Monday, August 27, 2007

Sharpen the Saw

When we were small, we were told "Study hard upto your 12th standard. Once you get into your college, you can start to relax". We completed 12th. But then, folks said "Study well for another 3 or 4 years. Once you complete your college and go to work, you can start to relax". But, here you are. You completed your studies and got into a job. Now, your manager gives you a bundle of project/product documentation to read. You are also asked to attend a set of training sessions. You have to continue to read about new technologies/tools for every new product/project that you start to work on. In IT industry, the need to continuously update your knowledge doesn't end. What happens to a wood cutter who continues to chop trees without sharpening the saw. Either the saw will break or the wood cutter will get tired soon. He'll soon reach a point where he cannot cut any more trees. The same thing will happen to you if you are not constantly updating your knowledge/skills. Technology evolves rapidly ... like a supersonic jet that vanishes in the blink of an eye. You need to keep pace with it. Otherwise, you'll get outdated.

You can also continue to update your knowledge by taking part-time courses. Many companies provide distant education programs by affiliating with colleges and universities. That is one good way of replenishing your skills.

Use every opportunity you get to learn something new. Don't ever forget to "Sharpen the saw".

Time, Cost, and Quality - Pick any two

Building a product and nurturing a plant have lots of similarities. You need to invest sufficient time and resources (i.e., money) to get quality in the output. Time is indeed money. When you spend a lot of time on the project, the cost of the project goes off the roof. Though you might have built a high quality product, the product won't be appealing enough - because it will be COSTLY. On the contrary, if you rush to deliver something in a short time, compromising on the quality, the product still won't be appealing enough - because it is BUGGY. So, you need to strike a balance between these 3 factors - Time, Cost and Quality. Most of the times, you may have no choice but to select 2 of the three. You would have to compromise on Time or Cost or Quality. Based on my experience, companies often try to compromise on Quality as it is not very visible when the customer begins to evaluate a product/solution. However, it doesn't take you very long. Customer will soon figure out that the product is BUGGY and it will come back to haunt you. Successful companies have learned to strike a balance between these 3 factors. So, if you want to be successful, you should be too.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Team Work - You are NOT done, until the team is done

Team Work is very important for the success of a group/organization. A team may consist of people with varied levels of experience and skills. You need synchronisation and cohesion within the team. A fast moving vehicle stays on course only if all the wheels rotate together. What if one wheel decides to run faster than the others. The vehicle will lose its balance and topple. The same thing applies to team work also. So, how do you promote team work within your group?

You'll often have team members who will try to outsmart others. Some folks will be reluctant to help others. There are extreme cases where folks may not like to work with each other. The lack of team work within a group may be at times, counter productive. So, how can organizations get folks to work with each other?

The first thing that you need to do is build the team with the right set of people. You have to make sure that the team members can work with each other. At the end of the day, you are not just dealing with people. You are dealing with personalities. You have to make sure that the different personalities in your team can co-exist. The purpose of building the team is not to get 1+1=2 performance. The purpose is to get 1+1=3 performance. If you don't build the team right, you'll get 1+1=1 performance.

In many occasions you may not have the luxury to form/build your own team. You'll be asked to manage an existing team. So, what can you do to promote team work within the group? People have solved this problem already. They've identified a diverse set of things that can be tried such as group outtings, team building activities, happy hours etc., At times, these initiatives may not still promote team work. The reason being such activities are done 'once in a blue moon day' and there is no constant re-enforcement. Also, there is a bigger issue which organizations tend to ignore.

Though organizations preach team work, they continue to promote individual contributions. How can organizations promote team work when their performance system continues to reward individual contributions? Shifting the focus on group performance instead of individual performance, will alleviate such problems.

A team is like the wheels of a train engine. When they all work together, the organization continues to move in the right direction with a rhythm. When they try to take their own course, the organization loses its focus and balance.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Hire Slow, Fire Fast

I've read several books in the areas of people management and building effective organizations. All of them echo the same message - "Hire Slow, Fire Fast". But, I've seen companies doing just the opposite. Companies/managers hurry to hire a person due to project pressures. They don't hire GREAT people. They just settle for AVERAGE people who may be good at one particular thing. When the project is over, they don't know what to do with that person. They try to put the person in a different project and realize that the person is not suitable for that. Nor, is the person willing to learn the new technology/skill. They give him/her time to learn. But, the person doesn't learn. They put him/her in a performance improvement plan. The person shows slight improvement. They think that the person has 'good' attitude and they just end up keeping him/her in the job. The person gets fired only when there is a real 'crisis'.

When you hire a GREAT person, your benefits get doubled. First of all, he/she contributes a lot to the product/project. Second of all, he/she will also help others in the group to perform better. At the same time, if you hire an AVERAGE person, you get beatings twice. First of all, he/she doesn't contribute what is expected out of him/her. Second of all, someone (usually, the performer) has to help him/her to perform even their day-to-day work. Indirectly, you are affecting the productivity of the performers, too.

When you complain to the management about the inefficiency of AVERAGE performers, you'll most likely hear the 'five fingers story'. "Note... Not all the team members can be STAR performers. Look at your fingers. They're not alike. But you need them all to do your tasks. Similarly, do not expect everyone to contribute the same to the project/product". I pity these managers. They have actually 'mis-understood' the five fingers story. The real message behind the 'five fingers story' is - each of the team members will bring-in different skills/expertise to the project/product. The combined set of skills/expertise will help to achieve the project/product goals/milestones. So far, I've not come across a manager who embraces this theory when building teams. At the end of the day, a manager has to realize that we are not running a 'charity institution' to give jobs to 'everyone'.

Companies have adopted lineant hiring policies and tough firing policies. If a person in the team is not 'rising' up to the challenges, the person is not fired right away. He/She is given time after time after time to improve. Or, the manager is not 'bold' enough to make the tough decision. There are managers who want to 'demonstrate' their people management skills by trying to 'get the best' out of the non-performers. There are managers who want to keep a 'proper mix' of performers vs non-performers in order to maintain the salary structure, performance incentives etc., There are managers who do not want to keep 'smart' folks under them - so that, subordinates will always say "Yes!" to every decision they make. To me, all these are 'absurd'. Once again, we are not running 'charity instituitions'. We are running 'business'. We want the company to be profitable. Shareholders do not invest money into the company to give jobs to 'everyone'. They want to get 'good returns' on their investments.

If you are a manager, you should take time to hire GREAT folks, and shouldn't think twice before firing NON-PERFORMERS. Hire Slow, Fire Fast

Thursday, August 02, 2007

How do you improve your communication skills?

Having learned about the need for communication skills, you may now ask - "How do I hone my communication skills?". There are several things you can do to improve your communication skills. It is never too late, but it is wise to start early. I've listed below some suggestions for you to improve your communication skills:

1) Read 'rich' books or news papers - I am not asking you to read 'costly' books. Read books/papers/magazines that are rich in the usage of grammar and English language. Make it a habit. You should read for atleast an hour a day.

2) Participate in group discussions - You can take a topic like "What do you think about global warming?" and start debating about it. Involve your friends and co-students. During group discussions, listening to others and giving others a chance to talk is equally important.

3) Join Toastmasters - is a non-profit organization that helps people to improve their communication and leadership skills. There are several clubs throughout India/World. Look at the website to find a club that is near to your home. In about a year or so, you'll feel the difference.

4) Converse in English to the extent possible - Talk to your friends & family members in English whenever you get a chance. Tell them that you are trying to improve your communication skills - they'll understand and be supportive.

5) Watch English TV channels - Watching English News channels is a way to understand how some of the words can be uttered and what is the best way to communicate information. (Note: Don't spend hours and hours in front of TV. It is not good for your health and definitely not a good use of your precious time)

6) Listen to English recordings - You can download lots of English speeches and conversations from Internet and listen to them. Software such as iTunes makes it easy for you to search and download free content from Internet. There are several English podcasts that can be downloaded from iTunes.

7) Conduct seminars/presentations - Whenever you get a chance, read about something and share your knowledge with your friends. This will help you to improve your presentation skills.

There may be other ways to improve your communication skills. Talk to your college seniors, friends and relatives. They'll also be able to help you out. Improving your communication requires lots of time and practise. But, if you focus on it and give your best you'll become a good communicator, soon.

Know to talk? The job is yours !!

Communication is the most important skill required in a IT job. With the whole world becoming a small village, IT employees are spread out all over the world. You should be able to effectively execute projects with a team of people. You should be able to communicate with everyone in the team clearly and confidently. You are lucky if your team members sit across your cubicle. Chances are high that your team members are in a different office or from a different timezone. If so, the complexity of communication increases. What are some of the things that we do in an IT company that makes communication very important:

1) We get requirements from customers in written or oral form. You should be able to listen/read and understand the requirements. You should be able to ask the right questions to the customers to get clarifications regarding the requirements.

We have regular 1-on-1 discussions. Many a times, you may have to talk to your colleague to discuss about issues and resolutions. Your colleague may sit across your cubicle or sit across the globe.

3) We have to update status regularly to one or more folks. You may have to report your status in writing through status reports or in oral form during meetings.

4) We have regular conference calls. With the advent of conference calling facility and software tools such as Skype, Gotomeeting, Webex etc., we are constantly interacting with a group of people across the globe. Even if all the employees are sitting in one office, your customers may be spread out in the world. You may have to interact with your customers.

5) We write specifications and develop documents. Our job responsibility not only includes developing/testing software. It also includes documenting technical and process related interactions. You should be able to write documents that are comprehensive, complete and correct.

6) We have brainstorming sessions. Very frequently we have brainstorming sessions with our colleagues or customers. We solve problems by getting opinion from several folks. You should be able to effectively assimilate others' thoughts and present yours during such meetings.

7) We have technical/non-technical presentations/seminars. Many a times, someone has to present their design proposal or project proposal to their peers or to the management/customer. You should be able to effectively make presentations.

You may be tested during interviews for communication. Many companies provide training to their employees for them to improve their communication skills. Communication is not only key for the success of individuals but also for the success of the whole organization. So, prepare yourself for all of the above situations.