The Armor of Transparency

Yesterday I blogged about hosting a daily status meetings and some of the tricks I use to make it work. One of those that is worth extra attention is the meeting notes – at the end of each meeting I send out notes (not minutes – not that formal) that include:

  • Who attended
  • Key metrics
  • Revised schedule of key events
  • Updates from everyone that attended and/or sent me notes since the last meeting, and sometimes this will include quick post-meeting follow up discussion notes as well

I don’t spend a lot of time on formatting, it’s all bullets. If someone isn’t on the call and I think they need to read something I’ll add a note to the end of the note (Ralph – FYI). If it’s important, or I need some informal assistance from above, I’ll call it out in bold. Both of the latter tricks are important – my notes go to a lot of people that are just monitoring progress and they will typically do a very quick scan, it helps all I involved if I make it easy for them to find things that they need to see.

There are plenty of days when things go wrong, and it’s all in the notes. Sometimes we lose a day, sometimes more It’s not fun, but it’s unrealistic to expect perfection either. Showing problems in the notes is honest and powerful – stakeholders worry if they get no news, or only good news.

Think about all the things that impact a project on a daily basis. It’s easy over the course of a week or two to have it all add it up to slipping the schedule by day, or by adding some unexpected incremental cost. Imagine trying to talk about that during a weekly or bi-weekly status meeting and explain how you fell behind and what you’re trying to do to fix it (if such a thing is possible). It’s not easy, even if you have your own notes to refer to,and easy to get second guessed.

By giving a solid update every day they are on the ride with you. They see the failures,they see the causes and the attempts to fix, and if they think something isn’t right, they can engage then. Much easier and much more positive to have a talk about the one thing that went wrong yesterday than then 10 things that went wrong last week.

Transparency is easy when its good news, but it’s important when there is bad news. Rarely does someone want you to fail. Bring up bad news when it happens. Don’t let bad news “debt” build up, get it out in the open. It will make the project healthier, will keep your stress level lower (if not low), and gives the rest of the organization a chance to help you.

Transparency doesn’t have to be notes either, for example I love the concept of the burn down chart in Scrum – you can see in an instant if the team is on track or not. Think about how you might be more transparent and why you’re not doing that right now, it’s time well spent.

The Daily Status Meeting

For the past six months or so I’ve hosted a daily status meeting for a large project. It started out scheduled for 15 minutes and as the team grew, I found that we often ran out of time – not due to idle chit chat, but because we spent 3 or 4 or 5 minutes to work though an issue that was a road block, and so the meeting was extended to 30 minutes. Probably many of you are already thinking that this is a meeting that has gone off the road. We’ll come back to that.

The daily status meeting is a technique I borrowed from Scrum, aka the daily stand up. No amount of email can replace the collaboration and knowledge share that happens when you put people in a room (or at least on the phone). Scrum calls for roadblocks to be identified and then taken off line, but that isn’t easy when you need time with a group to resolve it, and the next free time on the schedule for the group is a week away. We use that time as the one time each day when everyone is available.

I spend at least 30 minutes preparing for these meetings, and often closer to an hour. I review open items, things that were completed, questions I have or that others have, all compiled into a set of reminders for me to make sure those items get attention during the meeting. That’s good time for me, it forces me to think every day about where we are,what we need to do next.

On any given day half of the attendees will dial in. I’ll note their names and typically call on them early,there are quite a few that are only available for the first 15 minutes and I need to get to them first. I pick names not quite randomly and ask for status. I say not quite randomly because there are some people I have to talk to each day and I won’t put them last, but other than that I try to mix it up a little, mostly to make sure everyone is listening the entire time.

It’s always interesting to hear the things that come out in these meetings. Reminders, follow ups, clarifying questions, referrals on who to talk to about a particular issue, concerns about risks and change windows and rollback plans, budgets, and more. Could all that be done in email, or separate meetings? Some of it could, but a lot of it I think wouldn’t – they wouldn’t have known to ask.

As we go I’m taking notes and checking against my list of things to check on, for most meetings they all get covered and we’re done when we’ve gone around the table once, some days I have a few items to inquire about, and then we’re done.

Average attendance for the meeting is 12 people, lots of days when it will go up to as many as 25, and by my informal estimate we’re averaging about 20 minutes per meeting, trending down now that some of the most intense tasks are nearing completion. My goal is to be done when we’re done. No longer than 30 minutes, keep the meeting moving, and if I can give them time back, I do. Right after the meeting I type up my notes and send them out, every single day.

So back to my opening paragraph and the dangers of a 30 minute status meeting. Meetings can be expensive, but that isn’t a good reason to not have them. Meetings take time, but that isn’t a good reason to not have them. I’m not saying everyone should have a daily meeting, or that it should take more than 15 minutes if they do, but I see a lot of teams that suffer from “meeting fright” and don’t meet because it might waste time or money. Meetings can certainly be a waste – but they don’t have to be.

Here are some tricks for a good status meeting:

  • As I mentioned above, prep for the meeting – it will drive everyone else to come prepared when you push them on things they should have surfaced
  • Publish notes right after the meeting, and use it to call out problem areas for anyone that couldn’t attend. Knowing that things will be in the notes influences behavior! (I also include a list of who attended and key project metrics)
  • Keep it moving, but don’t be afraid to drill down for a minute or two on a hot issue
  • Don’t put all the weight on yourself to ask all the questions, let the team interact and drive the discussion some

Finally, remember that as the work changes the meetings may need to change. As this project nears completion there will be fewer people needed on the call, and once it ends there won’t be a need for the meeting at all.

First Impressions

I was chatting with a friend recently who had been in turn chatting with a colleague about first impressions. The colleague had gone to the lobby to meet a candidate and escort them to the interviewer, and during the walk had tried to make small talk, offered them some water, and didn’t get much interaction. This resulted in the first impression of someone being serious, or perhaps distant, or worse. More, she was thinking – could I do this better? Did I do something wrong?

My friend had remarked that she had gone through something similar when I came in for a visit with my current client/boss. Interesting to hear. I always try to be polite, but going into an interview I’m focused, and by nature when in new territory I’m serious. But I also know the importance of the ‘gatekeepers’ (assistants, receptionists, etc) that often provide a different perspective to the interview post-interview. I tried to think back, it was less than 5 minutes total,most of it walking – what to do better?

We discussed it for a minute or two. One of the items was being offered water and not accepting. That one was easy for me; two reasons not to drink sitting outside the interviewers office – no reason to risk spilling something on me or the furniture,and I don’t want wet hands from condensation going into an interview. I didn’t see the offer as an obligation or signal, but it had been seen as one – maybe next time I’ll take the water and just not open it! The small talk is harder. It carries its risks and while I’m willing to bet on a most days I can carry on minor small talk without putting my foot in my mouth, it just seems simpler to say less. Be polite, do more than nod, but stay focused.

It was a good exchange, lessons learned on both sides. My lesson is to try harder, to understand the stress that the other person is under – after all, impressions matter. The lesson for my friend was that it’s easy to forget that they are in their comfort zone, the candidate is not, and she has to – to some degree – adjust her expectations based on that.

That’s the challenge of first impressions, especially on interviews, you’re seeing a best behavior filtered view of someone, interviewer and interviewee. No way around it, that is what is required.

Lots of lessons and thinking from one five minute conversation about another five minute conversation. If only I could have five minutes that good ever day!

Speaking at MagicPASS on February 22, 2012

Next Wednesday I’ll be returning to MagicPASS to do a presentation on SQL security for developers. It’s an interesting topic, with the trick – in my view – to focus on things that developers care about or need to know, and not load them up on things that only a DBA would love. It’s a new presentation that pulls together various notes I’ve accrued over the last few years of teaching and consulting. That means that I’ll be spending more time on in this weekend, getting ready for Wednesday.

I’m looking forward to seeing the group again and chatting afterward with new PASS Board member Kendal Van Dyke.

Battery Life–The Hidden Cost of Keeping a Laptop

I’ve had my Dell E6500 for about 3-1/2 years now. I’ve recently upgraded the original (back when a SSD was a new thing) 64G drive to a 128G SSD, but otherwise spent no money on it. Good machine. Over the last couple months battery life has seemed to drop off, a 100% charge seems like it’s good for an hour at most. Can’t complain, that battery has seen plenty of charge cycles.

Or at least I wouldn’t complain if replacing it was a little less pricy. List price at Dell is about $140. Maybe it just seems expensive? $50 a year, maybe I shouldn’t complain. Still, seemed worth a quick search to see what non-Dell prices would be. Lots of hits, but reading the reviews on Amazon there are a lot – LOT – of cases where the battery failed after a week, or failed on install. It seems Dell only wants Dell batteries to work.

Can’t say I like that. With SSD’s, hard drives, memory, it’s a free market, I can buy wherever and have a reasonable chance it will work. With batteries,not so much. I found one on Amazon for $80 that looked like an original battery,no bad comments so far. Worth $60 to take the chance of having to return it? Yes, if for no other reason than being stubborn! It arrived today and so far works fine. Looks like the old one, no glitches – and really, why should there be? We’ll see.

Back to the cost. My view is that it is expensive. I’ll probably buy a new machine this year, Mac Air or an Ultrabook, and figure that it will be around $1000. Hard not to think about just applying that $140 (and maybe the $200 I spent on the SSD) towards the new one. The SSD I can move around and reuse. The battery? Nope!

I haven’t dug deeply, but I suspect it isn’t just Dell. All those devices with the non-removable batteries, you pay a premium there too. Probably other laptop manufacturers are similar. Do the batteries really need to be that custom? Why isn’t there a common battery standard like we have for flashlights and kids toys? Much like phone vendors profited from custom chargers, this too seems like a profit center.

PASS Chapter Tools–My Wish List

I’m hoping this year will be the year that PASS makes a substantial investment in tools – the online kind – for chapters. Just providing DNN hosting is not enough, and while I like having that option for the group or person that wants to be a power user, for most of us we’d do better with something closer to a vertical application that does a few things very very well. We’ve proven the value of that approach with SQLSaturday (if it needs proving!) and it’s maybe the most effective way to make an investment that scales. At the same time I think that for chapters they need the option to have more control over their sites – their own logo, their own layout.

I’m going to start with some features I’ve long wanted, then loop back to what the tool model looks like:

  1. Effective emailing. I want the ability to quickly and easily send a logo’d message with an unsubscribe link to various portions of the chapter list. That’s base functionality and we could copy the idea from how SQLSaturday mailings work.
  2. Bounce management. Member addresses go stale. Cleaning the list is busy work, work that tools can do for us.
  3. RSVP. I like Eventbrite. Maybe we could do an API level integration to continue that, but I think there is more value in building a simple RSVP system.
  4. Event calendaring and reminders. I want the ability to describe an event (date, speaker, etc) and then schedule a series of reminders based on that, all including automatic links to the RSVP page and an iCal attachment. Ideally it would post the event to LinkedIn and include that link too, and of course announcements on Twitter.
  5. A blog that supports LiveWriter. Most of the “content” on a chapter web site would fit will into the blog format.
  6. Sponsor management. Two parts here. One is an easy way to schedule and assign various ads to appear on the site and in emails, with click tracking,to various ad locations. The other is capturing funds. This might be similar to SQLSaturday where they pick from a list of sponsor levels,but more likely would be picking from a list of dates (with the cost attached).
  7. Speaker management. Make it easy for a speaker to submit a presentation once the scheduling has been figured out (and it needs to be a standard format to make the message building easier).

I could go on, but if we had those capabilities, what a time savings! I see all of those as things that are implemented as ‘back office’ functionality and accessed through something like opass.org/tools. If we build that on a layer of services, we get lots of presentation layer options.

For the presentation layer I don’t think DNN as it’s offered to chapters is good enough. Let’s look as some ideas:

  1. Continue to offer DNN. It’s a powerful platform and for those that take time to learn can do big things, and it’s skinnable. Add tools/widgets to support the ideas above, and come up with some smoother layouts by default. Not my favorite option, but not in favor of rip and replace at the expense of those who have invested time in their site already.
  2. Add an option to support WordPress. Tradeoffs here. Great tools for blogging, tons of plug-ins to do lots of stuff (like post to Twitter), not so good at member management (though there are some plugs-in that support that, like BuddyPress).
  3. Build a true vertical. Spend some money on making it look good (see SQLSaturday, SQLRally, but clearly NOT the  PASS site) and make it first class.

In terms of time to market, WordPress wins, and it has a multi-site hosting model. It’s probably “good enough” and there is that huge market of themes and plug-ins. I think that is the starting place and then we can look to see if we need the vertical – or if we just need to write a few PASS specific plug-ins.

I think the Year of the Chapter has been too long in coming – will it be this year? Post your own ideas about what PASS can do to better support Chapters, or send new Chapter Director Allen Kinsel (LinkedIn, Twitter) a note supporting mine, either way – let’s challenge him to post a strategy and execute on it so that when he runs for re-election this fall we’ll have something to base our vote on.

Review: I Done This

IDoneThis is a simple web site for tracking accomplishments. The premise is that you get a checkbox on the calendar each time you post an update, the string of checkboxes serves as an incentive to keep going. There is no goal setting beyond picking daily or weekly for the update frequency. You do a simple sign up, then each day you get an email asking what you did for the day (or week) (and you can set what time the email arrives). You type in accomplishments one per line, hit send, and a few minutes later your calendar is updated.

image

I’ve only used it for a few days in test mode and I’m taken by the simplicity. Imagine having that email reminder in your inbox every day 15 minutes before the end of your work day and you spend a couple minutes recording what you did. It’s a nice reminder, it still works if you reply the next day, and you get a nice clear set of notes that you can look back to. That’s just one way to use it!

There is a provision to share access to your calendar – a link you can enable or disable, plenty good enough for this type of application. You can export your results to CSV, which is very nice, but it does combine all your notes for a day into one line. Here is an example from my test:

image

I haven’t decided if this become a long term tool for me yet. I do think it’s an option I’ll be talking about in my professional development talks as a way to track progress, and I think it might be an interesting way for someone to get their feet wet in blogging – set a goal of logging one idea per day to write about, get over that fear of ‘nothing to write about’.

Notes from the February Space Coast SQL Meeting

I drove over to Melbourne last night to the new home of Space Coast SQL at the Harris Institute for Assured Information, located on the Florida Institute of Technology Campus. Not hard to find, good parking, great building, great room for the group – modern classroom with nice furniture and plenty of room. It’s nice to have a nice room to meet in.

I was catching up with group leader Bonnie Allard before the meeting and she has an awesome arrangement for the group:

  • First class space
  • A deal with students there to set up the room each month
  • Pizza ordered from the cafeteria and delivered to the room

It was the third anniversary of the group, something that I think came as a surprise to them. They started, kept going, and suddenly it’s three years! Congratulations to the group, takes perseverance to keep a group going in a small town.

I gave my presentation about professional development plans and had the luxury of about 1.5 hours to talk, allowing me to spend some extra time on a few portions. One of the things we talked about during the presentation was certifications – are they worth doing? My standard answer is that they are superb for driving learning, especially in the MS world, but rarely make the difference when it comes to getting a job. Bonnie had an example of a time when it did make the difference for her,interesting to hear. It hasn’t changed my mind on certs,but it’s a good reminder that when you interview you accentuate what you have – never know what will resonate with the interviewer.

Two of the attendees came to this presentation almost a year ago in Tampa and in both cases they said taking time to think through their goals and build a rough plan made a difference. One comment was that “it helped me decide what to spend time on”. Good stuff!

It was a nice evening. Low key group, good conversation, good to see old friends.