Your presence is required

TL;DR: Presence is such a driver in how much someone can offer value and how good the quality of their interactions are. How much you can give (or get) out of an interaction depends on how present you are.

A couple of things got me started thinking about presence. One was this instance in a brainstorming session. It’s a brainstorming session so as one would expect there are a lot of inputs and feedback being shared. It’s anything but a passive activity. But then there was this guy who appeared to be doing admin stuff  — email and maybe some approval of overtime work. He didn’t end up joining any of the breakout groups which maybe why he wasn’t actively listening in the first place. It feels like such a waste though — to be there and not contribute, to have such potential to contribute (being a senior guy and all) and not contribute. This also just goes to show that your actual presence — not attendance, not just being there, but being engaged in the discussions — plays such a big part on how much value you can contribute.

Then there’s this other thing. A friend shared that her colleague was in a one-on-one meeting with her manager and her manager dozed off. Turns out, the same thing happened to my friend wherein the same manager fell asleep during the meeting. That’s a one-one-one meeting — a venue for you to raise your concerns, share successes if any, or just give relevant updates; and worse, there’s only the two of you in that meeting. Just how unimportant do you think that made those employees feel? Again, presence is such a key thing in the quality of the interactions.

Just to be fair, I don’t know their side so they might have some valid reasons, and I can’t really make excuses for them.

Now, useless meetings isn’t a new and rare thing (sadly) as there are memes and mugs on how a meeting could’ve been an email. But I’m not saying this to shift the burden or blame inattention to the organizers of the meeting. One one hand they do have that responsibility of making sure they get the right people into the meeting to make sure it’s relevant to attendees. But on the other hand, it’s really up to the attendees or participants how much they can give and get out of the meetings they attend.

So long story short: if you’re in a meeting (or more so in a conversation), and you can improve the conversation or you have the potential to add value with respect to that discussion, please try to do that starting with being actually present.

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Credibility, and being leaders people would want to follow

A Facebook friend shared a video of a TEDx talk on leadership. And it starts off by posing the question why would anybody follow you. And I think this is something leaders should ask themselves. And if the reason is just because  “I’m the boss. (mic drop, gangsta pose)” then that’s not leadership to begin with.

Leaders should ask themselves this question — why would anybody follow you. It’s not about being insecure. It’s about empathy and understanding that most people are driven by purpose. It’s about finding out how you can be someone people would willingly follow.

Below’s a link to the video and some excerpts:

“…If you want to lead others, they’ve got to believe that you’re credible. They’ve got to believe that you’re honest, competent, forward-looking and inspiring. You can ask yourself how would people describe me. And you can ask yourself, in my behaviour and in my actions: Do I demonstrate to people my honesty? Do I demonstrate to them my competency? Do I demonstrate to them my enthusiasm, my passion? Do I demonstrate for them what it is that I care about?

We need to be able to tell the truth. We need to be clear on what’s important and why it’s important. And we need to be able to make sure that we act in ways that we say: we say this is important, we follow through with that. We need to continue to develop ourselves, our competency.  Our competency is an asset that appreciates over time. You’ve got to keep filling it up. And leaders are great learners. They’re always open to wonderment and always open to trying to learn more things that they can get better. Good enough never is. You’ve got to be willing to show your enthusiasm, to show your passion. … Show your enthusiasm. Be willing to say: I’m excited about this, this is important, this is significant. And you’ve got to be willing to take a stand. You need to be able to express an opinion. …You need to believe in such a way that other people will believe that you believe and will in fact be infected by your enthusiasm. … The simple truth is this: People will not believe the message if they don’t believe in the messenger.”

Looking for that singular statement

There’s been some recent talk about vision and goals where I work, and that has somehow led me into thinking about what I personally stand for (at least professionally). Or maybe it could also be because I watched Batman v Superman last weekend and there was this scene wherein the lady senator wants to know what Superman stands for. Anyways, I tried to give it some thought. The truisms and platitudes that I often say crossed my mind. I thought of my default thoughts and my fave quotes. But it’s hard to capture what I stand for or what I’d like to stand for in a singular statement.

Be kind. Play fair.

Let your work speak for itself. Keep on learning. Keep the saw sharp.

No, not quite. Each statement doesn’t quite cut it.

Then something hit me. 16 years out of college, and it hit me! I don’t think I’ve ever been the type who’s so overly gung-ho about graduating from our state university. But I realized that the singular statement I was looking for was in our school motto all along:

Honor and Excellence.

Honor. This captures how it’s not about winning all the time, but more importantly it’s how you played the game. It covers honesty, integrity and respect. It covers selflessness, doing what is right, and giving credit where it’s due.

Excellence. This highlights competence. It covers knowing your craft and continuing to learn to be better than you were previously. It covers setting the bar high. It covers uncompromising standards. This also extends to paving the way for others to excel and being a spotlight to others when it’s their time to shine.

Honor and Excellence. You need both. It’s not one or the other. This means being good at what you do without the needless assholiness. This means rising above others while still remaining grounded. This means expanding your mind, capabilities, scope, or whatever; without getting so full of yourself.

This is a good reminder of what I’d like to see more of in myself, and what I should reward or encourage more in others.

What makes them leaders I want to work with

So leadership happens to be one of the things I think about, you know, just for fun. I’ve been working for quite some time now and I’ve had my fair share of leaders — some by title and some for real. Now, I don’t want to dive deep into my memory banks so I just thought of two leaders I’ve had the good fortune of working with recently. One is my former manager, Eric, and the other is my current project’s product owner, Maneesh. I posed the question: What about them makes it feel like it’s worth it to follow them?

Vision

They aspire for great things. They have an idea of what they want (or at least they seem to). You know they already have a picture of what they want to achieve or some sort of a plan in their heads (or at least it feels like it) so it doesn’t feel like they’re waiting on you to hand them the answer on a silver platter. More importantly, they are able to communicate their views clearly enough to get the team’s buy-in.

What you say matters

When they ask for your inputs, it doesn’t feel like they’re just asking out of courtesy (well, they could’ve been but you couldn’t tell). When you raise a concern, it doesn’t feel like it went in one ear and out the other. You go out of the discussion feeling like you’ve been heard.

Ego is thrown out of the door

They don’t insist on being right all the time. So if you happen to have conflicting ideas, they’re willing to hear you out and they’re also willing to explain where they’re coming from. The focus is on the problem that needs to be solved. So it doesn’t matter if you’ve disagreed on some points midway — what matters is you agree on a solution in the end.

Follow through

When something needs to get done and they’re the one who needs to do it, they act on it right away. Of course, you understand that they’re busy with a lot of other stuff but you can still count on them to follow through — without the need for multiple follow-ups from you.

Clarity, transparency and integrity

It’s hard to pinpoint if one is just the effect of the other. Or if they should be separate points instead of bundled as one. Either way, these three make it easier for us to understand the reason behind certain decisions or actions. Things don’t come in as a surprise (or a shock) because they’re communicated clearly, discussed openly or aligned with some bigger plan or purpose. What’s been done is congruent to what’s been said. There’s little to no room for second guessing or thinking “Oh, he probably means well…”

Your success in mind

Maybe it’s just me, but I think to have your success in mind is a basic expectation from your managers. Of course, I also expect that people help themselves but managers have the role of removing impediments on your way and setting you up for success. I don’t want to work for someone who just passes the buck (delegation doesn’t always equate to “empowerment”) or throws you out to the wolves.

As for our product owner, I expected that his focus would only be on the product that we’re working on. But for him to express interest in our career progression or on us maturing in our practice, that was something. I do understand that if we do improve ourselves, in turn we’ll provide better service to him. But what I like is that he considers wins for both sides — ours and not only his.

Coincidentally, there’s a buzz in the team on the “growth mindset” — the thinking that you just have to work at something hard enough in order to succeed. But while I understand that it is hugely up to the individual to drive his own success, you can’t discount how it’s also a matter of a bunch of other things including leaders who truly empower and enable you. I guess the paragraph below from this post states it much better:

“Ultimately, I’m convinced that there’s great power in starting from a place of believing that all people can improve themselves if the conditions are right, and I think that’s what Kohn is getting at when he worries about the growth mindset ideology being co-opted by personal responsibility advocates. Human beings are not vacuums. We rely on family, teachers, economics, societal expectations, and a range of other factors beyond ourselves to contribute to our success. The notion that personal responsibility is the only condition that matters for success, or the most important one, is just plain false.”

That’s about it

So those are just the stuff that’s on the top of my head. Ultimately (I just had to use “ultimately” myself), I think the best relationships are the ones that don’t feel forced, and that also goes for you and your leader. I guess one last thing I can add to the list is how they didn’t just ask for my respect — they earned it.

On responsibility, integrity, contribution

My boss conducted a talk — jokingly dubbed as a brainwashing session — to us new hires on the team principles. It wasn’t much of a brainwash for me though since for most parts (if not all), I pretty much agreed with what he said. Either that, or I had been brainwashed. In this post I’ll just do a brain dump on three principles that were discussed: Responsibility, Integrity, and Contribution.

Responsibility – For me, this means taking ownership, doing what you’re supposed to do, and inversely, not doing what you aren’t supposed to do. A new phrase I picked up from the talk is “being cause in the matter”. I like how it goes against learned helplessness and the feeling of being victims of circumstances. Sure, you’re up to your knees in shit, you’ve cursed the world, you’ve vented. But don’t leave it at that. Do something about it. Don’t leave it all up to chance and wait till some deus ex machina gets you out of the mess that you’re in. You’re only as stressed (busy, troubled, etc) as you’d allow yourself to be.

During the talk, I was reminded of something my father told me when I got into a really bad situation in college. Pa advised: “Huwag ka magpadala sa problema. Dalhin mo yung problema.” Using Google Translate, that’s “Do you send the problem. Bring the problem.” which doesn’t quite capture it. 😛 Roughly it translates as you shouldn’t let your problems take control of you, and that you should take command of your problems or the situation instead.

Integrity – Two quotes always come into mind when this topic is brought up. First is say what you mean, mean what you say. Second is on how integrity is doing the right thing even when no one’s looking. With respect to being in a mess, this means no cover-ups and acknowledging your misses when you’re at fault.

Contribution – One of the bullet points listed was on helping vs. making a contribution. This then reminded me of a saying about a hungry man and some fish. I can’t remember the exact words but I thought that giving him fish was akin to helping whereas teaching him how to fish was the real contribution. Well, that wasn’t how it was discussed. It was more of instead of thinking of someone or something as flawed, regard it as “perfect” (this might be more challenging for a tester) and just think of how you could add more value to it.

Some related blog posts to these principles and on feedback (also discussed in the talk):

Dan Pink on Motivation

Here’s a video I stumbled upon a couple of weeks ago. It’s a talk by Dan Pink with awesome art work and some interesting points. For one, it clarifies the notion that the carrot-and-stick approach only works for mechanical tasks. Include tasks that require even rudimentary cognitive skills and the rewards-and-punishment scheme just doesn’t work as well anymore. It also highlights what would be an effective use of money as a motivator: Pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. This way they won’t be thinking about the money, they’ll be thinking about the work. The talk then moves on to discussing the three factors that science shows to lead to better performance and personal satisfaction:  Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

The same guy had a very very similar TED talk (and it has an interactive transcript). A snippet from the said transcript (emphasis mine): “And the good news about all of this is that the scientists  who’ve been studying motivation have given us this new approach. It’s an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation. Around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they are part of something important. And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements:  autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy, the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery, the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose, the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.”

On feedback

“Praise in public, chastise in private.” — I can’t recall exactly where I got that but the idea sort of stuck. It just made perfect sense to me. I reckon I’m not quite needy when it comes to external validation i.e., I don’t crave for having my good work publicly lauded. I’d appreciate it and it does give me a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling. But it’s just not my main motivation. I guess I like it better when I get good feedback when I least expect it. Say when a colleague leaves me a thank-you note, or when someone tells me that another colleague liked having worked with me. But that’s just me. Other folks might actually prefer the public recognition, so it wouldn’t hurt to give it when it’s deserved.

On the other hand, when I make a boo-boo, I think I pretty much give myself a hard enough time already. There’s the feeling of guilt or inadequacy, and the feeling of being so sorry for messing up. From there, I’d like to bounce back and think of how to keep the problem from recurring. I’d like to be able to turn things around and work on the problem. For my case, I don’t think publicly scolding me or telling me off would help me in bouncing back. And I suppose that also goes for other people. Public humiliation is an unnecessary evil. It gives off too much negative energy just to achieve something which can be accomplished with an open, straightforward chat.

So there… Praise in public, chastise in private. The praising part seems easy enough. As for chastising, well, I’d like to do away with it altogether but sometimes there’s just no going around it. Anyway, I stumbled upon a post (which I wish I found sooner) and it lists out some ideas on structuring feedback (link):

  • It must be given soon after the behavior or event occurs. Don’t wait until a behavior becomes a pattern to discuss it.
  • It must describe precisely what occurred, with enough specificity for the person to have no trouble recalling the behavior or incident.
  • It should be limited to one issue at a time. People are more likely to become defensive if a list is presented rather than just addressing a particular issue or behavior.
  • Language must be non-evaluative when delivering the message. Do not ascribe attributes, motives, attitudes, or intentions.
  • Give feedback only related to the useful, actionable information. If a person has no control over the behavior, it may not be appropriate to give feedback about it.
  • Feedback should establish an opportunity for growth and/or change. Focus on the future desired state to underscore your ongoing investment in the relationship.

And I think the three steps to keep minds open when speaking up also helps. I got it from Egonomics and previously posted it before (link):

  1. Establish permission — Just as you knock before entering, you establish permission before you speak up. You don’t want to come in uninvited.
  2. Make your intent clear — Instead of having others think the worst, just be outright with your intentions. You don’t want to be misinterpreted.
  3. Be candid — Just be straight to the point. But of course, exercise tact. You don’t want to bore people with details nor be rude.

Help yourself

It’s a bit ironic that I’ve become friends with a fellow tester only when she was about to leave the company. We still get to have dinner occasionally and I get to find out about the training and learning activities her new company offers. For instance, she’s got some training lined up on Perl. They also have book reviews with the costs for the books and for reading them shouldered by their company. I think the last book they’ve read was on scrum which I find interesting since I would like to have some experience with Agile methodologies. Their upcoming book for review is on Agile testing, which made me blurt out, “by Lisa Crispin?” and just left me with my mouth agape. Lucky lucky lucky!

As for where I work, well, the last official training I received was way back in 2007. It wasn’t even testing-related. It was an upgrade training on CMMI version 1.2. Some books on software development and testing were purchased last year (or was it the year before). We don’t have time allowances for reading them though. You can, but it would just have to be on your own time. That’s fine, but only if the workload and schedules given to you afford for you to have your own time.

Anyway, the lack of training offered isn’t — and shouldn’t be — an excuse for turning stale. It sucks if you aren’t provided training to keep you up-to-date. But it will still be your fault if you let that stop you from picking up new things altogether. With social media on the rise, one can turn to blogs and testing networks for materials. Web sites covering Agile methodologies, offering programming lessons, giving testing tips also abound. Online shopping has also made it possible to buy books from overseas, but it’s just too heavy on the wallet.

Unavoidably, there are things that impede or limit us — financial constraints, lack of time, no internet at work, lack of available training (although this one’s expected to change soon), etc. But what is important is that we don’t limit ourselves. We can learn if we want to. We can train ourselves. We can seek mentorship outside the confines of our workplace. The potential to grow is there.

Quite aptly, I received a text message from my friend: Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.

Kurosagi trolls

At work, we’ve got this server called Kurosagi in our local network which provides some collaborative tools e.g., WordPress blogs, Laconica microblog, Trac, a CMS, etc.  The most recent addition to Kurosagi is the imageboard where one can post photos and comments on those photos. Inevitably, word of it got out. Then one morning, a co-worker posted in the microblog that there was suddenly a lot of posts in the imageboard. I took a very quick look and found it peppered with trolls. I didn’t chance upon anything explicit or obscene; just a lot of useless/pointless posts that I reckon are a waste of space. It did get Renz pretty riled up though and he posted a stern warning on how the imageboard should be used. And Daniw, the current Kurosagi moderator, immediately took to cleaning up the mess.

Below’s a couple of sayings that echo my thoughts on the trolls:

  • You give an inch, and they’ll take a mile.
  • Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

It’s a sorry thing that Renz and the other decent imageboard users had to point out what should have been common sense i.e., since it’s in the office network, the posts ought to be kept appropriate for the office network. But then again, as I often remind myself, common sense isn’t altogether that common.

Bothering to reflect

A friend just shared a link over at twitter to a blog post by Scott Berkun — The magic numbers of project management.  The part on “What to do instead” just made me nod in agreement… especially at the part below (emphasis mine).

The best way to think about estimates is that it’s a culture, not a formula. It’s no accident better teams are better at staying on schedule. They ask better questions and care about things most people on projects ignore.  What are those things? You discover them for your kind of projects by going back and studying. Focus leadership attention on the dozens of factors that contribute to scheduling, note some basic and fundamental things you missed, and consider applying that knowledge, as a team, the next time around. Don’t fight the last war, but make sure to learn from it.

It also reminded me of something I’ve read and mentioned in passing to another friend on the bothering to reflect.  In the book, it raised two questions:  What did we learn?  What can we do better? To my friend, I asked the rhetorical questions:  What are we doing wrong?  What are we doing right? Another colleague raised a question which he thinks not many would appreciate:  Are we (as a company) good at what we do?

Asking and reflecting at these kinds of questions, looking into our past project experiences for ways we can improve, introspection — these are things that could help us.  Although we sometimes do have project postmortems, yet sadly we encounter the same problems over and over again (a lot of which are classic mistakes but that’s not an excuse).  And maybe that’s one thing to do a CAR on — ironically, on why our CARs need to be CAR’d on.