Companies that adapt and survive

I’m working from home today. As is typical when I work from home, I’m sitting in my living room with my laptop in front of me and the TV on (and, every once in a while, Bernard — our tuxedo cat — curled up on the recliner between my legs). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about working from home, there’s nothing good on TV in the middle of the day on a weekday. To steal a line from Bruce Springsteen, how many channels and nothing on? Thankfully, as I write this, Wimbledon is on ESPN, and Roger Federer is putting on a clinic. (He lost the first set, but since then, has been absolutely dominant.)

Well, obviously, as you might have judged by my article title, I’m not here to talk about TV. So what does TV have to do with this article?

A little while ago, I saw an ad for Western Union. For whatever reason, I started thinking about Western Union’s history: it started out as a telegraph and telegram company. It made me think: in this day and age of internet, social media, and nearly instantaneous mass communication, how has Western Union managed to remain relevant?

I looked up Western Union on Wikipedia. I didn’t take the time to read the entire article, but to make a long story short: Western Union adapted with the times. It stopped delivering telegrams a long time ago, but has since become involved in internet communications, as well as financial services. As their ads bill themselves, they’re “the fastest way to send money.”

Western Union still exists because they changed and adapted with the times.

They’re not the only ones. A number of companies continue to exist because they managed to change with the times. Off the top of my head, The New York Times has de-emphasized their print paper and is largely an online news source. While Apple still produces personal computers, they became much more successful after diversifying and becoming a provider of products such as smartphones and music players, among other things. There are countless other examples as well; at the moment, these are the ones that stand out in my mind.

Even from a personal standpoint — I’ve written about this many times before — I’ve practically made an entire career out of adapting to my environment. Even in one of my very first ‘blog articles, I wrote about how change is inevitable.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Change will happen. The question is, how will you adapt to it? In order to survive, you need to be able to roll with the punches. The environment around you will change. What will you do to adapt?

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Who has the final say on a service issue?

I recently registered for Homecoming Weekend at the old alma mater. For me, it’s a reunion year ending in zero, so this year is of particular interest to me. (No, I won’t say which one it is. All I’ll say is, I’m getting old!)

While going through my own information on the Homecoming web site, I noticed a minor error. It wasn’t particularly big, and the error isn’t important in and of itself, but the university wouldn’t let me change it online; I needed to email them to get it fixed.

In response, I received a Jira service request notification indicating that it was in the queue. I knew right away that they were using Jira; we also use it in our office, and the email format and appearance is unmistakable.

The next email I got from them, a couple of hours later, is the graphic you see above, and as someone who’s worked in technology his entire professional career, I found it to be particularly irksome. When I received the message, my immediate thought was, “excuse me, but I am the customer. Who are you to say that my issue is resolved and completed?!?”

Sure enough, when I checked my information again, it still hadn’t been updated. I even tried clearing my cache and refreshing the browser. No dice. I wrote back, saying that I didn’t see the change and asking how long I should wait before I saw it. For all I knew, the web server had to refresh before any data changes appeared, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. I received an automated message saying the case had been reopened (I was responding to Jira, after all). I didn’t get another response until this morning, when once again, it was marked “Resolved” and “Complete.” When I checked my information again, the change was there. I did not receive any other communications or acknowledgements, other than the automated Jira responses.

In their defense, to me, a department called “Constituent Records” sounds more like a data end-user role, rather than a full-blown IT or DBA role (I could be mistaken), so maybe they weren’t versed in concepts such as tech support, support levels, incident management, or support procedures. Nevertheless, I still found this to be annoying on a couple of levels.

First, it is up to the customer, not the handler, to determine whether or not an issue is resolved. The word “customer” can have a number of connotations*; in an internal organization, the “customer” could be a departmental manager or even your co-worker sitting next to you. To me, the “customer” is the person who initiated the request in the first place. An issue is not resolved until the customer is satisfied with it. It is not up to the handler to determine whether or not an issue is resolved. The handler does not have that right.

(*Side thought: the customer and handler can be one and the same. If I come across an issue that I’m working to resolve, I am both the customer and the handler. Nevertheless, the issue isn’t resolved until I, the customer, is satisfied that I, the handler, took care of it to my — the customer’s — satisfaction.)

Second, as a technical communicator, I was annoyed by the complete lack of communication from the person handling the request. The only communications I received were either comments contained within the Jira ticket or automated responses from Jira itself. Not once did I receive any message asking for any feedback or asking to see if I could see the change. The only messages I received — before I responded saying I didn’t see the change — was an automated Jira response acknowledging that they had received my request, and a second message that it had been resolved and closed. Boom. End of story.

I’m writing this article as a lesson for anyone working in a support role. First, feedback is important. You need to know that you’re handling the issue correctly. “How am I doing?” is a legitimate question to ask. Second, it is not up to you, the handler, to determine whether or not the issue is resolved. That right belongs only to the client — the customer who initiated the request, and whose issue you’re handling.

Burning Out

Reblogging another good article. Steve Jones reminds us that it’s important to maintain a work-life balance.

Voice of the DBA

We tend to work a lot of hours as data professionals, developers, even IT management. It seems that we often are in the office at night, on weekends, and anytime there is a crisis. Even when we don’t have down systems, it seems the pressure to continue to build new features, functions, and ensure systems are operating well leads many of us to work longer hours than the expected 40 hour week. In fact, there are no shortage of companies that expect IT employees to work more than 40 hours every week.

This isn’t limited to IT. Doctors, lawyers, and plenty of other professions put in extra hours at work. Even teachers often do work at home. I’ve seen this first hand this past year with my oldest son teaching 5th grade. He spends a fair amount of time doing work at the kitchen counter, not unlike what I used…

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The evolution of statistics

During my lunch break, I was perusing the ESPN website and stumbled across this article. It contemplates whether or not a .300 hitter (in baseball, for those of you who are sports-challenged) is meaningful anymore. As a baseball fan, the article caught my attention. I didn’t read through the entire article (it ended up being a much longer read than I expected — too long for me to read while on a lunch break at work), but from what little I did glean from it, a couple of things struck me.

First, they talk about Mickey Mantle‘s batting average and how important hitting .300 was to him. That struck me a little funny, because (as far as I know — as I said, I didn’t get through the entire article) there was no mention of the fact that he actually finished with a batting average under .300. His career batting average was .298.

The second thing that struck me was (Yankees’ first baseman) Luke Voit saying how he felt that “feel like batting average isn’t a thing now.” Indeed, baseball is a much different game than it was, say ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. Analytics are a big part of statistics these days. A lot of stats that are prevalent now — WAR (wins above replacement), exit velocity, OPS (on-base plus slugging), etc. — didn’t even exist when I was a kid growing up, closely following my Yankees. Back when I was eating and sleeping baseball, hitting was about the triple-crown statistics — batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (RBIs). But now, we have “slash lines,” on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and so on. Even as big of a baseball fan as I am, I haven’t a clue about many of these “new age” stats. I still have no idea what WAR represents, I’m not completely sure as to what the numbers in a slash-line are, and I don’t know what constitutes a respectable OPS.

That got me thinking about how statistics have changed over the years, and whether or not that applies to statistics outside of baseball (or sports, for that matter). Maybe people who study data analytics for a living might know this better than I do, but what business statistics have a different meaning now than they did ten, twenty years ago? Are there any numbers from way back when that I should now take with a grain of salt?

I’m sure there are many examples of this outside of sports, but I struggled to come up with any. Off the top of my head, I remember how a company where I once worked made a big deal out of perfect attendance — to the point that they gave out perfect attendance awards at the end of the year. However, that had to contend with situations such as coming to work when you were sick, and so on. Do you really want someone who’s sick coming into work? These days, workplaces do not want sick people in the office, and with the advent of work-at-home provisions, perfect attendance isn’t so meaningful, anymore. (By the way, my understanding is that company no longer recognizes or rewards “perfect” attendance.)

So I suppose the takeaway is, how well do statistics age? Can they be compared with the same statistics now? What needs to be considered when analyzing statistics from years ago? It’s true that numbers often tell a story, but in order to get the full picture, you also need to understand the full context.

Pursuing postgraduate education, part 2

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Satchel Paige

“Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway, moving ahead so life won’t pass me by…”

Jim Croce

Only a couple of days after posting about pursuing additional education, some interesting things have come up.

In my previous article, I mentioned that my biggest stumbling block was financial, with schedule being the second biggest blocker. I may have discovered a solution to both issues. I did a little homework on Western Governors University. I had heard of WGU before — I have a friend who’s an alum — but I dismissed it, thinking it was a for-profit enterprise. (I’ll also confess that the possibility of it being a diploma mill also crossed my mind, but knowing my friend, who wouldn’t waste his time with that kind of scam, dispelled those thoughts.) As it turns out, WGU, is not-for-profit, accredited, and is 100% online. It’s a learn-at-your-own-pace program, and the price tag is affordable. I’m looking into possibly pursuing an MS in IT Management. I submitted a form saying that I was interested in more information, and I set up a phone appointment to speak with an enrollment counselor next week. We’ll see how it goes!

I also thought about other reasons as to why I want to do this.

For one thing, I feel like I need a new challenge. I wrote before about stepping out of your comfort zone to move ahead. Although this program is affordable and at my own pace, it nonetheless would still tax my financial and schedule resources. Additionally, despite all that I’ve accomplished professionally up to this point, I still feel that I am capable of accomplishing more. Not only would the degree itself fulfill that, but the potential return on investment includes opening more career doors.

Second, there’s a matter of keeping myself professionally relevant. I’ve written many times before that I’ve made an entire career out of adapting to my environment. As technology, job requirements, and our own skill sets change, so must we change along with them. Eugene Meidinger has written and presented about how difficult, if not impossible, it is to keep up with technology. As I come to terms with my own skill sets, I realize that I need to adapt in order to make myself more professionally valuable.

People often wonder what they need to do in order to get ahead, or at least maintain status quo. However you do it, I suppose the answer is to just keep moving.

Diversifying your skill sets

Years ago, I remember reading a Wall Street Journal interview with Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams who said something to the effect of, “the way to be successful is to know as much as you can about as many different things as you can.” The article came out sometime in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find that article, and I’m unable to find it online, so you’ll just have to take me at my word — for what that’s worth.

For whatever reason, that sentiment has always stuck with me, and is evident in many activities in which I’m involved. In my musical endeavors, I play four different instruments (piano, clarinet, mallet percussion, and saxophone), and my music tastes run a fairly wide range (classical, jazz, adult contemporary, progressive/classic rock). As I’ve often written before, I am involved with CrossFit, which involves multiple movements and workouts; workouts are varied and are almost never performed twice in a row. As a baseball fan, I’ve always been appreciative of “utility” players such as Ben Zobrist who can play different positions in the infield and the outfield, allowing him to be plugged into nearly any lineup and reducing the need for multiple bench players.

This mindset has also manifested itself within my professional endeavors as well. I’ve practically made an entire career out of adapting to my environment, and a major reason for that is because I am capable of holding my own (if not being an expert) in a number of different areas. My main professional strength may be my technical writing and documentation, but it is not my only skill set. I am also capable of tasks that include (among other things) SQL Server, T-SQL scripting, object-oriented programming, UX/UI, and scripting on both the client and server sides, just to name a few. Granted, I’m not necessarily an expert in many of these skills — indeed, I sometimes describe myself as “knowing enough to be dangerous” — but in most cases, I’m able to hold my own. Maybe a better description for myself is “knows enough to be able to get it done.”

Such a diverse skill set has proven to be invaluable. Throughout my career, I’ve been able to comfortably handle a wide variety of tasks (the infamous “other duties as assigned”). It’s allowed me opportunities that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise had. I recently was assigned responsibility for a small but significant database role — a role I was assigned because I have SQL experience. Having these diverse skills have allowed me to adapt to my changing work environment.

Additionally, different skill sets are rarely, if ever, segregated; rather, they compliment each other. Cross-pollination between skills is nearly universal. A developer often needs to connect his or her application to a data source, in which case a background in databases is invaluable. The ability to communicate often helps a technologist to help an end user — a point that I often make in my presentation about talking to “non-techies.” In my experience with documentation and technical writing, I’ve found that my background with coding and databases has been invaluable for my documentation projects.

So to the aspiring career professional who asks me where (s)he should focus his or her skills, my response is… don’t. Although it might be okay to focus on an area of expertise, don’t ignore other skill sets. It will enrich your background, and your career will be all the better for it.

Earth Day

I understand that today is Earth Day. So happy Earth Day!

I am not a tree hugger per se. Having said that, I do try to do my part. I do my best to minimize how often I use single-use plastic bags (and honestly, IMHO, plastic grocery bags are one of the worst things ever invented). Every time I go grocery shopping, I either use my reusable bags (assuming I remember them) or ask for paper. I would be hypocritical if I said I don’t use plastic bags at all, because I occasionally do, but I, for one, would not be saddened to see them disappear altogether. I try not to use plastic straws (again, like single-use plastic bags, I do use them once in a while, but I try to minimize their use, and likewise, I wouldn’t mind seeing plastic straws disappear, either). I recycle whatever I can; indeed, on most trash days, our recycling bin often contains more than our garbage bin. I’ve tried to take other steps as well; when my wife and I built our house, I made it a point to get a tankless water heater and to check EnergyStar ratings on all our appliances.

In other words, when it comes to the environment, I am not perfect. I try to do what I can, but I still have plenty of room for improvement.

I’ll spare you from a lecture about global warming, trash, or unsustainability; that’s not what this is about. I’ll leave it to you to do your homework about increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, industry releasing pollutants, or whales ingesting pounds of plastic. Rather, I’m looking to raise awareness that we can — and must — do better. A lot of people don’t think that what they do makes a difference. The thing is, little things all add up. If we each do our part, we’ll come out okay.

I’d like to see people take an extra step today to celebrate Earth day — maybe something as simple as using one less plastic bag or plastic straw, or something as elaborate as taking part in a neighborhood cleanup. But these efforts shouldn’t be limited to just one day a year. Every day should be Earth Day.