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 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.

10 tenets of working in IT

Introduction

I published an amended version of the article below over at Packet Pushers in March 2012. In line with tenet 10 (Review), I thought that I would re-post here with some hopefully relevant amendments. Even if you read the original post last year, consider reading it again for inspiration. Please feel free to share any ideas of your own in the comments below.

This article is a summary of a larger text that sits in various parts of my brain and has been accumulated through over 10 years of working in the IT industry in a wide variety of roles and an equally diverse range of companies from the very smallest to the largest. I’ve whittled a number of concepts down to the list of 10 below. Each of these has also been listed in a briefer form, primarily to make the post hopefully more ‘punchy’.

This list should not be considered as definitive or as static. If you compare the original post to this one, you will see that some things have been removed, others added and some amended. Some of the current points would not have been relevant five or more years ago, such is the pace of change in our industry. The way I’ve listed them may leave some open to interpretation and cause further discussion and that is by design.

Regardless of whether you plan to start a career in IT, if you are a veteran or indeed have no intention in working in IT but want to do the best you can in your chosen career, this article is aimed at you. The purpose of each tenet is to give you an area of improvement that will help you out in your career and indeed in your life in general. If you are able to focus on a single tenet for the next few weeks, preferably one that strikes a personal chord, you should find that your job becomes both easier and more enjoyable. If you can find a way to make improvements in more areas, the rewards can increase exponentially.

Don’t write this article off because you find some or perhaps all of it obvious. I’ll be perfectly honest. There is no mystery here. It’s nothing more than common sense, gathered in one place. Sometimes, being poked is enough to change the inertia and get the ball rolling in the right direction.

The tenets support each other to some degree. For example, imagine you want to do some more studying but you don’t have the time. Work more on tenet 1 (Create time). Or maybe you aren’t confident about how to put what you are learning in to practice. Give tenet 3 (Socialise) a go and get more involved in the IT community. Or maybe every time you set goals, you get side tracked and fall behind. In that case, you need to work on tenet 10 (Review) and make sure you keep reviewing progress before yet another week\month\year goes by.

I have a message for those pessimists amongst you at the end of this post, but for now let’s pick up the pace and head straight to the tenets that will see you getting more done in less time and hopefully enjoying it.

1.Create time

First, acknowledge that there is not enough time to do everything. Focus on what is important. Be smart managing your Inbox. Give the 4 D’s method a go for emails: Deal with, Delete, Delegate, Defer. Never neglect family\personal time. Prioritise your workload. Don’t ignore the little jobs; they can have a habit of growing. Break the bigger jobs into manageable chunks. Learn how to delegate. Take a note of things that need to be done so they aren’t lost in the noise. Plan properly. Take regular breaks – you’ll come back refreshed. Accept when you are up to your neck in it. Ask for help when necessary. Learn when to say ‘no’. Don’t aim for perfection when ##% exceeds expectations. Determine the low hanging fruit. Automate. Orchestrate. Ignore distractions. Skip meetings you don’t need to be in. Learn how to end phone calls\conversations on your terms. Have to take an hour for lunch? – use it for studying or go to the gym. If you go to the gym, take your MP3 player with learning material on it. Repeat for the commute to work and home again. Consolidate your sources of information and set dedicated time aside to catch up. Ask yourself if you could be doing something more important right now.

2.Self-train

Don’t expect to learn things just by being sent on a training course or being told how things work. Read books. Watch videos. Create a home lab. Then use it, use it, use it! Fill in the gaps. Test the hypothesis. Ask questions, but try to find the answers yourself first. Double check the answers. Specialise. Generalise (see tenet 4 – cross pollinate). Google is your friend, but that’s just the start. Subscribe to blogs. Use your job as the best training ground you could hope for. Think outside the box. Certification is great but don’t overlook the power of experience. Learn about things that compliment your current skill set.

3.Socialise

Learn how to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. to your advantage. Each of these can sap your time (see tenet 1 – create time) but also be immensely useful if used correctly. Follow\friend\circle\etc. people who you find valuable. Dump those that don’t. Start blogging – this will help with tenet 2 (Self train). Give feedback on other people’s blogs. Try to give as much back as you take. Give praise where praise is due. Don’t berate unnecessarily. Be considerate. Make friends. Leave enemies in your wake, they will only try to hold you back.

4.Cross pollinate

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.

5.Be human

De-geek for customers, colleagues, management and family\friends. Understand the skills gap. Kill the acronyms. Empathise. Don’t hear – listen. Don’t look – see. Know your own flaws too. I said it in tenet 1 (Create time), but you need to be reminded here: never neglect family\personal time. If your job is more important that your family, something is broken.

6.Share

Documentation is king! Use standardised templates. Create document sets. Send links to colleagues. Update a wiki. 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.

7.Honesty

Be honest. With yourself, your colleagues, customers, friends and family. Admit when you are wrong or when you don’t know something, but make it right and get the knowledge. Change jobs when you need to. Change careers if needs must. Ask for feedback from the people you interact with. In particular, demand an appraisal from your line manager at least once a year and have short, medium and long-term goals set. Use tenet 10 (Review) to track them.

8.Focus

Set targets and goals but be sure to enjoy the journey too. Don’t drift too far from the highway. You have to tune your body as much as your brain. Exercise often, whether it’s a sport, running, the gym, walking, etc. Make a list and use tenet 10(Review) to keep on top. Be relevant and accurate in everything you do and say.

9.Know your place

Do not get depressed with not knowing everything. Know what you don’t know; decide from that what you need to learn. 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. Be the best you can be. Aspire to improve. Drop things that you no longer need. Fine tune that which you do.

10.Review

Set targets for all of the previous points. Track them. Improve where you can. Set goals. Achieve or change. Keep pushing yourself but take regular breaks. Don’t burn yourself out. Don’t take your foot off the gas too much. Treat your career like a prized network; monitor, be proactive, tweak, get feedback from its users, etc. Flense the blubber from your life.


Summary

Before I send you forth to slay the dragon, let me wrap things up by addressing those of you who are in medical need of addressing tenet 7 (Honesty), especially with regard to yourselves. The fact is you quite possibly don’t know who you are so allow me to draw back the curtains for a moment and let the migraine inducing light come streaming in.

I am referring to the ones who ‘know’ they don’t need to improve, who think they are already smart enough and certainly smarter than others, are experienced enough, don’t need to ask for help, believe they understand all there is to know about a topic from a Wikipedia article, keep things to themselves, see things in black and white, lie when they don’t know something, blame others when they are wrong, talk in tongues to show how clever they are, constantly make excuses, hide their mistakes, go home in the middle of a crisis and turn their phones off or just don’t care about your job (another post coming on this topic alone).

The chances are that even if you aren’t quite as stuck in your ways as the person described in the previous paragraph, you might be ready to admit that there are areas of both your personal and work life that could benefit from improvement. I certainly acknowledge that I need to practice what I preach here more often myself! Having read through this article a number of times before re-posting, I know I’ve allowed each of these tenets to be neglected one at least one occasion.

Don’t make the mistake of tarring this post with the ‘self-help crap’ brush. Be honest with yourself, swallow your pride, make these tenets your own and share them with others. You just might be surprised at the results. I got asked by several people who read the post last year if I would consider writing a more in-depth post for each tenet in turn and I think that is a good idea so watch this space.

Till the next time.

Make some time for yourself

I recently posted at Packet Pushers about 10 key areas that people who work in IT should focus on to see improvements both in their working and personal lives. This post looks at the first of those areas, time management. To match the theme, I will make this post as short as possible so you can get on with the rest of your day.

There are countless books, websites, guides, courses, etc. that give you advice on how to improve your productivity. Some of these are very good, others less so. What most of them share in common is a toolbox of techniques to improve your time management. This post offers only three such tools that I use every day. I guarantee that if you condition yourself to use them every day too, you will find yourself getting more done. For those of you who are really busy, here are the three techniques, which I discuss further below:

  1. Lists
  2. 4 Ds method
  3. Distraction avoidance

Lists

Very simple this one. Every evening before you go to bed, spend up to 10 minutes writing out a list of things you need to get done. How you break down the list is up to you e.g. one list for work, another for home. Take any of the big tasks and break them down in to smaller ones. Then prioritise them in a way that works for you e.g. tasks that must be done the next day, those that can wait till later in the week, etc.

Once you have your final list, broken down with enough detail to get you started at full speed and in order of priority, take the list to work the next day and start on the number one priority and get it completed before working on the next task on the list. Cross out each task as you complete it.

4 Ds method

This applies to any workflow that comes your way, whether it’s your helpdesk application, paper tray or email inbox. It’s a simple way to deal with anything that is going to use up some of your valuable time. The 4 Ds all do what they say on the tin. The explanations I give are from the point of view of an email that has just landed in your inbox, but you can apply, as stated above, to any incoming request for your time:

  • Deal. If this is a priority, deal with it right now. Do what is required, sign it off and move on.
  • Delegate. Send this onwards to somebody else who can deal with this. Only make a note if you need to chase it up yourself.
  • Defer. This one is critical. If you need to deal with it, but not just yet, move it to a ‘Defer’ folder and only look at this folder when you are going to deal with it. You must get out of the habit of looking at deferred items more than once before doing anything with them. That costs you a lot of time in the long run.
  • Delete. Just delete it and have done with it.

Distraction avoidance

Distractions can easily suck up hours of your working day:

  • Meetings that you should not have been in
  • Meetings that go on for two hours with a five minute ‘useful’ bit
  • Telephone calls that match the two meeting points above
  • Gossip around the coffee machine\photocopier
  • ‘Can you just take a quick look at this for me’….an hour later, you are still looking

Distractions such as those above and countless others eat in to your working day and indeed life in general. Learn how to deal with them in an assertive yet professional manner.

An example: I’ve said on many occasions that I am unable to make it to a meeting due to being busy on something else. When I read the meeting minutes later, I learn in less than five minutes what it took the attendees 90 minutes to find out. I try to only attend meetings where my input is necessary and even then, I can often give my input after the fact.

When you walk about the office, walk with pace. Not only do you get where you are going quicker but it makes it easier to get past that person who is always grabbing you for advice. When I make myself a brew in the kitchen, I take it straight back to my desk. I eat my lunch at my desk too.

If somebody keeps tapping you on the shoulder for help, rather than doing it for them, show them how to do it themselves, perhaps with a Wiki article or a process guide. Or send them a LMGTFY link. Or be honest and tell them that you are really busy now but if they send you the details, you will get around to it.

Of course sometimes it’s somebody senior to yourself who keeps sapping your time and if that is the case, refer them to your list of priorities for the day and ask them where their request falls on that list. It’s amazing how often they will concede that it’s not as important as first suggested.

Summary

Use each of these in conjunction with one another and really put effort in to each of them. It has been estimated that learning a new habit requires daily practice and takes about 2-3 weeks before it starts to feel natural. However, get started today and you will see results almost immediately. Let me know how you get on in the comments below or via email. I also have an upcoming post on how to make the most of your studying time that I have found not only lets me learn things quicker, but makes the topics sink in!

Finally, remember that on average, we have 450 minutes at work each day. Try to make every single one count and watch your productivity soar.

Till the next time…