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Category: Soft Skills

Various discussions on books, goals, personal growth, finance, wide variety of topics.

Staying Organized with my “digital brain”.

Staying Organized with my “digital brain”.

Hello All, so as you probably noticed, I’m trying to do more posts, and trying to cover a wide range of topics. So for this talk, I thought I’d take time to talk about how I stay organized and stay on top of my day.

Productivity methods are a dime a dozen, and honestly everyone has their own flavor of an amalgamation of several methods to keep control of the chaos. For me, I went through a lot of iterations, and then finally settle on the system I describe here to keep myself on top of everything in my life.

Now for all the different variations out there, I know lots of people are still exploring options, which is why I decided to document mine here in hopes that it might help someone else.

So let’s start with tools, for me I use Microsoft To-Do, and its not just cause of where I work, but ultimately I use this tool because I was using Wunderlist, but ended up switching because they ended support of Wunderlist, replacing it with To-Do. So that was the driver, but I also did it, because it supports tags in the text of the items, which helps me to organize them.

So first, I break out my tasks into categories with a tag to start, the categories I use are:

  • Action: These are items that require me to take some small action, like send an email, make a phone call, reply to something, or answer a question. I try to keep these as small items.
  • Investigate: These are items that I need to research or look into, things that require me to do some digging to find an answer.
  • Discuss: These are items that I’ve made a note to get in touch with someone else and discuss a topic.
  • Build: These are my favorite kind of items, this is me taking coding action of some kind, and building something, or working out an idea. Where I am focused on the act of creating something.
  • Learn: These are items that involve my learning goals, to push myself to learn something new and keep it tactical.

Now each day, To-Do has this concept of “My Day” where you take tasks from your task list and indicate that they are going to be part of your day. Now I sort my day alphabetically so that the above items are organized in a way that lines up with how I approach them.

For me I usually tackle as many actions as I can right away and get them out of the way for the first hour of my day, and then spend the next 6 hours as a mix of new actions, and build / investigate actions.  Finally I have a set section of my week that is spent of learning activities.  The idea being to quote Bobby Axelrod, “The successful figure out how to both, handle the immediate while securing the future.”

Finally I maintain a separate list called #Waiting(…). When I am awaiting a response from someone, I change the category (like #Action) to #Waiting(name of person) and move it to the waiting list and take it off “My Day”. This let’s me put it out of my mind without losing track of the item.

After the category, I add the group, these are customer names for work, or a designation to describe the sub category of the work.  Like for example this is a monthly recurring task:

#Action – #Financial – Pay Monthly Bill’s

This allows me to quickly group the category or all “Financial” tasks if I need a big picture.  

I have been using this system for the past year and it’s done a lot to help me stay organized and measure my impact not activity.

I’ve talked previously about how import impact is over activity. And one of the downsides of many of these kinds of systems is that people tend to focus their energy on the “checking off items” and not on the overall impact of those items. I find by using this kind of grouping on the front I am able to focus energy on tasks that are high impact not low impact.

At the end of the day productivity itself is a lie and I believe that completely the idea is not to produce more, but to make every action have a return on investment.

Another book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown calls out this difference in basically saying that the key is to make the distinction of saying “what can I go big on?” or its either a “Hell Yes” or an “Absolute No”. So I find this system assists me by allowing me to make sure that I am focusing on tasks that will return dividends and not on topics that are smaller activity just to drive “checked” items.

Book Review – Clockwork

Book Review – Clockwork

Hello all, so as many of you know I read a good bit, and I also like to use “audible”. Great way to pass time while traveling or driving is to listen to audio books. Right now I’ve been on a real kick to learn more about business perspective and productivity. Some of the great books I’ve read and talked about before are:

  • Grit
  • Essentialism
  • 10x Rule
  • Deep Work

But I wanted to take a minute to talk about the book I just finished, Clockwork: Designing your business to run itself, by Mike Michalowicz. Now I have to admit, I found out about this book when I heard about it a couple of times and it showed up on my “recommended reading” books a few times.

So I was skeptical about this book, mainly because the book talks about how its focused on people starting their own business, and I work for a major corporation. So how can this be helpful to me? Well I have to admit, I was wrong.

I found this book to be really thought provoking, and it caused me to re-examine a lot of activities and work I do to measure impact and importance to success. The author makes the argument that in any organization, everyone has a responsibility to do the following:

  1. Protect the Queen Bee Role
  2. Serve the Queen Bee Role

And basically the key part of the business is to take the QBR (the Queen Bee Role) which is the crucial part of your job, and make all of your actions that you take focus on that above all others. Basically the argument is that I should spend every second of my work day focusing on that QBR, and when an activity takes away from that, I should focus on getting done with that as soon as possible, or if possible moving it off my plate.

The intention is that it makes me focus on the bigger picture and creates a scenario where you can take off from work and feel comfortable. For me, I have a tendency to have a hard time unplugging, and stepping away from work. And recently I’ve been setting goals to help myself to unplug. I found that when I started to put this into practice, I was able to unplug with less stress and it helped my overall mental health. For me, I started with the intention of doing the following:

  • Blocking 1 hour for lunch everyday
  • I will not eat at my desk

This forces me to take a lunch break away from my desk, and honestly it sounds small but it has paid huge returns, I have found that when I come back to work I am more focused, and at the end of the day less drained from a mental perspective. I find that stress level has gone down with regard to work and I also find that the work I’m doing is much more satisfying.

Below is a video that summarizes some of the ideas of the book. The value of this book though aren’t the ideas, but how you execute.

Goals and Grit

Goals and Grit

Hello All, I wanted to shake things up a little bit and talk about a book I have been working my way through and goals. So its officially January, and a lot of us are looking at the great new year like a blank canvas, waiting to be painted. I have to be honest, I’ve always been a fan of New Years, not the holiday or New Years Eve, although everyone loves a good party night. But every year I enjoy the act of self-reflection and planning that goes into the new year, and the chance to grow and improve.

But the one thing I hate about this process is during the self-reflection, admitting where you came up short. Where did you stumble or fail, what went wrong? Now if I’m being honest I’m a DevOps guy and as a result am big on admitting failure. But if we look at this from a DevOps perspective, teams grow when they fail fast, and on some level this yearly retrospective ritual flies in the face of that.

Lately I’ve been reading a great book call Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. And it really is an amazing book that will change the way you look as success on the whole. Really it promotes this concept that success is not built on talent, but rather on the determination and passion of the person.

In the beginning of the book she calls out West Point. West Point has one of the most rigorous recruiting processes in history, and they only take the best and brightest into their program. But despite that, they were seeing a very high drop out rate, and couldn’t figure out why. The short version is because the people who are most talented are rarely tested, and if you’ve never had to overcome obstacles before, then you are likely to back down when faced with your first wall.

The book also gives an interesting take on goal planning that I had never done before, and its one that to me makes a lot of sense, and I’m giving it a try this year. So I will have to update the blog here with the results. But the one method she talks about was discussed by Warren Buffet, arguably one of the most successful business men of our time. In the book, he describes a planning process he does, which is to write down 25 goals, 25 things you’d like to accomplish this year. This sounds like a lot, but if you start writing goals, you’ll find its not hard. I hit 30 without breaking a sweat. And then pick from that list the top 5, and put those in the “MUST DO” category.

And take the rest…and put them in the “NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES” category. The idea is this, your time is your most valuable resource, and multi-tasking is an illusion. So you should focus your attention on these 5, and the other 20 are a distraction. The focus being that being successful isn’t about saying “Yes”, its about saying “No”.

For me this resonates, as if I pour all my attention and time into 5 specific goals, I am way more likely to accomplish them with greater impact. And this also works well with another planning approach that I’ve leveraged before, which is described by Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

In his book, he describes the idea that if you think of your day as a bucket, and I tell you to fit big rocks, little rocks, and sand into the bucket. What is the most logical way to fill it? Big Rocks, then little, then Sand, and if we are being honest we should approach our goals the same way. But most times we don’t, we avoid the big tasks, and small tasks, and fill our day with emails first.

So he recommends breaking things into the following matrix (called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix):

Important / Urgent Important / Not Urgent
Not important / Urgent Not Important / Not Urgent

In this matrix, the idea is that “Important” means that it lines up with your goals, which I would argue are the five goals provided above. From there we can look at what’s urgent and aligns to our goals as where our time should be spent.

  • Q1 of the above box, is for things that are urgent and related to your goals, like deadlines, crisis, opportunities that are time sensitive.
  • Q2 of the above are items that don’t have a pressing deadline but focus on your goal, this should be next on your priority list.
  • Q3 are items that require immediate attention but don’t move us forward. Which should try to minimize these tasks as much as possible. Things like phone calls, emails, etc.
  • Q4 are items which aren’t urgent or important and are basically time wasters, eliminate at all costs.

So leveraging the above matrix, makes it very easy to keep our focus where it should be on our 5 goals, and avoiding the distractions that undermine our success.

Getting Started

Getting Started

So I thought I would start this new direction for the blog with a post about a topic I get asked about a lot.

“I want to get started in programming, how do I do that?”

And this is a great question, and one that makes a lot of sense to me as the lines between technology and business are blurring.  And more and more people are interacting with developers in their daily life as part of their current jobs, and its leading to people’s eyes being opened to the opportunities in this place.

My next question is normally “Why?” and at first that usually takes people back, but this is an important thing to ask yourself.  I ask this because to be honest, switching fields and taking on something like becoming a developer isn’t an easy journey, and if your motives aren’t clear than your going to set yourself up for failure.  I generally think it’s smart to ask if this is a worthwhile investment of your time.  Because as much as I love this industry, it can be quite brutal at times.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making these statements as some grand arbiter who decides if you are worthy of becoming an almighty developer.  I make these statements because the simple truth is that to work as a developer and achieve success you need to be willing to accept the reality, which is less Minority Report and steve jobs, and more the craziness of Silicon Valley.

I would tell you to ask the following questions:

  • Do you like continual education?  Are you willing to read about this stuff in your spare time?
  • Do you like to tinker with things?
  • Do you have “Grit”?

For the final question, specifically I’m referring to the fantastic book by Angela Duckworth, that describes Grit as basically being the intersection of Passion and Perseverance, and that it is the most important part of any equation where someone is hoping for success.  And I would argue, even more so true for developers.

If you look online at the “successful developers” they all have one thing in common…they live for this stuff.  And spend a lot of time doing it, and finding new ways to challenge themselves and push boundaries.  They are constantly looking for ways to change their mindset to find new opportunities and directions.  I don’t claim to be a famous developer, but I can tell you that I’m proud of where I’ve gone in my career and I genuinely love what I do, and much like those “famous developers”, my wife describes me as a “well documented nerd”.

So now the important question is, did I lose you?  If not, I think this is a rewarding career option that can take you in some interesting directions, but you need to know that it will be a slow burn.  This is not something where you will be writing award winning apps by Monday if you start on Friday.

Below are some links to help you out, feel free to reach out with questions, I’ve tried to provide a lot of training material and some notes about each link:

Visual Studio 2017 Community Edition – This is the primary IDE (integrated developer environment) for all things in the Micr0soft stack. And the community edition is free, which is even better.

https://www.visualstudio.com/downloads/

When you go to install it, its going to ask you to customize the install, by selecting different packages and what not.

Great start: C# fundamentals for Absolute Beginners:

https://mva.microsoft.com/en-US/training-courses/16169?l=Lvld4EQIC_2706218949

For training materials I would recommend the following:

Microsoft Virtual Academy – https://mva.microsoft.com/

This is a great site for a lot of training content Microsoft generates to help. I would point you to the absolute beginner classes as well as the learning paths. They also do a good job of categorizing training (100 level, 200 level etc)

C# Courses:

https://mva.microsoft.com/training-topics/c-app-development#!jobf=Developer&lang=1033

Visual Studio Training:

https://mva.microsoft.com/product-training/visual-studio-courses#!jobf=Developer&lang=1033

Getting started with Visual Studio 2017

https://mva.microsoft.com/en-US/training-courses/getting-started-with-visual-studio-2017-17798?l=9oIw0FD6D_3611787171

Learning Paths:

https://mva.microsoft.com/LearningPaths.aspx

Channel 9 – https://channel9.msdn.com/

Great site for general videos, and is updated all the time.

I recommend web as a good place to start, the .net web platform is called ASP.NET and uses HTML, C#, and some javascript to work. (C# and Javascript syntax are pretty close)

https://www.asp.net/get-started

https://www.asp.net/mvc/overview/getting-started

This is probably a good start.

How to punch up your resume?

How to punch up your resume?

So I thought given the new direction with this blog, I would focus my attention on some of the questions I get a lot.  And one of the  biggest questions I get asked frequently is “My resume is terrible, how do I make it better?”

To be perfectly honest, most people undervalue their resume, and think of it like some kind of checkbox.  I love hearing people say “I’m not worried, once I go in for the interview the resume is meaningless.”  To which my response is HOW DO YOU THINK YOU GET THE INTERVIEW!

There’s an old adage, that the you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and when applying for jobs, the resume is your first impression.  When I worked for a prior company, part of my job was interviewing new talent and determining if they were a good fit to move the organization forward.  As such, I literally conducted over 100 interviews in a 8 month a period.  I can say I’ve seen a lot of things, and this blog post is really based around the tips that would apply to help get your resume noticed and get you in the interview.

  1. DO NOT stick to one page:  In college they will tell you that your resume must be limited to one page.  That is not realistic for a technical position, because in these positions we are looking for the skills you have.  Don’t go crazy but a good three page resume is a lot better than Times New Roman, size 8 compressed onto a page.  The human eye needs white space more than anything.
  2. Keep it up to date:  This is jumping a little further ahead, but make sure it is 100% current.  I’ve read resumes of people and nothing turns the interviewer off more than to bring you in and here, “Here’s the stuff that I’ve been working on”.
  3. Describe the projects:  Even better than a list of skills is a project description, and acknowledging that you can’t give up all details.  But things like, “Project XYZ was a mobile app built with Xamarin with a Cosmos DB database back end, and I was the lead developer of the mobile side.” tells me a lot about what your skills are.
  4. Be clear about your role:  It helps if you tell me what you did on the project, and be clear about the responsibility not the titles.  I’ll give an example, my first job I was responsible for building software for managing test centers and grading certification exams with the state, but being the state my job title was “LAN Technican”, no even close.  So I found that you should try to change your title, just list what you did on the project.  It gives a clearer picture of what your skills are.
  5. Put in personal projects:  I used to tell people “I can teach someone to code the way I want, but I can’t teach passion”.  So if you’ve contributed to GitHub projects, put it in there, if you have apps in the app store, put them in there.  Talk to me about what you with, that shows perseverance and drive, which I can’t teach.  If you blog list that, if you work with user groups, put that.  I once had a candidate show “my son and I built a cloud enabled race car with a raspberry pi and a cell phone”, that’s fantastic information.  But make sure you limit it to what you’ve done.
  6. Be Honest about how much you’ve worked with something:  It’s a great idea to quantify your technical skills, you can use a 1-10 scale, or some other measure, on my resume I use a 1-5 scale.  This allows them to get a good assessment of your skills and saves everyone time.  And to be honest this is another one where you show “I’m learning Xamarin on my own” is huge.  Expect that during the technical interview you are going to be grilled on all these, and if you aren’t honest, that’s a guaranteed out (next post we talk about the technical interview).