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Career Lessons I’ve learned from TTRPGs

Career Lessons I’ve learned from TTRPGs

So I’ve made no secret of the fact that over the past two years I’ve gotten back into Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing games in general. And to be honest for my core group, this COVID-19 situation made our group a lot tighter and since March we have now been playing weekly.

Now I will say, that I’ve talked about the benefits of TTRPG (table top role playing games) during COVID-19, that it’s a great way to step out and have fun with people in a way that doesn’t feel forced. But I’ve also noticed that I’ve learned a lot by running these games that I take as life lessons.  And I definitely recommend this hobby as a way to grow and have some fun.

Let’s start with the connection here, in a TTRPG, like Dungeons and Dragons, you and a group of others are building a story. The game is about you all building the best story you can, and along the way dealing with outcomes that are decided by a mixture of planning and chance.

Let’s talk high level, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, for example, if you know your characters going to be doing lots of sneaky things, you might take a stealth skill, which gives you a +5 to stealth. So now when you are presented with a situation like that in the story, and the Dungeon Master says “give me a stealth check”, you roll a 20-sided die, and add the +5 to it. Now when you built your character you had to make choices, so using the above, I might have spend points to make myself stealthy, but odds are I’m not intimidating, so an “Intimidation check” might be a 20 sided die, and a -2, much lower chances of success.

To this end if you want to get technical about it, a Dungeons and Dragon’s campaign is a lot like a project, we have a goal, and we have a team of people all bringing unique talents to the project. And we have a dungeon master that is there to help us organize around a goal and work towards it. This should sound a lot like a work project, at least this is the similarity that really struck me.

So I’ve learned a lot being a dungeon master that I feel has direct parallels to my chosen careers and leadership, and I wanted to share those here.

But here are the top seven things I learned by playing these games:

Lesson 1 – What true collaboration looks like?

Ultimately, at the end of the day, when you play a game like Dungeons and Dragons, the game is communal story telling. We are all collectively telling a story. That means that although I control the settings, the non-player-characters, and monsters, the players are just as much in control of the story as I am. In this game, they are the protagonists of the story.

So if we consider this as a collaborative effort, its not unlike your teams at work, your manager is responsible for setting the guidelines, defining the goals and supporting the team (much like the Dungeon Master). The players are responsible for tackling the challenges that are thrown their way and moving towards those goals. Again not that different from your office if you think about it. Sure you’re delivering a product, report, a software solution, and they are fighting goblins, but overall the principles are the same.

So one of the things I learned here was what it means to be in that position and truly collaborate. Because as a Dungeon Master (DM), it was my job to make sure that everyone contributed to that story. And what I learned quickly is that to do that you need to truly collaborate, and make sure that you are giving space for others ideas. One example of this, is that I had very much an idea of the direction that I wanted to take things, but I had to be open to anything. So one of the things I decided early on was to “Find a way to say yes.”

And this did a couple of things, that really embraced creativity and collaboration:

  1. My team mates really felt invested: Nothing makes you more invested in the outcome than to know that you’re ideas are being heard and appreciated.
  2. They came up with ideas that I never thought possible: Some of the things they came up with were really awesome, and I never would have. And that made the story better, or made it possible for us to do more than I thought we could.
  3. It Challenged me in a new ways: By forcing myself to find ways to enable their ideas, it presented me with new challenges I never thought possible before.

Lesson 2 – What it means to empower and say yes?

Now just like managers, there are lots of different types of dungeon masters out there. Some see their role as being against the players, others see it as their story that they need to force the players to follow, and I’m betting you’ve had managers who work the same way.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had managers that believe they have to be better than anyone who works for them, and feel threatened by their success. I’ve had other managers that felt that “I’m the leader, and make all decisions for every aspect of this project.” And too be honest those were terrible experiences, and I’ll be honest early in my career I could be accused of being one of these, and it wouldn’t have been far off.

But I’ve been lucky to have a lot of really good managers in my career too, and one in particular always said “It’s my job to see you successful.” And that was always inspiring to me. So when we started this dungeons and dragons game 2 years ago. I decided that I was going to be a “Try to say yes” leader. And what that meant was a very simple rule.

Anything reasonable the players wanted to do, before I could say no, I had to do everything in my power to say yes.

Now just like the real world there are limits. If a person on your work team said, “I want to make $1M a week.” That’s not reasonable, and I saw this as an impossible situation to make a “Best Effort” to say yes.

But I decided when my players decided to roll characters, I would find a way to say yes. So when a player came up with a character concept, I would try to find a way to make it work.

For example, I had a player who had a very long backstory they wanted to do with a illustrious history, and normally any online advice on the game would say “Never allow this for level 1”, but we figured out a way to explain how they had gotten older and fallen in levels. And to be honest, I found the challenge of trying to find a way to say yes, really fun and empowering myself.

This also meant as a leader that my team members saw me fight for their success. They saw me trying really hard to make their ideas reality, and this made them invested in the project.

If you are an employee and every you go to your manager with a new idea, they tell you “That won’t work.” Are you really committed to delivering on that project? Are you committed to helping that person? Probably not.

But if you go to your manager with a new idea and here, “That might be tough, but let’s talk it through? Or let me see what I can find out?” Are you going to do more to help? Do you feel more invested in the outcome? Probably yes.

Lesson 3 – People communicate differently

Another key lesson I learned was specifically around communication. Right now my core dungeons and dragons group is 7 players, plus myself as dungeon master. And over the past two years, we played monthly for about a year and a half, and then played weekly since COVID-19 hit in the US.

Our group is pretty eclectic, and we have made some really strong friendships over that time. And I’ve learned a lot about communication and experience with regard to everyone. Some people communicate differently. And as a dungeon master, I’ve had to learn to communicate in the ways that make them feel most comfortable.

For example, I have one friend who will randomly message me on discord (our chosen app) during the week to ask random rules questions, or talk about ideas he has revolving around his character.

My wife, who has become a big fan of the game. Prefers to talk at night before we go to bed, and brainstorm ideas about our character and discuss events in the game face-to-face.

I have another player, who I have to reach out to them as it is harder for them to ask for help or express their opinion during the game.

And I have a third, who would rather ping me to ask if things would work before they do them because they are afraid of looking like they don’t know the answer.

Now reading that list above, I’m sure if you’re like me you can think of at least one person in your work and that statement lines up perfectly. The simple fact is that communication preferences aren’t unique to a game, they are likely the same for all parts of that person’s life. If people don’t have a lot of confidence they are more likely to stay quiet in a meeting. And “cold-calling” that person, likely isn’t going to do them any favors.

So being a dungeon master, I’ve had to learn that my preferred communication style matters, but I have to be empathetic to how others communicate if I really want to get the benefits of collaboration for everyone. And to be a good leader, you should absolutely want to meet people where they are, and it’s been great practice that in this kind of setting.

Lesson 4 – How to make sure everyone is in the conversation.

Along with the need to focus on how others communicate, one thing I’ve learned playing Dungeons and Dragons, is how to make sure everyone is at the table.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

You all get together for your regular meeting for a working session on the project and as the meeting progresses, you are all moving things forward, and things seem to be going well. But you’ve noticed the past few meetings that one of the members of team has been quiet, and isn’t contributing much to the project. You really like this person, they are a fantastic resource, so you assume their silence means they agree with everything being said. At the end of the project, you discover you are missing key requirements in this person’s area of expertise, and the project is in trouble due to these missing pieces. The manager of the project is frustrated and feels like your friend didn’t do their job and wants to fire them.

When you approach the person, they confide in you, that they were afraid that no one would accept their ideas, and although things went different than they thought they should. They didn’t feel comfortable speaking up.

Sounds like a work scenario that we can all relate to right? I’ve seen this same thing happen at the gaming table. And one of the most valuable leadership lessons I’ve learned is how to identify situations where someone is not contributing because of a blocker, and how to navigate that. Looking at the above, most would say “All that could have been avoided by stopping and calling that person out to offer an opinion.” But for some people that is a terrifying version of hell.

Another way to address that would be to become an ally for that person. Like I had this situation with a player, and I reached out to them, 1-on-1, and had a conversation. “What do you think about what happened?” and “Let me get your thoughts?” And then our next game, I started with “______ and I were talking, and they had some really great thoughts about this…” In this way, I’m helping them to feel like someone in the room is validating their ideas and giving strength to them. Which is a key to leadership.

Lesson 5 – People are motivated and enjoy different parts of the project.

This was something that I found very helpful. When you have a group playing a game like this, they are all measured by different things. For me, first hand I saw the following:

  • Some people love to play out combat in the game, and to them every thing with story is only there to provide more opportunities for combat.
  • Some people love the story and roleplay moments, and are interested in character arcs and live for roleplay moments.
  • Some people are there for the whole process of building and optimizing their characters.
  • Some people are just there to be part of a team.

So as the leader you need to make sure that you are aligning activities and opportunities with people who want them. Like for example, if I have a player who lives for combat, a great roleplay situation is going to fall flat for them, and be a missed opportunity for the roleplayer.

It’s not a stretch to see how this impacts your ability to lead a team in a professional setting. Some people are there to punch a time clock, others enjoy coordinating and running meetings, while others want to just roll up their sleeves and code. And to get the best out of the members of your team, you should make sure that people are given the opportunities to engage in the types of work they enjoy and excel at.

Now as we talked about before, just like communication styles, it isn’t always obvious want people want or what drives them. But its really important to take the time to do that. By doing so, you accomplish the following:

  • Further show the members of the team, that you care about them, and how to maximize their contribution to the team.
  • Allow opportunities for people to stand out for their accomplishments, and to be the hero.
  • Provide new opportunities for people to try things without fear of failure. By allowing them to take risks you empower them to do more as members of your team.

Lesson 6 – It’s not my success to own.

This is one, where a lot of Dungeon Masters get it wrong. But as part of playing these games, and being the leader. It’s my job to create the challenges and things they have to deal with on the journey. And during those times, the players have to rise to the problem and defeat the monster, break into the citadel, etc.

And in the course of running these games for the past 2 years, I’ve seen things go a wide variety of different directions. And a lot of times, they go directions I never thought possible. And the biggest ones I’ve seen success for, are things like this:

I had a situation where I built a game for my players, and had planned this long combat encounter, and it was going to be intense, and I didn’t know if the players would survive. And when we ran the game, my players took a bunch of different directions I’d never thought of, and the multi-session encounter I had planned was over in 1 hour. The players were thrilled, and ecstatic. They had rose to the challenge and overcome it in an interesting way.

And to be honest, if you search for these types of situations on forums or blogs, they will talk about how much this sucks as a Dungeon Master. They will point to all the work you did and how they “beat me.” I have to be honest, I couldn’t have been more proud of my players. They did great, and the success was theirs. The team had accomplished something great, and honestly it was their success. Had I helped enable this? Absolutely I had helped them build and grow as players to the point that this was possible. And honestly, it made me feel proud and accomplished, but nothing about this game is my success it’s ours.

And honestly if you look back, I think you will find that the best leaders in your career had one thing in common, they took their ego out of it. You can’t be a good leader in your career and allow your ego into the equation. You need to be proud of the work you do with others, and you need to be proud of their accomplishments.

And here’s something I’ve learned from one of the best bosses I’ve ever had…”The best leaders take the team out to celebrate, and pick up the tab.” And the way I view this ultimately, is that the best leaders are the ones who even empower and facilitate the celebration of their team. They don’t say “Look what I did with my team!”, they say “Look what my team did!”.

Lesson 7 – How to draw the lines on the field, not control the game.

We’ve all had majors in our careers that have tried to control everything. They must approve every detail of a design, they must review every line of code, and they must be involved in every aspect of the project so that they can “Control” the outcome.

I’ve always known that the best managers don’t do that, they draw the lines on the field, they set the value and direction, but they let their team play the game. And there are a million sports metaphors about this. But I found that TTRPG, give a real quick lesson in this, because during the game I have no control over my players, I setup the scenarios, I adjudicate the rules, but I have no ability to control what they do, or how they react to situations. And it creates a situation where I get to see the success of my team and am always put in a position where I have to accept this fact.

In other situations in my life, regardless of how much I knew this to be true, the nature of TTRPGs, requires you as the dungeon master to only engage in this way, as I don’t have a player in the game, and I can’t control their actions, and it was a great learning experience.

Learning comes from strange places…

So honestly, this is something I wanted to write about, because over the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that I learn a lot of new things from a variety of places. And overall I’m trying to make myself more open to these. But I was surprised by the amount of team and leadership learnings I got by putting together a game where people kill dragons.

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Navigating Career Decisions without analysis paralysis

Navigating Career Decisions without analysis paralysis

We’ve all had to navigate career decisions at one time or another, and those kinds of decisions are never easy. For many, careers are one of those things that generally are foundational to our livelihoods, and are the tools by which you support your life and family. More than that, for many, your career is where you will spend most of your time. So given that, its not uncommon for decisions in your career to be fraught with stress and dread.

I know there have been a lot of times in my life, where my wife and I have had to stop and examine our options and decide what the next step will be. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this kind of thing, but I do think that my wife and I have developed a pretty good process for weighing these options, and I thought I’d share some thoughts here.

What do I mean by “Career Decisions”?

So before we go any further, I think its worth taking a step back and defining terms. What do I mean by “Career Decisions”? For me, a career decision is a decision on a current or next step in your career. And ultimately where you see things going next. Some examples of these kinds of decisions are:

  • Do I take a new position with my current company?
  • Do I take a management position?
  • Do I change employers?
  • Do I change teams?
  • Do I move into a new industry?
  • Where do I see myself in 6 months, 1 year, or 5 years?
  • Do I ask for a raise?
  • Do I take on more responsibility?

These kinds of decisions are the kind, that when they come along, can change the course of your career. They affect not just your current situation, but also the next steps and opportunities in the future. And a lot of times, these types of decisions I find can inflict pretty significant “analysis paralysis” (speaking from Experience).

For this blog post I wanted to take a step back and look at some of the things I’ve learned to keep in mind, and consider the alternatives that I’m faced with. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is meant to give you a starting point for these kinds of decisions.

Careers are like sharks, they move forward…or die.

The first part of this discussion, I almost didn’t write here, but it goes to general mindset, and keeping a good frame of mind for ensuring success. If you look at life in general, all living things in this world essentially have 2 states of being, they are growing or they are dying. There isn’t a third option that works. And over my professional career, I’ve come to realize that careers are no different.

When I graduated college, my father looked me and gave me two pieces of career advice, and this is the first.

“A career is like a shark, if it stops moving forward, it dies.”

Now, when I was a kid, I was a shark fanatic, and when I got older and they offered shark week on discovery…that was mandatory television for me every year. For those who haven’t spent countless hours studying sharks as a kid, here’s the basics.

The way a shark’s gills are structured, they have to have water moving through them for the Shark to breathe. Unlike fish, who are able to extract the air from the water even while sitting still. What this means, is that if a shark ever stops moving, it will suffocate.

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And in much the same regard, Careers function the exact same way. If you aren’t moving forward, and by that I mean:

  • Growing in your knowledge
  • Being challenged in new ways
  • Learning new skills
  • Investigating new ideas
  • Embracing change

Then your overall value is diminished as a whole. Think about it this way, take car buying, which is a topic most can relate to. You have two cars in front of you, both owned by different owners.

Honda Accord A: Is a nice car, it runs and will get you from point A to point B. The owner did an oil change about once a year, and it was inspected every year. But that’s all that was done. The interior is stock standard, the seats are faded, the interior is clean but has some stains.

Honda Accord B: Is a nice car, same year as car A. But the owner took it in for regular checkups, oil changes, etc. But in addition the previous owner, upgraded the interior to leather, replaced the stereo system. Upgraded the engine to be more fuel efficient, and other optional improvements.

Now of the two cars, if you are in the market, which would you rather have? And if it was only $5000 more for the second car, would you consider paying more.

At the end of the day, this is largely how employers will view you. The most important fact is that there is a direct correlation between how valuable of a resource you are, and the opportunities you will have. So everything about what you are doing in your career now feeds the future and that value.

When you are presented with a new opportunity / decision, it’s ok to take “some” time to think?

In my experience, no one should ever put you on the spot, and that’s just bad business etiquette. It is 100% reasonable to take some time to think about any major changes you are planning to make. This is your life and you have a right to take a breath and think about it.

Now that being said, one thing to be careful of, you have the right to a reasonable amount of time. I once had a situation where I recommended a friend to my current employer, and they made them an offer. And my friend wanted 1 month to make a decision. This caused a lot of frustration with between both parties, as they wanted too long to make a decision. A good rule of thumb I’ve found is to do the following:

  • Be transparent with the other person: If you need to talk to your spouse, tell them that. I once had a case where my wife was away for a week and I got presented with an opportunity. I told them, “I would like to talk to my wife, she’s out of town, can I get you an answer next week?”
  • Give them an indication when they can expect a response: I never understood the “I’ll think about it” and walk away. It’s very reasonable and easy to give the other person a time frame to expect a reply.

I find that this communication will make it easier on everyone, it gives a clear framing of when responses are coming through. It creates an opportunity for both sides to show respect and courtesy, and if they aren’t willing to do that, it’s another data point in the decision.

Everything has trade-offs… even staying where you are

Now that you’ve been presented with a decision or opportunity, you have to start into thinking about it and making a decision. This is the hard part, and to be honest I do want to take a step and identify the number one mistake I’ve made, and I’ve seen other make in this situation.

When we start looking at the choice, say it’s to take a new job with a new company, we start looking at things like pros / cons, which is a very good thing, and start looking at:

  • How much will I make?
  • What is the commute like?
  • What kind of work will I be doing?
  • Is it something I want to do?
  • What’s the work life balance?
  • How much travel?

But the number one mistake here is that we will fill out that T-Chart and then make a decision based on that alone. But the biggest thing I find is important to understand is that I should do this exercise twice. For the following:

  • Pros / Cons of taking the new job
  • Pros / Cons of staying where I am

There are trade-offs to staying where you are, and those trade-off should figure into your decision. For example, some questions you should examine when you consider the question of “Should I stay where I am”:

  • Is there opportunity for advancement?
  • Do I see myself growing if I stay here?
  • Does it benefit my family to stay?
  • What does my financial growth opportunity look like?
  • Will rejecting this impact potential new opportunities?

And these question should be come part of your decision, as to what to do next. Let me give you an example, if you decide to stay at your current position, instead of taking a move that would increase your payment potential. Do that once, not a problem, but due it to often and you’ll find normal raises price you out of moves later. There’s something to be said for a “being a bargain” in job market.

Here’s an example, let’s say for the sake of argument, you have a job that’s “fine”, doing support that makes $40,000 / year. You want to eventually be a developer and move from support to feature work.

NOTE: This is not a commentary on support, I worked support and its a great and challenging profession, and I have friends who have worked in support for their whole careers and are way more successfully then I could ever hope to be.

But if you have your current job, making $40,000 / year, and ever year that you do good work, you get roughly a $1,000 cost-of-living increase.

So not bad overall, and you are working in the background, on side projects and other opportunities to build your skills for your next move to being a developer.

After a few years, your pay scale looks like this:

  • $41,000
  • $42,000
  • $43,000
  • $44,000

And now you find out about a developer opportunity, but aren’t sure if the timings write, and they are willing to hire you at $46,000 / year. A little pay bump, and a chance to move over. But you decide the timing isn’t right, and decide not to take it. But you find out that the normal developer salaries in your area are around $47-50,000 / year. If you continue in your current job for 5 more years. Your salary is around $49,000 / year, and you are on the higher end of the salary range, and now are more of a risk to a new employers. The reason I say that is that you don’t have the direct experience that they are going to see from other employers.

Fast forward another 5 years, and you are now priced out and having to consider a pay-cut to move to the job you want.

So there was an unseen cost to staying in the current position, and passing on that opportunity. If you had gone to the development position, you could have grown your experience and made yourself grow faster and had more opportunities available to you.

Now I realize the above has a lot of assumption and is very simplistic, but I do believe it illustrates the point, that the cost of doing nothing, does have a cost, it is not cost neutral.

Money is not the only factor

Now I realize this is an odd segue given the above discussion, but one of the things my wife and I do when we consider career moves and decisions is to make a list and leave off the financial component. At the end of the day, there are a lot of elements to a career other than the financial component, and honestly if finance is your only motivation, its going to make for a pretty miserable existence.

This relates to the other elements of the job, things like:

  • Does the job require travel (could be a good thing or a bad thing)?
  • Will this help me grow?
  • What new opportunities will this move afford me?
  • What is work life balance going to be?

I once had a person interview to work on my team at a previous company, and he took the week to think about the employment offer as he had a competing offer. On Monday, the next week, he came back and took our offer and weeks later confided in me that it was at lower pay. When I asked why he gave the most eye opening answer.

That Friday night, at 6pm, he went to both places of employment to see how many cars were in the parking lot, and every night that weekend. The other employer while offering more money, had the same cars in the parking lot all week and most of the weekend, people leaving at 7-8pm at night after 12-14 hour days. Which was a really amazing observation, while our offer was lower, everyone went home to their families most nights.

How does this set me up for the future?

Another key question, that I learned very early on in my career is that you should always take a step back and ask yourself this question. Everything you do in your professional life is a part of a portfolio of work that can open up new opportunities in the future. That’s why its important to make sure that the things you are doing, are ultimately building that portfolio.

So let’s talk an example here, if I’m going back to that example (which was me at one point). You work in a support job, and you want to become more of a developer, and you are presented with the choice from above.

If you stay in the support role, the following happen with regard to your next job:

  • Learn more about how to work with escalations.
  • Continue to learn about the low level details of software applications.

Now if you took the developer job, it would mean:

  • Focus on growing my skills as a developer.
  • Work on development projects.
  • Potential mentors for growing in that space.

I know overly simplistic example, but it makes my point. The idea is here you should have a clear picture of the kind of work you want to do, and make sure that the current job sets you up for the future.

Loyalty is a two-way street

This is the tough one, that I find impacts a lot of decisions for careers, and that’s a sense of loyalty to your current team, employer, manager, company, etc. And I want to stress that loyalty is absolutely important, and something I value very much. Ultimately I find that its the glue that holds a team together. I’ve also personally had a lot of relationships over my career that I would gladly take a bullet for those people.

That being said, I do find too that loyalty is a two-way street and something that should measure into your decisions, but you need to make sure that you are taking care of yourself as well. And sometimes misplaced senses of loyalty can be a very dangerous thing.

At the end of the day, I’m of the belief that there is a responsibility and an “agreement” between yourself and your current employer to do the following:

  • Provide growth opportunities
  • Provide learning opportunities
  • Provide ability to recognize achievements
  • Provide a safe and constructive work environment

And then in turn, you as an employee are agreeing to the following:

  • Do your best work to achieve the goals and objectives.
  • Be a professional and do your part to support the work environment.
  • Take advantage of the growth and learning opportunities provided.

Now over the past few years I’ve always tried to have very open discussions with my managers around these items on a regular basis. The idea being that they should get a return on their investment in me, and I should get a return on my investment in them.

And then that agreement to me is the foundation of the loyalty with the team I work with.

Now given the above, I do believe there is a certain amount of responsibility from your current employer to provide the best opportunities they can, and I would recommend having an open discussion about those opportunities. Ultimately at the end of the day, if someone is able to offer you a better return on your investment, it should at least be considered.

But I’ve been in scenarios, where I had managers that would “gaslight” their team into a misplaced sense of loyalty that convinced them t hat considering leaving was an “act of treason.” And those kinds of things can be avoided pretty easily if you think of this in investment terms.

If you’re the smartest person in the room, find a new room.

I mentioned at the top of this post, that my father gave me two pieces of career advice when I graduated. And this is the second. The most important thing to remember is that you must grow for your career and ultimately you need to be challenged. And if you are the smartest person in the room, you are not being challenged.

There is something amazing, about being in a room where you aren’t the smartest person, and the opportunity to learn new things. A great term a college professor gave for this is “productive discomfort”, which fundamentally is the idea that the only way you grow is by putting yourself into a situation where you aren’t 100% comfortable.

It’s very much akin to the idea of learning to swim, my son who stands 3 feet tall, can’t learn to swim in 12″ deep water. There’s no challenge that forces him to push himself, but if we put him in water where he can touch if he needs but is high enough to justify swimming, it might not be as comfortable in the beginning, but it will yield returns.

So as you start to build out your career, one practice that has served me well is to seek out situations of Productive Discomfort to make sure that I push myself in new directions.

Remote Gaming – Lessons Learned

Remote Gaming – Lessons Learned

So I’ve made no secret on this blog of my interest in gaming. And how its been something that I’ve picked back up over the past year. And I have to say the one positive that came out of the many changes COVID-19 has caused in our families life is how much we’ve embraced gaming.

About 18 months ago, I joined a small group of friends and we decided to take a stab at gaming more. And we started with Dungeons and Dragons, and playing a game night once a month.

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Now it started out great, I will admit we had a lot of fun. But the hardest part was organizing everything. From scheduling with everyone’s busy schedule, to location, child care, etc. Which honestly was a pretty difficult, coordinating the schedules of 8 adults all of which have kids.

When COVID-19 hit, we all found ourselves stuck at home, and everyone’s plans dropped. And honestly it took our monthly game night, and made it a weekly game, and its been really great. We’ve gotten much closer as friends, and honestly it gave all of us something to look forward to every week.

So that being said, we did it by taking our game and going virtual with it. And for this post I thought I would share the setup and how we took our game virtual. You don’t have to be playing dungeons and dragons, but its a great way to reconnect with people. A great side note is that we had a friend, who work took away from our area, who we used to see once a year, I now see him and game with him every Saturday, and have for the past 3 months.

Break out the Digital Tools:

For our team, we really started using the following tools to help make our game go digital and be as much fun as it was in person:

  • DND Beyond – This one to be fair we were using before the pandemic. But its become more important than before. We track our character sheets here.
  • Roll20 – We started using Roll20 to handle the digital game board. This is a great tool for managing your games and letting things play out on maps.
  • Facebook Messenger – We use this to handle the video calls, and honestly did because of familiarity of other members of our group. And things have worked pretty well, especially with Facebook rooms.
  • Discord – We leverage this tool to consolidate our chat during the game, and it’s been great. My players are able to talk, share handouts, or have direct conversations with me directly during the game.
  • OneNote – We created a shared notebook, where the players share their notes with each other to their benefit.

As I mentioned it’s been really helpful to be able to find new ways to connect as we deal with the uncertainty, and I definitely recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and finding news ways to engage, even in this crazy new world.

Stem with Kids – Quarantine

Stem with Kids – Quarantine

So for something completely different. My family and I have been making sure that we do some STEM activities with our kids.  And if you’re like me, they are just as much fun for me as they are for the kids.

So I feel very blessed, in that both of my kids are very analytical, and that really means for me we get to do a lot of fun things that take me back to my childhood.

When I was growing up, I came from a family of educators, going back 3 generations. So education is something that has found its way into all aspects of our lives. And I’m very thankful for that because my brother and I grew up with a love for learning written into our DNA.

The other thing I grew up with was technology, and my dad had computers in our house from the earliest parts of my childhood. So I try to find activities that really flex that logical, analytical part of their brain. So here are some of the things that we do for this type of activity.

Legos and Building toys

I’ve made no secret that I’ve been a fan of Legos from when I was a kid. And honestly there is so much to do with kids for this. The most important key to success here is that you need to instill this idea that they get to enjoy the act of building.

For my kids from an early age, we drilled into them one saying “the best part about Legos is you get to build it again.” and this has instilled an idea that for my kids that the act of building is the fun part, and now I can honestly say I think they enjoy building more than playing with the models.

The other key here is what we don’t do, our kids can save 1 model they build, that’s it. The rest are broken down to start again.  What this does is makes them focus on building more. We take pictures of their creations and they get to keep those. And celebrate the effort, not the result.

We do this with other toys, my daughters personal favorite are magnatiles.  And encourage them to build and then have them take pictures.

Littlebits

This was a new one for us, but it was fantastic. We got my daughter the littlebits music inventor kit which can be found here. And it was amazing. It comes with wires, and electronic components but they are connected using magnets. The app gives easy to follow videos that let the kids walkthrough building the circuits and devices.

But more than that, they then have activities to do after, which I thought was pretty great. After my daughter built a synthesizer guitar it had video lessons on how to play it that added extra value to the experience.

Problem Solving Challenges

Another thing honestly is that we do a lot of problem solving challenges. Things like asking the kids to solve a problem. Part of the idea is to encourage our kids to see a problem and try to figure out ways to solve it.

His can include giving them specific Lego challenges that they need to build and testing the results. This further encourages grit in our kids by pushing them to try and solve it and encouraging the effort and not just the result.

Minecraft

This one is great for when they really want to build their imagination. Honestly the educational value of minecraft is pretty well documented, but it’s a great place for kids to build without resource constraints.

I’ve watched my kids build some amazing structures in minecraft just by giving them a random idea. Things like:

  • Build a bridge
  • Build a tower
  • Build a train and train station
  • Build a batcave
  • Build a warehouse for your stuff

And these type of actions can give your kids just enough direction to go and let their imagination run wild.

Craft station

So for our kids we find the best option possible to facilitate creativity, and that includes creating a art station for my daughter with a mix of different options. Her art station includes an easle and paper and items like the following:

  • Paints
  • Markers
  • Pencils
  • Colored Pencils
  • Stamps
  • Inkpads
  • Stencils

The end goal of this is to task our kids with creating things rather than consuming.

Cooking

Another great activity to help kids with STEM is just cooking. Cooking involves the following:

  • Thermodynamics
  • Heat and transferance
  • States of matter
  • Physics
  • Measurements
  • Following directions

Cooking is a fun activity that fosters creativity and science. It’s a great simple activity that can make sure to stimulate their brains.

Those are some of the things that we do to pass the time and engage in stem activities with the kids. And honestly they have led to some of the best memories with my kids. And feel free to comment with what activities you are doing.

Summer time: Managing Burnout

Summer time: Managing Burnout

So its officially summer, and the past few months have been a little brutal on everyone. The world has been a very chaotic place in the past few months, with a lot of change. I don’t think there is a person alive who could have predicted the events since March 2020. And for many people there have been a wide range of emotions and situations out there. I want pretend to know the myriad of situations out there, and ultimately you reading this I’m sure have your own story with regard to the events of the past few months, whether those included isolation, depression, emotional stress, unemployment, or having your work life balance destroyed.

I’m not going to comment on any of those situations, but what I did want to share for this blog post were my thoughts on something I think universally felt by everyone…burnout.

All the events of the past few months, have left many of us feeling completely burned out. I know in my situation the events have led to 12-14 hour days for sustained periods (going on 3 months). And if you’re anything like me, the act of relaxing is something that’s not always the easiest to do. And for many of us, who had to be quarantined with kids those demands can be a lot higher.

So given that, it can be rather difficult to deal with these feelings of burnout, and I’ve been trying somethings myself and thought I would share a blog post discussing how I’m trying to manage burnout. I don’t pretend to believe that I have this figured out, but I’ve found some things that work for me, and I felt it would be good to pass them on.

Figure out what helps you relax?

Really, this is something I’ve come to realize quite heavily recently. But honestly everyone seems to think of the same thing as relaxing. And odds are for most of us the ways in which we relax have changed pretty drastically over the past few months.

For me, the problem was it always felt like there was something else to do, and it never seemed like I would really “relax” in the conventional sense. But honestly, relaxation means something different to everyone, and you might need to take a step back and redefine what it means for you.

For example, I’m the kind of person who has a very “Busy” energy. And sitting back and doing nothing is not actually relaxing, at all. I will find some way to exercise my mind or do something that engages me in different kinds of activities. So for me, I need to engage in something else that let’s me engage my mind in a different way but still satisfies my values.

The best way I can describe this, is my son came into my room at 6:30am on Father’s day and woke me up with the following sentence:

Happy Father’s day…Do you want to build a lego and play video games?

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For me, I find that that sitting down and pulling a lego set and working on it with my son, is significantly more fun and relaxing than anything else. So I’ve actually gotten to the point that there is a small backlog of lego sets in my office:

Always more lego…

So every so often, I’ll just sit down with my kids, build a lego, and they know that when we are done, I always take a picture and then turn it over to them. For me, the act of building something, with my hands, and doing it with my kids is really relaxing.

Take time for you

For me, like I mentioned above, I have to find times to engage my mind in things to really unplug and refresh, and it’s forced me to find new ways to do that, and in my case I find a lot of benefit to reading. I’ve been a comic fan for the past 27 years of my life. And one of the things I find really helps me is that most comic stories can be fairly quick reads and are something I can enjoy and engage on without making larger commitments or giving myself something else to remember.

The shelves line my office

But I find that taking time to read is something that I can do fairly easily at night. Usually my wife and I will put the kids to bed, and then our routine is to each take about an hour to do something by ourselves to recharge before we come back together and relax. This helps us to rest and shake off the craziness of the day before we hangout together.

Find new ways to replace old activities

So for most people, between COVID-19 and the craziness of everything else going on, it can be hard to engage in that social part of your life. And seeing friends and family became very difficult. We were lucky enough to find a new way to solve that problem. Prior to COVID-19, my wife and I along with a group of friends started playing TTRPGs, and specifically Dungeons and Dragons.

Now I know, D&D has a pretty nerdy reputation, but lately has seen a pretty big resurgence in the past few years. Honestly its pretty hard to call something nerdy when one of the biggest promoters of the game is Joe Manganiello.

Now, we were playing a monthly game with 5 other people before COVID-19, and since that game became weekly, with us all playing via Facebook Messenger. Since then the game has gone to weekly, and I have to tell you its been great. As the DM for the game it has more work, but I find that kind of work relaxing, and honestly its something we all collectively look forward to every week.

So most nights at some point, I end up stepping back and building the story and working on DnD as a way to relax. So we found a new way to do things and honestly even with our state going “Green” on the status, there’s been talk of doing a few in-person games, but we likely will be playing remotely every week moving forward. For those of us with kids it helps that we don’t have to find baby sitters and play from kid bedtime until midnight.

Another example I have here, is Exercise. So I have to be honest I had started Crossfit right before COVID-19, and was really enjoying it. But with COVID-19, all Gyms were shutdown, and I fell out of the habit. The main exercise option then became running, which to be honest is my personal hell. I can’t turn my brain off long enough and running becomes boring to me. But recently I found a great app that helps…Zombie’s Run. The app is here.

What I like about this is its sort of a mix of a podcast and exercise. In each “mission” there are audio snippets that will play that describe the adventures of your persona “Runner 5”, as you set out to help your home township as a runner. Being sent out to get supplies, distract zombies, etc. And as you run, periodically it will chime in with different updates on those missions and directions. It also integrates with Spotify or your chosen music player. So basically I’ll be running, and listening to music, and all of a sudden get a message “Pick up the pace, a rogue group of zombies must have heard you they are gaining on you.” (Complete with zombie sounds). And then the music resumes. It makes the process a lot more fun than before. If you want proof of that, I hate running and usually stop as soon as I can, and my second day I did a 5k.

Try Something new…

In my wife and my case, we had a smoker we got from my brother and never got around to using it. Since COVID-19 started we’ve been using that smoker almost every weekend doing a “Culinary Experiment” to help try new things. It gives us something fun to look forward to, and helps to make things easier. Our latest experiment was a 7 lb Pork Shoulder:

Sooooooooooo Gooooooooooooddddddddddddd!

So I would recommend try to find something new, and make a routine out of it. It will give you something to look forward to every day, or every week. And that can help stop the feelings of burnout.

Building a Reservoir of Good Will

Building a Reservoir of Good Will

So for a completely untechnology related post, I thought I would pass along here, and it’s just some general tips to live by. Let’s face it the nature of work has changed a lot for everyone. Most of us are busier than we’ve ever been. Things are downright crazy for a lot of us, and people are working together to do more, and accomplish more with less.

To that end, I’ve picked up a couple of tips to help make sure that you build out the reservoir of good will to work with people in a corporate setting, and it boils down to a few small gestures. That can really help to encourage partnership and growth with others. These are practices that I do and lean on heavily and I find they help me and others so I wanted to share them.

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Visibility Matters to everyone

The old adage is “No man is an island,” and that more true now than ever, odds are if you are working on something, you are working with a team.

If you read any books on leadership, one of the first things you will see common to all of them is that individual accomplishment is the last thing you should focus on yourself. Make sure you thinking is aligned that you succeed as a team and fail as a team. But that being said it’s important to make sure that if anyone does something exceptional, that it be noticed.

There are a couple of ways to do that.

  • Make sure to give feedback: by this I mean that you should take time and tell people “good job” or “you really stepped up, thanks.” It’s important that people know their efforts are being appreciated and having impact.
  • Make sure they’re manager knows: One thing I do, is keep notes on the kinds of things the team member has accomplished and send an email to their boss / manager. I know some companies have tools for this. But I find that people appreciate a good email.

I promise you that everyone who you send that email for, 3 things will happen:

  • They will appreciate it.
  • Their manager will appreciate it.
  • You will feel better knowing you helped someone.

Timing matters

Every company I’ve ever known has performance reviews. And those times are important to everyone. It’s important the employee but it’s also important to the manager.

Do your best time find out when those times are, and send a note to their manager right before that happens. Great feedback right before a performance review helps everyone. So do the best you can to make sure it lands at the right time.

Be concise and direct

As much as you can say things like “they are a great person”. I promise you it will land better if you say “This was the problem, and here’s how Jon / Jane went out of their way to deliver.” That kind of thing makes all the difference because it is more specific.

And make sure you keep it short, most managers are busy people and only have a couple of minutes so get to the point and make your argument why this person deserves praise.

In my experience this will help you build a reservoir of good will and help those around you want to continue to work towards your team goals.

Book Review – The Infinite Game

Book Review – The Infinite Game

So I’ve been trying to do more reading, and this book in particular got my attention after this video was referred to me.

I particularly found this interesting because if you watch the video. It discusses the differences between an infinite strategy and a finite strategy. And it struck me because to be honest I had been explaining to friends the differences between board games and TableTop Roleplaying Games. And more importantly, I saw the implications of this with regard to a career. Business / Technology is a game that will continue long after I am gone, and to build anything worthwhile it would require movement in that direction from a strategic perspective.

So after that I heard that Simon Sinek wrote a book that went into this more:

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What I found interesting reading this book?

For me the interesting part of this book was that it put forward a mathematics based theory, that attempts to model human behavior. And I find some of this completely fascinating. But more than that I found the original premise, of the infinite vs the finite strategy to be something very telling. And one of the things I love about my current position is that it affords the ability to to see a bigger picture than I used to, and the opportunity to see beyond the technology to the broader picture and to focus on a mission.

What is the difference between “Finite strategy” and “Infinite strategy.”

Now I’ve mentioned this a couple of times. So what is a “Finite strategy”, and an “infinite strategy.”

A Finite game, is a game that meets certain types of parameters and must be played as such. In a finite game, the following elements are true:

  • All players are none.
  • The conditions to “win” are transparent and clearly defined.
  • All rules are defined and agreed upon up front.
  • The duration of the game is defined.
  • A clear “winner” is defined at the end.

The best example of a Finite game I can think of are sports. Take hockey for example. A set number of players for two teams are set to play with the game starting at a specific time, and ending at a specific time. Because of this there is a very specific set of strategies that needs to be implemented to win.

Now an Infinite game, creates a very different situation, and requires that it be handled very differently. In an infinite game.

  • Players are both known and unknown, and can enter and leave the game at any time.
  • The conditions of “Winning” are to be able to continue to play the game.
  • Rules are both written and unwritten.
  • The duration of the game is infinite.
  • A player wins by creating a scenario where they continue to play the game. This requires creating situations that support maintaining the will and resources to continue.

The important part of this is the “Will and the Resources” to continue playing the game. In an infinite game setting, the goal is to stay in the game, and part of it is the realization that there will always be a competitor, and that you can’t ever assume you’ve “won” the game in any way.

A great example of this I find is the example of business. The business world doesn’t end. There is never a circumstance that says “Oh well Company X won…everyone time to go home.” The landscape of the game is always changing.

A perfect example of this is the COVID-19, situation around the world. The important part of this is to remember that the game conditions are changing at all time. But the companies that are going t o weather the storm are the ones who can make adjustments and flex their strategy to survive.

Why does this matter?

if you look at the companies and individuals that are most successful, they all focus on their values, and trying to continue to drive towards a goal / calling that helps them to keep the will in the game. And by having this longer term vision, and a clear mission the companies and individuals out there that embrace an infinite mindset and strategy are able to make the right adjustments to do what’s required to see that mission successful.

Final Thoughts?

I really enjoyed this book, and I found it to provide some very interesting ideas and insights that really forced me to question traditional thinking. Simon Sinek has this great ability to take these concepts and present them in such a way that they come off as mind-blowingly obvious. I definitely recommend this book overal.

How to pitch an idea! And make them actually want to do it.

How to pitch an idea! And make them actually want to do it.

So I wanted to do another post on soft skills, and this is one has really been top of mind lately, as I was in a situation where I had to pitch an idea to several key decision makers, and had to structure it in such a way as to make them want to adopt it.

So this post your going to see several tips on how to pitch this idea to gain the most support. And to be honest, I see this as one of those essential skills that for a career, as everyone has ideas. And ideas are great but they only move from the planning phase to reality if you are able to gain support. This is ultimately just as true for junior devs as it is for CEOs. You can’t force people to adopt ideas (you can try, but it usually fails). Ultimately you need to be able to pitch an idea to move it forward.

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Let’s avoid this!

Without going into specifics, I was pitching a new process to benefit customers. And as such had to prepare and assemble that presentation to help get support for this idea to move forward. And it occurred to me, how much I’ve learned over the years from crashing and burning on this kind of thing, and I thought I’d pass this along to you.

So let’s talk about pitching that idea…so you’ve come up with the next amazing idea, something you want to change that you think is going to benefit your entire workplace. So what do we do now? Where do we start?

Step 1 – Ask the 3 questions.

This is honestly the hardest part because it can put a lot of doubt on yourself, but its important. Before you do anything else, based on your idea you just had I ask 3 questions of myself.

  • What is the problem I’m solving?
  • Is this a problem worth solving?
  • Is my idea actually going to solve it?

Now the above questions are hard, if you use them correctly when proposing an idea. Because things like “Yes because it drives me crazy” is not enough in most cases to justify the effort.

The simple fact is this, you only have so many resources, and the people you are proposing ideas to also have resource constraints on them as well. So at the end of the day, you have to make sure this is worth pursuing.

So what I mean here is looking at the overall scope of the problem, and if its worth doing. And would this idea actually solve the problem.

Here let me give you an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. When I was a younger junior dev, I had been working on internal applications for use at a company to automate internal processes. We like any dev shop would move forward with new technologies as we could. So at the time, and I’m dating myself, we had just moved to the wonderful new world of MVC. So nothing was worse as a dev, than having to step back into the older applications to do maintenance once, maybe twice a year and deal with Web Forms.

So like any junior dev, I came up with the idea, we should rewrite it. And I put together a pitch and presented it to the dev manager, and it crashed and burned so hard it was spectacular. And here’s why, I didn’t ask the 3 questions, if I had I would have found the following:

1.) What is the problem I am solving?

Well I want to rewrite this older application, that is extremely stable, used infrequently, and I have to spend about a week of my year working on.

2.) Is this problem worth solving?

If I do an estimate it would take about 3 months to completely rebuild this application from scratch, and most of the existing code could not be reused, and that’s not including testing effort and risk attached to the new code.

3.) Is my idea actually going to solve it?

Yes and no, it will bring it in line with our other applications, but the application is used infrequently, and it probably another few years we will need to do this again. Now I can architect it for more code reuse, but there will still be effort.

If I’m being critical, and asking these questions…this idea fell apart pretty fast. And to be honest, the people you pitch to are likely going t o ask these questions first and foremost, so you should ask them to yourself to start.

Step 2 – Make sure the idea is fully baked?

This is the hardest step to me, its taking a step back, and playing “Devil’s advocate.” Making sure that you are able to “battletest” this idea in your own head. Because here’s the thing you need to accept…change is hard. So if your idea is going to have any hope of seeing reality, it has to be able to survive some scrutiny.

So how do you do that. I find you start asking questions, and some of those questions are going to be things like:

  1. Has this ever been attempted before?
    1. If yes, then how is this different?
  2. How much is this going to cost?
  3. What’s the return on investment?
  4. What kind of work would this idea demand to make it a reality?
  5. Do I think others will accept this?

Questions and being critical of your idea will ensure that you have done all you can to make sure the idea is fully formed. If you don’t do that, then the people you are pitching to, will feel like you are wasting their time.

Step 3 – Solicit Feedback from people you trust

Honestly, this is important. Find people you trust, and make sure they are in different positions, and have different perspectives, and dry run your idea by them. Feedback will help you come up with questions you never thought to ask before. And they can only help you strengthen your idea.

But this step only works if you accept the feedback, and don’t get defensive. If you ask for feedback, give a lot of thought to everything that comes back and don’t blow anything off. They are trying to help not pick at you. Don’t take feedback personally or get defensive. No one is attacking you.

Step 4 – Structure / Rehearse the pitch

If you are going to pitch an idea, make sure you take the time to figure out the “How?” of pitching the idea. How will you present the idea? How are you going to address everyone involved?

During this step its important to take a step back and think about the people who you will be pitching to. Look at how they respond and how they like to be addressed or have information presented to them.

And above all, be mindful of time. If they are giving you a gift of their time, don’t waste and don’t take more than they are willing to give.

The next couple points will be more on the “How” when it comes to structuring your idea.

Step 5 – Make sure you get to “Why should you care” early.

The most important thing to get to early in your presentation, is “Why should I care?” And to be honest, I usually actually title my first slide that. It gets attention immediately, and if you don’t hook them with a reason to care, they likely won’t.

So what do I mean by “Why should I care?” If you want people to consider supporting your idea, it needs to be meaningful to them. And it pays to know your audience here.

If I’m talking to a Finance Manager, and start with “And by implementing this new technology we can expand the amount of capabilities we offer.” – Odds are they don’t care. But if I start with “By adopting this new technology I can generate a 30% savings with a 10% investment and save us $_______,” I’ve immediately gotten their attention.

Or the ever popular, “By not doing this we are wasting $________, a year”, and I can bet they will be laser focused on everything you have to say.

So make sure you start with why they should care, and then they are more likely to hear the other things you want them to.

Step 6 – Make sure you explain how your idea will solve the problem.

I’ve been on the receiving end of presentations like this, and honestly I’ve seen people do step 5, and they then explain their idea and say “Any questions?” With the “Why should I care?” statements, you are essentially throwing down the gauntlet. After doing that you better, in-very-short-order, turn around and say how your idea will solve that problem.

Don’t assume your audience will immediately see it. Everyone has different perspectives, and might not see the connections the same way you do.

Step 7 – Make sure to describe the return on investment

If they move forward with this, and they put their time and energy into your idea, what is going to come back to them. There needs to be a return on their investment for them to get behind you. So spend some time getting to find out what bothers or motivates the people you are talking to. How can you align your idea with what they want to accomplish to get further support.

Step 8 – Make sure you are “laser-focused” on the asks.

This is an area I usually struggle with, but its the most important. Before you pitch is over, make sure you have a moment where you say “Here’s the ask”. You’ve essentially done the following:

  • Identified a problem
  • Given us a reason to care
  • Told us your idea
  • Told us how it will solve the problem

At this point, the next question is “What do you need to get it done?” Let’s face it, if you could do it without their support, you should. So if your going to take their time, there has to be a reason. Or more specifically what do you need from them to make this a reality. Be very clear about these asks, call them out on a slide, or given a list, something that makes it very clear.

And avoid the common mistakes with asks. The most common I see / have done are the following:

  • Make sure its something they can actually do: I’ve been in meetings where as a Dev Manager I was told “And Kevin we want you to require that all projects leverage nuget in their solutions.” Now one problem, when I was a dev manager…I was 1 of 3, all at the same level. I had zero authority to follow through on that ask, even if I wanted to.
  • Make sure it is a specific ask: This is my favorite, and I am SO guilty of this. Way more than I’m willing to admit. But saying things like “And have your support to adopt this across the team.” What the hell does that actually mean? You leave the person you are pitching to questioning that and what you actually want. This is the equivalent of asking them to write a blank check, and that’s not going to happen. There needs to be a call to action for any movement. We are all busy people.

Final Tips

Now once you’ve done all this, you are ready to pitch your idea. During the pitch I have a few final tips to remember and keep in mind to set yourself up for success.

  • Be mindful of time: I’ve said this a couple of times, but its worth repeating. Time is a gift, use it wisely.
  • Be concise and to the point: Your pitch relies on you holding their attention, don’t ramble.
  • Make sure you are able to answer questions: There will be questions, don’t hide from them. Make sure you allow time for them, and answer them to the best of your ability. It’s ok to admit that you still need to figure something out. The honesty will pay off.
  • Your idea is not you: I can’t stress this enough, I’ve been in meetings where questions are asked, or weaknesses are being discussed in a new idea. And people get defensive. This will torpedo your idea faster than anything. No one will want to engage if you get defensive. So accept it and feedback to help.
  • Be honest with yourself and accept feedback: Everyone brings different perspectives, and the inclusion of those perspectives can only make the idea stronger. I had an idea that I pitched and felt strongly about, but it wasn’t exactly ground breaking. And I had a manager say in my pitch, “No offense Kevin, I love the idea but its not exactly brand new, but it is a variation we haven’t done before.” And in my youth, I would have gotten defensive. But I responded “You’re absolutely right, it isn’t groundbreaking, just a different approach.” And I could see a shift in the room, that they knew I could accept feedback and the conversation got much better and helped.
  • Take ownership and invest in it: Look, I’ve done it. You accept that you are going to pitch this idea, and then somehow they wave a magic wand and all of a sudden its a reality. Not true, and believing that you are going to hand over the keys to the people in this pitch meeting and walk away is a delusion. Don’t be afraid to take ownership of following up with key people, or doing parts of it. By investing in it yourself it will help them to want to invest as well. If you’re not willing to have “skin in the game,” they won’t either.

And with that, best of luck on your pitch!

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Aligning Actions and Values

Aligning Actions and Values

So I did a post in January around the idea of goals and aligning values. And I talked about the idea of making sure that actions you take align with your values and at the end of the day that’s what matters.

So I’ve gotten questions from colleagues who read the blog post about what does it means to actually align actions to values, and how do you do that. So I wanted to take a minute to drill down on this topic and really quantify what this means.

Many of you have likely heard of the Urgency / Importance matrix, this is a productivity idea that has really gained momentum with a lot of experts, but specifically with Dr. Stephen Covey (7 habits of highly effective people). The idea behind it is this, every action or demand placed on you has two aspects that you should use to judge it.

  • Urgency
  • Importance

Urgency is the one everyone gets, at the end of the day this is how quickly it requires my attention. But I would actually argue that a lot of people (including me) get this part wrong. The idea here is how urgent is the required action.

The challenge I would push back on people is that a lot of times we let urgency be dictated by others. So in its truest sense, I believe a lot of people, and myself included become addicted to urgency. We get this believe that if we don’t act right away we will miss out or fail in some way. Just because this is an immediate need for one person, does not mean it is for another. And there is almost a social contract here where by we need to make sure to set expectations accordingly. And honestly, that’s an entire blog post itself.

The result of that is we use urgency as the sole aspect by which we prioritize our efforts. And that is where, as Scott Hanselman says “you time travel”, we get caught up in the urgent, and email is the worst example of this. And then we don’t feel like we accomplish anything.

The second aspect of any activity is importance, and this is the one that usually trips people up, “how do you define importance?” Now here’s the magic, for me the importance of an item directly correlates to the values I am driven by. As I talked about in my last blog post, I have gone with the idea of value based living, so for me, the definition of important is a binary decision “Does this align with my values?”

Now below is the urgent / important matrix that many authors and researchers reference as being the key to maintaining focus.

Now I’m going to steal from Scott Hanselman, as I think he sums it up best with his reaction to each of these:

UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantDo it nowDecide when to do it
Not ImportantDelegate ItDump It

So the key parts here are this gives a roadmap for how to align activities to your values, and then decide the appropriate action. The idea behind this being that at the end of the day, I only have a finite number of hours left in my life, and can only succeed at some many things, so I should focus my energies on items that align to values and are important to me (see what I did there).

So for example, I’ll be candid with you, my loyal readers here, my values are the following:

  • Family
  • Innovation
  • Learning
  • Impact
  • Creativity
  • Achievement

So for me, I’m really trying (not always succeeding, but trying) to make sure that I align my activities to things that fall in these 6 buckets. And by putting my energy into those values I’m making sure that my actions will drive a maximum impact in core areas that matter to me.

Like for example, its not arbitrary that the items up there are in that order, Family is always going to be the most important thing for me, and I will always prioritize actions for my family, like making sure my daughter is successful, over other activities.

But basically what I’m saying is for me, it doesn’t rate as important, unless it relates to those values above and driving success in those areas. As I mentioned I’ve put this together based on the works of Greg McKeown (Essentialism), Angela Duckworth (Grit), Mike Michalowicz (Clockwork) and a few tips from Scott Hanselman. Below is a great talk that Scott gave on scaling yourself:

Microsoft Certifications – Explained

Microsoft Certifications – Explained

Hello All, education is something that I’ve always felt strongly about. I come from a family where most of the people in my family have worked / do work in education at a variety of levels. And even in my career was a college professor for a while. So that being said, a lot of people look to certifications as a great way to driving learning and validating it for your resume.

I personally like certifications as something that you can use and point to as a standard for your skills. Now that being said the certifications are complex and lots of people have questions about what they mean. So I put this together to help people navigate the different options for certification on the azure platform:

Exam Title Topics
AZ900 Azure Fundamentals Understand cloud concepts (15-20%) Understand core Azure services (30-35%)
Understand security, privacy, compliance, and trust (25-30%)
Understand Azure pricing and support (25-30%)
AZ103 Azure Administration Manage Azure subscriptions and resources (15-20%)
Implement and manage storage (15-20%)
Deploy and manage virtual machines (VMs) (15-20%)
Configure and manage virtual networks (30-35%)
Manage identities (15-20%)
AZ203 Developing Solutions for Azure Develop Azure Infrastructure as a Service compute solution (10-15%)
Develop Azure Platform as a Service compute solution (20-25%)
Develop for Azure storage (15-20%) Implement Azure security (10-15%) Monitor, troubleshoot, and optimize solutions (10-15%)
Connect to and consume Azure and third-party services (20-25%)
AZ300 Azure Architect Technologies Deploy and configure infrastructure (25-30%)
Implement workloads and security (20-25%)
Create and deploy apps (5-10%) Implement authentication and secure data (5-10%)
Develop for the cloud and for Azure storage (20-25%)
AZ301 Azure Architect Design Determine workload requirements (10-15%)
Design for identity and security (20-25%)
Design a data platform solution (15-20%)
Design a business continuity strategy (15-20%)
Design for deployment, migration, and integration (10-15%)
Design an infrastructure strategy (15-20%)
AZ400 Azure DevOps Solutions Design a DevOps strategy (20-25%)
Implement DevOps development processes (20-25%)
Implement continuous integration (10-15%)
Implement continuous delivery (10-15%)
Implement dependency management (5-10%)
Implement application infrastructure (15-20%)
Implement continuous feedback (10-15%)
AZ500 Azure Security Technologies Manage identity and access (20-25%)
Implement platform protection (35-40%)
Manage security operations (15-20%)
Secure data and applications (30-35%)
AI100 Design and Implementing an Azure AI Solution Analyze solution requirements (25-30%)
Design AI solutions (40-45%)
Implement and monitor AI solutions (25-30%)
DP100 Design and Implementing a Data Science Solution on Azure Define and prepare the development environment (15-20%)
Prepare data for modeling (25-30%)
Perform feature engineering (15-20%)
Develop models (40-45%)
DP200 Implementing an azure data solution Implement data storage solutions (40-45%)
Manage and develop data processing (25-30%)
Monitor and optimize data solutions (30-35%)
DP201 Design an Azure Data Solution Design Azure data storage solutions (40-45%)
Design data processing solutions (25-30%)
Design for data security and compliance (25-30%)

So if you are interested in getting certifications, and in moving forward with these, the next question is usually, now I know what I have to learn, but what about the how. The good news is that their are a lot of free resources to help.

  • MS Learn : This is a great site that provides a lot of structured learning paths of different sizes that can assist in your learning these skills.
  • Channel 9 : A great video site on just about everything Microsoft which would help if you want to be walked through something.