learning

The Downside of Easy (or, the Upside of a Good Challenge)

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Picture of a Suzuki motorcycle

As a young boy, I was “that kid” who would take everything apart, often leaving a formerly functional alarm clock in a hundred pieces in a shoe box. I loved figuring out how things worked, and how components worked together as a system. When I was 10, I spent one winter completely disassembling and reassembling my Suzuki TM75 motorcycle in my bedroom (my parents must have had so much more patience and understanding than I do as a parent). It was rebuilt by spring and ran like a champ. Beginners luck?

By then I was hooked – I enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things. That was a great skill to have while growing up as it provided income and led to the first company I started at age 18. There was always a fair degree of trial and error involved with learning, but experience and experimentation led to simplification and standardization. That became the hallmark to the programs I wrote, and later the application systems that I designed and developed. It is a trait that has served me well over the years.

Today I still enjoy doing many things myself, especially if I can spend a little bit of time and save hundreds of dollars (which I usually invest in more tools). Finding examples and tutorials on YouTube is usually pretty easy, and after watching a few videos for reference the task is generally easy. There is also a sense of satisfaction to a job well done. And most of all, it is a great distraction to everything else going on that keeps your mind racing at 100 mph.

My wife’s 2011 Nissan Maxima needed a Cabin Air Filter, and instead of paying $80 again to have this done I decided to do it myself. I purchased the filter for $15 and was ready to go. This shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes. I went to YouTube to find a video but no luck. Then, I started searching various forums for guidance. There were a lot of posts complaining about the cost of replacement, but not much about how to do the work. I finally found a post that showed where the filter door was. I could already feel that sense of accomplishment that I was expecting to have in the next few minutes.

Picture of a folded cabin air filter for a Nissan Maxima

But fate, and apparently a few sadistic Nissan Engineers had other ideas. First, you needed to be a contortionist in order to reach the filter once the door was removed. Then, the old filter was nearly impossible to remove. And then once the old filter was removed I realized that the length of the filter entry slot was approximately 50% of the length of the filter. Man, what a horrible design!

A few fruitless Google searches later I was more intent than ever on making this work. I tried several things and ultimately found a way to fold the filter where it was small enough to get through the door and would fully open once released. A few minutes later I was finally savoring my victory over that hellish filter.

This experience made me recall “the old days.” Back in 1989 I was working for a marketing company as a Systems Analyst and was given the project to create the “Mitsubishi Bucks” salesperson incentive program. Salespeople would earn points for sales, and could later redeem those points on Mitsubishi Electronics products. It was a very popular and successful incentive program.

Creating the forms and reports was straight forward enough, but tracking the points presented a problem. I finally thought about how a banking system would work (remember, no Internet and few books on the topic, so this was reinventing the wheel) and designed my own. It was very exciting and rock solid. Statements could be reproduced at any point in time, and there was an audit trail for all activity.

Next, I needed to create validation processes and a fraud detection system for incoming data. That was rock solid as well, but instead of being a good thing it turned out to be a real headache and cause of frustration.

Salespeople would not always provide complete information, might have sloppy penmanship, or would do other things that were odd but legitimate. Despite that, they expected immediate rewards and having their submissions rejected apparently created more frustration than incentive.

So, I was instructed to turn the dial way back. I let everyone know that while this would minimize rejections it would also increase the potential for fraud, and created a few reports to identify potentially fraudulent activity. It was amazing how creative people could be when trying to cheat the system, as well as how you could identify patterns to more quickly identify that type of activity. By the third month the system was trouble free.

It was a great learning experience from beginning to end. Best of all, it ran for several years once I left – something I know because every month I was still receiving the sample mailing with the new sales promotions and “Spiffs” (sales incentives). This reflection also made me wonder how many things are not being created or improved today because it is too easy to follow an existing template.

We used to align fields and columns in byte order to minimize record size, overload operators, etc. in order to maximize space utilization and maximize performance. Code was optimized for maximum efficiency because memory was scarce and processors slow. Profiling and benchmarking programs brought you to the next level of performance. In a nutshell, you were forced to really understand and become proficient with the technology used out of necessity. Today those concepts have become somewhat of a lost art.

There are many upsides to easy.

  • My team sells more and closes deals faster because we make it easy for our customers to buy, implement, and start receiving value on the software we sell.
  • Hobbyists like myself are able to accomplish many tasks after watching a short video or two.
  • People are willing to try things that they may not have if getting started would not have been so easy.

But, there may also be downsides relative to innovation and continuous improvement simply because easy is often good enough.

What will the impact be to human behavior once Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes a reality and is in everyday use? It would be great to look ahead 25, 50, or 100 years and see the full impact of emerging technologies, but my guess is that I will see many of the effects in my own lifetime.

Non-Linear Thought Process and a Message for my Children

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I have recently been investigating and visiting universities with my eldest daughter, who is currently a Senior in High School. Last week we visited Stanford University (an amazing experience) and then we spent a week in Northern California on vacation. After being home for a day and a half I am currently in Texas for a week of team meetings and training.

The first night of a trip I seldom sleep, so I was listening to the song, “Don’t let it bring you down” by Annie Lennox, which is a cover of a Neil Young song. That led to a Youtube search for the original Neil Young version, which led to me listening to the song “Old Man” – a favorite song of mine for over 30 years. That led to some reflection which ultimately led to this post.

The reason that I mention this is because it is an example of the tangential thought process (which is generally viewed as a negative trait) that occurs naturally for me. It is something that helps me “connect the dots” faster and more naturally. It is part of the non-linear thinking associated with ADHD (again, something generally viewed as negative). The interesting thing is that in order to fit in and be successful with ADHD you tend to develop logical systems for focus and consistency. For me personally, that has many positive benefits – such as creating repeatable processes and automation.

Photo by Cu00e9sar Gaviria on Pexels.com

The combination of linear and non-linear thinking can really fuel creativity. The downside is that it can take quite a while for others to see the potential of your ideas, which can be extremely frustrating. But, you learn to communicate better and deal with the fact that ideas can be difficult to grasp. The upside is that you tend to create relationships with other innovators because they tend to think like you, so you become relatable and interesting to them. The world is a strange place.

It is funny how there are several points in your life when you have an epiphany and things suddenly make complete sense. That causes you to realize how much time and effort could have been saved if you had only been able to figure something out sooner. As a parent I am always trying to identify and create learning shortcuts for my children so that they can reach those points much sooner than I did.

I started this post thinking that I would document as many of those lessons as possible to serve as a future reminder and possibly help others. Instead, I decided to post a few things that I view as foundational truisms in life that could help foster that personal growth process. So, here goes…

  1. Always work hard to be the best, but never let yourself believe that you are the best. Even if you truly are, it will be short lived as there are always people out there doing everything that they can to be the best. Ultimately, that is a good thing. You need to have enough of an ego to test the limits of things, but not one that is so big that it alienates or marginalizes those around you.
  2. Learn from everything you do – good and bad. Continuous improvement is so important. By focusing on this you constantly challenge yourself to try new things and find better (i.e., more effective, more efficient, and more consistent) ways to do things.
  3. Realize that the difference between a brilliant and a stupid idea is often perspective. Years ago I taught technical courses, and occasionally someone would describe something they did that just seemed strange or wrong. But, if you took the time to ask questions and try to understand why they did what they did you would often identify the brilliance in that approach. It is something that is both exciting and humbling.
  4. Incorporating new approaches or the best practices of others into your own proven methods and processes is part of continuous improvement, but it only works if you are able to set aside your ego and keep an open mind.
  5. Believe in yourself, even when others don’t share that belief. Remain open to feedback and constructive criticism as a way to learn and improve, but never give up on yourself. There is a huge but sometimes subtle difference between confidence and arrogance, and that line is often drawn at the point where you can accept that you might be wrong, or that there might be a better way to do something. Become the person that people like working with, and not the person that they avoid or want to see fail.
  6. Surround yourself with the best people that you can find. Look for people with diverse backgrounds and complementary skills. The best teams that I have ever been involved with consisted of high achievers who constantly raised the bar for each other while simultaneously creating a safety net for their teammates. The team grew and did amazing things because everyone was both very competitive and very supportive of each other.
  7. Keep notes or a journal because good ideas are often fleeting and hard to recall. And remember, good ideas can come from anywhere so keep track of the suggestions of others and make sure that attribute those ideas to the proper source.
  8. Try to make a difference in the world. Try to leave everything your “touch” (job, relationship, project, whatever) in a better state that before you were there. Helping others improve and leading by example are two simple ways of making a difference.
  9. Accept that failure is a natural obstacle on your path to success. You are not trying hard enough if you never fail. But, you are also not trying hard enough if you fail too often. That is very subjective, and honest introspection is your best gauge. Be accountable, accept responsibility, document the lessons learned, and move on.
  10. Dream big, and use that as motivation to learn new things. While I was funding medical research efforts I spent time learning about genetics, genomics, and biology. That expanded to interests in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and interfaces such as natural language and non-verbal / emotional. Someday I hope to tie these together in a way that could help cure a disease (Arthritis) and improve the quality of life for millions of people. Will that ever happen? I don’t know, but I do know that if I don’t try it will never happen because of anything that I did.
  11. Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled in environments where fear and blame rule.
  12. Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  13. And above all else, honesty and integrity should be the foundation for everything you do and are.

Hopefully, this will help my children become the best people possible, and ideally early-on in their lives. I was 30 years old before I feel that I really had a clue about a lot of these things. Until that point I was somewhat selfish and focused on winning. Winning and success are good things, but they are better when done the right way.

Why do you want to teach?

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In the past I wrote about about how I like to read, experiment, and learn as much as possible about as many thing as possible. My goal isn’t to be the Jack of all trades and Master of none. Rather, I view knowledge and experience as pieces that can be used to build a mosaic of something interesting and/or worthwhile.

Years ago when I first started programming my manager had me work with the top performers in the group. Being inquisitive and always wanting to improve led me to ask a lot of questions in order to understand why things were done the way they were. One Analyst I worked with was extremely sensitive, and after fielding a few questions he told me, “Programming is like art. Two people will interpret things in two different ways, but in the end you will have two pictures that are similar and both do the job. So, quit messing with my picture.”

At first I was somewhat offended, but then I realized that much of what he stated was true. That led me to incorporate better methods and approaches into what I did, making them my own, as a way to continually improve. From that perspective learning really is somewhat of an artform.

What makes teaching worthwhile to me is helping people improve in ways that are their own, rather than teaching them how to do things in one specific “right” way. One analogy is that you are teaching people to navigate, rather that providing them with the route. Also, in order to be a good teacher you need to have a solid grasp on the topic, be willing and able to relate to students, and want to help them learn. It’s rewarding on a couple of different levels.

Your ability to teach well starts with your understanding of the topic, but that is just the foundation. Being able to apply a seemingly abstract concept to a concrete problem is a very helpful skill. In medicine they have the concept of, “See one, Do one, Teach one.” It is a great way to codify the knowledge and start developing the desired skills.

Being open to other approaches that might seem strange at first but then you see the brilliance in the solution is also helpful. Often a student would mention how they handled a problem and it sounded bizarre at first, but digging deeper into their approach resulted in understanding something that was actually pretty amazing.

Amazing teachers are out there, and I’ve met several of them. Those people are worth their weight in gold – especially when they are teaching children. They have their own kind of “magic” that can inspire people and provide the confidence and desire to do more than they ever dreamed was possible.

Teaching is about helping others, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room. And remember, not everyone wants to learn and/or improve so don’t take that personally. Just do your best to help the people who want to grow and improve. Mentoring is another good way to do this. You will be surprised at the positive impact one person can have by doing this.

Connecting the Dots Faster

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Picture of bridge with many lights representing dots.

When I started consulting an experienced consultant told me, “The best Consultants are experts at becoming Experts.” I started my consulting career with that goal in mind.  After a few years realized that, “Good consults are people who can learn enough quickly to ask intelligent questions and then connect the dots faster.” This is a great skill for anyone to have regardless of the industry or business.

It’s impossible to be an expert at everything. I believe that it is important to have great depth in a few areas (true expertise), and breadth of knowledge in many areas (enhancing context and insight). Both types of knowledge alone are valuable, but combined they add a dimension that I believe allows a person to be far more effective and potentially much more valuable because it leads to having the ability to pick-up on the dependencies and nuances that others miss.

Just think – How much more effective a salesperson is that understands technology and project management concepts when working to demonstrate fit and create a sense of urgency. Or, an Attorney that understands the complexity of service offerings and delivery – enhancing their ability to construct agreements that are highly protective yet not overly complex or onerous. Or, a programmer that thinks beyond the requirements and looks for ways to improve or simplify the process.  Extra knowledge helps with the big picture understanding, and that often leads to providing more value by “thinking outside the box.” Additional knowledge and skills almost always help us become more effective, regardless of what we may be doing.

Increased knowledge, combined with a desire to do amazing things, creates opportunities to make a huge and immediate impact. Sometimes it is because you are asking the questions that others may be thinking but simply cannot articulate in a clear manner. It helps you see the gaps and holes that others miss. And most importantly, it helps you “connect the dots” before others do (often many months before something obvious to you becomes obvious to others). A large consultancy once used the phrase “seeing around corners” as their attempt to make this concept tangible.

So, if you buy into the concept that knowledge is good, the next question is usually, “What is the best way to learn? People learn in different ways so there really is no one single best way to learn. Understanding how you learn best will help you learn faster.

I’m a fan of reading. A good book may reinforce ideas you already know, may introduce you to a few concepts or ideas that seem like they could help (giving you something to test), and often present many ideas that you know or feel just won’t work. Just don’t become one of those people who changes their beliefs and approach with every book they read (or what I refer to as “The book of the month club manager.“)

I’m also a fan of hands-on learning. The experience of doing something the first time is important. Keeping detailed notes (what works, what doesn’t make sense and what you did to figure it out, work-arounds, etc.) enhances the value of that experience. It’s amazing what you can learn when you “get your hands dirty.”

What about formal education? I’ve never been a fan of the person who wants to get a degree in order to get a promotion. There are certainly some professions where education is critical to success (often through legitimacy as much as anything else). My advice to people is to work towards a specific degree because it is important as a personal goal, and because it could possibly help you get a different or better job in the future. I will never criticize anyone for learning, going to school, or getting another certification or degree.

My personal belief is that the best way to get ahead is to learn the position, innovate, optimize, and then deliver incredible results. You won’t “knock it out of the park” every time, but those “base hits” will help you score and ultimately win.

This is not to say that formal education is bad, because I don’t believe that at all. I was working on my MBA at the same time I was expanding my consulting business from the US to the UK. I had a concentration in International Business, so I could apply many things I was learning right away. This bit of serendipity both enhanced my learning experience and helped me make better decisions that had real implications to my business. The funny thing was that I was actually working on that degree to raise the bar for my own children, so for me this was just a bonus.

There are also other great ways to learn – ways that are only require an investment of your time. There are many good free online courses. If there is something you are interested in learning or need to know more about, there is almost always a place to find free or low cost training. These are great investments in yourself and your future, and may help you learn to connect those dots faster.

Below are links to a few good free learning websites. Do yourself a favor and check them out. And, if you know of others leave a comment and recommend them to others.  Enjoy!

edX

Khan Academy

OpenCulture (directory with content from multiple sources)

Open Education Database (directory with content from multiple sources

Alison

Teaching & Learning in a Business Environment

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In the past I had occasion to teach technical courses, often to groups of 20 or more people. It was always interesting. There were the one or two people trying to prove how much smarter / better than you they were. There were the one or two people who were there just so they didn’t have to work. But most of the people were there to learn. You figured out who was who pretty quickly. Falling into the trap of labeling them and then only focusing on a subset can be problematic.

My teaching approach was to ask people about real issues (current or past), and use them as case studies for the class. This made  the lessons more tangible for everyone. People were forced to develop an understanding of he problem with incomplete knowledge, ask clarifying questions, and then offer suggestions that may or may not work.

The funny thing is that sometimes someone would suggest a solution that just seemed completely off the wall. You would want to understand their line of thinking so that you could show them a better way. Occasionally you would find that their unorthodox approach was really something brilliantly simple and/or highly effective  and very different from what you were expecting.

Every time I taught a course I would learn something. Different perspectives lead to a different understanding of the problems at hand, and that can lead to creative and innovative solutions. The best ideas sometimes come from the places where you least expect them.

Even with the most seasoned teams there are opportunities for teaching and learning. You may hear questions or statements that initially lead you to believe that someone doesn’t understand the problem or goal. It becomes easy to dismiss someone when you don’t feel they are adding value.

But, if you take the extra effort to drill-into their line of thinking you could be very surprised. If nothing else your team should feel more motivated and empowered with the process, and that leads to taking ownership of the problem and finding a solution. Results improve when everyone is focused on a common goal and they feel their contributions matter.

Everyone wins, as long as you give them the chance…