I’m always fascinated by unintended consequences, especially when they are an artifact of trying to do something right.Ice Ramp

In moving to Salt Lake City from California, I’ve been reminded that good intentions and planning do not a perfect world make.

I live close to downtown, so I’ve started walking to work. It’s a nice walk, gives me a bit of exercise, and makes me feel I’m being a bit more “green” by not driving.

The sidewalks have those nice ramps into the crosswalk, which lets a wheelchair roll across. And they keep somebody who’s not quite paying attention from tripping on the curb …

It’s all great until it snows …

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Once upon a time, there was a kingdom of people who were busy managing projects named Pee-Em-Eye Ess-Eff-BeeA Sea. They were busy doing this work, and they found themselves wondering if there was a better way than just telling people what to do, and then scurrying off to the next project.

A small group of people in the kingdom thought that there was a better way to manage the kingdom of Pee-Em-Eye Ess-Eff-BeeA Sea. They believed they could apply some of their project management skills to help all the people in the kingdom to be more successful and happy.

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I’ve worked hard (as many others have) to eliminate credit cards, stay away from large fee charging banks, and generally protect my money, so when I recently learned that the EDD is paying people with debit cards, I got a bit angry (see: http://www.sfbg.com/2011/09/13/banking-misfortune?page=0,1.)

Debit Card

Now I think the idea of giving people an option other than a check or direct deposit is commendable, and I hope that the EDD at least did this to save some money (although I can’t imagine how this could possibly be more cost effective than an EFT, since somebody has to pay all those bank fees that B of A loves to charge). And maybe I’m just being old fashioned, like a generation ago when the move from cash to paychecks first happened, or again when direct deposit became the norm.

But I don’t think this is really the same, because when a check (or a direct deposit happened), you weren’t an involuntary customer of Bank of America. You were a customer of whatever bank you wanted to be. And if you weren’t a Bank of America customer, they couldn’t count you on their customer roles.

Overnight, B of A has a huge influx of people they can market to. They have an additional revenue stream as well, since these are debit cards, so if you use them at a merchant, that merchant has to pay fees to get their money.

Will the next step be elimination of paychecks ? Maybe the IRS would like that: your money would pass through B of A, they could directly pull taxes from there since it is the Bank of America ….

This just feels plain wrong to me.

One of the key success factors for any project is the “vision statement“, which is the Executive Sponsor‘s opportunity to excite the team, stakeholders, and customers with their vision of where we are going and how the product of the project will improve things.

When well done, the charter can be condensed into an elevator pitch for the project, and provide a clear vision to guide the project team to a common goal.

Vision: the capacity to see into the future. It’s setting a vision that people can see where their place in that vision is, and then coming across as deeply empathetic, human and intimate. The vision has to be a generous vision, such that people not only see their path in it but is excited about it. It is not just a plan, it is an enlistment. Great leaders have to be genuine and intimate: You have to feel like they touch you, and there is empathy or humanity there.

– Keith Ferrazi

The project charter‘s vision statement can galvanize the people to achieve defined objectives, even if they are stretch objectives, provided the vision is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timely).

In order for this vision to be effective, it needs the following five elements (condensed from The Art Of Project Management by Scott Berkun):

  1. Simplifying – The most important thing to strive for is a simplifying effect on the project. A good vision will provide answers to the core questions individuals have, and will give them a tool for making decisions in their own work.
  2. Intentional (Goal driven) – This is the first source of a project’s goals. It sets the tone for what good goals look like, how many goals there should be in the plan, and how much refinement the goals may need before they are complete. A well written goal defines a clear intention for the people on the team. One popular business acronym is SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timely. The idea is that if a goal has all five of these attributes it is likely to be well defined enough to be useful.
  3. Consolidated – For the vision document to have power, it must consolidate ideas from many other places. It should absorb key thinking from research, analysis, strategic planning, or other efforts, and be the best representation of these ideas.
  4. Inspirational – To connect with people, there must be a clear problem in the world that needs to be solved, which the team has some interest or capacity to solve. By giving the reader a clear understanding of the opportunities that exists, and providing a solid plan for exploiting it, people who have any capacity to be inspired, will be.
  5. Memorable – Being memorable implies two things: first, that the ideas make sense or were interesting in some way; and second that they resonate with the reader and will stay with them. If the vision is too complex for anyone to understand it’s impossible to achieve this. Being memorable is best served by being direct and honest. If you can strike at the core of decisions and communicate them well – even if people don’t completely agree with those decisions – they will stay with people longer than those from a vision full of ideas they fully believe in but were buried in weak and muddy writing.

So what we want is communicate as clearly and concisely as possible in a way that helps people understand what we are doing. We want to help people visualize what they are trying to accomplish, and to give them a tool to reference when making decisions as the project proceeds.

With a well written project vision, the entire team is energized behind the goal, without it, each individual has to conceive the goal on their own.

I was talking to my friend George Ross the other day about the job search that we both unexpectedly find ourselves in, and it occurred to me that I haven’t been approaching my career management with the same level of commitment to planning that I have when managing projects and programs.

A while ago, I made the conscious decision to pursue program management as a way to round out my skills in heading my career into the domain of technical leadership. I’d spent most of my career as a developer with my referent power derived from keeping one step ahead on the technology curve.

In my early career, I had managers and mentors who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, which was the ability to lead. Several managers tried to push me into leadership roles, and at first I pushed back, preferring to keep my head down, and learn as much as I could about everything that I could.

Well, you do that long enough, and those opportunities stop happening, so I found myself at a new place in my career where I actually understood the value of managing others. I’d finally realized that even if I was better than the people I managed, multiple people could get more done than I could as an individual. Even if they worked half as quickly as me, as long as there were enough of them, more work would get done and more quickly.

So understanding this, and meeting a few individuals who’d managed to make that transition from technical geek to technical leader, I set my sites on that CTO sort of role.

So I had an goal, and I had an inkling of an idea of how to get there, but still no formal plan. What occurred to me last night was that like any other goal, without a plan to get there, the path wanders, and you may never get there.

pwc

That said, I was conscious enough to know I needed to round my skills, and I did set my sight on some intermediate targets. First was to get some management experience, which was what led me to PwC and managing web development there.

The truth is, that I wandered a bit more in my career, not really making direct progress toward anything like the CTO role. I gathered a bit more experience as a technical architect, expanded my skills leading small teams, and learned a lot about being a consultant and managing expectations.  Still, without a plan time marched on.

Image representing Cisco as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

I was exposed to solid project management at places like Cisco (which is probably the most project based organization I’ve ever worked at) and the value of true project management. It occurred to me that moving into the project management end of the process would round my skills in a way that being an architect would not. It would also round out my business and soft skills in ways that the more technical role would expose me to.

So having no idea what project management was, I talked to a few of my friends and heard about the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI). From watching a few of the better PM’s that I knew go through this certification, I had no doubt that it was a challenging and as real a certification as any I’d come across.

I took a couple of PMP prep classes and studied as much as I could, in order to understand the best practices of project management. I began to understand things that I was doing right, and reasons for things I had not understood before (like what a critical path actually was).

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Fort Point...

Image via Wikipedia

During the “downturn”, I became more involved with expanding my skills through volunteering and continuous learning. I helped to form a non-profit aimed at getting people jobs, and learned a great deal about interpersonal networking (both virtual and physical).

Continuing that growth in leadership, I’ve joined the board of directors of the PMI San Francisco Bay Area Chapter as Secretary and VP of Operations (officially starting on April 1st, 2011).

Now I’m feeling the skills are getting pretty rounded, and I still don’t have a real plan to get from here to there. So the first step in my plan is to write down that I need a plan. Next I think I’ll need a few good mentors to help me figure out a real plan ….

There’s a saying I’ve heard in self-help and twelve step programs that basically means you will learn more about yourself if you continue to do the work: “More shall be revealed …”

I’ve always been a very confident person when it comes to my ability to adapt to work, and always felt that as long as there were challenging problems to solve, I’d have no problem finding work. And while I am highly skilled, I have come to believe that I have been very lucky, and I may have therefore been a bit arrogant about my abilities.

Recently I recognized the fact that intentions and actions don’t always meet. I was flying home and the overhead bins were full next to my seat, so I walked back and placed my bag in a bin a few seats back. As I turned to go back to my seat, I saw a woman who obviously had been ready to put her bag in that spot. I work very hard to be a nice guy, but in this instance, I just continued back to my seat. My intention hadn’t been to upset this person, but my actions did so.

Last year, in October, I was released from a contract that I’d been on for a few years. I had been brought in to temporarily fill a vacancy, but was able to keep extending the contract by doing good work. The organization I was working for was worried about cash flow due to some expansion they were doing, so it seemed like this would be a temporary cost cutting measure.

Immediately after that, the market tanked, and jobs started disappearing. I wasn’t too worried, knowing that typically when jobs get scarce, contracts become more plentiful. I hadn’t had any time off for years, so I decided not to look too hard for the rest of the year.

Even though I wasn’t working too hard at finding a new job, I started to become a bit worried. I was only seeing contracts that had rates lower than salaries for the same work, and often were all inclusive out of state jobs. I did the math on a couple of these and found that I would be working for free by the time I paid for airfare and hotel.

So after the first of the year, I figured I better step the search up. I started working full time on my job search, and spending a lot more time on networking. I went to Job Connections nearly every Saturday, called and emailed friends and former coworkers, and talked to every recruiter that called. I spent hours trying to redo my resume to make it work for a couple of different types of jobs.

And during all this, I took advantage of my time off, studying for, and getting my PMP (Project Management Professional) certification. The silver lining in being out of work for many months, was that I was spending a lot of time on self improvement.

The biggest downside was watching the dwindle, and trying not to panic. We reviewed finances and realized we spent way too much money on a lot of things, and cut our expenses neatly in half. We dropped our burn rate enough to extend our expected “run out of cash” date to be somewhere around the end of the year. Somehow, even though we’d both lived in the paycheck to paycheck mode before, it was almost scarier to see the cash reserves disappear. There was that unfounded fear that we’d lose everything and be homeless.

Luckily for me, my network did pay off, and I picked up a contract that a friend of mine found me. Seemed like things were rolling again. But my lesson wasn’t yet over: I underestimated some politics and made some mistakes at this contract, and I was quickly out of a job. My intentions were to help improve a less than optimal process into one that was efficient, making the lives of nurses and patients better. My actions however only gave a politically charged situation more ammunition.

I lost that job because of two bits of arrogance: not paying attention to the inner voice that told me I should uncover my stakeholder’s needs early, and overestimating my abilities. The contract was supposed to have taken me through the end of the year, instead it lasted only a few weeks. I had been humbled again.

In the mean time, people in my network continued to struggle with the job market. The average time people were unemployed was beginning to stretch out beyond a year. People with more impressive backgrounds than mine were having trouble finding jobs. Companies that really needed employees weren’t hiring to minimize risk from another downturn, or were doing things like taking advantage of the downturn to replace expensive people with less expensive ones.

So after losing that job, I really came to the conclusion I had to take whatever came along, as long as it was something I could do. I started working on equity projects for startups, splitting my time between several of them. I went to meetups, and any free networking events I could find. I took a short contract doing development work. Still the bank account dwindled.

And then out of the blue, I got a call from a woman I had worked with a couple of years ago. I work really hard to stay in touch with people, but I’m definitely humble about my abilities in that area, so I was really happy that she thought enough of me to give me that call. It was perfect timing. It was a salaried job, which I haven’t had for years. I’ve always looked at contracting as just a different way to be compensated however, so I gladly took the job.

As it turns out, it’s a huge job, that I’m sure will challenge the limits of my abilities. I have confidence in my abilities, but humility about my ability to mark the boundaries of those abilities now, which I think will help me grow and meet these challenges.

And I’m sure, as they say: “More shall be revealed …”

This weekend, AT&T finally fixed my visual voice mail. I still don’t know what they did to fix it, but I’m pretty sure it’s related to a hack that I’ve been reading about which lets the phone do tethering.

Now I didn’t try this hack on my newly replaced phone, but when I asked the AT&T people about it, they said they were working on a fix on their side for a wider problem (meaning I wasn’t the only one who had gone without visual voice mail for some time).

I’m hopeful that this problem won’t recur, but I wonder if perhaps it was caused by AT&T trying to block the tethering hack. Now my phone is happy again, and I’m no longer missing calls (at least as far as I can tell).

Working visual voice mail

A couple of weeks ago, I notice that my iPhone was not receiving voice mails, and I seemed to be missing calls on occasion. In fact, I hadn’t received a voice mail since around the time I upgraded to the 3.0 firmware.

Since I use this as my primary business phone, I was a bit concerned.

I had been seeing occasional error messages about being unable to connect to the network like:

iphone network error 2

So of course I called AT&T to find out what could be wrong. The first time I called, I followed the path that took me to an Apple representative, and they had me reset the network settings (From the Settings icon, General/reset/reset network settings). After doing that, all of my voice mail from the prior month flowed through into my visual voice mail box.

In the next few days, I was told by a couple people that they had tried to call me, and I again didn’t see any voice mail. I also started seeing the odd network errors again, sometimes in my email or browser:

cell network error

So I called 611 again, and this time I talked to the AT&T  people. They walked me through resetting the network settings, recreated my voice mail box, and a number of other things. At one point, I even got the screen that asked me to setup my voice mail. But still I wasn’t getting the new voice mail messages appearing in my inbox. Finally after bouncing back over to the Apple guys, we made an appointment at the Apple store so I could have the phone checked out.

Somewhere along the line, the visual voice mail simply stopped working. Now when I hit the voicemail icon, I wouldn’t see the list of voice mails, but instead the phone would dial my voice mail:

visual voice mail dial

No matter what we tried, we couldn’t seem to get the visual voice mail to come back. We even tried restoring it as a new phone without any luck. The support people thought that perhaps this was a result of the phone hardware failure, and maybe the Apple Genius could find a fix for it.

So I waited and went to my appointment at the Apple Store Genius bar. They ran some diagnostics, asked a few questions, and determined the phone did need to be replaced. They didn’t have one in stock, so they ordered one, and told me that they’d call when it was ready.

A couple of days later, I went to the store, and they activated my new phone. Naturally the first thing I tried was going to visual voice mail, and what did I see ?

visual voice mail dial

So back home, more hours on the phone with both Apple and AT&T, now I have a case open with the AT&T network group.

To be continued ….

I was thinking about this as I drove to work this morning: what is the real business value to Oracle of buying Sun ?

It occurred to me that part of the many benefits to Oracle are the products that help them compete better with the Microsoft offerings. Could this be another in a long line of acquisitions by Larry Ellison in his quest to make Oracle a more successful company than Microsoft ?

Microsoft has owned this market for some time now, and has had some tools that Oracle has tried to compete with over the years. Microsoft had Access, which is at a surface level a database, but has over the years served much better as a front-end tool for database access. Oracle has tried to  address this over the years, first with Oracle Forms, then with JSF and ADF, and now APEX (formerly known as HtmlDb).

These tools, while extremely capable, have never had the low entry to use that has been available in the Microsoft product line, and now with the rapid introduction of Silverlight, Microsoft is threatening to dominate the RIA market.

There is tremendous buzz (hype?) in the market about the RIA competition, with both Adobe and Microsoft claiming a market penetration of over 70%. Sun has similar figures with Java, and has recently entered this market full force with JavaFX.

JFX combined with MySQL looked to have the potential for introduction of new products that would displace both the rich media and rich data driven applications that have been dominated by Flash (Flex).

With the acquisition of Sun by Oracle, it is entirely possible that a solid Flex and Silverlight competitor could emerge due to the capabilities of the Java platform for producing UI, combined with the simplification in coding provided by JavaFX. This could also give rise to an easy to use tool that could replace Access as the easiest way to build an application, by integrating the JavaFX UI capabilities with the Oracle developer tools.

The only missing piece in this puzzle for me is that focus on the end user as being capable. Oracle has great tools for developers, and they help build applications extremely easily, but they haven’t done a great job with figuring out how to bridge the gap between the technical types and the consumers. I don’t think it’s a vast chasm to cross, but they would need to focus on improving the ease of use to compete head to head with Microsoft and Adobe.

Not only does the Sun acquisition continue to strengthen the web tools that Oracle has recently improved with their WebLogic tools, expand their hold in the database market, and solidify their place in the SOA market, but it also allows them to compete better in the hottest area of competition at the moment: Rich Internet Applications.

What will Oracle do with these capabilities ? Only time will tell.

Over the years, I’ve observed that there is a common set of behaviors that is part of what makes people successful in business that I think of as the rules of service. The most successful companies actual incorporate these rules into their corporate culture.

Here they are:

Rule #1 – The customer always comes first

Rule #2 – Your network (business) is your first customer

Rule #3 – You are the most important customer in your network (business)

These are very much part of the western culture, and parts of these are taught to us as we are growing up. For me though, there were subtleties in these rules that took me years to learn, and I’m still learning to apply.

Let’s look at the rules in more detail, starting with the last one.

Rule #3 – You are the most important customer in your network

This one is a subtle part of the golden rule that I misunderstood for a long time. There is a great deal of teaching about sacrifice and serving others, which can be mistakenly incorporated into our values as putting others ahead of ourselves.

Large organizations instill self-improvement into their workers as a way to make them more valuable, and therefore make the organization more successful (e.g. – “Be all that you can be” – U.S. Army).

The problem with this approach of being completely selfless, is that we are missing out on the opportunity to give the greatest gift we have: ourselves.

What I mean by this rule, is that you need to care for yourself before you can care for others. If you don’t remember to breathe, eat, and sleep, you will have nothing to give. If you truly want to be of service, you must instead be the best that you can be.

God grants us all special gifts, our gift back to God is what we do with those gifts. By making yourself the most important customer, you make the choice to make sure your needs are met in order to share those gifts with the world. This is not being selfish, this is the truest way to be of service.

This is so eloquently expressed in the following quote by Marianne Williamson (often attributed to Nelson Mandela):

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Look at that last line again: As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

By becoming all that we can be, we liberate others to do the same, thereby improving the universe in ways we cannot imagine. We not only serve ourselves, we give others the ability to serve, and to find their true selves.

Rule #2 – Your network (business) is your first customer

As people, we need help from others in order to do most things of importance in our lives. First we became tribes, banding together in small groups to survive. Then we formed communities, which allowed for a people to begin to explore their special skills. Eventually, we formed companies, which were in essence a more specialized community: join together people with different skills in order to accomplish a common goal.

You’ll notice that I changed this rule to say “network” and placed “business” in parentheses, because I fell we’re in the midst of a return to a more community based way of interacting. People band together in a network, which allows them to accomplish things in a much broader way than simply being members of the same town or company would.

Many of the most successful corporations have incorporated this rule into how they do business. They educate their employees on the importance of treating co-workers as the most important customer.

Why do they do this ? For the same reason that you put yourself first: if the company can’t function well, they cannot serve their customers, and they will go out of business.

By understanding that the people in your network are your most important customers, you strengthen that network. By helping people in that network, you effectively serve not only that network, but all of the people served by that network.

I may have a hundred customers that I can serve one at a time. If I come up with a way to better serve those customers, I can do so one at a time. But imagine if I share that same method with my network. Now not only do I serve my hundred customers, I multiply that by serving their customers too.

From my experience this is an accelerating process: the stronger my network becomes, the more valuable it becomes to everybody in it, and the more effective we all become. Finally lessons on sharing from kindergarten really pay off !

Rule #1 – The customer always comes first

This is the one we all know and is the most obvious. It doesn’t mean that we should do whatever the customer wants at the expense of the network/company or ourselves. It means, that in order to provide a service, we need somebody to provide that service to.

You have to have a customer, and by following the rules, you will be able to serve them with your unique talents coupled with the strength, skills and support of your network. This is also a twist on the golden rule: in order to put the customer first, you have to treat them as you would treat yourself (remember rule #3?).

By helping the customer be successful, you not only help them to continue to be your customer, you also allow them to help you be more successful. Their success improves the success of your network, and helps your network’s to improve their ability to make their own customers successful.

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” – I am the Walrus, The Beatles