What are you doing to help the person next to you?

Was taking a break from my studies (exams next week, people!), having my dinner and watching some YouTube vids on “leadership” (just because) when I came across Simon Sinek and this video.

Reminded me of something I knew very well sometime back, but forgotten in the hustle and bustle of corporate life: that we sometimes have to put ourselves aside, ignoring the modern social beat of “I, I, me, me“, and think about how we can help and serve others, not in the hope for some future karmic gain, but because we can.

Developing a Culture

Seth Godin wrote a wonderful post on how we sometimes need an external push (through laws, policies, cultural guardrails) to do what’s best for us. It can be basically summed up by the following statements (from the post):

  • We know that wearing a bicycle helmet can save us from years in the hospital, but some people feel awkward being the only one in a group to do so. A helmet law, then, takes away that problem and we come out ahead.
  • Guard rails always seem like an unwanted intrusion on personal freedom. Until we get used to them. Then we wonder how we lived without them.

I was just thinking about true this is for so many other aspects of our lives. The friends we choose, because of the context they set, determine many of the decisions we make, and consequently many of the paths of life we take.

When setting up a company, a department, a team – how important it would be then to make sure that the cultural norms we encourage and enforce are the ones we want.

Whether it’s a culture of success (however you define it); freedom of experimentation; openness of communication; risk taking; or hard work, it is our job as servant leaders to ensure that it’s the least awkward thing to do.



On Hiring for the Long Term

This was something I read in a book called The Art of Scalability, something I believe I’d always intuitively known but never had spelt out explicitly: that having additional hands (or brains) does not necessarily equate to a proportional increase of output – it is often less, especially at the start.

The problem is relatively new. In the old industrial economy where work was relatively simple or specialised, it was possible to have somebody come in and make widgets at almost the same productivity level as someone who had been there for a far longer time.

If one widget-maker can make 100 widgets in a day, two should be able to make 200, or maybe 150 if one of them is new.

But in the knowledge economy where work involves far greater scope and interdependencies, with steeper learning curves, this model doesn’t necessarily replicate very well.

If one analyst can create a spreadsheet model within a day, can two create the model within half a day? Or three quarters of a day? Probably not. And if the second analyst is new, it’d actually probably take two days. Throw in a third analyst and you’d probably get that model done in a week.

There is often a learning curve on the part of new joiners; and though we often take note of the the learning of process and technical skills, we often forget there’s also cultural and general adaptation, which can take far longer.

And if the new hire has had plenty of prior experience, there’s also the time needed to spend unlearning old behaviours if they are incompatible with current ones.

There’s also somebody who’s got to give the training, often a senior team member or manager, whose productivity would likely decrease during this period as the new joiner’s increases; and this increase/decrease is often disproportionate, with the drop of productivity in the trainer being far worse than the increase of productivity of the one being trained.

If the new joiner leaves just as he or she gets up to speed, which could be a year into the role, then there’s simply no justification for bringing him or her into the team in the first place.


You make it look so easy

I’ll start with a quote I read today from the book Getting Ahead (Garfinkle, 2011) about a problem faced by people good at their craft. It made me smile because I this was the first time I’d seen it brought up anywhere and which I thought was one of those things I thought you just sucked up and lived with:

Former local San Francisco TV host Ross McGowan was negotiating a contract with his boss. He was surprised when his boss made a fairly low offer, especially considering how high his programs’ ratings were. McGowan asked why the offer was so low and his boss said, “You make it look so easy.”

Not to brag, but I think I do lots of great work (and so do many people I know), but oftentimes I make it look too easy, even when it’s not.

If you work with me, you’ll see the output of my design, programming, and execution. You see the 20 minutes that they can see but miss the 600,000 that has gone on behind the scenes preparing for just this very moment (and moments like these).

You don’t see the hours of PowerPoint deck preparation and storyline rehearsals I do for each and every presentation.

You don’t see the countless trips to the library I make getting books to hone my craft.

You don’t see the endless hours of coding I do just practicing, like differentiating the nuances of a while loop from a for loop so I can use it in my next project.

You don’t see the articles I read on metrics on sales team remuneration design so that I’m aware of potential flaws in the company’s compensation schemes and can proactively work around or advise on these when the time comes.

Easy? If giving up many aspects of life that you feel for and wish you had more time for is easy, then well, yes.

How I became an analyst

I just approved a comment on one of my earlier posts, a post about my possible foray into sales. A post that, as I re-read it, brought back plenty of memories. A post that reminded me how my career as it stands now, that of data science and analytics, is quite different from what I had once thought I would be doing.

When I’d written that post in January 2009, I’d just graduated from the University of Western Australia and was actively looking for a job. But what job I was looking for I didn’t have much of a clue. Most of my peers hadn’t studied what I’d studied (a combination of business and information technology), or had the interests I had.

The Career as Journey not Destination

Back then I wished someone told me how jobs and careers worked; I wish I someone told me that a job or career is more journey than destination, and that not everybody knows outright what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And sometimes, careers are, as in my case, down to plenty of randomness.

So as these memories flooded back, I thought, why don’t I write something about how I found my current calling? Maybe it might help someone just starting out as well, someone as confused as I was. So here it is.

My Initial Career Intentions

Based on what I’d studied and what I was interested in, I had the following careers in mind:

  • Entrepreneurship (to be my own boss was something I’d always dreamed about, but doesn’t almost everybody);
  • Web-design (I’ve had a website since since 1997 — you might, but probably don’t, remember Geocities and Homestead, two free web-hosting platforms I used in the early days);
  • Programming (in 2002 I wrote a content management software in PHP that was essentially a clone of one of the leading CMSes at that time called MoveableType, and used it to power edonn.com);
  • Copywriting (I used to write, still do, a lot, and loved writing to influence (and still do);
  • Business analysis (whatever that was… the only reason I’d had it down was that in my university’s course material for one of my majors, information systems, it was listed as a probable career, and I’d scored a perfect GPA for the major, something I only found out in hindsight as I prepped my résumé);
  • Education (teaching or similar — I wanted to “change lives”); and
  • Financial planning (I’ll talk more on this later).

These were some of the options I had bouncing around in my head. And whatever I decided to do, my initial thought was that it should be related to non-profit or charitable work if possible. If I was going to be spending the most part of my life doing something (i.e. a job) it might as well be something “worthwhile”.

Limited Options

I would find out soon enough that though I might have tons of ideas of what I wanted to do, those tons would be whittled down quickly to what jobs were available. Being in the middle of an awful recession — remember Lehman Brothers and the sub-prime crisis? — many of the  jobs I thought I had a chance in were simply unavailable.

Sales(y) jobs, though, were still in abundance. These were jobs were largely commission-based, and no- to low-risk propositions for the employers: if you don’t sell, you don’t get paid. And I suppose because of the abundance of these jobs and my not quite knowing what jobs to look for, I decided to try my luck interviewing for them, finding out what they were about and convincing myself that I could do them (the post above was part of the “convincing myself” part, but to a large extent I stand by what I wrote — though I’m not “selling” a product to external customers, I do plenty of selling in terms of ideas , analyses and other “data products” to internal customers).

One sales(y) career that I had seriously considered was that of financial planning. I had taken (and enjoyed) financial planning at University, and I loved reading personal finance blogs and books. Helping others with their finances was also something I felt I could do, especially if I was doing something I knew would help them.

I interviewed with an independent financial planning firm (one I trusted and felt really comfortable with) and was conditionally accepted. I was told to go back when I had the necessary certifications, which I diligently went out to get (which set me back about $600).

But all this while I still wasn’t sure if that was really what I wanted to do. Did I really get a degree for this? A polytechnic diploma would have been sufficient, and having a degree didn’t really help. So I decided to let fate decide: if by April 2009 I hadn’t been offered a non-financial planning, non-salesy job, I would take up the position at the financial planning firm mentioned above.

I continued scouring job postings, looking out for the less sales(y) jobs, trying my luck by sending out résumés for which I felt unqualified but had great interest in. I also targeted jobs more relevant to my degree, which I would never had gotten with just a polytechnic diploma.

Then one day a job ad came along that made my small eyes open a little wider. One that made me think: I could do this; I want to do this. It was for a Business Analyst position, a position I had, until then, not really thought much about, but which had a beautiful mix of business, social science and information technology.

The technical skills that they were looking for seemed a little more than I could offer (specifically VBA programming skills), but everything else I had down to a tee. I sent in my résumé and hoped for the best. A few days later a call came, and I was told that they wanted to interview me (hooray!) That first interview went decently, and I was told to return for a technical skills test, which I passed.

And then I was told that there was a final interview. By this time I was feeling a little job-search weary, and I told myself that this was going to be the last interview I’m going for before I said yes to the financial planning firm.

And as fate would have it, the final interview went well, and I was told a couple of days later that I got the job.

On 1st April 2009 I started my career as an analyst at Future Electronics.

(Yes, April fool’s. “My job’s a joke; my career’s a joke” became a standard joke for me while I was at Future).

And that’s how I became an analyst (and not (yet) an entrepreneur; web-designer; copywriter; financial planner; or an educator. Though on this last one, I still do plenty of educating in my analytics role!)

Some asides:

  • In case you’re wondering what an “analyst” does, read my post “What do you do? I’m an analyst.
  • I’m no longer at Future, and currently work at Study Group (a higher education pathway provider), where I’ve taken a similar but more strategic analytics role – still not quite non-profit or charity, but I’m getting there).
  • As an analyst, especially in smaller companies or teams, or where analytics is more immature, I find that you pretty much define your own job scope. Sure, the job you’re hired for needs to be done, but there’s often so much more you can do with data and systems with lots of business impact, that if you’re gung-ho enough you can start side projects that can quickly become integral to how the business runs things.

On Public Speaking

Yesterday, I gave a presentation for a group assignment in my Master’s class. It was exhilarating and a whole lot of fun, despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that we had overrun our stipulated time and I had to go really quick, determining what could be skipped and what could not on the fly.

I’ve been told before that I can speak pretty well in front of groups. That doesn’t mean that I speak well in front of groups all the time – just that I can. In general, though, I think I get more hits than misses despite the occasional public speaking duds.

But it wasn’t always this way. I used to be quite the nervous wreck at speaking (and not just in public!)

Two Years at Study Group

The first of June marked my two-year anniversary at Study Group. I remember when I had just begun my role, I had to make lots of calls colleagues in the UK, Australia, and North America.

These calls, despite the audience of just one or two always scared me. I was uncomfortable, constantly nervous, and largely unsure of myself and what I needed to say. I suppose my status as a n00b didn’t help matters much. I remember writing scripts — yes, you read that right: scripts — to help me through these calls:

Hi, good morning [insert name here]. How are you?

[Wait for reply]

I’m good, thank you. So as mentioned in the e-mail, [insert name here] thought that it was worth the both of us having a chat on [purpose of call].

[Wait for reply]

And so it went.

I would have this script open in front of me, on my computer screen, while I talked, often following the script verbatim.

The notes

In the beginning, these scripts consisted of long paragraphs of text. It didn’t work very well. I would often get lost in the words and lose my train of thought. Sometimes I’d be unable to recover my position, skipping to where I thought I was at, only to realise at the end of the call that I skipped the most important points.

I improved this somewhat by breaking my scripts into bullet points. I also made it a point to internalise the “how are you / good, how about you?” introduction, which before moving to Study Group I had actually never used (it’s become second nature to me now).

Bullet points were good, but I was still occasionally getting lost in the text. So I started marking out text in different colours, fonts, and sizes. That worked really well, and so I stuck with it.

Problems arose when I started having to speak in meetings in which I had to present my findings. Sure, I could have read from a script, but it’d have looked ridiculous – who reads from a script during a meeting?

Scripts were still prepared, but I devoted more time to memorising them. During meetings I’d have very small print outs discretely tucked in between pages of my notebook; or, if using my notebook computer, I’d have the script open in a small window with font size so small only I could see it.

This worked well, but it wasn’t sustainable. How often could I rely on scripts? Unscheduled conversations were going to be had, and in fact had already been had; and in cases like these, where was I going to find a script? In the conversations that had already been had, I floundered.

Developing Expertise

Over time, as I grew into my role, I developed a greater understanding of the business and the areas in which I was expected to be an expert on.

I made an effort to anticipate questions and to anticipate what answers people expected me to have. With experience, I was far better able to understand what I needed to know and what I didn’t. My scripts turned into notes, no longer verbatim but summarised and taut.

As I participated in more calls and meetings, as well as the occasional conference (and watched more TED Talks!), I also developed a good feel for what it was like to be a good speaker. I took notice of how people presented, and made notes of what worked and what didn’t.

I started applying some of these things and experimenting.

Increasing Engagement

For a recent example, in one of my duds (a series of conference calls over the week during which I conducted distance training), I realised people weren’t really engaged but I wasn’t sure why.

That weekend, not quite fully recovered from the lack-of-engagement sadness, I had class. During class I watched as the lecturer taught, looking at how my classmates were responding, looking for clues as to what engaged people and what put them off. What I found was that the presentation of case studies, interesting case studies, were always high engagement moments, while explanations of theories were almost always low engagement moments.

Back at work, I wrote into my Evernote notes the to-dos for my next training calls: “More case studies; tie back to participant’s actual work. Build theories into case studies.”

In my next series of training calls, I did just that: I built in the theories I needed to teach into interesting and real-life case studies, and there was far more engagement and positive feedback.

No Notes

Back in the early days, while in school, I used to hold prepared notes in my hands while giving presentations. These were very much like my verbatim scripts I had in my early Study Group days (I suppose the scripts were just a natural extension of my presentation notes).

I remember my hand trembling with nervousness, with the piece of paper with my notes seemingly trembling even more – not sure if anyone noticed but I sure did.

These days though, I don’t use notes. It helps with the trembling: even if my hand does tremble, without a piece of paper it’s far less obvious. I also realised that without notes, the presentation goes far more conversational; it’s less a speech and more a “hey buddy, let me tell you what I know and you let me know what you think” conversation.

But to present without notes doesn’t mean you don’t prepare the notes. In all my presentations I always have copious amounts of notes, some mental some not, that give me direction as to what I want to say.

I always walk through the slides (if I’m using slides) and anticipate questions (I’m the expert so I better play the part). I make sure that anything I’m presenting I’m 100% sure. If I’m not sure of it, I make sure that I either (a) take it out, or (b) learn enough of it till I’m 100% sure.

The thing about presentations and public speaking is that if you’re sure of the material, nervousness often melts away into excitement and the only anxiousness you’ll face is anxiousness to get your message out.

When you’re sure of the material – no ums, no ahs – you’ll naturally feel confident, and with confidence your material will appear more convincing.

Don’t tell anyone I told you this but…

I suppose I should let you in on a little secret: sometimes I’m not entirely sure of my material despite spending hours researching the topic and “selling the ideas to myself”. Sometimes it’s just not possible.

But during these times, I still stick to the no ums no ahs rule. When you appear confident of your material, that’s often enough to pull off a very convincing presentation.

Skeptics often will wait till the end of the presentation to ask you the tough questions, because even if they were 100% sure of thinking the opposite of what you were talking about, your confidence would make them only 60% sure, enough to make them not oppose you then and there.

When they take their questions “offline” (i.e. after the presentation), it give you more time to think of a rebuttal if necessary. Even if you concede to their argument, it’s far less public and you have more time to think about lessening any negative impact.

Business vs. IT

I felt like a lawyer. The call was in less than 12 hours, and I was busy preparing my case, consolidating evidence and building my story. To be honest, I wasn’t 100% behind the argument I was preparing to put across, but I didn’t really have much of a choice. I had to believe — how could I convince others if I couldn’t even convince myself?

But at the same time, I really wanted to steer clear on the “us vs. them”. Together with allies “from the other side”, we were working hard on framing it from a collaborative angle. It’d do us all no good if our discussion disintegrated into a blame game.

The situation at hand was a classic business vs. IT situation. Business says “we asked for this”, and IT says “no, you didn’t.” Whatever the case, the project deadlines weren’t going to be hit and nobody wanted to be responsible.

The funny thing is, if you asked me, I’d say no one was responsible (or that we all were). It was one of the first times we were doing anything close to what we were doing, and it was almost expected that hiccups like these were going to occur.

Requirements were defined, and IT made good on those requirements. Business was as clear as they could be on those requirements, but apparently not clear enough.  But how could they be? The project was a little too big and too fuzzy to be executed perfectly from the get-go.

Maybe a more iterative approach might have worked better, with all parties agreeing at the start that for a period of say, two or three weeks, we’d all be in a transition phase, where 70% of the requirements were met and the other 30% part of some type of agile-development, exploratory process, where things didn’t need to work perfectly but problems rectified quickly.

True, we could have spent more time thinking through and defining better requirements. But even if we spent an additional year we might not have uncovered requirements buried deep under others, the discovery of which were dependent on the implementation of the others. Would the need for a parachute have come to pass if planes hadn’t yet been invented? Would these later requirements have come to pass if the earlier ones hadn’t been implemented?

Whatever the case, this was an interesting situation to be in.