Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reflect on the Past for a Better Future

AvisoWe can learn from books, we can learn from teachers, but we can also learn from the past. Some of the organizations I've worked for never look back.

I'm currently reading DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC* by Edgar H. Schein. This passage really struck a chord with me:

"The focus was on moving forward, not on diagnosing the reasons for past events... As we will see, lack of reflection later allowed many inefficient processes to survive and prevented some crucial learning."

Examining our mistakes doesn't feel good, but we've got to do it. I've certainly observed engineers repeating the same dangerous practices that have burned them before. I'm sure I do it too. To get better we need to measure the past and adjust the present. If we don't consider our mistakes, we won't know what to fix.

When we find a problematic practice, we must change. Sticking with our habits feels comfortable and safe, but it isn't. Changing bad practices probably won't expose us to more risk than keeping them.

* You can help me and my publisher by buying the book using this link: DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation. In association with Amazon.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

One Basket

TowersThe dropping stock market was the topic of the day among my friends. Some of them have been buying discounted shares of their employer's stock through stock purchase plans. A few of them have been buying shares of their employer on the open market too. They aren't very happy with that decision anymore.

I think discounted purchase plans can be a great deal, but I wouldn't invest more than I can afford to lose. Remember that your employer is already one source of income -- you don't want to tie your income, savings, and retirement funds to the same source. Losing your job and savings on the same day would feel pretty rotten.

Just because you might feel that you have insider information on your employer doesn't mean that you're a better judge about the stock than anyone else. As one engineer friend recently said: I've seen a lot of great products that didn't go anywhere.

Diversify. Buy index funds. Do research. I suggest starting with I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Apply What You Know

Doors at Union StationOccasionally I will run into an engineering problem that stumps me. Instead of actually making progress against it, I'll get stuck thinking in circles. I let my automatic problem-solving habits trap me into considering the same possible solutions over and over again.

I've stumbled on one trick to defeat circle think: ask yourself for advice. Present the problem to yourself as if you were asking another person for help. Then answer your own question while imagining the advice was for another person.

I think this works first because it forces you to clearly define the problem. Secondly, when offering advice to someone else, you're less concerned about how ugly the solution might be.

In addition to hopefully generating the best possible answer you can come up with, it may also give you more sympathy for folks who ask your advice.

Mark at Mark++ essentially gave me this idea. He would pop into my cube to ask for advice. By the time he got halfway through his explanation, he'd jump out of the chair. "I figured it out! Thanks!"

Mark used to joke that he needed a cardboard cutout to talk to. Funny how you sometimes needs another person to help bring out your expertise.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Calling

Chicago River
"A calling (or vocation) is a passionate commitment to work for its own sake. Individuals with a calling see their work as contributing to the greater good... any job can become a calling, and any calling can become a job."
Martin E. P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2002.*

If you've ever heard Warren Buffett talk, or read his letters to the shareholders, you can tell that he is a man with a calling. Despite his insane wealth, he lives fairly modestly, and always gets to work early.

He measures up to just about every standard of success, yet he carefully reports even his smallest mistakes to his shareholders. He clearly loves his work and holds himself to the highest standards.

How do you compare to Mr. Buffett? Is your job a calling, or does it just help pay your bills?

* You can help me and my publisher by buying the book using this link: Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. In association with Amazon.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Fighting for Vacation

Platform at Union StationAfter I graduated from college, I used to start my vacation planning process by talking with my boss. I would propose a date and duration -- in essence asking permission to take vacation. Then the boss would veto or approve it and I could buy tickets, hotel rooms, etc.

This approach to vacation had several flaws. First, I behaved like vacation was a privilege instead of a right. I strongly believe that vacation is a right and a necessity. Vacation hours are not a favor or a bonus -- they are part of your compensation.

Second, it made changing my plans complicated -- if I couldn't get tickets for those dates, did I have to go through the process again? The extra step also makes it harder to get a good deal on hotels or travel. Friction of this sort discourages vacation rather than encouraging it.

Now that I'm slightly wiser, I use ideas I stole from negotiation tactics. I start with the Fait Accompli. Instead of asking and then planning, I buy all the tickets and hotel reservations first. Only then do I tell my boss the dates I'll be gone.

This way, I've put myself in a strong position. If the boss objects to my choices, his recourse is limited. If the dates are bad, he gets to worry instead of me. If the boss demands I stay, he looks unreasonable. Am I supposed to just abandon all the money I put into the plans already?

Even if the boss insists you stay, it will be perfectly reasonable for you to demand reimbursement for your losses. Just the prospect of trying to expense such an absurd thing -- the cost of ruining your vacation plans -- may change your boss's mind.

The key to this tactic is to act assertively but always appear in control and reasonable. I'm not saying you shouldn't act surprised if your boss objects -- a good negotiator would. But you should always be in control so that any objections sound unreasonable.

Another tactic is to always announce your vacation two or more weeks in advance if possible. Two weeks has the advantage of a strong association with the accepted notice when quitting. If you really felt strongly about taking this vacation, you have the (risky) option of calling your boss's bluff. "You say three weeks notice isn't adequate, but if I were quitting this would be a week more than the standard two weeks notice."

Equally important, you must always carefully communicate your vacation plans. If you use some sort of online vacation system, immediately put the dates into it. Send your boss and coworkers an email too. Don't act passive-aggressively. If anyone has objections you want them to come out immediately or never.

Planning vacation this way also helps to train your boss and coworkers. He or she will start to realize that there are consequences for poor planning and communications. It will become obvious that last minute crises and under-staffing can't work when engineers actually use their vacation. It also provides a useful reminder to both the boss and you that the boss is not a master, but a supervisor.

Keep in mind that these tactics can hold risks for you. Your boss may not be used to engineers taking charge of their own lives. If so, this is one way to start getting him used to the idea. It's also possible, although I think unlikely, that you may end up faced with the choice of losing the money you spent on tickets or taking vacation without your boss's blessing.

Despite the risks, I think defending your vacation is important. Although there are certainly some engineering jobs out there which are adventures in themselves, I think a balanced life requires an escape from the work environment. Unpaid activities are often the most memorable and rewarding.

If you want to learn more about negotiation, I suggest the book Secrets of Power Negotiating. You can find more information about this book in my recommended reading list for Engineers.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vanity Meetings

Voldemort at Union Station What is the business equivalent of an alien abduction? What activity annihilates productivity and irritates the best engineers? The Vanity Meeting.

You know what I'm talking about. The attendees get locked in a room for some incomprehensible reason. Work grinds to a halt until speaker finally runs out of breath an hour or two later.

Symptoms of a vanity meeting:
  • everyone stares at their laptop instead of the speaker
  • thirty minutes are spent on a minute detail that 90% of the audience doesn't care about
  • there are more rat-holes than real meeting
  • nobody asks questions, OR
  • only one or two people asks questions -- constantly
  • no agenda was sent before the meeting
  • the meeting is automatically scheduled with no regard for necessity
  • the meeting is never less than the allotted time
  • the presenter has prepared "bonus" slides in anticipation of not using the entire meeting time with the normal slides
  • the meeting starts late because nobody wants to sit through the whole thing
  • nobody takes notes
  • attendees are selected by org-chart rather than necessity
  • slides are presented by someone other than the author of the slides
  • the presentation or discussion is vague and abstract
  • the presenter uses incomprehensible or undefined jargon
  • the scheduler individually addresses attendees but holds everyone else hostage for the duration
  • the scheduler doesn't pay attention in his or her own meeting
  • the meeting takes place after 4PM on any day, but especially Friday
  • the scheduler is late for his or her own meeting
  • the presenter shows the same presentation or artifact at every meeting
  • data is presented back to the people who collected it
Vanity meetings:
  • serve no business purpose
  • are used in the place of good documentation or real discussion
  • are often for the wrong audience
  • frequently get stuck in rat-holes
  • waste time
  • squander the focus of the attendees
  • make the speaker feel important
  • give everyone plenty of time to practice Tetris
  • take control away from the attendees
  • reduce job satisfaction
  • become infectious
  • institutionalize procrastination

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Mysteries of Vacation

FishmanVacation is your safe haven from work's demands. For the Engineer Adventurer it's one of the few tools that returns complete control of life for a period of time. Weekends and holidays barely allow the time to escape the city, much less the cramped mentality of work.

Across the spectrum of engineering jobs there is a large variation in the amount of vacation given each year. My first out-of-school job started with a measly two weeks of vacation per year and topped out at three weeks after years of service. At the other end of the spectrum, I've worked for a company that started their newest hires with four weeks and after many years of service award up to eight weeks.

Of all the benefits an employer provides, vacation must qualify as the most grudgingly awarded. I've heard bosses and HR personnel extol the virtues of 401k matching, the gym, and health care. But I seldom hear them encourage employees to take vacation.

Even when the boss isn't pleading for you to stay, the pace of work discourages taking time off. The barrage of meetings, emails, and instant messages make it feel impossible to escape the office without falling hopelessly behind. 50 or 80 hour work weeks make it sound impossible. Vacation time gets pushed behind the piles of late projects, guilt, and panic.

Ironically, I haven't personally found a large difference in attitudes between companies with skimpy vacation and those with generous vacation. Under both circumstances I commonly heard of colleagues losing vacation hours because they weren't using them. Some of the colleagues seem bemused or proud of the fact. Others seem resentful that their life takes second place to the sometimes silly demands of work.

In either case, the attitudes of one company and another with twice the allowed vacation are similar. I suspect that the real problem isn't the amount of vacation. Instead, poor planning, low productivity, or unrealistic expectations probably create the tension surrounding time off.

Use your vacation, don't let work run your life. Your boss is a supervisor, not a slave driver. You can replace your job -- probably with a better one that lets you actually take vacation promised to you. Your colleagues will survive without you, just as you survive when they are out. Don't let work steal your time while it so often squanders it's own time on activities that don't contribute to the bottom line.