Thursday, January 23, 2003

Accepting Gifts

Each experience, whether perceived to be positive or negative at the time, is a gift in its own way. Are you ready to accept that gift? Saying yes is all you need to discover what it is and derive some benefit. Try it once wholeheartedly and see how it feels.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

When They're Idiots

Since this blog is still in the earliest stages and I haven't done anything to help people find it, I expect I'm writing mostly to see myself think these days. The result is that I spend a fair amount of time thinking each day how to let you know this information exists. The evolution of my thinking has gone from figuring I would advertise something like, "Get more soft skills now" - which I realized would turn off techies immediately to actually talking about the problems that real tech-geeks have - such as, "They're all idiots and don't listen to me."

No matter how I slice it though, the solution seems to be to make some changes in how we do things so that we can be more effective. It's not that we're not technical enough (though I'm sure you can point out someone for whom that's a problem), it's that we don't always relate well to other people who are not technical (sometimes we don't even relate well to each other). And there's the rub. It's the non-technical people we need to reach if we're going to be of any use.

Of course, as soon as I think that, I have this image come to mind of the names of the various people I've worked with who would immediately protest that it's not fair, why do they have to change when others don't seem to want to. Or they consider it inappropriate or undesirable to have a manager ask them to change their personalities. "This is just the way I am," they say. I do want to be clear... I don't mean to be suggesting a personality overhaul. I mean only to shift perspectives slightly to see what small modifications we can make that would help other people understand us better. And yeah, it's not fair that we may be the only ones stretching that far. Who's benefit are we doing it for, though? If we don't do it, someone else will and that person will be the one helping out the dumb jerks who can't tell their... oh, excuse, me... I lost myself for a moment... while we... while we... hmmm. If you've got something better to go do, then definitely do it. I highly advocate that. If not, then, no whiners!

Take a look at the situation from someone else's point of view long enough to see if you can make any modifications in your approach (not your general personality) that can makes things go more smoothly. If you don't wanna, go do something else where you don't hafta.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Not the Game; Just the Ticket to Play

We all like to be the "go-to" person. I didn't fully realize this was a fairly universal tech-geek condition until I became a manager and started interviewing people for tech support-type jobs. In response to the common question, "So... what it is it you like (or would like) about this role?" nearly everyone has responded with some version of, "I like being the 'go-to' person."

Surprisingly, it's nearly always worded exactly like that!

Connecting with what I was writing last night about value you provide to your company, it makes sense here to investigate what that really means, to be the "go-to person". Why would people want to come to you for help? What would make them want to come to you more? And how does that tie in with technical knowlege not being your primary asset?

To draw an analogy, let's take a look at your favorite coffee stand, auto parts store, grocery store, etc. Let's say they carry what you want, at least most of the time. Life is good, eh? You go to the store, you get what you want & you go on your way. Now, let's say they carry what you want (most of the time) but they are complete and utter jerks every time you visit. They make it a hassle to get what you want. It takes more time, they take you too literally and screw up your request or they give you crap for interrupting their break, etc. and hey, they're the only game in town so they can do that. And you keep going back. Not that you like it of course, but they've got what you need and you don't feel like going out of your way to get it somewhere else. Yet. Every time you go, though, you wish there was a better alternative and you grumble all the way there and you badmouth the joint to all your friends, right?

Let's turn the tables. Let's say that another coffee stand, auto parts store, grocery store, etc. opens up just down the street. Or maybe it's not even quite as convenient as the other one. And maybe they don't usually carry your PREFERRED coffee, brand of parts, sugar cereal, etc. but they carry something that's a close second. What they might be missing on availability, however, they more than make up for in how easy it is to go there. They let you use your debit card so you don't always have to remember to keep cash on hand, they get you through check-out quickly and easily & don't give you any hassles... and they remembered that last week you asked about a particular item and think to tell you today that they're carrying it now for a trial period. In short, they treat you well, like another human being, and they listen to you.

Now which coffee stand, auto parts store, grocery store, etc. are you going to go to? There comes a point when service will outweigh availability and even quality to some degree. Yes, there is a bare minimum that you've got to provide (whatever it is, from auto parts to technical knowledge) to play the game. That bare minimimum, however, is lower than you think and after that, that's NOT what counts. It's how we feel after interacting with the organization that matters. It's the customer service we get.

What the heck does this have to do with being a "go-to" person"? Each and every day, we market what we have to offer to the people around us. They accept that offer with the terms provided (they "buy" our "product"), or they choose to accept someone else's offer (take their business somewhere else). This is true regardless of the consumer/provider pair you are talking about. Customer/company, customer/tech support agent, co-worker/co-worker, company/employee. Over time, you are building or eroding your standing with the people who are your "customers".

The question is, do you have the minimum "product" availability to play the game? And if so, are you easy enough to work with and do you listen well enough that people want to come back to you. Do they WANT you to be their "go-to person"? If not, then just as soon as they have another choice, they'll make it & you won't be "the one" anymore. Something to think about the next time you figure it's someone else's problem if they don't like working with you.

We are a business of one and and every day we market our skills, talents and services to our customers, co-workers, and the companies we work for.

If you have questions about this, or related topics, feel free to send me an email at

Monday, January 20, 2003

Making a List

I'm making a list tonight of things I think are worth knowing & understanding if you're a tech... especially those things that might be counterintuitive and therefore could be raised here and not have the first reaction be, "Duh!" Instead, I'm striving for the first reaction to be, "No way; you're crazy!"

Here goes. When you think about what value you bring to your company, what comes to mind first? Whenever I've had this conversation with others, probably 6 or 7 out of 10 say their technical knowledge is their greatest asset. Better than 90% of you mention it as one of the top three. And why not, it's why most of us were hired, isn't it, for our expertise? What if I tell you that you're wrong. That you're so far gone on this one that it may even hurt you if you count on it too much. Would that get the reaction I'm looking for?

Here's why I say that. Think about it: Knowledgebase systems and other methods for tracking issues, calls, information, etc are getting better and better all the time. Many companies have such systems in-house and more are purchasing them. You may curse yours but chances are good it's better than starting over from scratch every time. It doesn't matter whether your customers have direct access to this information or you're an escalation resource and some other front-line agent uses it before they contact you for help. If it's something you already know, that information is (or it should be) already in there for someone to look up.

If they have to come to you when they could be finding the information easily without you, it's an unnecessary expense for your company and very few companies can afford unnecessary expenses these days. And, when unnecessary expenses pile up, eating into the profit margin, rank and file workers usually are the ones to suffer because labor costs in a knowledge-driven industry tends to be higher than just about anything else a company can spend money on.

So... if all this is true, that your technical knowledge is NOT your greatest asset, then where the heck does that leave you? Just what value DO you provide? I see two important components; one without the other is of marginal value... both together pack such a punch that hardly anything beats it. The first is, the capacity to grasp whatever is new and make it understandable for the other folks following behind you on the learning wave. In other words, learn and teach as fast as you can turn it around; don't hang onto knowlege any longer than is absolutely necessary. Even before you have it completely figured out, share out the pieces you've got worked through in your own head, and then move on to the next thing that's new.

The second thing is uncompromising service in every interaction you have - where service is defined as understanding what the other person really needs from you (and not just what they say they need) and delivering it in a responsible (to them, to yourself, your team & the company) fashion.

There are certainly other ways that tech-geeks provide value. And both of these mentioned are big enough to warrant entire entries on each one alone. Maybe more. So I'll leave it at that for now. Mostly I just wanted to share the general idea. See how it sits. If you think I'm nuts, send an email to and tell me why. Better yet, share an alternative theory and let's see what we can make of it together.

Don't count on your technical expertise as your greatest asset. Instead, think of your ability to learn and teach whatever's new and deliver it through outstanding (responsible) customer service as a far more powerful one-two punch.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Networking for Dummies

So last night I went to a networking event - it was rather eye-opening. This was a reunion of a bunch of us who all used to work together. Whether or not you have any particular fondness for an old work environment or the people you spent time with there, there was no question that this was a lot of people that potentially could help each other out one way or another. Or hurt, depending on how the interactions went. It struck me that just working with a group of folks on a day to day basis not only is like that, but sets the stage for how an event like this, real, virtual, or completely imaginary, might play out.

I know some folks who didn't go because they never cared for the people much. Opportunities lost - or not; maybe they weren't needed. Some folks who didn't go because they aren't comfortable at these things. Too bad; a little discomfort never killed anyone and hey, it's really not that tough to learn how to at least APPEAR comfortable. Then there were folks who went and really didn't know anyone. That's when I started to understand something a little better. I found I knew quite a lot of people. Not only that but at least some of them seemed interested in how I was doing and what I was up to. Strange, because I don't exactly consider myself particularly social. Certainly I'm not entirely comfortable in that role anyway.

As the evening wore on, however, and I nursed my beer, I found myself remembering spouses and children's names, that someone else got their Master's degree, that someone else used to live south of the city instead of north like they do now, etc. I'm probably not going to win the Survivor challenge where you have to know all about your teammates but that having paid attention some time back really paid off. People felt more at ease talking with me as I asked them about the things that they cared about.

There's more to it though, than being able to make small talk or show an interest in another person or whatever you want to call it. More than one person has told me that part of why they don't like associating with people from the rest of the company is that those folks tend to make Tech Support folks feel like "Other". It's true that people from departments outside of ours tend to make it difficult to get along with them. But I have found that if I make an effort to get to know them as individuals, they do respond positively. I have made it a practice to get to know as many people as I could outside of my department right from the very beginning, and I always have felt that it makes a huge difference in my ability to work with those people and get what I need from them. It especially works when at least some of my interactions with them are NOT about having some request. Sometimes I've even joked about not needing anything from a person that day - that all I stopped by for was to say hello. It nearly always gets at least a chuckle.

See, the thing is, as soon as we're relating as individuals, it's harder to fit into that "Other" category. So naturally you're a step closer to working well together. This has worked within a single department, between departments within a company and also with people outside the company such as customers and third party vendors.

Oh, and by the way - not that you would, because you're the kind who probably despises slick-sounding sales types anyway, but don't even try to fake it; it doesn't work. People smell insincerity a long way off and it does NOT sell. Try just studying people and looking for things about them that you find interesting. For real.

In my case, it has always been sincere, and it has always paid off. Getting to know more folks paved the way for me to learn more as they were willing to share with me what they knew. As I became more knowledgeable, I earned my way into talking with even more technical folks and gaining an even greater understanding. More people knew who I was and I had more to offer technically and suddenly I was considered for positions I hadn't even considered previously. The seeking new positions and getting some of them gave me an opportunity to get to know more people and learn even more and the cycle continued. And for those that are primarily interested in technical knowledge, you might care to know that the coolest part of all of this was getting to play with newer and cooler technology every step of the way. That came from exercising people smarts, not just smarts.

The upshot? Getting to know people and showing a genuine interest in them improves working relationships. Improved working relationships makes getting work done easier. Having an easier time getting work done not only makes us more effective, it also makes doing the work more fun.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Finding the Good Stuff

Of course, the fun part of something like this is - where do I start? Day-to-day stuff seems best, as I do aim to be practical here. If you're an Tech Support person, talking with customers, how you talk with them is probably a good place to start. Even if you don't talk with external customers, you probably have to deal with people who at least some of the time seem like idiots and individually or collectively come to you with the same questions over and over.

That's annoying. But sounding annoyed to them doesn't go over too well. So what's a geek to do?
My first attempt at handling this problem was working one of the computer labs in college as work-study. My real job was supposed to be studying but I kept getting interrupted by people who didn't seem to know how to spell STOP with an o (oh) instead of a 0 (zero). so I got pretty good at looking for that particular problem and a few others that seemed to crop up regularly.

Long before David Letterman, I had a top ten list of likely problems which I then posted and proceeded to memorize the numbers I'd given each. I'd review their printout, and then in my surliest voice, I'd snap, "Look at number 2 - that's your trouble!" and then I'd go back to my studies or, more likely, bit-net conversations with buddies at other schools. It was great fun, it was efficient and... it didn't work out so great. Something about the surliness didn't go over so well. Somehow, truth is the best defense doesn't seem to apply to service situations.

When you look at it, though, there IS some usefulness to canned responses. If you listen to what comes out of your mouth... and then PAY ATTENTION to whether the other person responds favorably or not... you can re-use the good stuff. The "good stuff" here being defined as the stuff that tells the customer what you want them to know in a way that they go, "Cool! That's exactly what I need; you've been a huge help"... or at least grunts in a way that leads you to believe they're harboring similar thoughts.

Keep a list of what works. Save it for using over and over. It's a good thing.

If you know of a publicly available list of phrases that keep customers (and people who are sort of like customers even though they're not), send it to I'll post the link for others to use.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Getting Started

Why should anyone listen to what I have to say about surviving as a techie? Let me start by saying that for a number of years I worked in Tech Support. I'm sure I'll feel like writing more about that experience and what I learned from it soon but that's not the point here. The point is to give you an opportunity to say "blow-hard!" and run off to some other site. After all, when I taught flying, the people who swaggered in saying, "I've got ten years in a tail-dragger!" were the ones I learned I had to be the most suspicious of. That's another story. Maybe you can talk me into telling it sometime.

So, I might not be able to convince you in two paragraphs or less (can we make it three?) that I'm worth listening to, but I can try. Even though I wasn't the MOST technical in the bunch, I was probably top two-thirds. Good enough that other tech-types didn't run screaming when I walked up to ask a question. Sure, there were people who sometimes didn't think I knew what I was talking about but then it turns out that at least some of the time they were wrong. After a while, *I* got used to the idea that I knew what I was talking about - which turned out to be helpful when I had to tell network administrators that they had their networks set up wrong.

Except for establishing some level of credibility amongst a group of people (that would be you) that often cares ONLY about that, my technical ability is probably meaningless here. What should be more important is that I was able to say those kinds of things to network admins in ways that resulted in them going and reconfiguring their networks right so they didn't have to call me anymore; and if they did call again, they did whatever I asked because by that time, they thought I was god. And I was one of those people who got regular (and often fat) raises, had good relationships with my bosses, got to work on a lot of the cool projects, and almost always got to do what I wanted... let me also assure you that I did all those things without sucking up, without giving up who I am, and without selling out. In fact, people usually got to hear more about what I was thinking than even the most prolific whiner could dish out; not only that, but at least some of the time they took what I had to say and did something about it. Best of all, I started this blog because you can have all of that too - and probably more. If you want it.

These days, life is pretty unstable out there, especially in the tech world. Flat out, there are simply no guarantees - though that's probably always been true. However, if you want to be one of the ones who gets at least some of whatever raises might be available if your company is handing any out, I can probably help. Ditto for if you want to improve your chances you're NOT part of the next big lay-off... and feel better prepared to see it as an opportunity rather than a problem if you are. If you've got a pet project in mind that you've been dying to get permission to work on, or want to change the way you do your work, or what it is that you do, I can probably help there too. It'll be here for the reading.

Before I get into any of that, though, I have to also make a confession. Ultimately, I went over to the Dark Side and became a manager. I wasn't on some power kick. I just figured that after watching so many friends report to idiot managers that must've been templates for Scott Adams' manager in Dilbert, maybe I could help out by getting into it and doing a better job. I like to think I've succeeded; the number of people who have followed, or expressed a willingness to follow me, as I've moved around seems to be a testament to that. So the advantage here is that I've seen both sides. I know what it's like to work for a manager who gets it and also what it's like to report to ones who don't. I also know what it's like to manage geeks like you. Most importantly, I realize there are plenty of things that you should be aware of that managers either don't understand themselves, don't know how to tell you, or don't think it would help you to know. Maybe I can bridge that gap & make it better for everyone in the process.

I'll start by brain-dumping a topic or two at a time. If you feel like dropping me a line to ask I cover a specific area first, that's alright by me. Send it to and I'll use whatever you send as a jumping off point. The only thing I ask is that you keep it to stuff that you actually would be willing to read about and try to learn from - or suggestions you have for others based on what you've seen work. If you're not, then it's just whining and one thing I've never tolerated well is whiners. No whiners allowed!