told we stole it from the movie Meet the Robinson’s, which has a similar sentiment, “From failure you learn, success not so much”. But if you stop and think about that statement, its rather profound, if you take away failure as an outcome. Some would say you take away accountability, but I would say you take away blockers. If you can’t fail, then what is stopping you from trying?

Thomas Edison had a similar statement, when asked about the 1000 failed attempts to make a light bulb, he said “I didn’t fail, I just found 1000 ways not to do it.”

At its core this is very freeing, and we need to say we can grow and push the limits because there is no outcome that we shouldn’t feel positive about, because the journey will yield learnings, and those learnings will help us to improve for the future.

Step 2 : Define your values:

This one took a lot of soul searching for me. You need to take a step back and identify what above all else matters to you. What ideals and values do you aspire to above all else. And that’s not an easy question, and should not be taken lightly. I find that making these values something that need to be quantified in a single word helped a lot.

My values are the following:

  • Family
  • Learning
  • Impact
  • Innovation
  • Creativity

And what I mean by these, is that my guiding principles in my life, at this time are these items. When I am long gone, I want my kids to know that above all else family mattered. I want them to see that I had a love of learning. That I focused on having an impact around me whether it be my career or community. I want them to see me as someone who was innovative and creative.

These values together really some up at this stage of my life, the legacy I want to leave behind.

Step 3 : Values Define Action:

One common thread you will see in anything and everything is the idea that we as people have limited resources. Whether those be willpower, physical, financial, energy, attention, or the all mighty time. We can only put our resources into some much, and we can’t do it all. Greg McKoewn has a great book on this called “Essentialism”, which I really believe is a great book about applying your resources.

To that end, if we have values that are important to us, and we have limited resources. it isn’t a big logical leap to say that we should focus on putting our energy behind the actions that align with our values.

Not really rocket science, although it took me a while to get here if I’m being honest.

Now what I’ve found from doing this in practice in recent months is that I have seen my stress level go down, and my commitment to any actions I’ve taken go up. And results have been greater too. And at the end of the day I believe its easier to be committed to an action if it aligns to something you care deeply about.

Let me go back to our example, as mentioned above I want to get healthier, and I’d tried smart goals, 10x goals, etc. I tried a keto diet, joining a gym, nothing seemed to stick. And even when they did I could never cross the 15 lbs mark. And it was devastating to me. I have had to actively sit on the side lines at both work and family functions because of my body weight.

This all came to a head for me, when I took my son to Hershey, and all he wanted to do was ride a roller coaster, and he’s much too small to ride the big coasters, but we saw a roller coaster called the “coco cruiser” (a little kid roller coaster), and he wanted to ride it. We got in line, and when we got to the front, he was too short to ride by himself, and I couldn’t fit into the coaster. He and I stood on the platform, while his friends rode, and then he rode with one of their mom’s. Having to explain to your son that he can’t have what he wants because of your body weight is one of the lowest points in my life. I wanted to curl up and die.

I still could never get past that 15 lbs mark, and life would get in the way. I took a step back, and said…forget the numbers. I want to get healthy because it will let me be more to my family. I found a cross fit gym that I really like, with great people and a great coach. I try to go as much as I can, unfortunately recently being sick sidelined. But just out of curiosity I got on the scale today, I’m down 25 lbs from that horrible day. I feel better and have better energy, and even though I fell off the wagon and am going back when travel slows down. I feel like a success and look back on all the victories and fulfillment I feel with a positive attitude.

The attention here being on the action, not the outcome. Its having a lasting impact as it leads to behavioral change.

But let’s not make this all about weight, even if that is an easy example. Take my professional life, I decided to focus more on impact and now measuring all my actions by impact they have. This has led to greater results in my office with me feeling better about the work I’ve done, and if you look at the metrics much greater returns. My stress level has gone down, and I’ve stopped measuring myself against the impact and activities of my colleagues.

Final Thoughts:

I know this has been a much longer blog post than normal, but thanks for sticking with me through this. The end result of which is this, I’m not going to be setting any resolutions this year. My new plan is to reaffirm and re-evaluate my values, and then make sure that I devote my energy and resources to actions that align. This will allow me the flexability to enjoy life, while still finding new ways to grow.

This is something my wife and i both feel strongly about and are working with our kids to internalize and I hope it at least sparks some thought for you about where you are and where you want to go.

Book Review – Multipliers

Book Review – Multipliers

So I have another book review, and honestly I’ve found myself traveling so there will be probably quite a few of these as I continue to have time to kill on a plane. The latest book I just finished was “Multipliers” by Liz Weisman and Greg McKeown.

Now I’ve read a book by Greg McKeown before, Essentialism, and found it to be really an excellent and thought provoking read. It caused me to re-examine a lot of the ways I’d approached things in my life. So I was very excited to finally get around to reading the book he wrote before with Lizi Weisman.

This book takes the position that their are two types of leaders in this world, Multipliers and Diminishers. The earlier being the type of leader that causes their teams to aspire to great heights, and to rise to meet an impossible challenge. The later being the type of leader who crushes the spirit of the people they lead, causing them to deliver less and less.

I found this book to be rather insightful and interesting, as it made me question the type of leader that I want to be. Now that being said, I do feel like to say that all leaders fall into one of two buckets, is a bit of a falsehood. I believe all leaders have elements of both diminishers and multipliers in their approach as no one is perfect.

But what I found in this book is that the examples are pretty dramatic, and in that regard its easy to say “I’m not that bad”. But I found it eye opening in that it made me re-evaluate how I approach leadership. I think the focus of the book is on a “binary” nature of these two types of leaders, and to be honest I don’t find that I totally agree with that assessment.

After reading this, I’m convinced, that in a way similar to the nature of introverted vs extroverted aren’t binary but a sliding scale, I believe the same can be said for multipliers and diminishers. Most of the leaders I’ve worked with are somewhere on that scale, but no one is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But I don’t feel that comes across in the author’s description, and that could because of the reliance on dramatic examples.

The other element I found in this book, is that it does focus on what I call “Official leadership”, which is having an official title or position that puts you in a position of leadership. But in my experience, leadership includes people who are not in a position of authority but who act as leaders. In the beginning of the book it seems to exclusively focus on the earlier, and it is easy to say “this doesn’t apply to me” but I find that is not true.

Overall I found this to be pretty insightful book. Below is a talk from Liz Wiseman at a CEO summit about the content of the book.

How to run a meeting that actually gets something done.

How to run a meeting that actually gets something done.

So for this post I wanted to do something more around soft skills, and I’ve actually had a couple of people ask me to write something up about this. Running a meeting is not the easiest thing in the world, but there always seems to be this perception that everyone should know how to without any guidance or instruction.

As part of my day job, I’m a pre-sales resource, so that means I run and coordinate a lot of meetings with a wide variety of people, everything from tech talks for developers, to regular cadence check-ins, and business strategy sessions with executives. And over the years I’ve come up with some tips and tricks to ensure that those meetings are productive, efficient, and don’t waste anyone’s time. Here are some tips to help if you find yourself in a position of having to run meetings and want to make sure they are productive.

Tip #1 – Time is valuable

This is more of a guiding principle than a tip, and one that you should take to heart immediately, and it really is the foundation of everything else in this blog. Everyone is busy, all the time…we live in a connected world where multi-tasking is the new normal. If someone is having a meeting with you, they are giving you the two most important things they have, time and attention. You need to treat these as valuable resources to be utilized appropriately, and not something to waste. This means do the following:

  • Be on time – This is common sense, you will never recover from arriving late, it already convinces the people your meeting with that you don’t see their time as valuable.
  • End on time or EARLY – I know, blasphemy, but if I can end early, I always do. Your customers will thank you for this. I don’t rush meetings, but if we accomplish what we need to, just wrap up, no need to draw things out just because of the time block.
  • Make sure you have enough to justify the meeting: Not everything needs to be a meeting, sometime a phone call will do. Always better to do things via a phone call than email, but if one of these can replace a meeting, take that option.

Tip #2 – Begin with the end in mind

This goes to the points above about making sure you have enough to justify the meeting, and looking at how valuable both the people you are meeting with’s time is, and how valuable your time is. The first question you should be clear on is…”What do I hope to accomplish here?”

This goes to Steven Covey’s principle, “Begin with the end in mind.” If you can’t answer this question, don’t waste anyone’s time. But if you can, great, use that to structure the rest of the meeting and work backwards.

For example, if the goal is to get approval to embrace a new technology, start with the problems it solves. Give them a reason to care and then work backwards into what it takes to implement.

If the goal of the meeting is to understand the ramifications of an old technology start with the downsides of the status quo and work towards the solution.

Make sure you know what your goal is because this provides a key metric for success and you can then objectively measure when the meeting is over.

Tip #3 – Have an agenda out ahead of time

This is another facet of the above, never go into a meeting without an agenda, even if its informal. You need to know in your mind how the meeting will run, and keep things focused on the goals you identified above.

Whenever possible, send out that agenda to let the attendees know exactly what will be covered. This is important not just because they know how it will flow, but it can help your attendees to identify people who they should include to make the meeting productive.

Tip #4 – Don’t skip small talk

This is the most common mistake I’ve seen with people, they are too focused on the immediate. Small talk before the meeting begins is important, this is how you build a relationship and re pore with your customer. If you don’t take time to build the relationship and help them see you as a person, it will hurt your credibility in the long run.

Now its important to know when to cut this off, and keep things light, butt having small talk before a meeting helps to make people comfortable. The more you can get to know people and reference things they’ve said in future meetings drives home that you respect them and care about them as a person.

Tip #5 – Be respectful of their time

Start on time. Period. This is not hard people, do not start late if you can avoid it. This shows that you have no respect for their time which as I previously said is the most important thing they have to give.

Also, if it looks like you might run over, make sure to give them an out, something like “I want to be respectful of your time, and we have 3 minutes…” and start to wrap it up. If they want to go long, they will allow you too. But this gives them an out and shows you care.

Tip #6 – Do introductions

If its a larger meeting, make sure you encourage introductions, and not just you and your team, but make sure everyone on the call or at the table introduces themselves. This shows each person in the room you see them and care about them, and want to hear their voice. This helps to be inclusive in making sure everyone feels comfortable.

Also resist the urge to introduce other people, let them introduce themselves, and what I mean by this is say something like “and given this topic, I wanted to bring Claire to this conversation…Claire, can you introduce yourself.”

Tip #7 – Never leave without confirming actions

Always make sure at the end of the meeting that you summarize the action items, take 5 minutes at the end to say that “These are the items I heard that have follow-up involved…” and make sure you say a name of a person with each item to drive home who is responsible. Also ask the customer for confirmation. This makes sure each person is aware of actions and expectations before they leave. This will make it easier to engage after the meeting.

Tip #8 – Your agenda should not be iron clad…be flexible

Another common mistake I see a lot, is people get too attached to their agenda. They say well we are supposed to cover that last, so “you customer have to wait”. This is a mistake, as I said before its their time, so if they want to restructure things, you should allow it. Now I say this with a couple of rules:

  • It has to be on topic with the intent of the meeting.
  • There needs to be agreement from the team for the change of direction.
  • And all appropriate people need to be at the table.
  • If the order matters and you can address it very soon.

This is a fine line, but ultimately it goes back to tip 1, which is remember this is their time, and your agenda is not important than their time.

Tip #9 – Don’t get derailed

During any meeting, some times you get someone who will try to derail the meeting to meet their own needs, never dismiss these concerns but if you have to push them off as out of scope, but give them the validation around when you will address the topic. Something like “That’s a little out of scope, but see me after and we can address those concerns.”

Book Review – Everyday Millionaire

Book Review – Everyday Millionaire

So for something a little different, I decided to check out a book on finance, because ultimately I do love my job, but I enjoy making money :). So the question obviously becomes how to you generate enough well to some day gain the financial freedom to enjoy it.

My wife and I a while back, took the Financial Peace University course, and found it to be really insightful, and since then by applying the teachings so that course we have been able to leverage the money we make to achieve more of our goals, and honestly its been a very liberating experience overall. Our entire financial outlook completely changed in a single year’s time.

Honestly, if the past few years time have taught me anything, its the change can happen every quickly, and with almost no time (or warning) at all. In the past 6 years, my entire life changed so much that if you honestly tried to tell my past self this was all going to happen, I would have absolutely laughed at you. I went from a married man, living in a small town home, and working as a developer and architect to my current position, father of 2, and currently in a new home.

So I decided to check out Chris Hogan’s book, Everyday Millionaire, and see sort of what I could gleam from his research and insights. For those who don’t recognize the name, Chris Hogan is a financial expert that is part of Dave Ramsay’s “Ramsay Solutions” organization, and has done several books on how to ensure you set yourself up for a successful retirement.

I have to say I enjoyed this book, as part of this book Chris Hogan interviewed and did a study of over 10,000 people who all have a net worth over $1 million dollars. And to be honest his findings pretty much lined up with a lot of the things that are talked about in Dave Ramsay’s books and course.

Now admittedly, that’s not surprising, because he talks about how they found these people was to put out an open call and interview the people who came back, and the people who would be listening to him are people who are already familiar with his work. So his results may be a little skewed, but that doesn’t make his findings any less relevant.

The general message of the book is that it is possible to attain millionaire status without doing so through any one of the many myths out there. The idea that the people who are rich has some “secret sauce” or some “unnatural advantage” is not at all true.

The simple message of this book is that if you work hard, and invest smart and safely you can achieve the financial independence you are looking for, and chasing that “1 big break” is what can ultimately lead to ruin.

Below is a video describing how this is possible.

Now there is one thing I fundamentally disagree with, and its not what he’s saying, but more how he says it. The one statement he repeats often is “If you work hard then …” and makes a reference to how attainable it is.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but I do disagree with the phrasing. The past few years have taught me a very valuable lesson, and that lesson is that of making sure you focus on “Impact OVER activity”. I don’t believe that working hard is enough to get anywhere in life, but rather working smarter and harder is the key.

Let me put this to an example…Take the following two scenarios, and I’m borrowing these from Greg McKeown. I’m going to keep the numbers small for my point.

If you have a job as a kid with a paper route, and you work every day of the week, and ultimately make $10 a week, you can make good money. That’s $40 / month, and that can do a lot for a kid who is say 12 years old.

Now, if you could instead take a job washing cars on the weekend, and you can charge $5 per car and do 5 cars in a saturday, and 5 cars in a sunday. That means you can make $50 a week, which is $200 / month.

Now I would argue, you can work hard at the paper route, but at the end of the day the impact it has on your goals is significantly lower. It would make more sense to take the job washing cars, and make more money, and then look for other things you can do during the week. It doesn’t matter how hard you work that doesn’t change the fact that the impact is different. If I work 10x as hard at the paper route, the end result is the same.

But if I increase my efforts on washing cars and can do 7 cars a day (only 2 more) that’s now $35 / day, which is $280 / month.

See my point, at the end of the day I feel like its important to work hard, but you have to take the time to make sure that what you are working on is moving you towards your end goals in life, sitting and grinding away at a job that you don’t enjoy and has no growth potential it may get you millionaire status some day, but the risk would be lower if I focus on careers where the level of effort has an impact on the return on the investment.

Ultimately we all have a finite amount amount of time and we invest it in our careers and skills so we should focus on items that have an acceptable level of risk and a reasonable return on that investment.

Overall I recommend the box, but would advise you to keep this in mind as you read it.

Book Review – Innovator’s Mindset

Book Review – Innovator’s Mindset

So I have been trying to read more, and focus less on technical technology reading more books on a variety of topics. So one that I wanted to check out was the innovator’s mindset.

Right now my family has been going through a lot of changes, and at the forefront of that is the fact that my kids are a school age, we are moving, and I’ve been looking at my approach to tackling innovation and education as the mission of our family is to secure the future of our kids.

Because of that I was really keen to hear options for people use to help guide new innovative learning methods for not just myself but my children as well.

The book interesting mirrors the work of Angela Duckworth, and her book Grit. And Carol Dwreck’s book, Mindset. Both of which I am very familiar with, and enjoyed and have seen value in my life.

The interesting part he points to here is honestly that the education system. Is ripe for disruption. Many schools and institutions cling to the old ways of doing things and are afraid to take risks with how they teach.

The focus of the book is around how we as a society teach problem solving but not problem fighting, the idea of how you look at the world and see that something is wrong. That requires intelligence but more than that requires empathy. The ability to understand how people feel and to gain understanding into their situation and problem.

The intention is then that we should focus on using learning to drive outcomes, because knowledge that is not practical is wasted effort. There needs to be a way for the student or person to absorb that knowledge into the fiber of their being, into their structure of knowledge for application.

The idea of the innovators mindset is that we need to seek alternative viewpoints take risks and recognize that their is a cost to not changing, and know that failure and iterations are a part of that solution.

I enjoyed the focus on how to embrace the idea of taking risks and the kid of challenges you may run into, and overall found this book to be great. I think he focused a little too much of examples that involved social media. This is not a magic silver bullet for education.

But one point I do agree with is his focus on honest and public reflection. The idea of declaring you will do something is a great way of encouraging accountability, but to the authors point, it also encourages us to be more thoughtful of our ideas if we know that others will be reviewing and challenging these ideas. This can lead to a better more thoughtful effort and a crowd sourced solution to problems.

The biggest thing that really landed in our family is that right now the education system is very focused on consumption, and pushing kids to consume what is thrown at them. While this type of learning can work and has its place, there is such a thing as focusing on empowerment. The idea is to take an objective, and help our kids to have the resources to learn everything they need to obtain that objective. It’s an interesting piece of learning but it works.

So how did this help, my daughter, has been struggling with learning her letters in kindergarten, worksheets are like pulling teeth, flash cards are boring. She’s been having a rough time. While listening to this book, I noticed my daughter loves putting on plays and shows at home. So I asked her “let’s make a letter video.” Not only did she get excited but she pushed passed what was required. After practicing her letters making videos and her wanting to practice “for the video.” She took her test and went from struggling to pass 1 list of letters, to passing 2, and almost a third.

It occurs to me this goes beyond kids, in my own profession. Anyone can learn a technology but it becomes a lot easier when you focus on solving a specific problem and direct your learning as such.

There is no better place to learn than the foxhole. Ultimately it leads to much better drivers to success at the end of the day.

The interesting part also was the second half of the book which talked about how to as a leader foster a culture of innovation within your organization.  And the key points I would acknowledge here are that the giving peole the freedom to fail, and fail fast.  And encouraging your people to take risks.  This is something that I’ve been working on in my family and with my kids, and celebrating the fact that they “tried something new”.

Overall I recommend the book, it gave some good ideas with regard to approaching innovation that I found enlightening, provided you can get past the “education system” focus.

Staying Organized with my “digital brain”.

Staying Organized with my “digital brain”.

Hello All, so as you probably noticed, I’m trying to do more posts, and trying to cover a wide range of topics. So for this talk, I thought I’d take time to talk about how I stay organized and stay on top of my day.

Productivity methods are a dime a dozen, and honestly everyone has their own flavor of an amalgamation of several methods to keep control of the chaos. For me, I went through a lot of iterations, and then finally settle on the system I describe here to keep myself on top of everything in my life.

Now for all the different variations out there, I know lots of people are still exploring options, which is why I decided to document mine here in hopes that it might help someone else.

So let’s start with tools, for me I use Microsoft To-Do, and its not just cause of where I work, but ultimately I use this tool because I was using Wunderlist, but ended up switching because they ended support of Wunderlist, replacing it with To-Do. So that was the driver, but I also did it, because it supports tags in the text of the items, which helps me to organize them.

So first, I break out my tasks into categories with a tag to start, the categories I use are:

  • Action: These are items that require me to take some small action, like send an email, make a phone call, reply to something, or answer a question. I try to keep these as small items.
  • Investigate: These are items that I need to research or look into, things that require me to do some digging to find an answer.
  • Discuss: These are items that I’ve made a note to get in touch with someone else and discuss a topic.
  • Build: These are my favorite kind of items, this is me taking coding action of some kind, and building something, or working out an idea. Where I am focused on the act of creating something.
  • Learn: These are items that involve my learning goals, to push myself to learn something new and keep it tactical.

Now each day, To-Do has this concept of “My Day” where you take tasks from your task list and indicate that they are going to be part of your day. Now I sort my day alphabetically so that the above items are organized in a way that lines up with how I approach them.

For me I usually tackle as many actions as I can right away and get them out of the way for the first hour of my day, and then spend the next 6 hours as a mix of new actions, and build / investigate actions.  Finally I have a set section of my week that is spent of learning activities.  The idea being to quote Bobby Axelrod, “The successful figure out how to both, handle the immediate while securing the future.”

Finally I maintain a separate list called #Waiting(…). When I am awaiting a response from someone, I change the category (like #Action) to #Waiting(name of person) and move it to the waiting list and take it off “My Day”. This let’s me put it out of my mind without losing track of the item.

After the category, I add the group, these are customer names for work, or a designation to describe the sub category of the work.  Like for example this is a monthly recurring task:

#Action – #Financial – Pay Monthly Bill’s

This allows me to quickly group the category or all “Financial” tasks if I need a big picture.  

I have been using this system for the past year and it’s done a lot to help me stay organized and measure my impact not activity.

I’ve talked previously about how import impact is over activity. And one of the downsides of many of these kinds of systems is that people tend to focus their energy on the “checking off items” and not on the overall impact of those items. I find by using this kind of grouping on the front I am able to focus energy on tasks that are high impact not low impact.

At the end of the day productivity itself is a lie and I believe that completely the idea is not to produce more, but to make every action have a return on investment.

Another book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown calls out this difference in basically saying that the key is to make the distinction of saying “what can I go big on?” or its either a “Hell Yes” or an “Absolute No”. So I find this system assists me by allowing me to make sure that I am focusing on tasks that will return dividends and not on topics that are smaller activity just to drive “checked” items.

Book Review – Clockwork

Book Review – Clockwork

Hello all, so as many of you know I read a good bit, and I also like to use “audible”. Great way to pass time while traveling or driving is to listen to audio books. Right now I’ve been on a real kick to learn more about business perspective and productivity. Some of the great books I’ve read and talked about before are:

  • Grit
  • Essentialism
  • 10x Rule
  • Deep Work

But I wanted to take a minute to talk about the book I just finished, Clockwork: Designing your business to run itself, by Mike Michalowicz. Now I have to admit, I found out about this book when I heard about it a couple of times and it showed up on my “recommended reading” books a few times.

So I was skeptical about this book, mainly because the book talks about how its focused on people starting their own business, and I work for a major corporation. So how can this be helpful to me? Well I have to admit, I was wrong.

I found this book to be really thought provoking, and it caused me to re-examine a lot of activities and work I do to measure impact and importance to success. The author makes the argument that in any organization, everyone has a responsibility to do the following:

  1. Protect the Queen Bee Role
  2. Serve the Queen Bee Role

And basically the key part of the business is to take the QBR (the Queen Bee Role) which is the crucial part of your job, and make all of your actions that you take focus on that above all others. Basically the argument is that I should spend every second of my work day focusing on that QBR, and when an activity takes away from that, I should focus on getting done with that as soon as possible, or if possible moving it off my plate.

The intention is that it makes me focus on the bigger picture and creates a scenario where you can take off from work and feel comfortable. For me, I have a tendency to have a hard time unplugging, and stepping away from work. And recently I’ve been setting goals to help myself to unplug. I found that when I started to put this into practice, I was able to unplug with less stress and it helped my overall mental health. For me, I started with the intention of doing the following:

  • Blocking 1 hour for lunch everyday
  • I will not eat at my desk

This forces me to take a lunch break away from my desk, and honestly it sounds small but it has paid huge returns, I have found that when I come back to work I am more focused, and at the end of the day less drained from a mental perspective. I find that stress level has gone down with regard to work and I also find that the work I’m doing is much more satisfying.

Below is a video that summarizes some of the ideas of the book. The value of this book though aren’t the ideas, but how you execute.

Goals and Grit

Goals and Grit

Hello All, I wanted to shake things up a little bit and talk about a book I have been working my way through and goals. So its officially January, and a lot of us are looking at the great new year like a blank canvas, waiting to be painted. I have to be honest, I’ve always been a fan of New Years, not the holiday or New Years Eve, although everyone loves a good party night. But every year I enjoy the act of self-reflection and planning that goes into the new year, and the chance to grow and improve.

But the one thing I hate about this process is during the self-reflection, admitting where you came up short. Where did you stumble or fail, what went wrong? Now if I’m being honest I’m a DevOps guy and as a result am big on admitting failure. But if we look at this from a DevOps perspective, teams grow when they fail fast, and on some level this yearly retrospective ritual flies in the face of that.

Lately I’ve been reading a great book call Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. And it really is an amazing book that will change the way you look as success on the whole. Really it promotes this concept that success is not built on talent, but rather on the determination and passion of the person.

In the beginning of the book she calls out West Point. West Point has one of the most rigorous recruiting processes in history, and they only take the best and brightest into their program. But despite that, they were seeing a very high drop out rate, and couldn’t figure out why. The short version is because the people who are most talented are rarely tested, and if you’ve never had to overcome obstacles before, then you are likely to back down when faced with your first wall.

The book also gives an interesting take on goal planning that I had never done before, and its one that to me makes a lot of sense, and I’m giving it a try this year. So I will have to update the blog here with the results. But the one method she talks about was discussed by Warren Buffet, arguably one of the most successful business men of our time. In the book, he describes a planning process he does, which is to write down 25 goals, 25 things you’d like to accomplish this year. This sounds like a lot, but if you start writing goals, you’ll find its not hard. I hit 30 without breaking a sweat. And then pick from that list the top 5, and put those in the “MUST DO” category.

And take the rest…and put them in the “NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES” category. The idea is this, your time is your most valuable resource, and multi-tasking is an illusion. So you should focus your attention on these 5, and the other 20 are a distraction. The focus being that being successful isn’t about saying “Yes”, its about saying “No”.

For me this resonates, as if I pour all my attention and time into 5 specific goals, I am way more likely to accomplish them with greater impact. And this also works well with another planning approach that I’ve leveraged before, which is described by Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

In his book, he describes the idea that if you think of your day as a bucket, and I tell you to fit big rocks, little rocks, and sand into the bucket. What is the most logical way to fill it? Big Rocks, then little, then Sand, and if we are being honest we should approach our goals the same way. But most times we don’t, we avoid the big tasks, and small tasks, and fill our day with emails first.

So he recommends breaking things into the following matrix (called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix):

Important / Urgent Important / Not Urgent
Not important / Urgent Not Important / Not Urgent

In this matrix, the idea is that “Important” means that it lines up with your goals, which I would argue are the five goals provided above. From there we can look at what’s urgent and aligns to our goals as where our time should be spent.

  • Q1 of the above box, is for things that are urgent and related to your goals, like deadlines, crisis, opportunities that are time sensitive.
  • Q2 of the above are items that don’t have a pressing deadline but focus on your goal, this should be next on your priority list.
  • Q3 are items that require immediate attention but don’t move us forward. Which should try to minimize these tasks as much as possible. Things like phone calls, emails, etc.
  • Q4 are items which aren’t urgent or important and are basically time wasters, eliminate at all costs.

So leveraging the above matrix, makes it very easy to keep our focus where it should be on our 5 goals, and avoiding the distractions that undermine our success.

Getting Started

Getting Started

So I thought I would start this new direction for the blog with a post about a topic I get asked about a lot.

“I want to get started in programming, how do I do that?”

And this is a great question, and one that makes a lot of sense to me as the lines between technology and business are blurring.  And more and more people are interacting with developers in their daily life as part of their current jobs, and its leading to people’s eyes being opened to the opportunities in this place.

My next question is normally “Why?” and at first that usually takes people back, but this is an important thing to ask yourself.  I ask this because to be honest, switching fields and taking on something like becoming a developer isn’t an easy journey, and if your motives aren’t clear than your going to set yourself up for failure.  I generally think it’s smart to ask if this is a worthwhile investment of your time.  Because as much as I love this industry, it can be quite brutal at times.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making these statements as some grand arbiter who decides if you are worthy of becoming an almighty developer.  I make these statements because the simple truth is that to work as a developer and achieve success you need to be willing to accept the reality, which is less Minority Report and steve jobs, and more the craziness of Silicon Valley.

I would tell you to ask the following questions:

  • Do you like continual education?  Are you willing to read about this stuff in your spare time?
  • Do you like to tinker with things?
  • Do you have “Grit”?

For the final question, specifically I’m referring to the fantastic book by Angela Duckworth, that describes Grit as basically being the intersection of Passion and Perseverance, and that it is the most important part of any equation where someone is hoping for success.  And I would argue, even more so true for developers.

If you look online at the “successful developers” they all have one thing in common…they live for this stuff.  And spend a lot of time doing it, and finding new ways to challenge themselves and push boundaries.  They are constantly looking for ways to change their mindset to find new opportunities and directions.  I don’t claim to be a famous developer, but I can tell you that I’m proud of where I’ve gone in my career and I genuinely love what I do, and much like those “famous developers”, my wife describes me as a “well documented nerd”.

So now the important question is, did I lose you?  If not, I think this is a rewarding career option that can take you in some interesting directions, but you need to know that it will be a slow burn.  This is not something where you will be writing award winning apps by Monday if you start on Friday.

Below are some links to help you out, feel free to reach out with questions, I’ve tried to provide a lot of training material and some notes about each link:

Visual Studio 2017 Community Edition – This is the primary IDE (integrated developer environment) for all things in the Micr0soft stack. And the community edition is free, which is even better.

https://www.visualstudio.com/downloads/

When you go to install it, its going to ask you to customize the install, by selecting different packages and what not.

Great start: C# fundamentals for Absolute Beginners:

https://mva.microsoft.com/en-US/training-courses/16169?l=Lvld4EQIC_2706218949

For training materials I would recommend the following:

Microsoft Virtual Academy – https://mva.microsoft.com/

This is a great site for a lot of training content Microsoft generates to help. I would point you to the absolute beginner classes as well as the learning paths. They also do a good job of categorizing training (100 level, 200 level etc)

C# Courses:

https://mva.microsoft.com/training-topics/c-app-development#!jobf=Developer&lang=1033

Visual Studio Training:

https://mva.microsoft.com/product-training/visual-studio-courses#!jobf=Developer&lang=1033

Getting started with Visual Studio 2017

https://mva.microsoft.com/en-US/training-courses/getting-started-with-visual-studio-2017-17798?l=9oIw0FD6D_3611787171

Learning Paths:

https://mva.microsoft.com/LearningPaths.aspx

Channel 9 – https://channel9.msdn.com/

Great site for general videos, and is updated all the time.

I recommend web as a good place to start, the .net web platform is called ASP.NET and uses HTML, C#, and some javascript to work. (C# and Javascript syntax are pretty close)

https://www.asp.net/get-started

https://www.asp.net/mvc/overview/getting-started

This is probably a good start.