Watching a train crash

A blog is an intensely personal form of communication. It is, for the writer, an immediate and occasionally quite intimate outlet for the thoughts, feelings and emotions that is coursing through your veins. But writing a blog is also an incredibly public process. I have no control over who reads this or any other post. Furthermore, I have no control over who copies, archives or otherwise keeps a record of what I said, even if I have since deleted the post. Of course, I would like to think that anyone keeping a copy will delete any record they have when I delete my version, but I am not so naive to assume that is so.

Although most bloggers realise this, sometimes emotion overtakes us and we allow ourselves to vent without thought of the consequences. I read several blogs and most of them are well thought out and the author will be able to look back at the post in years to come with no fear or recriminations. But just occasionally, even smart people will forget; one blog I read has been describing what appears to be somewhat of an emotional breakdown of an otherwise perfectly healthy woman.

I know neither the blog author nor her friend and the first posts in the series, whilst slightly uncomfortable reading, were acceptable. The recent posts have made me genuinely fear for the friend- for her mental and even her physical well being. The feeling of impotence as I watch this train crash be described over a number of days is extremely unpleasant. Compounding the problem is that I have neither the skills nor the ability to do anything for these people. I don’t wish to be a ‘white knight’ riding in on a charger (though there are other scenarios in life where that image might be fun) but that doesn’t ease the feeling. I don’t know how that story will end, I fear that the answer is ‘not well’, and I am even afraid to look at the blog again. It feels like watching a train crash-you can’t take your eyes off it, no matter how much you want to.

The other example has less actual danger but highlights the danger of venting without thought of the recriminations. As anyone who knows me will tell I am not particularly politically correct. I tend to say what I think and frequently damn the consequences. However, I do try to care how I say things and I try to always include the requisite amount of etiquette in anything I write, say or do. OK, less on the say, but certainly when it comes to the written word I try to take care. So when I come across professional people who either publish very pointed blogs or send curt, incomplete and brusque e-mails; well I generally cringe inside. And the real problem is that by the time I get to read the words they have already been read by the intended recipient. So there is very little I can do can to prevent the damage- it is already there. In this situation the train has already crashed- all I do is to try some form of clean-up.

So with these examples out there in the blogosphere (or the world of internal e-mails) I hope I don’t ever offend anyone by the contents of this blog. If I do feel I am saying something negative I will endeavour to hide or disguise the person concerned so much that they are unaware of the point I am making. Conversely, if I am complimenting someone I will generally let them know directly (especially if I know the person). I feel I owe this to whoever I am communicating with, whether I know them or not, whatever personal feelings I may have or whatever medium I am using. Perhaps I should remind others of this, but I fear that the advice would not be taken well (but that may be due to the aforementioned lack of political correctness and subtlety in my communcation of the message)

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Change is great (but not for me)

As someone who is paid to update processes, design new applications to support those processes and implement the data structures to store the necessary information I am frequently proposing that a company implement a new system. In many of these situations I am called upon to perform the sales pitch to the existing users to convince them that the new system will be better and their lives will improve. And most times I believe that I what I am saying is the truth; because as anyone who has played with me will tell you, I am a rotten poker player and it is almost impossible for me to convince someone else of something I don’t believe in.

A natural consequence of this is that I am normally close to the front of the queue to try out some new application or another. Most of the time I can work out what to do pretty quickly and if I can’t then it is probably either indicative of a poorly designed application or that I am trying to learn something completely new and I have no clue what I am doing. Yeah, you got me; most times it is the latter of these cases. Furthermore, if I am trying an upgrade to an existing application then I expect there to be little or no learning curve and only the occasional frustration when I can’t find something. I have even grown to live with Vista, though I can’t actually say I like it, I find that if you switch off enough of the new toys then it becomes a perfetly adequate OS. Of course if you leave them all on then it truly is the nightmare that so many others have written about.

So with this background and experience it was quite the shock today when I found myself so frustrated with an application that I was literally banging my head against my desk. Not only can I still feel the bruise on my forehead but it scared the crap out of a co-worker who was sat behind me. What caused this outburst? Microsoft Office 2007 and in particular Excel. I had already gone through the process of turning off the Ribbon and creating my own toolbar when I realised that I needed to control the zoom of the window. Since I started using Excel in 1992 it has been possible to do this by placing a little widget in the toolbar; but no longer. Despite there being 3 (count ’em) different Zoom options it is not possible (as far as I can see) to put the zoom level in the toolbar. No, now you have to look down in the lower right hand corner of the screen. Sure, you can turn off the standard location, but you can’t put it where you want it to be. It was somewhere during the 5 minutes it took me to work this all out that my head and the desk came into close proximity and my colleague jumped out of his skin.

And this is just one of the myriad of changes that has been forced on me by Microsoft. I have read that people like myself make up less than 2% of the users of Microsoft Word, by which I mean that I believe I use it correctly with styles, customisation of the toolbars and personalised templates. So Microsoft, by all means create a UI that is better for the 98% of people who are not using your tools correctly but please Please PLEASE let the 2% who do like to control the look of the application so that it truly meets our needs make the customisations necessary.

All of which is a rant aimed squarely at the designers of Office. I generally like change but in this case I will be sticking with the old versions of your software. So keep making your changes, when they work for me, then I’ll join the party. Until then I’ll keep on being productive in my own way.

Internal economies and large companies

Life as an independent contractor is going to be a whole lot more ‘interesting’ for the next few months and possibly few years. The credit crunch (cue bad joke about the ‘credit crunch’ sounding like a bad breakfast cereal) has been having an effect on the wider economy for a number of months and from my personal survey it appears to be hitting the technical community and big companies. It may simply be that November/ December are simply exhibiting their usual end-of-year slow down and that activity will pick up again in 2009, but I don’t think so.

I have been more active than usual in monitoring job vacancies on account of the fact that a major contract ended and I had no immediate opportunities. As the financial markets started to resemble a roller coaster (up and down, but far more down than up) there were many, many contracts advertised in the financial services sector. Now I don’t have any experience in financial services, but when you don’t have any other work, you start to consider other possibilities. Of course as the financial meltdown continued the possibility of turning up on a Monday to start work and getting terminated 24 hours later grew and grew. So maybe financial services wasn’t the way to go for me, but that question became moot as within a couple of months there are almost no jobs being advertised in financial services. The companies have closed down all recruiting activity as they try to work out what on earth they are going to do to weather the storm.

Fortunately for me I managed to get a new contract with an existing client but this got me to thinking as to why I was having difficulty finding new opportunities. Obviously, the credit crunch is not helping, but I also realised that as a small contractor my network is very dependent on the people I meet. I have had a contract at a large company for over two years now and I realised that my network of contacts is actually almost exclusively internal to the company.

The company is so large it is functioning as its own mini-economy- people change jobs, move, have health care and many the other benefits that are typically assigned to a government. And they do all of this without ever actually leaving the company. Even more bizarrely is that different departments start poaching people to server their own means and consequently even turf wars erupt. When people are looking for a new role they have to advertise their own services to the rest of the company, just as you would in the ‘real world’.

I have no idea if this is the same in all really large companies, but I can imagine that it is. And here is my point- although this company is exhibiting many characteristics of a country, a government and an economy, it is not a totally related to the world outside the walls. The closest analogy I can come up with is the artificial economy that was put in place by the Soviet Union: I can clearly remember having a discussion in the early 1990’s with an ethnic Russian in his late 50’s who was convinced that the West was forcing up the price of bread. I never did work out if he thought it was all part of the closing stages of the Cold War or just some capitalists playing with his mind. What became clear was that under the soviet system he had been paying far, far less for his loaf of bread: the system was determining the price to pay, not external factors such as the price of wheat in Canada or a rise or fall in the price of oil to transport the oil.

What I find most interesting is that the very companies that are the basis of the whole free market system are functioning internally in exactly the same way as a system that they brought to its knees. I think it is going to be one hell of a ride to watch how this plays out over the next few months. But in the meantime I am going to put much more effort into developing an external network. So look out for me at a few more conferences in the next few months- I’ll see you there.

Recommendations on how to organize e-mail

In order to keep control of e-mail there is all sorts of advice on web sites, books and TV shows telling you to use folders and tags to organize (or even organise) your e-mail. But there is almost no advice telling you how to organize it. So, in the spirit of rampant egotism and the belief that I know best, here are some recommendations how to organise your e-mail. Although first we just need to describe the tools and techniques that I suggest to use

i. Understand the difference between folders and tags. Folders are long term, structural things that divide messages. Tags on the other hand are far more flexible.

Think of folders as the wall that divide up a house- you can move walls, but it is quite an undertaking. Tags on the other hand are more like a free standing bookcase that you buy from Ikea- it is pretty straightforward to move the bookcase from one side of the room to the other or add another bookcase etc. In fact the bookcase metaphor works on a second level: In an ideal world, any tag will exist solely within a single folder, just as a bookcase will normally exist in a single room. However, you could always place the bookcase so that it is half in one room and half in the other; but you would probably need a fairly particular purpose to need to place a bookcase in a doorway.

Finally on folders and tags, and this is where the bookcase metaphor breaks down, you can easily assign multiple tags to a single message. Storing a message in multiple folders generally requires physically copying the message multiple times.

ii. Know the searching and sorting capability of your e-mail program.

Every e-mail application that I have used in the last 5 years allows you to customise the information that is displayed. Most times the message pane will contain the senders name, the message subject (or title), the sent time and possibly whether the message had an attachment or not. The crucial thing to note is that all these columns are sortable (and in some applications they are groupable- though that may not be a real word). What this means is that we can use the computer to search or sort on any column that can be displayed in the message pane.

So, with that understood, how should you organise your e-mail?

1. Create your folders based on large, stable groupings that (and this is the crucial part) are not based on any column that is available from the message pane.

This means that you should (probably) not create a folder called “John Smith” to store all the messages that you send to John and he sends to you. Instead think of what John is, or how you know him or what you talk about with him. So, if John is part of your family or if you know him from the pub then perhaps those are the folders you can create. At work this process is often easier: if you work on multiple projects (or even have multiple billing codes) then the process is simple: 1 folder per billing code. It doesn’t matter who sends the message, if it is related to that project it goes in that folder.

2. Supplement your folders with tags that provide additional information not contained within the folder, the message pane columns or elsewhere.

3. Finally, and this does bend the previous rules slightly: If you are using an e-mail program that doesn’t use a database to store the messages you will need to archive your messages. This is obviously a time based breakdown, which is one of the sortable columns. However, I can’t think of a smart way of creating archives any other way, so just suck it up.

So, some of these suggestions may be old hat- I think that the crucial one is #1: I haven’t seen anyone anywhere else make this proposal, but I have been using this approach for a while now and it works a charm at work (it is a bit more problematic at home, but that is because deciding on the folder structure is harder). Good luck with it. Or just ignore me and carry on as before

Loyalty

I sold my soul long ago to the devil that is the mighty greenback: I work as a consultant in the oil industry so it is pretty clear what my driver is. And since I got divorced that need has pretty much been prescribed by a nice judge and a court order.

But when I work at a company I consider that I am as loyal to the company as I would be as if I were an employee. Now that may not be as loyal as some employees, but that is because I have never seen myself staying at a company for years on end; I like working for myself and I like the independence it brings.

So what brings about this rant? A conversation overheard in the coffee bar: 

Older Employee: “I am worried that we have too many consultants and we will not be able to capture the knowledge”

To which I can only comment: Then pay us to stay here long enough to complete the job, design a proper knowledge capture system and enable a decent search of the knowledge to allow future users to understand what went on.

Just don’t think it is the consultants fault for not being an employee, like so many things in life, it is far more complex than that.