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.

 

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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.