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I’ve witnessed firsthand the hardships of being someone from another country, trying to maintain a work visa, and madly scrambling to get work. I’ve seen the discomfort in the eyes of normally expressionless, stoic faces as they’re told the project is coming to an end in a couple of weeks, or sooner. I’ve seen really good people take jobs nobody else could possibly want. I’ve even seen people extorted, threatened with deportation, unable to pursue any legal avenues for fear of ruining opportunities for others.

I’m interested in writing about this issue and would like to get a real understanding of what people are facing. Particularly with respect to the information technology field, what improvements could be made?

If you or someone you know might like to contribute, I’d appreciate it.

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Repurpose

My local Fox19 news had a great story this morning about Turner Medical, a company that once manufactured automotive parts but repurposed their organization to manufacture body parts. I found the brief news feature uplifting. Rather than completely giving up in the face of a plummeting economy and automotive industry, someone had a better idea.

Having just taken the Clifton Strengthsfinder 2.0 test, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the Strategy, Ideation, and Adaptability involved in formulating a transition like this.

Are you part of a company that has made a similar transition, or shifted focus from one area of competency to another?

“We have to set the standard, and they have to live by that.”

This was the terse email response I received from the project lead. I had asked a few questions about how we were going to design a new system which would increase the efficiency of internal work, as well as affect how, when, and how much people got paid for selling the product.  The “We” was the IT department.  “They” were collectively both the people who would execute the processes we were designing and the customer they served, the sales department.  In 14 years, I had never heard these words connected in this way.

It explained a lot. When I had been conducting interviews to gather requirements, from the desperate, overworked workforce so eager to give them, I had determined I needed to have a conversation with the sales people. When I approached the IT manager to ask about facilitating this conversation, he said “they’ll tear you apart.” Images of Hellraiser. I couldn’t communicate with the major stakeholder. And why? Who knows exactly, but evidently a “departmentally” damaged relationship, likely due to a perception, a paradigm, wherein IT people take a dictatorial approach to designing software. “We’ll tell you how you need to do something.”

So here’s the news. Salespeople, who deal with the customer directly, will always know best when it comes to how a process needs to work. From point-of-sale to product delivery, it has to come as close as possible to the square peg sliding smoothly into a square hole custom design for that peg. Like puzzle pieces, when something fits, it is undeniable, even though we may have questioned the fit before comparing the content of the pieces themselves.  But unlike a puzzle, the sales piece comes first.  The IT piece that best fits with it does more than align its grooves and slots.  The content of that IT piece not only begins to complete a picture, but enhances it and affects it’s impact upon the eventual customer who looks upon and consumes the completed picture.

Sadly, the friction in this instance represents an attitude, a perception or paradigm.  These are tough obstacles, especially if those who hold these views are particularly high on themselves (a.k.a., insecure).  These are people who believe that IT pushback on management and sales requests is a requirement.  The relationship, they think, is just not right or healthy if we don’t say “no” a few times.  Guess what?  They don’t even have the right to hold this belief.  They don’t even know what “heuristic problem solving” is.

Here’s how the conversation should sound, in a nutshell:

1) Sales person calls IT manager guy: “We need to be able to turn peanut butter into jelly. Can you do this?” asks sales person guy.
2) “Yes,” responds IT manager guy Notice the answer is “yes” and it’s immediate, without qualification, whining or long sighs.
3) “How much will it cost?” asks sales person guy. A perfectly natural question.

Here’s the step where the nature of the puzzle pieces fitting together is visible.

4) “We can do it WAY X, which will require 300 man hours and new hardware. We can do it WAY Y which will take less time, but there’s a higher cost. Then there’s WAY Z….”

The responsibility to choose how much the endeavor will cost, and how something will be done, is entirely on the originator of the request, and the person closest to the customer. The responsibility on IT is to be aware and provide an array of options, perhaps with a dash of organizationally-minded awareness (how the provided options play into what has already been established within the organization). Notice, however, this is a cooperative, collaborative interaction.  Nobody’s telling someone how to do something, or rules they have to live by, and most importantly, nobody is saying “no.”  Of course, upon making a choice, there are <i>then</i> rules to live by in order to effectuate the choice.  But the chooser has the information to make that decision.

If your organization doesn’t operate like this, the pieces aren’t fitting together, and you or your IT people are saying “No” a lot, you had best get out of your backward thinking.  Otherwise, the people hearing the “No” might just respond the same way when you ask them if they need you to come into the office tomorrow.  They’ll find the piece that fits.  Will you be part of it?

If you like backwards things, read this.

A recent post on a LinkedIn, .NET discussion group posed the timeless question of which third-party controls to use. This question has something of an annual recurrence, like the birds returning. Bless the companies that have to ride atop the wave of Microsoft change. .NET 1.1, 2.0, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, AJAX, MVC….tsunami. The Seagate/Crystal Reports relationship with Visual Studio comes to mind. “What? You’re going to embed your own report-building capabilities in your dev studio? After all we’ve been through?!”

Here’s the discussion I caught.

Here’s one that actually spans a couple of years.

If the tool you purchase costs less than the labor hours it will save, then you’ve got success. I purchase a hammer, I bang a nail, I hang the picture on the wall. The hammer saved me hours of toiling away at trying to get the nail into the wall some other way. Maybe I was smart and I bought a hammer that could remove nails as well.

But what if my walls, like a Microsoft operating system, change from plaster (XP) to butter (Vista). (Is that harsh?). Suddenly the tool doesn’t get the job done. What if a new hammer comes out? It hammers nails, removes nails, and finds studs in the wall. Do I purchase?

The key is to establish a clear, hopefully cost-related purpose for the purchase, as well as clear criteria for repurposing the tool, and future upgrades. Your Infragistics/Telerik/DevExpress investment is brought on with a particular purpose in mind. If your investment is $1495 (NetAdvantage for Web Client 2010 Volume 1 w/Priority Support), at $55 per hour, it’s going to take you a little more than 27 hours of productivity savings to justify that cost. So a task that normally would have taken you 8 days needs to take you only 4 days. And don’t get me started on why a product that’s supposed to improve my productivity requires support, and why that support is going to cost me another $495.

I think we get stuck when we try to glorify and over-justify our purchases by trying to set standards around these tools. “We’re only going to use Infragistics controls.” Maybe you can give the hammer to your friend and he can finish his tool shed, but this maybe also means you’re giving that hammer to your girlfriend so she can maybe use the nail-pulling part to help get her tight shoes on. Uh-oh. This also means that anyone entering the building needs to know, ramp-up on, and like Infragistics controls.

A company with good funding could and should try several means of accomplishing the goal. If you’ve got an example of each tool being utilized, as well as tools more native to the .NET environment, you’ve done the “research” part of “research and development,“ and you’ve expanded your talent pool. Imagine being the IT guy who can say to the head of HR, “we can accept a wide array of toolset experience” vs. “we only want people with Telerik experience.”

If the savings is there, get the tool. Don’t try and glorify it or over-purpose it without clear guidelines. Create cost-based justification guidelines for upgrades and support contracts. And hope your walls don’t turn to butter once the charge hits your credit card.

I always find myself scrambling at the end of a client engagement to get everyone to hook up with me on LinkedIn. It’s always nice to stay in touch with talented colleagues with whom you’ve been on the battlefield. I like to check up and see how people are doing, the skills they’ve acquired and the challenges they’ve faced, and tap them now and then for advice, invite them for a beer, or beg them to come see me at a gig.

Recently, I took a new position to help the folks at FirstEnergy Corp. in Akron, Ohio. What a great place to work! The facility is a large, modern campus with a bright, open floor plan, an entire wall of nothing but windows looking out upon the lush autumn colors beyond the parking lot which features priority parking spaces for green vehicles. The people are fantastic, albeit a bit anxious as would be expected with a tight deadline and ambitious goals, but really working hard and working well together.

I was driving my four-hour commute home and browsing the AM stations, and a man was preaching about treating people as though their lives would end tonight. A little extreme, but it reminded me of the Stephen Covey “begin with the end in mind” mantra, and somehow, my mind wandered to getting the LinkedIn hookups done at the beginning of the client engagement. Instead of doing so at the end, when the underlying motive is somewhat selfish and reflective – “I want to stay in touch, give me a recommendation, I need to build my network” – attempting to get those invites converted in the beginning sets a bunch of goals or motivators up: “I want to remain in good standing with those I’m connecting with, I want to deserve a recommendation. When I leave, I want these people to want to stay in touch.”

On some gigs, this is a really tough chore. People already see you as the “new guy” and a threat to their routine and progression. And project success may have already been determined. But having that enduring connection set up, sets up a context in your mind as you interact with people and try and build alliances to accomplish goals. Because the last thing you want in your contact list is a “dark” contact, inactive or dead because you didn’t really build that alliance, or gone because they dropped you from their contacts because you failed them somehow.

So a couple of weeks into my new gig, I went searching for contacts from FirstEnergy Corp., only to find a couple contacts available. Turns out, you don’t need LinkedIn if you’ve been employed by a company for 19 years and you’re happy right where you are! Which opens a good ancillary question: Why use LinkedIn if you don’t need to network? Do you still need to network?

Regardless, in the future, I plan on setting those connections as soon as possible. It’s like saying, “I plan on enjoying working with you through this project.” Sound like a good plan to you?

SEO Confusion, Cleared

I was hired by a great client to help him with his website, in particular, with helping direct traffic to the site. I’m not really an SEO expert, and being rather turned off by all the snake oil surrounding the subject, it’s not something I wanted to get into. But I was obviously motivated by a paying client, so I set off to gather my intelligence.

The Wikipedia entry is pretty good, but I chose to go with a technology-based book, specifically Professional Search Engine Optimization with ASP.NET. The book is great because it doesn’t claim to know everything and does a good job of providing reliable resources in the form of reliable URLs. In researching those URLs, I came upon the Microsoft SEO Toolkit, which is also a part of the Microsoft Web Platform. (Go ahead and get the Beta!) It’s as though Microsoft hired Apple people to come redesign IIS 7.0 development (is that mean?). Dozens of resources are available through this platform, and the SEO Toolkit is certainly one of the gems.

SEO Toolkit

SEO Toolkit

The reason the SEO Toolkit is so swell is because it speaks in both management and developer lingo. You sic the Site Analysis tool on your website like a hungry bulldog and it finds all sorts of violations, offers explanations, and pinpoints the code where the issues occur. For example, my client’s meta descriptions were all a million miles long, and as the Analysis tool kindly explains:

“Reduce the length of the text inside the title tag of the page. The title must be unique, descriptive, and accurate. The title must be between 5 and 65 characters long. The title should contain keywords that reflect the page content, and it should be easy to read.”

Wow. Actionable, communicable instructions and reasoning are provided. This means you can provide the same to your clients when they ask you why you spent [x] amount of hours on their website. It eliminates the snake oiliness. Further, it creates measurable results. At the beginning of the day I had 1228 violations, at the end I had 337 (due to a flawed User Control which will require a bit of work). It also forces proper coding, because the spiders can’t read your sites if you haven’t closed your tags correctly, if you have multiple h1’s on your page, or other ailments.

I haven’t even breached the Sitemap or Robot Exclusion tools, but between the book and the SEO Toolkit, I know I’m treading on solid ground in my efforts, and so does my client. This means he has no trouble paying my invoices, and that means more Rob Roys!

A couple of months ago I was in a LaRosa’s Pizza with my two young daughters. We were waiting in the lobby for a table. Of course, in the lobby, those quarter-sucking machines stood dazzling my children with their offerings of miniature plastic figurines, bouncing balls, bracelets, and other delights trapped inside those clear plastic globes. Quarter Vending Machines

My kids had snuck some quarters into their pockets and before I knew it, each had spent $1.25 on the machines. I convinced myself it wasn’t too bad of a waste, since they had spent it on toys and not germ-ridden candy or gum that had been sitting there for months.

The hostess called us and the girls somehow managed to carry six globes each to our table. I was somewhat excited to see what they had gotten and reflected on the amount of luck involved. It sent me into a brief daydream about a website that offered products, but instead of selecting what you want and paying for it, you would simply put $20 in first and spin a virtual handle and receive an item by pure chance – maybe a shirt, a hat, a handbag. Hmm.

So my oldest, Micaela, cracked open the first globe, a rubber pink ninja warrior. Clearly, this sad figure had found a home in the LaRosa’s lobby quarter-sucking machine given the dubious popularity of a pink assassin. I lifted the lonely warrior to take a closer look. I flipped it over. On the bottom, embossed in pink: “CHINA.” Indeed, everything they had purchased was from “CHINA.” I thought, “Can’t we make pink ninjas here?”

I purchased Kit Kittredge, an expensive doll, from the American Girl Doll store in Chicago while I was there in March with my kids. For her birthday, I bought my youngest daughter, Lily, the accessory scooter and puppy dog, both tiny and both expensive. After she opened the gifts, I inspected. The tag, permanently attached to the microscopic plush puppy (which I eyed closely, attempting to recognize the fine craftsmanship which warranted the interest I would pay on the credit card), read “Made In China For American Girl Dolls.” Good grief.

Yesterday, I was at Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits. I sat down with my sandwich and Cajun fries. A tiny, fake potted plant sat on the table accompanying the salt and pepper shakers. I was with two friends remarking to them about how Americans don’t make anything in America anymore, and to prove my point, I lifted the plant up to read the bottom: “Made in China.” Desperate, I also inspected the salt & pepper shakers. Thank goodness, “Savannah GA.”

My Logitech wireless mouse, keyboard and USB receiver, “Made in China.” The Phillips lamp on my girlfriend’s nightstand, both the supportive stand and the light bulb connection are inscribed “CHINA.” Her Timex alarm clock, “Made in China.” A small cat figurine, an orange tabby in stretch position barely 5 inches long, from China.

As the G8 ministers meet to discuss issues and attribute the world economic crisis to “excessive risk taking” and work toward “strengthening our commitment to standards of propriety, integrity and transparency,” I can’t help but note the irony that China has been about as transparent when it comes to owning just about everything in America as the little globes the pink ninjas and other plastic uselessness come in. Nothing against China, of course, because if there’s a willing buyer, why not sell something and make a buck?

Optimistic, I decided to Google “Made in America” and found this great website, http://www.stillmadeinusa.com/. But then, when I Google “Made in China,” I get http://www.made-in-china.com/. No “still” necessary in the title. http://www.madeinusa.com/ is there, but “debuting” on July 4th. I certainly hope they have some success. Because right now, all we’re good for, now that most of our wonderful car manufacturing is dwindling, is salt and pepper shakers.