Category Archives: Communication

Using Headphones for Learning

Just a quick note about one small way I have found to improve my learning when I watch YouTube videos. A while ago I realized that it was easier for me to follow complex content when wearing my old Sennheiser HD 600 headphones. They are not cheap, but relative to other models still quite affordable. And they are famous for their super-clear and neutral sound. Allegedly, this also makes them a preferred means for professional sound mixing. I had bought mine back in 2003 for listening to classical music.

Interestingly, though, the main use at the moment is for watching YouTube videos. There is a bunch of great content out about all aspects of software engineering, which is my topic of interest. When it comes to listening via headphones, my theory is that the super clear voices, relative to e.g. to the speakers of my laptop, free up a little bit of mental capacity. And this would then create the impression of grasping content more easily.

Personal Branding

In recent weeks I have come across a number of online articles and posts that covered various aspects of what is now called “personal branding”. Most of them listed relatively specific things to do or avoid. This is something that I think can do quite some damage, when followed blindly. Because at the end of the day you want to convey a picture of what you stand for. So doing or not doing things always needs to be seen in that context.

In my view the purpose of personal branding should be something like an extended version of your resume/CV. The latter is usually oriented towards listing what you did in your professional past and the relevant achievements. What it usually does not show is your personality. Are you a sociable team player or a ruthless egomaniac? Either type could have achieved  what you did (or rather claim to have done). But obviously the side-effects would be very different.

In contrast to the “words-only” description of yourself that a CV basically is, the personal brand should be created by “actions”. I am a big fan of judging people by what they do rather than say. And if someone does charity work in their free time, that tells me a lot about this person. Much more than any impressive job role that is listed in their resume. In this context please also have a look at my post Don’t Promote for Performance.

As a non-marketing person I always had the impression that branding is the most difficult thing in marketing. And while I am writing this it seems very clear to me what the reason is (the marketing people will tell me whether I am in line with conventional wisdom here). The challenge with branding is that a company never can create a brand directly. It can ensure that all the prerequisites are there – like an interesting logo and a catchy phrase. But for those to transform into a brand, the market needs to have a certain perception about them. And that perception is the brand.

The problem with this view is that it explicitly denies the organization direct control of the outcome. You can of course try to raise awareness with expensive advertising campaigns at major international airports. But if nobody ever heard your name, putting it next to a conveyor belt for luggage will not help much. Instead brand creation takes time and continuous effort. And of course you need to support this with traditional campaigns etc.

The actual brand will follow this and gradually develop, as customers are happy and spread the word. And this is also what I recommend to people when it comes to their personal brand: Do good things and “talk” about them. Talking here means every form of communication. Especially technical people, who also tend to be shy and introvert, are often not very good at self-promotion in a direct conversation. But they could give a presentations where their achievements are mentioned. This will not feel like bragging to them, but a more neutral description. And a bit of understatement has rarely hurt in these loud times.

So the bottom line is: Find out what you would like to stand for, deliver great results supporting this, and then spread the word. Sooner or later people will recognize you for it.

Why People Dislike Brainstorming Sessions

When a group of people is assigned a task they never had to deal with before, they often start with brainstorming. So you have a number of folks who typically are not exactly knowledgeable about something, but at the same time try to agree on an approach for dealing with it. So they start with a discussion on what to do, who should be assigned what activity etc.

The problem is, that this is not brainstorming. It is group of people talking about something that they do not know much about. So a lot of assumptions are made, often not even consciously. People will simply extrapolate their past experiences into the new topic. But this approach does not deliver particularly good results.

The relatively obvious problem is inefficiency. Instead of the whole group talking 15 minutes about something, prior research by just a single person would have produced at least the same result. (Well, probably a better one.) The bigger problem, though, is about effectiveness. In other words: The result of the group discussion will usually not be a truly good solution. Again for lack of research and knowledge.

From a team dynamics perspective there is another problem. There are people who tend to dominate such free-floating discussions. Apart from personality, the folks talking most are usually those that know least about the subject. Because those that understand things at least partially, know that it is not so easy. But there is no time for careful deliberation during such a meeting. So decisions are made based on the least helpful content and the people who know best go out of the meeting frustrated.

Luckily, it is very easy to overcome this. Just task people to do some research on their own before the meeting. You will have a much more thoughtful discussion.

Giving Space to New Team Members

What is management about? According to my favorite podcast, Manager Tools, as a manger you need to achieve results and retention. Pretty obvious on the one hand. But terribly difficult to implement, especially if you want to balance things. One aspect is how to integrate new members into the team. If you have not read my post on what actually makes a team, please go here first.

When you join a team you are the “freshman”, at least in terms of team dynamics. Not so long ago I had switched teams myself and after quite a few years found myself in that role again. I had gone through this process quite a few times, either within an organization or combined with a complete change of employer. Different this time was that from day one I was officially in charge of two knowledge areas (architecture and DevOps) in a global function. 

This was an interesting experience, given the combination of being team freshman and subject matter expert at the same time. So I had to balance what I consider appropriate behavior for someone new to a team, with demonstrating thought leadership in my areas of expertise. I knew most folks from previous interaction and regarded them very highly for what they had delivered in the past. And seeing how they treated those team members that I did not know yet, I was quickly convinced that those were top performers, too.

From the receiving end, I was welcomed very friendly and that included the same amount of teasing everybody else received and gave. It was clearly a warm welcome for me and I truly appreciate(d) it. My colleagues also gave me the distinct feeling that my input was seen as valuable to the team as a whole. Or in other words: They gave me space to define and fill my role, which is much more than your official job description.

The tone for this was set by management and, as with so many other aspects, followed by the others. This is classic leadership by example. Of course, if you have a jerk on the team it will probably not help very much. But it is absolutely the manager who sets the tone. A few years ago I first hand experienced how a new boss literally killed a weekly team call that had gone successfully for years in just a fortnight.

An additional aspect for people who just started their career is letting them establish themselves in the organization. Especially for engineers who tend to be more reserved and have a somewhat introvert personality, which from a scientific perspective is different from being reserved (for more details, I have linked a video in this post). These people need to be given opportunities where they can demonstrate their capabilities in a “safe environment” and then be recognized for it. They will flourish in such a setup and typically deliver much more than you expect.

The worst thing you can do with such folks is to shout them down in meetings or conference calls. Very quickly they will go silent, suffer quietly, and start looking for somewhere else to go. This is one of the reason why leading a group of software developers is very different from e.g. marketing folks. But that is for a different post.

DevOps and Ownership

“You build it, you run it” has been my mantra for many years now. A number of times I was approached by management and they asked who should be operating stuff that I had built. Because, allegedly, my time was too precious for doing such a mundane task like operations.

This is to all managers: Operations is neither mundane nor something for junior staff. It is in fact exactly the opposite. Operations is what keeps the organization alive. Operations is where the best people should be, because here the rubber (the developed software) hits the road. Operations is your last line of defense, when (not if) something goes catastrophically wrong. Operations is a key influencing factor on your organization’s ROI. Operations determines your ability to be agile on the market. Operations is key for customer satisfaction. I could go on and on, but likely you long got my point.

Of course there are some aspects to operations that, when things are done the wrong way, are repetitive and far from challenging. But that should mostly be behind us. Yes, in the 1960s we had people who did nothing but enter data. And until not too long ago a lot of operations was just ticking off check boxes on a to-do list. But with things like infrastructure as code (see my recent post on starting with Chef Infra Server), this should really be something from the past. What you need today are people who take pride in running a lean, highly automated, highly resilient IT organization.

And that is where it should be clear to everybody, that DevOps is much more about organization, knowledge, and collaboration beyond traditional “borders”, than about technology.

By the way: My response to management about who should run my stuff, has always been “me”. Because the applications were built to be as maintenance-free as possible. Only the occasional support ticket had to be answered and with proper logging/auditing that is nothing that takes a lot of time. And fixing the occasional bug was not a big deal either, thanks to Clean Code and test-automation.

This allowed me to support 6 business-critical applications as a “side-project”, i.e. no time was officially allocated. Comparable applications operated by other departments had at least three people full-time for support only.