Sucking down

This is a re-post of one of the first blogs I ever wrote. As I started the People Engineering category, I thought it was a good time to re-publish it again.
Guy Kawasaki is one of my favourite blog writers. I don’t know that much about him outside of the short blurb that is written on Wikipedia. I enjoy his blog because his topics cover a gamut of areas such as ethics, enteprenuerism, business smarts and even social smarts. In many ways, they all link together but it’s nice to see someone link these concepts together and how they are relevant to be successful in today’s world.
 
The second paragraph of his most recent blog entitled “The Art of Sucking Down” caught my eye. The entry talks about why it’s important to treat people without the big titles with respect because they are the ones that make the world run. So often we get frustrated with customer service reps or front-line staff when things go wrong. We wish that they would just “do their jobs.” Maybe they are and that’s the problem. What we really want them to do is to go above and beyond the call of duty but how do we do motivate complete strangers with no relationships with us outside of the fact that we are a customer of their employer. Guy goes on to outline 9 simple but relevant concepts that makes sense by going through the lifecycle of persuading someone who is not a celebrity/upper management/CXO type to do something for you.
 
This story from the Blackout of 2003 comes to mind when I think of this topic. It was on a Friday afternoon when someone alerted me that most of the East Coast of the North America had been completely blacked out. I had been in the San Francisco area for almost a month without coming home at that point and was anxious to get home. So all of us from my Toronto team – Jay Helmer, Jonathan Kwan (JK for short – he’ll be the main character of my story), Sarbjit Bath, Keith Tran and myself – decided to chance it to go home that Friday afternoon. When we got to the AC counter, we were automatically told that we wouldn’t be let on. JK in typical JK fashion went through his usual tirade when he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s typically pretty entertaining in general and definitely worth the show ๐Ÿ™‚ But ultimately, it didn’t really help our cause that day. It didn’t help at that time that not one of us had status at AC but luckily we had previously purchased Keith and Sarbjit business class tickets and we were able to pack them onto a plane to get home. That just left Helmer, JK and myself to deal with. We were able to hook up with Livia, Eddie and Deepika as well who were at the same client but different project. Fortunately, Livia had status. She gave us her number to use. So while we couldn’t get to Toronto on Friday night, we were able to get ourselves a little closer – we had found our way to Chicago on a flight the next morning. At least when we got to Chicago we would have a number of options. One of them would be to drive home if absolutely necessary. It would have been extremely expensive but at this point the problem stopped being cost; it was a race agaisnt time because all of us would have to be back on a plane that Sunday night on the way back to San Francisco.
 
When we got to Chicago, we had to go through the same ordeal. All the people who had flown earlier that day were now stuck in Chicago trying to fight their was back to Toronto. So as usual, we sent JK back into the fray to negotiate a seat for the three of us – you’d think we would have learned our lesson ;). However, JK used a different tactic this time around; maybe because this ticket agent was a female, maybe because he had decided a softer approach for different results but the end result was that we had ourselves booked on a flight that would get us back into Toronto late Saturday night. As a gift for the ticket agent after completing the transaction, he bought her a bunch of chocolate because he recognized that she hadn’t eaten the entire time we were there. The entire ordeal took over 6 hours. I thought it was nice of him to do that. The story doesn’t end there. Livia and Eddie were booked to go on an earlier flight but that wouldn’t leave for another couple of hours so we decided to have a quick bite to eat because we were all exhausted. By the time we were done eating and gotten back to the waiting area long before the supposed departure time of Eddie’s and Livia’s flight, Eddie’s and Livia’s plane had already left! You can imagine the dismay and anger of Livia and Eddie. Missing a plane that day was like shooting yourself in the head. We had no idea when they would be able to fly back again. So once again, we sent JK back into the fray. JK went back to the ticket agent to negotiate on Livia’s and Eddie’s behalf and miraculously they were on the same flight as us. While I don’t think the stewardess thought that she owed JK something for the bag of chocolates, I’m pretty sure that his kind consideration stuck out in her mind and it was in some ways a way of bonding through human understanding between them.
 
While the topic of “sucking down” is definitely appropriate for selling and negotiating, I can’t help but think about how relevant this topic is to leadership as a manager. As a team lead, you still have a lot of direct influence over any paticular problem or situation that you could be facing with. You could physically do the work in order to get something accomplished. As a manager, you start to have even less. You could at best keep an eye of a paticular issue but as a director, you now have multiple issues that need your attention as much as the next. The reality is that you are extremely dependent on the people who report to you. So here’s how I would “twist” Guy’s article to how I would relate it to my working experience:
 
1. Understand the dynamic. Guy talks about appreciating the fact that while the person you are facing is a “lowly” ticket agent, they are in charge of your fate right now. This is no different than facing an escalation at work. While the person across the phone or across from you may be a “lowly” developer, this is the person who will ultimately control the fate of your issue. As much as you as an individual may have the capability of coding your way out of the mess, that will come at an extremely high cost because your eye needs to be on multiple balls at the same time. Empower your team, build their confidence and let them know that you trust them – then get out of the way. Ultimately you really have no choice.
 
2. Understand their needs. The key goal here for Guy is to emphatize with the person whom you need to help you. In the IT world, I would look at this for someone in a management or senior management role as clearing the roadblocks. Assuming that your team is going to do what it takes to get it done, you have to make sure that you understand what they need you to do. These are usually things like getting direct access to environments, ensuring that are direct escalation paths to third-party vendors or key client personnel and access to required expertise within the firm. This is probably the single largest value that you can bring to an escalated situation.
 
3. Be important. Guy describes the importance of building equity with a vendor in this section of his entry. Conceptually, this is no different for a manager or director. You are important in title and your title will only carry you until your first “battle.” After that, you have to prove that you are worthy of the title that you carry. A couple of things come to mind in this area. It’s part of understanding the needs of the team – in an escalation, what the team needs is to be focused. So being “important” here means that you shield them from the heat that is coming from the client, upper management and/or business counterpart. Get the team what they need and get it to them quickly. Usually if you do your job well, the team should never hear it directly from you. This is one key way of building equity with your team; this is how you earn their respect. Another important lesson I learned from JK on this project was understanding the visibility of your role. When I step into a situation where it’s teetering between being escalated or not, it is automatically escalated by my sheer presence. What goes through tme mind of the client is why else would I be there if the situation doesn’t warrant my attention? Another side repercussion is that it takes away any confidence or credibility of your team lead because you are now the focal point. Let the issue be the team lead’s show and come in at a time when you and your team lead decide you can bring direct value to the situation (or when the client demands it which is usually bad ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Another key point here is that constant communication is always important. Ultimately, it’s your ass or your boss’ ass on the line. And trust me, when it’s your boss’ ass on the line – it’s STILL your ass on the line. That’s part of what being important is about.
 
4. Make them smile. The all important ice-breaker, the first impression with someone who could open the door to a plethora of opportunities. From a team leadership perspective, it is slightly different here. Yes, the first impression is key. For me this is usually a losing battle since I look like I’m 18 half the time and it scares the heck out of the team ๐Ÿ™‚ So the key here in my mind is really not make them smile but keep them smiling. It is the act of building an ongoing relationship. It’s tough to do with everyone. My tactic was to build that concept with my regional managers and team leads, and then hope that they would then share that concept with the rest of the team.  Fear shouldn’t be the default motivator for your team. Joke with them, laugh with them. Remember that you are going to need them to walk on hot coals and sleep on a bed of nails. You have to motivate them to do this for you for the best results. I’m personally not a big fan of the motivation by fear. The result that you get from bringing a person from scared to more scared is minimal compared to the amount of effort that it takes them to get to that state in the first place.
 
5. Don’t try to buy your way in. When I read Guy’s section on this topic, it speaks to me of devaluing the person by quantifying their worth. It is always a losing battle because you can never get that amount right without an established relationship. What may be important or valuable for one person will be completely different for another. The other issue I have with this approach to leadership is that this also establishes a  precedent of “reward me before I produce an outcome” type of thinking.
 
6. But do express your gratitude on the way out. A little gratitude goes a long way. And gratitude comes in many forms. Sometimes it can be a form of recognition by sending an email out to your boss, along with the entire team. Sometimes it’s just giving them what’s reasonable like a little time off after working for 72 hours straight. I’m personally a big fan of the sliding scale of reward because each individual is different but it does introduce the complexity of how do you make each reward equal. Personally, I haven’t been in a situation where we haven’t been able to deal with it yet although it has come up from time to time. But it goes back to the point – express your gratitude for a job well done. It puts a deposit into that emotional bank account that as a manager or director. Always remember that you are going to withdraw from that bank frequently.
 
7. Never complain. Summarily, Guy’s point is that it is really pointless to complain. It is quite unlikely that one person’s complain is going to get the person fired at that point in time. If the person is incompetent, he or she may eventually get fired but it really doesn’t help you at this paticular moment. From a leadership perspective, it’s tough to complain because who do you ultimately compain to when things go wrong? You are a manager for a reason. Don’t complain – reflect, evaluate, seek feedback and then act. If something goes wrong, in all likelihood something needs to change and it’s your job to figure that out. Suck it up! ๐Ÿ™‚
 
8. Rack up the karmic points. This is probably one of my favourite of Guy’s points because it really talks about the concept of doing good for the sake of doing good. I identify with the concept of “karmic points”. Here’s also another way of looking at this – we tend to attract people with our behaviour. In general, if we are generous, kind but wise about it, people are more likely to reciprocate. If we do it often, more people see that side of us and there is a stronger likelihood of having it being reciprocated. I personally believe that we tend to attract people of like characteristics. If you think most of your friends are asses – take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself why is that (LOL).
 
9. Accept what cannot be changed. I also liked Guy’s point on this.  One of my favourite terms that I’ve learned over the past few years is – it is what it is. You can’t re-index a 20 GB database server in 20 minutes no matter how hard you try or how many bodies you throw onto the issue. Sometimes your client is going to be an ass no matter what you do ๐Ÿ™‚ Sometimes you just have to accept things for they are, do what you can and move on. There are other battles to fight that day :).
 
So that really summarizes my last few years of managing and leading a team. While I’d like to take complete credit (bad or good) for my thoughts, much of the credit goes to observing my senior managers at that time do the very same things for me. It was easy to reciprocate to the team leads and regional managers what I was already receiving and learning from my superior. And of course, it goes without saying that I also had the opportunity to learn from my team as well. People like JK taught me a lot over the duration of those years.
 
Back to Guy, between his article of “The Art of Sucking Up” and “The Art of Sucking Down,” the moral of the story is really be good to who you meet. The Golden Rule still applies today although it feels as though it isn’t being practiced much.

People Engineering

There have been a number of different events in my life right now that have caused me to start to looking back in my career. One of the biggest changes for me is the switch from having a very technical role to non-technical roles. Looking back, the change wasn’t as revolutionary in my career as I first thought; it was merely evolutionary. The main reason why technology development appealed to me is because it is one of the few ways that I can actually be creative in the way I solve a particular problem. When I first started out in development, much of the problem solving and creativity was isolated in the sense that both the problems and solutions were constrained to technology. The nice thing about technology is that it is binary. Things either work or don’t work for the most part. As my career evolved, my problem solving involved a mixture of business and technology; I was now using technology to focus on solving business problems. The business problems were interesting because the answers were not as concrete. There were a lot more variables to consider. In the past few years, my career has been more about building technology teams by setting up people, process and tools.

 

At first glance, my current career path seems to be inconsistent from my experience and reputation as a technologist. In earlier parts of my career, I was usually the person that people leaned on in a technical crisis. Even now, I still have 4 full 4U servers in my basement mounted on a server rack at home. While understanding technology comes rather easily for me, my passion really is in problem solving. Setting up organizations, building teams and implementing tools are simply a different way to solve a much broader and complex set of problems. At the heart of it all, the key to success for what I do now is people. Both tools and organizational structures are required to help people be sucessful at what they do which in turn helps me be successful in the problem I’ve been tasked with to solve. I call this people engineering and a big part of what is required for anyone to be successful in a role that involves organzing people is leadership. While I’ve written some blogs in the past about people or thoughts that have inspired me about leadership, I’ve decided to dedicate a whole section that focuses on my experience and struggles with people and leadership.

 

Customer Experience Required in Canada’s Wireless industry

One of the worst kept secrets in the Canadian Mobile industry is that both Telus and Bell are going to be launching their W-CDMA network in 2009. The launch is now imminent with the announcement that both Bell and Telus will soon be launching with iPhones on their networks in the not so distant future. Competition for wireless in Canada is about to get really hot in the next few months and maybe even years.

I won’t claim to be an expert on wireless; I’m more of an observer. My sense tell me that when the dust settles in a few years, price points would remain about the same as they are today. We will get more features due to the evolution of technology but they will eventually stay about here. A large reason for that will have to do with our Canadian geography, the lack of population density and lack of population mass making this business a relatively expensive venture to undertake in comparison to other countries. Companies like Rogers and Bell might be in better shape to provide content delivery by leveraging their media divisions but in general, every other company will have very similar risks, costs and revenue opportunity.

The one factor that every company has control over is the customer experience. Being someone who is very interested in mobile, one of the Twitter searches I follow is “#telus #bell #rogers” and with a medium like Twitter, they can be vocal about how they feel. One thing in common is that people are extremely frustrated and are looking for alternatives from the big 3 today.

Good customer service is the tip of the iceberg for a great customer experience. This starts all the way from the start of a sale all the way through the time a customer chooses to leave a service. I can’t speak for any other service as I’ve been solely a Rogers customer for about 8 years now. Rogers has vastly improved its customer service from when I started using them. It used to be a pain to call them because customer service reps (CSR) could be extremely rude and unhelpful. Today the fear of calling 611 is no longer there and Rogers has gone as far as to hire a Social Media team to help deal with issues on Twitter. It’s still early on but I have high hopes of its success.

Beyond customer service, this is where Rogers falls down and needs to seriously shore up the organization to stem the tide of negative comments. It’s frustrating to call a CSR to know more about plans, features and products of the company that the CSR is representing. It’s also frustrating that there is more knowledge of Rogers on sites like HowardForums.com then in Rogers itself. This problem also extends to the technical side too. One such incident that sticks out in my mind is right after Rogers announced that they too were now able to send and receive Tweets via SMS. The transition was rocky at best. For myself, it took almost 5 days for it to work. One particular person on Twitter had an iPhone and the technical support rep insisted that the problem was with the iPhone and had the individual call Apple multiple times for support. It was pretty clear that if the person was receiving other SMS messages that the iPhone was not the issue. The resolution for the issue ended up being an issue with Twitter not entering all area codes needed to send via SMS. CSRs and Tech Support reps need to be armed with information and knowledge that will make them effective in their job especially when it comes to new high profile features. The truth is that things go awry and customers can accept that. What customers don’t expect is incompetence.

 
One of the most common tricks that you read about online about calling Rogers reps is to keep calling until you can find a representative who knows what you are talking about. This points to an inconsistency of training of the customer reps. For me, I should be able to get what I need whether it be information or purchase of features with one phone call and not many. With Bell or Telus now offering similiar technology, the next phone call might very well be Bell or Telus.
 
The one thing that really baffles me is the philosophy regarding customer retention. For Rogers, it is typically a reactive customer retention strategy. Another way to get good deals with Rogers is to typicaly call to cancel and at that point, Rogers typically offers you very good plans to retain you. Sometimes it’s too little too late. Customer retention should be on-going and it’s not the big things but the little things that matter the most. Also, calling me up once every few months to extend my contract by offering me phones I would never use is not a good customer retention strategy. In fact, it just aggravates me a little bit more. Good customer retention is to call me to tell me when plans are improved. When I first started paying for data, I used to spend $100 for 500 MB of data. If I never upgraded my plan, I would be still paying for the same. Rogers went through many iterations of plans before I called to have to manually change the plans myself. Typically Rogers offers approximately $100 discount every couple for an equivalent discount for a hardware upgrade. There have never been a phone that I wanted from Rogers until the HTC Magic. Although I have been a customer for Rogers for over 8 years, this is my first hardware upgrade; Rogers never took that into account. I liked Fido’s Fido Dollars policy better. You build credit over time and you should have the ability to spend it in the way that you want.
 
I can’t speak much about other companies but I know that Rogers is putting some serious and genuine efforts to try to make its customers experience better. Hopefully Rogers can at least fix these areas.

 

Microsoft Courier – Potential Paper Notebook replacement

 

I’m really excited about the Microsoft Courier. If you’ve read some of my previous posts, I have reluctantly gone back to using my Asus R1F tablet and have indirectly given up on my Macbook Pro. Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Macbook Pro or OSX. It’s still my desktop OS of choice. Everything just seems to work on the Mac.

Given then I’m no longer a developer, a lot of my work life is involved in meetings with the business team or the dev team to discuss new ideas, work out issues or discuss design. In meetings, I often find it a lot easier to use a notepad instead of typing on a computer to communicate or describe ideas. The tablet is both the happy medium and extension of these two solutions. It has the flexibility of a notepad and the ability to store and distribute digitally. The downside of my current tablet is that it is extremely heavy weighing at almost 7 lbs. The weight isn’t bad if all I’m doing is lugging it from home and to work. It’s a bit weighty to be lugging it around the office and sometimes across the street. The weight is not bad if you consider what it does but today, it is more powerful than what I need it to be today.

Here’s where I think Microsoft Courier comes in. From the demos on Gizmodo, the product looks more like a paper notebook or portfolio which I take to my meetings right now. It has two “pages” and the way it is designed to work is that one page is used for searching and research while the other is used to work on. The form factor is ideal and I love the idea of having both stylus and finger touch. The really interesting thing about the product is that most of the function that is being displayed here already exists within the Microsoft realm of products. The note writing, embedding of images, handwriting recognition, OCR and concept of pages is embeded in a combination of OneNote and Windows 7. If you’ve never tried, the tablet function in Windows 7 is phenomenal. The gesture support is already used in the Microsoft Surface products.

 

Courier User Interface from Gizmodo on Vimeo.

As there are still a number of things that are unknown about the product, there are also a number of things that I’d love to see incorporated into the device. Synchronization to a central service is key. Notebooks are really good to start ideas however at some point, most ideas need to be finished on a computer. Also for me I tend to work on multiple computers and other peripherals so inter-device accessibility is key. I’m not sure I would install a lot of different applications on the device but the additional applications that I would use on this device are instant messaging, email and multimedia player. Bluetooth integration would be a nice touch to connect to a wireless headset. While having the ability to do both multi-touch and stylus is really nice, I hope that the hardware is able to differentiate the two as when writing, my hand tends to touch the paper and could cause the device to go awry. The biggest unknown about the product is hardware. For me to be able to use it, it would need to weigh at 2 lbs or less. It also can’t be too big or too thin as this would be a device to supplement my MacBook, not replace it. Given that I’m usually moving around for meetings, it will need to last at least 4 hours and have the ability to change batteries.

 

At first glance, I’m not convinced that the Microsoft Courier is built to compete with existing PC Tablets. Think of the Microsoft Courier as what the iPhone is to the MacBooks. While the Courier is supposedly getting the full Windows 7 treatment, it’s use will be limited by its form factor. As for the Apple tablet, it looks like it’s going to be more of a multimedia device whereas the Courier looks to be more of a productivity device. All in all, I’m still very excited to get my hands on the product.