We all want to perform well at work and live a fulfilling life. It all gets down to these two simple needs. If we take a minute to contemplate that a bit more, those two simple needs further get down to a few simple actions. I’m writing this for those folks who work in offices at computer screens: software developers and others.
#1. Get enough good sleep
Big things start with simple habits. The heroic sagas about office super-achievers used to have it that sleep is an annoying waste of time, and people should cut down on sleep wherever possible. Turns out, sleep is vital for our well-being and performance, here’s just one article to confirm that. Let alone researches, from what I’ve personally observed, some people can sleep for 8 hours straight, while some sleep in chunks, waking up for several times per night. What matters most about sleep is that we work in offices. We are not construction workers, who are able to wake up simply by staying outside, and doing physical work. Anyone whose work involves staring at a screen and thinking will not get away with it. If your body wants to have its share of sleep in chunks, you have to attend to it. No hacks will do the trick. All our problems with health, and hence with performance, are rooted in the careless attitude to the way we sleep. The earlier in life we start taking care of our sleep, the better our chances for long-term viability at delivering good work.
#2. Re-think your commute to work
You woke up in the morning. You didn’t have enough sleep, for one reason or another. Your morning commute will then add up to the impending stress of the day. We somehow take it very lightly when our doctor says that we need to avoid stresses, and we keep on driving in congested areas, stressing ourselves out in bad traffic jams. If the commute takes more than half an hour, and this happens continually, you need to re-think your approach. Either find a way to work remotely, or at least drive to the office only several times per week. We’re doing better with letting people work remotely, looks like. Unless there’s some compelling blocker that makes you burn your life in excruciating commutes, consider staying away from them altogether. It might seem that we’re fine putting up with such things as bad commute or bad sleep. However, as we get beyond our mid 30′s, all those small stresses build up and insidiously sabotage our performance. For someone whose work is to cut wood in the forest this all is not that bad. They’d get their share of fresh air and release their stresses via muscle work. Unfortunately, we can not do that as knowledge workers. Even if we work out in the gym, the larger part of our day is spent sitting in a chair, and there’s no natural way to release this stress. Bad commutes add up to this unreleased tensions working like a delayed-action bomb that ruins us from inside.
#3. Work in comfortable office space
Our stress ball is rolling on. Office is next in the line. Is your office customized to your individual needs? If you feel that you need fresh air, and not an air conditioner, or some green plants around you, or more control with artificial lights turned on or off when you want them to, fight for it. If your office looks rather like a farm for kettle with open space and no space for privacy, run away. We are where we spend our time. Harmonious environments endow us with the ability to think clearly, decide justly and work effectively. Office space and how it is tuned to your individual needs is another major component to sustainable performance.
#4. Work in comfortable personal space
This involves interactions that we have with co-workers, whether work-related or not. We simply need to work with people we like. Besides, a comfortable personal space at work includes smooth communication flows. If we recall how many times per day we need some information to proceed with our work, smoothly, and what a roadblock to productivity it might be when we are not getting this information in time, then we need to write off those times that we spend idling and heating back up. That’s great if a software developer or a QA engineer can sink into a monk-like state meditating in front of their screens, requiring no input from anyone else. However, if your work stretches beyond solitary meditations, you’re most likely to interact with other co-workers, and it’s in your best interest to fine-tune those communication flows, especially if this is a remote collaboration. Arranging comfortable personal space at work also involves a smart approach to meetings. If you see that all those many meetings deliver a low ROI on the time spent, flag this to your co-workers.
#5. Work with comfortable tools
Count all those occasions when you have mini-bummers as your tools won’t let you do the work comfortably, keeping your flow. Are you struggling to build this dashboard that you need in this reporting software? Or retrieving a report that would show all the details about a project progress? Our performance is very much influenced by the tools that we are using to do the work. If a project management tool, or any other digital app that you use is continuously giving you hard time, fight for the tools that help you do the work.
Top 5 Non-Office Brain Killers
Cognitive Endurance Basics for Software Developers
Continuous Problem-Solving Is No Accident
Most software development companies measure productivity of teams and individuals. Those measurements are then used to rate the individual or group performance. Numbers are so nice, cozy and familiar. They make things simpler; and if someone’s productivity can be objectively rated with numbers, lucky is this person and lucky are the managers of this person. This person is lucky because the clarity of numbers backs the clarity of expectations, and if someone knows that they may get a raise if they hit a certain number of whatever, that’s great. Managers are lucky because they are spared the need of figuring out how the heck to rate people, so they can be given or refused a raise, or a promotion, or a reward. However, in some cases mapping the actual value of an individual’s productivity and contribution to numbers might be challenging, if not at all unattainable.
Let’s look into the reasons why individual productivity is measured by counting things. This habit can be traced back to material production, or to any activity to product tangible things. If a farmer picks 100 vs. 50 cabbage heads per day, just an abstract example, this is surely good. One can not let a cabbage that is ready to be harvested sit for too long out in the field; it may fell prey to some pests, etc. With cabbages it surely makes sense to move fast, if we’re concerned with harvesting solely. By the same token, a baker who runs a bakery on a busy street is more productive if she bakes more croissants. The logic is flawless: more croissants, more customers served, more profit.
With this measurement model looking so clear and simple, it’s very tempting to copy-paste this practice of “more is better” to knowledge work. The non-material production. They used to measure productivity of developers by lines of source code produced per certain amount of time. I wonder if someone still uses this metric. One smart person has something to say about it.
Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight.
Other equally poor attempts to measure productivity include: count of bugs discovered by a QA (what if this person tests the heck out of a feature, making sure it’s clean, and finds no bugs?); the count of words in a written piece, or the count of graphic icons designed per day. These are abstract examples, and, thank God, it looks like most of the software development companies moved away from those naive metrics. The less is more adage is grasped better now, when we seem to live in the age of super-abundance of everything (which doesn’t save us from the chronic shortage of value).
That’s the word. Value. How much shippable, valuable, finished work has this person done? Working many hours is far from being equal to super productivity and, after a certain point, indicates inefficiency. What I call “productive” is when one uses time in the office wisely, rather than works around the clock. Then, which contribution is this person making to the group? What does he or she do to improve the workflow, or to keep the integrity of the team? Naturally, being a group contributor means that this person is biting some bits off of their individual contribution. What if this person contributes at a larger scope, beyond their core skill? Then, how to factor in the subtracted individual performance when measuring productivity?
With these intricate nuances, I wonder if someone is ever able to quantify them and use it as a numerical measure of productivity. Surely, the kingdom of tests and grades has its doors always open, as it attends to the needs of busy managers looking for fast and clear ways to rate a person’s performance. But, as often is the case, the flip side of fast is slow. Individuals concerned with the team’s success are the keepers, and if a numerical grade fails to code the value of this person correctly, they might be demotivated. We all are human, and managers are human as well (in case someone ever doubted that). They want to rate the performance of teams and individuals faster, especially if a company is large. Better safe than sorry, stakeholders better make sure they can trust the scoring methods. Otherwise, it would make more sense to stick to the old-school ways: observe people, what they do, and see if this brings value to the company. We know that it sometimes takes years for judges to be ready with their rulings. It might take what appears to be an eternity for a snail to figure out what’s inside this bubble. A rainbow or gas stains? But the time spent on deciding is well worth it.
Image credits: Vyacheslav Mischenko
Why Fast Is Slow
How Communication Factors In To Production
When Intensity Pays Off
… no matter if it’s agile, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, lean, XP or some mix of these methodologies.
Project managers want to track progress in any software development project, small or large. Sometimes they want to track progress not only in one, but in many projects at a time, and they want to be able to do this fast and conveniently. A timeline is a a visual management tool that helps accomplish this. Let’s take a closer look in which way.
Regardless of the software development methodology used, projects are meant to be completed. Always. However, at times project managers feel tied to by-the-book canons of Kanban (which is viewed by many as the best visual management system there is, but allows no time-boxing), or of Scrum (which has time-boxed iterations and releases but falls short with the visual part). What if a project manager wants to get the best both of Kanban, as a visual board, and of Scrum? Obviously, if projects have deadlines, one can not live by the classical pull and flow formula of Kanban only.
For progress tracking, Scrum allows only one visual report, called the burn down chart. When we want to keep an eye only on one project, such a report would probably be enough:
However, if many projects need a watchful eye of this one person, squeezing many burn down charts on one screen will not make the job any easier. Imagine how hard it would be to make sense of those charts arranged in a grid-like fashion. A project manager will likely want to see how projects correlate with each other, as it might be that the timing in one project affects the other projects. In this case, it would be sensible to drift away from the prescribed tool set of Scrum, and venture into the unknown land, fearlessly mixing sense of time (Scrum) with a neat visual representation (Kanban). That’s how this stylized mix looks as a timeline view for 2 projects (click to enlarge):
Work items in several projects on a timeline in Targetprocess 3
Such a visualization will fit a dozen projects into one screen, showing a project manager how all of them correlate with each other. This timeline has something more in store, than merely registering projects’ health in terms of time. Unlike in the burn down chart, one will be able to zoom in on any work item in any project and see what’s going on. This timeline bears a certain resemblance to Kanban board, because bugs, user stories and features are presented as cards stretched over time. At the same time, as in Scrum, the forecast will update depending on velocity (if one needs it done that way), and the timeline will show the latest status. If a project manager is in charge of several teams, that do several projects, this timeline will show when one can expect these projects to be completed:
A teams/projects timeline in Targetprocess3
A yet another snapshot of tracking progress with timeline. Here we have Features and User Stories (as in Scrum):
User Stories inside Features on a timeline in Targetprocess 3
When someone pledges allegiance to Scrum, timelines offer a way to track progress with many iterations. Same for many releases, as opposed to clicking through single release and iteration plans one by one.
Tracking progress/status for several iterations on a timeline in Targetprocess 3
As we can see, it pays off when we forget about practices that seem to be rigidly prescribed by a methodology. A methodology is nothing, unless it works for our purposes, and helps us do the work better and faster. These timelines can not be, scholastically, classified as belonging solely to Scrum as a method, or to Kanban. While classical Scrum only offers burn down charts for progress tracking, this is not enough when people work with many projects and want to keep their hand on the pulse of all of them. Classical Kanban, in its turn, allows no time tracking as a methodology (and as a visual board). I’m not even sure if what they call “Scrumban” would accommodate this representation with timelines. Frankly, I don’t care how it’s called. I only care if it works for project managers or product owners, or any other folks in charge of projects, and helps them do their work well. And I wish that people were more of a freethinkers, unpinning themselves from the methodology labels.
Care to take a look where one can afford being a freethinker and still work as a project manager? With no strings attached to Kanban, or Scrum, sticking only to common sense and convenience of work? It’s here.
How Visualize: Board, List or Timeline?
Have you ever tried to act as a change agent in your company, and bumped into obstacles that seemed to be blocking the change? There’s no such software development organization in the world that allows no space for some sort of adjustment. Whether you hit a dead end as a change catalyst, or succeed will mostly depend on the following:
If the change you have in mind is trending — agile adoption can be a good example — then you’re lucky. One will have to apply little effort, because agile has gone mainstream, and there’s lots of information out there as to why and how agile is supposed to be good for a company. In this case, your intrinsic motivation as a change agent syncs with the extrinsic sweeping wave. Not only your organization, but many others will find it easy to jump on the same bandwagon. The change will then happen smoothly as in a domino effect, started by one easy move of a finger. With each new organization adopting agile, the chain extends to embrace more and more companies.
The second scenario for driving change is quite the opposite one. It might be related to a not that obvious trend, but you somehow feel that the way stakeholders treat this thing is in need of a major overhaul. This scenario involves repeating it over and over again that the product that your company develops needs to have a more intuitive user interface. You’d run into inertia as the stakeholders would probably say that all is fine with the user interface, because customers seem to be content with what they have, and revamping “the face” of the software involves some heavy changes in the code, etc. Unless you have some compelling proof that current customers and prospective clients find the user interface confusing, or even walk away, the effort required to boost the change in the attitude by pushing it down the pipe would be akin to that of a weightlifter doing 3 consecutive clean&jerk attempts.
The third scenario for driving change is not as easy, as scenario 1, and not as super-taxing, as scenario 2. It’s more related to an innovative change. Say, you’re still defending a difficult case, such as improving user experience in enterprise software. There’s no domino effect, and no “join the others” feel in the air. What can one do to trigger this change? How to convince the executives that the time will come when the current clients will not be happy with the bulky UI? The incentive for change in this case should be supported by good old research and analysis methods. Instead of tearing your muscles as with weightlifting (or, rather, breaking your tongue), one has to turn on the head and do a research, taking advantage of the big data that is, hopefully, available in any company, to make the need for a change appear compelling. If a hollow call to action is rendered into the language of pragmatism, the actual “raw muscle” effort of arguing wouldn’t take more than that of this little girl who uses the power of her opponent to win.
Back to the Future of Agile Software Development
The Origins of Big Data Trend
What is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the words: enterprise software? Most likely it’s something bulky, cumbersome, weighty, hard to use, and something that alludes to the drudgery of a job where software seems to block our productive flow, as opposed to fostering it. You might be able to compare it to being in the middle of some fun activity, such as hanging out with a new love interest, and suddenly your ex walks in and throws a stern look your way, making the smile slowly slip away from your face.
Dull user interfaces (UIs) have lost their standings to consumer and entertainment apps that are slick, streamlined and provide fresh content at the swipe of a finger; but enterprise software will not surrender. At times it even seems that these dinosaur-like UIs will never disappear, begging the question: what will finally make them extinct?
Mockery aside, much talk has been going on for some time about how uncomfortable UIs of enterprise software are, and how vendors should start producing more personable UIs for it. No “should” in this world will turn into action, unless there’s some propelling momentum that will make it happen, and that’s exactly why we need to make these improvements.
If we take an X-ray look into the heart of the matter, why do we need a better UX? Is it for pleasure, aesthetic enjoyment, or for the feel of comfort and continuous flow? What is the ultimate element that will dictate development of a better UX?
This primary incentive is called the need for speed. We’re moving away from the era of decade-long projects and yearlong rollouts of IT infrastructures, with obnoxious RFP-based adoptions pushed down the pipe from the top of an organization. Companies that use enterprise software want it to be flexible, adaptable and quick to update, in tune with fast-changing social, technology and business trends. Enterprise software vendors will inevitably have to address these needs and deliver a better UX, making user action flow easier and more intuitive, as well as shortening the times required to retrieve all kinds of reports from the enterprise Big Data.
Focus on visualization would be the essential prerequisite for this “accelerated” UX. The enterprise software of 2014 and beyond has no room for slowness, and UX in enterprise applications is a part of a bigger picture involving many facets. In a nutshell, feedback-based development is turning mainstream for enterprise companies, who demand faster rollouts, faster scalability, faster adoption and ease-of-use. There’s no time for pompous presentations or heavily loaded trainings, where learning how to use a software is similar to musing over scholastic text.
If there’s any example of a positive UX development in the enterprise world that would be Google, of course, with their cloud services that have always offered a smooth UX. Another example that comes to my mind is Salesforce. They make a genuine effort to make UX better for their end-users. They improved their contextual help, making it easier to find answers to “how to do what” questions, and did a face-lift to the UI. Considering the fact that Salesforce is the baby of the 90’s, it’s become generally cleaner and easier-to-use, both for people who enter the sales data, and for the executives who work with the reports generated from this data.
Now, if Google and Salesforce are marching ahead as the pioneers of this enterprise UX movement, how about the mammoth companies? What is the propelling momentum that would finally deliver a slick UX to an average enterprise software user, be it ERP, supply chain management, or project portfolio management?
Enterprise startups are the fireballs to ignite these changes. An enterprise start-up is a company that would create a new generation of easy to adopt, easy to roll out, and easy to use enterprise software, to help organizations get the most of their Big Data, from an analytical perspective, and support adjustments to daily operations, fast. In the mid-2000’s we witnessed an outburst of start-ups that bent over backwards to entertain the hell out of everyone. Start-ups at that time did photo sharing, social sharing, or gamification. But we only have so many resources and time for entertainment.
Some people do not like to overshare, especially in the workplace. Teenagers and young people spend a lot of time with entertainment apps, but they’re not the ones who spend money on software. What’s more relevant for software providers are the serious companies who are ready to pay for new, nice, crisp, usable and fast enterprise products. With the security and reliability of cloud improving, startups would be better off if they apply the power of their genius not to some viral dating app but to a software that would help people do work faster and with comfort.
It may take years but fresh start-ups will shift the paradigm in enterprise UX, emerging as the competitive power to old-school companies, so reluctant to weed their overgrown gardens. It reminds me of the Newton’s first law of motion: “An object at rest stays at rest… unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” In the case of enterprise UX, this unbalanced force — read, new technology (cloud and mobile) + changing business and social environment (need for speed) — requires start-ups to champion this change. The ball is already rolling.
It won’t help to bombard established enterprise software companies with calls to update their UX and make it more usable. In most cases, they would weigh the costs of a UX face-lift vs. gains from new business and/or keeping old clients, and decide against it. Things will change as this new unbalanced force, the enterprise start-ups, come into play. The conservatives would then have to reckon with them, and either re-invent their identity, steering the updates needed for their software (which is not an easy thing to do), or step out of the game.
*This piece was featured in @Wired on March 28, 2014
Do You Speak Human, Software?
The Paradigm of Project Management Tools
Why People Don’t Understand How to Use Your Software
Help People Understand How to Use Your Software
Having work visualized is the most obvious benefit of using Kanban boards for project management. Nothing else captures so well what a team is doing , as the work is retrieved from the hidden virtual closets of our minds (or, rather, databases), and externalized on a Kanban board. Especially if this board can be seen not only on a desktop computer but on a large wall-mounted screen. The more our office environment is saturated with all kinds of visual reminders, subtly incorporated in the surroundings, Kanban board being one of such reminders, the more likely we are to keep focus on our work and to perform better.
I don’t want to keep dwelling on how great Kanban is, though. I’d rather look into some of the reasons why we at times feel that something is wrong with the electronic Kanban board. Putting it in words will help see how to tune this “digital equipment” to our particular needs.
I have soo many cards on the Kanban board.. How do I make sense of all of them?
This feeling will most likely beget companies that experience rapid growth from 10 to 20 to 50 people and beyond, and need to work with more and more cards in their Kanban boards. All is fine, until your backlog and work in progress is covered by 50-70, or 100 cards at most. Having any more cards shown on a board in a snapshot would be a no-no. The clogged board space rather hinders your work, than facilitates it. What would the solution be, then? Your Kanban board needs to be able to zoom in/out, with the ability to collapse cards in any given state, as on the screen below:
I need to visualize milestones. My Kanban board does not do that :(
This could be a real showstopper. While we appreciate the visual flow that Kanban provides, we are not working in car production, like Toyota. They didn’t have this need to pay attention to time. Assembly line process goes in circles. In software production, though, projects are time-sensitive in 99% cases. It’s quite rare, if not totally utopian, for a company to operate without looking at their watch. The clock is ticking, and if a Kanban board has no way of showing “what time is it?” for a project, this could be a huge source of discomfort. Ideally, we want our Kanban both to keep looking like a board and to convey the sense of time. Like that:
I want my Kanban board updated real-time on any screen in the world that has it open!
This is not a crazy perk. Some companies work with several distributed teams. Even teams located in one office building and in different rooms need such live updates to track their work items real-time. If you are not looking to clear a mess with some un-synced updates (hardly you are), you will want your Kanban board to show the updates like this:
I’ve covered just 3 common cases in this write-up. Any further look into the “what’s wrongs” will depend on what you need to see, to do your work, in your company.
Look into the peephole on the right, if you want to explore how 99% of all possible Kanban “what’s wrongs” can be successfully tackled in a visual project management tool.
Stuck with Kanban? Consider Multiban
Our Evolution of Visual Process Management
Kanban as Multiban?
Today is a great day to share some killer tips on how to get the best out of one’s creative potential. These tips would be of special help to digital creative individuals, that is, to anyone, who thinks for a living as they look at a screen. So, whether you are a graphic artist struggling for that elusive touch that would make a corporate identity unique, or a UX designer who wants to put together an intuitive interface, or a product owner looking to figure out what goes next in a product, or a project manager looking to facilitate a team’s performance, or a software developer crafting a piece of code, look no further. This article is your philosopher’s stone for achieving top results.
So, friends, lend me your ears. To turn on this magical power of brilliant insights, one just needs to do these three simple things day in day out.
1. Wherever possible, spend the bulk of your most productive time, preferably in the morning, when your brain is fresh, doing a research online as to how others have done this thing that you’re working on at the moment. If you’re a graphic artist, make sure you not only dig out all possible images or ideas that can be replicated, but remember to throw all those links with images at the other fellow designers in your team. Not only will this help
strangle their creative edge ensure that all the industry-accepted standards are followed, but they won’t need to spend any more effort on inventing original concepts. Leave no stone unturned. You need to chase each and every clue. For strategic decisions, make the list of step-by-step routines copied from how others addressed the same challenge. You will never do anything valuable if you fail to follow the proven routines that other people have followed many times before.
2. The second magic success ingredient is to expose the drafts of your work, or to have your incentives for strategic decisions
bullied discussed by as many people as one can possibly get. Facebook is an ideal space for that. Remember to be consistent in sharing the in-progress sketches or ideas with strangers, who don’t know you personally and who are completely unaware of the particular context you’re working in. They’d shoot their comments, wasting your time making their invaluable contribution to shaping up this great idea, or a graphic, or a piece of code you’re currently working on. Consistency is the key here. The more exhausted you get filtering out the rare grains of sensibility from the avalanche of clueless comments, the closer you’re to what you’re looking for. The logic here would be the same as on the picture below. One is more likely to build a snowman with plenty of snow, picking out those special unretarded pieces with care.
3. Finally, there goes the trickiest part. Once you’ve let out your finished and polished brainchild to the outer world, work to secure the right attitude to external criticism within yourself. You absolutely need to master the skill of proving your worth based on each and every comment received from your network of personal and professional contacts. The smartest way to accomplish this would be to build a model that would transform the bites of criticism to a numeric value. You’d need to set a certain plank for yourself with this model. Once this value gets below this plank, you need to work harder on the points 1) and 2).
Repeat this cycle forever, and you will sleep serenely, like a baby, enjoying the bliss of reaping harvest from all your hard work.
2 Approaches to Focus In Knowledge Work
How Communication Factors In To Production
Non-Judgmental Communication for Agile Teams
Are You a Copycat?
Resuming the DataViz 101 series started last year, I want to revisit some basics for data visualization, showing when we get value from having numbers visualized, and when such a visualization is inappropriate. One of the main reasons that data visualization exists at all — be it smooth infographics, or slick project reports — is the fact that it saves us time needed to digest some quantitative information, i.e. the information that has numbers in it. Visuals present numbers in an appealing way, making them easier to read. Sometimes, however, they use visualized numbers with no substantial ground. If no meaning is ingrained into the graphical cuteness, a visual would make no sense. Some other technique for information rendering has to be used then, such as a text.
Take a look at one such case where numbers pretend to be visualized with some meaning, while actually failing to provide real value to people who look at them.
One can see this pattern with numbers highlighted quite often on web-sites for conferences or gatherings. Such a visual is supposed, presumably, to convince potential attendees that this conference holds some value for them. However, I don’t see how it will help decide if a conference is worth attending or not. There’s no universal converter that would work for each and every individual, and translate those hours of keynotes, workshops, trainings, and the count of speakers into a meaningful answer to one question: “Will I learn something new and useful for me personally at this conference?” How are these flat numbers capable to attend to the unique knowledge landscape of any given individual? No way, they can’t do it. Those people who are looking to decide for themselves if a conference is worth attending or not, might as well skip this “hippish” part with meaningless numbers, and proceed straight on to the text piece about the speakers, keynotes, workshops and training. Bad news for someone who did this visual: they’ve wasted both their time, and the time of the site visitors.
Here’s the other example that shows how visualized numbers can help in project management:
This is a sparkline report, and while it includes numbers that seem to hold no meaning to an external observer, an insider who looks at the graph is likely to know the project context: how user stories and bugs are sized in general, how much effort does it take to have them completed, and how these numbers can be rendered into a diagnosis report on the project health. Compare the sparkline graph and this text: “This report covers the last 16 weeks. Designers had their backlog full with 13 user stories in the first week, with fewer and fewer new stories added in the next weeks. They completed 3 stories, and had 2 more added to their backlog in the current week”. Of course, the sparkline renders this info in a more compact and time-saving way.
As a summary, before we hurry to create a visual report, or an infographic with numbers, we need to consider if a user or a reader will get the info they want fast from this visual. Some information can be rendered best as a piece of text, like in this first example from a web-site of a conference. Words would have taken readers to the core of the matter faster. In the second example, it’s the other way round. It would take more time to convey the same information in words.
There’s one totally non-technical skill that is indispensable in the life of any IT organization, at all levels. It is a great personal asset, likewise. A keen observer can use it as an accurate indicator of an individual’s professional intelligence. This skill is called the art of asking good questions.
We ask questions any time when we’re involved in an activity that requires input and knowledge of many people, at all kinds of meetings. Stakeholders, product owners, UX designers, developers, QA engineers, marketeers — all of them have to master this skill to be able to make their best contribution to the success of the whole company. I’m talking about a company that welcomes input from all team members. Unfortunately, more often than not, little attention is paid to the quality of the questions that people ask during discussions. As a consequence of such loose attitude, hundreds of hours are wasted as the group’s focus shifts to irrelevant things.
Usually, it can be felt on some gut level, if a question is spot-on, or if it’s pointless. Someone might ask a question with a conscious (or unconscious) intention to show off to the others how smart they are, and their question wouldn’t help at all to get to the core of the problem at hand. Or, one can see that this person lacks experience, required to solve this problem, as their questions might seem naive to someone who is competent in the subject discussed. It might make sense, then, to let this person gain more experience, prior to taking part in the group’s discussion. Or, it could be that someone with a different outlook asks a question, that looks clueless to the group involved in a discussion, but this question would somehow invoke a fresh perspective, helping this group come up with a solution eventually.
One can compose many volumes trying to cover all possible kinds of questions, and mapping them with professional skills, personal qualities and organizational contexts. I will only single out these two fundamental faults:
- Asking “how to” questions prior to “what for” questions. This is the surest indicator of a wrong focus. Here’s an example of such a question: “How to adopt… [agile, Kanban, Lean, XP, Scrum, ..] in our organization?” If a stakeholder asks this question and has a vague idea of the “what for” part, the “how to” question shifts focus further away from the heart of the matter. Or, “how to estimate in story points?” Again, what for? Actually, if someone in a team, or the whole team, is asking such a question, this is a sign that they haven’t done their homework with the “what for?” part. If a team feels the genuine need to estimate in story points, the “what for” has already been processed, producing an array of possible answers to the “how to” part. These answers would stem from the unique experience and production dynamics of this particular team; and there’s no one finite answer, as each of the possible options would have to be tested “live” to see if they work.
- Asking “what if” questions that involve some unrealistic or irrelevant scenarios. For example: “What if we fail to adopt Kanban this year”? This question has the double dose of “wrong” in it, because instead of an answer it generates 3 more questions: Who says we need to adopt Kanban? Why this year? What is our definition of “fail”? Such a question is the biggest time waster. Hypothetical questions might only have some value, a rather questionable one, in talk shows or in celebrity interviews. If a question asked at a group meeting or discussion triggers a chain of even more questions, that make no sense in the context of the current discussion, this question can be considered a waste.
The same logic can be used to hone this very art of asking questions. If someone understands the “what for” (I need to be able to ask good questions, what for?), the “how to ask good questions” part will naturally take care of itself. With time. It only takes learning by experience.
This world has always been in need of role models. Heroes that we want to look up to striving to follow their path, their principles and ethos (if we mean business in this life, of course). For quite many years, tech entrepreneurs and IT start-up founders worship one iConic hero wrapped in myths and adoration, with zealots standing in lines any time a new iPhone is out; and it seems they’d tear apart anyone who dares not to like Apple products. As great and outstanding an achiever and innovator as Steve Jobs is, his life was far from being a glossy success story, judging by what people say and write. There’s something tragic about him, a Prometheus-like charisma, as if he’s torn his heart out of himself, lightning people’s way with a technology wonder, and then perished, chained to the rocks of self-oblivion.
May God bless Steve Jobs’ memory and let him rest in peace. There’s this other guy who looks rather laid back, than tragic, and who goes on serving the humankind. Being born same year as Jobs, 1955, he still lives and does things that reach far beyond designing devices, or making a religion out of them. Quoting from a recent Gates’ interview to the Rolling Stone magazine:
At 58, Bill Gates is not only the richest man in the world, with a fortune that now exceeds $76 billion, but he may also be the most optimistic. In his view, the world is a giant operating system that just needs to be debugged. .. Huge systems, whether it’s Windows 8, global poverty or climate change, can be improved if you have the right tools and the right skills. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation .. is like a giant startup whose target market is human civilization.
I am old enough to have witnessed how Microsoft evolved in the 90′s, remembering this buzz about monopolism, and the image painted out of Bill Gates as a ruthless shark.
This dynamics changed closer to the mid 2000′s. Gates was moved backstage, as if a by a scheduled scenery swap in a theater play, and Jobs came into spotlight. There’s a rush of love for Apple, people adore iPhones, and Steve acquires his ardent fanbase. He drives the Apple empire with his spirit to stand out, to leave his technological footprint in this world, and as a result he burns himself out and falls prey to cancer. We’ve also witnessed the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, but I’m deliberately not letting Mark in to the super-heroes pantheon for one obvious reason: he’s only 29, and his success is yet to stand the test of time. Although, I’d say humanity would hardly benefit too much, if at all, from Facebook and face recognition technologies (maybe security services will). Let’s see what happens to Mark as he lives up to the age of 45, at least.
Back to Jobs and Gates. They say: “The best revenge is a life well-lived”. We’re not talking about a revenge here, rather about a wise path to live this life to the fullest, as a tech, and then global entrepreneur, and to have a broad outlook on the world, going beyond the realm of digital devices and designs. Is it wise to deify a person who lost his fight to stresses, and sacrificed himself to the altar of all things “I”? Probably, there’s no finite answer to this question. It might be a matter of personal preference: some people feel more affinity with tragic heroes, who light up grey landscapes brightly and then fade away; some people appreciate the steady path of living and exploring, managing to care of themselves in such a way, so as to have as many years in this life as it can get, because more years bring more opportunities to serve the others.
There, I nailed it. Here’s the main difference between our super-heroes. Looks like Steve Jobs’ goal was to leave his footprint and be remembered for that. Bill Gates, on the contrary, seems to be more service-oriented in the way of humility. At least, the initiatives that he supports are a proof for that. Speaking of footprints, one of the projects that Bill Gates funds is a zero-CO2 emissions research, something that is very unlikely to be financed by a private or a state corporation.
All things considered, if we were to come up with the ultimate role model for aspiring tech entrepreneurs, whom would we choose now: Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?
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