Sharpening Your Axe

By | Culture, Free Career Advice, Professional Development | No Comments

Following the “Invest in Your Development” session held earlier today, Sri sent me a thoughtful anecdote that highlights our flawed thought process around professional development.  You may have heard it before, but it’s worth repeating…

A man was walking in a forest one day, and he met a woodcutter.  It was a hot day, and he sat down to rest.  He began talking with the woodcutter about the weather and such.  After a lengthy conversation, he asked, “Mr. Woodcutter, you’ve been making little progress on chopping down that tree the last half hour.  Perhaps your axe is too blunt.  Why don’t you sharpen it?”

“That’s the truth! This axe has not been sharpened for a long while now; I could make far better progress with a sharp axe,” said the woodcutter.

“Then why not take some time to sharpen it now?” asked the man.

“I don’t really have time for that, you know.  Do you see all these trees I’ve got to chop down?  I can’t stop to sharpen my axe now,” replied the woodcutter.

I’m sure each of us, to varying extents, can identify with the woodcutter.  We know that we need to invest in our professional development, but adding development activities on top of our current workload just seems impossible.

Often to outsiders, like the man, it is obvious that making time for development now will pay dividends in the future. The real challenge is convincing yourself that no matter many trees you need to chop down today, there is always value in taking time to invest in yourself. So make the time and go sharpen your axe.

Work Life Balance

By | Culture, Free Career Advice, Workplace | No Comments

Is there a term uttered through the halls and across cube walls of offices more frequently than “work life balance?” Since the term was coined in the late 1970s, it has become an increasingly hotter topic and an industry of its own.  A quick search on Amazon turns up 5,625 results – just in the “books” category. Try Googling the term, and you’ll get a staggering 5,050,000 results. There’s even a nice, long article about it on Wikipedia.

So what to do? You can try addressing it with the help of books, DVDs, blogs, self-help videos, career counseling, day planners & software, picketing outside your employer’s offices, or hypnosis.  OK, so maybe the last two are a bit extreme, but there are legitimate ways to address developing a better balance in your own life.

Often times, people try to tackle the problem by first fixing their time management issues.  This is what has driven the success of things like the national bestseller “Getting Things Done” and FranklinCovey stores.  In fact, just yesterday I received an email from a friend touting “an incredible tool that makes Outlook much easier to use” when trying to get organize your life.  (By the way, the tool is called Xobni – inbox spelled backwards.  You might want to check it out.

Although time management can be useful – obviously productivity and efficiency are important – this can cause you to miss the bigger picture.

Galyna’s and Lacey’s TMD session on this topic a few weeks ago got me thinking and reminded me of several concepts that I’ve found helpful over the past 10 years or so of my career.  Keep in mind, I say these things have been “helpful,” but don’t mistake this with meaning that I’ve solved the problem.  It’s an ongoing struggle.

Of all the reading I’ve done, the work of Stephen Covey has had the longest-lasting impact on my thinking around this.  His most popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, includes some fundamental concepts that I believe you must tackle before you can get your life “balanced.”

Although it may sound and feel a bit corny, spending some time thinking about and crafting a personal mission statement and explicitly identifying your “roles” can be very helpful and act as a guide.  In fact, it can go a long way in reducing the strain and stress in your life.

You can do this by asking yourself some “big questions” such as:

  • What’s most important?
  • What gives my life meaning?
  • What do I want to be and to do in my life?
  • What are the most important relationships in my life?
  • What are the contributions I’d like to make?
  • What principles do I hold as critical and non-negotiable?
  • How do I want my family, co-workers, etc. to think of me?

Answers to these questions will help identify both your mission and roles.

I won’t bother you with attempting to articulate my personal mission statement, but let’s talk a bit about roles.

For example, my roles include husband, father, CEO at DAXKO, friend, Christian, TechBirmingham board member, runner, etc. (there are dozens more…)

Obviously, of these roles, there are a wide range of levels of importance to me.  For example, I’m not going to put the same effort and focus on my “runner” role as I do on  my “father” role.  But that doesn’t mean I should completely ignore it either.

I think one of the biggest mistakes someone can make related to finding balance is to believe all the roles they want to have or are expected to have can be separated and compartmentalized.  I’m a “worker” between 8am – 5pm, a “spouse” between 5:30pm – 8:00pm, a “friend” on Saturdays, a “church member” on Sundays from 9am- noon, etc.  Life’s simply not that clean.  Trying to keep it all separate just causes stress.

To quote Ghandhi, “One man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in any other department.  Life is one invisible whole.”

The more passionate and engaged you are in some of these roles, the harder it will become to compartmentalize them.  They will simply become intertwined throughout your life.  I find this to be very true in a number of roles in my life – including my work here.

“Balance isn’t either/or; it’s and.” ~ Stephen Covey

Since I can’t do these concepts justice in this brief blog posting, I suggest buying or borrowing a copy of 7 Habits – I think we may even have an audio copy of it and/or his follow-up book, First Things First, in the Learning Center.

Good luck in figuring out this balance in your life.  It’s not easy, but It is a challenge worth taking on.

Selective Plagiarism

By | Building a Company, Culture, Free Career Advice | 2 Comments

“Selective plagiarism” — do you understand what it means?

It means taking ideas from others, then tweaking and twisting them to fit our needs. And by “others,” I mean more than just those at other software companies. You may be amazed at what we can learn and put into practice from the retail industry, design firms, architects, stodgy Fortune 500 companies, even the airline industry.

Don’t confuse this “borrowing of ideas” with a lack of innovation. Selective plagiarism is clearly part of the innovation process. Many “innovative” companies can fall victim to a “not invented here” syndrome feeling that only their original ideas and thoughts should be considered. This is a recipe for staying small and failing often.

“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”  ~ Theodore Levitt, former editor of the Harvard Business Review

Another common misperception is that selective plagiarism is for the small, not-well-funded companies that have no other options. That is simply not true. Some of the world’s largest, most successful and innovative companies depend on learning from others. For example…

  • Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, would go into competitors’ stores with a small notebook and pen in hand to document what he saw – both good and bad. He’d then take this on-the-ground intelligence to build a better retail operation of his own – in fact, not just better, but the world’s largest.

“[Sam Walton was] notorious for looking at what everybody else does, taking the best of it, and then making it better.”  ~ Sol Price, founder of Price Club (a Wal-Mart competitor)

  • Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, wrote in his latest book, Winning “…companies that win do two things: they imitate and improve.”
  • Commerce Bank, with assets in excess of $50 billion and touted as “America’s most convenient bank,” has long looked at others outside its industry such as Target, Gap, and Home Depot to create “wow” customer experiences.
  • Procter & Gamble, an $83 billion company, directly copies the way in which IDEO conducts brainstorms. Even more importantly, P&G’s CEO, A.G. Lafley, has established a mandate that half of new product and technology innovations come from outside the company – a goal they have already exceeded!

So along these lines, what could we be doing to learn from those outside the walls of our companies? What could we do to create deeper connections with customers? To develop new product innovations? To strengthen our internal culture? To implement new and effective processes?

When you meet other professionals and hear an interesting comment or idea, are you taking the time to ask the follow-up “why” and “how” questions?

Of course, these conversations won’t always lead to the golden nugget your mining for, but keep pushing. It will be well worth the effort – and not just to your company, but also to you in your own professional development.

Further, the nuggets you do uncover are rarely something you’ll want to blindly duplicate in whole. Instead, you must use your understanding of your unique situation to customize the ideas to meet our needs and those of our customers. You’ll get better at this through practice and experience.

Reading compelling business books is a good place to start, but it is no substitute for hearing from others face-to-face. Invite a peer to lunch. Attend a local user group or luncheon. Join a professional organization. Subscribe to a blog of interest. For that matter, author your own blog.

Believe it or not, you all have time to do this, and it will be well worth it. You just have to make it a priority.

So get out there and start plagiarizing…

I Would Have Never Learned this at School

By | Culture, Professional Development, Talent | No Comments

DAXKO’s internship and co-op experiences are different than most.  You won’t make copies or coffee… well, for anyone except yourself.  You won’t be sitting on the sidelines twiddling your thumbs and counting the days until semester’s end.  You’ll actually be in the game… and you’ll be expected to contribute.  Here’s the ‘unsolicited’ experience of one of our favorite software engineering co-ops.  Good luck, Shane!

Two years ago, I sat nervously across the interview table explaining how I loved working with computers and would love to work at DAXKO. At that time, I didn’t realize just how much I would love my work at DAXKO. Neither did I imagine how great of a learning experience it would actually be. I’ve been at DAXKO and college for the same number of semesters, and I’ve discovered some invaluable lessons here that I don’t think I would have ever learned at college:

Sometimes you have to work with technology that your uncomfortable with.  Eventually, you’ll become comfortable with it.
Spring, Hibernate, Java, JasperReports, Ext, JSP. These are technologies that I knew nothing about when I first stepped through the doors of DAXKO. They are also technologies that play an integral role in how DAXKO’s newest product works. (Yes I, a co-op, was working on DAXKO’s latest and greatest.) I had no clue where to start, but I was here and I had to dive in somewhere, so I learned. Over time, what started as uncomfortable became comfortable. I’d even go as far to say that I’ve become more comfortable working with technologies that I’m uncomfortable with – if that makes any sense.

You don’t have to understand every single piece of the software to be able to work on it.
On all my school projects, I knew what every line of every function of every class did. My projects were small, understandable, and I felt comfortable working with them. When I got to DAXKO and took one look at the code base, I was… well, overwhelmed. Despite feeling lost, I jumped in.  And with the help of my peers, I was able to put my fears aside and start making a real impact.

Unlike in class, when someone asks you to solve a problem, it’s because they don’t know how to solve it.
School can spoil you. Not only does the teacher already know the answer, but so do the 18 other people in your class who are working on the same problem. You always have a fall back – just in case you can’t figure it out, there’s someone that can help you.

After a short time at DAXKO, I was given a list of issues to solve.  Some of them proved to be difficult (in my mind, even impossible) to solve, and it dawned on me that I couldn’t just give up and ask the teacher or a classmate. I realized that the only reason anyone would ask you to figure something out is if they didn’t already know how.  School is just a funny exception. After that sunk in, I began to think much harder and more creatively about the issues I was facing.  And what do you know… they turned out to be not so impossible after all.

Software is important to a lot of people’s lives.
When I was in high school, computer programming was a hobby of mine. Because it was something I did for fun, I spent my time making things I liked – websites and games, for example. I worked on what I wanted to when I wanted to, and no one really wanted or needed anything I was making, so I wasn’t in a rush. After programming so many websites, games, and school projects, it took me by suprise when I realized just how important DAXKO’s software is to our customers.  Soon after, I discovered that…

Making meaningful software feels good.
As fun as projects like command line blackjack and recursive factorial multipiers are, they just don’t feel all that important. Even my very first (and relatively small) contribution at DAXKO gave me a greater sense of accomplishment than entire projects had in the past. Knowing that the CEO of a multi-million dollar organization will someday look at my work is quite exhilarating. Also, solving the issues of our customers is inspiring because you’re helping real people solve real problems.

All in all, working at DAXKO has been an amazing experience in so many ways!