Six Sigma and Talent

October 30, 2006

Six Sigma is often thought of as a manufacturing discipline, but lately, I’ve seen it popping up more and more in IT. There was a great story in Computerworld today about how Bank of America is using Six Sigma to improve their development methodology.

While people often think of Six Sigma as a bunch of statistics geeks running around pretending that they are martial artists (“I’m a green belt”. “Oh, yeah? I’m a Black Belt.”), the real key to Six Sigma is that it helps you create repeatable processes. I know that the idea of repeatable development doesn’t square well with the “software development as art” idea, but it really is key to long term quality.

And, more importantly, it will become even more key over the next 20-30 years as we try to deal with the loss of talent. This is how BofA is really thinking about it. From the article:

Desoer is optimistic that the standardized methodology will reduce development time and help make developers and project team members more transferable across business units in coming years. That could be crucial if an exodus of retiring baby boomer technologists and a widely anticipated shortage of entry-level IT workers make it tougher for the bank to find and recruit people with the skills it needs, Desoer says. “We are going to be increasingly challenged to find highly qualified technology associates five to 10 years out,” she adds.

There are three ways to deal with the increasing War for Talent that is going on out there. The first approach is to do what most people do – accept that your talent is going to be mediocre, and pretend that it’s not. The second most common approach is to work harder and harder to recruit more and more – spending like a drunken sailor on recruiters fees, internal recruiters, job boards, evaluation tests, etc. This one’s actually what the really great companies out there right now are doing. And, if you do it right (like we did when we started the Toronto office at nCircle), you can come up with incredible talent.

Of course, that strategy only works as long as most people are employing the first approach (the Ostrich method). In the long term, it will be the companies that take on the approach that B of A is using that will be truly successful – the ones that combine the intense hiring and talent screening of the second approach with a long term plan that focuses on repeatable process to ensure a minimal level of quality (whether quality means “time to market”, “bug free”, “feature rich”, etc.) that will truly win the game.

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Vision Exercise

October 24, 2006

In a recent entry, I talked about the importance of having a solid vision for your life and about looking at it from the opposite direction. On that same topic, I put together a recording to help walk you through the long-term goal setting session that I mentioned in the overview of my life management system.

As I said in that prior entry, many of us create a vision moving forward in our lives – we look at 10 years from now and imagine it how we’d like it to be, with all the trappings. The exercise is designed to show you how your life looks when moving backwards – how do those things that you think you want change when you’re looking at them as past rather than future?

If you enjoy the exercise, drop me an email and let me know.

Click here to download the MP3. (20MB)

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The Subtle Effects of Birthdays

October 24, 2006

A few months ago, I read an interesting post on the Freakonomics blog about the effect of birth date on soccer stars. I thought it was an interesting effect at the time, and pondered whether it could pop up in other sports.

Well, apparently it affects minor hockey in Canda, too. From the article:

A new study shows that kids born later in the year are more likely to be filtered out of hockey at a young age, even though they will end up being as big and strong as the players who have birthdays earlier in the year.

What I find most interesting about this is that I remember, as a kid, noticing this. On my AAA and Junior hockey teams, we almost never had a kid who had a birthday in the fall (except one, who was tiny and particularly skilled). We never thought much about it at the time, but it’s definitely something that exists.

This is definitely an indication of places where sublte bias come in to play – we notice this in interviewing and hiring all the time. As much as you can say that you’re not biased towards a given outcome, the unconscious mind is a tricky thing, and leads to biases that you never would have believed.

So, if you’re aiming to have a kid who plays in the NHL, it looks like you should be trying to get pregnant in the early spring. (The saddest part of that is that I know some parents who would do exactly that.)

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Compressing “Good” Work

October 23, 2006

I was recently on a GTD Connect teleseminar, and the speaker said something that I found fascinating – that the key to excellence is doing less “good” work.

His argument was that most of us spend something like 15% of our time goofing off, 70% of our time doing good/normal/routine/everyday work, and 15% of our time doing amazing, excellent, super-cool, WOW! projects. He noted that the “goof off” time is an inbuilt reflex – most people try to “discipline” their way into never goofing off, and that’s generally unsuccesful because you’re fighting an instinct.

So, he reasoned, the key to excellence in life is to compress the amount of “good” work that we do in order to expand the amount of time we have for excellent projects. This was his reason for doing GTD.

This reminds me of something Seth posted recently about layoffs and firings – that about 50 people get laid off for every one that gets fired for doing something amazing. (Dan posted about this topic as well). I’m sure that all of those people did “good” work. Seth points out:

At least once a day, I get mail from people worrying that if they are too remarkable, too edgy, too willing to cause change and growth… they’re risking getting fired. I almost never get mail from people who figure that if they keep doing the same boring thing day in and day out at their fading company that they’re going to lose their jobs in a layoff.

Imagine what life would be like if you could find a way to eliminate or compresss the “good” work to only 1/2 of the time it usually takes you today… what could you do if you put 50% of your time into your calling?

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Moving Beyond Certifications

October 22, 2006

In a recent entry, I mentioned the training program that we conceived at nCircle to take relatively inexperienced engineers and turn them into security rock stars. The genesis of that program was in the search for a certification that actually meant something – even with the huge number of certifications out there, we couldn’t find a set of training or testing that would actually move an engineer from a normal level of technical skills to become a real high-octane security engineer in an orderly fashion.

The problem is really the dilemma of a certifying body that requires money to survive – in order to make money, the certification has to get recognized. In order to get recognized, a certain number of people have to have the certification (and be willing to do the work to get it). In order for that number of people to get the certification, the certification has to be sufficiently easy to allow them to get it.

Thus, you’re not likely to ever see a certification that actually reflects excellence, simply because the economic incentive isn’t there to create it. The same set of economic incentives are out there for anybody creating a training course for security – if their plan is to make money in the mass market, it simply can’t push people too far.

So, we realized that we had to move beyond certifications and create our own program, but what to put in it? So, we asked the following question:

If I were to snap my fingers and create the ideal super-star security engineer (SSSE), what skills would they have? What traits would they have? And how would they think?

What would your answer to that question be?

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The Importance of Vision

October 20, 2006

              “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
                                                        Proverbs 29:13

The importance of vision has been talked about for a long, long time, as evidenced from the quote above. And I’m not going to quote the oft-quoted statistics about the importance of having written goals, or of creating a compelling vision for your life.

What I am going to talk about today is the way that creating a vision allows you to try on different things. The beauty of creating a vision for your life is the opportunity to really think through what I believe is one of the most important questions that someone can ask themselves:

When I’m at the end of my life, who do I want to have been?

Note that I don’t ask it as: “who do I want to be?” The reason is pretty simple – it’s often in taking the long view of our lives that we can truly see what is important and what isn’t.

For example, for the answer to “who do I want to be?”, the concept of being a millionaire jet-setter might sound like it’d be a good deal more fun than what I’m doing right now. But looking back at my life from the future, it becomes a little easier to see that that’s not exactly what I’d like my life to be about.

Similarly, while today I might not exactly feel like living a life of service to my fellow man, that seems a bit more important when taking the long view. (I’ll post more on this in the coming weeks)

So, I ask today: what do you want your life do be when you look back on it from the end? What do you stand for? And what is your vision for who is around you, how you feel about yourself, and what you have accomplished?

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A Job, A Career, A Calling.

October 16, 2006

Martin McKeay posted recently about the difference between a career and a job. A prescient quote:

too many people have jobs, not careers. They go to the same building, day after day, so they can put food in their mouths and a roof over their head, but they take no joy in it. If you’re a frequent reader, you have probably gotten to the point of knowing you want a career in Security, but how much planning have you really done to get that career?

He goes on to point out that the difference between a job and a career is really the path – are you just going forward day-by-day, or are you being strategic with respect to the decisons you make and the learning and skills you acquire to attempt to move you down the road?

I agree wholeheartedly here, but I think it goes beyond even that – beyond having a career is having a calling. Are you truly called in your deepest heart to this work as a way of satisfying some deep need in you? Do you believe that this is the reason that you’re here on the planet?

If not, what is your calling? What work is the most utterly satisfying and rewarding and makes use of your unique skills and talents?

And what are you doing to make your job, your career, and your calling line up?

It’s an old cliche that you should do what you love and the money will folllow. It’s a cliche because it’s true. Now it may not follow quickly (which is why you have jobs). But perhaps you can find yourself beginning to notice that today is the day that you create a plan to make your true calling in to a career.

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