Hustle: How to Get Things Done

In Empire Records, Liv Tyler’s character is this seemingly perfect human who is a straight A student, cool, works in a record store, and gets a lot of things done. When her friend comes to pick her up for their shift at the store she’s got fresh-baked cupcakes and her friend marvels at her productivity: her answer is that there are 24 useable hours in a day. (Sure, later on we find out she’s been on amphetamines but we all know someone like this who isn’t. Or probably isn’t.)

Increased productivity is an economic expectation (and/or desire) for a given population but it’s also an expectation we put on ourselves, and our kids, coworkers, volunteers, etc. The “always busy” culture celebrates the hyper-productive person who, when you ask them how their day was, will inevitably reply “busy”.

In my career (which sounds really great as a tag for a series of only vaguely tethered job choices) I have developed a set of practices to live in that world and get a lot of things done. While it’s true that there’s no such thing as multitasking you can learn to recover from switched contexts faster, when to shove the ball into someone else’s court, and how to pursue the answers you need (to unblock your course of action) doggedly.

Getting Someone to Respond

Most offices work in an email-enriched environment (maybe too enriched) for primary communication.  Some have Slack or Teams as an augment or replacement. Then there’s meetings and conference calls.  Within these, there’s usually the need to either disseminate information and the need to acquire information. Getting someone to respond is the need to acquire information: either to get them to acknowledge a given topic or to provide a missing piece of data so you can go about your day. Example: I need to know if there already exists a security protocol/practice on a system I’m thinking about using. I’ve read the provided documentation* and still don’t have an answer.  At this point I reach out to the name responsible for the documentation (or the name responsible for the product, or indeed anyone I can find related to it) and send an email or Slack@. When the inevitable non-response occurs (email is good for that), I set a meeting.

Why?

Because people hate meetings. It’s a massive disruption, they’re stuck on the phone or in a conference room when they could be doing something else, and it means they’ll have to (gasp) talk to you in real time.  The reason why texting has taken off and voicemail is dead is because, for the most part, people don’t actually want to interact with you unless they have some social basis for it.  By creating a meeting and pushing the point it gives them one of three options:

  1. To unblock you by responding to the meeting request/your original email and giving you the data you need or some other poor sop to go after.
  2. To actually meet with you, in which case you get not only the answers you’re after but you can pelt them with more questions.
  3. To ignore your meeting request.

For that last: it does happen, but rarely.  When it does, and *if you’re truly blocked*, you request a meeting with their lead.  At some point up the chain, meeting requests and emails can’t afford to be ignored.  This is a somewhat nuclear option, so use sparingly.  You can also branch out and forward the meeting/email to others in the same group/product.

Carving out Time

This may seem silly, but actually carving out time on your calendar (“booking yourself”, as it were) will make sure you have the unblocked time you need to get whatever-it-is done, and that you don’t accidentally overlap incompatible things.  I can clear out my email while dinner is in the oven, and I can go for a run on the treadmill while listening to a podcast, but I can’t clear out email while listening to a podcast (because the brain gets confused). Some folks use this to actually make sure they remember to eat (e.g., “lunch” as a 30-minute block) and some folks do this so they can catch up on training or get focus time to diagram something out. Bottom line: book your time, because if you don’t someone else will.

Also, this includes personal stuff: I have calendar time carved out for housecleaning, for laundry, for grocery shopping, for trimming the kitten’s nails, for blood donation, etc. It keeps me straight. Sure, I could try to keep it all in my head, and I used to try to do that.  In 10th grade I double booked a friends’ house sleepover (super-rare for me to get to do those back then) and a babysitting job.  I was devastated because I had to do the job (you do what you say you’re going to do. Period.)  Keeping it written down reduces unpleasant double bookings.

Finally: carve out time to do nothing.

That’s right. Do nothing. Give yourself a night a week if you can afford it. Block it off so it can’t be consumed by other things (unless you really want it to).

Prioritize your Backlog

In the Hyper-productive Expectation World, you will always have more to do that can be done. Always. There’s not enough caffeine, amphetamines, or hours to accommodate everything.  You can either ruthlessly trim things (which is very effective but requires a strong will to say “No” sometimes) or you can prioritize things (which means you still have them on your list, they’re just much farther down).  Look at the Volume of Stuff, and figure out which are most important to least.  Some things will be of related importance (you can’t do A until you do B, but A is really important, so get B done now) and some will be compatible or a two-birds-one-stone situation (I can walk at an incline on the treadmill and read that latest set of whitepapers). I recommend having prioritized lists for Work and Non-Work (and if you have other commitments — PTA, Scouts, Church, Nonprofit, Clubs, etc.– prioritize within those).

Use Technology To Help You

Use your calendar and reminders. Use a list/task tracking app. Use OneNote. Use the alarm on your phone. Use sticky notes. Use whatever works for you to remind you if/when you need to do stuff and what it is.  For example, we have a running One Note grocery list broken out by the stores we use (because Trader Joes doesn’t have all the things and Costco doesn’t either). We update it through the week.  I have an Outlook task-tracking list of the things that are most important for a given week. My friends use a Trello board to organize household responsibilities and projects.  Another friend uses their inbox to prioritize.

The thing to determine here is what set of technologies work *for you*, because some folks like to leverage their mobile for keeping their brains straight and some people prefer tactile things like sticky notes and highlighters.  There’s no one *right* way, just the way that works for you.  You may have to try a few things before you hit on the right combination.

Eat Your Frogs First

In any prioritized list of things to do, there’s the thing you don’t really want to do but have to do.  Maybe it’s the cat-pan change out. Maybe it’s reorganizing under the bathroom sink.  Maybe it’s collecting all of the papers for your tax return. Maybe it’s going line by line through an excel spreadsheet until you find that the issue with line 943 is in fact that the value that should be a decimal was in fact a text and it broke your import. You know, that thing.

Do that thing first if faced with it and another 3 things of the same priority. You’ll get it out of the way, the other things will feel (and be) easier, and you’ll feel all kinds of virtuous.

Wash your hands when you’re done, though.

 

An Illustration of Live Site Practice, Featuring My Eyeballs

Congratulations to me, as I’ve got a new job, and I’m in a new team here at the ‘soft. Specifically, I’m in Azure, in the Internet of Things space, working on a Thing. I can’t talk about the Thing. Some day I will talk about the Thing. But not now.

This means I’m back on a live product (or a product that will be a live product, it’s all very complicated) and that means I am on a Live Site team and I’m pretty happy about that. I enjoy the Live Site process because it’s basically enforcing a culture of learning from mistakes.

What is Live Site Practice

Generally speaking, Live Site means that your site is… live. Meaning when something goes wrong (and there are varying levels of wrong to Wrong to WRONG to WRONG!!!) you have a person responsible to fix it, you have expectations of how quickly it gets fixed, you put a plan in place to make sure it never happens again and monitoring to catch it when it inevitably does. Live Site incidents can be singular (this one experience happened this one time) or multitudinous (cascading incidents, parallel problems, etc.) or chronic (a liberal application of the philosophy of Live Site could categorize a series of data breaches or questionable data sharing practices by a given company, for example, as a very large Live Site Incident).

Measuring the Live Site Response

There are four major ways to measure the response to a Live Site Incident. These are: Time to Detect (how long it took you to figure out something is wrong from the time something actually went wrong), Time to Engage (how long it took you to start trying to fix it from the time it was detected), Time to Mitigate (how long before the customer stopped having the negative experience), and Time to Resolve (how long before the actual problem was fixed).

General prudence means I don’t illustrate this with an Actual Thing From Work because I like my job and I want to keep it, so I’ll use a recent personal experience to illustrate.

At about 8am on August 25th I went to the gym and my contacts clouded over. It was annoying so when I got home I took them out and put them in a fresh solution/case and went about my day in glasses.  At night we had friends to dinner so I wore my contacts with no trouble. At about 9am on August 26th I went to the gym and my contacts clouded over. It wasn’t horrible, just annoying, and so when I got home I took them out and put them in a fresh solution/fresh case and ran around with my glasses.  No problem.

  • By 4pm that afternoon my eyes were itching. Because we’d had smoke issues lately coming in from the Canada and Eastern Washington fires, I figured my eyes had got irritated from that, and put some drops in.
  • By 5pm my eyes were uncontrollably watering and itchy.
  • By 8pm I had to stop watching Aliens, one of my very favorite movies, because the following hurt: opening my eyes, closing my eyes, and having my eyes closed. Thinking that eye irritations usually resolve themselves with a good night’s sleep (hello, morning eye crud) I went to bed (yes, at 8pm). The software equivalent of this is turning the machine off and turning it on again.
  • By 10:30pm I woke from a dead sleep feeling like someone was stabbing me in my eyeballs and asked my husband to drive me to the ER.
  • By 11pm they had put numbing drops in my eyes. Ensuing investigation showed my corneas had all kinds of pitting all over them and possibly dual infection in both eyes.
  • By 12:30pm they discharged me with a Percocet (to help me sleep and ignore the pain), antibiotics (for my eyes) and an instruction to see an eye doctor the next day.
  • By 10:30am the next day the eye doctor confirmed the infection, noted some abrasions, and said I’d self-heal in about five days.

Time to Detect

This one is tricky, because on one hand you can say I “detected” it at 9am when my contacts clouded over… but on which day? As nothing hurt and I wasn’t inconvenienced and I carried on with my day.  So I’ll say I detected it at 4pm.  But it’s likely the problem actually started at 9am on the Saturday, so my Time to Detect was 31 hours.

Time to Engage

Again, it’s not a clear line (and I’ll point out these things are hashed over in the Live Site world a lot as well). I started “engaging” with eye drops at 4pm. I didn’t request professional help though until 10:30pm when it got really bad. I’m calling it 6.5 hours (4pm-10:30pm).

Time to Mitigate

Mitigation is all about the customer’s perspective. How long from the time the problem started actually happening (and the customer was inconvenienced) to the time it got fixed from the customer’s perspective. For me, that’s from 4pm (eyes watering) to 11pm when I got my first numbing drops. Seven hours. If you want to be really specific, my eyes had stopped hurting mostly by the next day, *without* numbing drops, so a more conservative mitigation time would be from 4pm Sunday to 10:30am Monday – 18.5 hours.

Time to Resolve

Resolution is about the actual problem being fixed (perspective or otherwise). In this case, five days from Monday the 27th, or September 1st. Time to Resolve: a little over six days.  As part of resolution I had to throw out all open saline/lens solution containers, contact lenses, etc.  As a “customer” of this experience I also took the added step of “re-architecting” my framework: I went and got a different brand of contact lenses (that change out more frequently), and started wearing my glasses more often.

Measuring the Impact

Money

The Emergency Room is not cheap, although by comparative standards I got off easy. My bill, after insurance, was roughly $700 (not including the follow-up eye doctor visits, new contact lenses, replaced makeup, etc.).  The bill sent to the insurance company was roughly 3 times that amount.

Time

Money isn’t everything, and time is more precious: I lost about 4 hours’ sleep, I lost 6 hours’ quality time with my husband and a favorite movie. I lost another 2 hours or so to the ER and another 2 to/from the eye doctor.

Peripheral Impacts

I had to work from home on that Monday, and that meant even though it was my last week with my old team they didn’t have me right there to help with my transition; that’s 4 people impacted. My husband had to take time from his evening and next day to take me to appointments, which he was super supportive of and insisted upon, but it also meant he couldn’t do whatever it is he should have been doing during those hours.  Rarely is it just one customer who is impacted in Live Site.

Post Mortem

Yes, post-mortem means “after death”, and no one died. In the Live Site world, no one dies. (Well, we hope no one dies). The Post Mortem is when you look over what and how it happened, figure out how to keep it from happening again, and figure out how to detect if it does.

What Happened – also known as the Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is the review of what instigated the problem. In this case, what happened was that I somehow (?) got either smoke between my contact lenses and cornea, creating a corneal abrasion that then lead to dual infection, OR the I got an infection, which led to corneal abrasion. The experts weren’t really worried about which came first, and if I had wanted to spend lab money to dig into which came first, I don’t know that they would have been able to figure that out. It is, in fact, a moot point.  If it was smoke from the environment, that’s how that could have happened. Or it could be infection from saline solution, eye rubbing, random bacteria, etcetera.  It could have been from contact lens over-use. If they would have been able to tell me definitively the root cause that would be great, because it would impact my next two steps, but rarely do you get a clean root cause.

How to Keep it from Happening Again

As we read up above, I trashed all of my eye-based items (including, incidentally, my mascara, every one of my eyeliners, etc.).  I washed all of my makeup brushes and sterilized them. I got a new brand of contact lens that is changed out more frequently.  I got new glasses and wear them more often than I used to. This may be overkill, but it is everything I can do to ensure I don’t have to miss one of my favorite movies.

How to Detect if it Happens Again

In this case, my first clue was my contact lenses clouding over on the Saturday. At that point I should have quit wearing contacts for a few days and thrown those lenses out instead of trying to disinfect them. My second detect point was the second day of clouding lenses — those two combined should have sent me to the urgent care or an eye doctor, which would certainly have been more cost-effective than the ER.  Uncontrollable eye watering, foggy lenses, and/or gritty pain when opening, closing, or having closed eyes are all reasons to see a professional right away.

Coda

You’ll notice in most of this I’ve not beaten myself up about being stupid, making poor choices, etc.  That’s because it wouldn’t help (either me or the situation) and it’s entirely beside the point. I can’t go and change what happened, so the best practice is to learn from it and ensure others do, too. *That* is what I like about Live Site. If your Live Site culture feels like a giant finger-pointing exercise, then it isn’t being implemented properly, and it’s time to do some Root Cause Analysis.

Off

Greetings from my week off.  This is what it takes to get blogging time.

I have discovered that you really and truly can over-commit yourself, but more often what actually happens is you don’t manage the commitments you have very well. When I went to take this week off — which started at 3:30pm Friday April 1st, something heralded as an April Fool’s Day joke by those that know me — I would have said “I’m over committed and I need to step back”.

Three days in and I’ve already discovered part of my problem: my phone.

In order for this week off to “work”, I had to do two things: I had to arrange for Outlook (my mail service for work) to *not* automatically open when my laptop boots (done) and I had to detach my work email from my iPhone. The last time I did the latter was my wedding week in August of 2014.

I have had the most fulfilling, relaxing yet-personally-productive, best-sleep weekend. I had no insomnia Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights. I got a bunch of projects done around the house, I have taken time to actually thoroughly read my Economist (instead of jumping to the bits I usually read and then, if time permits, reading the rest). The best part of this is knowing that if I had had to go to work today, it would have been okay: I actually unplugged this weekend.

Here’s how this has worked historically: I use my phone the way many of us do; I have my Evernote for shopping lists and recipes etc., and my fitbit tracker, and my weather app, my stock market ticket and texting (the tether to my offspring these days). I use it for a variety of things, the least of which appears to be actually as a phone, and most prevalent is for email. Being the checklist-y, anal-retentive person I am, I really do not want to see the little red notification bubble on my mail that I have unread mail. It bothers me. It’s less clean looking. I could turn off the notification badging for email but that would be problematic during work hours (or on working days). So I roll over in the morning, check the phone and oh, there’s email: better answer that. I stop at the grocery store on my way home, and there’s email: better answer that. I pop open the laptop to get that recipe for dinner tonight and there’s email: better answer that. On weekends it would be get up, go to the gym, check in to the gym with my app and there’s email: better answer that. Stop by Home Depot, get those plants I need, let me cross that off my Evernote and there’s email: better answer that.

All of this email of course is not in a vacuum: answering email is step 1 and usually steps 2-48 involve updating some documentation, or sending another email to another person about the email you just got, or doing a power point presentation based off of the email you just received or the email that is due in a couple of days, or updating the excel spreadsheet so you can email the person with that and a link to the other thing about this particular thing, which reminds you about a third thing that you’d better send an email about.

It is a seemingly ceaseless stream if ingress and egress, with me as the human compute between the two; normally I like this but I’ve realized just how much it has taken over my life.  My first inkling was in checking my Delve numbers — my first instinct after seeing them was to be upset my coworkers aren’t as responsive as I am and my second was to realize I could never share these numbers with my husband else I’d get lectured.

The lesson of all of this is that I will make an effort to detach work email from my phone on weekends — or at least occasional weekends — going forward. I can commit to email — but I need to re-establish ground rules.

 

Listening Ears

The last month or so has been an exercise in emotional control and perseverance: there are the usual challenges (it’s the last productive month before people start to serially take off for holidays, trying to eat healthily when people bring in baked goods is difficult, etc.) and new and unwelcome ones (a dear friend has passed on, the car decided I needed to spend some serious cash on it, a coworker is leaving which in turn throws into sharp relief just how much I can separate work and life). As such I haven’t had time to blog or really reflect on much: I’ve spent most of the month reacting and creating contingency plans.

As November is gone and I find myself firmly in the twelfth month, I have either got better at dealing with these challenges or I’ve become numb to their effect. The result is that I can finally take some time to concentrate on a (relatively) new concept: being self-aware and open-minded during challenging times (especially meetings).

We’ve had some training on this recently at the ‘soft, and courtesy of a side-program I’m getting a larger tutorial in how perspective can shape an entire interaction for the better (or worse). Traditionally I am not one to necessarily assume the best of intentions in dealing with someone during conflict — it’s something most people do not default to. (I know of one person who I think can honestly say that during a contentious debate can keep her “opponent” in a positive light; it’s fitting that she is the extremely patient Executive Director of a nonprofit devoted to helping schoolchildren (and teenagers alike)).

The idea of unconscious bias is not a new one, it’s the reason I assume the teenager in the brand new Porsche in front of me is spoiled rotten (instead of thinking they may be enjoying a ride with Mom or Grandma in their car), that the guy who cut me off on the freeway is a jerk (instead of hoping that whatever emergency they’re rushing off to is quickly resolved), that the person at work who hasn’t got back to me is a slacker (instead of positing that their workload is just as heavy as mine). It’s the reason some bosses assume it is ill-advised to hire single mothers (and some deliberately hire them), why some tourists raise their voice to speak English increasingly loudly to the people who don’t understand them, and why most people think NPR listeners are Loony Lefty Libs. (Hi.)

Nor is the concept of self-awareness a new one, if not practiced terribly often. In an era of “selfies” and Kardashians, you’d think self-awareness abounds, but alas it does not. The next time you think you are self aware, check how long it takes you to calm down after an argument with your spouse: that is, once the issue at hand has been resolved and how long until your autonomic nervous system chills out (e.g., your tone of voice changes, your heart rate slows down, you stop grimacing and feeling like you’re still arguing but aren’t really sure about what anymore).

In other words, it’s hard, when the guy has just cut you off and your latte has landed in your lap, to stop and think “gosh I hope he gets there in time”. It’s equally hard to sit in a meeting with someone who is disparaging your product or questioning your priorities to believe they are coming from a positive (or even just productive) space. It’s a skill set to practice and a useful one at work and at home, to be sure.  It’s harder still when the media (“social” and otherwise) is screaming you about the impending Armageddon (be it ISIL or Climate Change or Global Economies or Airbags or Guns or Presidential Candidates), to be positive about much.

The suggested approach (from training, shortly to be invoked in different ways) is to practice active listening: in other words, to let the other person say what they need to say NOT with a view to “how much longer do I have to listen to this drivel” but with an earnest attempt to understand where they are coming from, and acknowledge that position. This, combined with assuming the best of intentions, should serve to deter the impression that the other person is wasting your time/out to get you. The other tool provided includes essentially a “so what are we going to do about it?” mechanism — it’s perfectly fine to air an issue, but come ready to solve it or to commit to solving it. This should serve to ensure that conflict — when it does arise — is used in a positive and productive fashion. These things sound practical and practicable, but I suspect in the heat of the moment they aren’t that easy to call upon. I think, however, it is better to try, in these trying times.

 

 

Elephantine

“You’re like an elephant,” she explained to me. “You walk in to the room or you say something and everyone notices, because it’s very forceful. Not everyone can handle that. You need to learn to change your communication patterns.”

That was real-life advice I got from a real-life professional.

The year was 1996, and I had just moved to San Diego to be with my then-fiance. He was in the Marine Corps, and I was a recent college grad, with a degree that could get me $7/hour at Scripps or $10/hour temping with my typing skills. As the Marine Corps enlisted man gets paid atrociously small (I think it worked out to $5/hour or something because the Corps assumes that until you are married, you live on base with their provided food and housing) it was unfortunately a no-brainer. (There are times when you have those late night “what-if” conversations with yourself, and mine start with “What If” I had gone to Scripps instead and resolved to eat beans and rice every day).

One of the temporary jobs I had was with a company that had a rigorous FTE hiring process: you were welcome as a temp with whatever the agency said you could do, as an FTE you had to go through a Myers Briggs assessment and a 1-hour coaching session to determine your personality type. It wasn’t the first MB I had taken and would not be the last (I’m an ENTJ, in case it wasn’t horribly obvious). From the coaching session the quote above is what I remember the most.

In the spirit of the recent articles on how women couch their conversations differently in the workplace (to their perceived or actual benefit or loss), and in particular of memes like this, I’ve got a couple of things to say.

I do it too. I try hard not to, and I’ve found that when I get on a roll — of not apologizing, or not being “we-centric”, etc., I get a different reaction. For the most part, stuff gets done.  And for the most part, I don’t have any lingering perceived/actual issues with coworkers.  I know however it would come as a shock to some friends and family to learn that I have learned to be hyper-deferential. For the person who had to take a whole Traci Mercer class on the art of saying “No” without *actually* saying “No”, this is a surprise.

Then again, I just had that conversation with my boss: namely, he suggested that everyone should be aware of how they are perceived, and maybe that should be my goal (?) for the year (?).  My boss has 3 female employees, none male. All but four of the 25-person engineering team is male. One of my coworkers and I were in a seven-person meeting the other day and she had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a word in for about 3 exchanges. I finally had to do the “rude” thing and speak up and say “hey, I believe [A] has something to say… [A]?”

I shouldn’t have to do that.

In the hallway after the meeting, she and I were talking, and she noted that even I as the “brash American” in the group had to try more than once to get the sentence out or the point across. It stung me, because it made me realize that 1. I’m still coming across as brash, but 2. that’s somehow considered a bad things, and 3. whyinhell are we still fighting for a say at the table?

The real kicker is, I would bet you any amount of money you care to that no one else around the table even noticed. And by “I bet they didn’t notice”, I mean all of it: that we were trying to say something, and that I had to get forceful to say it. (Incidentally, yes our point was taken, yes it was considered valid, and yes it shaped the meeting: we were not dismissed.)

I am not entirely sure what my boss was driving at — and I was very conscious that we were ending the meeting in two minutes because he had another one, and I suspect that if I had pressed the conversation would be longer than 2 minutes.  I’m also not entirely sure I want to entertain it any more than as a casual mention of one thing I could pay attention to during the course of the year. For someone newly promoted, with a whole sheaf of new responsibilities, with the volume of work I have and need to help facilitate, I don’t think that my best efforts for shareholders and coworkers and customers alike should be me sitting and worrying about how others perceive me. While I agree that work is not just about what you do but how you do it, there are multiple ways in which to provide feedback to someone, and the only constructive feedback I’ve had in this position to this date is that there was one time a customer got me riled up too easily and it showed internally to the group. (Not externally to the customer). Save that, everything else was positive.

In the light of all of the recent articles this is forcing me to think about it as, “would my boss have said this if I had been a man?” In other words, would my focus for the year have been “how I am perceived” if I had been male and the brashness and posturing that is/does come with that socially were expected? I honestly don’t know (and since we don’t have a male counterpart, will not know).

Right now I am on my day “off”, and I’m working on some metrics and analysis — my “comfort” work, if you will. I like data: it’s clinical, it’s discrete, and it can help frame decisions and actions. I’d much rather live there than this current world of “how am I perceived”. In my mind, though, I’m conflating the two, and thinking about requesting a change to our internal anonymous surveys: to ask everybody if they have ever been TOLD to consider how they are perceived, and to ask them if this actually is forefront in their mind.

I’d bet it would be illuminating.

Beijing, Baby!

One of the advantages to having chronic insomnia is that when you travel halfway around the world and you wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, it (in itself) is not a foreign thing. It also means you get through jet lag a lot faster, because you’re used to sporadic sleep.

I am typing this in my room at the Crowne Plaza in Beijing (the one on Zhi Chun road, if you want to be specific… there’s 3 or 4 others). I will not be able to upload it to WordPress until I get to work, though, as I am behind the Great Firewall, and one of the things you do not get to do here is engage in Western social media. Twitter, Facebook, Swarm/Foursquare, WordPress, etc. are all tabled until I can get into the office and leverage their VPN. As it is nearly 5AM and the pool I intend to swim in this morning doesn’t open for another hour, let me show you around what I’ve seen thus far.

(NB: when you travel for work, you spend a disproportionate amount of time in a hotel and in an office or conference center. A lot of this is going to essentially be skewed by that.)

First, the airport: It reminds me of a cross between Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, and Vancouver. Think great long hallways sided by glass on one side (to the outside) and art on another, multiple long stretches with those flat conveyor-belt people movers, from the gates to a large central area filled with meandering, lost people and a variety of signage in both Chinese Traditional and English. I was really surprised at the volume of English, because it was not only in the directional signage (Parking, Exit, Baggage Claim, etc.) but also in the ads. But hey, we’re in an Airport, so that’s fine.

beijing_buildingsMy hotel transfer was in an SUV driven by a gruff man who said nothing (in Mandarin or otherwise). Thirty minutes got me to my hotel and I got to see the Bird’s Nest on the way in; the thing that really impressed me was the volume of high-rise apartment complexes. I am not exaggerating when I say I probably saw more than a hundred of them. The architecture of these buildings is pretty homogenous; tall, cream-colored buildings with uniform portrait rectangular windows, flat faces, only a select few apartments have balconies.

Many of tbeijing_boxeshe windows have what looks like an air conditioning unit but installed below the window (not in it), I found out later that those are the exhaust motors for the wall-mounted air conditioning units on the inside.

The best way I can describe Beijing is to take the relative building heights and proximities of New York City (so, very high, very close), mix it with an expanse the size of Los Angeles (so, very wide), give it infrastructure similar to what you’d see in Phoenix (wide roads, wide sidewalks), put in architecture that resembles both London (great tall glass buildings with architectural arches or curves) and the Eastern Bloc (tall grey or cream colored drab functional buildings), slather everything with Chinese Traditional characters in a variety of fonts and colors, and then add the people.

Lots and lots and lots of people.

Those nice, wide streets are crammed with a variety of vehicles (bikes, motorized and not; taxis; foreign and domestic autos) and people. Much like Manhattan, the guidance on crosswalks seems to be largely based on judgment rather than any actual signaling device (of which green man purportedly means go, red hand means stop). The brick sidewalks are crammed with a variety of people (male, female, old, young, professional, etc.). Street vendors have blankets on the ground from which you can purchase a variety of cheap knicknackery, there is also street food which we were cautioned (by local friends) not to eat. The subways are efficient and much like what you’d experience in any real city, and they are air conditioned. Personal space is not a concept people are familiar with here.

In the three days I have been here, the air has been clear and clean, thanks to a thorough rain on the morning of my flight. I’m looking outside my window though and I can’t see the sun rise, even though it’s perceptibly lighter. I can’t tell if what I’m looking at is smog or real clouds, but I’m sure I’ll find out later on my walk to work. The smells largely are defined by where you are at, so along one block you’ll smell a variety of food smells, along another you’ll smell a variety of not-food smells. Deodorant seems to be optional.

My hotel clearly caters to Western visitors: every electrical outlet in the room has converters built in, both for US and Europe (including UK). And I do mean every electrical outlet: the ones at the desk, the ones in the bathroom, the ones on either side of the bed, and even the one in the closet. If you’re staying at the Crowne Plaza here, you don’t need an adapter.

beijing_privatepotty
Ain’t no potty like an East coast potty.

The bathroom is roughly 40% of the room size and features a separate toilet (like, it is in its own glass room), shower (own glass room), and tub large enough for 2. Toiletries include things like dental hygiene kits, shoe shine kit, etc. My room has two gas masks so if the air quality gets super bad, you’re covered.

As you go downstairs to breakfast there’s a large fish tank to view, complete with Arrowanas and koi that are larger than them. The breakfast buffet is the sort that anyone can find something they eat (e.g., vegetarians, picky Westerners, adventurous foodies, etc.). It’s my goal to try everything before I leave but I’m not sure I can.

 

 

The volumes of food here are insane.

Granted, we are doing “team lunches” and “team dinners” which means eating in a variety of really nice restaurants, at really large circular tables. I have learned that you have two sets of chopsticks – one for serving yourself (so far, they have always been brown with gold handles), and one for actually eating with (black with silver tips). Sometimes there’s a serving spoon, other times there is not. We surprised our local coworkers here by the fact that we could use chopsticks. In these cases, the food has been served ‘family style’ and has ranged from mild and sweet to “I don’t have any sinuses anymore” hot. I promised them I would try everything and I have, which sounds more adventurous than it is. No one has ordered the sea cucumber yet (it is exactly that – take a sea cucumber out of the water, cook it as-is, dump it in some soup, and serve it… just lying there. Not sure how you eat it, it’s not even sliced.) But I’ve had organ meats and the like, and everything I’ve eaten has tasted wonderful. After the first day our local friends decided they didn’t have to haze us.

Food pricing is another interesting thing. Case in point: yesterday’s lunch was 10 people in a high-end restaurant, 10 different dishes plus tea and a blueberry yogurt drink thing (tasty!), and we walked out the door for about 530 Yuan (read, about $87). The ice cream we had later on in the afternoon from the Hagen Daaz cost more than that on a per-person basis (about $10—and it was not grandiose size).

beijing_quackEating is almost a sport here, although we learned you do not eat all of the food (otherwise you are indicating that you were waiting too long and got too hungry, and/or your host/ess didn’t supply enough for you). I don’t think we could have eaten all the food if we tried. I’m taking advantage of the gym here daily (nice – 3 treadmills, 2 ellipticals, 2 bikes, free weights, and 6 weight machines) and coupling that with our daily walks to/from the office should hopefully undo some of the gastronomic damage. There’s a scale in the bathroom.

I have one more workday here – barring the fact that the recycle bins have small descriptions of what constitutes as recycleable both in Chinese and in English, you couldn’t distinguish this office environment from any other that Microsoft offers in Redmond – and then tomorrow I am taking the day off to go do some sightseeing. With my stellar sense of direction (I can get lost in my hometown) I am going to rely on the hotel’s package tour that it offers, so I’ll pen a follow up on that.

In the meantime, I’m going to go swim some laps. Last night was Peking Duck.

Avoidance Behaviors

When I first came to work for my current company — you may have heard of them — I was treated to a day-long new employee orientation, followed by a series of prescribed video tutorials that covered a variety of topics, including security, the law, navigating the company, benefits, etc. One of the more pleasant surprises was a “top 10” list of suggestions for a new person in Engineering — which I qualify for, managing an engineering program.

I don’t remember 9 of them, not specifically.

The suggestions were like most “work efficiency” things, as you read them your reaction is one of “oh, of course”. Things like limiting time spent on email, and the like. The only one I remember specifically was a Mark Twain quote: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” The explanation provided was along the lines of, “We all have things we have to do that we’d rather not, so if you get them done and out of the way first thing then you’re better off.”  This is patently true, but a difficult thing to practice for days on end.

For some people, attending to email is their frog. For others, it’s having a difficult conversation with a coworker, or using a particular piece of software. For me, I seem to be having a definite reluctance to draw up a particular piece of architecture, not because I think it is a waste of time (it will be a very useful tool in a discussion) but because I have to deliberately draw up a comparison with what I feel is an inferior product.

Telling an engineer their design is inferior is akin to telling a woman her baby is ugly. It isn’t nice, and it doesn’t give you the warm fuzzies. No one wins. The difference though is that the baby’s ugliness impacts no one (except, possibly, the baby) and a poor design can impact many people. Further, the impression I have that the alternate design is better is my own impression, through my own vision, and may be entirely wrong. Being someone who really prefers a black-and-white approach (binary, Boolean, whatever — there is yes and no, no maybe) means that this is a frustrating limbo.

And so I’ve been avoiding it.

I don’t have much time with which to avoid, though, as it is due today (self-assigned yesterday) and I do want it done. My personal outlook is further complicated by a brand-new sore throat, the kind which feels like you swallowed sand.

In the roughly 24 hours since I assigned myself this project, I have:

  • Attended four meetings, unrelated
  • Answered/categorized 50-odd emails
  • Updated a couple of unrelated documents
  • Checked a bunch of other unrelated boxes
  • Slept 10 hours — needed it, as the night before I slept 5
  • Wrote this post
  • Ate more than my fair share of Triscuits (rather than eating out of boredom, I eat out of avoidance, something the scale does not appreciate)

This thing will take me all of about forty-five minutes to do, and yet I somehow found time to do all of those other things. It will get done — but really, I should’ve eaten my frog this morning.

It would’ve left me too full for the Triscuits.

This is Going to Hurt You More than Me

Greetings from the ending of a self-imposed blogging silence: I got the aforementioned email and am happy to state that I will shortly be joining Microsoft.  Sur La Table was very diverting and offered many challenges with respect to data, but it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to work in, and with, big data.

As a result of that interview loop, plus some interviews I did for an open position we have at Sur La Table, I’m here to write something Very Important: Don’t Lie on Your Resume.

Typically when I am called in to conduct a technical interview, I read the candidate’s resume, and then ask the hiring manager how technical they want me to get. If it’s me, and I’m hiring for a developer, I’m going to get very technical, and you’re going to spend 100% of your time with me at the whiteboard. If it’s for someone else, and I’m hiring for say, a PM, or a QC, or technically-minded-but-not-otherwise-a-developer role, I’m still going to test you on skills you state in your resume.

So when you tell me that you have a lot of experience with SQL, or that you’ve been using SQL for five or six years, I’m going to run you through the basics. Either of those statements will tell me that you know the four major joins, you know the simplest way to avoid a Cartesian product, you know how to create data filtration in a join or in a where statement, and you know how to subquery. I’m not even getting to more advanced parts like transactions with rollbacks, while loops, or indexing — the aforementioned list are what I would characterize as basic, everyday SQL use.

Imagine my dismay, then, as an interviewer, when after declaring (either verbally or on your resume) that you are a SQL expert, you can’t name the joins. Or describe them. Or (worse) describe them incorrectly. When you say you know SQL, and then prove that you don’t, it makes me wonder what else is on your resume that you “know”, that is less hard to prove (in the interview) that you don’t. The default assumption, for the protection of the company, is that your entire resume is a raft of lies. It’s the surest way to earn a “no hire”.

It would have been far better to state the truth: someone else wrote SQL scripts for you, told you what they did, and you were adept enough to figure out when there was a disparity in the output. That does not mean you “know” SQL, it means you know how to run a SQL script. This gives the interviewer an honest window and the ability to tailor your time together (remember, they’re getting paid by the company to spend time with you, if it’s productive it is not a waste of money) to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Having just been hired into a position that works with big data, where I was honest that the largest db I have worked in and with was about 3TB, I can attest that it’s really hard to have to look a hiring manager smack in the eye and say: “I have 90% of what you have asked for but I’m missing that last 10%”. It gives them the opportunity, however, to decide if they’re going to take the chance that you can learn.

If they’ve already learned you’re honest, then that chance-taking looks better in comparison.

Linking In

I am, to no great surprise, a fan of social media. You will find by me near-daily tweets, posts on Facebook, check-ins on Foursquare. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot on LinkedIn, trying certain features, and have been genuinely intrigued by some of the functionality that didn’t strike me (initially) as something I’d find on LinkedIn. To wit: a year ago, when I would wake in the morning and want to read the “news” — and by “news” let’s be honest, I mean “news Bobbie is interested in and therefore skewed toward 2 or 3 specific topics” — I would read my twitter feed (follow reporters AND the companies they work for), then I’d check mobile CNN, After looking at my Facebook feed, (oh, work email too), and maybe Twitter again, I’d check LinkedIn.

(Why all the checking? Not all apps update your alerts to the icon on your mobile phone screen. Sometimes you get the little red bubble of awesomeness, and sometimes you don’t.)

Today, the pattern is more likely Economist.com (mobile), LinkedIn, Twitter, work email, Twitter, and maybe one more round to LinkedIn. Why? Many reasons, mostly dealing with personalized news retrieval and access to information about companies, jobs, etc. that I wouldn’t normally have. But there are many misconceptions about LinkedIn, and that’s what this post attempts to remedy.

Wait, Isn’t LinkedIn for if I’m looking for a job?

Not necessarily. LinkedIn offers a variety of other services that you can use, regardless of your current job circumstance. There’s personalized news feeds, updates on your “linked” connections, and for those of us who are stats-centric, tons of little data updates. I recently tried playing with their business logic: changing my title (and ONLY my title, not dates, company, or description) from “Applications Development Manager” to “Manager, Applications Development” triggered a “congratulate Bobbie on her new job” notice to those I was linked to. Awkward, true, but interesting to note the sensitivity. My personal favorite is Pulse, their personalized news service. You pick themes or people who are interesting to you, and it does the rest. Daily updates of articles, and discussions therein with other people both in and out of your network.

But I’m only linked to people I work or have worked with, right?

No, no, and no. You can link to anybody. You will want to link to people you know, regardless of if you “work” with them. You’re on the PTA? Go find your PTA Board members, link to them. You’re on the board of a NonProfit? Link them. Went to college and remember some pretty cool people? Link, link, link. Met some great people socially? Link. Link to them all. You will get recruiters you’ve never worked with asking to link to you — proceed with caution. Do you do a lot of hiring? Then link to them. Do you want to get poached? OK, link to them. But if you’re an individual contributor who doesn’t want to move, tell them honestly and then link anyway — after all, a friend of yours may want to use a recruiter.

Hey, some of those people don’t work, or are retired, or are in a field I’m totally not in to. Why should I link to them?

You don’t know who THEY know. I’ll take the reverse-route on this and look at it from the “what’s in it for me” aspect; most of this logic works if you think of yourself as a relatively altruistic person. That stay-at-home-mom may know a double dozen people who would love to donate to your charity, or may know someone who works as a recruiter at a company you really want to work for. That artsy friend of yours who does installations at hotels may know someone who manages them, which may fit in with your marketing and sales job. You don’t know what you don’t know — the whole point of LinkedIn is to establish routes of communication. If you’re going to use it as a tool, use it properly.

OK but I should only link to “my level” of people or higher, right? So I’m a Manager, I will only link to Managers and above.

First off, this is just plain douchey, but let’s just assume you didn’t mean it that way and are looking at it pragmatically. You’re wrong, and that’s okay. We’ve all been there.

You will want to link to people, regardless of rank and title. Just like you, people will expand their horizons and grow. Some people grow faster than others, and to quote Sigourney Weaver in “Working Girl”, “Yesterday’s junior prick is tomorrow’s senior partner”. Now, NO, people junior to you (real or imagined, rank or age, etc.) are not pricks. But the tenet is legitimate: you don’t know where their career will lead and if you’re going to pick people based on their success, remember you can’t know it. So link to people you know, and that you respect, and ignore their title (high or low). I know some people who give pause in the other direction — that maybe they “shouldn’t” reach out to that VP or that CEO. Do you know them? Have you been in a meeting with them, talked to them? Do they know you or have they worked with you? Then link to them. They may have something interesting to say, their company may want to work with yours, you may want to solicit a donation, they may want to read your white paper.

No one really fills in all the portions of a profile, right? It’s not just me, right?

Of course not. I don’t have anything published (aside from this blog and another one) and so I haven’t got anything for that section. And so I don’t put anything there. I put in what I’ve got, and “curate” my profile as necessary. Sometimes that curation is to see what happens with the business logic because my business *is* logic, and data, and software, and how that rolls together. So I follow people in that vein and I play with my “persona” on LinkedIn to that end.

They offer a lot of stuff for a fee, is it worth it?

Recently I got an offer to try Job Seeker Premium for free. While I don’t think I’d use it just yet, I do know that free is better than not free, even if only for a month. If I ever do go that route rest assured I’d blog all the details, and with as much anecdotal evidence as I can provide.

But for right now, I’m content to get my news.

Yes, It Was The Right Choice

Five months ago I accepted a new job with Sur La Table. I had spent nine years at Expedia doing a variety of things, and learning a tremendous lot, but it was definitely time to move on and be the “fresh blood” somewhere else. As I gleefully told my family, friends, and professional associates of my move, I got mainly 3 reactions:

1. That’s great… what do they do again?

2. That’s great… wait, you’re moving from Director to Manager?

3. That’s great… are you making more money?

I can sort of see the first reaction, if you’re talking to someone who’s not in one of the 27 states that SLT operates in, and/or you don’t cook. (I am not judging.  Yours truly has a few friends who know an awful lot about food but you shan’t let them in the kitchen). The other two have been reiterated so often that I figured I’d just answer them here, and then point people to it.

1. Sur La Table (www.surlatable.com) is a store, and site, for cook’s tools and entertaining. That’s it. You are not going to find beekeeping outfits, a large selection of scented candles, ironing boards, etc. You are going to find a wide selection of knives and people who can tell you how to use and care for them, because they know. You are going to find a variety of stove top cookware, in a variety of materials and colors, and any one of the people wearing a Sur La Table apron can tell you, depending on YOUR cooking style and YOUR stove what will work for YOU. In more than half of the locations you will find a roster of classes you can take that will teach you everything from how to use your knife properly to how to make homemade pasta to how to do five recipes on one grill for six people.

2. Yes, I moved from a Director to a Manager. Specifically the course was Director of Business Development to Director of Content to Applications Development Manager. And here’s your first clue why “different” does not mean “downward”: I went from what was essentially inflated project management (with a bit of ability to direct the change that instantiated the project) to Operations management to development management. With each step the skill set gets broader, and deeper. Project management is about managing people you don’t technically manage, Operations management is about managing people you manage and managing by proxy.  Development management is all of the above and now you get to speak two languages: business and technology.

I could go on: development offers a chance to actually BUILD THINGS, the reality that a Director at Expedia is not equivalent to a Director at Microsoft is not equivalent to a Director at Sur La Table, in either breadth of responsibility or in terms of compensation. And frankly, I’m mercenary enough to be happily titled the Hobgoblin of Object Oriented Programming if they pay me enough, which leads us to…

3. Yes. I mean, I can offer the logic that benefit packages from Company A to Company B require careful weighing and measuring, and that there are quality of life trade-offs with commuting time, etc.  But any way you slice it, frankly, the answer is yes. Anyone who tells you that “Retail” is this or “Technology” is that is at best over-generalizing and at worst missing opportunities.

None of this answers the question, four (working) months later, of “Are you enjoying it” and the answer is an unqualified YES. Do not get me wrong, there have been seriously frustrating times. Sur La Table has been around since the 70’s but its growth pattern is such that it *feels* like a start-up, with all that that entails. Development has to run quickly and there is enormous demand for my department, which leads to both the wonderful sensation that “we can DO this” combined with “OMG how are we gonna do this??” There’s a bit of “hey let’s go down this path… no wait that path… no let’s go down the first path” that you see in nascent organizations, and for someone who was at a company that went from start-up (well, close to, it was about 4 years in) to Mature Large Company in my tenure, there’s the urge to be much farther along the development path than we are.

Then again, it affords me (us, really) the opportunity to be there to make the changes that need to be made, and build the cool, fun stuff that needs to be built. That, by far, is the best reason.