Friday, March 30, 2007

Can "thinking" get in the way of "doing"

I think we all know people that just "do”; just act without really thinking about what they are doing (or at least that's how it appears). I also know a few people that think, and plan, but never seem to get off the dime. I think most of us are pretty well balanced - we think, plan, (sometimes better than others), and then we take action (again, sometimes more effectively than others).

For me it's usually a pretty linear process. I think about what I'm going to do, and then I do it. If I get stuck, I may take a step back, and if things go exceptionally well or badly, I will usually take some time to reflect.

I had an experience recently where I could not get past the thinking stage. I was writing something, and struggled mightily. I knew generally what I wanted to say, but couldn't get it out of my brain. I just kept thinking about what I was saying, was there a better way to present the information, and was the information clear and compelling.

Like I said, it was a struggle. It took me an inordinately long time to turn out a small amount of mediocre material. Finally, I just gave it up and went for a walk. I still need to get back to it, and will be looking for a way to get into that place where the words just flow. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The value of Experts

We all have special talents and areas of expertise. Solving problems in those areas is easy and quick for us. I know some amazing software architects that can quickly and easily come up with an elegant, robust design – it’s just what they do.

I just spent way too many hours researching a particular legal question. While I am a very capable researcher, I am certainly not a lawyer. Finally, with my eyes bleary and my head spinning with too much information, I gave in – I called our law firm. I have to say, I love our lawyer (bet you don’t hear that often). She understands my business, she’s pragmatic, and she explains things very clearly and concisely. I explained my issue to her, and she said she’d get back to me today. Within an hour she was back. She had done the research that I’d been trying to do all day and had an answer for me.

So why didn't I call on this valued expert immediately? Good question. Part of it was cost, part of it was my own sense of self-reliance, and part of it was underestimating the task, but boy am I glad I did. Not only did she give me an answer I can rely on, she did it faster and frankly more cost effectively than I could.

So have I learned my lesson? I hope so. Why spin my wheels when I have great experts available to help me. I just spent many, many hours of my valuable time to save a few hundred bucks, and it wasn't worth it!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Mandatory Tools for Telecommuting

Winter is still with us and as I work from home I keep wondering do I have everything I need. Well probably not. What do I need? I have my trusty Powerbook, my Treo, and internet connectivity. Is that enough?

The most important secondary tools are the various power supply adapters. Without those you will have a very short workday. Unfortunately no notebook I am aware of has a battery capable of supplying an 8-hour charge. I have found that by turning off BlueTooth and WIFI (except when needed) does help. But you will still need that power adapter for a full days work. Most modern notebooks that are 3 years old or less have built in WIFI and LAN support. The days of carrying a bunch of PCMCIA cards are behind us.  I do recommend a Flash memory drive for backup. The easiest way to back up files today is to a FLASH drive.

The remaining key item is a secure software infrastructure. On my notebook I have a VPN client. This is a crucial part of the telecommuting working experience. With a VPN server setup in the office I am able to SECURELY access the files that I forgot to transfer to my flash drive the night before. You want to work on your local hard drive but sometimes you just need that  remote access because there is always one more file to read.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Excuses, Excuses

So many software companies don’t invest any time in their development processes and they all have excuses – “We don’t need that, we all know what each other is doing” “We don’t have time for that” “It’s just going to slow us down” “We’re too busy putting out fires”, and on and on.

I think that’s just crazy. It’s like saying I’m too tired or stressed to exercise, when we know that exercise will give us more energy and relieve our stress.

Like exercise, the investment in improving development process pays off in the long-term health of your organization. Also like exercise, it doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) hurt.

A well-designed, appropriate development process makes communication easier, makes development faster, and eliminates much of the fire fighting that goes on in many organizations. I’ve known executives that know this and still don’t do anything. This is a shame. I know that these organizations are less effective because of it, which reflects on the leader, but the people in the organization really feeling the pain are the developers.

A good development process will allow the development team to work in an environment where they can feel that they are really making progress, and delivering great products. It will also give them back some of that elusive work-life balance we’re all striving for by delivering products faster and eliminating many of those fires that have kept us all working late into the night on many occasions.

If you won’t do this for yourself, do it for your team. Give them back their quality of life.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Working in "the zone"

I remember being in “the zone” when I was a programmer. Coding for 8, 10, 12 hours at a stretch, not realizing it was time for lunch, or time to go home. I don’t get into that situation very often anymore. My day is often very fragmented – emails, calls, meetings, etc.

I just spent most of today writing. I was writing on a topic I was interested in, so I enjoyed it, but I find that I just can’t sit still for that long anymore. Of course, I’m not the 25 year-old I was then (even thought in my head I still think I am), but I think it’s more than just physical.

I think my constant multi-tasking has eroded my ability to focus. Lately I have been working on that – consciously bringing my attention back to the task at hand. I find that focus and that ability to be “present” allows me to enjoy what I’m doing more. I also get much more done without the distractions, but it was hard at first. I had gotten so used to being “connected” constantly. I wonder if our instant access culture has affected others the same way. Can developers (or any other knowledge worker) get into the zone and stay there in this age of email, voice mail, IM, etc?