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Ubi Nihil Est Facil October 7, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
Tags: , ,

Back in the day, I was a software developer in a research group, fiddling with Unix and workstations and this new thing called ArpaNet.  Being young and too clever by half, I decided to create a logo for our department.  No logo is complete without a motto, and I settled on “Where Nothing Is Simple,” a testimony to the bureaucracy of my company.  Good mottos are in Latin, of course, and I needed to get this translated.

Back then, there were no online translation services.  To be honest, there was no “online” at this point in time, translation services or otherwise.  I did use a “phone book” (it’s like Google, but all printed out) to look up the number of the local high school.  I called the school (it’s like texting, but converted to voice) and spoke to the Latin teacher, and she gave me the translation: “Ubi Nihil Est Facil.”

But she offered more.  Why did I need this translated?  Would I like her to find a more colloquial translation, or a reference from Latin literature?  No need, I assured her, and went on to create my logo.

That teacher provided what is sorely lacking in so many of our automated, online services: a human touch.  We revel in our online world, where everything is a click away, but we have lost something in this shiny new place.  The results of our clicking are fairly sterile, and only the most mundane queries are truly resolved by some online search engine or database.

The “why” part of the answer, that only humans can contribute, is where the real value resides.  That Latin teacher knew she could provide a better answer if she knew why I was asking. She was so pleased that someone wanted to use Latin, she was excited to reach out and help.

We seek to automate more and more these days, migrating previously human interactions to web- and phone-based activities.  The brevity of text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook strip away the soft edges of our conversations and leave little room for the discerning moments that allow us to serve each other more effectively.  Our customers may be taken care of, but have they been cared for?

Don’t forget that all of this starts with people trying to do things with other people.  Although we in IT often drive the technology that creates these faceless systems, we should try to retain the human touch as much as possible.  Our customers will be happier, I think, and our systems will be better received.

And what of my logo?  Well, back then, bosses had a more classical education, and some even knew Latin.  My snarky motto raised a few eyebrows and generated some… conversations between myself and the management team.  A different kind of human touch, perhaps, but one that I have not forgotten.  Ubi nihil est facil, indeed.

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Small Talk September 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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I love “small world” stories.  I love wandering into an event and discovering that someone in the room went to my elementary school, or likes the same movies, or knows someone I know.  I like that “who’d have thought?” moment when two people make a connection that they would have never thought possible just moments before.

Much is made these days of networking and how to use it to our advantage in our personal and professional lives.  While a lot of focus is on the social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, there is still a lot of value in face-to-face networking.  It’s just that people seem to avoid it, and that lots of people seem to be bad at it. I think that’s a shame.  With a little practice, everyone can get better at real networking.

The key is to master the art of small talk.  Small talk, far from being as diminutive as its name suggests, is the real grease that makes networking flow.  Through small talk, you can discover the serendipitous connections that will open the door to better, deeper network connections.

Good small talk is easy.  A simple rule for starting a good “small” conversation is to avoid talking about the actual topic that has brought you together with other people.  For example, if you are at an event addressing server virtualization, do not talk about any aspect of servers, virtualization, data centers, or even computing.  This stuff is deadly dull even when you want to talk about it; the idea that you’re going to create a warm connection with someone over a meaningful conversation about virtual memory is ludicrous.

Instead, bring up topics that are likely to generate a connection with someone.  Where do they live? Where are they from? Where did they go to school?  Do they have kids? Hobbies? Seen any good movies? Back from vacation? Doing something interesting this weekend? Play golf? Like to run? There are dozens of simple questions that will get people talking about something that interests them.  The idea is to learn about the other person, find some connections between you and them, and let those connections strengthen your shared knowledge and resulting relationship.

I’m often puzzled why people struggle with this kind of networking.  I’ve seen so many people standing in awkward, uncomfortable silence at networking events, staring at their drinks and stuck for conversation.  That’s foreign to me; anyone who knows me will tell you that I am never stuck for something to say.

Many people in IT are introverts (that’s what the “I” stands for) and have a hard time starting these kinds of conversations. They gravitate back to the safety of technology, which makes it hard to meet non-technical people.  If you are one of these people, you may need to consciously focus on being better at this kind of engagement with people.  That’s OK.

I once worked for someone who knew they were bad at this stuff and had to consciously prepare for events.  When the event was over, they were exhausted by the effort. But they recognized the value of small talk and making connections, so they made the effort, improving over time.

Are you using small talk to build and enrich your network?  Does it come easy, or do you have to work at it?  Either way, small talk paves the way to big rewards in your network. So, seen any good movies lately?

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I Can’t Recommend This August 28, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
Tags: , , ,

I like LinkedIn.  I’ve used it for many years, well before the term “social media” came into vogue, and value what it does well: keeping me abreast of the career changes within my professional network.  Although the powers-that-be at LinkedIn have added other features over the years, the core value of network awareness hasn’t changed. Many of those new features provide little value, at least to me. And there is one feature that needs to go immediately: recommendations.

In theory, recommendations seem to make a lot of sense.  If you feel strongly about a person to whom you are connected, you can write a recommendation of that person.  The recommendation, once approved by the recipient, is placed on their profile for all the world to see.  LinkedIn thinks this is such a good feature that your profile is not considered complete until you have accumulated three recommendations.

In reality, the LinkedIn recommendation system is useless.  Here’s why:

  • Recommendations are universally positive. No one in their right mind would permit a negative recommendation to appear on their profile.  Self-selected recommendations tell me nothing about you, except that you can apparently convince others to laud you in public.  I suspect this is a quid pro quo practice anyway, so even that skill is suspect.
  • Recommendations are usually solicited. Who hasn’t gotten a request for a recommendation?  How many of us have written one, if only to avoid an awkward refusal?  Not to upset anyone, but if I really thought highly of you, I’d write a recommendation without prompting.
  • Honest recommendations are tainted. Surrounded by so many fake recommendations, the occasional sincere unsolicited recommendation is lost in the noise.  Their value is diminished to the point that they are useless.
  • Real recommendations occur without the knowledge of the subject. Real recommendations (which LinkedIn was trying to emulate) occur between people privately.  When someone calls and asks my opinion of another person, they’ll get a real recommendation.   It will have for more value to the requester than any generic recommendation on LinkedIn.

To eliminate all these problems, I think LinkedIn should just drop the entire system.  No more recommendations cluttering up profiles, no more requests filling up my LinkedIn mailbox, no more “happy talk” about people you’d otherwise not write about.

Instead, when you want to find out about someone, find a mutual connection on LinkedIn and contact them.  Use LinkedIn for what it was intended: connecting with your professional network to learn things and do a better job. You’ll get a better, honest answer that benefits everyone concerned.

And please, if you like this idea, recommend it to someone else.

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Investing For Your Future August 24, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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It is happening all too frequently these days.  I get a call or an email from a recruiter with the same story: a great person has lost their job and is looking for a new position.  This person is a seasoned IT executive, a great asset, and has a long history of success.  Would I know of any potential openings in the area?  The recruiter is always kind enough to forward to a resume for my review.

Opening the resume, I note that this person has held a number of executive IT positions with local companies over the past several years. Yet I have never heard of them. How can this be?  I work in the Research Triangle of North Carolina.  We are crawling with technology companies and have one of the strongest local executive networks in the country.  Nonetheless, looking at this resume, I am drawing a complete blank.  Even after checking LinkedIn, I have no second- or third-level connections to this person.

In contrast, I also hear from folks who are very well-connected.  They are in a similar tough position, but they have all sorts of resources to fall back on.  They have built relationships that will help them as they seek a new position.  More than anything else, they have great name recognition and a history of having done great work that is known in the community.

Those folks with no networks give me precious little to work with.  As much as I want to, my ability to assist is limited because this person did not invest in the most important aspect of their long-term career: their network. As they moved up the ladder, racking up those successes, they didn’t take the time to become a part of the community.  Now that trouble has arrived, they have no place to turn for help, advice, or a connection to a new job.

Why do people neglect their network?  Time and again I have invited local CIOs to various networking events, only to be told that they “don’t have the time” or “don’t do those kinds of things.”  I simply cannot understand this mentality.

Investing in your network is like investing in an savings account.  You deposit a little at a time, over a long period of time.  You accrue value that, in many cases, you hope you never need to use.  But when you need it, it’s there, and it’s a lifesaver.  Sometimes you draw from your network in little pieces: a question answered or an opinion confirmed.  But occasionally you make a major withdrawal: career changes or economic upheaval.

But the real purpose of a network is not about how it helps you.  The real purpose of a network is that it gives you the ability to help everyone else, all the time, in many ways.  You meet interesting people.  You learn from them.  You get the privilege of helping them.

Let me be blunt: people who fail to build their networks are acting selfishly.  They hurt themselves, certainly, but they also diminish everyone else. By choosing to not give a little to those around them now, they rob our community of their potential contributions.  Networks succeed when everyone pitches in, just a little bit.  All those little bits create a rich community of people sharing, helping, teaching, and learning.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Are you keeping your network active?  Are you an active part of your community?  Make a commitment to contribute to your community by networking.  And may you never need to draw on the goodwill you’ll be creating.

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Til Death Do Us Part August 17, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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It is said that many marriages run aground on the rocks of unrealistic expectations.  The old saw claims that every bride looks at her groom and thinks, “I can change him!”  Each groom gazes at his bride and thinks, “I hope she never changes!”  If a woman is seeking a project and a man is seeking a prize, both will be sorely disappointed.

Hiring someone is like getting married.  After a brief courtship, employee and employer embark on a (hopefully) long-term relationship, seeking mutual benefit and collective success.  Sometimes it works out, but all too often it does not.  A lot of that has to do with how we hire, and if we are acting like the apocryphal brides and grooms.

There are aspects of a new hire that should never change.  In that sense, a hiring manager must think like a groom.  Ethics, attitude, enthusiasm, and personality are ingrained in a person long before they reach your door.  You need to make sure that these parts of a candidate align with your company culture.  It is absolutely unrealistic to think that you are going to change core aspects of a person’s personality once they join your team.  If there isn’t a strong alignment with your needs in these areas, call off the wedding before it’s too late.

Conversely, there are parts of a person that you can change once they are on board.  In particular, some technical skills can be taught or expanded.  Certainly, understanding of your specific business processes can only happen once the job begins.  We often reject candidates because they do not have the exact list of technical skills we seek, when in fact we could teach some of those skills to an otherwise qualified candidate after they start.  The trick, of course, is to know which skills are required at the beginning and which can be learned later.  You need to think like a bride, but be a discerning one.

Often, in the excitement of courtship, we make bad decisions.  A technically qualified candidate is a lousy fit, culture-wise, but we think we can change him.  A delightful person with all the right social skills turns out to be untrainable.  Someone who seems great during the interviews winds up being dramatically different a few months later; if only we had paid closer attention while we were dating!

Like a bad marriage, these bad hiring decisions hurt the candidate, the company, and everyone surrounding them.  Parting ways can be expensive, litigious, and hurtful.

An approach that borrows from both the bride and groom will serve us all best in the long run.  Know what to change, accept what you cannot, and you’ll have a much better chance of a productive relationship.  Be patient and wait for the right candidate, because your Mom’s advice holds true as well: there are plenty of fish in the sea.  Catch the right one!