“Getting” Twitter, from the technology executive’s perspective

I don’t want this to be just another post about Twitter, the current hot trend of the Internet.  Rather, I’d like to relate this new Twitter fad to a long-planned important topic here.

Specifically, what can we in technology do to keep current and stay up-to-speed on our various areas of interest and expertise? There’s more out there than any of us can learn, and new technologies come along all the time.  Truly staying current, at a reasonable depth level, would be a more-than-full-time job.

Here’s how I’ve come to grips with that basic reality. These remarks are most relevant to the executive level, but to some extent they apply across the spectrum of roles in IT.
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Speed vs. bureaucracy: management issues confronted by companies in transition

I was at a relatively young company once where a senior executive suddenly sent out a message to the entire employee base, asking for general input on the cause and treatment of the following concerns:

  • “There is a feeling that the company is not able to move fast enough or nimbly enough — we’re not delivering products fast enough or turning projects around fast enough
  • “People feel that it’s very difficult to get things done
  • “There is a feeling that we’re getting too bureaucratic in everything
  • “People aren’t working collaboratively; there appears to be a ‘contract’ mentality in dealing with people”

Aside from the unfortunately vague, passive-voice constructions in this message (“there is a feeling”: meaning one person? everyone? just senior management?), this message didn’t surprise me much.  In fact, it wasn’t (at all) the first time I’d seen this kind of sentiment arise in a young company.

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IT, States of Denial, and more Peterisms

Yes, I admit it’s an old and hackneyed play on words, but I’ll repeat it anyway: in the course of my career, I’ve worked in IT positions in the fine States of New York, California, and Washington, but I’d have to say that the most frequent state I’ve encountered in IT matters has been the State of Denial.

It seems to be a common trend, up and down the levels of a company, to engage in a bit of willful self-delusion about IT matters, practices, outcomes.  As I thought about this, I realized that several of my key “Peterisms” (these being sayings that come out of my mouth again and again, as already chronicled here and here) have evolved as a response to this persistent theme of “states of denial”.  So let’s talk about three more of those Peterisms in that light.
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Serving your IT customers: be careful of being The Wizard of Oz

Cultural references are among the most powerful language tools around.  The old cliche may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but equally, a well-targeted cultural reference, used as an analogy, can stream light onto a subject better than dozens of droning paragraphs of prose.

So here’s one that comes to mind over and over again in the course of IT management: the Wizard of Oz.  And it’s not a flattering analogy; in fact, it serves more as a warning or a reminder of what not to do.

Specifically, think about the Wizard of Oz’s behavior when Dorothy asks him to help her and her friends.  She gets upset when it seems that the Wizard isn’t going to help them, but he assures them that he will, if they do just one little thing:
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Starve your voice mail, feed your e-mail

I’ve touched on this topic briefly before, but here’s a lengthier discussion on why, in general, I find e-mail to be vastly preferable to voice mail for communication in the business world.

Here’s my stance: voice mail works reasonably well on a small scale in the home (i.e., personal voice mail implemented usually with answering machines), but it tends to break down completely in a large-scale business environment.

Until I took active steps to deal with it about a dozen years ago, I was getting between 50 and 100 voice mail messages a day. The “message waiting” light on my phone had become a night light for my office. At an average of a minute or two each to listen and respond, these messages were taking me hours a day to work through. I realized that our greater project team of several hundred people was able to put voice mail messages into my queue a lot faster than I could ever pull them out. Voice mail just wasn’t a good use of my personal bandwidth. So I took the radical step of putting an outgoing message on my voice mailbox, telling people that if they had a choice, please send me e-mail rather than voice mail, and I’d be able to get back to them a lot more quickly.

E-mail has flaws, of course, but sports many advantages over voice mail: most notably, it can be quickly skimmed, categorized, saved, searched, archived. What’s more, it puts you and others on the line: you can be held to what you argued, what you promised. At most, it can be misinterpreted, but it can’t easily be denied. And that’s healthy, for you, for your co-workers, and for your organization. Accountability drives responsibility.

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Executive questions, IT answers, pizza parlors, and speed chess

Let’s mix some metaphors today, and attempt to relate them all to the world of information technology and project management.

I have a good friend and colleague, one of the top IT consultants I know.  He’s able to execute crisply at the detail level while keeping the big picture in mind; he’s especially good at balancing on the fine line separating necessary diplomacy and straight-shooting directness.

For reasons I find simultaneously admirable and unfathomable, this indefatigable person, whom I’ll call Gunner here, is planning on opening a pizza parlor as a sidelight, and is currently embroiled in the process of threading the various bureaucracies and logistics to make his vision happen.  We talk about this regularly, since I am a great pizza fan.  In a recent conversation, he reported that he had just gotten city approval to use a specific lower-cost piece of equipment, news that greatly increases the chances of the pizza parlor actually becoming a reality.  So I, of course, immediately asked when opening day would be.

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Why status reports really do matter

Do a poll: many IT folks regard doing status reports as their least favorite task.  My point here, though, will be that a lot of people, management and workers alike, don’t fully understand the real purpose of status reports, and that status reports should actually be a “must-have” arrow in your management quiver. 

How a person regards status reports is, in my view, a litmus test that tends to reveal one’s basic approach and attitude towards management in general. Let me sketch the two diverging philosophies.

I’m a strong proponent of the first philosophy: the idea that managers and workers collaborate towards achieving common goals, just playing different “positions” in the game plan of how to get there.  The opposite view, one that is held by more people than I’d like, is that the manager assigns work, sits back, and judges how well it was done.  If you look at the status report through eyes colored by that second view, you might tend to approach doing a status report as drudgery, a checklist chore with little real utility, and with lots of potential downsides when your boss reads it and determines what you haven’t done well.  That approach can result in status reports omitting or obscuring any bad news, providing all sorts of detail meant to show that everything is going swimmingly, and in essence attempting to prove that the author is a shining star and a veritable dervish of activity.
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Using feedback loops to improve IT department service

As I’ve written here before, I strongly advocate thinking of IT in general as a service organization to the rest of the business.

Any service organization needs one or more forms of “feedback loop” to be able to gauge whether it is successfully accomplishing its mission.  However, I’ve observed relatively few IT organizations that actively seek to implement such feedback loops on a regular basis.  At best, the IT executive does it informally by consulting with his peers at the executive table.  But with any such anecdotal feedback, the information gathered that way tends to be fleeting and unreliable, and it is especially influenced by strong personalities and emotions during crisis situations.

Here’s a better, and simple, suggestion, one that I’ve implemented to varying degrees at several firms with a good amount of success: Survey your constituents regularly and then publish the results.

Sounds daunting?  I promise it really isn’t, not in this day and age of easy-to-use web-based surveys.  With less than an hour of work, you can design and initiate a survey using a free service like Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey, and easily gather high-quality results (reports and statistics) in just a few days that can help you gauge (and present) how you’re doing.  Here’s how.

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