My Role

As someone who has spent their career working with systems I have come to love a good framework. Taking a systematic approach to how things should operate enables me to conceptualize the tasks at hand and to identify gaps and weak spots so that they can be managed successfully. Identifying the component parts of my new role as Director of Software Innovation with ACETECH and weaving them together into a framework of sorts has helped me in these early stages to approach some difficult topics with confidence as well as quickly establishing where I can add value.

Having spent some time deep diving on where things are going well and where there are definite needs for improvements with my new employer, I have worked out that there are four major focus areas of the role:

  • Product Management
  • Team Leadership
  • IT Management
  • General Management

As I worked out how to group my work into focus areas and these four headings emerged, I realised that only the people focused area was about leadership in the truest sense whereas the other three seem more accurately defined as management areas. This is reflective of how I have assessed the job ahead of me and how I feel that so much of my focus needs to be on delivery and addressing certain key challenges with processes and approaches, as opposed to needing to “manage” the team I am working with. To put it more succinctly, the processes need management capability whereas the people deserve leadership.

Product Management

The main thrust of the role is about delivering software products. ACETECH produces IoT devices that are installed into vehicles to aid in the management of the vehicle, the operation of the vehicle and more, on into areas like real-time tracking of high-value assets. In order to unlock the value of these devices, customers are given access to a suite of software tools delivered in a SaaS model, that enables them to view, manipulate, and derive even more value from the data that is captured from the devices on their vehicles.

All software benefits from strong product management, and there is a definite opportunity here to implement some new approaches to product management that I am sure will help to improve the pace of delivery while also better addressing the needs of our customers.

Team Leadership

While there is significant focus on the Product Management aspects of the job, for me the most important aspect of the job is managing the development teams, meaning directly managing the team based in Tullamore but also working with remote teams around the world, both in-house and outsourced.

Managing a team is an absolute joy, either regardless of the challenges or maybe because of them. Walking into a situation where a team has been without direct technical management for a little while was especially interesting as it had highlighted the value a manager can bring to a team in terms of offering guidance on activities for a given period, providing structure in terms of how things need to be done, delivering feedback and developmental advice, but most essentially acting as a buffer between often conflicting needs of the business who had gotten used to approaching engineers directly and demanding action on a variety of things.

The nature of managing the outsourced teams is different in that their performance management is more clear cut from my perspective but I still want them to operate in a certain way, to utilize the same tools as everyone else, and to align their processes as closely as possible when it comes to areas like Agile. The distance and time zone differences are challenges but not insurmountable especially when taken properly into consideration – simple tricks like including the timezones of the outsourced teams on my Outlook calendar are gentle reminders that other people are experiencing their day at a different point to us when scheduling meetings or calls.

IT Management

Every company is in someway a technology company due to the reliance on Information Technology that all businesses have. In order to be able to unlock the value of that technology there is an ever present need for someone to be thinking about how the internal network is managed, how the hardware and software we need is purchased and supported in the long run, and how the whole operation can be kept secure.

In a practical sense, for smaller organisations there’s little chance of having a dedicated Systems Administrator, despite the need for that type of focus, and ours is no different with Sys Admin falling to members of the Software Engineering team. I’m not opposed to this in principle as that team are the ones best placed to look after the running of a network but also because it’s good practice for those who are tasked with looking after a cloud estate to understand the fundamentals of networks and the types of issues you will encounter when users are unleashed and where better to learn that in a realistic but also relatively safe manner than a company LAN?

General Management

As a member of the leadership team, I have a duty to contribute to the broader running and direction of the company as a whole, beyond my areas of direct responsibility as part of a holistic management structure. That being said, there is a significant opportunity for me to address the impact of software and data products on the strategic development of the company, by looking at how software can drive sales and help push the company into new markets.

More broadly though, this part of my role is for me all about delivering at a higher level, about making a mark on how the company will grow into the future, about setting the tone in terms of culture particularly around diversity and inclusion, and about guiding us to greater success through initiatives like strategic partnerships with other technology organisations but especially with local educational institutions, and not just for recruitment purposes but also to contribute to, and of course benefit from, original research.

Conclusion

There is always more to a role than can ever be accurately captured in a job spec and it is this element of possibility that often brings the most rewards from work; in the spaces between the lines of a job description lies the chance to do something wonderful, though it is something of a skill to be able to spot those opportunities. To that end I have found that, in the early days of starting in my new position at least, it has been beneficial to classify the major areas where I can make an impact and thus put some level of structure around where I need to focus my attentions and where I can develop the technology offerings of ACETECH.

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Prepare to Fail

There’s always a lot going on in work and it can be easy to sacrifice essential, foundational activities in order to progress the “real work”, but doing so eventually takes a heavy toll. Just like spending enough time contemplating what’s being done and why and if that’s the right thing to be doing, there is a need to be prepared and thus avoid going into every situation trying desperately to figure out what’s going on and determine your position on the fly, a position that you may regret taking and finding you later need to defend out of not wanting to loose face.

Some activities demand preparation, it only takes one attempt at winging a presentation to convince most people of the value of being prepared, whereas it is too often the norm, for example, for people to arrive in meetings late and utterly unprepared, which is just a waste of everyone’s time. Again, this type of problem is all about time management. How many back to back meetings or events fill the calendar? How much time is set aside for preparation, if any? And how would you feel if a colleague blew-off a meeting you considered important in order to prepare for some other meeting or event?

Personally, I’ve seen too many organizations where terrible meeting etiquette prevails, from an over reliance on using meetings to actually do work, to the lack of defined purpose or an agenda, and so on, with a particularly nasty vice being the continuous overloading of calendars with recurring events and double, triple, and more bookings, and in those organizations a common underlying issue (no doubt one of many) is the lack of consideration for colleagues. Being busy can wrap us in a sense of urgency that can manifest as a feeling of self importance that in turn erodes the consideration we would normally have for those around us.

One way to help restore that consideration might be to build enough sacred time into our schedules to ensure we are prepared for the events that keep the wheels turning in our respective organizations, and in that small way show some professional consideration to those around us and start to limit the urgency that’s pressing us to be so unprepared in the first place.

Notebooks

I flip-flop on the subject of whether to use a paper notebook or to use a laptop for everything including note taking in meetings and capturing stray thoughts. My indecision comes from appreciating both sides of the argument for either tool with laptops claiming the higher ground in terms of efficiency but loosing out to things like noise levels, having the opened screen imposing a barrier between you and other people, the issues around battery life, and the distractions that come with the installed apps all clamoring for your attention, usually when you need to be more focused.

Recently I’ve noticed a previously hidden benefit of using a paper notebook as a tool to monitor commitment levels, particularly when you’re prone to over-commitment in a busy organisation.

Once upon a time it was normal for students to take notes in lectures to later write-up into proper materials that could be used for study. This concept is where my paper notebook come back into play as it is certainly beneficial to spend some time digesting notes, transcribing them even, as an exercise in thoughtfulness around work.

However, when time is limited, do you have enough for this type of seemingly unnecessary activity? Arguably, if not, can you be sure you’re spending enough time thinking about what you’re doing at all, or are you simply running from meeting to meeting, lurching from issue to issue, and hoping that you’re doing the right thing in the heat of the moment?

Taking time out to be mindful of your work is a proactive thing to do, as counter intuitive as that may seem, and thinking about something is getting ahead of the issue. If there aren’t enough hours in the day to dedicate some time to this, then perhaps it’s time to assess if you’re over committed, need to delegate more, or in some other way need to address your workload; this is the action I’m taking away from the current use of a notebook and pen!

5 Considerations for Brilliant Diary Management

My diary today is blank. Of course, the fact that I’ve nothing scheduled to do doesn’t mean that I’ve nothing to do.  In the life of a consultant an empty day in the diary can be a Godsend allowing for the all important admin to be done, leading to a day filled with expense claim submission, outstanding paperwork being filed, laptops getting some much needed systems administration attention, personal projects being followed up on (like the in-house test servers I manage), and clients who haven’t been in touch for a while getting a courtesy call to ensure that everything is OK with them. These days are much needed and welcome. But not too often.

businessman playingAn IT Consultant with “nothing in the diary for today”

It can be easy as a consultant, who lives and dies by the contents of the diary, to look at their full calendar for the next few weeks and despair at how busy they’re going to be, overwhelmed by the volume of work coming their way and longing for empty days like today. I like to take a different, more entrepreneurial view of the diary and try not to think of it as merely a calendar of upcoming activities but rather as my order book, as a promise of future work, and that puts the whole thing into a more favourable light.

Regardless of how you look at your busy schedule, the fact is that managing the diaries of multiple people can be a complex task and should be handled with some care as mismanaging it can lead to disaster. With this in mind, here are some of my considerations for managing the diaries and therefore the time of consultants. Continue reading “5 Considerations for Brilliant Diary Management”

Supernanny = Super Consultant

I was at the doctor’s office the other day as I’d fallen foul of the Man-Flu and needed serious help. While I was in the waiting room a mother came in with her two young children, a boy about 3 or 4 years old and a little girl of about 18 months. It was pretty obvious, even to the untrained eye, that there was a significant problem of sibling rivalry growing between the two kids, with the boy especially in need of that careful balance of attention and discipline. He was climbing over furniture, pulling things from his mothers bag, and picking up his sister in unsafe ways, all in all being the kind of child you don’t want sitting behind you on a long flight!

I mentioned what I’d saw when I got home as I wasn’t impressed with the mother’s lacklustre attempts to deal with her son and I was surprised at the response I received: “Supernanny has ruined a lot of parents out there”

Supernanny, with her naughty spots and rules about never raising a hand to child, has made a lot of parents believe they’re child psychologists, so they go around trying to reason with three year olds in the same way that they’d try to talk to a thirty year old and then simply give up in frustration when they inevitably get nowhere. In reality, I don’t think Supernanny herself is actually to blame for this as I think what has happened is that parents have misinterpreted the message the TV show was trying to convey.

Supernanny Jo Frost… looking for her paycheque

Continue reading “Supernanny = Super Consultant”

Leadership in IT Projects

I’m a big fan of Starship Troopers. Before you run away screaming please note that I mean I’m a big fan of the 1959 book by Robert A. Heinlein and only a regular level fan of the 1997 Paul Verhoeven movie. Heinlein wrote science fiction about the nature of government and the role of the people in society. In a later novel he stipulated the things that a human should be able to do and one part of the quote always interested me, to paraphrase Heinlein: a person should be able to “…take orders, give orders, cooperate, and act alone” when necessary. Sound advice, especially the giving and taking orders part, and doubly so when it comes to project management.

Leadership, Starship Troopers style! Would you like to know more?

Continue reading “Leadership in IT Projects”

The Nature of IT Projects

Project Management, on the scale that business managers are really considering when they talk about it, is radically different from IT Support as the nature of the projects under consideration moves to a different level.

Ask a senior manager in an Irish SME about project management as it relates to IT and they are unlikely to think about server upgrades or even moving from one version of an email system to another. What this term is more likely to conjure up is images of a suit-wearing professional organising large-scale projects; for the SME this would mean projects like Finance, ERP, and CRM system implementations.

Project Manager: A suit-wearing professional who organises large projects, drinks coffee, updates Facebook

Continue reading “The Nature of IT Projects”

The Nature of Technical Support

Have you ever read your horoscope? Horoscopes are bunkum, a bit of fun that’s included in the newspaper to fill up white space and maybe make a few quid from the associated phone lines that you can ring for a more up to date version. The way horoscopes work is by laying down a very general little story for you to read and associate with by virtue of your date of birth. Horoscopes are so general that they have to resonate with someone somewhere. I think that whoever wrote the original templates for the daily horoscopes were also the people responsible for the majority of job specifications that you regularly see advertised.

The Zodiac – from the same people who brought you the award winning “Spec for an ERP Project Manager”

Excluding technical skills, like a certain operating system or other piece of software, the characteristics that get listed on job specs are normally very generic. Everyone is looking for people who are efficient, work well in teams, have a “can-do” attitude, and have good communication skills. Being a good problem solver is a trait that always comes in handy, as does being methodical and having a good eye for detail, and when was the last time you read a job specification for a role where being punctual and honest were frowned upon? Continue reading “The Nature of Technical Support”

The Nature of IT in the SME

In Ireland, as in most countries, there are more small and medium-sized businesses then there are large enterprises. These smaller firms are competing at home and abroad in a wide variety of industries spanning traditional manufacturing, sales & distribution, and a host of diverse services, but they all tend to follow a similar development path particularly when it comes to Information Technology. Companies with less than 250 employees tend to have smaller IT departments (if they have any permanent IT staff at all that is) excluding of course those that are directly engaged in the IT industry, or those that have a strong knowledge worker focus. Even some larger businesses often have fewer IT resources if they just don’t think they need them (on two different occasions in the past I’ve been employed as the sole permanent IT resource in businesses that each had over 500 employees, both engaged in high-volume manufacturing).

Large Enterprises like Reynholm Industries often have small IT departments

Continue reading “The Nature of IT in the SME”

Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum

It has been said that one man’s meat is another man’s poison and this is most evident in the way people order steak. Some like it well done, others like it medium, I like it rare, while some don’t like steak at all. This is all a matter of taste. Some people like one thing while others like something different. These differences make life interesting.

Even in The Matrix, Cypher knew the importance of a good steak

In the world of work people like different things too. Some like accounts, others engineering. Some people love to sell, others prefer to paint houses; the choices and options are infinite. Even within a specific profession, like Information Technology, there must be millions of career options available in millions of combinations. When faced with such a wide variety of choice we must remember that we are not all suited to all the options available to us, that’s how we narrow down our choices to what’s best for each of us, no matter what profession or trade we pursue.

I’ve recently had the good fortune to be in the position of interviewing people for a job. I consider myself to be extremely lucky in these dark economic times to be able to be offering work and I’m doubly fortunate to actually enjoy the process of recruitment as I find it to be deeply interesting, as is any area of life that exclusively deals with people and the infinite differences that we all manifest. Writing a job spec, contacting appropriate recruiters, and reading the CV’s that come in though is only the warm-up act for the main event: the interviews!

Continue reading “Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum”