Sunday, February 23, 2014

Personal Pearl: Take advantage of learning opportunities wherever you find them.

I am by nature a curious person. I enjoyed school, I enjoyed college, and I enjoy learning new things even today. I read more nonfiction than fiction, including biographies, science, military history, and numerous other topics. I have great respect for people who actively pursue knowledge. On the other hand, people who don’t seem very interested in learning new things puzzle me. It’s a big, complex universe with unlimited opportunities to acquire information, whether for practical purposes, for intellectual stimulation, or just for the fun of it.

You can learn a huge amount by looking over the shoulders of other people who are doing something interesting. My friend Norm is one of these highly inquisitive people who just soaks up new knowledge. One day Norm and I and our wives took a train from Portland to Astoria, Oregon. Norm spent much of the ride up at the front of the train, asking the engineer about his job and how the train works. Norm is genuinely interested in what other people are doing, and most people he meets are happy to share their knowledge. It’s both unusual and flattering when someone asks about your special interests or abilities.

Norm is a great teacher himself and is generous about sharing his own knowledge. Among his many accomplishments, he is a master woodworker. A few years ago we jointly refinished my teak dining room table, which was badly scratched and stained after years of use with little care, thanks to my ignorance of wood. Norm made it both fun and educational for me as we rejuvenated my well-worn table step by step. When we were done, it literally looked better than the day I bought it new. I never would have undertaken such a project on my own, so it was great to learn from an expert. We've worked on several other wood projects since then. Norm lets me do whatever I feel I can handle then steps in himself while I watch—and learn—as he performs the trickier steps.

When you’re in a situation where learning opportunities abound, take advantage of them. I went to graduate school in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At that time, Illinois had the largest chemistry grad school in the country, with more than 300 students performing all kinds of experiments. I might be walking down the hall in my building and see a fellow student working with a laboratory setup I’d never seen before. I’d stick my head in the door and ask what kind of experiment he was doing. This way I got to see in practice many kinds of chemical reactions that I otherwise would have only read about in a textbook.

On the flip side, my own research involved some unconventional types of equipment for organic chemistry. When I did an experiment, I had vacuum pumps running, noisy hydraulic systems in operation, an oscilloscope, and a big computer terminal in the lab. Only rarely would a passer-by step into my lab and ask, “What the heck kind of organic chemistry is this?” I was always happy to explain to them what I was doing. The mystery to me was why so few of my fellow students were curious about what was going on around them. Certainly, graduate school is exhausting and takes a lot of time and energy, but it’s easy to look over someone else’s shoulder for a minute or two to learn something new.

There have been times when I failed to take advantage of a learning opportunity, and I still kick myself for it. I’ve played guitar for many decades, mostly rock ’n’ roll. (My philosophy is that what I lack in ability, I can make up for in volume and distortion.) I’ve discovered that the only times I really get better at playing are when I take lessons, play in a band, or really concentrate on learning specific new songs or techniques on my own.

I last played with a group more than 13 years ago. It was just a basement band that got together for fun and to learn. Their lead guitarist was the best I’d ever played with. Steve knew thousands of songs and a wide variety of musical styles, and he had outstanding technique. I never heard him make a mistake. I could have learned a lot from Steve had I picked his brain more, asked him to show me how he played certain phrases or chords, and invited his critiques of my own playing. Steve was a quiet guy who didn’t spontaneously offer suggestions for improvement, although he always freely shared his knowledge when I did ask. I regret that I didn’t more fully exploit this great opportunity to learn more and enhance my own guitar skills.

If you like to learn new things, don’t be shy about asking other people to share their knowledge and skills with you. Enlist a skilled friend to help you with a project around the house. Let the people with whom you work and play know that you’re receptive to their input and eager to benefit from their experience. You probably have some tricks to teach them, too.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Professional Pearl: Sometimes taking a sensible risk can open up new worlds of possibility and success. (Part 2)

There are times when taking a risk pays huge dividends. About 18 years ago, I decided to create a training class on how to develop and manage the requirements for a software development project, a domain I had been interested in for some time. Developing a training class is a lot of work. It was entirely possible that I would teach this class just once at a conference, for a mere few hundred dollars. This wouldn’t provide much return on the investment of time I made in developing the class.

To my surprise, I had a hit on my hands. Since then, I have taught that two-day class 183 times and have delivered more than 100 related classes and shorter presentations on the same subject. I’ve written four bestselling books and numerous articles about topics in that field. I created eLearning versions of my training courses, and I also licensed the courseware to other companies so they could teach it themselves. So that risk paid off phenomenally well. On the other hand, I also wrote another software book that I almost literally cannot give away. The annual book royalties just barely pay for the cost of keeping the accompanying website alive. And yet it’s a fine book, with a lot of good, practical information in it. Not every risk you take will turn out the way you hope.

My friend Alice took a risk. She had been baking gluten-free nutrition bars for her own enjoyment and sharing them with her friends, who really liked them (I love them!). With their encouragement, she decided to launch a business. Alice’s dream was to be able to give up her day job and make a living pursuing her passion of making tasty, nutritious, and healthy gluten-free products. She did all the right things and had a fair amount of success, but the business didn’t take off the way she hoped. Eventually, she was forced to shut the business down, as was my friend Eric who started a great wine store that just didn't make enough money to survive past five years.

It’s discouraging when you throw yourself into a new endeavor, be it making food, selling wine, or making music, and the world doesn’t take sufficient notice. I admire people like Alice and Eric for taking the risks and making the investment. Even if the business is not a hit, it's an adventure. Just think of all Alice has learned that she can apply to her next venture.

The next time you are facing an opportunity to do something different or take a leap into the unknown, don’t be too scared. It’s certainly more comforting if you have some kind of a safety net, like a stable day job, a pension from a previous job, or a multimillion-dollar inheritance. Even if you’re on your own, though, you might find that taking a considered risk to change the direction of your life pays big dividends in lots of ways.

(Read the first part of this two-part article)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Professional Pearl: Sometimes taking a sensible risk can open up new worlds of possibility and success. (Part 1)

I spent the first fifteen years of my professional career in the research laboratories at Kodak in Rochester, New York. I started out as a research chemist but soon migrated into the software development field. After working for so long in the same building, I wanted to move to another area of the company and try something different, so I applied for a job in one of Kodak’s product development areas at another plant in Rochester.

One afternoon, I drove to that other facility and interviewed for the position. I knew I was well qualified and had a good chance of being offered the job. As I walked back to my car, though, I asked myself, “What in the world are you doing? You have a perfectly fine job already in the research labs, you have a lot of latitude to do what you want, and you are highly regarded. Why would you leave all that?” But then another voice intruded on my internal conversation. “Oh, Karl, take a risk,” it said. I figured I could always return to my old department or find a similar position if the new job didn’t work out, so what the heck, give it a shot.

I did accept the offer to join the new organization, and I worked there for two and a half years. It wasn’t all sweetness and light, but overall it was a valuable experience. I met a lot of smart, talented people. I was able to apply what I already knew about improving software development processes in organizations, and I also learned a great deal more. Working closer to the product development side of the business was a valuable lesson in pragmatism and a reality check on my thoughts about the software development process. So it worked out well for me, and ultimately I was glad I took the risk.

Some people are adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers, always hunting the next challenge. Most people are more risk averse. Recently a woman who works at the library where I volunteer told me, “I’m not good with change.” We all have our comfort zones. It can be difficult to stretch out a bit, to try something new, to leave the safe surroundings of your present situation voluntarily and step into the unknown. You never know how it’s going to work out. What if you hate the new position? What if you can’t go back and you’re trapped there? What if you jump ship for a new company, only to lose your job because you’re the least senior person when downsizing hits? You just don’t know how things are going to turn out, so it’s understandable that many people are reluctant to make a change. Inertia is powerful.

Sometimes, though, taking a sensible, thoughtfully considered risk works out very well. During my last few years at Kodak, I had begun doing a little consulting and training at other companies. I enjoyed this work and was pleased that my experience and knowledge were broadly applicable in the software community. At one point a highly experienced outside consultant asked me, “When are you going to leave Kodak and hang out a shingle as an independent consultant?” My first reaction was, “Are you nuts? I like to eat every day.” But as I thought about this possibility, it occurred to me that perhaps I could make a go of it. And if it didn’t work out, I could probably find another job somewhere.

So after careful consideration, I started my own software training and consulting company, Process Impact, and bid Kodak farewell. Fortunately, Process Impact flourished. I had the good fortune to be far more successful than I ever expected as a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author. So that was a risk well worth taking. However, I do have some colleagues whose independent consulting careers didn’t work out as well, for various reasons. The risks they took turned out to be mistakes, and they had to go back to real jobs in corporate America. Perhaps the lessons they learned from the experience will be valuable should they decide to give self-employment another try in the future.

(Read the second part of this two-part article)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Practical Pearl: Just keep your feet moving, and you’ll get where you’re headed.

One night when I was in college, I was waiting, with a horde of other people, to get into a popular (and free) midnight movie. When the doors opened, the crowd pressed forward but nobody seemed to be going anywhere. Then I remembered some advice my father once gave me. He said, "If you are in a crowd of people who are all heading toward the same destination, just keep your feet moving and eventually you will get there." He was absolutely correct. I kept shuffling my feet and worked my way through the crowd, instead of just waiting for the tide to carry me into the auditorium along with the mass of humanity.

This principle applies to other aspects of life besides navigating through crowds. Most progress is made incrementally, not by giant leaps. Whether you’re facing a daunting journey or an imposing project, you’ll eventually make progress if you just keep your feet moving. You’ll won’t get far, however, if you procrastinate and never start, repeatedly start and stop, frequently change directions, or charge headlong into barriers.

Process improvement is another area where it pays to keep your feet moving. I’ve spent nearly 20 years working with software organizations to help them improve the way they build their information systems and technology products. It’s hard to significantly change the culture and practices of an organization. You can’t just hand everyone a big procedures manual and say, “Starting Monday, this is how we do business around here.” Instead, the appropriate operating principle is: “Gentle pressure, relentlessly applied.”

If you’re the improvement leader, you need to choose the weak areas to focus on initially, get the effort underway, and keep it visible. Carve the time out of the team’s schedule to learn and implement new ways of working, monitor progress, and assess results. I’ve seen too many process improvement programs derail because some manager launched the activity with much fanfare but didn’t follow up. If the leader doesn’t keep a little gentle pressure on the team members, frequently reminding them of the goals and guiding them toward a better tomorrow, it’s not going to happen. Organizational change of any kind involves steering people toward new ways of working by setting objectives and taking baby steps, one after the other, toward the target. Continuous incremental movement usually will achieve better long-term results than intense flurries of activity that drop by the wayside after the initial energy dissipates.

How do you prefer to approach big projects? Some people like to focus on the greatest challenge, the hardest part, or the core part of the problem first. I prefer to start with smaller tasks or simpler parts of the problem that I can quickly handle. These early “wins” give me confidence and make me feel like I’m making progress right out of the gate, instead of feeling like I’m beating my head against the wall (which is how I often feel when I’m struggling with something more demanding). I’m a list-making kind of guy, so I also get the satisfaction of crossing a few tasks off the to-do list.

There’s another benefit to this approach. It gives me the opportunity to cogitate on the bigger challenges that lie ahead, to learn more about the problem and explore potential solutions before I dive in. I have time to run through different scenarios for the big problem in my mind, contemplating the issues and refining my approach instead of having to adapt my initial approach on the fly. This small-tasks-first strategy is more efficient for me than the alternatives of either tackling the hardest problem first or just working on tasks in some random sequence.

On the other hand, if you’re facing a potential showstopper, a make-or-break issue that could terminate the whole project, you should deal with it as early as possible. In such a case, any time you spend knocking off those small tasks could be wasted. Many projects also involve dependencies that require some tasks to be completed before others. All other things being equal, though, I’ll get my feet moving on the smaller activities first, confident that I’ll get where I’m heading in due course.