My 2016 Annual Review

I decided to take a cue from James Clear and write my own Annual Review. As James states: “The process reminds me to look back on the previous twelve months, celebrate my victories, evaluate my failures, and hold myself accountable in public.” I think it’s a solid idea that will take my consistent internal dialogue on self-performance and put it to paper…assuming I print this!

So the format is that the 2016 Annual Review will answer the following three questions.

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go well this year?
  3. What will I be worked towards in 2017?

1. What went well this year?

2016 was a big year! I had so much more time on my hands after finishing my MBA in 2015; did I put that time to good use?

SaaS cloud migration. 2016 had me focused on moving our systems into AWS. We spent most of 2016 running a cloud/physical data center hybrid and are a few tasks away from being 100% in the cloud. There is plenty of work to continue on with our AWS architecture so we can be even more distributed, be better prepared for failover, and improve our CI/CD approach. Working is SaaS in today’s techscape is glorious!

New products and team improvement. I roadmapped the release of two new products in 2016. One is an entirely new BI stack as a Tableau partner and the second is a release of our new flagship SetSight product…all distributed, restful and pretty. It has been a major challenge to release products as the unexpected resource constraints have continued from the issues we had in 2015. It’s led me be a more hands-on leader and working more in the trenches rather than leading via mockups, whiteboards, and design sessions like was sold to me out of the gate. While it’s a daily struggle to contain my aspirations for the growth of the company I do take pride in the skill growth of my technical and product teams.

Getting involved. I worked hard in 2016 to expand my presence in the Minneapolis tech community; I find these events a challenge because I’m always prone to work extra or unplug rather than attend events but I’ve been continuing my effort from 2015 to meet up with past colleagues and friends at local events like: minnedemo, minneanalytics, startup week, and conferences on AWS and IoT. In addition I started volunteering at our local coderDojo which offers a great way to give back and inspired me to make the time to teach in more rigorous fashion. In the fall, I started as an adjunct in the computer science department at my alma mater the University of Minnesota. It’s a great university and the opportunity to interact with the next generation of engineers and give a little back to the community has been wonderful. I’m teaching a Senior Design course over two semesters where industry sponsors a class and we are given resources to build something interesting. My groups sponsor is Microsoft and they’ve been great to work with.

Travel. Working is overrated and Kelly and I focus on taking time off and exploring so we stay fresh. 2015 brought another trip to Spain for us where we hit Madrid, Seville, Granada, and Barcelona. Two separate trips to Lake Superior’s north shore.  Two buddy ski trips to Colorado and the purchase of an Epic pass for the 2016-17 season. For my birthday we hit up Palm Springs and rock climbed in Joshua Tree National Park. A weekend in Kansas City. A Colorado summer road trip with our pooch. And an epic guy’s climbing trip in the Grand Tetons. Another Lake Superior weekend but over in Bayfield. And we ended the year with a trip to Santa Fe.

Weightlifting. I continue to focus on active and healthy living through a love of practicing sports. Through the years they’ve migrated from team sports like rugby and softball to individual pursuits like marathoning and now olympic weightlifting which I’ve been doing for 3 years. In 2016 I switched my training location to Crossfit Kingfield where I’ve met great people and coaches. I compete as a master’s lifter (graybeard) and focus on getting stronger while considering the long game and adapting to the gifts of aging. I had a 4-5 month wrist issue that led to me missing my 2016 goals but I still had fun and improved my consistency. I train 3-4 days a week and try to compete at a few meets a year and through that I qualified for the master worlds championships at the end of April in New Zealand…I’m going!

My best lifts of the year were:

  • Snatch – 116 KG
  • Clean and Jerk – 145 KG
  • Back Squat – 196 KG for 3 sets of 3

The snatch and clean and jerk weren’t up to my goals but with health they’ll be bested in 2017 as I enter a new age class.

Reading. I’m always reading and we resubscribed to the New Yorker and other magazines so the book reading took a hit but I still managed 15 books in 2016 and I’ve been reading the Stephen King Dark Tower books which are thick ones so I get a bump there. Besides product management and tech books I read a lot of books focused on racial topics.


2. What didn’t go so well this year?

Writing. I’ve given up the goal of more technical and product writing as it’s been a continued goal I’ve missed for years but another goal I had was to start writing short stories and hoping that would lead to something interesting in either the hobbyist’s pursuit or for the book idea I’ve been noodling on. I’m going to continue that goal and work on journaling and take the computer out of the equation in the hope that the act of writing via the pen will appeal to my creative side a bit more.

Open Source contributing. My open source contribution back to the tech community is best summed via ‘blah’. I count this as a curse of my years consulting when I could either give back or do work that allowed me to bill more hours. I always took the billable time which may have been symbiotically tied to my taste for vacations! Anyway, I didn’t do much in 2016. For 2017, I can contribute via my students project as an advisor and also have my eye on a Alexa/Sonos integration via NodeJS and data science work via python.

Company Growth. Much of this is out of my control but the growth issues at SetSight affect me and are affected by me as the tech leader. While I don’t see the team(s) size reaching the levels I planned for us to hit in 2015 I need to continue to put my best foot forward to lead and deliver results with the truth of where we are at as we approach 2017. It can be easy to get caught up in how the expectations didn’t match the outcome but outside of honest reflection used on the road to improvement it doesn’t do much good.

3. What am I working toward?

Looking back, 2016 felt like a float year somewhat. I wasn’t working at the scale where I can put my talents to maximal use so it felt a bit underwhelming and simplistic. However, there were  some nice wins in there through work successes, adjunct teaching, and focus on work-life balance. 2017 can get better by delivering the growth we can hit rather than getting bogged down by the growth we lost out on that were outside of our control. For 2017 I plan to focus on.

Doing less and doing that better. I’m a classic overachiever and when I get time I always sign up for more stuff to do. That’s why I have two graduate degrees and since my MBA have started volunteering and teaching. I need not add anything else and instead create the free-time where I can explore technology, product ideas, and create. That idle time is where the sticky ideas come from, I need to make that idle time.

Simple and healthy. 2016 found me focused on diet, sleep, and health. I want to continue that in 2017 by averaging 7.5+ hours of sleep for the year, hitting the sauna 5 days a week and practicing yoga 3 days a week. The more I work and the more I spend at the keyboard the less I can offer as the creative idea person that I think brings the most value to others. Balance is key and I need to remember my saying that I’m a sprinter and not a long-distance running. Sprinters require plenty of rest, stretching, and focus.

2017 – ready or not.

Teaching Tip: It’s what to do right, not what to do wrong.

Today while driving I was listening to the Barbell Shrugged podcast, it’s been around a few years and while it generally focuses on CrossFit I listen for the episodes when they hit topics like Olympic weightlifting, coaching, or self-improvement. Like this one!

Doug Larson, a Barbell Shrugged OG, raised a point I liked in how he teaches people…on anything. Doug focuses on what they should do, not on what they shouldn’t do. It’s a subtle point to consider and instantly brought me to design sessions I may have with engineers and architects at work where I catch myself often telling what NOT to do. It’s really a poor tactic of persuasion and teaching as it doesn’t focus on what they should do.

Thanks Doug!

Performance Reviews – Everyone Knows They Stink

Accenture was in the news in July for ditching performance reviews and with their 330,000 employees, that is a big deal. In its place they planned to implement a process that is more fluid and fast in providing feedback from managers to team members. That speaks to the clear flaw in many organizations today in that managers aren’t providing consistent, clear, and timely feedback to their teams.

I remember covering various review processes during my first MBA course, Organizational Behavior, which solidified my view that most of the issues teams and organizations face are centered on communication, on people. We come up with processes to try to improve the people side and end up with three page performance reviews that the manager and participant are likely not behind. We can do better by keeping it simple.

In March of last year, Deloitte decided to move away from performance rankings and instead ask four simple questions and I’m drawn to this simple approach.

  1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus.
  2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team.
  3. This person is at risk for low performance.
  4. This person is ready for promotion today.

We all have stories about how to not use performance reviews. As a manager, I’ve been given detailed salary adjustments for each of my team members without any of my input in the process. That was far from empowering but very aligned with how this business operated. As a manager, the takehome is that the review shouldn’t be a surprise. Your team and you should have interactions all the time. Your goal should be figure out how you can make their job better, their career brighter, and they should never be left wondering where they stand. That’s where agile has helped. Daily standups and mantras like fail fast has increased overall feedback cycles making it even easier to keep with your team.

The areas where it gets more difficult are on remote teams and large teams. Remote teams simply require more discipline to keep in touch. Video chats are far better than instant message and even more so than email. Large teams are just tough. Team size should be a manageable number. Some say 5, some day 10 but few say 20, especially in technology. It should be at a size where the manager or team leader has the ability to have contact with everyone at a regular basis and know the temperature of the team.


When Should You Outsource? HBO Gives a Example.

Outsourcing is far from a new topic in business and there are many depths to which a company can leverage outsourcing to optimize its business. The Wall Street Journal had a recent article around HBO titled “HBO to Use MLB Advanced Media for Stand-Alone Streaming Product” that I found to be a great example of a company understanding their core competencies and deciding to outsource accordingly.

HBO is the leader of premium TV/cable networks. The invented the segment when they introduced original programming to cable and have recently made waves with their plan to create their own streaming service. They opted for this strategy because HBO operates as a premium service that is only available to cable and satellite users and they saw a risk to their model with the growing trend of people ditching these services for streaming only options like Netflix and Amazon Prime. From the article we learn that the orginal intent was to build out their technical capabilities to support this streaming model by ramping up their tech teams by an estimated 200 people. They’ve recently opted out of this strategy and decided instead to partner with MLB Advanced Media for this work.

There are details we don’t know but it sounds as if there was some disagreements about whether the streaming operations where important enough to be in-house. Granted we don’t understand the costs or details but I’d still contend this is an excellent example of a business understanding when a project/task falls outside their strengths and to outsource it. Technology is amazing, I’m in it and I love it, I’d want to build this platform and own it but that doesn’t mean a business should hold all things shiny and new.

At my current company we leverage outsourcing in areas that are far from our core competencies such as: data center support, video creation, and copy writing. There are some areas where I don’t think we should leverage outsourcing and that deals with defining plans and key internal processes. That is one area where I think a business must spend the time to understand how it currently operates and how it should operate to achieve business goals, at least at a high-level. Once that is done the outsourcing of nitty-gritty can be much more effective because you still own and understand the overall vision.

One example from my past of when to not outsource, at least on the basis core competencies and doing what you do well, is the advice an entrepreneurial friend gave me when I was running my software consulting business years ago. I was knee deep in a busy cycle and trying to juggle existing clients, projects, and trying to find time to bid on projects. Time was in short supply, I was stressed and he suggested I outsource everything to offshore teams.This technique had been applied by my friend as he started building his wealth years earlier and I respected his advice but knew it wasn’t for me.

Up to that point I had outsourced a few, very specific and extremely detailed bits of work to offshore teams but never had I gone as far as he was suggesting.  For me to outsource all of these tasks would leave me to focus on the management of all the projects with offshore teams which isn’t something that brings me joy (I could of course outsourced that as well). Additionally, the rest of my focus would be on landing new clients to be able to leverage this new ability to scale but selling is something I’m able to do but that doesn’t mean its a core competency of mine.

So in short I’d be trading what I did really well at that time in my career for areas that either don’t bring the satisfaction or weren’t areas of strength. In my case the outsourcing didn’t work and I’m glad I didn’t pursue, even at the potential cost of my current net worth.

Has it changed? Business Advice from Best Buy Founder Richard Schulze

A while back my MBA program’s quarterly published an interview with Richard Schulze,  the founder of Best Buy, about general business advice he could share to the alumni and current students. The University of St. Thomas’s Business School is certainly fortunate to have Mr. Schultze generating content for their publication (oh, not to mention the large gifts to the school).

That was in February and obviously a lot has changed in the business community regarding Best Buy with the CEO scandal of Brian Dunn and later resignation of Mr. Schultze as the Chairman. It would be interesting to learn if he would modify his original list of business advice from what he’s learned since the scandal. One potential tip that may benefit from some specific tweaking after the Dunn scandal was the fourth.

#4 – Have a Mentor

This one could also include be sure that key people have good mentors themselves. Not that a mentor would have stopped Brian Dunn’s behavior as one would hope he knew it was inappropriate but perhaps they would have seen the warning signs.

The buzz continues around Mr. Schultze making a play to take Best Buy private and for him to be successful it looks that he’ll be pulling this list out again. I think Best Buy still can have a retail play outside of the growth of Geek Squad and private equity may be the right play for it.

To PMO, or Not to PMO; That is the Question «

This post from Cornerstone Advisors blog regarding PMO caught my eye last March. I had set it aside to go deeper on my thoughts of what is and isn’t a mature PMO organization but am going to table that for now. I will say that PMO is much like engineering in that not having the Steve Jobs “A” players will come back to bite you. A great PM and PMO office will save you greatly and a poor PM and PMO office will cost you dearly.

To PMO, or Not to PMO; That is the Question «

How leaders kill meaning at work – McKinsey Quarterly – Governance – Leadership

How leaders kill meaning at work – McKinsey Quarterly – Governance – Leadership.

Long but good read on how senior leaders can affect the meaning of work to those below them on the ladder.