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!