Reuse that problem

August 31, 2017

If learning is difficult given the little time we have, then teaching is even harder to do. Right? Thankfully there are simple ways to get going. Reuse the problem you had to solve during office hours.

Learning comes in many shapes and forms. One of them is teaching. After all, giving even a mere introduction forces you to go deeper into the subject. If you don’t, you will neither understand the area properly or be able to answer any follow-up questions. Now, that could be embarrassing. Luckily, there is a way to get around both the problem of lack of time and the need for deep insight.

Sooner or later you will run into problems that no oh-google-save-my-job search will solve. Those type of obstacles are possibilities in disguise if handled well.

Many hours later you found a way to solve it and feel good about yourself for at least five minutes. Most people then go on to the next problem, not picking up the possibility in front of your fingers. Remember, you found a hole on the internet? However small or niched problem it was still something that no one had solved and documented. You can be that person.

This insight is the big leap of mind. Writing half a blog is dead easy once you have put in the hours of sweat. If you can’t do it while still at work, do it that evening while you still remember it. It will not take that much time and eventually someone else will find that text and thank you for it.

That wasn’t too hard right? Imagine doing a few more times a year, and suddenly you will have a list of texts that both shares your knowledge and establishes your command of the subject. In my book, it carries a lot more weight than a line in the LinkedIn profile.

A colleague of mine used this approach at the big customer where he worked. We were both consultants so sharing knowledge mattered more than “just” the joy of it. After a while, he heard that other departments were discussing his insights during their monthly meetings. It goes without saying that he was quite happy when hearing this. All the while he was being paid for doing it and delivering better value as a consultant.

KFika – the smallest start to learning with coffee & bun

August 28, 2017

Having time to learn is vital. Estimates show that some areas need the fifth working day just to keep up. Real tough. Let’s turn to the time honored practice of fika to get started. 15 minutes of coffee and something small.

As we discovered in my previous blog, some people in the know estimate that we half of our knowledge loses its value in less than five years. For people within software engineering, it is even less than that. That is of course if we remember the half that still holds some value.
How on earth can we find time to learn? We are trapped between the half-life of knowledge and a deadline. There is always something to ship. Answer: start small.

For my part, I love to sit down with a cortado and a cinnamon bun. I’m not alone in this respect. In Swedish, there is even a word for it, fika. You can find groups of people having good strong coffee in Swedish offices. They will gather a couple of hours both before and after lunch.

So you have a group of colleagues meeting every day. All you need to do is pick a day of the week and let people know that you’re going to share knowledge (K). At the same time, you let them know that you are bringing cinnamon buns. They can’t refuse that. The receipt you put on expenses1. It is dirt cheap knowledge sharing.

We shouldn’t let the fika be free form. That can be tough to maintain over time. Given the short event and the particular format, I recommend going for low ambition. Don’t use slides or anything similar that takes preparations. Use the sit-down around a table to your advantage. Good choices are subjects like project management, principles of good programming, or similar. Anything that benefits from bringing real world experience to the table will work fine.

Or you could read a book, one chapter per week, and discuss that. Another way can be a round-robin where each participant would share something they learned in the previous week. This approach will take some more effort from you but is well worth it. You will cover lots of more ground. Nuggets of premium knowledge and serendipitous insights are bound to happen. If you want to start even smaller share something that your team has accomplished lately. It doesn’t have to be grand. Just get going with fika.

Final thought, don’t choose Friday afternoons. Everyone’s mind is on the coming weekend.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fika_(Sweden)

An Ex To-be

August 25, 2017

I graduated from Computer Science in my mid-twenties. As a 35-year-old programmer I was already a senior. Hitting forty I was a has-been in waiting, an ex to-be1. At fifty plus nobody believes I can program anymore. My conclusion; straight out from school we got to learn again …and again. But it’s not doom and gloom — on the contrary.

If it was possible to create a diagram of the competence over a life span, it would look something like this:

Figure: The life’s competence curve. Yellow curve: We go through education, work hard and then wait to die. Red curve: You’re promoted. Ouch.

Time is on the horisontal axis and vertical is the level of proficiency we master in our day to day job. The yellow line is the competence curve of the old good days. You spent a quarter of a century in education2 and then used that knowledge for the rest of your professional life. After that – from a professional competence point of view – you wait to die.3

Suddenly, one day you’re promoted. It could be that you’re called on the lead the team or department. There is one major problem though. You haven’t taken a single course in “Management 101” or “Leading by example”. Let alone regulations, benefits of diversity or …well, you see the problem. As you can imagine, your competence curves takes a major hit. After all, you spent all those years learning how to build bridges and whatnot.

Except this curve is not true any more. We don’t get to spend 40 years honing our skill set (or just one single role transition as described above).

Thomas Jones, an American professor at MIT, tried to estimate the “half-life” of an engineer. Or more correctly, he described the time it takes for half of your knowledge to be out of date and in dire need of an update4. He arrived at the figure of ten years. But yet, his estimate stems from 1966… Today some believe this knowledge decomposition to be less than five years. A software engineer comes in even lower — below three years5. This is all the more jarring since it usually takes half a decade for studies at university.

Principles of career

The Peter Principle6 states that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”. They stay at this level that they cannot handle. He argues that we promote people on the basis of their performance in their current role, not the new one. This applies to us all. Whatever worked before, we will try again until we no longer can perform adequately for a given higher position. This is when our careers stop. This does sound bad, but it still was the “golden” days of working. At least we hade some time to prepare for that new level of responsibility.

Enter the Dilbert Principle7. The cartoonist and author Scott Adams believes that corporations tend to promote the least competent people to management. The intent would be a way of minimising the damage that they might inflict on the organisation. It is a good dark joke, but with a grain of truth to it. A friend of mine described how she and a group of friends decided to start a company directly after graduation. They went around the table and dispensed the responsibilities. At the end they still had one role to fill and no takers.
– Oh, I can be the CEO then! If no one else wants it, she exclaimed.

We have entered an age where not even prior experience is needed. This of course has its upsides, opportunities come quicker than ever before. But still, it can be hurtful to learn on the job with real people as guinea pigs. My friend? She worked for five years as the CEO making the company grow. She learnt a lot.

The linear progression that was the norm during the Peter era, is now more akin to jumping stones. Back and forth, it can be hard to make out a pattern on certain people’s CV’s, but it usually is there. It could be a wish to change the world somehow somewhere. Or that you follow your friends as you evolve through different companies. The more extreme will end up with roles as plentiful as badges on a scout’s uniform.

Where does this leaves us?

Our knowledge that we built up in school will deteriorate — no matter what. We shift roles a lot more during our career.

We need, and are being forced, to make this the new default. Life long learning is a must. Schools must teach the art of learning — not just the various subjects. Organisations must search for new career paths that allows us to try out different roles. It can be done in a more safe way than the current drive-by-appoint-and-forget our new managers. Why not “CEO for a week” apprentice? Or “Undercover Janitor”?

Most importantly we need to incorporate learning as an ever ongoing — and fun — part of our jobs. It has to be a joy to evolve, otherwise we can’t keep doing it. It will just be too hard.

Thomas Jones also estimated how much time we need to invest to keep up. Over an engineer’s professional life span (s)he would need the equal of two extra engineer degrees beyond graduation8. That’s a lot and hard to comprehend. Translated into a work week, you would need to spend around half a day. Let us adjust to present half-life and to software engineering. We are looking at a day’s worth of learning — each working week of the year. Tough, but also some serious fun in my eyes.

That much learning on the job is tough to come by. Chances are that you toil away in a company that is not ready or willing to spend that much “not working”. I’ll dive deeper into what you can do about this in future blogs.

All doom and gloom for the “old”?

At the start of this blog I was a bit harsh about the life expectance of old developers. Are we obsolete by the time of 45? Absolutely not!

A survey looked into the effectiveness of different generations9. Turns out that the older generation (40-50 year olds) came in slightly better than the youngest generation (20-30) by a couple of per cent. The biggest differentiator was the ability to avoid making serious mistakes. So keep learning, keep harnessing those experiences. It will make you better as we all grow older.

  1. Swedish: blivande f.d.
  2. Assuming university level studies and, yup, I am counting parents as well.
  3. My apologies for being rude in making my point, of course old people learn 😉
  4. “Technical Obsolescence”, IEEE Spectrum http://xplqa30.ieee.org/xpl/tocresult.jsp?isnumber=5216873
  5. “Lifelong Learning for Engineers: Riding the Whirlwind”, National Academy of Engineering https://www.nae.edu/Publications/Bridge/LearningforEngineers/LifelongLearningforEngineersRidingtheWhirlwind.aspx
  6. The Peter Principle of promotion, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle
  7. The Dilbert Principle, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilbert_principle
  8. “An Engineering Career: Only a Young Person’s Game?”, IEEE Spectrum http://spectrum.ieee.org/riskfactor/computing/it/an-engineering-career-only-a-young-persons-game
  9. Darn, I know I have that article somewhere!

    While I’m looking, please enjoy “A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond”, NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/a-sharper-mind-middle-age-and-beyond.html

’98 and the Spreadsheet

December 14, 2016

Back in 1998 I received a spreadsheet from the Human Resource department (HR). We were to register our competencies. But, information technology is a vast area full of acronyms, so the text was way small to fit them all in a single page.

Some IT Skills entered into an Excel Spreadsheet.

Some IT Skills entered into an Excel Spreadsheet.

Figure: We had to fill out a out a spreadsheet from the HR department. No matter how good you were, chances are you will end up like me – with lots of empty cells.

Look at the image above, which is my own example. What can you see? Don’t worry about the small print. There is no need to read to be able too see what I felt.

I just didn’t know much!

Since there are so much to know within IT, I ended up with lots of empty cells. I could only draw one conclusion from all that white empty space. I knew almost nothing.

The whole effort ended up focusing on our weaknesses, even though they meant to find our strengths. The spreadsheet turned out to be a pathogenic model. My weaknesses were all too apparent.

Note, the HR department did not intend to put me down. They just didn’t consider the underlying message when they chose a spreadsheet as a tool to gather the data.

Resource!

What is it with the word “resource” that annoys me so? The term as such was invented in 18931. Even though it ‘celebrates’ some 120 years, that does not automatically make it wrong. The problem is that it promotes the idea of people as commodities. We are interchangeable parts in a big machine.

In a counter reaction to this, you can find “talent management” which is fine and all. In my eyes though, this is trying too hard. We are seeking to compensate for “resource” and other bad language like “human capital.” Why not keep it simple? Use words like people or colleagues.

Maybe you argue, that it is just a simple meta-construct, a layer of indirection, to refer to a bunch of things? There is power in words, and they go hand in hand with your thoughts. And if you think of people as resources, then you are likely to end up treating them as …things.

That spreadsheet bugged me a lot. I decided to go rogue. Between other projects, I created a system focused on people’s strengths – a salutogenic solution.

KKarta was my first competence development system. You can see the  competencies (skills) I have selected organized into categories.

KKarta was my first competence development system. You can see the competencies (skills) I have selected organized into categories.

Figure: KKarta was my first competence development system. You can see the competencies (skills) I have selected and their categories.

I hacked away and created a website where my colleagues and I could enter the list of skills we possessed. It was a simple change. Out of all possible skills, only the ones that applied to the person were visible.

After running the website locally in Malmö, a person from HQ passed by and noticed what we had done. I didn’t think much about it, but she was a member of management, and within short, the tool covered some 600 employees in 5 countries.

For the first time, we could figure out who knew what without walking the corridors. We could get to know each other across offices and borders. KKarta started to take on a life of its own and people begun to use it in ways I never imagined. Procurement figured out how many developers could have a use for Visual Studio which helped in negotiations with Microsoft. New employees printed the photo catalog as a “who’s who”.

In the end, I connected the system to our time reporting. Now I understood where we spent our hours working – which branch and technology were our forte.

What happened then?

In the end, I got a message from the HQ. Remember, back in the day of dot-com revolution, buying and merging companies was the norm. I forgot how many times this happened. I kept the same desk, but HQ was new.

“This is too important for us to handle ourselves. So we bought a solution from X instead.”

I got the news as an after thought via email from someone I did not know. My dear system was no longer. I was sad and out of the loop.

X was not a bad solution, they just did not focus the people. It was a system to match up the employees’ lack of a certain knowledge with the appropriate course. As such, we were back to book keeping.

HR,  err talent management, cannot be about what we lack. It should be about the individuals – our strengths and our wishes! Line these up with the company’s needs and you got a great driving force.

At the time of this writing, I am doing my fifth competence development system.  But that is another story.

Oh, X folded a year later. I guess they did not make enough money selling courses after all. 😉

Key take-away

Focus on people’s strengths – not their weaknesses. The latter is great to understand, but cannot be the focus.

What follows is that you have to act accordingly. But that is for another blog, another day.

  1. John R. Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_R._Commons

What – two years already!

November 30, 2016

It’s been busy as of late. And as usual, time flies. I notice that I haven’t written anything here for two years!
“Swooooosh.”
That’s the sound life makes when it passes you by. Remember to wave. 🙂

I could blame a host of things; I’m not.
My writing urge has been piling up over these years. Also, a friend of mine – Marcus Degerman (http://marcusdegerman.com) – has released a brilliant book “Solve problems together” and that inspired me to do the same.

First step: I hereby declare to continue getting my thoughts and beliefs into this blog. Hopefully, there’s a book waiting at the far end.

I’d love to get your feedback as I go forward.

Cheers,
/Björn

Speaking at Øredev with my Sis!

September 19, 2014

Fire meets IT. Or in other words, two nerds meet.

I’ll be giving a talk on a slightly different topic than usual – “How to Predict a Serial Arsonist”. This time it’s together with my sister Eva Ljungkvist. Who’s an accomplished fire engineer with lots of action based experience, like    …putting out fire and stuff 🙂

Here’s the talk on the X-Track at Øredev, see here.

It’s great fun working together in what turned out to be very cross discipline. I gain insight every time we meet into an area I knew next to nothing about. Using surprisingly simple “computer science” techniques goes a long way to dissect information about arson. Some notes can be found here (in Swedish).

Oh, I’m also doing the intros to keynotes this year. Me happy. It’s an impressive list!
Chris Noessel, Dan North, Keavy McMinn, Nile Rodgers, Brian Christian, Gary Bernhardt

See you at Øredev!

OredevBannerBig

You Inc

May 22, 2013

For a brief moment imagine yourself a simple product with a list of ingredients and an “on sale” sticker. What would happen? Why might this be the smartest thinking you’ve done lately – both for you, your family and your career?

Instant Dad

Figure: The nutrition list of a dad just happens to be close to a tin of baked beans. Who knew? Photographer: Bix Granvik, 8 years. 

This blog is not about love, feelings or human value. It is just a mind experiment to see what would happen if you thought about yourself as a product. So with an open mind, let’s look at the closest sales plan that you might need to create.

Selling the Daddy (or Mother) product

It’s been a long hard day at work. Most things went wrong. You got stuck in Mails & Meetings and nothing seemed to be going forward. Your colleagues let out their pent-up frustration straight into your lap. Thank you very much!

After an hour’s horrific commute you stand outside your front door. The family is in there and you got a choice – which product do you want to sell? Let’s do an A/B test.

A) The “this is I how feel” daddy
You step in and the shoes are in a mess in the hallway. You frown even more.
– Come and put the shoes in order! you yell into the kitchen.

Without being asked, you volunteer the day’s pile of fertilizer and don’t really pay any attention to your wife’s reply. Instead you pick up the mail rubble, unpack your computer for some late evening work and go to the bathroom for …well, some kind of “rest”.

Now ask yourself, how many days can you sell this Daddy product to your family?

B) The “this is how I want to feel” daddy
You take a deep breath and step in with a minor smile. Not because it is a correct reflection of your day, on the contrary. The smile is a token, an effort, of the feelings for your family and the love you have for them. Remember?

You take a big step over the pile of shoes (ignoring them for now) and pick up your youngest child. Yup, he needs changing of diapers.

Here’s a test you can do as a parent: You cuddle your baby on the changing table while speaking in that familiar baby language:
– Daddy had a poo day, a blabloblup day. But yo don’t care do u, blubiblub? while tickling your child.

You put on your best weak smile. Yeah, it feels like a fake one, but science has shown that even when faking a good mood it will increase the happiness levels in your baby [1]. Here’s the odd thing: When you cuddle and lovingly prod your child, he/she will start to chuckle. I bet you can not stand more than a couple of minutes of that bubbling laughter. Every time I did I this I would step out of the bathroom feeling a lot better – ready to really meet my family.

How many times to do you think you can sell this product to your family? To yourself?

What happened?

In some sense we are the “reflections” of both our own actions and that of the people surrounding us. The most effective tool you have for changing your environment, like your family or work       …is you.

When you tickled and spent time with your baby, you induced happiness into yourself. The bad day at the office didn’t go away, but you made the chances for a decent evening a lot better. And you need that to balance the Bad Stuff(tm) from the day.

Thinking of yourself as a tinned version of a dad, ready to ship, is not the truth. But it does help to realize that changing your actions will revert back to you via your loved ones. So it becomes more a question on how you take yourself to the next level. The next version of You Inc. You will enjoy You better.

The slow-mo insight

Guess what, this is not just mind experiment for home use and it doesn’t just have to do with being a dad or mum. Ask anyone younger than 30 how many “30 hour weeks” they do per year. Many of them work by the hour and that means total stand-by and constantly searching for jobs, i.e. being your own corporation. They might not use words like “sales plan”, but cold calling to find a few hours work is just that. [2]

So when you stand there in front of the door to your work: What kind of day do you want to have? What do you want to “sell”?

While experimenting with You Inc, please also remember that you are a true human being with lots and lots of potential and not just a product. Have fun!

/Björn

[1] Yeah right, like I would remember this reference. You just have to trust me, I read it somewhere. 🙂

[2] This effect is creeping up the ages and into the white-collar section of the work force. You have been warned. Check your own “productability” before you are forced to by someone or something else.

Distributed Teams: Wut “red” day!?

May 8, 2013

We’ve talked about time zones and examined the clock in a lightly distributed  team. That should be enough – right? Nope. There are other surprises like vacation  …and parental leave   …oh, and “red days”.

You might think that all of this is straight forward and regulated, or at least well-known. Well, it is probably “self-evident” per country, as in “evident to myself and no one else”.  Let’s serve up some examples on what might hit you.

Red as in a day off

“Red days” is the Swedish name for public holidays and comes from the ink used in most cellulose calendars. Red, public, bank – whatever your prefix is on the word “day”, it usually means “day off”. Just as the names differ, so do most things about them.

Countries like China/Hong Kong, Egypt and India and many more have roughly 15 public holidays off per year, but remember to take vacation into account when looking at these numbers [1]. Rules, tradition etc play important parts, some are on fixed dates, others move around a lot in the calendar. So, get to know your locales.

Another gotcha on public holidays: You can’t even trust that the “day” is a full day. In Sweden a day like Walpurgis (“Valborgsmässoafton”) and several more are in a “shady red”. Meaning it will be marked as a “day off” in the calendar, but not be regulated by law and instead up for negotiation. Most Swedish companies treat this as a half of a working day. But sometimes this is even more complicated. Some companies add an extra hour added to such a “half day” as to turn other “squeeze days” into vacation [2].

Oh, you can’t trust days off to be per country either. In New Zealand there is the “Auckland Anniversary Day” which celebrates the arrival of Captain Hobson [3] (yup, this public holiday the man the celebration himself). This day is only observed in the northern half of the North Island of New Zealand following some regional boundary abandoned in 1876. You can’t go local enough, right?

What to do:

  • Turn on public holidays in your favorite digital calendar, but don’t trust what you see there.
  • Set up some policy. Despite rules and regulations there is usually some interpretation to do.
  • Set expectations with the people in your team/company. I prefer to have people kick in when needed and letting “red days” mean time off.

Black as in nothing will happen – at all

“Black” is my name for those days. Whatever you might think, these days are off – whatever the calendar or law might say. Case in point: Mid Summer’s Eve[4]. The event marks summer solstice and is a common celebration in places like Scandinavia. If you lived here, you would understand why.

Copyright Midsummer by Carsten HvidHowever, the eve isn’t actually a public holiday in Sweden, at least not regulated by law.

Close to nothing will happen during this day – except pagan rituals like dancing around a strange pole dressed in green and flowers. And of course some drinking. (Photograph by Carsten Hvid)

Whatever you might think, you are not likely to change such a “black day”. Hint: Mid Summer’s Eve been like this since the stone age. The Christian church gave up and dug up saint St John to celebrate on the same day.

What to do:

  • Take a break and have fun!

Vacation – again?

Vacation length varies across the world – that we do expect. Regulated vacation could be anything from like a month down to   …nothing, as is the case in the US. (However, they tend to get two weeks.)
That is quite a difference. The differences do not stop at the number of days.

Sweden is at the very top of the “Statutory Vacation” list and often times you hear “you’re off again?” from colleagues abroad. [5] Consensus culture and a flexible vacation scheme make this worse and could block important decision-making for the major part of the summer. [6]

Culture plays a big role too and will affect your ability as a team to deliver. Take for instance the UK with less vacation length than the Swedes. When the latter go for vacation they clock out for an extended period. In my experience the brits tend to take their annual leave in bits over the year and typically extend weekends etc.

In some places where I’ve worked, work culture on the UK side made the people go into a semi-stealth mode when they approached holiday. Suddenly, with a heads up of just a couple of days, a small note would silently appear in the calendar. Or during your colleague’s vacation you just got your email got an auto reply saying “Sorry, but I’m away today on annual leave”. Surprise.

Your mileage is likely to vary, but do take local customers and rules into account when you plan your support and deliveries.

What to do:

  • Plan! A simple Google doc where you note please vacation goes a long way. A common calendar might work if you’re a small team, but doesn’t scale.
  • Specify. Where I’ve worked we typically went glocal, meaning we usually followed the laws and tradition per country. People plan their lives around these days and trying to set some standard across board is usually not worth the effort.

Collecting daddy/mommy points

You might have a team of juniors and seniors. Both are valuable in different ways. But their lives could affect work. They might be into an extended party period or they might be into babies. (I love kids, please have some!)

As you might suspect there could be consequences for your team [6]. This varies a lot, but I’ll use Sweden and fathers as an example. The parental leave here are among the best in the world and society is changing quickly. I do see signs of similar improvements on various levels in other countries.

I’ve taken two paternity leaves of them myself nearly a decade ago, each on the order of three to four months. They we’re great. Today, within IT, I typically see the guys taking closer to half a year. That is a big shift in a rather a short period.

All of this is very different across countries. But I’m sure that it does affect your team somehow.

What to do:

  • Read up on rules and regulations per locale.
  • Help the parents to solve their life puzzles. You will get loyal colleagues and their help late in the night.
  • Plan. In SE: Having a baby today means two weeks off for the father and, a year from now, several months of paternity leave.

Finally

When it comes to handling things like time and vacation etc in a distributed team it usually works the best if you go multinational, not international – in others words, adapt. In my view there are too many problems in standardizing. Just plan and make it transparent to the team. You got other goals that are more important.

I think I covered as much as I can handle – and probably you too – on the subject of distributed teams and time.

Next blog up: What’s the secret ingredient in just about any method/dogma that promises to save your distributed team?

/Björn

[1] Top ten countries with the most public holidays

[2] “Squeeze day” – a day that land in between regular public holiday and a weekend. Thus, they are very interesting to turn into a day off and have a long weekend.

[3] Captain Hobson and the Auckland Anniversary Day

[4] Midsummer

[5] Annual leave

[6] Consensus does have its advantages though, like the ability to get a group to work towards one single goal. But that’s another blog.

Distributed Teams: …and the Clock is a Hound Dog

May 3, 2013

So you’re a nice guy – right? And you want to find good time for a recurring meeting with your team. In my previous post I had a tip on how to find any possible sweet spots when the team could meet. This time around it should be easier? We just need to find a single bona fide rendezvous during office hours. Surprise (not), it’s harder than you might think.

Let’s first define the traits of a “normal” distributed team.

  • a decently sized team, say around seven
  • normal spread of seniors and juniors
  • only two offices – Stockholm and London – which is only one hour time difference.

That’s a fairly easy set up, right? I’m just going to point to a couple of possible snags. We have seniors in this mix. That probably means some might be parents. And of course remember the usual blend of culture and late mornings. And we do want the team that is awake and ready to go.

Chopping up that clock

Given that I think and live in CET-land (GMT+1) I’ll use that as the base for the clock. First, let us set the frame for the “office hours”. It is probably something like 8:00 to 16:00 (4 pm), see a) in the figure below. We could argue that 17:00 (5 pm) would be a more decent finish time, but then again most companies within high-tech run flexible hours. The latter is especially true if it’s a startup. You probably prefer for people to kick in and save the day, however late it might be.  So the team mixes the times for coming and going.

As luck would have it, some devs in your crew are singles. This means late mornings and our day start at around 09:00 (CET), see b). But then again the same is likely in the UK, hence add another hour for the time zone difference, see c). We’re now at 10:00 (CET).

Lunch, we don’t want to meet during lunch. Swedes wander off to find carbon-hydrates at around mid day, but there is problem lurking here.  It’s good example of what I would call a “cultural time zone difference“. To my surprise I found that the English would eat starting their 1 PM (14:00 CET), see e). Nothing wrong with that, but it does make the hour in between the lunch periods less useful. Do you want to risk a late lunch in Sweden to collide with hungry English waiting for the meeting to start?

The Hound Dog ClockFigure: The Hound Dog Clock for the team (GMT+1).
a) sleep or just not in the office 
b) late morning
c) late in the UK too
d) SE off to lunch
e) oops cultural gap, UK off to their lunch
f) dodgy green (see more below)
Result: Only one decent green period left.

That leaves one green period between c) and d) and of course f). Just one other problem though, remember I wrote we had a mix of seniors and juniors. Some of the senior devs need to pick up their kids from the day care center. That probably means they need to leave at around 16:00 (4 pm CET).

Except, one of them has a long commute, like an hour. Which means that for half of the week this dev needs to leave at 15:00 (but he/she does get in real early, like 07:00 when nobody else is around *).

Finally

Even though this scenario did not have very strange constraints, we still landed with only one decent green period during the day, 10:00-12:00 CET and a possibly false green late in the afternoon. That’s not much.

You would have to look at your team and your setup to see which possible greens you have. Understand your people, tweak expectations and agree on some compromise, that should get you some more green.

/Björn

* Disclaimer: I’m the proud father of three and I’ve tried to evenly split the picking up/leaving kids through the years with my wife. It ain’t easy.

Distributed Teams: Time Zones are a bitch

May 2, 2013

Time zones are deceptively easy. I mean how hard can it be to detract or add a few hours? Well, it turns it is tough – real tough. Here’s a tip on how to figure out when people in different time zones can meet.

Why is it so hard?

The arithmetic might be easy, but it’s easy to get confused when try to figure out who has switched to summer time and if the mail thread is still talking in CET or PST. Then there is culture and just plain personal preference which make things even harder.

The trick is to look beyond the zones themselves. It’s not a question of figuring out “office time in KL vs. SF” – it’s all about the peeps. The goal is to match people’s lives against each other.

Here’s a simple tip on how to figure out when people can meet.
The short story: Get people’s preferred meeting times, a.k.a their “profiles”, assemble the team(s) and average everyone’s pain levels. Finally build a “meeting pain” diagram where the valleys are the sweet spots you’re looking for.

For the longer explanation we need some spreadsheet magic. In the first tab we collect everyone’s preferences, their profiles. We will reused further on.

profiles

Figure: The first tab in this time zone sweet spot analysis contain all the people. They have entered their typical daily “profile”, i.e. when it’s ok to disturb them or not. Hint: red is no good.

The tab we organise according to the time zones. The dark grey top left cell “12” is New Zealand time zone (GMT+12), then onwards through Malaysia (GMT+8) and so on. Note that GMT+0 is the point of reference and the other time zones merely say the corresponding hour. To the far right you can find the people in California (to the right of “-8”).

Invite the people and ask them to rate the hours on a typical day throughout the 24 hours. Yeah, this is for startup purposes – it’s a hard life around the clock. Now you can align people’s lives, not just their time zones.

Side note: The column “Combo GMT+1” is just a handy way to understand the joint profile of the people working in Sweden in this case.

Team X

Figure: On a new tab we assemble the people needed for “Team X”. It is a simple case of creating references to columns in the first tab. To this we add a summing up column “Meeting Pain”, see far left.

On this second tab above we collect the people to join Team X. It is slightly tedious to copy and paste the references, but once you get the hang of it it’s straight forward work. Next step is to introduce a column “Meeting pain” where you calculate the average of the participants for every hour. The GMT+0 column is there so that we can have a normalised x-axis in the diagram we’re creating.

Meeting Pain

Figure: Finally we arrive at the diagram. Lower is better, less pain to meet.

This team’s sweet spot is around 8 o’clock in the morning (GMT) with a runner-up 12 hours later at 20:00 CET just before the eastern person “BB” goes to bed.

In conclusion: By relating people’s lives via time zones – everyone thinks about their life in their zone – we stand to figure out when they are more likely to meet.

Oh, and a surprise insight: In principle I could only find two types of profiles – parent or not.

Two Types of ProfilesFigure: Two types of profiles – those with kids (DD) and those without (EE).

In the figure to the left we can see examples of the two types. Person “DD” is a typical parent – morning time is early and the dinner is sacred, but then this person typically makes up for a bad (work) conscience by kicking in later that evening.

The other type “EE” has no kids and sleeps a bit later in the morning, but has no qualms about meeting and eating. However, this type of person prefer to round off the evening without work.

With three kids of my own, I can certainly understand both DD and EE…

/Björn

Ps. I almost forgot. Here’s an example Google spread sheet page if you want to copy it:
http://bit.ly/12sg6R7