Sorry, I can’t be there. I’m going to a movie with my sister.

Believe it or not, I actually said that this week.  As a small business owner (I own Custom Software Design Global LLC in Woodstock, Georgia, just north of Atlanta, with my husband, Tim) that is a death sentence to a potential client relationship.  Normally I would never turn down a sales opportunity, but as I approach 50 I’ve realized how much more important family is.

My older boys, Matthew and Michael, are grown (27 and 25 respectively).  As I reflect on our brief time together as a family I realize they grew up and left while I was in a fog.  I was a young single mother for most of their lives, so I had no choice to prioritize work over family too often.  I blinked and they were gone.

I just don’t want to do that again.

Although I once again have two little ones, Isaac and Joy Ann (7 and 6 respectively), things are very different now. I cannot prioritize work over time with them.  I know all too well how quickly time disappears.

I miss Matthew and Michael tremendously.  They brought me so much joy in such a short period of time.  Now they are both living in far away cities and I rarely see them and their families.

When I got an email yesterday that a new potential client wanted to meet with me Friday my immediate response was “Sure!”.  Then as I settled into the routine at home last night I realized I had scheduled a ‘date’ with my sister for the same day.  We planned to go this Friday see the new movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” several weeks ago.

Years ago I would have called my sister to excuse myself for this potential opportunity.  However, last night I did not even hesitate.  I emailed and excused myself from the meeting with the potential client.  I truthfully explained I had plans with my sister.

I would never want a client or colleague to feel as though I did not value their time.  I would never deliberately inconvenience anyone.

On the other hand, my priorities have changed in recent years.  A lot.

Will I have another chance to see my sister soon?  Probably.  She lives in a nearby suburb of Atlanta as well.  However, time is not guaranteed and I truly value my time with her.

I may have missed a golden opportunity, but it won’t bother me one iota when I’m old and think about it.  I’ll only remember laughing hysterically at the movie with my precious sister.  Time well spent.

 

Building custom software for an industry you are unfamiliar with

The telephone call

Whether you are a consultant, contractor or full time employee, you have gotten that call. It sounds like the perfect job for you, but it is in an industry you know nothing about. If it is a job you would love, you panic when the question comes up: “How many years experience do you have in this industry?” If you are a contractor or consultant or you are like me and own a firm of your own you know your customer is thinking: “I want someone who has built this type of project in my industry before.”

Sweaty Palms

Ok, before you start getting sweaty palms, let’s think about your answer. You know programming. You have mastered a programming language or many programming languages and built custom applications before in other industries. What do you have to offer this client that he would not find in a “more experienced” person or firm?

The one thing many companies are looking for is a fresh perspective. Even if the caller has not considered this before, this is your chance to turn around their plans completely. Sure, there are benefits to hiring someone who has written multiple enterprise-wide applications in that industry before. Let’s face it – they know what they are doing.

However, is that a good thing? Maybe not.

If you have driven the same way to work for the last 20 years and you have never ventured onto an alternative path and you never look at a GPS or map of the area, how do you know if there is a more pleasant path or a shorter one? Have you even considered that there might be?

We are creatures of habit. While those habits can often be very good ones (ie, exercise) some of those habits can be very bad ones (ie, smoking). However, if you started smoking in 1950 you might not realize it is killing you if you never read or watched the news.

A New Kind of Value

So let’s assume you have no experience in Bob’s industry (for the sake of argument, let’s assume Bob is in transportation). You already know there is one objective in transportation: get from Point A to Point B.

Easy enough, right? Clearly there are monumental steps between, on top of and around this objective, but when you boil it down to basics, this is what you have.

Rather than sit with Bob and go through how he currently does everything, why don’t you use this simple objective as your starting point?

Instead of doing research on the software that is already available to the transportation industry, do your research on processes in the transportation industry. Focus your new enthusiasm on learning what physically happens every day in a transportation business (not just Bob’s business).

Go to Google and type in “transportation”. What do you see? I started with the Department of Transportation website (I knew with pretty solid certainty they would not be the most cutting-edge technologists in this industry so it was safe to assume I would learn all about the physical aspects of transportation.)

Using this information you can build on all kinds of branches of research within the transportation industry. Build a comprehensive document for yourself and for Bob demonstrating your new found knowledge of the industry.

What does that mean to Bob? He just got a completely fresh perspective on his business from a very bright developer that he could not have gotten otherwise.

What does that mean to you? Knowledge begets knowledge. Once you have tried this method on multiple industries you will be amazed at how broad your knowledge base has become.

A new found strategy

Now when the telephone rings you have a strategy. If you do not know the industry, offer to learn more about it and come in with a fresh perspective.

Once you’ve done this a few times you will find you are really quite good at convincing yourself and your prospective client/employer that he/she would be crazy not to use your services.

No more sweaty palms and no more lost opportunities.

Managing remote employees successfully

Why do most companies cringe when an employee asks to work from home?

In spite of the benefits to the environment, productivity and reducing corporate costs, only one in five Americans work from home. (Forbes Article) That number does include self-employed folks, so while numbers are rising we still have a long way to go before companies actually cash in on this trend. I think you and I know why.

Your experience with employees working from home

If you have ever worked from home or tried to manage people working remotely you have experienced the challenges first hand:

  • Inability to reach an employee or boss when you need them
  • Unable to track productivity or get someone to give you assignments
  • Employees missing meetings or deadlines or both or bosses forgetting to include employees on key meetings
  • Without seeing the employee in a seat at an office, how do you know they are there at all? If you cannot walk into your bosses office to get his/her attention how can you get your assignments?

I would challenge you that this is due to poor management and not unproductive or irresponsible employees.

Loving that bottom in a seat?

It doesn’t matter if you see an employee in their seat. Visibility does not justify a salary. Seeing Bob at the water cooler does not mean Bob deserves the money you pay him. When you prepare to give Bob his evaluation, how do you quantify his performance?

If you are like most bosses, you are not making notes all year about what Bob does. You just have a “sixth sense” for what Bob did this year, don’t you? Wrong. I’ve managed people for over 20 years and early on that is exactly what I thought. I mean, I knew who was productive and who wasn’t – right?

The hardest part about managing people is actually managing them. We get so consumed with meetings, conference calls and discussing our plans we forget to actually help an employee reach the objectives we have assigned them. We toss work into the cubicle arena and expect it to be regurgitated in perfect form on time and within budget, but we are comfortable doing so because we see people working (or so we believe)? How unfair is that?

What does it mean to really, truly manage someone?

Your sixth sense can be very valuable, but do not rely on it when you are evaluating Bob’s performance.

Really managing someone involves a lot of work. Tons more work than most managers want to do (I know, I am guilty of not managing correctly myself.)

Let me give you three specific ways I have learned to better manage an employee:

  • Make notes on things Bob does well and Bob needs to work on – every week. Try to find Bob doing things well!
  • Meet with Bob once a week or once a month at the longest to talk about his plans and your expectations
  • Set clear and measurable objectives for Bob daily (yes, I said daily) and follow up

I know – that is asking a lot of a manager. That is why few people do it well. It is a lot of work!

How to translate these action items to work with remote employees

Take a look at these specific action items (above). Does Bob have to be in cubicle farm now for you to be confident he is working?

Absolutely not!

Now you have clear and measurable ways to ensure Bob is earning his salary and you are giving constructive feedback (thereby improving Bob’s performance and, frankly, his happiness).

Confess

Where do you start today? Start with a confession. Tell Bob you have failed him. It is true and you know it. You have not measured up to your own salary if you have not been doing these things with Bob.

Once you have confessed, explain to Bob you want to be a better boss and give him the list of things you are going to do:

  • You will make notes of all the great things Bob accomplishes
  • You will meet with Bob once a week (or if necessary once a month) to talk about his plans and how you can help him meet those goals
  • You will give Bob clear directions for daily responsibilities so he is not lost in a mire of trying to determine what in the world you want

Do you think Bob will appreciate this? Do you think Bob will be happier in his work? Do you think Bob will be more productive?

The big question is: Do you think you can trust Bob to work from home with these action items in place?

I think you and I both know the answer to that question, don’t we?

Why do companies choose to outsource software development projects?

We believe it is a combination of two things:

  • Many companies have realized that the burden of direct physical control of software personnel is overwhelming and wholly time-consuming
  • Many companies have experienced great success when working with external software development firms

There are some excellent custom software development firms who have mastered the ability to understand business requirements and deliver fabulous custom software packages to their clients.

How do you, the CTO/CIO or CMO or division manager, decide whether to send your project into the rank and file of your IT department or if you should outsource to a development firm?

First, let us start with your internal IT department. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your internal IT group deliver projects on time and within budget – every time?
  • How confident are you, based on past experience, that your internal IT group will deliver your project on time and within budget?

If you can quickly and without reservation state positively that you have absolute confidence in your internal IT group delivering exactly what you want on time and within budget, then stop there. You have your answer.

If you are like most of our clients, though, you can honestly say your internal IT department is already overburdened with responsibilities and cannot keep up with the demands of their day-to-day tasks.

Next how do you decide WHICH firm to outsource to? That’s the more complicated question and one I will answer in my next post is how to choose a firm you can truly trust. Needless to say, I am a little biased and believe you have to select one with stellar references who can deliver on time and within budget every single time.

Data Science: What Creeped Us Out Early On

“Data scientists solve complex data problems through employing deep expertise in some scientific discipline. It is generally expected that data scientists are able to work with various elements of mathematics, statistics and computer science, although expertise in these subjects are not required.[3] However, a data scientist is most likely to be an expert in only one or two of these disciplines and proficient in another two or three. Therefore data science is practiced as a team, where the membership of the team have a variety of expertise.” – Wikipedia Reference


The “information explosion” started around 1941.  (see reference) Believe it or not, the phrase “data scientist” was coined in 1960 by Peter Naur (Wikipedia Peter Naur) as an interchangeable noun with “computer scientist”.  However, the term wasn’t related directly to statistical data management until 1997 when, in an inaugural lecture at H. C. Carver Collegiate Professorship in Statistics at the University of Michigan, Professor Naur defined statistics in science.  The name of his lecture was: “Statistics = Data Science?”

It was a very modest beginning to something which has exploded into a entirely new profession today.


Fast forward:

In 2006 I was 10 years into my career in data management, manipulation, and adoration.  I also had a liberal arts education in political science – clearly unrelated to data science.  I had no idea what data science was, but I knew I loved data.

In that year a colleague of mine and I sat down with a quad processor server and MS SQL (some antiquated version) and a terabyte of data getting moved around every night to figure out what to do with it.  To our knowledge there was no name for what we were doing.  It was really more a pain in the proverbial … well, you know what I mean… for the company we were consulting with.  They knew there was value in that data, but at that point there was no popular concept of what that value was.  At least not in our little corner of the world.

The data came from click events in a few major websites – a LOT of click events – one terabyte a day worth.  My colleague and I were making great strides in ensuring the four processors were working overtime all night every night (one thread per processor running parallel).  One day I was discussing the project with a non-technical relative of mine when she stopped me and said in a very startled tone, “You mean you track everything I click on?  Creepy!”

Yep, I realized at that moment we were headed right for the last chapter of an Orson Wells novel.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still love data.  I still ‘practice” data science as my profession and hopefully I get better every day at it (I should be getting better after almost 20 years in this profession).  However, that realization was really creepy.  We were tracking every click event our customers created on those websites.  What else was being tracked in other organizations?

Today we know that everything we touch, every comment we make, every photo we post somewhere is tracked, analyzed and reported on to some organization.  I think some of the creepiness has been washed out of the concept simply because we’ve come to accept this “Big Brother” technology as an inevitable part of progress. 

The unasked question remains, however:  will anything “creep us out” going forward in this scientific practice?

I can think of a few things if I give it enough energy, but I try not to because like most people in this profession I love the story data tells.  It is not unlike the feeling of getting into a new car every day and smelling that “new car smell”.  It’s something intangible that you cannot define for someone who hasn’t experienced it first hand.  Every day I “get in that new car and inhale”.  It is as beautiful a high today as it was in 2006 when I couldn’t sleep at night wondering what story our click event data would eventually reveal.

~Amy

Software Project Management: How to eat an elephant

If you’ve ever been through the entire development cycle of a software project (and actually seen the project to fruition in production) you know the madness that can ensue at the very end of a project.  I would suggest that it doesn’t have to be painful at the end like that.  When you have the stress of all eyes on you (which happens when you have an actual single deliverable with an actual deadline and budget), the best way to eat the elephant is one bite at a time. 

The elephant is the complete and utter satisfaction of your customer.

How do you give the customer complete and utter satisfaction during the journey to fruition and once the product is delivered?

***** Information *****

I know.  Scary isn’t it?  Keeping your customer thoroughly informed along the way leads to lots of meetings and wasted time, right?  It doesn’t have to.

The big question is how to disseminate that information to the customer.  I have four high-level suggestions listed here:

1.)  Every project I’ve ever been on has some collaborative software program (these days SaaS) that lets the client see what he/she is given access to during the progress of the project.

Some project managers open the floodgates to all the information in the project (even that sacred communication between developers).  In my opinion, this is disastrous.  Not because you should have anything to hide, but because if your client wanted to manage this project he wouldn’t have hired you in the first place.

I’ve found one of the ideal ways to set up this collaborative space is much like you set up your project management software (whether it is MS Project or any other application).  Define timelines for each task and keep those timelines updated.  Only give your client access to the highest level of those tasks (he really doesn’t care that Bob needs to change a transformation in his ETL process for the database transfer).  Clients want to see those bars moving.  Yes, they might have questions, but I will touch on how to handle those questions below.

2.)  Engage your development team every single week – without exception – from the start.  Require written updates input into the project/task management system with details from each team member on: where they are at on that task, what roadblocks they have to completing a taks, and how long it will be before the task is done. Yes, it’s a pain for developers and team members to do (I’ve been a software developer for almost 20 years now – trust me I know).  However, this rolls up into what is visible for your customer so they remain engaged in seeing those bars move toward completion.

3.)  FOLLOW UP.  Your job as a project manager is to MANAGE.  Don’t slack.  Thinking that taking one week off from following each members progress is deadly.  Ask questions when you don’t understand something and make sure you really understand the answer you are given.  Post follow-up comments your customer can see so they know you are actively managing the team (and subsequently the client’s money and time)

4.)  The final point I would make is to be honest with your clients.  When you are going to miss a deadline or go outside a budget, tell the client up front.  Withholding that information is deadly to your relationship with that client.  Come prepared with an explanation and your plans to resolve the issue.  Anticipate your client will be frustrated, but likely will be comforted by your clear plans.

Most projects can be completed on time and within budget with the right planning and experience.  You will make numerous mistakes along the way, but mistakes lead to wisdom.  Wisdom makes for a great project manager and projects completed to a customer’s satisfaction.

~Amy

What happens to old software engineers?

“For of All Sad Words of Tongue and Pen, the Saddest are These, It Might Have Been…..” John Greenleaf Whittier

I worship my father.  Well, I worship a Holy Father, but I adore my earthly father.  He’s incredible.  he is 73 years old and one of the smartest and most successful men I know.  Plus, he’s my daddy and I love him with all my heart.

So yesterday we got in a discussion because he’s thinking about retiring from practicing law and it really got the wheels turning in my own head.

I am 48 years old.  If I were a doctor or lawyer or priest or librarian I would be viewed as “in my prime” – wise, knowledgeable, experienced and highly prized for my years in the industry.  On the other hand, what do we think of people over 45 who are “still programming”?

The assumption, of course, is that as you age you should climb the ladder and get away from hands-on development.  I mean, how sharp can you stay after 45?  Let’s face it – it’s hard enough to stay on top of the latest technologies when you are young.

There’s one thing missing though: a clear definition of “young” in 2014.  You see, when I was growing up old people included anyone over 40.  In 1984 when I graduated high school I can remember looking at one of my favorite teachers who, at the time, would have been about 60 and thinking “Holy cow, he won’t be here next year.”  He taught high level math courses – how could he possibly keep up?

25 years later, that teacher retired.

So back to what happens to “old” software engineers?  There’s only one way to keep yourself “young” in this industry: education.  NEVER stop learning.  The way I see it, I can start climbing the ladder of management (again – I’ve done it several times) and get further and further away from the hands-on software development so it won’t matter how sharp I am.  However, I would not be happy.

I can remember talking to my husband (also a software engineer) when we were in our early 30’s about how obsolete “old developers” were and how out of touch they were with technology developments: stuck in time – old time.

Fortunately, God blessed me with a fabulous mind.  It’s no different than most folks – maybe one or two standard deviations above average, but all-in-all a good, solid working mind.  He also blessed me with a passion for programming and learning (albeit in very unorthodox learning methods – usually outside a classroom).

The logic, math, statistical reasoning – it all captivates me.  I’m a business intelligence specialist / architect / developer / designer.  Who knows what it’s called these days.  Now we have official terms for everything that once was just “mystery technical voodoo” we performed magically behind a curtain (or in my case, often tucked away in a server closet working out of sight of the rest of the human race).

So now we have two questions to answer:

  1. What’s “old” in the programming industry?
  2. What happens to “old” software engineers?

Well, to the first question I have to answer there is no such thing as “old” software engineers just because of their chronological age.  There are wise and experienced software engineers, but they aren’t old until they stop learning new technology.  Then they are “old” by choice.

To the second question, I propose we remain software engineers.  I propose we nestle in for the long haul and run like madmen to keep up with the ever-changing world of programming languages and concepts  (I’m told exercise is good and coffee is bad – ok, pots of coffee consumed throughout the night in pursuit of the solution to that last final “bug” fix is bad).

Frankly, those of us who are “wise” programmers kind of  have a huge advantage over young whipper-snappers: we know REAL programming.  We know things like “assembly language”, “DOS programming”, etc.  Ask a newly graduated CS major to build something in assembly and unless he/she attended one of the top universities you are liable to get a very blank stare.

I find that tragic.

I can bounce from Unix/Linux programming to DOS shell scripting to .NET C# to MS BIDS to Java to proprietary BI suites and more!  I believe that’s because I know what’s truly happening under the covers of today’s IDE’s.  The logic remains the same – no matter what we call it this decade.

So what makes me think I can keep this up for a long, long time?  Here are a few examples that life doesn’t even begin until after 45:

Roget Invented the Thesaurus at Age 73

Grandma Moses  Anna Mary Robertson Moses is one of the biggest names in American folk art, and she didn’t even pick up a brush until she was well into her eighth decade.

Grandma Moses was originally a big fan of embroidery, but once her arthritis grew too painful for her to hold a needle, she decided to give painting a try in the mid-1930s.

She was 76 when she cranked out her first canvas, and she lived another 25 years as a painter — long enough to see the canvases she had sold for $3 fetch prices north of $10,000.

Benjamin Franklin At age 70 in 1776 Franklin played an instrumental role in draftingand signing the Declaration of Independence.  At age 81, Franklin signed the Constitution of the United States of America. ·

Winston Churchill FIRST became Prime Minister at 65 ·

Laura Ingalls Wilder STARTED writing the “Little House on the Prairie” series at 65

Edmond Hoyle Whether or not you know it, you probably owe Hoyle a tip of the cap each time you reach for a deck of cards. The Englishman is considered to be the world’s first technical writer on the rules of card games, and he didn’t put pen to paper as a young card sharp. Hoyle was around 70 years old when he first began recording the rules of various card games in 1741; over the last 27 years of his life, his smash hit A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist went through over a dozen editions.

Jack Weil, Age 107 d. Aug 2008 Jack A. Weil passed away on August 13, 2008 at the age of 107. The fact he lived to the ripe old age of 107 is impressive. The fact that he was still the chief executive of the company he founded and working 40+ hours a week until his final days is plain old amazing.

In 1946, he formed Rockmount, a western high fashion clothing retailer that continues to manufacturer it’s shirts in the US after many competitors moved offshore. Achieving historical fame, various accounts state Mr. Weil either invented the modern bolo tie or named it.

His secret to heath, wealth and happiness? “He loved his work.”

Poppy Bridger, Age 84 After working as a PhD chemist for 45 years, Poppy Bridger, retired at the age of 69 to care for her ailing mother. But her 72nd birthday gift was an opportunity to buy and operate the lab she had worked at. With about $250K in savings, back to work she went!

On any given day, you will find Bridger testing the authenticity of a precious heirloom or analyzing the properties of metal fatigue. To help with the growing work load at the lab, she has subsequently hired her son and daughter to work with her.

She goes to work every day, and at the age of 84 is bringing into the business about $350K annually.

 Colonel Harland Sanders, Age 90 d. Dec 1980 The world famous Colonel Sanders launched his business at the age of 65, using his first Social Security check as start up funds. A master of personal branding, Sanders leveraged his honorary “Colonel” title and constantly wore the stereotypical “southern gentleman” white-suit and black tie. The rocket like growth of KFC is now legendary, and prior to his death Colonel Sanders’ restaurant chain had achieved over 6,000 locations with sales of more than $2 billion.

During his entrepreneurial tenure Sanders met with the U.S. Congressional Committee of Aging and spoke against mandatory retirement, highlighting the love for work and the value of wisdom in the work place.

Not a bad run, old chap! Not bad at all.

 Barbara Miller, Age 74
Being an entrepreneur was never really a consideration in Barbara Miller’s life. After quitting her job in the paper industry after 30 years of service, she assumed she was done. But as she packed her stuff, her former colleagues begged her to start a new business… so she did.

In January of 1995, Miller opened the doors to Miller Paper Company and started with $300K in savings and 15 employees. Today the business is generating over $7M in annual revenue and has been on D&B’s list of the nation’s fastest growing companies.

Business has not been a walk in the park, to say the least. Miller started her company and was immediately sued by her former employer. A few months later she struggled with ovarian cancer.

 Sylvia Lieberman, Age 91 Sylvia Lieberman became an entrepreneur in fall 2007 when she was 90. This is when she realized her dream of having her first children’s book published. So why not start a company to author and promote the book?

Archibald”s Swiss Cheese Mountain is an award-winning book about a little mouse with a big heart who teaches children how to reach their big dreams. Not only is she an entrepreneur, but a philanthropic one! A portion of the proceeds goes to two children’s charities.

Despite her age, Sylvia works tirelessly promoting her book at book-signings and readings, TV appearances, radio and print interviews, and even appeared on a float in a parade. And all these efforts increase the amount she donates to charities.