Just Give Me the Steps

“Just give me the steps I need to know to get my job done. I don’t really care about why those are the steps or what else you can do with the software/tool/machine. I don’t care about your videos or your in-class training sessions. Just give me the steps in a nice neat printed list that I can use and let me get out of here.” Does that sound like one of your training classes? While I hope not, that attitude toward training has become increasingly prevalent.

We provide SharePoint training to what I sometimes call ‘reluctant’ users. These are users that were told they had to come to class because they are now responsible for their department or project sites. They never built a web site before in their lives and their only familiarity with on-line web sites is when they go to MSN to check the latest news, visit Facebook or go download their e-mail. Their approach to learning how to build web sites with web parts, content editing, approval workflows and page layout issues is a cross between fear, dread, and loathing. But now they sit in your class with arms crossed just waiting for time to pass. You can tell the ones pretty quickly. They are on their phone, not to text back what they are learning to their staff, but rather to play Candy Crush or Flappy Bird. Sometimes they are just sitting in the back of the room talking to their co-captives about where they can go eat when the class breaks for lunch.

Of course, not everyone falls into that category. Some people come to training sessions excited about what they are about to learn and anxious to implement their new skills when they leave. But those few people who really do not want to be there tend to ‘poison the well’. I tend to favor explaining the concepts behind how different aspects of the software system work so that people can adapt those concepts to new situations, often in ways that I would not have anticipated since I do not intimately know all aspects of their jobs. And these shining stars exist and it is for them that people who do training get the most job satisfaction.

However, over the years (and I have been teaching computer classes since the days of the TRS-80 and Apple II) there have always been those who want some kind of magic list of all the steps they need to do, complete with illustrations, for the very specific task they need to accomplish at the moment. Perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I consider this approach more of a one-on-one mentoring or custom training. I have even seen computer books written like cookbooks with step-by-step instructions on how to solve specific problems. However, these books do not help much when your problem falls outside of the narrow scope of the examples covered. Therefore, it is my opinion that it is not the goal of a general training class to provide a cookbook style set of instructions to using a programming language or a very generic piece of software such as Word, Excel, or even SharePoint.

I do recognize that times have change and different people learn in different ways. To that extent, I tend to encourage the use of a combination of classroom style training along with written documentation, whitepapers, websites, and videos. I also recognize that no matter what approach is used for an individual training class, those individuals that really do not want to be there will always find fault in something about the way the training was conducted. One might say the material covered was too general while the next person may say that it was too complex. Someone else may complain that the pace of covering the material was too fast for them to keep up while someone else may comment that they only got to the ‘good’ stuff by the end of the day. Some people protest when new functionality is introduced by using written documentation only because they are visual learners. Yet others at in-person class training lament that they could have gotten the same information from written instructions and would have been done in half the time and then they would have something to go back to later. We have even had people complain that videos of the training they are currently attending and can watch over and over again do not help them learn how to do their specific job.

I suppose the comment that bugs me the most is when people complement us on our training generally, but then follow that up with a ‘but’, such as, “The training was great, but it did not show me the exact steps I needed for my job.” So I sat back last night and wondered whatever happened to the need to learn fundamentals first so that the person could apply what they learned to any situation. You learn the fundamentals on how to drive so that you can drive on any road. Similarly, learning the fundamentals of how to play an instrument allows a musician to pick up any music sheet and learn to play that song. Of course, you could argue that merely knowing the fundamentals of a sport will not make you an Olympic medal winner. Simply knowing how to drive will not land you the poll position at the next Daytona 500. Nor will your ability to read sheet music make you the next pop super star. However, in all cases, a firm grasp of the fundamentals were a necessary starting point for those who do succeed.

So will I change the way I approach training software? Probably not substantially. I believe that approaching your job, if it is knowledge based, requires more than just the ability to follow a set of pre-defined steps. There typically is not enough time or infrastructure to support building the style of ‘cookbooks’ lists for each knowledge-based task that you might find in manufacturing tasks. In additional providing a combination of in-person training along with printed documentation and videos for every possible alternative is not always feasible, especially not for small organizations or teams. Maybe we need to place a greater emphasis on learning the fundamentals so we can apply that knowledge to whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. Perhaps that should also factor into our hiring practices by looking for people who show that they have been adaptable to changes and new systems in the past and have a demonstrated willingness to learn and succeed.

C’ya later.

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It Is Just Too Hard … NOT!

I saw my first glimpse of Windows 8 over six months ago at a local SharePoint Saturday event and shortly after that downloaded and installed the beta on my laptop to start getting familiar with it.  I cannot tell you that there were no challenges.  The first thing I noticed was that the original beta version would not work with my wireless.  However, that was a known issue.  I also had trouble finding where some features were located such as the Control Panel and basic screen settings.  Fortunately I knew from the demo that the Start button was gone and that you could easily get to the desktop by clicking the Desktop tile on the new interface or moving the cursor to the lower left corner to display a popup image of the desktop.  I later found that the keyboard Windows button also toggled me to and from the desktop that has become my method of choice since then.  My biggest frustration though was attempting to shut down the machine that first night.  Indeed, it took me an embarrassing around of time to find the power off option (without just flipping the power switch), but I did learn where other things were in the process.

Would I say that the process was too hard?  No more so than using any other new device.  I am sure we have all gone through the process of learning our way around our new smart phone.  Some of us may have even repeated this exercise a few times using Blackberries, IOS, and Android devices.  Did we stop using the new phone because it was too hard or did we just focus on the learning task and before we knew it, we became proficient with our new device?  We also have learned how to program our coffee pots to have a hot cup of coffee ready for us when we wake up in the morning.  We also learn how to use the radio/CD player in our new car and even how to program our VCR/DVR boxes (or at least some of us no longer have a blinking 12:00).

True, there are some people who do not or will not adapt to change.  Back in the last century when I was doing mostly FoxPro work, I lost touch with several friends when Microsoft introduced an object oriented version of FoxPro, FoxPro 3.0.  They had trouble converting to an object approach to programming with its focus on properties, methods, and events.  But the rest of us adapted.  Some of us even had the foresight (or luck) to gain some object experience a few years earlier by playing with the early versions of Microsoft Access.  (Ok, not true object oriented, but object-like).

Another good example, and a more recent one, was when Microsoft Office switched from their earlier hierarchy menu structure for commands to use a ribbon interface that only surfaces the features that you need (or even make sense) when you need them.  A lot of people complained about that change too, but I suspect few if any today would willingly go back to the older menu command structure.

There are some people who say that software companies like Microsoft keep changing their software so we have to pay for upgrades.  More likely, the answer is that developing a good user interface is more the combination of experience learned from each iteration and need to get something out to the public rather than to keep waiting until they develop the absolute best software ever, an ideal that no one ever reaches.  Limitations of software and hardware as well as our own human limitations to inventiveness lends itself to an iterative approach for most things.

Another way to look at things is that as hardware and software capabilities increase making previous tasks easier, users demand more functionality that continues to push software design to its limits.  The first version of dBase after all consisted of nothing more than just a dot prompt, something that was not always obvious when looking at the screen.  We would never accept that today.  However, the transition from that simple dot prompt to today’s modern user interfaces was if nothing else a series of steps, not all of which were always well accepted (remember Microsoft Bob?)  Evolution takes time.  Occasionally a product that comes out that may be revolutionary, so different and so much better and more useful than anything before that it sets the world on fire.  Some might point to the iPad as an example.  However, even here there has been an evolution of tablets and other handheld devices including the Apple Newton that all contributed their pros and cons to what eventually became a resounding success.

And did anyone say the iPad was too hard to learn or too different from the standard Macintosh interface of its day?  Perhaps it is more of a question of people’s desire to learn something new and their perceived view of the benefits of that new technology.  In addition, some people like to explore the boundaries of their knowledge and challenge their creativity.  Some see learning new technology as ‘fun’.  In some ways, this desire to learn new things is like the desire of explorers of past centuries who wanted to see what was over the next mountain, beyond the desert’s barren landscape, or on the other side of that body of water that they could not see across.

Or maybe we just do not do a good job at training people in new technology.  Recently I spent a lot of time in hospitals with my wife.  The amount of technology in health care has exploded.  In fact, one nurse said that much of her training to become a registered nurse was spent learning how to work with all the technology.  And yes, these people do learn the technology, technology that we might say is ‘too hard’.  However, the training is there for them and so is the desire or goal of becoming a registered nurse.

So when you go out to buy Windows 8, what training is included?  Who shows you how to navigate around the new screens?  Unless you are really into technology, where is the incentive if all you want to do is to get out to Facebook or check your email?  The answer and problem is that you have to hunt for it on your own be searching the Internet or looking for local training classes.  So maybe the problem is not that the technology is too hard.  After all, you do not have to be an auto mechanic to learn how to drive.  Rather that the training is either hard to find, too expense, or does not seem relevant to why you need to use a computer in the first place.  Ultimately, I maintain that nothing is too hard with the proper training and the time to use that training to develop new knowledge and skills.  Think about that until next time.

C’ya.

What If Race Really Didn’t Matter?

I don’t know about you, but it sure seems that the more politicians try to claim that race doesn’t matter, the more it seems to matter.  Recently the state of Florida issued some new achievement goals as part of their new five-year plan.  Rather than stating some overall achievement goal, the State Board of Education chose to tie the achievement goals to race.  Here are the numbers.

By 2018, the State Board of Education wants 90% of Asian students, 88% of white students, 81% of Hispanic students and 74% of black students to be reading on grade level.  For math, the numbers are 92%, 86%, 80% and 74% respectively.  The first question should be, “Where are we today?”  For reading, the numbers are 76% for Asian, 69% for White, 53% for Hispanic and 38% for blacks.  For math, the numbers are 82% for Asian, 68% for White, 55% for Hispanic and 40% for black.  The second question might be, “How much improvement is needed?”  The following table shows the increase in percentage for each racial group.

Racial Group

Area

Today

2018

Increase

% increase

Asian

Reading

76

90

14

18.4

Asian

Math

82

92

10

12.2

White

Reading

69

88

19

27.5

White

Math

68

86

18

26.5

Hispanic

Reading

53

81

28

52.8

Hispanic

Math

55

80

25

45.4

Black

Reading

38

74

36

94.7

Black

Math

40

74

34

85.0

It is the last column of this table that you really want to look at.  This column shows the percent increase in the number of students in each racial and test area that must be achieved.  Unless I am missing something, there are very big expectations for some races and relatively little expectations for others. 

In any case, I first want to say that it would be ideal if when you looked at race, that achievement scores were comparable across the board.  But the fact of the matter is, they are not.  Simply defining a performance goal to narrow the gap between the best performing races and the worst performing races may not be the entire answer.  It implies that schools and teachers will need to spend more time with some racial groups to meet these goals while ‘ignoring’ the other groups.  As much as some people might say that will not happen, the fact remains that even teachers only have 24 hours in a day and of that, they only have the students for about a third of that time.

The Florida Education Commissioner, Pamela Stewart, has been quoted in the Miami Herald as saying that “Florida believes every child can learn.”  No doubt.  However, I think we need to ask the following questions.  Does every child want to learn?  Is every child motivated by their home, friends, and family to learn?  Does every child have a goal for what they want to do in life?  Or do they just go through the motions, day after day, school year after school year hoping things will eventually all work out.  Hope is not a plan (Sorry Mr. President).  I submit that if the answer to either of these questions is no, perhaps a better challenge for society is to determine why some children may not want to learn and are not motivated to learn.  Without solving this fundamental problem, progress may be limited. 

Case in point.  I know of a student a few years back who did not perform to grade level expectations in high school.  Suddenly, this student started doing much better in his studies.  When asked what changed, his response (paraphrased) was that he had to do better in school now so he could get a good job when he graduated in a few months so he could support his new baby boy.  Ok, perhaps not the best motivation, but at least it was motivation that turned him around to be a contributor to society rather than a drain on society. 

I know of another student who when asked why she did not try to do better in school replied that all she wanted to do when she got out of school was to work with her Mom being a hair dresser and all that study ‘stuff’ would not mean a thing anyway.

Another student was just biding time until graduation until he could join his father painting houses.  When shown how knowing basic geometry could help him calculate how much paint to buy to paint a house, he suddenly became interested in doing geometry problems.

Motivation!  Nothing drives people to success more than this one factor.  Do some racial groups motivate their children more than others?  Perhaps.  If that is a real factor, how can we provide more motivation to all students?  How can we bring successful people from different racial groups into schools to motivate students to find the success that is within them just looking for a way to express itself?  How can we increase the motivation that must also come from home, family and friends?  Maybe schools could consider evening or weekend seminars for parents on, ‘How to Motivate your Child to Success’.  Maybe there are other ways that you can come up with.  Your local schools are waiting to hear from you.

Of course, as in all of my Tuesday rants, this is just my opinion and not the opinion of my employer or anyone else.  Fundamentally, I applaud the ultimate goal of the state to close the gap between the percentage of students scoring at or above their grade level by all students regardless of race.  But by making race the central point of these goals, it has done more to cause dissension between the races than to bring the races together in unity.  

What if race didn’t matter?  What if we looked at raising student achievement by motivating students to find ways that they can make a difference in our world without regard to race?  What if we could motivate each and every student to work hard for their own success?  What a different county this could be.

C’ya next time.

Evaluating Competency

Today the State of Florida released the test scores for the 4th grade writing test.  Results were to say the least, disappointing.  The number of students with a passing score (which means a 4 or higher on a 6 point scale) fell from 81 percent last year to 27 percent this year.  Everyone has their thoughts on why this number fell so low and I will not add or subtract from those theories.  However, reading the local Sentinel newspaper, I found several groups who did offer suggestions and so I turned to my Magic 8 Ball to evaluate them.

The state made the scoring harder this year.  Fourth grade students are expected to use correct spelling and grammar and to present logical arguments backed with evidence from the reading.   Others might ask how many professional writers today could create books or even simple articles without the help of built-in spell checkers and grammar checkers in programs like Microsoft Word and other similar computer based word processors.  I admit that I depend on their help.  On the other hand, how important is it to think critically, analyze a situation, and answer questions backed with the details from the story.  Since the state has not indicated at this time how much of the grade is based on spelling, grammar, or logical presentation, I asked the Magic 8 Ball how important these changes were and it said, “Ask again later.”

Some suggest that the state may have evaluated the writing too harshly considering they were grading fourth graders, not high school students.  One write-in reader offers the opinion that “parents don’t want to admit their kid can’t spell, or string a sentence together with any kind of cohesive thought.” I rolled the Magic 8 Ball across my desk and when it stopped, I read, “Reply hazy, try again.”

Another reader wrote in to suggest that maybe if students spent more time with their studies rather than texting or going out to Facebook, they would have done better.  If texting and Facebook had just been introduced in the past year, he might have a point, but both have been around for several years.  Does that mean that spending time on texting and Facebook is not a factor or it is that the effect is only kicking in now?  Again, turning to the Magic 8 Ball, it hesitated before saying, “Cannot predict now.”

Will these results add more fuel to the fire for groups like FairTest who oppose standardized testing and will they call for a further investigation into the value of these testing methods?  I tossed the Magic 8 Ball into the air and when I caught it, it said, “Most likely.”

Finally, will the state somehow amend these test results so as to not skew the overall school results too much lowering the school ratings leading to more ‘F’ schools and fewer ‘A’ schools.  I spun the Magic 8 Ball like a top, and when it finally stopped spinning, I saw the answer, “Outlook not so good.”

All kidding aside, this is a serious issue that will affect the future of these students.  Will they feel like failures or will it encourage them to try harder.  With one last shake of the Magic 8 ball, it replied in a hushed tone, “Better not tell you now.”

C’ya Saturday for a technical blog on building cubes in SSAS.

For those who want to read the Orlando Sentinel article, you can find it at: http://bit.ly/JXR1G7.

Flipping the Classroom

I was scanning through iTunes for a podcast to listen to over the weekend and found an interesting one on TED Talks.  The one I finally settled on had an interesting title: Let’s use Video to Reinvent Education presented by Salman Khan at TED 2011.  Perhaps you might think that I found the title interesting because I work for a school district.

Not really.

I found it interesting because I’ve always been a self-learner.  Except my idea of being a self-learning was buying books and magazines and reading them.  Of course, more recently it has been e-books and Internet sites.  The speaker, Salman Khan talked about flipping the classroom.  In essence, he meant that through the use of training videos stored on U-Tube, students would get their lecture at home, not in the classroom.  In the classroom, they would focus on ‘homework’ where they could ask questions from their peers or the teacher when they got stuck on a topic.

What a concept.  How many of you have sat in a classroom listening to a teacher drone on in a monotone voice better suited for putting you to sleep than paying attention to the subject.  Or maybe you had a teacher or professor like I had in one of my college math class who wrote equations with one hand while he erased them with his other hand.  Most of us were so busy trying to write down everything he wrote on the board that I don’t think any of us remember more than two words that he spoke during the entire semester.

So I’m sitting on the living room sofa watching this video and thinking, ‘If only I had a tool available like this when I was high school and college.’  Imagine being able to pause your teacher when you just became so over-saturated with the words coming out of their mouth that they were beginning to blur into a dull background noise.  Now imagine hitting a pause button on your teacher to take a few minutes to digest what was said before continuing.  Or maybe your teacher introduced a topic today that referred to something covered last week, last month, or even last year.  Maybe you did not quite get it then, but you need to understand it now in order to move forward.  Just replay that old video and watch it again or maybe watch it several times until you do get it.  No one is counting how many time you re-watch the video. Imagine trying to do that to your live teacher.  On second thought, I’d rather not.  Once was enough.

At the time the video was recorded during TED 2011 the site: www.khanacademy.org had a little over 2,200 videos on topics ranging from math to science to history, but when I check the site last weekend, they said they have over 3,000 videos and even have videos on finance and economics.  They claim they have over a million students a month viewing their videos and that number is growing.

Of course this site would be great if you have kids currently in school even if only as a supplement to their regular class, especially to cover topics they are having problems with.  In fact, some school districts (not ours) are experimenting with using the videos on this site to replace or at least partially augment their regular classes.  But here is the cool thing.  Even adults like you and me can go out to this site and learn (relearn?) these topics so that when your kids ask a question, you might even be able to explain what an integral means or how to evaluate a polynomial.  You might even find some of these classes enjoyable for the sake of just simple self-enrichment.  Maybe you always wanted to learn a little about art history, astronomy, or perhaps you want to understand venture capital, the Geithner Plan or the Paulson Bailout.  Maybe you just want to get a basic understanding of banking and money or you just want to make some sense out of current economics.  I found some interesting and timely videos on how China affects our economy.

All of that is great, but there is another part to this site.  Students who take classes through this site can take tests.  But in these tests, the student has to score a perfect 10 questions in a row before they can move on to the next module.  Why?  Well, as Salman says, what happens when a student gets only 70% of the questions right, or even what happens to the student who gets 95% of the questions right?  If you guess that they get moved on to the next topic without any real attempt to fill in those knowledge gaps, you are right (and can move on).  The problem is this ‘swiss cheese’ approach to knowledge eventually catches up with even the best students as they need to understand 100% of earlier topics to master new topics.  (Imagine only knowing 95% of the alphabet.)  This would seem to make perfect sense.

Yes this system is self-paced and depends a great deal on the motivation of the student, but if conducted in a ‘class’ setting, there is also a peer factor that will create a healthy competative environment.  Reports are available for the teacher to identify which students are having problems with different topics.  The teacher can then spend class time either inviting other students who have completed a particular module to help other students who are struggling with it.  If it is a new module for all students, of course the teacher can provide that same mentoring.  The site also provides ways for parents and even non-parent volunteers to join the site and serve as mentors or coaches.  This means that you could be helping not just your own kids, but perhaps you could be helping someone on the other side of the world learn geometry.

I don’t know if there are other sites like this, but if any of my readers know of any, please post information about them in the comments for all of us to benefit.  Oh, did I mentions using the site is FREE!  So how does the Khan Academy make money to pay salaries and provide a site like this that handles hundreds of thousands of students a day?  Well I haven’t been able to find absolute proof of it, but based on the videos available about the academy, it appears that Bill Gates and/or his foundation are providing the ‘grant’ or investment money to get this concept up and running.  And if that is the case, then I have to give a big salute to Bill for supporting a very noble and worthwhile cause.

I’m going to end this post here because there are a couple of videos I want to watch about current economics.

See you all Saturday for our next weekly technical topic.

The Coming Educational Software War

Back in the days before there were PCs, before Microsoft existed as a mega-force in the software industry, there were Apple II computers, TRS-80s and the Commodore PET.  Ok, for the purist, Microsoft did exist, but they were still trying to find their way in 1980 creating a XENIX operating system for the Intel 8086 and trying to get a contract with IBM to develop an operating system and some programming languages.  Anyway, I had been out of high school for several years and had been asked to participate in a committee consisting of school staff and community members to evaluate and choose a personal computer platform for a computer lab.

 

During the first two meetings of the committee, we saw presentations by representatives for  Commodore and Radio Shack with both showing off their best educational software for these new personal computers.  Ok, by today’s standards, that software was pretty primitive.  But you’ve got to remember that most personal computers of the day had maybe 16K and worked with only a handful of colors on screens that were forty characters wide by 23 lines or less of text.  The next meeting was going to be the local computer store’s chance to show off the Apple II.  Having bought an early Apple II that supported only Integer BASIC natively, I was an early Apple computer advocate (My first book was for the Apple II).  So I talked with the store owner to see what software he wanted to show.  It was sad.  I had seen a lot more interesting software from our local Apple computer user’s group.  So I suggest that he talk to the group to see what they might suggest.  The result was several of the group’s members helped do a presentation of some of the latest educational software for the Apple II and the Apple II was ultimately selected by the school for its first personal computers.

 

It seemed like Apple Computer also independently realized that the market for personal computers could be driven by students who used computers in schools and then would demand to use the same computers when they started working.  Of course, we know that IBM was not going to let Apple Computer take the entire market.  But the interesting thing to notice is that Apple computers still dominate many school classrooms although the generic PC (now no longer built by IBM) has gained market share.  While Apple may have lost its way for several years, the latest Apple Computers and now the iPhones and iPads are commanding increased attention not only in schools, but in businesses as well.

 

So what is the point of this trip down memory lane?  My answer is: “Follow the money.”  And money is something that most school districts do not have a lot of right now.  Across the country, school districts have to make critical decisions on how to spend their dwindling allocations from taxes, tuition, and other income sources.  At the same time, students are demanding an increase in the technology they use to learn.  Most students bring some type of electronic device to school.  Some may have their own computers, iPads, or other tablets, but almost all of them have some type of smartphone that can connect to the Internet.   Many school districts have resisted this trend and have tried to prohibit students from bringing in their own electronic devices.  Ultimately this will be as effective as the VP of Information at a company I started at many years ago absolutely forbidding any department from purchasing or bringing in the early IBM PCs to work because after all, they were just toys and no one would ever do any real work on them.  Ultimately, he was forced into retirement.  Similarly, school districts who try to resist this tidal wave of student’s need to work through and with electronic devices will cause these districts to lose their best students as they transfer to private schools that are more enlightened.

 

But some school districts are already adapting.  They are promoting BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to class and are finding ways to provide more instruction electronically.  In the state of Florida, there is a requirement to deliver a major percentage of education materials electronic within the next few years.  Most districts are not ready for this.  Some have their heads in the sand hoping the requirement will go away.  Well, it won’t go away.  It’s time to adapt or become irrelevant.

 

A related issue is the software that will be used to support these students with their diversity of devices.  It will be difficult to mandate specific software products unless they work across multiple devices and are available at very little cost or free.  Google is already attending educational conferences like FETC to promote Google Docs and their related family of products and tools.  Microsoft has made available Sky Drive and versions of their four most popular office products (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) through Office Web Apps.  Other companies are assembling on-line tools for email, collaboration and safe social networking for students.  Many products work with Twitter, U-Tube, and FaceBook, while some districts still actively block student access to these sites effectively making them unusable as a classroom tool.  Yes, there is a lot of inappropriate material on these sites and society expects our school to protect the children from them.  But we all know they still get to these sites from their personal devices and from devices in their homes.  It may be up to these companies or others to develop save sites to provide the same social networking.  Actually, some of these already exist.

 

So what is the answer?  I really think it is going to come down to who will give the best deal to educational institutions.  When you have no money, loyalty to products of the past means nothing.  You may even find yourself scrapping systems you used in the past because you can no longer afford to pay the maintenance fees or royalties.  In any real business decision, it really doesn’t matter how much you spent in the past on hardware or software.  The ONLY thing that matters is what it will cost you to supply those services in the future.  If you are using Oracle databases and SQL Server is cheaper, you’ll switch.  If you can get by with MySQL, you may switch.  If you cannot afford to pay the licensing on Microsoft Office, maybe Google Docs or Open Office will be your choice.  In some ways, it does not even matter if these are the best choices.  When you have no money, they may be your only choices.  What will happen to your staff if you make these switches?  Will an Oracle DBA want to work with MySQL or will they leave to work somewhere else using their skills and getting paid significantly more?

 

Education technology is at a turning point, a turning point driven by money or the lack of it.  Eventually this trend will translate into the products that students of today will want to use in their future workplace. While I personally don’t particularly care for many of Google’s policies especially related to privacy, perhaps they understand this trend better than others and they are poised to fight for this market.  I wonder who else is?

 

2012 – A Year For Innovation

According to Wikipedia, Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas.  When thinking about a New Year’s resolution, I thought that making it a year of innovation would be perfect.

Think about this.  Is your job merely responding to the needs and wants of others?  Do you find yourself doing nothing more than responding to other people’s problems?  When was the last time you came up with a new idea, a new process, or a new technique that went beyond merely helping someone get their job done the same way that it has been done for months or even years?  When was the last time you were able to transform the way they do their job to save you or them time or money?

If you cannot remember, it has been too long.

Perhaps another way to look at this question is to ask whether management in your organization thinks of you, assuming they think of you at all, as merely someone who comes in and gets their job done, or do they look at you as an innovator coming up with new ways to do things that can save time and money.  Why is this important?  In an economy that is still struggling, management is always looking for ways to cut costs.  If you are not providing innovation to the organization, maybe they might just decide to outsource the work you are doing to someone else who can do it cheaper or faster and eliminate the overhead of your position.  That’s a scary thought.  So what can you do?

First, take a look at the job you are doing.  Is there a way you can do things better?  For example, if part of your job is to help other users with their problems using various systems in your organization, there are two ways to can change your job.  One way is to build better systems that are easier to use and have been tested more thoroughly so that they do not fail as often.  If you don’t have the ability or authority to make changes to systems, can you create a self-help on-line document that users can find their own answers?  Perhaps all you need is a Frequently Asked Questions page.  Maybe a SharePoint Wiki site could serve as a living, growing source of help for people’s questions.  Publishing an in-house newsletter with tips and tricks can also over time help people solve their own problems.  Consider that innovation means bringing to your company something that is new to them.  You can certainly learn from what other companies and people in your industry are doing and apply what you learned to your situation.  To the rest of your company, that is still innovation.  And who knows, maybe by using some of the things you learn from others, you will come up with your own twist on a technique or procedure that goes beyond what anyone else has done.  But you have to start somewhere.

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year is to focus on helping others within our organization learn how to effectively use Pivot Tables and Pivot Charts.  I intend to show them how to analyze their own data rather than rely on reports that need to be coded by a developer assuming that development time can even be scheduled within a reasonable time frame.  Even though pivot tables and pivot charts have been around for several years, few people know how to use them.  Even fewer know how to use PowerPivot to create their own end-user business intelligence platform.  In fact, in the week before I left for Christmas vacation, I already laid the groundwork for one department to look at using PowerPivot tables to replace reports for one of their systems.  We will be meeting early in January to discuss this project. To help illustrate how pivot tables can change their world, I created a ‘sample’ database filled with ‘generated’ data in a SQL Server development system that I then imported into a PowerPivot table using Excel 2010.  I easily came up with over a dozen different views of their data by changing the dimensions I use for the columns and rows as well as switching the measures calculated in the body of the table all of which require no programming on the part of the ‘customer’.

Another resolution is to help more people in our organization build simple forms with InfoPath to collect data for applications rather than using one of the .NET languages to write application-based forms to collect data.  I’m not saying that application development is never needed.  However, for many simplier systems or in cases where people already have to fill in paper forms, the use of electronic forms can save time, validate entered data instanteously and avoid development backlogs to get the product to production sooner.  I’ve been in discussions with several groups to help them eliminate paper forms by going to Word and InfoPath forms to collect data.  By eliminating paper forms, we can make it easier to transfer information between people and processes.  We can eliminate the need to allocation floor space and buy additional file cabinets.  We can save time by making it easier to search for the completed forms using SharePoint search.  Of course, we also can reduce the amount of paper purchased and the cost of creating pre-printed forms.  And best of all most forms don’t require programming experience to develop.

Finally, I’m continuing with my resolution from last year to move people away from using folders with SharePoint libraries more than 2 levels deep.  I’ve made some progress in the past year, but not as much as I wanted.  This is a major paradigm shift for many people who have been trained over the years to store documents in nested folders.  However, I have a few ‘converts’ who are spreading the word to other departments that libraries with metadata make finding your information far easier than nested folders.

No other department in most organizations is in a better position to promote changes like the ones mentioned above than IT who is after all responsible for gathering, manipulating and reporting on data throughout the organization.  IT can use many of the tools they already have without having to buy anything new to turn raw data into knowledge to help management make decision.  In our case, the primary tools we need to use include Microsoft Office, SQL Server and SharePoint, all of which we already own.

If your IT organization can provide value to your organization and not just be a cost center, then management will look at IT and you as a valuable partner in its attempt to dig out of the current economic doldrums we all seem to be in.  IT can lead your organization out of the current recession by bringing innovation to all products, processes, services, technologies, and ideas.  Won’t you join me with your own resolutions this year to innovate?

To Delegate or Not To Delegate

This week I want a personal road to talk a little about delegation.  Specifically delegation related to managing your team at work. Five years ago, I was given the responsibility of a small team to develop a new portal for our organization using SharePoint.  SharePoint was a new tool for all of us and we spent much of the first year just learning how the platform worked.  To make matters more challenging, much of our team was new not only to SharePoint, but they were also new to our organization.  I had no senior leads to help work with them.  (I still don’t.)  It was very much the blind leading the vision impaired.  Somehow, we made it through the early years deploying our Internet, intranet, school public-facing sites, and most recently collaboration.  While we had some consultant help for the first 6 months, we have been on our own since the summer of 2007 to the point where now we support over 4300 sites.  We did some things right and some things wrong, but overall, I proud of what our team has accomplished.

With that said, the hardest thing for me to learn as I moved into management was to delegate more and more of the work to my team.  I was use to being solely responsible for the tasks given to me.  I don’t think that is anything unusual.  In fact, I suspect that most programmers need to feel in control of the work they are responsible for.  Giving up some of the control is hard.  On the other hand, it is the only way to get major projects done.  So here are some of the ‘secrets’ I’ve learned over the years.

Keep your entire team informed about the direction you are going in, even if that involves multiple projects.  Make sure they see the big picture, not just the code they are working on this week. While you need to be open about the path taken to get to the destination, you can never compromise on the destination itself.

Encourage interaction between the team members.  Just because one team member has been assigned a task should not preempt another team member from making suggestions
or even questioning why a process is being done in a certain way.  This means making sure that all team members are open to talking about their work with other team members. Open discussions should not be limited to a weekly summary at a team meeting but should occur throughout the week if they encounter a problem that they cannot solve on their own.

Find out what each of your team members is good at doing and try to allocate tasks so they get tasks that they enjoy and in which can excel.  With any team, individuals will naturally begin to specialize in slightly different aspects of the projects your team gets assigned.  Some of this might be due to natural abilities, but I believe some is also due to a need to differentiate themselves from their other co-workers so that they can be the expert in at least a few areas where other team members are not as strong.

Provide a feeling of participation to all team members by inviting different members to project meetings based on the topic to be covered and the work that team member is doing. If they are so inclined, let them make part of the presentation at the meeting.  This may take time especially for a team member who prefers to work by him/herself behind the scenes.  Start with little things, but then get them involved more and more until you can trust them to work with clients on their own without your presence.

Encourage your team to learn new things, especially things outside of their area of expertise.  Sometimes a good developer can also be a good trainer, or documentation writer, or a presenter.  They may have a knack for working with clients to come to agreement on needs and wants of projects.

Training money these days is often scarce.  So encourage your team to look for other ways
to improve their skills (or as we say, sharpen their saws).  Local conferences can be a lot cheaper than conferences in another state especially if there is no travel expense and maybe no lodging.  On-line training courses can be significantly cheaper than in-person training.  Webinars, local user groups, books and trade magazines can fill in the gaps as well. The key is to make sure that any of these resources are used and that the training is something that the team member can put into practice immediately.

Does that mean that the manager can delegate everything and let the department run on autopilot?  No. Ultimately, you are still responsible for the work done or not done by your team.  However, the Information Technology manager who is not familiar enough with the technologies used by his/her group so that they can pitch in and help during heavy workloads is quickly perceived as just a boss and not a leader.  This does not mean that they need to be an expert in any of the technologies used by their people.  However they must have at least a fundamental understanding of how the technologies work so they can be a resource when the team is stuck on an issue or is divided over the approach to solving a problem or just has too much to do.  Of course, maybe my perception on this is due to the fact that I am still trying to home-grow that team lead that I never had.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that to some extent, you need to let your team find its own path.  With a clear understanding of what needs to be done and with some help from me, I think we have moved closer to utilizing each team member’s strengths. Are we 100% of the way there yet?  No, but we are getting close.  If that means giving up some of the tasks that I use to like to do, well, I can tell you that there can also be a great deal of satisfaction in seeing your team succeed.

So if I delegate all of the work I use to do to my team, what do they need me for?  Right now I like to think of myself as the SharePoint evangelist within our organization.  I look for and prototype new ways that departments can use SharePoint and some of our other tools.  I’ve talked to departments about using metadata to create document libraries that are easy to navigate without a ‘rats nest’ of folders.  I’ve talked to other departments about digitalizing forms so they might be able to go paperless.  Recently, I’ve been working with a few groups trying to combine SharePoint surveys with Excel Pivot tables to analyze the results to both prove suspected relationships and hopefully to uncover new ones.  While I am doing all of this, I know the rest of my team will handle the rest of the details all because I learned how to delegate more.

Life-Long Learners

I use to teach some evening classes at the local community college.  Actually, I’ve been teaching evening classes at a variety of places since around 1980.  But in teaching college students, it became obvious to me that there were two types of students (ok, this is not a binary joke that begins with: There are 10 types of computers students, those that get it and those that don’t.)

The first type of student was very enthusiastic about learning whatever technology I happened to be teaching that semester.  These were the students who always read the textbook material before class, paid attention in class, and turned in homework not only on time, but which also went beyond the requirements of the question with additional features and functions.

The second type of student would come into class with no idea of what was going to be covered that night, played solitaire on their computers during the lecture and turned in their homework barely on time or perhaps a little late with the minimum of features and functionality to get a passing grade.  (You may argue that there was a third type that never read the book or did the homework and missed every other class, but I submit to you that they never graduated or at least not within the IT curriculum.)

But what made one group so different from the other?  Why did some students no only excel but appear to want to go further into each topic while other students spent more time typing to figure out the minimal amount of work that would still get them a passing grade and eventually a diploma.  After years of seeing this same pattern, I think the answer involves a curiosity or desire to learn as much as possible, a need to understand how things work and why, and a passion for making a difference with what they have learned.  Typically this went beyond the mere desire to get a job in the latest new technology or in a field they perceived as making a ‘great’ salary.  Rather, this high performance group can be classified better by their desire to continually re-invent themselves every few years to keep up with the changes in technology.  I suspect it also keeps them motivated by continually challenging them. 

Eventually that other  finds themselves working at a company or organization which is barely getting by, where innovation is absent, the excitement of what they are doing is absent and where staying the course become the norm.  Eventually these people drift into other careers either out of boredom or out of layoffs as those companies shrink or go out of business.

It was because of this realization that I would often tell my classes that if they think they can go to school for a few years, graduate, and then get a ‘cool’ job where they will never ever have to pick up another book again, they were kidding themselves and wasting their own money or the money of their parents.  Technology and specifically computer technology is changing at a rapid pace that requires successful people to continually learn new things. I’m not implying that you should jump from one technology to another every month or even every year (although I know some changes appear to come out that frequently).  However, I would have you consider a continuous growth in your skills in your current technology of choice along with an eye on trends that may lead to a major change in your career path every 5 to 10 years.

What do I mean by continuous growth?  Well there are books, on-line webinars and training videos, conferences and even local user groups.  For example, this Saturday is a SQL Saturday event in Tampa FL (http://www.sqlsaturday.com/86/eventhome.aspx) focusing on BI (Business Intelligence if you haven’t been keeping up with the ever-changing acronyms).  In fact, there are a couple of other SQL Saturday events around the country on the same day.  These events offer a full day of training typically for free.  Can’t beat that price!

Who do I mean by an eye on long term trends?  Take the example of the growth of the Internet since the mid 1990’s, or of web application development vs COBOL or FORTRAN applications on mainframes, or more recently the explosion of SharePoint as an office tool platform since 2007.  Most recently, the latest ‘bright shiny object’ is BI, especially with all the new capabilities offered through SQL Server 2012, SharePoint 2010, and PowerPivot for Excel and SharePoint.

So are you spending at least some time with or without your organization’s support learning these new things?  If so, I salute you.  You are definitely a life-long learner.

BTW: I may not find time for a technical blog entry this weekend as I will be at the Tampa SQL Saturday event where I will be conducting a session on using External Data Content Types in SharePoint 2010 (http://www.sqlsaturday.com/viewsession.aspx?sat=86&sessionid=4621).  On the other hand, maybe I’ll do a review of the event.  Follow us on Twitter with the hashtag: #SQLSAT86.

Training – Expense, Employee Perk, or Business Necessity

Depending on your point of view, you might see employee training as any of these three.  Taken in isolation, employee training does cost money.  There is the actual cost of the training of course, but there may also be travel expenses and room and board expenses if the training is offered out of the immediate area.  Then there is the ‘lost’ productivity while the employee is away from their regular duties.  Finally, some managers are afraid that by providing training, they just make employees more ‘marketable’ to other companies.

On the other hand, an employee may see the investment that the company makes in their training as an indication of their value to the organization.  Maybe salaries have been frozen and one of the ways that management can say thank-you to a productive employee is to send them to a training event to learn additional skills.  Everyone likes to feel appreciated and when someone invests time or money in you, most people will feel that is a benefit received from the organization that shows that management values them.

Of course a company will only invest in an employee in the hope of getting an employee that performs existing tasks better, faster, or more accurately or they can perform new tasks that will ultimately improve the bottom line of the organization.  Even using training, such as attendance at a conference, with no directly measureable return can help the business if it prevents an employee from looking for employment somewhere else where they think they will be appreciated more.  Losing the skills and knowledge of a good employee costs money to replace.  The cost of recruiting new talent can be as much as 20-30% of the employee’s salary.  And if the company has a high turn-over rate, they may need to offer higher salaries to attract new employees who may see that as an indication of problems with the organization.

In the Information Technology business, the one constant is change.  I’ve gone through several paradigm shifts in my career from programming in a version of mainframe BASIC that only allowed at most two characters to define a variable name, to FORTRAN, a little COBOL, Integer BASIC on an Apple II with a whopping 16 K of RAM, ASP and then ASP.NET, dBASE, FoxBase, FoxPro, SQL Server and most recently SharePoint.  In my experience, companies that did not change and adapt fell to their competition.  Employees who did not change and adapt found themselves working in other careers.

No matter how you look at it, training is a necessity whether you manage your own learning goals or your company supports and helps you obtain the training you need to stay current and relevant.  Trained employees can offer their organizations more value.  In exchange, training employees are generally more happy (read as not looking for a job elsewhere) because their job satisfaction is higher when they feel competent to perform the required tasks.

And if your organization does not provide training and you don’t have a lot of spare cash, there are many good books, webcasts and on-line tutorials.  Don’t overlook the value of local user groups.  Finally take the time to attend a local free day of training at a Code Camp, SQL Saturday, or SharePoint Saturday event near you.