Monday, 29 October 2007

Reporting Services Tips, Tricks and Funkiness

I've noticed over the last few months that people have been coming to me with questions about Sql Server Reporting Services... and I've been able to answer them. I had an issue with a Report Server myself a while ago and, when I asked who the Reporting Services guru was so I could get some help, was told "You are."

Anyway, the upshot of this is that I've realised that, even though I don't feel like it, I've picked up a fair amount of knowledge on the ins and outs of SSRS. Since I frequently try to Google reporting services issues I'm having and am unable to find answers easily I figured that putting some of the bits and pieces I've figured out into a blog post might help somebody :)

Here's a list of ideas that came to mind - I've either been asked how to do it by a colleague or I've had a client who required it and found it difficult to find a solution.

1 - Date formatting
If you have a string parameter coming in to your report (from a stored procedure for example) and need it displayed nicely, try using the expression:

You will get minimum date values being displayed if the date is null for particular search criteria. If this is a problem for you, try using:

Obviously in both these cases you can insert whatever format you'd like in place of "dd/MM/yyyy" :)

2 - IIF statement gotcha
Beware of using the IIF statement above - it works beautifully if the string is either null or a valid date but if the string is something like "tomorrow" (or even an empty string) then you will see "#Error" in your report. This is because IIF statements execute both paths when evaluating (they're not lazy enough!) so Reporting Services tries quite hard to convert "tomorrow" to a date and falls over when it can't. If you need to get around this try writing your own function (Report/Report Properties/Code) using more standard .NET IF statements and call it from your expression. Otherwise, just be aware and be careful when using IIF.

3 - Newlines in text boxes
If you're using an expression to build up a paragraph or two of text in a text box and need a new line, use this:
VBCRLF (Visual Basic Carriage Return Line Feed for those who're interested!)

E.g. ="This is line 1" + VBCRLF + "This isn't" will produce:
This is line 1
This isn't

Gotcha: If VBCRLF is the first or last thing in your text box, Reporting Services will ignore it (I have no idea why!). Make sure you put in one extra VBCRLF at the beginning or end if you're using them there.

4 - Checkboxes
I would have thought it would be fairly common to want to display a check box on a report which is checked based on a value in the dataset but it would appear that it's not so common as there is no control provided to handle this. If your client, like mine, really wants a checkbox displayed on a report, you'll need to use wingdings. Yes, you heard right, add a small text box to your report, set the font to wingdings and use something like the following expression:
=iif(Fields!BookingMade.Value = "1",chr(0254),"o")

Feel free to play around with different wingdings characters, but I found these two gave me a nice looking checkbox that stayed the same size whether it was checked or not!

5 - Alternating row colours
Large tables look better and are easier to read if you shade alternate rows. This is easily accomplished by adding the following to the BackgroundColour expression of your detail row (substituting your desired colours of course):
=iif(RowNumber(Nothing) Mod 2, "#eefafd", "White")

I had a situation recently where my client needed alternating row colours but, for a variety of reasons, the rows displayed on the report were all group header rows. Since the RowNumber resets at every group all my rows stayed white. Using the following expression gave me header rows with alternating colours (the IDNumber is what I was grouping on):
=iif(RunningValue(Fields!IDNumber.Value, CountDistinct, nothing) mod 2,"#eefafd","White")

Enough from me for today I think. For more on Reporting Services check out these websites that I've found helpful:
Rules to better SQL Reporting Services
Chris Hays' Reporting Services Sleazy Hacks

Are there any more useful tips and tricks out there? Or improvements to mine? Drop a comment :)

kick it on

Thursday, 13 September 2007


We've had some discussion at work lately about professionalism and a manager posted an interesting list of 'attributes of professionalism' which I thought was worth looking at (the list is taken from a book called True Professionalism by David Maister). Some attributes on the list are pretty straightforward - taking pride in your work, showing initiative and being a team player for example - but others tend to be talked about a little less and I'd like to pull out some of those here.

Do whatever it takes to get the job done: don't watch the clock
Many people are accustomed to being paid by the hour throughout university so the switch to a salaried role can be challenging. There's a shift in thinking required from "I am being paid for X hours work" to "I am being paid to get this job done". One of the realities of software development is that there will be crunch times where 40 hours a week may not be enough (although hopefully projects will be managed sufficiently carefully that this happens only occasionally). There will often be business objectives and deadlines that cannot shift to meet technical realities and, at the end of the day, it just needs to be done.

Be eager to learn the business and roles played by those you serve
This is an interesting one I hadn't thought of specifically but which I can relate to - especially in a software development environment. A developer who is willing to really get to know and understand the business and users of the application is going to do a far better job than one who works from the assumption that the world is populated entirely by developer-type-folk. In addition, clients will pick up on and respond to a genuine desire to understand where they're coming from and will appreciate working with you. This ties in very closely with the next one:

Understand and think like those you serve so you can represent them when they are not there
This is, again, especially true in a software development context. If you understand the business context well enough to be able to represent the clients needs at internal meetings (including the meetings you hold inside your own head trying to make decisions) the resulting software is going to line up much more closely to what is going to make a difference for your end users.

Accept criticism constructively: be eager to learn and develop
This is not often thought of as an attribute of professionalism but, if you think about it, it's actually rather crucial. Willingness to learn comes with a desire to be the best you can be and to do your job as well as you can - which pretty much sums up the entire list! Accepting criticism is always hard - I certainly struggle with it! - but it's usually the best way to improve what you do. Look on it as an opportunity :)

Get involved and don't just stick to your assigned role
Not just valuable to the client/project but also a great way for you to expand your knowledge. The broader your knowledge base the more helpful you will be able to be and the quicker things will be able to get done (since there's no need to wait for the one person who knows about whatever it is). You do need to be careful though as some people will see your 'getting involved' as 'stepping on their toes' or 'trying to take over'. Try to hit a balance and ensure every member of the team is still clearly valued.

Be observant, honest and loyal
Lots of things to talk about in there... but mostly pretty obvious. Being observant relates closely to taking initiative - see what needs to be done and go do it. Honesty is critical to earning respect and trust - especially from clients. Remember that sometimes honesty means being willing to tell them the bad news and not trying to hide or gloss over it. Loyalty could be interpreted many ways... not having read the book I'll interpret it as not going behind anyone's back, protecting and supporting the members of your team and backing up your management in public even if you disagree in private.

Finally, the last point in the list really sums up the entire thing:


Sunday, 2 September 2007

Decide to act

I've spent the last couple of days at a first aid course (which I recommend by the way, everyone should know that stuff) and one of the things they emphasised was that the first thing that needs to happen in any emergency situation is for someone to recognise an emergency exists and then decide to act.

We talked a lot about this in psychology courses at university too - it's frighteningly common for someone to be in trouble and for all the people who could have helped to do nothing. We talk about 'safety in numbers' but the reality is exactly the opposite - the more bystanders there are, the less likely anyone is to do anything. After all, "someone else probably already has"...

Side note: If you're ever in a situation where you need help and everyone is standing around staring blankly, single someone out of the crowd: "You, in the blue jacket, go call an ambulance." Once they're singled out they're usually happy to help.

People also seem to have an incredible hang-up about 'interfering', especially if we have some impression that the problem is within someone else's family. The family violence issue we're talking a lot about in New Zealand at the moment is a good example of this.

But I'm not planning on writing a post about first aid or group behaviour, as interesting as they are. I've been thinking that the same type of behaviour seems to appear in other situations too - including at work. Sometimes it's all too easy to identify a problem, think to yourself "someone should do something about that" and then go get a coffee. It's easy to assume that, since the first requirement for a management position is mind-reading abilities, all managers will know immediately if something isn't happening as it should.

But maybe, just maybe, you are the someone who should do something. And maybe, just maybe, your manager can't read your mind and, because no-one else has talked to them either, doesn't know there's a problem. Is it possible?

Many people are, quite rightly, concerned about becoming the person who always whines about everything. Be assured that I'm not advocating that at all! People who complain about every little thing that it's possible to complain about drive me just as mad as I'm sure they drive you. Please don't do that :) What I am suggesting though is that, sometimes, there are genuine issues which need to be sorted out so that everyone can move forward and get the job done faster/better/more happily and those issues shouldn't be left for the magical 'someone' who will fix everything. You're someone aren't you? Why don't you do it?

Call me an idealist if you will, but here's how I see things: if you have a manager whose job description includes anything along the lines of 'team leadership' or 'ensuring efficiency and well-being of staff' then that person's job is to make your life easier. If you let them know what, in your work life, needs to made easier then you're helping them do their job. How nice of you :)

Again, don't bug them too much! Your manager is just as human as you are, which means they can get just as busy and stressed as you can. Don't just roll up to their desk and start your lecture - ask if you can make a time for a chat. Then you can grab a meeting room, close the door, and lecture to your heart's content for the half an hour they've set aside. It's not that difficult, and doesn't take much time, to respectfully and clearly state your concerns and finish with "I just thought you should be aware. Let me know there's anything you'd like me to do."

If you're still wondering whether to act or not, consider this: if you're having issues with something chances are that someone else is too. They're just assuming that someone else has already said something, that their manager has read their mind and that they shouldn't interfere. Do that person a favour and go sort things out for them.

Final note: remember that the step before 'decide to act' is to 'identify an emergency exists'. Make sure the issue you're having really is an issue and really is something that can be changed. Sometimes you just need to grit your teeth and get on with things, that's just life. If you're not sure which category your issue fits into, go talk to someone anyway and ask them whether they think it's worth doing something about.

Old cliched quote which is still true and rather appropriate:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage
to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

TechEd Day 3

It's amazing how fast three days can go when you've having fun and trying to learn everything there is know about everything in one hour sessions! But, the end has come, TechEd is over and, one hour later than the flight was scheduled, I have arrived back in Wellington. I will put together some 'lowlights' and some more detailed notes once I'm a little more awake but in the meantime, here's the highlights from today:

  • Lukas Svoboda on Development Teams was interesting for the first half when he was talking about principles of building great teams and how to recognise them, but less so when he moved on to telling us how great Team System is, at length. Shocking moment for me - he asked the audience "Who's used continuous integration builds of some kind?"; the entire Intergen contingent put their hands up... and about 2-3 other people. In a crowd of probably more than 300. I can't imagine working without my CCTray... what are people doing?
  • Andrew Peters on .NET Languages took us on a quick romp through static, dynamic and functional languages in the .NET platform. Andrew covered a lot of ground in a hour and kept it interesting with lots of demos. He finished with a challenge to go learn a dynamic language - that's been on the I-really-should-get-around-to-that-sometime list for quite a while, must do that. Python or Ruby anyone??
Overall, TechEd has been great. While some sessions have been decidedly uninspiring, they're in the minority and I've been able to hear a lot of good stuff on a huge variety of topics. I have been reminded again and again of two things in particular:
  1. As I've mentioned previously, how passionate I used to be about User Experience design, and how much I should be again.
  2. How much knowledge we have at Intergen that we take for granted but that a fair proportion of the industry doesn't seem to have picked up on yet e.g. continuous integration builds, test driven design, the MVP pattern... Our management often say we're ahead of the game, TechEd has served to prove to me that it's true.
If you get a chance to go to a TechEd anywhere - go. :)

TechEd Day 2

I'm half asleep as a result of the TechFest party last night so if this doesn't make much sense I apologise...

Highlights from TechEd New Zealand day two:

  • Shu Scott on SQL Server 2005 optimisation was a usefully practical set of best practices to ensure queries run as efficiently as possible. Packed with content and some good explanations of why things work the way they do. I'm fascinated by the way the query optimiser chooses query plans, something to look into more.
  • Joel Pobar on C# 3.0 - probably the 'geekiest' session I've been to so far and was tremendous fun. Looks like there's lots of cool new features in the next version of C# to make our lives easier and coding faster. Auto-implemented properties and initialisers and type inference I'm sure I'll be using as soon as they're released. We also implemented LINQ from scratch in about 15 minutes which was a great romp through the new features. I'm particularly looking forward to playing with LINQ.
  • Jeremy Boyd on SQL Server 2008 - lots of new features here too, and again often around making life easier and faster. Being able to insert multiple rows from a single INSERT INTO VALUES statement will make creating test data rather less painful and the new MERGE statement will also be used a lot I'm sure.
Overall, very 'geeky' day yesterday but good fun and plenty of things to continue playing with a investigating. Downloading SQL Server 2008 CTP and having a play is definitely on my to-do list once I'm back home.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

TechEd Day 1

So far, so good. With one day through and a second just beginning, TechEd New Zealand is looking to be a great few days.

Highlights thus far:

  • Keynote from Lou Carbone on the shift from 'make and sell' to 'sense and respond', experience engineering and being 'clued in'. Lou was not just saying good stuff but saying it well, keeping to audience engaged and laughing. My favourite quote: "Businesses exist to provide value to customers. The reward is profit." The implication being that profit is merely a side effect of accomplishing the actual purpose, the focus should not be on profit but on customer value. I had a great (if brief) conversation with my manager afterwards talking about how we all need to be reminded of that sometimes.
  • Grant Paisley on Analysis Services was a very geeky and good fun session from a presenter who knew how to make sure people remember what he says. He had the audience with their hands in the air doing actions for each of his main points... "Attributes (wiggle fingers), attribute relationships (cross fingers), consolidate dimensions (hands together), partitioning (karate chop your neighbour)"
  • Darryl Chantry on UX Design served to remind me not only of how passionate I was about user experience while I was at university but also how much knowledge I picked up in the process and take for granted. A lot of the good points Darryl made (e.g. good design is invisible, users want predictability) my colleagues were commenting on as new and exciting while I'd heard them all before... Inspiring session with lots of examples of design the way it should be.
  • Women in Technology dinner brought 150 women from all sectors of the technology industry together for some good food and networking. It was a good night, although many of the audience didn't entirely agree with some things that were said (more on this later I'm sure!). Favourite quote was Helen Robinson's (Managing Director Microsoft NZ) comment that "The best teams are made up of the most varied people."

Overall, it's been fun and informative with lots more still to come. The yellow camo pants are actually pretty comfortable and we're certainly hard to miss - come and say hi if you're around.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

In need of people

Intergen now has its own blog (with a post from me, which is a little scary!). I'm thinking it will be an interesting one to watch - should have posts from a variety of people on a variety of topics but generally covering the organisation/industry wide type issues that I find interesting.

That's my plug for the day :)

We've had some interesting discussions around work lately around the male:female ratio in IT and whether it needs changing; following on from my previous blog posts, the post from me on the company blog and our recently acquired membership to Women in Technology (WIT). One conversation (which went on for an hour!) with a couple of other women was particularly interesting. I was asked: "So why do we need women? Do we actually have anything in particular to offer other than numbers?" and it was also pointed out that "The IT industry just needs people". True. And, I think, exactly what I've been trying to say.

I'm aware that there's a fine line between helping things shift equality-wise when they need to, and making too large a fuss that only creates new problems and I want to make very sure I'm clearly on the right side of the line. So, in the interests of clarity and not being lynched, here's a quick summary of where I stand:

The IT industry needs people to work in it but, for some reason, half the population are far less likely to than the other half. There's no particularly good reason why this difference should exist to this degree so, as far I'm concerned, it shouldn't. But, it does, and there are some bright young women out there who would probably really enjoy an IT career but don't think of it as an option. That's not cool. I'm not a crazy women's-rights activist, but I am passionate about young people getting all the opportunities they can to excel. If I can do something to ensure that girls are leaving school with a good grasp of the choices they have of where to head next then I'm all for it!

We need to promote IT as a career to people. Not women. Not men. Just anyone and everyone who has the aptitude and might enjoy it. However, whatever we're doing at the moment seems to only be reaching the men... and that's what I think needs to change.

(Incidentally, the other thing I think may need to change at the moment is for me to stop being the 'womens advocate person' and go back to just being a developer...)

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Head re-attached

It would appear that busy-ness combined with flu has a negative impact on blogging frequency... Not that surprising really.


I thought it was worth following up on my previous post on my adjustment, or lack of it, to a team leadership role. Things have definitely settled down since then although I get the feeling that has more to do with the project itself moving on from start-up panic to settled development rather than anything I have done. I have made one change to how I work though which I feel makes a big difference:

I no longer make paper to-do lists.

Sounds simple but, to be honest, not something I thought I'd ever do. I really like to-do lists I can scrawl on and cross off and put big circles around. I like having something that's not on my screen and is always visible no matter what programs I have open. Something I can pick up and take to meetings, or take satisfaction from screwing up and throwing away. Despite this, I don't have any now and it's great.

I've been using the Tasks feature in Outlook as a replacement. I use the to-do bar which happily displays my currently incomplete tasks and my upcoming meetings next to my emails. Like the rest of the world it seems, I always have Outlook open somewhere and it's visible about 90% of the day (If anyone is wondering how on earth I manage to get anything else done, think 'two monitors' and all should become clear...) so my to-do list is still pretty much permanently and instantly accessible. Here's what I've found really useful about this:

  • I never have to rewrite my list. Being digital, items get added and removed and the list quite happily cycles over time. Big advantage: nothing gets lost in the process of moving to a new piece of paper.
  • Categories. I now have, effectively, two lists at once - one for things I need to do and one for things I am waiting for the client to get back to me about. One click moves items from one list to the other as necessary and I no longer forget which questions I asked in that email to so-and-so last week.
  • 'What did I do yesterday?' is easier to answer. Tasks completed on a particular day show up on that day in my Outlook calendar so I end up with all meetings and tasks in one place to refer to when I need to fill in a time sheet.
Although things do still slip through and get missed that's now usually a result of me not wanting to do them and coming up with some semi-plausible excuse to leave them 'for now' rather than me genuinely forgetting/losing that one critical thing. So I can happily blame it on my own stupidity :)

Otherwise I haven't made many changes. I still check emails as soon as they arrive, mostly because clients frequently send me meeting requests at short notice or urgent requests for something-or-other that need dealing with straight away. I think this is ok... since I don't have a audible alert for emails I do need to glance at Outlook to notice their arrival and if I'm doing something where a context switch would be harmful I'm generally engrossed enough not to look up.

So, there you are. Tip of the day: throw away your paper to-do lists and use something digital instead. It definitely doesn't have to be Outlook, it just needs to be something that lets you add and remove items with next to no effort and will be constantly visible.

In other news - I'm going to TechEd this year! Intergen sends a group every year as we help to run the Hands on Labs. Very excited and pleased to be one of those able to go. I wanted to go last year but felt too small and inexperienced to apply. Decided to apply this year despite being fairly sure of not being able to go due to project commitments so it was a very pleasant surprise :) So, if you're going to be at TechEd in Auckland come say hi - I'll be the girl in bright yellow camo pants...

Monday, 11 June 2007

Headless Chicken

I've been officially a Team Lead for a while now but this week it's really started to feel like it. Design was interesting, new to me and provided lots of scary opportunities to stand in front of clients and try to explain myself but it was nothing like this week. Firstly, I was then leading a team of... uh... me. Not so much leadership required, although more than you'd think! Secondly, because I hadn't managed to be involved in that stage of a project before, I was still learning lots and it felt more like a move sideways rather than up. Last week, however, (drum roll please) we started development.

I was really looking forward to this. This was the part of the project where I felt I best understood the team lead role and what I would be expected to do. This is the bit I love - looking at a blank screen and starting to throw stuff onto it, then watching things take shape. And, this time, I'd be running it. I'd get to play with the hard/funky bits, pass on to someone else what I hope I've learnt of how to code well and support them so they could code freely without being caught up with frustrations...

Summary of how it's gone: I'm exhausted.

Admittedly this is partly because there's been other stuff going on this past week which has resulted in some late nights... But I'm still surprised at just how tiring it's been, and how little I've actually got done. Somehow, I'm sure I'm busy all day but I get to the end and my to-do list is longer than when I started! Plus, I only spend about one hour per day working on a use case - if I'm lucky. It's a big shift in thinking and ways of looking at things - I'm finding it hard to plan or estimate anything with the constant interruptions / context shifts (emails, questions, meetings, phone calls...) proving a bit of a challenge. I miss being able to sit down for a couple of hours, fully focus on something and see it done.

Sorry, I didn't mean to complain. It's been fun too - I have got to do some of the background helper-type code I was looking forward to and it's been nice discovering I have some useful knowledge to pass on. I am hoping things will settle down a bit as the project settles in a bit more and there's not so much running around to do. I'm also understanding more and more why the team lead on my previous project starts work really early in the morning!

Anyway, what I've been musing about today is whether there's a better way I could be doing this so I look a little less like a headless chicken. I seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I should currently be doing, or what I was doing before I was interrupted, or what someone else needs to do. I have to-do lists (usually more than one, perhaps that's the issue) and post-it notes and a project plan but things still keep slipping through. Then I end up merely reacting to things rather than being in control and that doesn't work. So... ideas anyone?

A manager mentioned last week that it's far more efficient to only check your email a few times a day rather than jumping on messages the moment they arrive. I'd heard the theory before, and it does make sense since you context-switch less often, but so many people send emails expecting instant answers that it's difficult to put into practice. Worth a try? Not sure. I'm certainly considering it as an option - would make for one less type of interruption at least.

I'm also wondering whether I'm trying to cover too much. Letting go of things a bit and delegating more is definitely on the cards for the weeks to come. I don't have a particularly good track record of letting go of anything but we'll see how we go. Just another needful skill to learn. I find it ironic that not so long ago I was bugging my team lead that he needed to learn to delegate...

Beyond that, I'm banking on my brain adjusting to keeping track of many more things at once!

Friday, 1 June 2007

Big Girl

Well, it's amazing how many things can come out of one little trip...

An item about my trip to Girls' High appeared on our company intranet earlier this week with a link to my blog post about it. This resulted in the page views on my blog quadrupling for a couple of days and a variety of senior staff members pulling me aside to tell me they thought my blog was great and comment on a variety of things. The positive feedback has been really encouraging and people have been very supportive of some of the ideas I've been writing about and providing more ideas and resources to help me achieve what I want to. Good times!

I also had a female colleague get really enthusiastic about doing more school visits with me to keep promoting IT to the next generation of girls. There's a few people who've expressed interest now and we're all meeting up next week to "come up with girl power strategies". It's a really neat feeling when other people start jumping on your bandwagon. :) So we're now looking at publishing an article, offering to speak at some Wellington High Schools, perhaps visiting the Universities too, hosting a work visit for keen students and a Bring Your Daughter To Work Day! Exciting times, especially when some company directors are included in the group of interested supportive people.

This morning I received a really sweet card signed by the girls I spoke to last week and a letter from their teacher as well to say thanks. It was a very warm fuzzy moment reading all their comments - I was amazed at how many of them said they were considering IT as a career now! It turns out the class teacher also sent a thank you letter to my boss... which resulted in him nominating me (at some length) for our weekly award this week.

Overall, it's been a very warm fuzzy day/week on all counts!

Some of the warm fuzzies have been pretty scary too. Mostly as a result of me taking on a Team Lead role now but partly, I think, from the sheer amount of publicity I've gotten lately I'm doing / being asked to do lots of things I would never have imagined doing at this point in time. Notably:

  • Needing to get a 'Sales' code for my time sheet
  • Organising and running meetings with clients
  • Not having enough time to do what I had planned because of meetings, things to follow up, queries from people etc
  • Doing time and cost estimates for whole pieces of work
  • Spending an evening mingling with and amusing clients for a client function
  • Being asked to help interview someone (next week)
I was complaining to my project manager about this this afternoon - "Lots of scary things are happening this week!" - her response was: "Yes, you're a big girl now!". Don't get me wrong, it's great, exciting and a privilege; I just can't help but find it all a little scary sometimes when I start to wonder if I'm really worthy of the confidence people are placing in me. All I can do is try to be as worthy as I can I guess! And cover my monitors with post-it notes to avoid forgetting things.

I've been musing that this is something else to talk to any future groups of high school students about - as being somewhat unique to the IT industry I think. This is an industry where companies are growing fast and people have an opportunity to grow incredibly fast if they want to. It's not that long ago that I was a lowly new graduate who had to ask her mentor what a stored procedure was...

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Girls' High

Well, after a post or two ranting about the need for more women in IT I figured if I was willing to moan about it I should be willing to do something about it as well. And so, for once, I actually did. Stunned...

I spent yesterday at Palmerston North Girls' High School talking to the students in a new Computer Science class about what it's like working as a Software Developer and how to get there. As a bonus, I was even paid to do so as my work were good enough to give me the time to go.

The class was a varied bunch of year 12 and year 13 students (i.e. 16-17 year olds) who seemed very happy to listen to me for an hour and were even good enough to laugh at my attempts at humour. The year 13s especially asked some really good thoughtful questions about what other subjects they would need to do and the relative benefits of different degrees and institutions. I gave them all a business card each and told them to feel free to email me with more questions - I'm very interested to see if any of them will do so...

I spoke a lot about it being ok to not know what you want to do and to change your mind. We also talked a bit about how the university system works and how you can do quite a wide variety of papers and try lots of different things. I spent time telling them stories of the crazy antics we get up to at work, the type of projects I work on and the way our teams are structured. I also wrote a quick EatCake(Cake c) method on the board (I need practice with whiteboard pens!) to reassure them, after they asked, that I didn't work with zeroes and ones!

Overall, I was pretty impressed - they were personable, showed interest, listened well and thought things through. There's hope for the future yet!

One of the girls stayed to talk to me afterwards. She's doing a new programme the school is running called 'Gateway' where she gets to do some work experience in the direction of her chosen career as one of her subjects at school. I think that's fantastic; it's really good to see schools recognising individual needs and offering some interesting options. The sad thing is, the company who took her on aren't helping her at all. Apparently, the office is dead silent with everyone just staring at their own screens and no-one is spending any time with her to help her learn. I could get really angry about that. It's not fair on a young girl to agree to take her on as part of a programme like that then just leave her to her own devices. If you're not willing to put in the time, just say no in the first place! It's less cruel... and less likely to put her off IT altogether. I said I'd have an ask around and see if anyone knows of another company that might be more helpful, hopefully I'll be able to track down something to help her out... Makes me sad to see keen young people who want to try things unable to because adults can't be bothered to give up a bit of time.

Palmy Girls' was where I went to high school and it was interesting going back. Nothing has really changed and I still feel like I could find my way around blindfold. I had tremendous amounts of fun sitting in the staff room during the break and watching many of the teachers do a double-take as they walked in - first seeing a strange person in a suit sitting there, and then realising it was me! Nice to catch up with people I hadn't seen in a long time and good to reassure them I had finally grown up and made something of myself... having been one of those students who drive teachers to despair by being obviously bright but not bothering to do any work.

Now they want me to go back and speak to the physics students... and the chemistry students... and the girls in the extension programme... Sounds great to me! :)

Note: I gave the girls the address of my blog so they could have a look. If you're one of them, post a comment and say hi!

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Fish! Make Their Day

Ok, last post on the Fish! book - sorry it's been so long in coming... very busy week.

(see my previous post on the Fish! book if you don't know what I'm taking about)

The last point to note about the fish market was the way everything they did created special individual memories for people. The fishmongers made opportunities for people come up on the stand and try to catch a fish, or for children to visit the cold store or they simply took time to pay attention to someone and find out what was important to them. With each customer who came by they tried to Make Their Day.

Making someone's day can be one of a number of things:

  1. Including them in the fun things you do to play at work
  2. Creating memories
  3. Going that little bit extra beyond what they expect
  4. Identifying and meeting an individual need
This doesn't have to be something major, although of course it can be. Little things, like noticing when someone is not looking as cheerful as usual and taking the time / making the effort to find out what's wrong and maybe do something about it, can make a big impact. Also things like buying someone chocolate 'just because' or encouraging/congratulating someone. With clients, showing you have/want a really good understanding of their business and a real desire to make things work for them or getting changes that really matter to them out quicker than they expect or making sure their little preferences are specially catered for in your design. These are obviously just ideas off the top of my head (mostly based on things others have done for me!), feel free to be more creative.

Making their day has an obvious advantage - people like it when you do. Customers will want to come back, colleagues will want to work with you again; colleagues may even decide to do the same for you in return. But there is a hidden advantage as well - making someone else's day tends to make yours. So many times, on a not-so-good day of mine, someone else has needed help and I've pulled myself back together to give it, only to find that I suddenly felt much better too.

So, focus on Making Their Day when you can, especially for clients, and, if you're feeling down, go find someone who's day needs to be made and make it. :)

Monday, 7 May 2007

Fish! Being Present

(see my previous post on the Fish! book if you don't know what I'm taking about)

Our fictional manager noticed something rather special about the fish market: even though there's tremendous amounts of noise the fishmongers always seem to hear her replies to their questions, they're always waiting for those replies, never distracted by other goings-on and even when they don't have a customer right then they're scanning the crowd, focused, looking for the next opportunity. They are completely present.

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who is obviously thinking about something else? How did you feel? Like they didn't care two hoots about what you were saying? Like you weren't important to them? Like you didn't want to talk to them anymore? Have you ever carried on a conversation with someone when you were thinking about something else? Do you think they felt like that? Do you want your clients to feel like that?

Being 'present' is, I think, pretty crucial to any kind of relationship whether it's with a client, co-worker, friend or family member. All of those people need to feel that you're genuinely interested in them and that they matter to you. It's primarily about listening well but also about setting your priorities carefully, making this person your priority and not letting anything else interfere. When you're fully present it draws people in; they want to talk to you. Clients, especially, need to be sure that when they're paying for your time they have your complete attention.

Before I go any further, I'm very aware that I'm shockingly bad at this. Every now and then I get it right but as a general rule I'm chronically distractable, so this post is aimed very much at myself. If it happens to apply to you as well then that's all good :)

Signs you're not fully 'present':

  • Eavesdropping on other nearby conversations
  • Looking at something else that's going on
  • Needing to ask a person to repeat what they said
  • Doing something else while talking to someone
Multi-tasking is a useful skill, just try to avoid applying it when one of the tasks is talking to someone. Before you all lynch me - there are some obvious exceptions to this e.g. fixing a problem while someone talks you through it, looking up a relevant piece of information for someone etc. The important thing is that it must be clear that the person you are talking to is your priority. Don't feel that you need to instantly drop everything for people either, it's often not the best plan. If someone comes to your desk and asks you for help it may be better to ask them to wait two minutes while you (finish/save/comment to come back to) what you were doing so you can turn away from your screen and give them your complete attention without needing to hold the previous task in your mind. Most people will really appreciate that as they'll be able to see you making an effort to clear the way for them to be your focus. Some of the guys at work do this consistently and I really appreciate it every time.

Also on the evils of multi-tasking... When talking on the phone it's very easy to fall into the trap of 'I'll just quickly check this email during this call, it'll save me time". Just because the person on the other end of the line can't physically see you doesn't mean your shift in focus will go unnoticed. Phone calls should really command even more of our attention than face-to-face meetings as we lack, and need to infer, all the non-verbal clues as to what's really being said.

When you give your full attention to someone without allowing distractions you will understand more, be more able to ask sensible clarifying questions and appear more interested/personable/intelligent/you-name-it. You may also be suprised how much extra information people will give you when you make them your priority.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Fish! Play

(see my previous post on the Fish! book if you don't know what I'm taking about)

One fine day in Seattle, our fictional manager takes her children to the fish market where her favourite fishmonger proceeds to illustrate his second major principle... Play. This is pretty self-explanatory really: don't be afraid to goof around a bit, enjoy yourself, don't take yourself too seriously. Make your workplace a really fun place to be, where people want to spend their time.

Playing is something we at work (the development team at least) do really well. In our area of desks we have an airzooka, which gets a lot of use, along with a variety of small balls and one great big ball that someone used to use as a chair. The principle 'if someone looks like they're having a bad day you should throw something at them' seems to be widely believed, and also seems to work pretty well. :) Especially when the 'something' in question happens to be a screaming toy monkey.

We also used to have a cricket bat and I remember one particular afternoon when a couple of the guys had a fantastic game using the walkway between the desks and a lemon. The lemon started to get rather squishy after a while but went flying out the window before we could repaint the walls with lemon juice! I am at a loss to understand how the guys manage to so confidently throw/hit objects around in an office full of computer equipment but I've never seen them hit anything other than the walls, roof and each other.

On a slightly more organised level the office is equipped with some couches around an X-Box and an old arcade game in our 'Chill Out Zone' which also gets plenty of use. It's amusing to watch a particular group of frequent X-Box players frantically signalling each other across the office that another game is about to start.

Please don't get the impression that we spend all day playing silly games and never do anything else. In fact, I've noticed that the people who play the most tend to be the ones who get a lot of work done. When you're doing something, like programming, which requires intense focus you really need to be able to break out and 'change mode' completely for a while. We have an environment where we can work hard but also enjoy ourselves, which I think is great. Not too much to work on there...

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Fish! Choose your attitude

(see my previous post on the Fish! book if you don't know what I'm taking about)

The major point throughout the book is that you can Choose Your Attitude. Basically, circumstances are beyond your control but you can choose how you react to them. Specifically, the work you do may be out of your control but you can choose whether or not to enjoy it.

This principle is certainly nothing new (my mother's been saying that to me for years!) but it's hard, so we tend to forget, and it's always good to be reminded. This particular reminder struck home on on a couple of levels.

Firstly, as a general rule I love my work so the need to decide to have a good day isn't so pressing. However, I've noticed that we all have a tendency to decide how good our day is based on what technology we happen to be working with. Even our 'energetically enthusiastic' director is guilty of this: I remember one of the first times he talked to me I admitted I was having a bad day, following which he glanced at my monitor and replied "No wonder you're having a bad day! You're working with Reporting Services!". What kind of day I have should not be affected by technology but on how I approach said technology...

Incidentally, I spend a lot of time with Reporting Services and while it does frustrate me at times I feel reporting is an important way for clients to get the information they need to make decisions and I enjoy making that easy :)

Part of choosing your attitude is choosing never to behave like a victim. Work-wise: we are not victims of specific technologies or clients or managers or team members. We are people with the ability to choose our own attitudes independently of all those things. I think most of us need to be reminded of that one! Our attitudes don't need to mirror others; if someone else is becoming uptight or aggressive there's no need to respond in kind. I remember one of our project managers being nominated for an award a few weeks ago for exactly that: responding perfectly calmly and defusing a client manager who was getting aggressive.

Choose Your Attitude also meant a lot to me on a personal level. In fact, the book came close to making me cry! You see, last year was a rough year for me personally and I became rather expert in being a victim and letting circumstances dictate how I was going to feel. I know many people told me I needed to choose to move on but I always replied "I can't do that! I haven't got closure!". It's so much easier to wallow in self-pity (you get sympathy that way) than trying to step out and find new ways of coping. It's only in the last couple of months that I've finally begun to leave things behind, mostly by a conscious decision not to care any more.

I know that Choose Your Attitude is a really easy phrase to say, but it's a much harder one to put into practice! I'm still figuring this out myself... but here are a few thoughts:

  1. Choosing Your Attitude takes courage. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone, not looking for sympathy or the easy way out.
  2. Because you need courage, you need to convince yourself it's worth it. Keep in mind what you have to gain (generally, enjoying life more!) and use that to motivate yourself.
  3. I've found self-talk to be an effective tool. Literally talking to yourself and telling yourself what you're going to do. "I can choose my attitude and today I choose to be positive." It can be good to have a key phrase that reminds you of what's important to you. Make it your Windows password so you have to type it in multiple times a day!
  4. Don't be surprised if change takes time. You'll probably need to re-Choose Your Attitude multiple times each day. Hang in there.
  5. Little practical things can often help improve your mood. For me, wearing a new shirt tends to keep me smiling all day :) Also going for a walk, or grabbing my favourite drink/sweet or listening to particular music. Recognise when you need to take a break for a 'pick me up' and go do it.
I'll leave things there for the moment. Choose to have a great day today :)


We have a new director who's just joined where I work. He's... searching for best description... 'energetically enthusiastic'. Anyway, his current initiative to improve the 'vibe' around the office is to get us all reading a book called "Fish!". He bought 12 copies, stuck a list of names in the front of each and passed them around the office. It got passed to me today.

Let's just say I have already read it twice through and summarised it in a mind map... Ok, ok, I'm an unbelievable nerd! But it has really made me think.

The book is about having fun at work and using that to both "boost morale and improve results" based on the example of the Seattle Pike Place Fish Market. I'd heard about it before and added it to my list of 'stuff that could be interesting to read sometime' but never got around to it. It's a story of a (fictional) manager who gets put in charge of turning around an incredibly unmotivated poor-performing team with a really bad reputation throughout her organisation. She walks past the fish market one lunch time and gets talking to one the fishmongers who helps her out with advice... and then, of course, uses that advice to achieve fantastic results with her team and improve her personal life significantly as well.

I've been watching the books go around the office, waiting for my turn and noting how people are reacting to them. The unfortunate thing is that few people are as enthusiastic as I am. That's probably my one complaint about the book; the team in the story are immediately keen to change and to put effort in to bring it about, there's no mention of how to generate that desire in the first place. What if people (like some of my workmates) aren't all that keen on changing? Admittedly the team in the book is in a pretty extreme situation and we, in general, do rather well on the 'having fun at work' front so there's no huge shift required. On the other hand, I certainly found things in the book that I can apply to better serve both my clients and my workmates. Not only that, but to make me a little happier too :)

More fuss to happen at work I think once all of us have read the book. Another problem I can see is that it would be difficult for a manager to present most of these ideas without sounding cliched or silly. Hard to find a way around that one, except by getting the staff to read the book so they mock the book rather than you! *joking..* I'll just have to wait and see what happens I guess. I have to admit I'm looking forward to seeing where we go from here and keen to be involved.

Perhaps this is another example of me being young, naive and idealistic... I had a contractor say to me once "Oh, you're a new grad! I thought you were too enthusiastic". I thought it was pretty sad that people assume it's normal to lose your enthusiasm after you've been working for a while. I'd much rather be young and naive than old and bitter! Incidentally that's something else mentioned in the book - make sure you never stop learning and growing.

Apologies for the lack of detail in this post - I'm planning to go through each major point the book raises (there are four) in a seperate post, so watch this space!

Sunday, 29 April 2007


I had to take a workmate out for coffee on friday. While other workmates have previously taken me out for coffee when I needed it, this is the first time I've done it for someone else and it's made me rather sad.

To give you some perspective: the workmate in question is the team lead on the other half of a large project I'm working on. We don't work directly together but closely enough that I know what's going on. I've been making a point of keeping an eye on things for a while, going over to chat, asking him how things are coming along etc. On friday afternoon we had a team meeting in which we had, once again, gone over the various things that are making a particular section of the work less-than-fun. There had been some infrastructure issues between our site and the client site so progress had been slow and frustration levels were pretty high. Add to that another team member who was struggling and needed help, the senior team member busy with other projects and not able to give much time and a go-live date approaching fast... Result: one stressed and unhappy team lead (surprise surprise).

After the project manager had closed the meeting and left, a few of us just sat and looked at each other for a while until I informed my workmate that we should go get some coffee. We had coffee, and cakes, and I let him talk for a while about how upset he was. Then we talked about the shed he was going to be building over the weekend and his little son... and then went back to work. All well and good, and I was glad to be able to be there for him, but not how things should have been.

Now, some of the factors stressing him out could perhaps have been avoided, but I don't want to go into that here and I think most things are out of our direct control. Cause is beside the point, what I do think is a problem is that we had an upset staff member and it was left to me to do the coffee thing. It shouldn't have been me. I didn't have the authority to say what needed to be said (that he was doing a great job) or to offer help because I'm not involved enough or senior enough for it to mean anything.

Our project manager did, in fact, shout us all coffee on thursday. That was great and we all enjoyed a break and a chance to chat to everyone but there is a difference between shouting the team coffee and taking a particular staff member out to provide some one-on-one support/appreciation. Individual attention is incredibly important, especially when things aren't going so well. When managing a difficult project, I think it's crucial to ensure that each individual member of the team believes that you know and care how things are going for them. If you're pushed for time, at least make sure you have that kind of a relationship with the team lead and encourage them to do the same for the rest of the team. You don't need to take them out for coffee every time; just pull up a chair next to their desk and have a chat, then remember what issues they mentioned and ask them later how they're progressing.

I know I'm sounding very idealistic and that it's difficult to keep track of things to that degree but it is possible and I believe it's worth it. Go on, take someone who needs it out for coffee tomorrow :)

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Who am I?

I figure, since people seem to be reading this and someone at least has done a search for posts labelled 'Me', that I should probably provide some kind of overview of who I am. It should also give you some idea of whether to pay any attention at all to what I say. Wait... maybe I shouldn't after all...

I work as a Software Developer for Intergen in Wellington, New Zealand. Currently doing mostly windows forms development with a fair amount of SQL Reporting Services and Oracle thrown in. I've also been playing around with SQL Integration Services lately which is good fun. Intergen took me on as part of their graduate program and have been great at providing me with opportunities and supporting me to try things and take on more responsibility.

I started work in January 2006 after finishing my degree in Computer Science and Psychology at Massey University in Palmerston North. When I started my degree I was majoring in Information Systems and wanted to be a Business Analyst but I did an introductory programming paper just to see what it was like and loved it so much I changed majors. Now, I'd like to be an architect eventually. The Psychology major was because I've always been interested in usability and, as I usually put it, "I want to understand how both computers and people work so I can get them to work together without throwing each other down stairs". Plus, it was heaps of fun :)

I was involved in leading a church high-school-age (13-18 year old) youth group for 3+ years while in Palmerston North which I loved. When I moved to Wellington I started leading Guides (9-13 year olds) which has been a new challenge and lots of fun. I love spending time with young people; I find their energy and enthusiasm for life contagious and enjoy the feeling of being able to make a difference somehow.

When I'm not at work or Guides I'm a bit of a bookworm. I found the BBC Top 100 book list last year and am currently trying to read all of them - as at 26/04/07 I've read 68. It's been a (mostly) fun exercise and I've read and enjoyed lots of books I would normally never have picked up. Good times :) Normally though, you'll find me with my nose in epic fantasy of some description - most notably Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Robin Hobb and Janny Wurts, although that list could go on and on!

The other major way I tend to occupy any time that may be left in a week is getting people together for strategy board games. (Please note, this is nothing like Monopoly or Scrabble.) My current favourite is Munchkin but we also play a lot of Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride Europe.

So there you are, one fairly long rant covering (hopefully) all the things you never wanted to know about me :)

Tuesday, 24 April 2007


Something changed over the weekend - people are reading this. Flattering, but kinda scary too and happening much sooner than I had expected!

It turns out that an ex-workmate of mine, JD, now links here from his blog and another workmate, John, quoted me on his blog. When I discovered this on Monday morning it freaked me out a bit. There's something a little unreal about reading your own words on someone else's website. I'm not even sure how either of them knew I had a blog, which makes things rather mysterious. All good though, lots of warm fuzzy feelings :)

I'm not entirely sure why I feel the need to comment on this. I started this blog with the aim of producing something people would read so I shouldn't really be surprised if people actually do. I guess I thought it would take a lot longer than it has, or I didn't really believe anyone would read it at all. For once, I am very pleased to be proven wrong.

So, I suppose this means I should be getting some more decent content up here rather than writing random posts on how pleased I am someone linked to me. Not to mention doing the work on the template which I've been putting off because 'no-one will be looking at it for a while yet'!

JD and John: thanks for the link-love guys :)

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Developing Girls - 2

Following my previous post, it is worth noting that we have lots of female analysts and project managers. They may even outnumber the guys in those roles and quite a number of them are ex-developers.

So it would appear that women tend to move out of development roles into more direct people-facing roles. Why? I think development is much more fun... But maybe I'm just odd. I guess it's another reflection of the same need to be 'helping people' directly that keeps girls out of engineering/software development to start with.

Thinking of possible reactions to these posts I came up with a couple worth addressing:

  1. So? Who cares?
  2. But girls don't have the logical brains for coding, they don't get into development because they just can't do it. Simple.
The question of who cares is easy to answer: anyone who has complained about the general shortage of developers. If we want to increase the number of capable developers out there, not cutting out half the population is probably a good starting point.

As for the second objection - rubbish! I know four women who disprove that every day. Unfortunately I can't leave it there because I am enough of a psychologist (yes, I have a psychology degree) to understand that there are differences between the way men and women think. A major one of those differences relates to aptitude for mathematics and the pure logic necessary for good programming. Guys are better at it in general. However, 'in general' does not mean there aren't plenty of women out there who have that aptitude. No, there aren't as many as there are men; but the number differences aren't anywhere near as large as those we see in the industry.

So those male-female ratios are something we should change and something we can change. Lets do it! If you have a chance to speak to a smart young woman anytime soon, make sure she's considering IT as a career option and show her she can make a difference.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Developing Girls

This post was going to be about how junior developers can learn from the senior devs on the team. However, as I was mentally composing the first few sentences, I realised I was using exclusively male pronouns to refer to said senior developers. A moment's thought on why I was doing this revealed that we have no senior female developers.

In fact, there are a grand total of four female developers in our entire development team, three of whom started working for us as new graduates in the last three years. The fourth, admittedly is recognised as a senior developer, but our group of top senior devs/architects (the 'Development Steering Group') who I was going to talk about learning from are entirely male. To give you an idea of just how shocking these numbers are, our development team in Wellington probably includes upwards of 60 people. Once you add the other offices into the mix the number tops 100 and, from memory, I don't think there are any more women. 4% is a pretty dismal figure!

Don't get me wrong here - I do not for a moment believe that the company is discriminating at all. There just aren't many female developers out there to be hired! The situation was the same studying at university - it wasn't unusual for me to be one of two or three females in a class of more than 60. Female devs have sometimes gone to some fairly extraordinary lengths to assert their presence but nothing seems to be changing.

This reminded me of a blog post I read earlier this year about an article on cnn (unfortunately the link to the original article is now dead) about why women don't get into engineering. Apparently women aim for careers where they feel they can help people, hence the traditional female domination of roles such as nursing or teaching. I had a very close to home example of this recently when a younger friend who'd always aimed to be an accountant decided she never wanted to work for an accounting firm because it couldn't possibly be fun. "I'm a people person, I need to be working with people not with numbers." No amount of explanations could convince her that the numbers would be helping people, that she'd be part of a team, that any job was a 'people job'.

Now, I have nothing against wanting a career where you feel you're helping people - that was, and is, my aim for the work I do. I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the mornings if I didn't feel that something I was going to do that day would help someone. My actions are focused around helping my clients get software that will make their lives easier and helping my workmates to be happier and less stressed. Yes, I spend most of my day staring at a computer screen; but my job is definitely a 'people job'. I originally got into IT after spending some time working as an admin/helpdesk person and seeing how upset and frustrated computers made people. I got to thinking that maybe if I could help create computer programs that were easier to use the world might be a happier place...

A lecturer in one of my university software engineering papers spent one of our ethics lectures discussing the lack of female developers. Her theory was that most guys get into IT through being interested in computer gaming. The problem is that most computer games, having being designed by men, don't appeal to girls; so the major entry point doesn't apply. Please note I said 'most' - there are exceptions (I'm a big fan of Myst and I have a friend who loves The Sims) but as a general rule gaming is considered to be a male activity.

So what do we need then? For games that appeal to girls we need game developers who understand what girls want to play and are willing to take the risk of trying to develop a new market. But, more crucially I think, we need to educate young women about all jobs being 'people jobs' and the opportunities there are to make a difference in the IT sector. I was talking to my high school computing teacher some time ago and we discussed the possibility of me talking to her classes. Maybe I need to get in touch with her again...

Thursday, 12 April 2007


Had a conversation with a project manager recently in which she said that she tries to figure out what motivates each person on her teams and what relieves their stress. In short, what makes them tick. She says I was easy - it's all about the chocolate!

Admittedly, I do love my chocolate and I have been known to accept undesirable tasks on the condition someone buys me chocolate. But I think she's missed a couple of things which are pretty major. I function not solely on chocolate but also on feeling like I've accomplished something useful. This made up of 2 things:

  1. Accomplishing something, anything! This means seeing progress, being able to cross something off the list, having some sense of achievement. We all need this, projects where progress seems to go backwards have been described by workmates as 'soul destroying'.
  2. Other people (colleagues or clients) appreciating what I've done. Recognition matters lots to me: a piece of paper with 'well done' on it will often stay on my desk for weeks! This is the bit that transforms "I've done something" into "I've done something useful".
No amount of chocolate will turn around a project where developers' work seems to be leading nowhere and no-one is acknowledging the effort they put in. I was involved in a project that ended up like that last year and the turnover rate was unbelievably high. Chocolate does contribute towards the second one though: "Someone bought me chocolate therefore they must appreciate me somewhat".

The other thing that I've noticed about myself is that I'm an information junkie. I'll put up with pretty much anything (including a lack of chocolate!) if I have all the information around what, who, when and why. Especially why. On the other hand, if I know something's going on but I don't have the details I get very frustrated very fast. One of my workmates in particular tends to try and 'protect' me from some of the larger client issues we come up against, I don't think he realises I'd be less stressed being involved than wondering what everyone else is trying so hard to fix. If I have a reason for what I'm working towards I'm very happy giving it everything I've got.

I wonder how many other people 'tick' this way. I wouldn't be surprised if both feelings of useful accomplishment and needing information are pretty common drivers for people. Maybe this is something to keep in mind when leading teams - ensure there is a sense of progress, provide recognition and give the team all the information you can about the bigger picture.

Buying people chocolate doesn't hurt either :)

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

A work rant

It's been a crazy busy couple of days with lots of conflicting demands on my time. I'm enjoying the feeling of being in demand and wanted although it reached the point today where I can no longer satisfy everyone which is far less fun. Still trying though, and hoping to swing some things and make it work.

I've spent quite a bit of time this week pulling people into little rooms with closed doors and talking about the decision I needed to make (see my earlier post) and I have been impressed at how willing people have been to listen and how much caring they've all shown. There's something really special about a workplace where it's perfectly ok for me to grab a senior staff member and agonise at him for an hour. There's something even more special about a workplace where the senior staff member being agonised at is happy to advise a course of action contrary to what his manager had recommended because he believes it would be more to my advantage.

I also had a neat discussion with my project manager this morning around why we all do what we do and what makes it fun. Both of us enjoy the challenge of direct client-facing work and love being busy doing multiple things at once. I really enjoy the ability to craft something to suit a client's requirements, tweaking it so it's exactly what they need and helps them do their job somehow. She gets excited about really difficult clients or large disasters that need sorting out, smoothing over or rebuilding.

Overall, the people I work with are incredibly consistently cool. They're supportive, encouraging, caring, enthusiastic, dedicated, patient and great fun to be with! We're all very different but that 'coolness factor' is so consistent it's always surprising me and I tend to rant on about it at length fairly frequently. Seriously though, I think you'd be pretty hard pushed to find a more supportive, fun and exciting place to work. Yes, there are lots of challenges and we sometimes work long hours to get something done. Sometimes clients throw curve balls at you and you don't duck fast enough, some people are less-than-fun to be around, some projects drag on and on and on... but there are always moments when something works and your workmates join you in shouting how pleased you are, or a client finally recognises what you've done and thanks you, or a team pulls together and produces something none of them could have on their own. I love my job :)

p.s. By the way, now that I've had my rant - we're hiring! Come work for us :)

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Golfing outcomes

Well golf was indeed a lesson in humility as expected - although thanks to Ambrose rules and Phil and Glenn being far better than they had claimed to be our team managed to come second! I intend to display the award somewhere conspicuous for people to marvel at. :)

At the start of the day I said my aim was for the ball to leave the tee and for it to go generally forwards. Goal achieved although I don't feel any particular sense of achievement. The moral perhaps that small goals, while realistic, aren't much fun! We discovered that I can chip tolerably well, but that any and all other shots (including off the tee with a driver) go about the same distance as my chip shots. I was surprised at how unnatural a movement a golf swing is. Professionals certainly manage to make it look natural and everything I've seen or read about how to play golf seems to talk about getting your swing nice and smooth so I was expecting it to feel, well, smoother! Some of the things people do in the name of fun really are rather odd. Overall, I'm not planning on taking up golf anytime soon but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and if we do it again I'd be keen.

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Decisions... and golf

Sometimes, when I take a metaphorical step back and look at my own actions from another perspective they look extremely odd. Here's the example I'm currently thinking of:

I have a decision to make at the moment - can't say too much (for hopefully obvious reasons!) but basically it's an offer of a role I need to accept or decline. My decision making (or rather, not-making) process seems perfectly logical inside my own head but from any other point of view... well... a little less logical. I had a brief chat to my 'counsellor' about the role (where I work we all have a senior staff member assigned as a 'counsellor' with whom we meet up once a month and discuss career goals, it's great) and he was fairly adamant I should turn it down. His reasons all make sense and, in terms of my career as a whole, taking the new role is probably a fairly silly idea.

However, I really don't want to say no. I realised this while I was seriously considering finding another staff member who would want me to accept, explaining the reasons I shouldn't and waiting for them to convince me otherwise. Talk about taking the easy way out! So I made a list (This is typical behaviour for me: if in doubt, make a list. If still in doubt, make another list.) of why it was I felt I didn't want to say no. Basically, it came down to four things:

  1. I don't like to say no to anything, ever.
  2. I'm very fond of the project manager who's asking me to take on the role and I don't want to disappoint them.
  3. I want the title so I can feel important and useful.
  4. I think the role is important, and I want to see it done properly. (If you want something done properly do it yourself!)
Logically, as far as I can see, the only one of those things which should be taken into any consideration is the last. So the real question becomes: "Should I be putting my own career goals to the side for the sake of getting a particular job done well?"

That's interesting, because now I put it in those terms the answer, to me at least, seems extremely obvious - yes. If I believe something should be done well and that I am the best person to do it then I should do it without any consideration of whether it may be to my advantage. I'm now cringing at the thought of explaining that logic to either my counsellor or my mother, both of whom will probably berate me for being too much of a sentimentalist.

Or, am I just convincing myself that this is good logic so I can take my preferred way out and not have to say no? When I've finished second-third-and-fourth-guessing myself I'll let you know! I'm also going to need to decide if I really do think I'm the best person to do it...

Anyway, enough said about that before I say more than I should! We are having a team golf day this afternoon which will, I think, be something of an exercise in humility. Any kind of physical co-ordination has never been my strong point and I haven't played golf before... Should be good fun though :)

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Shouting at problems

I was sitting next to one of our technical services guys (lets call him Dave) releasing a website this morning when a senior manager (lets call him Warrick) came up and proceeded to suggest, in fairly strong terms, that a problem with another client's site needed solving. The suggesting then turned to ordering, blaming, complaining and swearing fairly quickly and with a lot of repetition along the way. Dave handled this well, attempting to explain what had happened while being talked over, nodding and agreeing, not raising his voice at all until Warrick at last went away promising to return "when you've finished helping Jo". I then had the fun of finishing a release with a fairly angry techie who informed his team members that "it might be a good idea to look at such-and-such, at some point today".

Before I go any further: this is a very unusual event where I work. As a general rule I am witness to some fantastic examples of leadership and professionalism from some truly awesome people who care deeply about not only what they do but also the people they do it with. Got that? Good, moving on.

The results of this morning's exhibition were, as far as I could see, two angry staff members (Dave and Warrick), one surprised and disappointed staff member (me) and a decreased motivation and likelihood of the job being done quickly. The latter is most notable since I'm sure this is precisely the opposite of what Warrick intended. In Warrick's defence he was obviously under a lot of pressure from a client who were understandably upset that something wasn't working, and it's always difficult to keep your cool when you're being yelled at and are dependent on someone else to solve the problem. But what a difference it could have made if he had. Perhaps, if the issue and its impact had been calmly and briefly explained Dave would have gone back to him for more detail and to resolve it immediately after finishing his current task... Perhaps he would have explained the problem to others whose co-operation he needed in the same calm clear way and they would also have responded... Perhaps no-one would have needed to raise their voice at all...

Key points I see here:

  • explain problems calmly no matter how much they are stressing you out - people will be more willing to help you if you keep them feeling positive about the work
  • explain the impact of the problem, not "the client is yelling at me" but "this is a big problem for this client because they need the system to order their morning coffee" - people, again, will be more willing to help if they understand why it's important
  • be aware of what else the person is doing at the time - you will later reap the benefits of the brownie points you earn for keeping your description brief and thus minimising your interruption of their current task. Not to mention that the less time you spend interrupting their current task is less time it will take to complete and they'll be able to work on resolving your problem all the sooner
Perhaps all of that is pretty obvious, but the next step in the morning's drama was also interesting: one of the first comments from Dave after Warrick left was "This has been managed so badly, Warrick just left things with people without telling anyone else about it." Two things stand out to me in that one sentence: problems can be avoided with careful management and communication is critical. Careful management is all about planning ahead and making sure the appropriate people have the appropriate information. How you give those people information is important too - if you spout some information at one person then walk away assuming they now know everything they need a number of things may happen:
  1. they forget all about it
  2. they write down most of it but miss one crucial point which results in everything going pear-shaped later
  3. they have perfect auditory recall but something happens to them and someone else who knows nothing has to pick up the job
  4. they have perfect auditory recall and manage to complete the job
Hopefully you noticed that only one of those options actually involved the problem being solved. Putting things in writing is great. The process of writing something down clarifies your thinking and may help you see something important you had missed. Written material can be picked up and read by someone else, ensuring that when Bob gets run over by a bus all your information is not dragged under the tyres with him. Writing also provides a basis for clarification, where both parties know what is being discussed, and it can be easily added to or corrected when something else comes up.

Incidentally, Dave said much of this to Warrick this morning but Warrick responded by emphasising again how important it was that Dave ring his colleague (whose first child recently arrived) to get the information about the issue. Sigh...

Monday, 26 March 2007

Hello world

Well, after much nagging by a variety of people, here it is: a blog.
The intention is for entries to be varied, ranging from technical issues encountered to thoughts on management to generic existential angst - basically anything I consider worthy of note and hopefully a little something for all tastes. Expect references to theoretical physics, epic fantasy and Winnie the Pooh to be thrown in wherever inappropriate.
If you visit, drop a comment - I'm looking forward to discovering what kind of people manage to find this :)