CIO pet peeves: small drains on personal productivity

I promised a while back to write more about some of the pet peeves I’ve developed in the CIO/CTO role. So here are a few more.

We all have pet peeves. Working as an executive in IT seems to present a lot of opportunities to develop a long list of these. They’re minor grievances, to be sure, but they also really matter, in that they drain away little smidgens of productivity or create frustration. And most are easy to address, so in the interest of enhancing the world’s productivity, I’d like to list a few of these. I’ll confine myself just to the ones that crop up at least once a week in the course of my workday. Consider fixing these a high priority to show good business etiquette and professionalism:

Pet peeves:

  • Email aliases that aren’t of the form first.last@company.com

Yes, I know it’s rare that anyone has to actually type an email address from scratch. Nonetheless, when you do, you shouldn’t have to guess. Hmm, is Brian Wilson going to be brianw@xyz.com, or bwilson@xyz.com, or brianwi@xyz.com? Every company should standardize on the predictable, canonical form of first.last@company.com, at least as an acceptable alias. A speaker at a conference I just attended told the audience to contact him at kzw@company.com, and everyone actually had to scribble that down! He thought it was simple, no doubt, since it was only three letters. But the point is, you shouldn’t have to remember yet another token about a person. Even Microsoft, for its employees’ email addresses, doesn’t do this email address standardization right, at least not as a standard across the board.

  • Documents (spreadsheets, in particular) that won’t print cleanly

If you make a document, even in this paperless world, assume that someone will probably want to print it, if only to read on the bus or something. Spreadsheets in particular need to be print-previewed and examined to see if they’ll print cleanly. Use the “Fit to” option, and shift from portrait mode to landscape mode where appropriate; use the “rows to repeat at top” option to get consistent headers on subsequent pages. It’s pretty irritating to print a document and discover that its columns are spread across four separate pages, unnecessarily.

  • Documents that don’t have titles, dates, authors identified clearly on every page

Whenever I bring this one up to someone passing around an unlabeled, undated document, I always hear, “Oh, that’s because it’s only a draft, you see.” That’s all the more reason to make sure it’s labeled, since there are bound to be later revisions floating around. Excel and Word both have excellent header/footer functionality. Use it. While you’re at it, page numbers are also nice.

  • Spreadsheets with empty tabs

90% of the spreadsheets I get sent have three tabbed worksheets: one with data (Sheet1) and two with nothing (Sheet2 and Sheet3). I then exercise my unavoidable and infamous anal retentiveness by diligently bringing up all three tabs to view, just to be sure I’m not missing anything (and every once in a while, sure enough, I discover data in one of the tabs I’d assumed was probably blank). Come on, everyone: the three tabs are the unfortunate Excel default (yes, you can and should change this, instantly, with any new Excel installation), put in place by Microsoft marketing, which spent no doubt countless meetings arguing over the best way to make sure people knew that tabs were a feature. (Count your blessings: the default for a previous release of Excel was 16 tabs for every workbook!) Get rid of empty tabs; they add no value. If you need a new tab, add it then. While you’re at it: if you do use extra tabs, please name them something meaningful.

  • Email without clear subject lines

Email is my knowledge repository, often, representing an important trail of decision points and the reasoning/history behind them. I need to be able to find stuff in that haystack. Fill out a clear and specific header! For example, when I’m sifting through that haystack for a particular nugget, a vague subject line of “Question” isn’t nearly as good as “Question on CRM functional requirements deadline”.

  • Email from close business associates (people I see at least once an hour) that still have to begin with “Hi, Peter”.

It’s a business email, not a personal letter. Salutations aren’t really necessary. I promise: I won’t think you rude for omitting one.

  • Email that doesn’t copy the thread of discussion (when germane) at all

See above point about the need for subject lines. When I’m cruising quickly through email, I don’t want to have to pull up other messages to retrace the flow of discussion on the topic.

Little things, minor irritations, all of these… so why not avoid them?

Financial metrics for IT: the holy grail of ROI, and how it misses the point: Part 1

Let’s talk some more about one of my favorite topics, project portfolio management (PPM). A lot of literature on PPM tends to focus on evaluating risks and returns. An excellent article on IT governance last week in The Wall Street Journal had the following sage advice:

Create an IT portfolio by evaluating risks and returns. Just as an investor balances risk and returns in constructing a portfolio of investments, management should analyze the costs, benefits and risks of all IT projects to determine how to get the most benefit from the dollars invested in technology.”

I can’t argue with that. But I also like to talk about another major part of IT portfolio management, which focuses on juggling which projects can actually be resourced. It’s unfortunately easy to come up with ten distinct projects with positive return on investment (ROI), for example, in a situation where it’s really only feasible to do one or two of these a year. In some companies, the pressure to do any positive-ROI project becomes enormous, even if it means the company is biting off too much at once. So what to do?

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“Channeling”: a technique for preparing IT presentations to management

The Skeptic’s Dictionary tells us about a concept called channeling: “Channeling is a process whereby an individual (the “channeler”) claims to have been invaded by a spirit entity which speaks through the channeler. ”

Lest anyone misunderstand, I’m not recommending that anyone get invaded by a spirit entity. But I am recommending that you learn to channel, and that you become a champion of that technique to your IT staff. Here’s what I mean.

The key problem I see in a lot of IT-to-business communication is when IT people fail to consistently anticipate and proactively answer the obvious and reasonable questions that stakeholders will have, particularly senior management stakeholders, including board members. Those questions are simple and almost always essentially the same, as I’ve mentioned before. On any given proposal, stakeholders want to understand these basics:

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More Peterisms: lessons learned on IT practices

More pithy sayings that (at least in my view) I reuse in an attempt to succinctly express key concepts and lessons. Or, perhaps in many cases, to annoy my staff via tireless repetition. I have several dozen of these sayings, most likely (I haven’t actually counted), and for many of them I can no longer remember their origin. The ones this time around, though, are attributable. You are free to draw conclusions or insights about my cultural values from the breadth of sources represented here. Aside from the theme of wildly disparate cultural derivation, though, these apothegms have another common thread to them: they tend to come to mind as you go through the standard back-and-forth negotiations with business stakeholders about features, projects, workload.

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The flip side of common myths: how some are perpetuated by IT

As promised, I’m going to follow up on my last post (Optimism, resilience, stamina: the make-up of the CTO/CIO), covering the myths IT deals with on a regular basis, by talking about its flip side: the ways that IT itself can unfortunately perpetuate or contribute to some of the myths I’ve been discussing.

Here’s a point-by-point discussion of some of the things I talked about last time, the discouraging statements you frequently hear from stakeholders.

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Our mention in CIO Magazine

Just a heads-up for readers: CTO/CIO Perspectives was mentioned this week in an interesting article in CIO Magazine, titled “20 Things You Can Do In 20 Minutes to Be More Successful at Work“. Not all the tips are spot-on, in my view (and I commented to that effect in the comments section), but there are definitely some gems there worth considering. All of us juggle a varied and heavy workload, and have frustrations about maintaining our personal productivity amidst the fray; lots of things in this article can help. Check it out!

In general, I highly recommend following the content published in CIO. As with all things, not everything is of equal value, but the range of topics and discussion is absolutely germane to anyone in an executive IT role in particular.

Optimism, resilience, stamina: the make-up of the CTO/CIO

Here’s a disquieting little secret that few of us ever really acknowledge, maybe because it’s rather painful and also an unavoidable part of the fabric of our existence in IT. I don’t know how to say it more eloquently (or less bluntly), so here goes: being in information technology is hard. In our day-to-day dealings with stakeholders, with end users, with management, even within our own ranks, it’s common to hear some pretty discouraging and recurring things, voiced either explicitly or implicitly. For example,

  • “what have you (IT) done for us lately?”;
  • “what do you (IT as a whole) do all day?”;
  • “we’ve been asking for that system for years now and not gotten it”;
  • “how can that be so hard? Why can’t you just …”;
  • “at my last company we did that in just [names an absurdly short amount of time] and it worked really well.”

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Offshore development: aim for it, even if you never go there

As I wrote last time, a large part of my reason for opposing offshoring is because I’ve rarely, if ever, worked in a company where I felt the necessary prerequisites were in place to be able to even consider offshoring as a viable option. Let’s go into that in more detail now.

I’ve observed before that managing the incoming flow of projects is often reminiscent of trying to stuff eight pounds of manure into a five-pound bag. In other words, you have more to do than you could ever get done. You will constantly be challenged, and should be challenging yourself, to find ways out of that dilemma: either, how can you become a better stuffer, so to speak, or, how can you expand the size of the bag itself. I assume that you’re doing everything you can to maximize the effective allocation of your resources so that you are more efficiently stuffing the bag. So, what about increasing the size of the bag? Well, additional internal headcount is usually hard to come by, and it also takes a fair amount of management overhead to scale a department prudently. The push is usually for short-term delivery of a project; increasing your own headcount can work in the long run, but almost never in the short term (read Fred Brooks’ classic The Mythical Man-Month).

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