Not Software, Not Free, But it is Friday

So usually I recommend my favorite free software packages on Fridays.  Today I want to talk about another borderline obsession of mine that makes me all giddy inside when I think about it.  Books.  I read a LOT.  The summer before I went to live in Brazil for two years, I read over 200 books to “tank up” before the long drought.  I LOVE books.  Dickens and Heinlein and Nietzsche and Shakespeare and Aurelius and Twain and Dumas… Ok, calm down.  Anyway, I’ve had a number of conversations lately about books that have been important to me over the course of my career.

I won’t bore you with the dark corners of my literary addiction.  Rather I’d like to recommend some titles that I think everyone should read.  Whether you’re in IT or sales, whether you work at a big company or you started your own, I think everyone can benefit from these works.

In No Particular Order:

  1. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – This is one of the very first books about "soft skills” that I ever read.  This book was written in 1936 and I think has been in print ever since.  The language has been updated and some of the sections were removed since I first read it (who needs to know about writing a business letter these days), but it stands as the book that started it all for me.  There is a lot of common sense advice that everyone can benefit from.
  2. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey – This isn’t one I go back and re-read a whole bunch, but there are some principles that Covey explains in such a way that really resonates with me.  I was first exposed to the concept of “Begin with the End in Mind” in this book and I use it daily.  In software development, troubleshooting, customer service, and life in general, it is absolutely critical to know where you’re going before you start.  The other idea that I took away from this was “Sharpen the Saw”.  Continually exposing yourself to new ideas and new ways of doing things will keep you excited and relevant.  (I’m talking to you IT folks.)
  3. The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber – This one was recommended to me a year or so after I started my first business.  I think the lessons that can be taken away from this one are not limited to entrepreneurs though.  The idea that good businesses are made up of systems and should have well defined responsibilities is a valuable lens to look at and evaluate any company.  One of the questions I ask the most as I consult is “What is your process for handling that?”  If I get a well articulated (or heaven forbid a documented) answer to that question, it will speed up the process by an astounding amount.

So that’s my starter list, for those of you who have asked me.  Let me know what you think, and I’ll post the next list in a couple of months.

PS

Today is my anniversary and I wanted to take a minute to tell my amazing, smart and beautiful wife how much I love and appreciate her.  You have made the last 11 years a non-stop roller coaster of fun, self-discovery and excitement for me.  I am very fortunate to have you by my side as we try to figure out this whole “life” thing together. 

A Few Words on Service

On December 13th, 2009, I was getting ready to go to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, in which my lovely and talented wife was to sing in the choir.  My most excellent older brother and his wife were going to keep the kids for me.  My very good friend and his wife were going to come with me so I wouldn’t have to sit alone.  All was right with the world.

Then, as quick as a rattlesnake, I was doubled over in pain, white as a sheet and filled with both dread of what was to come and guilt for ruining so many people’s plans.  I knew exactly what the problem was, as I had experienced it several times before.  Kidney stones.  (If you didn’t actually shudder and cringe when you read that you’ve never had them.)

So way back on that Sunday afternoon, I figured this was going to be an inconvenience and no more.  I had painkillers and anti-nausea meds and even some nifty stuff called Flomax which helped the last stone I had pass in just six hours.  I figured it would be more or less a repeat of that.  How wrong can one chubby computer guy be?  That was the question I was ironically pondering a week later as they were wheeling me into my first ever surgery.

What does all of this have to do with service?  I talk a bunch about customer service, service in your organization, a service mindset, always from the perspective of the one serving.  Over the course of this couple of weeks, I got a very large dose of the perspective of being served.

Learn From My Pain

  1. It’s vaguely uncomfortable to be served by someone else.  Maybe it’s because I’m a guy.  Maybe it’s because I’m a support person at heart.  I’m not sure what it is, but I always feel like I should be doing things for myself.  Being in a position where I physically CAN’T do things for myself made me realize that despite the slight discomfort from being served, I am SO grateful to those who helped me out.  I would do almost anything for those people in return.  Keep that in mind as you try to put yourself in your customer’s shoes.
  2. The strongest relationships are forged (or broken) in service.  When someone really needs your help, that’s the absolute BEST time to win them over.  If you help them when they need it, they will remember.  I have an esteemed colleague that gets an absolutely electric charge out of going into a situation where the customer is upset and then turning the situation around and winning them over for life.  I’ve seen it happen, these people would do anything for him when he’s done.
  3. Customer service is about one person serving another.  It has nothing to do with corporate policies or call centers or even the product itself.  It boils down to a single person doing their best to make the other person feel valued and cared for.  There has been volume after volume written on this subject, but that’s the heart of it.  If you can pull this off, everything else is candy.
    I hope this give some insight from the other side of the table that will help in pursuit of excellent service.  I have experienced such a tremendous amount of great service over the past several weeks, and I can tell you first-hand how amazing it is when it happens.  From the nurses and doctors that took care of me in the hospital, to my true friends who brought food when we needed it (I didn’t cook a meal for days), to my family members and coworkers who prayed for me, checked in on me and thought about me, I am grateful to them all. 
    The one I have to single out in this, though, is my beautiful, intelligent, patient and caring wife.  She did everything that needed to be done for both of us for several weeks.  She missed out on doing things she loves doing and rearranged her whole life without a whisper of complaint and at a moment’s notice.  She is the greatest.
    After this outpouring of support that I experienced, I have felt very loved and appreciated.  I feel like I can surmount any obstacle with all of these great people on my side.  I didn’t mean to get sappy at all with this, so let me leave you with this question.  What would happen in your business/job/life, if you could make the people around you feel like that every time you were around them?  I can’t tell exactly, but I bet it would be amazing.

A Tale of Two Techies

I recently had a conversation with a group of young tech workers.  They are all VERY intelligent and great technicians.  They even have what I would consider very good people skills.  The topic of discussion was the role of technology (consultants and managers primarily) in keeping the business up to speed on what technology workers are working on.  The group seemed surprised by my assertion that it is every bit as important to report on the work as it is to do the work well.

Let me clarify with a story.  Let’s imagine two technology managers (or consultants or even entry level, really).  Let’s call them John and Ray.  They are both excellent with technology and work very hard for their companies.  They both have great experience and try to pay attention to their people skills.

John is a very reserved kind of a guy and somewhat of an introvert.  He does his job well, stays weekends and nights when he needs to and really tries to do the right thing in all situations.  He assumes that his hard work and diligence will be noticed by his managers and users (customers) and they will appreciate him without his having to “blow his own horn”.  This mentality is his justification to ignore what he thinks of as office politics (he thinks they’re beneath him) and he focuses most of his attention on the technology itself.

Ray is a little more outgoing.  (For a computer geek, he’s actually the life of the freaking party.)  Someone told him years ago “Perception is reality” and it always stuck with him.  As a result, Ray always sends his manager a rundown of his department’s activities when they work over a weekend and he makes sure to take an extra few minutes to explain how the business will benefit from whatever they did.

Ok, let’s throw a situation at these two guys and see how they fare.  It’s the end of the year and both of these guys are naturally thinking about raises and maybe even promotions.  They each have a review with their manager.  This is what it might sound like:

John’s Review

MGR:  We’re glad to have you John.  I know you care about doing a good job.

John:  Thank you.  The team and I have been putting in a lot of nights and weekends.

MGR:  Really?  That’s good to hear.  Keep up the good work.  Do you have any other questions or concerns before we wrap up?

John:  Well…is a salary increase at all in my future?

MGR:  An increase, huh?  Wow.  That’s going to be tough to swing this year with the economy and all.  We should all be glad we even have jobs.

John:  I AM glad we all have jobs, but I really feel like I’ve had my nose to the grindstone and should at least be considered for a raise.

MGR:  John, I will do my best to get you some consideration, but if you look at the numbers, IT is one of our biggest expenses.  Also, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but our CEO was really ticked off about his little email outage…

John:  He’s mad about that?  We got him up and running as soon as we got the word he was having problems.  The Exchange server punked out again and wouldn’t let him connect.

MGR:  I know, it’s not really your fault.  I only bring it up to let you know I have the deck stacked against me.

John:  Ok, I appreciate whatever you can do.

MGR:  No problem.  I really mean it when I say thanks for all that you do.

 

Ray’s Review

MGR:  We’re so glad you’re here, Ray.  I don’t know what we’d do without you.

Ray:  That’s great to hear.  The team and I have really tried to get a lot done before the end of the year.

MGR:  I know you guys have put in a ton of late nights and weekends.  It really has made a difference around here too.  Which is as good a lead in as any, I guess.  Ray, we’re going to give you a raise, congratulations.

Ray:  Wow.  I can’t thank you enough.

MGR:  You’ve really earned it.  Not only have you put in the time and made a difference, but pretty much everyone in the company feels like you’ve brought all of us along for the ride.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me how glad they are that you can explain things in a way that they can understand.

Ray:  I’m glad to hear that.  We try to keep our focus on the needs of the business.

MGR:  Keep up the good work!

 

OK, I know it’s a little cheesy, but I have seen and been a part of conversations that are VERY similar to the ones above.  If the business doesn’t KNOW that it’s getting good value from what you’re doing, do NOT expect it to act like it’s getting good value.

I’m not advocating walking around and spouting off how great you are or how much you know.  That will be self-defeating.  I’m talking about little things like sharing the metrics with your organization.  How many calls did we handle last month?  What was our average resolution time?  What kind of growth have we experienced recently?  How has technology made the work life of users better?  Things like letting management know not just that you’re working overtime, but what that work will MEAN to the company and the people who work there.

Trust me, I’ve seen this one play out many times.  Heed this advice and I GUARANTEE you will have a more successful career.

2009 Geek Lust Satisfying Gifts

I have been accused of being hard to shop for.  I have to respectfully disagree with that notion.  I find it all too easy to shop for me.  I like to play with technology, I like to cook, I like to read and I play guitar a little.  To me that’s a fairly target rich environment.  Anyway, here is a list of surefire gifts for the geek in your life. 

  • Motorola DroidYou probably have seen the commercials.  (My favorite is the Misfit Toys one…)  This device is pretty sweet.  It’s sleek and angular, has a 3.7” screen and integrates with Google Everything.  Toss in GPS, Video and Music, and a 5 MP camera and you’ve got yourself some bona fide geek bait.
  • Kindle DXI absolutely love books.  I love bookstores.  I hate trying to pack around technical books.  They’re HUGE and you have to think in advance which ones you might need.  The Kindle solves all of that and most of the tech books cost about half of the print version.  The DX is quite a bit more expensive than the smaller one, but if you’re going to be reading a ton of tech material, it’s the only way to go!
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 This is a great sequel to a great game.  In the single-player campaign you play as a couple of different soldiers ranging from the British SAS Special Ops branch to a grunt in the US Army.  I particularly loved the missions set in Brazil and the very authentic graffiti and billboards and also the Portuguese cursing bad guys.  This game is fun even when I’m getting absolutely stomped while playing online.
  • Flip Ultra HD  This digital pocket camcorder will record 120 minutes of video in widescreen 720p high definition.  It’s a slick little device that’s easy to keep close at hand to catch those co-worker moments that just beg to posted on YouTube.  You know, like the first time you see one of them REALLY getting into Wii Boxing, for example.
  • Brain Bag by Tom Bihn – I have struggled with the ideal bag for years.  I’ve packed around the obligatory Tech Conference giveaway bags to cheap messenger bags to expensive leather shoulder bags.  This one spanks them all.  You can put a tremendous amount of stuff in this thing and it stands up to abuse like no other.  There’s even a slide show of them dropping an egg inside of the laptop case and it coming out just fine.  It’s not cheap, but it will be the last bag you ever buy.
  • Leatherman Skeletool CX – Working in technology occasionally will require actual physical tools.  Seriously, stop laughing.  I’m not talking about a torque wrench here.  Opening boxes full of shiny new toys, swapping out motherboard screws, trimming zip ties, you know, that kind of thing.  Anyway, playing the “who has the screwdriver game” may have sounded like fun in college, but not so much when you’re trying to get things done at work.  This tool is compact, versatile and well made.  (That’s what she…nah, not gonna go there…)
  • Dragon Age: Origins – As fun as I think Modern Warfare 2 is, it really doesn’t hold a candle to the good old fashioned sword and sorcery role playing game.  This is a great throwback to the Baldur’s Gate era of PC gaming and will help the most hardcore geek out there get his D&D on.  They even have it for Xbox and PS3.
  • Dell 3007WFP-HC 30” LCD – This one isn’t cheap, I’ll grant you.  But if you want to see a look of pure ecstasy on the geek in your life, this will almost certainly do the job.  It has fantastic color, great accessory features like USB, firewire and an SD port.  Killing zombies has NEVER looked so good. 
  • Razor Mamba Wireless Gaming Mouse – Ok, so 1200 buck might be out of your budget.  This wireless gaming mouse is a mere tenth of that amount and is also the best device in its class.  It has an ASTOUNDING 1ms response time and can be used either wirelessly or wired.  Even the packaging is a thing of beauty.
  • Titanium Spork – A roundup for geeks like this could not be complete without a titanium spork.  Eating is always a priority to the geek on the go and never has there been a more perfect utensil for it.  Seriously, it combines the liquid retention ability of a spoon with the impaling ability of a fork.  It’s really quite ingenious when you think about it…but wait!  This just in…a STAR TREK STARFLEET ACADEMY SPORK!!  Truly we live in an age of wonders.  I can die happy now.

Microsoft Office 2010 Beta. Meh.

Ok, that may be a little overly harsh, but don’t expect any earth-shattering new functionality from it.  Before I get into my thoughts, let me share a little bit about how I use Office.  In order of most to least used the applications are:

  1. Outlook (By far)
  2. Communicator
  3. OneNote
  4. Excel
  5. Word
  6. PowerPoint
  7. InfoPath

This is the lens through which I experience this suite of applications.  Measure your grain of salt accordingly.  Also, keep in mind that this is a beta and all is subject to change.

My first blush headline impression would be “Office 2010:  The Ribbon Takes Over!”.  Outlook, OneNote and InfoPath all got the ribbon treatment.  The rest of the apps had their ribbon refreshed and mostly improved.

Outlook – The conversation view is pretty good, but still not as good as what you find in Gmail.  It groups (at least in part) by the subject line, so I have found instances where separate threads were shown to me when they had nothing to do with one another. 

The “Quick Steps” feature on the ribbon is pretty slick:

image

It allows you to configure series of common tasks and make them single clickable.  For example, I can select an email and click “To Manager” and it will forward the message, go to Active Directory and find out who my manager is and drop their email address into the To field. 

The other thing I really like is integrated Communicator.  It embeds itself in the lower right hand corner and shows my contact list all the time.  I love not having to open the Communicator client all the time to check presence.

OneNote – The ribbon took just a bit to adjust to on this one, but I think is an overall slight gain.  I like that you can dock it to your desktop and link a file from another app into your notes.  The sharing is supposed to be a whole lot better in this version also.  I couldn’t find the 2010 version of OneNote Mobile to try out, but I read that you can easily do over the air syncing with it.

The Rest – Excel, Word and PowerPoint all look a little fancier and have some improved menus, but I have yet to uncover anything that really wows me.  The integration with Office Live is pretty slick (you can sync your files to the cloud, sort of like LiveMesh). 

The Verdict – I’m not sure yet.  So far I haven’t seen anything that makes me think I will recommend this upgrade to my clients in general.  I will let you know if that changes!

Golden Rule More Important Than Ever

He who has the gold makes the rules right?  Have you seen gold prices lately?  But seriously, my mom would remind my brother and I of this (amidst eye rolling and sly punches) almost daily.  Who knew it would actually make good business sense?

This is what customer service really boils down to, isn’t it?  If I want to make an impression on a customer, I need to try and empathize with them and then treat them as I would want to be treated myself.  If I want to make a bad impression, I don’t listen, I spout off “company policy” and generally give off the vibe that your situation isn’t worth my time.

My wife took her engagement ring to be repaired recently.  (Anyone who knows her knows that this story won’t be a positive example.)  They messed it up.  Seriously.  So they take it back and say they’re going to fix it.  So she goes to pick it up – for the second time mind you – and it’s now deformed and not at all to her satisfaction.  The lackey that she’s dealing with looks at her (she’s almost in tears at this point) and says to her “What do you want me to do about it?”

Wow.  Epic fail on the service there dude.  I realize that there are times when you just can’t help the customer out.  They want you to change the laws of physics or alter the space-time continuum or connect you with an English speaking operator when you call Dell.  These things will come up and I think most customers understand and have a certain amount of tolerance for.  You lose them as soon as you treat them in a way that you yourself would not want to be treated.  It’s that simple.

</sermon>

Thanksgiving. Giving Thanks. Being Grateful.

I love this holiday.  It is by far my favorite holiday of the year.  I have so much to be grateful for that I consider myself one of the luckiest of men.  From my funny, intelligent, radiantly beautiful wife to my three wonderful kids to the job that I absolutely love, I recognize my good fortune.  Someday I will blog about gratitude as one of the keys to happiness.  (I know this isn’t very techie and has nothing to do with business, but hey, it’s my blog…)

The other side of my affinity for this holiday is the food.  I love to cook this meal.  I love to share it with my family and friends.  I love to show my gratitude for them by providing not just a meal, but an experience.  Some of you may know that I have a food blog and today I’ll be posting my menu with recipes and pictures from years past.  Have a great Thanksgiving!

Encoding DVDs for XBox 360 and Windows Home Server

This (really) should be the last post in this line.  My apologies to those who could care less about my media rantings. 

In the last exciting episode, we got My Movies 3, WHS and my Xbox 360 to all play nice together.  Now let’s take the plunge and talk about how to rip and encode your DVDs.  First, you’re going to need a couple of programs.  One is free and the other, contrary to my strong predisposition towards only using free tools, is about 75 bucks.  That seems like a lot, but it is GREAT software and will make life much easier.  (Like when you’re trying to rip those damn Disney movies.)

The tools are:

Got those installed?  It’s ok, I’ll be here when you’re done.  Ready?

  1. Insert your DVD and after a second you’ll see AnyDVD spin up and tell you to wait while the disc gets ready. 
  2. Once the disc is ready open up Handbrake and you’ll see a screen that looks like this:

    Handbrake

  3. Click on the Source Button at the top left.  Select your DVD drive and it will tell you to wait a minute while it scans the disc.  Once it’s finished, choose the Xbox 360 Preset on the right hand side.  In the Destination field, select a location where you want the MP4 file to be saved.  I put my files on a drive that’s mapped to the server, and I learned through trial and error that you have to create a separate directory for each file for My Movies to index it.
  4. Once the file shows up in the directory,  My Movies will see the file, try to figure out which movie it is and add the cover art, cast info etc.  If it can’t figure it out, you can manually change it.

Now that I’ve written up the steps to do this, it seems trivial.  Handbrake does all the work and it has an awesome preset to take the thinking out of it entirely.

Easy to Talk About, Hard To Do

Reading this blog may have given you the impression that I am the ultimate support person.  OK, I am, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have times when I drop the ball, miss things, or lose Outlook data from my wife’s computer.  (Sorry, honey.)  Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into the gory details of my domestic squabbles here. 

Before I get into my actual point, let me describe the customer interaction pattern that I preach to everyone who isn’t sick of hearing me talk about it:

image

  1. Listen to the customer’s problem.
  2. Communicate your plan of attack.
  3. Act on the plan.
  4. Test your fix against the problem identified in step 1 (it’s best if the customers can do this for themselves).
  5. Inform the customer of the results and any further steps needed.
  6. Repeat as needed.
    So this wasn’t a customer situation, really.  I had a friend of mine call me and tell me about several issues he was having with his computers.  He just lives down the road a bit from me, so I went over to see if I could help.  I wasn’t going to take any money for helping my friend (even though he tries to pay me every time).

To make a long story short, I fixed the problems he was having, made some recommendations for some low cost upgrades he could do, and then asked him if there was anything else he needed help with.  He told me about what he called a minor annoyance and said it really was no big deal.  Of course, Super Tech here couldn’t let that go unanswered, so I dug in and figured out the setting that controlled what was annoying him, and changed it.  And then I packed up my stuff and left amidst a shower of thanks and praises, and <ahem> a feeling of smug self-satisfaction.  (Anyone in tech support can already hear the ominous music…)

Like I said, I think I’m a pretty good tech and very good at customer service.  I have a system, for crying out loud.  I have a whole power point presentation on it.  None of this, however,  protected my ego when my friend calls me back 30 minutes later and says “I’m not sure what you did, but I just rebooted and now Outlook doesn’t work, my desktop looks completely different, and I can’t get anything to work right.”  Wow.  Total service failure.  And it was all me. 

The moral of this story is that it’s SO easy to fall down in tech support.  Whether it’s because you’re in a hurry, or you’re overworked, or you’re a chubby computer geek who lives out his super-hero fantasies by saving unsuspecting users from the dark forces of technology problems, you have to stay focused on the person you’re trying to help and think through the law of unintended consequences.  It’ll bite you every time.

Great Career Advice from a Microsoft Dude

Today I came across a great series of screencasts by Brian H. Prince called “Driving Your Career”.  I went through the 20 or so short episodes and was very impressed with the things he had to say.  It seems mainly geared towards developer types, but I think anyone in technology would benefit from listening. 

One of the recurring themes in these segments is that technology folks are different than “humans”.  For example in Episode 14 “How to Communicate with Humans”, he shows a picture of some aliens from Star Trek: The Next Generation (they were Binars, actually) and says “This is what you look like to humans”.  That and what he says subsequent to that really makes sense to me.  We in the industry are very often so far out of touch with what the average user’s experience is, that we might as well be aliens. 

I always use the analogy of an auto mechanic.  I don’t understand really anything about the inner workings of a car, and yet I have to depend on it to get me where I need to go.  If something goes wrong with it, I have to rely on someone who knows a whole world of jargon and parts and systems that I have no clue about.  The people who use our technology are dependent on us to an even higher degree.  Technology is far more than transportation, for many users it enables them to earn their livelihood. 

The point is, make sure that you are managing your career with the end user in mind.