HOW TO : Identify good talent

In the fortune magazine, there is a section (and for the life of me.. I cannot seem to find it online and I just cleared my dining table of all the back issues of the magazine 🙁 ) on how business leaders see trends in real life and than make judgements on where the economy is headed. For example, if someone sees a starbucks they visit regularly become more busier than normal, that person judges that the economy is doing well.

I judge good talent (think sysadmin, dba, programmer, application engineer etc) in a somewhat similar fashion. I should note that this system is not perfect, but it seems to have worked out more than not for me so far. I judge their talent based on what browser and how they use it.

THE BEST

Ever see a person who has multiple browsers (not tabs) open and is doing a specialized task in each one of them? Their home screen is usually set to a specialized search engine (blekko, duckduckgo, wolframalpha) and they have add-ons that block ads and show them a variety of information of the site they visit. These are usually the best folks to have on your team. These are the folks that you want your systems designed by.

THE GOOD

This group tends to either use firefox or chrome. Has Google as their  home-page and know how to use multiple tabs. Yeah.. sorry, I a browser discriminator :). Since there can only be a few rock stars in the world, you should consider yourselves lucky if most of the members in your team belong to this group.

THE REST

Ever see someone, whose homepage looks like Google but is not.. And has a bunch of “toolbars” that take up 1/3rd of the screen. And has popups showing up randomly? Yep.. these are the folks you don’t want touching your code. Even with a 10 foot pole.. no sir.. Having these folks move to firefox and/or chrome doesn’t help the situation either :).

Stay Hungry.. Stay Foolish

Just read a really nice article on the Harvard Business Review by Walter Isaacson on leadership lessons of Steve Jobs at http://hbr.org/2012/04/the-real-leadership-lessons-of-steve-jobs/ar/pr .  There were a lot of points that Walter makes in the article, but the one that resonated a lot with me was the need to “Stay Hungy.. Stay Foolish“. This is similar to having a “hacker mentality”, which I believe is one of the key ingredient for a person to be successful (professionally and personally).

Being a hacker means..

  • being inquisitive about how things work.
  • always being a student
  • being able to challenge “this is how we always did things”
  • never stop perfecting
  • remembering that one can (and used to) survive on ramen  noodles 🙂

Overheard : Comment on Innovation

Innovation doesn’t come out of love, but from hate

Penn & Teller.

Brian Brushwood, quoting Penn and Teller in the 327th episode of TWIT (~1:21 hour timeframe). He goes on to say how, if you love something, you can only create a pale imitation of it (say a show or piece of art). But if you hate something, you create something that is better than the object you hate.

Profound 🙂

HOW TO : Move your life into the cloud

Nope… I am not too late to get on the “cloud” bandwagon :). I started writing this post in Dec 2009 and here’s a screenshot of my drafts to prove it 

And I have finally decided that it is time to complete the post and publish it.

I change laptops every 6 months or so and a lot of my friends ask me how I manage to swap them so quickly and yet stay productive. I am sure a lot of you can relate to this. It usually take a month or so to get your workstation to a “state” that you feel comfortable with and are productive. Here are the tricks/tools I use to make the switching of a laptop/desktop to be a no-brainer activity. And I utilize the “cloud” heavily for this.

I adhere to a couple of simple rules to make sure I can be productive anywhere, even in situations, where I don’t have my workstation with me.

  • Everything I produce should be searchable
  • Everything I produce should be available on the web
  • Everything I produce should be easy to share

With these principles in mind, here are the services I use..

PHOTOS :

  • SERVICE : I use flickr to store all my pictures. I have taken ~40 thousand pictures since 2003 and everyone of them is online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/kudithipudi. I wish, flickr was around when I was a kid, so that I had a place to store all the pictures from my childhood instead of rotting away in some old cardboard box. I like Flickr for it’s simplicity and ease of use. There are other sites that offer a lot more features, but the features offered by Flickr are are more than enough for me.
  • COST : $24.95/year to upload/store unlimited number of pictures
  • OTHER CHOICES : There are plenty of photo storing/sharing sites. Some of the popular ones are picasa, photobucket, facebook

ON-LINE STORAGE :

  • SERVICE : I use dropbox to store any digital content I create. This overlaps a bit with the service I use to store documents I create. Dropbox is a service that allows you to synchronize files between different computers you have the agent installed on and at the same time stores them online for you. They offer 2GB of free space by default and you can earn more space by referring people to the service. (note : the links to dropbox are my referral links. If you sign up for the service, I get 250Mb of free space. If you don’t want to use the referral links, you can sign up for the service directly at www.dropbox.com).You would think 2GB is not a lot of space. But once you remove the music, movies and photos, you really don’t need a lot of space :). For example, I haven’t crossed 1.8 GB, even though I have an electronic record of all my important files all the way from 2006. All I do, when I switch to a new laptop is install the dropbox agent and voila all my files are downloaded and synced with the latest copies.
  • COST : free. If you need more space, dropbox offers it for a cost.
  • OTHER CHOICES : There’s plenty of competition for dropbox, but I don’t think anyone of them have come close to making the sharing/storage work as seamless as dropbox. Some of the popular ones are box.net, SugarSync,wuala, Amazon Cloud Drive

DOCUMENTS :

  • SERVICE : I use Google Docs to create and store documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Since it’s inception in 2006 as a simple online editor and spreadsheets service, Google Docs has come a long way. There are few things you cannot do in Google Docs, that you can do in a full fledged productivity suite like Microsoft Office. Plus it gives you the capability to collaborate with other people when creating documents.
  • COST : free.
  • OTHER CHOICES : The only other service that comes close to Google Docs is Zoho Suites. Microsoft has a competing product, Office Live, but I think they are confused on how to market it because it will eat into their most profitable franchise (Microsoft Office)

EMAIL :

  • SERVICE : I use Gmail for my email. Although there is a standalone version,  I use it as part of the services provided by Google Apps for my domain (kudithipudi.org). It offers free spam protection, 7GB of space and super fast search. What else can one ask for? 🙂
  • COST : free
  • OTHER CHOICES : There are several free email hosting providers. Some of the popular ones are hotmail, yahoo, aol

ONLINE PRESENCE :

  • SERVICE : I strongly believe that all of us have to manage our online presence. And I don’t mean just for the folks that work in technology, but everyone that uses the Internet. And that is pretty much most of the people living on planet earth :). There are several ways to do this (and I think that is for a another blog post), but the simplest way is to ensure you have a place where you can broadcast your presence. I use this blog as a way to document my thoughts, share ideas and in general manage  my on-line presence. I host this blog on a virtual server that I lease from Rackspace.
  • COST : $11/month
  • OTHER CHOICES : I would not recommend what I am doing for most people. There are several free platforms that you can host your blog on. I just do it this way, because I like to tinker with technology. Some of the popular blogging platforms are tumblr, blogspot, wordpress, squarespace.

HOW TO : Data Driven approach towards building a high performance team

One of the virtues of a high performance team is that they take the time to fix “problems” and allocate energy to improving themselves. And we also know that most of the people we speak with say “they are overloaded” and cannot complete their day job itself. Forgot about spending that extra time to fix “problem”. So how does one develop a team that can not only do their day job but continue to improvise? Here is a game plan, I developed over the last few years that I have been managing people. It is data driven, and while it is not perfect, it helps out :). And the only tool I use is a simple spreadsheet.

STEP 1 : The beginning

Evaluate (make a list of) the services being offered by the team. You need to have an good understanding of what your team is providing to your customers. This will not only help you understand what is critical, but also provides insight into services you can cut (not your core competency). This is how stage 1 looks like in the spreadsheet. 

STEP 2 : Identify the SME

Now that you know what services are being offered by the team, identify a SME (Subject Matter Expert) for each service. This is the guy/gal that knows this area in an out. If you don’t have a SME, take a resource that you know has the potential and make them the SME. Once I identify the SME, I make it very clear to them that they own that particular area and the entire team depends on them for support. This helps in creating ownership and professional pride. At this stage the spreadsheet looks like this 

STEP 3 : Backup

Things get interesting from here. You know what you are offering and you have a SME for each of those offerings. If you get to this stage, you are probably already better than 50% of the workforce (note : This is my personal statistic :).. ). At this point, I speak with the SME and give them a simple task.

    • Document the top 3 things you do on a regular basis.
    • Identify someone from your team that you would like to make as your backup. Train them on the top 3 things.

With the backups in place, my team is probably better than 75% of the workforce. Not only do we have a SME, but we have a backup to them. I think it is futile to have the backup resource know everything about a particular service offerings. There are always going to be SMEs and no matter how hard you try there will be some knowledge that is never going to get transferred (willingly or unwillingly). That’s the reason, I concentrate on the most common activities. The spreadsheet keeps evolving :). 

STEP 4 : Nirvana (Backup to the Backup)

This is where you start to become a high performance team. Have the SME and the backup identify another resource in the team to be added to their “group”. If the SME has documented the top 3 activities and trained his backup by now, I ask him/her to document the next 3 activities and train both the backup resources. At this stage, you will start to notice something amazing

    • You team will have time to fix “problems”. Because the SME is not just firefighting all the time. She has a group to fight the fire with. Which means she will get time to fix the root cause.
    • The group starts to improve the service offerings. Again, because they are a group and start taking pride in the services they own.
    • People can go on vacation and not worry about what is happening to their babies (work 🙂 ).
    • You as the manager will start seeing areas and resources that are not optimized. i.e. services not having enough backup, resources being stretched across multiple services. This gives me the chance to fix these shortcomings. And I can go to my boss with the data.

If you have come to this stage, consider yourself a hero :). As the Marines say, you have joined the ranks of “The Few and the Proud” 🙂 . By now the spreadsheet gets pretty colorful. 

Based on the size of your team, you can continue to add backups to the SME. I try to get to a state where the entire team can do 70% of the activities and we need a SME for only 30% of the activities. Why this 70/30 ratio? Because I think that is an easily achievable (but not something most of the teams do) target and anything over that is counterproductive. i.e. you are trying to get the SME spend so much time to share the last 30% percent that they might not have time for the original reason for setting up the backups (i.e. to give time to the SMEs to improve the services).

Any suggestions on improving this?

Overheard : Comment about start-up/entrepreneurship

Eric Reis‘ defintion of a startup

A human institution designed to create something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty

In other words, you don’t really need to work at a startup or out of a garage to be an entrepreneur. You can do the same thing in a typical corporate setting.

BTW.. check out this very cool conversation between Leo Laporte and Eric at 

People, Authority and Profits..

A couple of weekends ago, I had to buy some tablets for work. So I stopped by the trusty neighborhood microcenter and told the salesguy that I wanted to buy 3 iPads. The guy says “hmm.. I don’t know if I can do that, you see, we restrict each household to one iPad because there is so much demand”. I think.. fair enough and go on to tell him that I actually need to purchase a total of 9 tablets. 3 iPads and 6 Android tablets. Assuming that he will understand I am not your typical household, but a business. He goes into the “back room” to confirm with his supervisor and comes back saying.. a policy is a policy, we cannot do it. At this point, I am a bit ticked off.. I mean, don’t these guys want to actually sell these devices. I am on my way out to find another store and see a “manager” walking the aisles. I stop him and explain the situation, assuming he would be smarter and have the authority to “break” policy. Again no luck.. the guy kept repeating,”it is our policy to restrict each household to one iPad!!!”. Totally missing the point that I want to buy 6 more Android tablets too!!

I go to the competition across the road, TigerDirect and tell the first sales person that I need to buy a total of 9 tablets, 3 of them being iPads. The guy says “hmm.. we restrict iPads to one per household, but let me check with my manager”. The manager stops by assesses, the situation and “breaks” the policy and approves the purchase. I walk out with 9 tablets under my arms and making TigerDirect a couple hundred dollars richer (hopefully!! 🙂 )

Same policy in two different stores, but the fact that the manager in TigerDirect was able to asses the situation and go against the policy was a win-win situation for both the customer and his company.

Morale of the story? Hire good people and give them the authority to make decisions. Good things will follow :).

Inspiration..

I love my “work” to the point that most people that know me think that I am a “workaholic” :). One of the reasons, I love my job is the ability to share my passion for technology. And I know that I am on the right path (despite the long hours), when I receive notes like this (from an ex team-mate)

Hi Vinay,

I hope you are doing great. I would like to take this opportunity to express my thankfulness to you, for introducing us the Modular approach in Perl Scripting during the tenure at TravelClick.

Without your support, I probably wouldn’t have gained confidence to develop script which runs more than 500 lines. Hence I wish to dedicate this script to you.

Btw I started writing a Technical Blog over a year “http://ashok-linux-tips.blogspot.com”. I request you to have a look.

I must admit that the idea of sharing technical solutions via Blog was mainly inspired after seeing your http://kudithipudi.org J

Once again, thanks for all the support extended to us.

Regards

Ashok

Nice job Ashok :).