Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Maintain a "Todo" list


Imagine that you have to move an apple from one place to another. You can carry it in your hand. If you have two apples, you can still carry them in your hand. If it is 4 or 5, you can still manage to stack them up in your hands & carry them. If there are 50 apples, then you need a BAG. This is true even for the tasks that you get at work. In an IT company, you may be bombarded with 100s of things to do. Some of them may be large enough to span over a week or a month and some of them can be done in just few hours or minutes. To effectively carry out the tasks, you have to first keep track of them. The best way to do it, is to maintain a "To do" list. Of course, you can keep track of certain things in memory. But, how do you make sure that you don't miss out something?

The "To do" list can be maintained in several forms. It can be as simple as pasting a 'stick-it' on your monitor (or) tracking things using software like Taskplus (or) using Google/Outlook calendars (or) writing things in a notebook. Make sure that you review the "To do" list periodically. It is better to get the "To do" list reviewed by your boss/manager also. Because, over a period of time, the priorities (or) relevance of some of the tasks may change. Also, it would help you to ensure that you have the right set of things in your "To do" list and haven't missed out something.

I have always found it useful to maintain a "To do" list - not only for my official tasks, but also for my personal tasks. Why don't you also give it a shot? You'll find it useful too.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Leadership without authority


If you are working for a 'service' company, don't be surprised if you are expected to lead a small team in the first few years of your career. If you have inherited some leadership skills during your college days, it would be a boon. If not, its high time you start to focus on it.

Even before you were given the title of a 'Team Lead/Manager', you would be asked to play the 'role' of a 'Team Lead/Manager' for a short time (few months or so). That is the most challenging period for several folks. You won't have any people reporting to you. But you'll be asked to manage their deliverables. This is were you have to practice 'Leadership without authority'. You may run into a variety of challenges - based on the company, product, work culture, seniority level of your team, team member's attitude, your relationship with the team members, your skills etc., So, how do you handle those challenges? How can you be a perfect leader? I've given some tips below.

1) Role is not Title - People have complained to me in the past saying that they weren't given the title, but only the role to play. They've to be mindful about that. You were just given the 'role' & not the 'title'. So, don't start to boss around.

2) People have to accept you as a leader. You should demonstrate that you are a 'Go TO' person for problems. You don't have to solve all their problems. But, you should be in a position to suggest/guide them towards solution. At times, it is a matter of just redirecting them to the right people.

3) Listen to people's issues. You have to be a good listener.

4) Take actions - don't wait for things to escalate. You shouldn't lend a deaf year to people's concerns. Just let them know that you are working on it. People like to know the action you're taking against their requests/concerns. So, keep them posted.

5) Be organised & disciplined. These are some good traits of a good leader/manager. People should feel that you are good at tracking items/activities to completion. You should also provide a status update to folks, regularly.

6) If there are 'people issues' between your team members - try to understand the concerns of the parties. Do not take a 'one-sided' approach. Do what is good for the product/project/company. That way, it is easier to make an 'unbiased' decision.

7) Treat all your team members as 'equal'. You may have some buddies within the team. Do not share 'confidential' information even with your buddies.

8) Undergo leadership trainings & read books related to team building, leadership etc., You have to continuously 'sharpen the saw'.

9) Be pro-active & not re-active. Don't always work in fire-fighting mode. Always, think ahead & anticipate things. Be prepared.

10) Maintain good 'rapport' with all your team members. Try to interact with all of them to the extent possible. Don't always interact with them only about 'official' things. Check with them how they enjoyed their weekend. Go out with them for coffee/tea or for lunch. Have conversations & discuss about things other than work. If possible, plan for team building activities with your team.

11) Don't micro-manage people. Folks like to have freedom. At the same time, don't let them loose. Be assertive 'instead' of being 'authoritative' when communicating deadlines, expectations etc.,

12) Don't be submissive. I've seen some folks falling on the feet of their team members to get things done. This is not good. You need to demonstrate that you are a 'capable' leader.

13) Communication is key. "What", "How" & "Where" you communicate is very important. If you think you need to improve your communication skills, join Toastmasters.

14) Impress your 'boss' & your 'team members'. Don't just try to impress your boss, alone. At the end of the day, your team members are also the decision makers. They should feel comfortable working for you.

15) You may even realize that 'leading/managing a team' is not the right job for you. If so, don't pretend that you can do the role. Go and talk to your boss. See if he/she can help you in any ways. Contact other peers who have done similar roles in the past. Get guidance from them.

The best example that I can give for 'Leadership without authority' is Gandhi's efforts towards India's independence. He did not have the title, but he had the power. He was able to motivate folks to get things done towards a common cause. Your task as a leader is not very different from what Gandhi did.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Conflicts with co-workers? You are not alone ...


Do you have tough co-workers? Do you often run into conflicts with them? You are not alone. There is tough people everywhere. So, how do you handle tough people at work? Some tips to handle tough folks:

1) Do not 'fight' with them over emails. They won't stop. So, you are the one who has to STOP.

2) Talk to them in person & try to understand their perspective. See if you can influence them with your view points.

3) Often, you may not be able to convince tough folks. If you still feel that it is going to hurt the product/project, you have to escalate that to your boss.

4) Do not send emails to escalate 'people' related issues. Just go & talk to the concerned folks in person. You never know who the email would get forwarded to. It is better to be safe than sorry.

5) Try to develop some rapport with tough people - take regular coffee breaks with them, go out for a short walk with them, go out for lunch w/ them, share some weekend experiences with them. You don't have to develop friendship with them. But, don't be their enemy :)

6) Do not quarrel with tough folks IN-PERSON. Always, mind your words. After all, we are professionals.

7) Ignore tough people, if that will not affect the product/project

8) Don't try to 'back-stab' tough people. It is not in the best interest of you or them or the company

9) Don't complain about tough people to 'arbitrary' folks. Words travel fast.

10) Be assertive when talking to tough people - but don't be arrogant. Also, don't behave like you are trying to be 'submissive'.

11) People are tough when they think they are 'responsible' or if they feel that you are competing with them (or) if they are very 'attached' to something (or) if they are 'self-centered' (or) if they want to get 'recognized'. Try to understand why they are 'tough'. It will help you to handle the problem, better.

Dealing with tough people is often very difficult. All you need to do is be conscious about it. If you have adequate patience, you'll master the art soon.

How to be a STAR performer?


You are a person who completes all the assigned tasks on time. You check emails or work from home almost daily. You even sacrifice some of your weekends to complete the project. You travel for your company on a very short notice. You hardly have any time for you and your family. But, in spite of doing all this hard work, you don't get the rating that you wanted.

At the end of the review cycle, your boss says "You did a great job in completing your tasks. I wish you had done better on other areas also" or your boss says, "I personally wanted to give you the best rating. But, the top management didn't approve it". Does this sound familiar to you? Don't worry. You don't have to hear those statements again in your life. I am going to give you 5 simple tips to get the "best rating in performance reviews".

Tip #1: Understand your objectives

This is one of the important things to do to get the best rating. Are your objectives well defined? Do you know the criteria that your boss has to measure your performance? Are those agreed upon and documented?

Let me give you an example. Say, you have an objective like "Deliver a high quality product". The perception of quality varies between individuals. A person from Microsoft may think that a high quality product can crash or reboot twice a day. Whereas, a person from Apple may think that a high quality product should not crash at all.

Ask your boss this question "What should I do against this objective to get an Outstanding rating?" Get a clear understanding about your objectives and the measurement criteria before you sign-up for something.

Tip #2: Always go the extra mile

If you are expected to just develop a product/feature - go the extra mile - and do some extensive testing. If you are just expected to test a functionality/feature, - go the extra mile - and complete the test automation.

Your boss may come to you and ask "Eric, I know that you have so many tasks in your plate. There is a new hire who just joined our team. Will it be possible for you to mentor him?" Your boss comes to you because he thinks that you can help him. Do not disappoint your boss. Be willing to take additional responsibilities. Go the extra mile.

Tip #3: Be Consistent

At the beginning of the review cycle, you may be very excited and motivated to achieve your goals. But the motivation should sustain.
If you are expected to send "Weekly Status reports" once a week, send it without failure every week.
If your manager expects you to complete your deliverables on time - make sure that you complete them on time, every time. You should have the same levels of commitment and performance throughout your review cycle.

Tip #4: Have a few Bulleted/Star Achievements

This is an important thing that differentiates you from others. Imagine that you are one of the 5 mechanics who work for a car service shop. You check brakes, rotate tires, change oil, change filters and fix the issues with the car like every other mechanic. If you want to differentiate yourself from others,

- come up with a strategy to service more cars in less time,
- volunteer to train the new joiners in your team,
- learn how to fix issues with the new cars in the market,
- go beyond your customer's expectations

Don't just do what you are expected to do. There should be some star items (things that are not the USUALS) and those items should be BULLETED in your performance review form.

Tip #5: Project what you do

I've seen many people slogging day & night to get the work done, but they fail to project their hard work to their bosses. How would your boss know that you are spending extra hours unless you let him know? How would your boss know that you are doing the work efficiently unless you let him know? How would your boss know that you are completing things on time, unless you let him know? Typically, a manager has 10 or more people reporting to him. So, it is hard for the boss to keep track of what each & everyone is doing.

Make sure that you send your Weekly Status Reports. Have regular 1-on-1s with your boss. Send emails after completing tasks or let your boss know in person. Some managers don't read their emails. Make sure that your team also knows about your accomplishments. In many organizations, peer reviews are considered to rate your performance. Your peers should also acknowledge your work.

In order to get the best rating in performance reviews, you don't have to work for 12 hours per day. You don't have to sacrifice the weekend movie that you had planned with your family. You don't have to be super-smart. Just follow these 5 simple tips.

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I'm sure you all would come out with flying colors in performance reviews.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Soft skills - A hard requirement


Any job interview would focus on technical skills (your expertise on the subject matters) & soft skills (your communication, interpersonal skills, motivation, commitment etc.,). It is mandatory to have a proper mix of both technical & softskills. There are folks who do exceptionally well in technical interviews - but they still do not get selected because of the lack of soft skills (& vice versa).

What are some of the soft skills that employers look for? Some of the soft skills that people look for, are - communication, commitment, self-motivation, eagerness to learn, willingness to perform, creative thinking, hard working nature, team player, listening, punctuality, confidence, leadership, putting up your best etc., Employers can easily judge many of these skills during the interviews - so don't try to cheat. You should be able to give specific examples for each of your 'soft-skill'. For example, the interviewer may ask "Tell me a situation where you have to learn things on your own & perform". You should be able to give a specific situation as example. That will improve your credibility.

If you are a college graduate, you may ask "How do I groom my soft skills in college?" College life provides you several opportunities to shape up your personality & to develop your skills. You can organize/involve in all sorts of college activities. For example, participating in debates & speech contests would help in improving your listening/communication skills. You can also become a member of a nearby Toastmasters club to improve your communication/listening/leadership skills. Conducting various symposiums & organizing functions would help to groom your leadership & team playing skills. Conducting mock interviews would boost your confidence. You can also pick up some of the soft skills effectively by reading good books.

If you are out of college, you can get acquainted with non-profit organizations to do service or any kind of social work. You would get enough opportunities to hone your organizational/leadership skills.

Developing your soft skills is more challenging than learning technical stuff. Some of your characteristics may be in-born (or engraved during childhood days). It would be hard to get rid of some bad behavior. However, if you try consciously you'll be able to overcome your limitations.

Soft skills are a hard requirement for hi-tech jobs. You better develop them, when it is not too late.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Standard of fresh graduates in India


I interviewed a fresh candidate at my work, today. He had done B.E (IT). His areas of interest had "Operating System" in it. I asked him a simple question - "What are the functions of an operating system"? He answered "Scheduling". I asked "What else?". He was spell bound. He couldn't think of anything else. I was astonished. A guy who has done his Bachelors in IT with a score of 83% couldn't answer what the functions of an operating system are. I then started probing more.

Me: What is the OS you used at college?

Him: Windows

Me: What do you do with it?

Him: I write C programs. I execute some sytem commands in the "command prompt".

Me: How are the C programs stored?

Him: They are stored as "files".

Me: Doesn't the OS manage these files - storing/retrieving etc.,?

Him: Yes

Me: What do you call these devices as - monitor, keyboard, mouse, joy stick, & printer?

Him: Hardware

Me: Hardware is too generic. What do you call these devices as?

Him: Access devices

Me: Don't you use these devices to give input & get output from computers?

Him: Yes

Me: Now, what do you call these devices as?

Him:

Me: Don't you call them as "I/O devices"?

Him: Yes

Me: Doesn't the OS manage these I/O devices?

Him: Yes. Sir! I should've had a staff like you in college. I should've met you a year back when preparing for interviews.

Me: Well, it is not too late.

I told him that he may not be suited for the position that we are looking to fill. I then recommended him the list of things he should learn. I also gave him my contact number & email. I asked him to get in touch with me for any questions/doubts regarding interview preparation. I wished him all the best. 

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Modes of communication - Email (or) Phone?


There was a time when people communicated with mails & telegrams, only. Today, we have a variety of communication options such as phone, conference, email, sms, and chat. Effective use of these communication modes is very key for successful business - especially when your co-workers and customers are geographically separated. There is no perfect communication mode. The use of the right communication mode depends on a lot of factors including the person/group, geographic location (time zone), topic of conversation, business need, urgency of the issue, & YOU. The following are some of the things you should consider before choosing the communication mode:

When to make a phone call?
- When you think it is an urgent issue that requires immediate attention
- When it is a sensitive/confidential issue that cannot be 'documented' in email
- When you want the other person to make a decision immediately
- When you haven't received a response from the other person for your email
- When you think it is better to 'talk about the issue' instead of going back 'n forth over emails
- When you can 'articulate' better over phone as opposed to email
- When the other person has asked you to give a call
- When you or the other person doesn't have access to email

When to send an email?
- When you are not expecting an immediate response from the other person
- When you have don't have a time sensitive issue
- When you can 'articulate' better over email as opposed to phone
- When the other person has asked you to send an email
- To summarise the discussion you had with the other person over phone/chat
- In addition to a phone call, it is always good to send an email. Email can be read multiple times. If the other person didn't not get you properly during the phone call, he/she can always refer to the email.
- Phone conversations may not be very reliable at times (due to noisy phone lines, poor phone receiver, missed VOIP speech segments etc.,). You need to send emails to fill the gap.
- When you want to 'escalate' something to several folks
- When you want to 'document' an issue for future reference
- When the other person doesn't like to get bugged over phone
- At times, it is good to send an email before calling someone on the phone. It would help them to digest the contents of the email & they'll be prepared to respond back to you over phone.

When to 'chat' or 'sms' with the other person?
'chat' & 'sms' are becoming more popular these days for official communications. You can get real time responses from people & at the same time, the other person gets an opportunity to think before talking/chatting. 'chat' & 'sms' are still very informal ways of communicating with people. You need to be very cautious about 'what' you chat/sms.

- When you want to get some quick information/status from people
- When you don't want to 'archive' the communication for future reference
(Though the messengers provide support for archiving chat conversations - it is not predominantly used yet).
- When the conversation that you are having is 1-on-1 (Occassionaly, people do conferencing in chat)

The use of right mode of communication will help you to be successful in your career.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

3Cs to be a STAR in the hi-tech world


Hi-tech companies throw loads of money at people. Getting a hi-tech job has proven to be the easiest way to lead a comfy life. No wonder, why there is lots of institutions incubating engineers in India. Hi-tech jobs are very competitive. What do companies value? How do you become a STAR? The answer is 3Cs - Creativity, Communication & Contribution.

Creativity - Ballpoint pens carried by astronauts were leaking due to pressure in high-altitudes in the space. Americans spent nearly $11 million to invent a pen that doesn't leak. Russians just used a pencil. This is what is called "creativity". Creativity saves lots of time, resources & money. Creativity helps companies to venture into new domains. Creativity is hence valued the most.

Communication - Most of the hi-tech companies do job for offshore firms. As part of your day to day work, you'll have to interact with folks from different geographic domains. You should be in a position to express your ideas effectively. You've to excel in written, oral & non-verbal. One who is able to express his/her ideas effectively, often gets more credit.

Contribution - Hi-tech engine runs on the contributions from people. Typically, 80% of the work gets done by 20% of the people. So, the 20% who are STAR contributors are valued the most. If you get enough opportunities to learn, don't hesitate to work hard. Hard work cannot substitute smart work - but it can definitely complement it.

If you have any of the 3Cs you'll be fine. If you have all the 3Cs, you'll be a STAR in the hi-tech world.

Monday, July 02, 2007

You have a choice...


"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference"

-- Robert Frost

Life is wonderful. It offers lots of choices - right from your childhood ... all the way to your end. Remember the days when you were a little kid. Your parents took you to a toy shop. Your eyes grew wide & you were very excited to see the colorful toys in front of you. You wanted to have them all. But your parents told "Dear.. we cannot buy them all. Do you want the teddy or the car". You had to make a choice.

You grew up and there were abundant choices - for food, dress, TV programs, friends etc., After your higher secondary education, you had to choose your college & courses - do I want to be an engineer or doctor? do I want to go to a government college or a private college? Finally, you enrolled in a course. In the blink of an eye, you got your degree. Now, what do you want to be? Do you want to do your higher studies (or) Do you want to work?

Well, the choices are never ending. Life is all about making decisions. You've to either act or re-act. Inaction is not an option. Now, the big question is "HOW DO I MAKE THE BEST CHOICE?". There is no perfect answer to this question. I've seen people pondering over the 'choices' for weeks, months and years. By the time they make a choice, the options would've vanished. What I've learned is "MAKE A CHOICE. GIVE IT YOUR BEST. DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE RESULTS". You would've often made the right choices.