Free Software Friday 9

I am a mess.  I’ll freely admit it.  Those who have worked with me know that I have to juggle many different eggs from vastly different worlds and at times, some of them fall.  (It’s not so bad as I make a fantastic omelet.)  As a result, I’m always looking for a better way to stay organized. 

Evernote has been around for quite a while.  The last time I looked at it was a few years ago, and didn’t really see how it would work for me.  A friend of mine started using it and mentioned it so I went back to check it out.  It seems that the magical elves at Evernote have been busy!

There are clients for the browser, Windows, Mac, iPhone, Android and Blackberry.  You can even send notes to your account via Twitter!  I’m packing the Droid around these days, so I downloaded that app and the Windows client.  I’ve been using it for several weeks now and have been very impressed. 

Here are screenshots of the windows client and web client:

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The free account comes with 40 GB of space (premium is only $5/month for 500 MB and no ads), which seems to be plenty so far.  I love being able to go to my phone when I’m out and about and have all of my notes and lists in one place.  The tagging and search functions seem to work very nicely, but I don’t yet have a ton of data in there to give it a real test.  The ink note story is not so great (I have used OneNote for a long time and am spoiled) but the ability to access data everywhere overshadows that weakness.

Once Sharepoint 2010 and OneNote 2010 and Windows Mobile 7 phones are out on the market, I intend to see if I can match the functionality of Evernote and still have all the things I like about OneNote.  In the meantime, definitely take a look at Evernote.

Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome

What happens when one person who is used to being the smartest person in the room has to work with another person who is used to being the smartest person in the room?  Or how about 3 or 4 of them?  I’ve worked for a lot of companies that would give anything to have this type of situation, but what about the unforeseen side effects of such a thing?  Sir Isaac Newton famously (and humbly) said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”  Would he have been as gracious if he had to go to staff meetings with those giants week after week?  Would he have been as quick to self-deprecate if he had to constantly defend his ideas to those giants? 

I’m sure you’ve know people like this.  Maybe you are one of them. Over the course of their lives, they have always emerged as the people that others turn to when they need things done.  They tend to be accustomed to having the best, fastest answer to any given problem.   I think the conditioning that happens to this sort of individual happens so subtly that they don’t even realize it’s happening.

So what’s the big deal?  My esteemed colleague (I told you I would give you credit, Steve) and I have been talking about this for some time.  Here are a few thoughts on the danger this presents to teams.

  1. Tunnel Vision – Every human being has an ego that tells them that their ideas are better than someone else’s.  Your ego in this has been fortified by your entire life’s experience in which your ideas were always the ones that were picked.  This can really negatively impact a group of people who are trying to solve a problem.
  2. Assumptions – You’re smart.  You know your teammates are smart.  Therefore, they must know the same things you do, right?  I think this leads to NOT exploring ideas and NOT talking through how you came to your conclusions.  Assuming in a team full of smart people can be lethal.
  3. Communication Gap – I suppose that communications is really at the heart of any team’s problems.  Any time you have more than one person working towards the same goal, communication becomes the glue that holds it all together.  I think smart people don’t sit and think, “I’m not going to communicate with that other person.”  I think more often it’s a combination of “We have daily/weekly/monthly status meetings to get us on the same page” along with some “I’m doing the WORK, I can stop and talk about it every five minutes”  with just a dash of “I figured it out, so should everyone else.”

I am fortunate to work with as many HIGHLY talented people as I do.  Every last one of them has some area(s) of absolute genius.  In spite of that (I suppose I’m arguing here because of that), we’ve fallen prey to some of these problems, mainly because we were unaware of this subtle cause.  But as GI Joe cartoons taught me when I was young, knowing is half the battle. 

Downside of a Geeky Upbringing

I am a chubby computer geek.  No, seriously, I love food (which has lead to my marshmallowy midsection) and I love technology and sci-fi and reading and host of other things which lead to my junior high ostracism and labeling as a geek.  Being a chubby computer geek does not (in my case anyway) lead to a great deal of team sport.  Or any sport.  Or really anything that involves breaking out in a sweat.

(This guy was Brad Pitt compared to how I was.)

I realize now that may have been a liability for me, even along the uber-nerd path that I have followed in life.  I wonder if I had participated in any kind of team anything, would it have taken me as long to have this realization.  It’s embarrassingly obvious when you think about it, but it took me years to really get it.  The realization is this:  Not only is it IMPOSSIBLE to do everything yourself, it is no FUN either.

A good team of technology people is an absolute joy to work in.  A good team is orders of magnitude more productive than an average team (as is a good developer, according to Steve McConnell).  For productivity, for morale, for ROI on those salary dollars (you know they ain’t cheap), every business should be striving to make their technology teams the best they can be.

So how is that done?  A few thoughts:

  1. Communication – If you don’t have communication, you don’t have a team.  It’s that simple.  How can more than one human being work towards, or even agree on, a single goal without communicating.  Once again, I feel like Captain Obvious saying things like this, but it seems that communication is one of the hardest things for teams to get right.  I’m saying words and they are saying words, but we never seem to get in sync.  Not getting this right will kill a team in a hurry.
  2. Trust – This one is a little trickier.  Volumes have been written on the topic, but what can I actively tell you to do to build trust?  Be trustworthy?  It’s a true answer, but it’s fuzzy.  How about, don’t undermine trust?  Maybe that’s a better angle on it.  When you want to say something you think is witty at the expense of someone on your team or their work, just don’t.  It’s harder to build bridges than to build walls, but it’s essential that everyone commit to it.
  3. Value – You could use a word here like “results”.  Or “outcomes”, or even “shipping”.  What I mean is the thing that your team has to get done.  The reason why the business is giving the team money.  Whether it’s delivering a web site to a client, a working Exchange implementation to the company, or that new feature your accounting department has been waiting for, the team MUST be focused on the results of the labor at LEAST as much as on the labor itself.  Value for the end-user should never be far from any team member’s mind.

</go team>

An (Unasked for) Update

Things are so crazy for me these days, I can barely remember to put on pants before leaving in the mornings.  Let me break it down for you.

  • Day Job – On my business card it says Chief Technology Officer.  No one really knows what a CTO does (shut up Justis), but at times it feels like being spackle.  You kind of spread one around and hope it fills all the gaps.  But seriously, I love my job.  I get to do a bunch of Lab/R&D type work testing out new products and figuring out where things fit.  I also get a huge lift from seeing technology put to good use and make people’s lives easier and more efficient.  It’s a tremendous amount of work to keep all the balls in the air, though.
  • Nashville IT Pro User Group – This endeavor started out as a “why not?” kind of thing and has actually come into being.  We had our first meeting yesterday and we had 18 people there.  I was thrilled to hear so much positive feedback and was very encouraged by the turn out.  Once we got past some minor logistical issues (like the outer doors being locked so no one could get in) it went very well.  We’ll be meeting the last Tuesday of every month, which will be great for the community, but also is looking to be a significant amount of work.
  • This Blog – I’ve been trying REALLY hard to post like clockwork on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Whether or not anything I write here makes any sense at all to you, it really clarifies things in my head for me.  I have to come up with the ideas, do my best to make them interesting and then actually sit down and write them.  Believe me, at times. it’s not as easy as I make it look.
  • Personal Chef Cook – I can’t call myself a Chef.  I’ve never been to Culinary School (although I do my best to live vicariously through my brother Dan), and I seriously doubt I ever will, but I love to cook.  I’ve been acting out my little chef fantasies for my friends on weekends and so far they haven’t seemed to mind.
  • Community Theater Widower – My multi-talented wife has been working as the Music Director for the Old School Theater’s production of Tom Sawyer.  She is HIGHLY dedicated and really cares about music and serving the community this way.  I’m always thrilled when she takes on jobs like this, because I end up spending a lot of time with my three kids on the weekends. 

Combine all this stuff with the surgery, flu, pneumonia, bronchitis, and colds that this Petri-dish we call a family has been through just in the last ninety days and my Outlook calendar is pretty slammed.  I have to admit, though…life is pretty good.

      I Have Drunk The Kool-Aid

      And it is good.  I broke down and bought a Kindle the other day and it just showed up.  I have to say, I really like it.  I knew it was going to be compact and sleek, but I really am amazed at how well crafted the device is.  Also in the exceeding expectations department, I was dumbfounded by how easy the ordering/delivery of the book was.  Stunning.

      I know there is nothing new here, so at the request of a friend of mine, I’ll be doing some speed trials with this.  You may have gathered that I read a lot.  I also read very fast, at least I did on paper.  So I’ve selected a business book – Drive by Daniel Pink, a fiction book – First Lord’s Fury by Jim Butcher, and a technical book – Beginning Ruby by Peter Cooper.  These should give me the gamut as far as how reading on the Kindle stacks up versus paper for me.  More to follow.

      Free Tools Friday 8

      We recently had a local company come in and talk to our development team about Kanban and Lean Software Development.  Their product is called LeanKit and the 5 Users/1 Board version is completely free.  You can register, log in, and have your board set up in about 3 minutes.  I love the interface and how simply they have executed the system.  Anyone who’s managing projects with a small team should definitely check this out.

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      The tool is pretty sweet, but I was equally interested in their explanation of the principles of Lean/Kanban.  Two of the “pillars” of this way of thinking are Delivering Customer Value and Continuous Improvement (maybe you’ve heard the term kaizen).  Anyone who’s ever ready this blog knows that I’m all about both of those things.  I’m really excited to learn more about all of this and see how it plays out in the real world.  I’ll keep you posted.

      Double Your Rate of Failure

      I think a lot about success.  The nature of my job demands that I be aware of the definition of success on every project.  (Believe me, easier said than done.)  I read about other people’s ideas about success.  I am certainly awash in what society views as success.  I have definite ideas about what success looks like for me personally. 

      Over the past couple of weeks, the development team at Sommet has been all but chanting the mantra “Fail Faster”.  We’re trying to increase efficiency, communication and transparency (as I’m sure all teams are trying to do) all at once, and this refrain keeps coming up.  If we fail early and often, we will get to success faster, right?

      The famous quote by Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, goes:

      It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure… You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all.

      For many years, I have been extremely lucky.  I have been able to achieve some really amazing things by failing only a few times.  (They’ve been doozies, though trust me.)  As a result, and in violation of Mr. Watson’s maxim, I do indeed tend to think of failure as the enemy-or at least the opposite-of success. 

      I could ramble on this topic for some time, so let me just cut to the chase.  Every single time you get it wrong, you are that much closer to getting it right. It doesn’t matter if you are a business owner, a stay at home parent, or the guy working at the snack bar.  Analyze those failures, make small changes, and try it again.*

      Thanks to Alex, Jim, Kristin, James, Evan, Dan, Elijah, Steve, Joey, Matt and Bryan for letting me learn from you guys every day.  It’s an honor and a pleasure to work with you all.

      *(These are precisely the same steps as troubleshooting any problem…duh.)

      Trusted Advisor

      A guy I knew years ago used to say, “What’s the difference between a consultant and a trusted advisor?”  The answer:  All of your money.  He almost always got a laugh with that one, but just last week I was reminded of just how true that can be. 

      How can you tell the difference between a consultant, a hired gun, and a person that you can trust to give you the very best advice for your situation?  Here are a few thoughts:

      1. Time.  I’m sure everyone can think of a professional in their life that dings them for every second possible.  A lawyer, a mechanic, an accountant, maybe?  Not that there’s really a problem with that, after all everyone needs to earn a living.  The trusted advisor goes above and beyond the “billable hours” mentality and really takes the time to understand the business and its needs.   
      2. Perspective.  I think all consultants, both good and bad, want to deliver results.  It seems to me that their point of view can make all the difference.  If I look at a solution from the vantage point of the dollars that I will make first and the value for the client second, that makes me a consultant.  If I have truly taken the time to understand a business, its people and its goals, then I can really understand value first and worry about the money I will make second.
      3. Investment.  I’m talking about truly being (I hate this term because it gets abused so much) a partner.  I honestly feel that your success is my success, your challenges are my challenges and that your failure is my personal failure.  How well you do matters to me.
        I got to witness a great field tech who has achieved all of these things in action last week, and it was a thing of beauty.  That’s the bar to which all of us as service providers should be striving.  Thanks for the reminder, Will.

      Satisfied with Your Life? Here’s the Antidote…

      I kid, I kid.  I read a couple of books this week that really hit me between the eyes and made me realize how complacent I seem to have become.  The first is A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink and the second is Linchpin: Are You Indispensible? by Seth Godin.  I highly recommend them both to anyone in business, but especially to technology people in business. 

      A Whole New Mind is a look at the end of the Information Age characterized by knowledge workers and MBA types, and the rise of what the author calls the Conceptual Age which will be dominated by more creative types that can synthesize date, make relationships and add value through design.  Mr. Pink has a very easy writing style and offered some great ideas on how to develop your right brain and thereby be able to add even more value in whatever you do.

      Linchpin really blew my mind.  I like Seth Godin’s style a lot, and I was looking forward to reading it even before it showed up on my doorstep.  A linchpin is someone who leans into “the resistance”, the part of all of us that wants to play it safe, and just gets things done.  As Seth says over and over, they ship.  It doesn’t matter if your IQ makes Einstein look like Paris Hilton if you don’t ship.  The book was inspiring to me and made me want to live up to exceed what I expect from myself. 

      I really felt both of these books as a one-two punch of much needed motivation and self-discovery.  They have shifted my perceptions and I am newly energized by the challenges that I encounter daily.  I’m not really dissatisfied with my life, I’m just no longer willing to settle.

      Free Tools Friday 7

      I have to apologize for my long absence, but I’ve been in year end mode for the entire month.  To make up for it, I have a killer list of free tools to geek out on.  This list should have something for everyone.  I have technology tools, business tools and even an online image editor.

      • Google SketchUp – Our Google Overlords continue to keep the masses in check with their constant stream of cool, free apps.  This one allows you to create any kind of 3D model you can think of.  From a skyscraper to a toilet brush, you can create and manipulate just like professional CAD software.  Check out Detroit’s Renaissance Center:image
      • Recuva – Have you ever deleted a file, emptied the recycle bin and then realized you just got rid of a spreadsheet that you spent 20 hours on?  This is the app for you.  It scans your hard drive and will recover as many files as it can see.  The step by step wizard walks you through the process and make it dead simple to use.Screenshot
      • Fotoflexer – This online image editing application is a lifesaver when you’re at your in-laws house and need to crop, resize, get rid of red-eye or whatever.  It has preset effects that you can apply to photos, along with text and even layers.  Very slick.image
      • inSSIder – Troubleshooting Wifi can be a real headache.  Channels, spectrums, encryption levels make it a real mess when there’s a high concentration of traffic.  This tool breaks it all down and gives a nice graphical view of everything it can see.
      • SolarWinds Advanced Subnet Calculator – If you’re a network person, this is a tool you shouldn’t leave home without.  You just punch in an IP and it will tell you all of the subnets, ranges, broadcasts and networks that relate to it.image
      • PrimoPDF Creator – No one wants to pay 500 bucks for Acrobat just to create PDFs from your documents.  This free app installs in about 30 seconds and sets up a “printer” that you can select from any application and will create PDFs every bit as well as the big guns do.