The cost of self improvement

Introduction

In my earlier career, I measured my knowledge by how many exams I had passed and how much frowning I did throughout the day. I’ve lost the exam bug over recent years, mostly because the 700 page study tomes contain perhaps 100 pages relevant to either my role at the time or my future goals and with the pace of IT these days, I honestly have better things to be doing with my time.

That’s why I try to focus my learning goals myself, rather than be told by somebody who doesn’t know me is what I should be learning.

The Training Trap

The cycle of continuous training contains many pitfalls. First of all is the cost. Training courses, books, ,other materials, exams. The whole refresh cycle means that once you are committed to remaining certified, you are on a one way journey to Emptywalletville. Unless you are lucky enough to have a sponsor that will pay your way.

The vendors love telling us how marketable these certifications make us too and we seem to eat it up by the bucketful. What annoys me the most is how these vendors lock businesses and individuals in to the training trap by insisting you need so many MCSx/CCNx/etc. people to maintain certain partner level accreditations. Just another set of hoops to jump through, another maze to remain locked within.

Same shit, different day

Every time I go to the supermarket or newsagents, I always have a browse of the magazines. Over the years, I’ve even subscribed to several of these covering Film, IT, photography and gaming, but none have lasted more than a couple of years.

With the ever expanding catalogue of available publications, it is easier than ever to see that a large percentage of these publications are simply regurgitating the same material in a cyclone of confusion and trickery.

The worst offenders seem to be the IT and Health sector magazines. The same top 10 lists, learn how to do this or that, absolute beginner’s guide to blah, blah, blah. Even within the same month, on display you can see magazines that have similar content to attract your hard earned money.

Another sector that is guilty as sin for this is the self-help book brigade with the same information commonly being thrown at us time and time again. Sadly, the target audience for these are often the most susceptible to the need to buy.

Suckers for or victims of punishment

One thing that is for sure, these publishers would not remain in business for long if they didn’t have a steady revenue stream. The way out is easy enough in this scenario and is covered below.

The more difficult scenario to disentangle oneself from is the vendor partnership scheme. For these, you need to ensure that the benefits you receive from participating outweigh the associated effort and cost, but you often have little leeway in this regard.

I’ve yet to find a magazine in the supermarket that contains information that is not easily and freely available on the Internet, within minutes from anywhere in the world where I can connect, or to download for later offline reading. The fact that I can dive deeper in to those articles by ‘going down the rabbit hole’ at no extra cost and end up with a much fuller understanding is another free benefit. Despite the electrical usage, I’m also a little greener by saving the trees.

For those people who argue ‘I like to feel the paper in my fingers’, my advice would be to count the bundles of cash you will save instead.

Summary

The wider field of self improvement, no matter which topic we are talking about has created a business sector which is growing year on year, with no signs of slowing down. For some reason, we buy in to their marketing as if we’ve briefly forgotten what a connected world we live in, just for those moments between the shelf and the checkout.

From a certification point of view, I’ll mostly only be recertifying and proving my knowledge via other means.

I like to think I’ve seen the light. At the very least, I’ve got a few more pennies in my pocket and a lot more time to enjoy the more meaningful things in life.

Till the next time.

The difference between inspiration and motivation

Introduction

I’ve heard people use these words in the wrong context before and it got me to wondering, are people looking in the wrong place to get things done? This brief post covers the difference between motivation and inspiration.

Inspiration

Inspiration happens from the outside in. That is, an external force triggers a reaction in you that causes you to behave in some way. Inspiration infers a positive force causing a positive reaction, at least for sane people with a love of life.

The reaction might be a smile, or pleasant thoughts or it could be something more active like going to the gym, doing some DIY and getting down to some studying. It could also be something more selfless, such as making a charity donation. Regardless, without the external force, the inspiration simply doesn’t happen.

Motivation

Therein lies the rub for me. Why wait for something external to have an impact before I decide to get something done? Motivation happens from the inside out. That is, an internal force triggers a reaction in you that causes you to behave in some way. You aren’t relying on external forces, just yourself. Shia Labeouf would love this post, I’m sure.

Let’s face it. Motivation is effectively self-inspiration. You need to inspire yourself to get something done and quite often for that, you will need a strong will and a very good imagination. But what you won’t need is to wait for any external stimuli.

Summary

Essentially, in this post I called people who rely on being inspired to get things done lazy and unimaginative. Own the trigger and just do it.

Till the next time.

Respect your future self

Introduction

Day in, day out, life is full of decisions from the mediocre, ‘which socks should I wear today?’, to the more life changing, ‘do I accept the job offer?’. Many of these decisions are made almost automatically whilst others, we pore over for what can seem like an eternity.

Having given this process some deep thought recently, I came to the conclusion that most people use a complicated set of factors and brain algorithms to arrive at the final decision, but that for the most part that decision is what is deemed best at that moment in time. People might use historical data to help drive the overall decision but we are very much in the moment when we make our choices. You only have to look at how late most people start seriously saving for retirement to see what I mean.

Meet your future self

For the smaller decisions, that probably isn’t a big issue but if you sit and think about what your top five life priorities are, set goals for each of those and think how each decision you make helps you get closer to achieving those goals, even if it hurts a little in the short term, I believe you’ll make better long term decisions, especially the important ones.

For example, your top priorities might be health, family, career, travelling, music. To make it less abstract (some people struggle to see in to next week, let alone 10 years away), try to imagine yourself having a conversation with your future self. How would you justify your decision? How do you think your future self would react? If you see them shaking their head in disbelief or disappointment, you might want to rethink before you proceed. If your future self feeds back that you have looked after their goals well, then you are on the right track.

Don’t cave in to the temptations of the present with the ‘I can sort this all out at later time’ attitude.

Summary

Just to clarify, I’m not condoning being a boring fart that has no fun. I’m only talking about the important decisions that affect your top life priorities. Map those out now and consider how you will look back on these big decisions in the future before you dive in head first.

When you get older, you’ll be talking to yourself all the time anyway so why not get some practice in now?

Till the next time.

The human OSI stack

Introduction

Earlier this year, I attended a growing InfoSec event hosted at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland called Securi-Tay. One of the talks was about carving a career out in InfoSec, presented by the talented Javvad Malik during which he showed the well known OSI model as mapped to humans.

I’d had something like this in mind for a while so, with Javvad’s kind permission to partly rip off his concept and his subliminal motivation, here is my take on how to make sure your human OSI stack is compliant with any current or potential employer’s.

Human OSI stack

  1. Physical. As shallow as it may seem, first impressions do indeed last. How you dress, your personal hygiene, your haircut, what type of glasses you may wear, the colour of your nails, whether you make eye contact or look at the floor. All these things, rightly or wrongly, form an impression. Try and be as smart and professional as you can be, whilst maintaining a certain degree of individuality. As with all layers of the OSI model, you can get a good idea of how best to be ‘compliant’ by looking at other successful people
  2. Data-link. Beyond first impressions, the way you actually communicate is going to make or break you. The importance of knowing how to talk to people at all levels cannot be overstated. Don’t think that emails, IM or social media are exempt from this rule. It covers all form of communications. You can spend a long time carefully building a professional persona and bring it crashing down in a single exchange. As one of my colleagues at a previous company used to say, ‘you are always just one click away from being fired’.
  3. Network. OK, so you’ve managed to get this far but you are only known for your abilities within your own team or maybe your company. It is more important today than ever that you get out and about and make a name for yourself. You need to extend your network of people beyond the walls of the building you work in. At worst, people will hear about the good things you are achieving, at best you will have a large pool of resources you can rely on for the rest of your career. Get to know key people in other businesses, especially your customers, competitors and vendors.
  4. Transport. Driving a nice car might draw more attention than taking the bus but I want to discuss the transport of work through your part of the business. Have you ever even considered the concept of work in progress, even just in your team but more generally through your business? Do you sit and complain about how there is never enough time in the day or do you look for the pinch points and what can be done to remove them? Defining what the manual process is will always be the first step. Write it down, step by step. Then look at how that process can be improved and made more efficient. Then start automating the different steps, with the aim being a completely automated workflow. Now you have more free time to work on other tasks and keeping the work in progress down to a streamlined minimum. Time well spent.
  5. Session. Not sure about the rest of the world, but in the UK, going on a session means having a few drinks. For the purpose of this bullet point, I’m talking about taking regular time outs. Don’t burn yourself out with work all the time. Find the things in life that make you relax, sit back and smell the roses/coffee/whatever. It might be having a social drink with friends and family. Or taking your kids geocaching. Or hitting the gym. The important point is…don’t lose sight of this. It is critical to achieving a work/life balance and you’ll not regret the long hours and hard work you put in.
  6. Presentation. Not so much about your own presentation, covered in the Physical layer but more about your presentation skills. Whether standing up in front of a group of people or publishing a book or a blog, you should be able to adjust your message based on audience to get it across in an entertaining and professional manner
  7. Application. How you apply yourself to your role is critical. Are you a 9-5 type person who comes in, works through their ‘in tray’ and signs out again? Or do you rip up the role and responsibilities sheet and look for new and different ways to offer value to your employer? The latter approach will almost certainly accelerate your career but at the very least expand your knowledge

Summary

This was a slightly tongue in cheek look at how to use the OSI model to help guide you in your career but the truth is that using a simple set of guidelines like this should prove more useful than just winging it or worse still, being a passenger.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 10, Review

Introduction

The 10 tenets of working in IT series originally started with a post on PacketPushers back in 2012. I got a good response to that and when I was writing it, I had envisioned breaking out each tenet to its own post.

This final post in the series covers off how to review. Not just reviewing the other tenets from time to time but review your tasks, your career and your life.

Review

Reviewing is all about taking a look at where you are in your big plan. This will only be effective if you have set yourself goals. Whilst these targets can move and change based on circumstances, both within and outside your control, adapting to these changes is going to be more effective if you go through a regular review process.

Don’t micromanage yourself though, which will usually end up being counter-productive. I find that setting goals, breaking them down in to tasks and putting time scales against them makes it an easier job for me to keep on top of them and setting a regular review session, the frequency of which is usually determined by a combination of the end date and priority.

It’s also important to review your career progress. Have you been so heavily focussed on your current role for such a long period of time that you’ve missed opportunities to progress, either upwards or outwards? It is important to take a look down from a higher altitude to see what is on the horizon and potentially beyond.

The same goes for keeping a track on life in general. How many workaholics, highly successful career people, have sub-optimal personal lives because they apply all their energy to their careers and come home with nothing left in the tank? Sure, there are times when you know giving it 110% at work is going to pay off down the line e.g. pulling a project out of the disaster bin, and a compromise at home can be agreed with all parties, but if these periods extend for too long unchecked, things can go awry over time.

Treat your career and your personal life like a prized network; monitor, be proactive, tweak, capacity plan and get feedback from its users. The last thing you need is an outage.

Summary

It’s all very well having a solid plan of action with the skills and behaviours to see that plan through but if you don’t take a step back every now and again and review what you do, what needs throwing out and what can be improved, you may find yourself not achieving your full potential. Keep challenging yourself, measuring progress and moving forward.

I hope this series has been useful to you, at least in parts if not in its entirety. Feel free to get in touch or drop a comment in on the blog.

Till the next time

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 9, Know Your Place

Introduction

We all serve a purpose in life. Some people spend their entire life never questioning what theirs is, whilst others waste a lot of effort comparing the situation they find themselves in to others, in particular those they perceive as better off by one measure or another. This post looks at a few tips to try and help you find your purpose.

Know your place

Consider the bullet points below lifted directly from my original 10 Tenets of IT post on Packetpushers:

  1. Do not get depressed with not knowing everything
  2. Know what you don’t know; decide from that what you need to learn
  3. Don’t get bogged down comparing your abilities to others. You’ll either spend your life kicking yourself because you can’t emulate your heroes, or you’ll justify treading water because you are at least better than the guy sat next to you
  4. Be the best you can be
  5. Aspire to improve
  6. Drop things that you no longer need
  7. Fine tune that which you do

There are two key themes that compliment each other here. The first can be summarised as “Don’t beat yourself up” and the other is “Control your own destiny”. You shouldn’t waste time worrying about what you don’t know or what other people are up to. Decide what it is you want to be, plan how to get there and make it happen. A particularly well matched tenet here is tenet 8, focus.

Summary

In the introduction to this post, I wrote that we all serve a purpose in life. One of the key things that separates the get-bys from the successful people is the former allow themselves to be told what their purpose is and the latter define it for themselves.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 8, Focus

Introduction

In keeping with the topic of this post, I’ll try and keep it brief and to the point. What is it that separates the winners from the losers? The people who seem to be continuously increasing their knowledge from those who struggle to keep up? Those that seem to climb the career ladder with ease from those retiring from the helpdesk after an ‘illustrious’ 30 year career. This post looks at a key differentiator.

Focus

The ability to focus is a skill that takes both time and commitment to learn. Think of it like a leaky bucket, you can fill it up quickly but every now and again, you will have to top it up to stop it emptying.

If I were to list some of the key points relevant to being focussed on any task I set my mind to, it would include the following as a starter for ten:

  1. Understand exactly where you are right now. If you aren’t truthful with yourself, you won’t be able to plan your journey to success accordingly
  2. Understand clearly what success looks like. You should hit your goals with the sound of angels/ticker-tape parade/(insert appropriate analogy here). If you don’t nail this down, you run the risk of hitting your target without even realising it or worse still never achieving it
  3. In between where you are now and where you want to be is a journey. It could be a metaphorical walk in the park or it could be a inter-continental saga. Depending on how big a task you have set yourself, you need to plan accordingly. What will you need to get to the end, what milestones can you use to keep yourself on track, how will you measure your success?

In the interest of brevity, that is basically it. Make sure steps 1 and 2 give you a true understanding of where you are and need to be. This is the cornerstone to good planning. Step 3 is a recursive step to keep yourself right as you head towards your final destination.

Other things to bear in mind:

  1. Whether this is a mental goal e.g. learning a new skill, or a physical goal e.g. running a 10K, don’t neglect the other side. In particular, when going undercover studying for a new certification, don’t neglect your body. Eat, drink and exercise responsibly
  2. Use the other tenets in this series to keep a good balance. They should work together as a system, rather than being individual concepts
  3. Take a good look around once in a while. Have you become too focussed and let other things slip?
  4. Make sure you enjoy the journey too. This will naturally increase your chances of success
  5. Avoid the dreaded distractions that are focus killers. They differ from person to person but usually TV, social media, gaming and food are near the top of the list
  6. The art of focussing itself is circular. You have to tune it every now and again else run the risk of drifting off track

Summary

I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes take my foot of the gas, or get drawn away by distractions. Having said that, when I want something or I need to get something done, I know how to focus and apply myself for sustained periods of time and when to take a break to maximise results.

Till the next time.

Are you a lion or a gazelle?

Introduction

There is an old fable that has been attributed to various sources, which I’m not concerned about verifying but it goes something like this:

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up knowing it must outrun the fastest lion, or it will be killed and eaten.  Every morning a lion wakes up knowing it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve  to death.  It does not matter if you are a lion or a gazelle…when the sun comes up each morning, you’d better be running.

Face value

The message here is clear. To survive, you have to keep moving, else become extinct. This is so applicable to the world of IT. Things change so quickly. Of course dinosaurs in IT do exist but in today’s climate more than ever, they are struggling to avoid being relegated to irrelevancy.

Reading between the lions (sic)

In my opinion, the fable offers far more value if you ask yourself whether you would rather be a lion or a gazelle, figuratively speaking, from the point of view of an IT professional and the information explosion we face on most days.  How best to deal with it?

Would you rather be a gazelle, trying to be ahead of the curve, having to keep up with every new technology, every vendor’s new product release, every new protocol, read every blog post, twitter feed, RFC, book, listen to every podcast, lab every scenario, attend every event, etc., fearful that you may be gobbled up if you stop?

Or would you rather be a lion and filter out the noise, focus on what is relevant, feast on the juiciest knowledge, that which will sustain you, make you stronger and still give you time to spend with your pride, comfortable in the knowledge that you are at the upper end of the food chain?

Summary

The art of survival is not just about making it through the day. It’s about focussing your efforts in the right place at the right time so you can keep enough energy for the other important things in your life. Be sure to refocus on whatever you are currently doing. It’s less about what you can achieve on a day to day basis but rather what you can sustain throughout your career and life.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 7, Honesty

Introduction

This isn’t a post about stealing your colleague’s lunch from the fridge in the kitchen. You will also be disappointed if you came here for advice on what to do about people who park in disabled parking spaces without a permit. Rather, it discusses being honest with yourself and with people you have real, direct interactions with.

Honesty

There are many related words/phrases I could have chosen to base a blog post on in lieu of honesty. Courtesy, integrity, morality, etc. They are all worthy attributes but I somehow feel that honesty encompasses all of them. Rather than get into a  deep philosophical discussion on truth and the ways of the world, I’d prefer to use some simple bullet points from the original 10 tenets post to keep things simple:

  • Be honest with yourself in the first instance
  • Only then can you be honest with colleagues, customers, friends and family
  • Know when to put your hands up and say “I don’t know”
  • Don’t bury things when you get something wrong, get it out in the open
  • Know when it is time to change job
  • Know when it is time to change career
  • Ask for the same level of honesty from the people you deal with (this needs to be addressed differently depending on who we are talking about!)
  • Ask for feedback about yourself from those people you deal with
  • Make sure you get your yearly appraisal. This is the ideal opportunity for you and your line manager to align your goals with that of the company

Summary

In an era when people are all too keen to splash details of their personal life online, discussing what they’ve had for dinner, who they were out with the night before and what they think of their boss, many people are still unable to be as honest with themselves or with people when face to face and not hiding behind ‘the net’.

It is human nature for people to build walls to hide behind and sadly, the first casualty is often truth. I’ve found that my career has taken the biggest leaps forward when I’ve been honest with both myself and those around me.

Try being more honest with yourself and with the people you deal with. You may find it  very liberating.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 6, Share

Introduction

Let me share a little secret with you (wow, a post about sharing and I’m diving straight in with a share). People almost always get more done when they come together as a team, working towards a common goal. That doesn’t have to, and indeed should not mean continuous meetings. We live in a time where collaboration can be a far simpler task than it once was. Email, instant messaging, video conferencing, collaborative web portals and interactive whiteboards can all facilitate teamwork. Having said that, it all depends on how the team interacts with each other. If you are pulling in different directions, forget it. You’ll do more damage than good. But if you aren’t sharing, you are going to damage productivity. This post looks at how to share more effectively but makes the assumption that team frictions are at a minimum and that you are all aiming for the same goals.

Knowledge

There are three things, the lack of which are guaranteed to make me speak out. Communication, common sense and documentation. If you have knowledge of a customer infrastructure, write it up in an email, wiki article, Word document or whatever works for your organisation. Use standardised templates. Create document sets. Send links to colleagues. Use version control. Knowledge is power – sharing knowledge is the real power. Pass on tips. Give praise when receiving knowledge. Don’t assume people’s skills. Drop useful links on your blog\social sites. In a word, participate.

Skills

Despite having worked with some incredibly talented people in the field of IT, I’ve yet to meet one who couldn’t learn something from another person. Sharing your skills with somebody else has a number of benefits:

  • It empowers the person you are teaching to go away and do something they were previously unable to
  • It gives you an opportunity to clarify the knowledge in your own head
  • It is often helpful to bounce knowledge back and forth. This can lead to a mutual knowledge transfer that benefits all parties
  • It frees you up to do other work
  • On a more selfish note, it can be very satisfying to teach others
  • You remove the single point of knowledge failure syndrome, allowing you to sleep better when you are away on holiday, comfortable that  the knowledge isn’t also getting a suntan

Workload

Beyond sharing knowledge and skills, it is important to share workloads. Quite often, one or more people on the team will seem to be busier than others. This can happen for a number of reasons e.g. the person can’t help themselves volunteering for tasks, they are seen as an easy touch for dumping work on or they are renowned as the subject matter expert.

By documenting the things you and your team are responsible for and sharing your skills, you free yourselves up to share workloads, meaning that the people who were  busy before won’t get burned out (or at least not so quickly) and the people who were previously not so busy won’t have as much chance to get bored.

Summary

The concept behind this the tenet is sharing knowledge, skills and workloads. When that happens, we all grow as individuals, as teams and as organisations. The whole most certainly is larger than the sum of the parts. Failing to do so stunts growth and we fail to realise our true potential. Don’t let that happen.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 5, Be Human

Introduction

Techies, rightly or wrongly, sometimes get labelled as being unfriendly robotic nerds. I make that as an open statement because I know fellow colleagues who fit that bill and others who are extremely empathic to those who struggle with certain aspects of technology.

Be human

The key is to understand your audience and what it is that they want from the transaction (a word I use here to cover any communication you have with them, whether written, spoken or just frowning at each other). Not everybody you speak to will understand the intricacies of route maps or how an L2L VPN session is set up. Quite often, they won’t even care. Here is a point you have to understand if you don’t want to die alone:

Not everybody wants to know what you know. Certainly not to the level that your enthusiastic soul would like to go to!

De-geek for customers, colleagues, management, family\friends or whoever. Learn how to craft your conversations around their needs and not yours. What you see as a knowledge gap might be a chasm to somebody else. Don’t always try to fill it in. It can be difficult to gauge this, but asking questions back can give helpful results e.g. asking what experience they have on the topic being discussed, or asking a loaded question, the response to which will let you know what technical level to pitch at. This is where listening skills come to the fore.

Key tip number 2 should certainly be:

Kill the acronyms

Acronyms can be scary. Even to techies. Perhaps, even more so to techies if they aren’t understood, as there is the assumption that you should know every acronym that ever has and ever will be thought up. If you hear the other party use acronyms and they appear to be in context, then sprinkle the conversation with your own to match the level of all parties.

Summary

Most of us deal with people outside of the technology coal mine, at least from time to time. It is important that we can converse with people at all levels, in language that they understand so that they go away knowing exactly what it is that they need to know and not looking like a confused Leslie Nielsen. It is when people leave us feeling they have the answers they were looking for, that a bond of trust forms from which, hopefully, productivity increases. As a bonus, we might even lose the soulless robot image.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 4, Cross Pollinate

Introduction

This may be a generalisation, but in my experience the larger the company you work at, the more siloed you become. The smaller the company, the more broad your skill set usually needs to be. This isn’t always the case of course but it has been for every single one of my jobs. This post is aimed mainly at those people who do find themselves in a silo. Don’t limit your skill set. Talk to your colleagues in the next cubicle. Learn storage, Windows, Linux, scripting. Get multi-vendor skills. Do all of this to the depth to make you better at your job and less reliant on others. A good IT engineer should be able to engage with his peers with other skill sets. Get a hobby – doesn’t have to be related to your work but it lets the mind grow.

Generalise versus specialise

This post inevitably brings up the question of generalisation versus specialisation but I want to keep it short. Perhaps I’ll cover this never-ending discussion in more depth in another post but in my opinion, its not a ‘choose one’ answer. In simple terms, you can specialise in fewer topics and generalise in more. The depth you go to also affects the number of skills you acquire. The answer about what balance to strike depends on a number of factors e.g. the job market now, trends, your current employers’ requirements and of course you i.e. the answer changes for each person based on a large number of factors. Enough said for now…

Summary

It’s 2013 and at no earlier point has it been more obvious that most people who work in IT need to have a wider range of skills and knowledge to do their day to day job. Those that don’t are either mining a vein of speciality wealth or will inevitably be left behind in the wake of technology.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 3, Socialise

Introduction

This post will be short and to the point and talks about how to better socialise. I’m not really talking about taking your boss to the pub and getting him drunk before getting him to agree to a payrise, although I may write a separate post to cover the finer details of that proven strategy. This post is more focused on social media and I thought rather than a drawn out post regarding the ins and outs of how best to use SM, I will opt for a bullet list to cover the key points I think are important.

  • Social media can sap a lot of your time. It’s key therefore that you choose well, both sites and people you decide to follow\like\stalk\whatever
  • Don’t get addicted to the ‘update cycle’. Check in to your accounts a couple times a day rather than every 15 minutes
  • Don’t be afraid to dump people who don’t offer value to you over time
  • Use whatever filtering methods are available to you to strip out the nonsense from the meat and potatoes. Different social media clients can help with this too
  • Start your own blog. This will help solidify ideas in your head as you write, give you a reference to return to in the future, provide a valuable resource for peers to refer to and also get your name out there if you wish to build a personal brand
  • Interact. Don’t just be a consumer on social media, get stuck in and contribute. Add comments on blog posts that interest you, respond to other’s tweets, etc.
  • Be nice. An angry tweet aimed at an individual might have made sense to you at the time, but that context may be lost to somebody reading it in three months time
  • On the last point, try to treat people the same way as you would face to face i.e. don’t be a keyboard gangster or troll. Give praise where it’s due and be human, not just an account

Summary

There. I said it would be short and to the point. Basically, being sociable online can be highly beneficial. Find the right balance and don’t end up spending every waking minute checking your various accounts for updates as life is too short. I find it works best when I dip in and out of it, sometimes not checking Twitter (my favoured site) for days at a time, if I’m busy being productive elsewhere.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 2, Self-train

Introduction

It’s been six weeks since I last posted, although to be honest it feels like much longer. The reason for that is I’ve been very busy ‘skilling up’ on a couple of my hobbies, namely photography and video editing and have learnt an incredible amount in such a short time. I’ve taken my foot off the CCNP Security gas pedal to some degree to fit this in, but as I stated in my New Year’s resolution post here, I felt I owed it to myself this year to give myself more time for my other hobbies, outside of IT and networking in particular. So it’s certainly fitting that my first post back is about my 2nd tenet of working in IT, self-train.

Speculate to accumulate

I see all too often, people who are unwilling to take time out of their own schedule to train up, either in their professional field or in their private lives. I put this down to a number of reasons, listed in no particular order:

  1. Job dissatisfaction. If you don’t enjoy your job, why would you be motivated to spend time getting better at it? I get that point of view. Ironically, doing just that will quite often allow you to enjoy your job more, but at the very least gives you a better chance of changing roles to one you will enjoy
  2. The Google effect. It is all too easy these days to hit the Internet when you run in to a problem you can’t solve immediately. Google offers a wealth of useful information. I do think it’s a sad reflection of the times we live in, however, when Googling is the first thing that many people do, rather than attempting to tackle the issue themselves up front. If you can get an answer to the problem in two minutes, why spend a further 30 minutes reading up on the topic, even if it means filling in other holes in your knowledge? I see these quick fixes as sticky plasters. Sometimes, you need to get up to your elbows in open heart surgery to really understand how something works
  3. Lack of time. In my first post of this series, I gave a number of pointers around how to make more time in your life. If lack of time is the reason you most often cite as why you don’t keep your skills updated, then please take a read of that post and try out the various tips. This ties in with point 2 above. Free up more time, then fill it with productivity. Rinse and repeat, maintaining the balance as you go
  4. No desire. This is a tougher nut to crack. I’ve worked with people who were just happy carrying out their day to day roles and that’s fair enough if they are happy and aren’t causing other people more work. If you are one of those people but want to start increasing your knowledge, you need to find something that will help motivate you to get the ball rolling. Think of what the end goal is, and focus on achieving it, in smaller manageable chunks

Studying

Moving on to the studying itself, I tend to use a similar method to learn any particular topic. Firstly, I’ll watch any available videos that are good. YouTube and related sites offer a huge variety of videos on all sorts of topics offering training and amongst the crap are some very helpful ones. In conjunction with this, a good book can go a long way to helping me understand something. Finally, I consider myself lucky in that the things I like to study (networking, photography, video editing, electronics, etc.) all afford me one key aspect that makes the learning experience so much more valuable; hands on capabilities. You just can’t beat setting up a lab to test how OSPF redistribution works, import a couple of photos, tweak and blend them together or solder your own circuit board. The human brain absorbs more information when it’s doing the work itself. If you read some of my previous study\exam related posts, you’ll see I follow this same method time and time again.

Summary

Don’t expect for the training to land in your lap. I often hear people being resentful about having to spend their own time to get up to speed with skills required for their job roles. It’s time to get it through your head…you are in control of your own destiny. Get out there and find the information you need yourself. It not only speeds things up, but it is far more satisfying. Keep setting targets and measuring progress to keep the momentum going.

Till the next time.

10 tenets of working in IT – Tenet 1, Create Time

Introduction

Welcome to the first child post of this one that I reposted in January 2013. I suggest that you at least read the relevant section i.e. Tenet 1, Create Time, before reading further. In the post below, rather than expanding on all the topics I covered in the parent post, I am going to focus on one key theme; how to reclaim more time out of your day i.e. time management. I hear lots of comments from friends and colleagues on the lines of “never enough hours in the day”, “how can I possibly learn all of that in that timeframe?”, “I go to meetings to discuss other meetings”, “I keep getting tapped on the shoulder for a favour”. Sound familiar? It can be very frustrating to deal with these kinds of issues. Even with the best will in the world, you can find yourself heading in to the office in the morning with a plan of action that a five star general would be proud of and leaving several hours later with that plan in tatters. So without further delay, as I appreciate your time is precious, let’s look at giving you back as much of that resource as possible.

Break it down

If you look at your day as a single block or morning and afternoon, its hard to manage it effectively and hours will pass you by. Conversely, if you live each day minute by minute, you are probably micromanaging which isn’t what we want either. A happy medium here is to break your day down in to chunks of between 15 and 30 minutes. I’ll call these time slots and whether you pick 4×15, 3×20 or 2×30 minute slots per hour is up to you, based on what makes sense for your lifestyle. Below, I’ll be using an average day of mine as an example and breaking it in to 15 minute slots, which works for me. As you’ll see, with this approach I can easily group these back up again in to bigger slots as necessary.

Time slot Activity
07:00-07:15 Get up, get ready for gym and load up car
07:15-07:30 Drive to gym. Listen to podcast
07:30-08:30 Gym workout. Listen to podcast
08:30-08:45 Shower and get dressed
08:45-09:30 Drive to work. Listen to podcast

Can you see a theme there? I’ve only just got to work and already I’ve worked out for an hour and listened to two hours worth of podcasts. So let’s summarise with a couple of tips:

Tip 1 – use dead time more effectively
Tip 2 – multitask where possible

Tip 1 mentions dead time, which is a term I’m using to talk about time that a lot of people would consider unavailable for more productive tasks e.g. the daily commute, lunchtime, waiting in queues\doctor’s waiting room, trips to the toilet, being on hold on the telephone. This dead time adds up over the day. The beauty of something like listening to a podcast is that it’s a relatively passive activity. Sure, you need to try and understand what is being said but it is a one way conversation that requires no input from yourself.

Tip 2 is simple enough to understand but you sometimes have to put some effort in to put it in to practice. When I used to go to the gym, I’d fire up my MP3 player with something along the lines of heavy metal, dance or the Rocky soundtrack. I soon realised that I was missing an opportunity. Change Eye Of  The Tiger for a podcast on MPLS design and now I’m exercising my mind as well as my body. The same thing applies to the daily commute. I very rarely listen to the radio now and when I do, I try to opt for factual content more than music.

I employ the same approach for the time slot between signing off from work until bedtime. Podcast on the drive home, hang up my work\training\nerd boots when I get in until Mia goes to bed and then either study or chill with my wife depending on what day it is and how much studying I have to do at a given time. Regardless, I still break it down in to time slots, otherwise a two hour study session can turn in to 15 minutes checking personal emails\Twitter again, quick game of Call of Duty, hit the digital drum kit…just to relax. Distractions kill productivity. Try applying these time management tips to your hobbies and distractions too and you”ll start seeing improvements there also.

I brushed over it in the previous paragraph so I’ll mention it again. From getting home to putting my daughter to bed, it’s family time. No checking emails, no Twitter, no logging on to the VPN. When I was the team leader 18 months ago, this was absolutely not the case. I’d get home, eat tea, log back on and check my emails, finish a report, check the monitoring systems. It got out of hand and is one of the reasons I stepped down to a purely technical role again. Make sure your family time is as focussed as the rest of your productive day.

Protect and serve yourself

I have a 7.5 hour working day, although I am afforded a flexible working week which comes in extremely handy now that Mia has started school. Again, I break those 7.5 hours (8 including my lunch break) in to 15 minute slots but they get grouped back up again as necessary, the obvious one being the 30 minutes for lunch and guess what I’m doing as I’m eating my lunch? Exercising tips 1 and 2 above by watching a training video, reading a blog post\book or listening to a podcast.

It’s your time during the working part of the day that is the most difficult to protect as you inevitably have more pressures and interferences at play. Let’s list another couple of tips that by themselves should save you a huge amount of time:

Tip 3 – manage your sources of information
Tip 4 – learn how to say no

Tip 3 is referring to a multitude of sources. Perhaps the worst ‘offenders’ are email and social media. Whilst they hold value and in the case of email, I would argue are critical for your job, they can also chew up vast swathes of valuable time. How many times have you found yourself reading the same email three times or more before putting it to bed? Are you one of those people who have Twitter open all the time and check it everytime the browser tab shows the (1) indicating you are missing the action, right now! Try to be honest with yourself. Twitter isn’t just for you, it’s for everybody else. If somebody wants message you, you’ll be informed by email or by the notifications on your mobile app etc. Check Twitter no more than a handful of times a day and you will save yourself a lot of time. Use a service such as Pocket to save any useful links you come across to be read later, all together.

As for email, I refer you to the 4 D’s method I mention in the parent post. Check your emails no more than every 15 minutes and preferably once an hour unless you are expecting something important. Don’t mull over any email. Quickly carry out triage and determine whether it needs to be dealt with now, deleted, delegated or deferred. Any deferred emails should be dealt with the very next time you look at them. I’ve been guilty of not following my advice here on numerous occasions and even now find myself slipping in to old habits…checking emails every couple of minutes, checking Twitter just as frequently. Before you know it, all of those ‘quick checks’ add up to a couple of hours or more a day. Stop doing it now.

Tip 4 is the one that a lot of people find the most difficult as it means pushing back and in some cases standing up to people, sometimes literally. I bet I will hear little argument when I state that the biggest time sink during the working day is meetings. Meetings that don’t start on time, don’t finish on time, don’t have an agenda or anybody willing to act as a chairperson to keep things on track, the wrong people present, meetings about bloody meetings! For those that struggle to say no, turning down meeting requests is usually a good place to start to claw back your time due to the fact that in this day and age, most meeting requests come in a digital form and so declining is not done face to face, although I’ve taken great pleasure in the past going over to a meeting organiser and telling them exactly why I wouldn’t be attending their meeting. Consider these points on whether to decline a meeting request or not:

  • Is the topic of the meeting relevant to your job?
  • Is there an agenda in the meeting request?
  • Does it conflict with other work you had planned and if so, which takes priority?
  • Are the right people being invited to this meeting? e.g. is it a ‘technical’ meeting with you and the marketing team?
  • Is the meeting a recurring one? Is this really necessary? Is it necessary that you attend every one for it’s entirety?
  • Are minutes being taken so you can read the key points of discussion at a later date?

If I get a meeting request that doesn’t tell me why I need to be there specifically, either directly or indirectly, then I’ll chase the organiser for a justification. The same applies for an agenda. I want to know what will be discussed, at a high level at least. This not only allows me to prepare but helps me decide whether I want to be there in the first place. If I think a colleague would benefit from being in the meeting too, I’ll forward them the request. If I think I can get a away with it, I’ll sometimes ask the organiser to bring me in to the meeting when it gets to the relevant bit for me and I’ll make my excuses if I decide the meeting has no further value to me. If a meeting has drifted from the agenda, don’t be afraid to ask for it to be brought back to point. Life is just too short to spend unwarranted amounts of time in meetings.

The 7 Ps

I believe this saying was created by the British Army (best in the world of course). It stands for:

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

This has a wide scope but with focus on this post, it gives us another couple of useful tips:

Tip 5 – take notes
Tip 6 – plan for tomorrow and the end of today

With tip 5, I’m talking about a number of different things. Firstly, whether it’s a formal meeting or a quick catch up with your boss, have a pen and paper, whether its a real one or a tablet or laptop. If you get actions, don’t let them slip through the net because of a dodgy memory. Note them down and start thinking about how you are going to achieve them. If you are studying, make notes as you go. A 500 page book is not going to have 500 pages worth of information in it, especially when it comes to revising the content, so why would you read a book cover to cover again when you could refer to a distilled set of notes you made the first time around? The same applies to training videos. You could possibly make notes for a 60 minute video that will take you only 10 minutes to read through. Anything that saves you time later and reduces the chance of making a mistake is a benefit.

Tip 6 covers two key strategies I use to keep my schedule on track. The first is that I use a digital calendar (Outlook in my case) to arrange my following day\week in advance. 30 minutes for this change request, an hour for troubleshooting this issue, 15 minutes to speak to a customer to gather requirements. I block these out in advance and get the reminder just before they start. This not only keeps me on track but between creating the reminder and the event itself, I’ll often come up with relevant ideas and thoughts that I’ll add to the appointment. When it comes around to the time slot, I can then hit the ground running. I’ve found this tactic particularly useful for difficult troubleshooting issues.

The other part to tip 6 is effectively planning your exit strategy at the end of each day. If you want to leave at 17:00 each night, then trying to wrap things up at 16:59 is a recipe for disaster. Give yourself at least 15 minutes to tie up what you are doing. I use this time, as stated above, to plan the next day or even the remainder of the week and reallocate any of today’s outstanding tasks to a suitable future slot so they don’t fall through the cracks.

Summary

OK, this post is coming in at over 2000 words and so I see the irony here for a post on time management. Hopefully though, you can see this post as an investment i.e. the time you have put in reading this (and for me in writing it) will pay dividends if you apply what I have talked about. Before you close this page, just read the six tips one last time and let them sink in. To wrap up, I should include one last tip, to rule them all:

Tip 7 – make it a habit

Humans are a strange bunch. We get better at doing things the more we try them, but we often struggle with the motivation to go through the rinse and repeat cycle needed to make things second nature. Keep at it until you are doing these things without really thinking about it. In a later article (Tenet 10), I’ll be discussing how to review progress.

If you still have a couple of minutes free, add your own time saving tips below in the comments. Thanks for reading. Now go and claim your time back.

Till the next time.