Tips

Staying Productive

Staying Productive

Background

I wrote a post a long while back about how I started to use Google Keep to get myself organized. Google Keep has been a go-to app for me on my phone for a long time now. I love using it to make lists of things, and I find it much more convenient than a paper notebook.

Don’t get me wrong–I think a paper notebook still has plenty of uses! I love my notebook for long running meetings with open-ended discussions or brain storming sessions. It’s great to be able to take a pen/pencil and doodle down any idea that comes to mind. When I’m having a free-form conversation, I need a free-form way to take notes.

However, my phone is something I almost always have with me–and my paper notebook isn’t. My phone allows me to take my Google Keep notes and email them to myself. It allows me to have a reminder right on my homescreen every time I unlock my phone. It’s just more convenient.

But something happened since the last time I wrote about using Google Keep. I use it more and more, and at some point I felt like I was getting less and less done. This is less about in the office and more about how productive I feel at home. So how can I be getting less done (or at least feeling that way) if I’m taking my own advice and using Google Keep to hack my TODO list?

I have tons of lists and no actions.

I think that’s the big take away. I list all the things I’m thinking about, and I keep making more lists. There’s no time frame around actioning things with the lists I’m making! So, in the spirit of continuous improvement, I set out to make some changes.

Inspiration

I know I wanted to make some changes with this part of my life because it was starting to weigh down on me; I didn’t feel productive. But I knew this wasn’t going to be something I’d answer over night. I kept my eyes and ears open for ideas for a little while before I thought up some tweaks.

The first thing I came across while living my alter ego was an Instagram post by Big J. Big J is this guy that’s incredibly big and incredibly strong. He’s lived the bodybuilding life and has a lot to show for it… And because being successful in the bodybuilding and strength world means being extremely motivated and hardworking, it’s no surprise I picked up this little bit from Big J:

Simple idea, right? Put some time into planning your schedule for the upcoming days. It almost seems to obvious to not be doing. I mean, don’t I do this already? I have meeting invites and stuff in my calendar for work… But, that’s right! I don’t have anything in my calendar for my own personal things that I like to do outside of work. Hmmm…

The next little tip to push me along was after a conversation with a teammate of mine at work. Our conversation was mostly about work-life balance, but my colleague was telling me about something he was trying out around forming habits. Essentially, over a period of time he’s been recording his success at keeping on top of good habits and identifying reasons why he’s sometimes missing them. Definitely right up the continuous improvement alley! Another great point he brought up was that good habits need to be introduced one at a time and only once you’ve been consistent with your other habits. By adding too much at once, you can derail the whole good habit process.

The “Staying Productive” Hack

This is the hack I’ve been implementing for a bit over a week now, and it’s helped tremendously with feeling productive!

Every night when I’m laying in bed, I spend about 5-15 minutes with my phone and I schedule personal activities in my calendar for the following day.

There it is. It’s not rocket science or something Earth shattering, but it’s definitely helping. Taking a page out of Big J’s book and a tip from my colleague, I’ve modified my schedule to introduce a very brief planning period every day. And it’s just one change that I think is helping introduce a good habit into my life.

This has helped me:

  • Stay on top of prepping food (which is a big part of the lifestyle I try to live)
  • Schedule time to relax (yes, I even schedule time for things like video games!)
  • Schedule time to blog (I run three blogs, and sometimes finding time to write feels like a chore)
  • Work on personal projects
  • … Feel like I’m being productive.

And no, I didn’t drop Google Keep–It actually helps feed into my scheduling! It’s great to look over my lists of things and try to create actions for them.

Next Steps

This simple hack is not only nothing particularly fancy, it’s also not bullet proof! But that’s okay when you’re always trying to continuously improve. Some snags I’ve run into or things I’ve thought about are:

  • How do I adjust my planned schedule when unexpected things come up? If someone drops in for a visit out of nowhere, or my car breaks down, or my dog decides to tear up the furniture, how do I make sure I can continue on with my planned schedule? Right now some things drop off the schedule or I push other things off to compensate. This hasn’t been too big of a problem so far, but sometimes this has a bit of a landslide effect and it makes the rest of the day feel unproductive. A little bit of dirt in the cogs seems to throw the whole thing off for me! This is something I’ll be thinking about as I encounter it and I’ll try to thing of some easy solutions.
  • How can I be more like Big J?! Aside from being bigger and stronger, how can I plan for more days? Big J plans every Sunday but I plan every night for the next day. Is there a happy medium? Planning every Sunday would potentially amplify the landslide effect I previously mentioned, but it would be a convenient single planning session for the whole week. Perhaps I’ll continue with the advice of my colleague and modify one part of my new habit at a time and look at planning for an extra day at a time and see how that goes!

If you’ve been making checklists and find that you’re unable to action items, try this approach! It takes only a few minutes every day, and so far I’ve been having great success in feeling productive. It’s not difficult, so it’s worth a try!


Burn Out

Disclaimer

I wanted to write this post to share my honest and personal experiences with burn out in the software and startup scene. I’m hoping that my experiences with getting to a stage of burn out can help someone identify if they’re going through the same thing. Hopefully someone will be able to take preventative actions before things get too serious, like I’ve been able to do. I’d also like to point out that I absolutely love my job (you’ll be reminded of that in my post) so my experience might be biased in some ways because of that. If I didn’t love what I do, I’d be finding another job where I did.

What is Burn Out?

In my earlier days at the company I work for, I remember my HR manager talking to me about burning out. It’s not unusual to pull all-nighters to work on something at a startup, and after hearing about this a few times, she mentioned to me that I need to be careful about this. She said I need to be careful that I don’t make a habit of doing things like that all the time or else I’ll “burn out”.

Now I had heard this phrase before, but never really spoke to anyone who had burnt out from too much work. From going to the University of Waterloo for co-op, I had heard about lucrative opportunities for some co-ops going out to The Valley to get jobs where they could work crazy overtime and make a killing. The idea was that on a co-op it was okay because after only four months you wouldn’t “burn out” too badly. Four months of 60-80 hour work weeks would be really intense and draining… But it couldn’t REALLY have that big of an impact on your life, right?

So that was really all I knew about burning out. 60-80 hour work-weeks for an extended period of time would result in burn out. And that meant… What? What did it mean to burn out? All I could think of was that you would become disinterested in your job and not want to work there any longer. You’d start to be tired all the time and resent going to work. You’d be an old cranky person in a potentially younger person body. Yeah, that sounds like it sucks. Is that far-off from what burning out actually is? Maybe not. But is there more to it?

Wikipedia (and yeah I’m referencing Wikipedia… deal with it) defines burning out as:

“a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work. Burnout has been assumed to result from chronic occupational stress (e.g., work overload)”

And that looks like it chalks up to what my initial definition of burn out used to be. It also mentions this though:

“The symptoms of burnout are similar to those of clinical depression”

So that one is a bit more extreme than the symptoms I had in my mind, previously. If you keep reading the Wikipedia article on burn out, you’ll get some spoilers for what I want to continue to talk about… The point is that burn out is actually pretty serious business and it’s a little bit more than being cranky and not liking your job.

My Early(ier) Startup Days

I had (and still have) my first job out of university at a company that was super small and appeared to have a really exciting future. A blossoming startup. In the really early days things were always moving incredibly fast. We’d turn out feature after feature in our software, triage critical bugs into the wee hours of the morning, ensure any customer we talked to was 100% pleased in every facet of the business, and we’d be doing all of this around the clock. It was exciting, and it still is exciting to be able to take pride in doing all of those things (although, there’s less fixing of critical bugs because… we’re like… perfect… or something). Having a really fast paced environment, a team of people you love to work with, an awesome product, and an incredible mission, it was easy to get sucked right into work.

I was still a 9 o’clocker. I hated (and I still dread) mornings. I’d like to sleep until noon every day if I could. I’d get into the office around 9 and head home at 5:30-6:00ish. It might mean I pick up the odd little thing at home or do a quick investigation into a bug if I heard something in an email, but otherwise those were my core hours. This worked out really well for me when I wanted to pull a really late night to work on something cool because I could still get enough rest to come into work.

I can think back to days (and I’m only talking about a couple of years ago, not like I’m some wise old man, so take that for what it’s worth) where I’d head into the office to triage bugs that we’d consider huge blockers until two or three in the morning. I didn’t have my bosses hounding me to do this, and whether they knew it or not, I didn’t care. I had pride in what we were making so I wanted to be part of ensuring that it was of the highest quality. I’d find myself trying to churn out some extra code on weekends in my spare time when I thought of something cool related to our product or business, or just to get us a little bit more ahead.

Between hitting the gym, hanging with my friends at bars/parties, playing video games, programming my own stuff for fun, or just relaxing at home, I’d find time every now and then to program stuff for work. Again, not because anyone forced me to… but because I wanted to. I wouldn’t let my gym/nutrition schedule slide during our hectic releases, and I know we had co-op students that can recall me popping out of the office for a couple of hours during crazy releases to ensure that was the case. I’ll make sacrifices into my other personal time, but ensuring I can get my gym time in is sacred to how I choose to live my life. I was still keeping in touch with my friends from university even though most of them moved away right after school, and I’d of course always have time for my close high school friends. Weekends were a great time to drive out (aside from having an old crappy car that was always overheating) to visit friends or have them drop in.

Early startup days were exciting and insanely busy. It was hard work but we always made sure we were having fun along the way.

… As Time Went On…

This trend kept up for a while… which was awesome for our company. We’ve received so many accolades for our success and it’s great to share a responsibility in that. We’d hear back from our clients about how we were making a difference in the world, and that was more fuel to keep doing such an amazing job. I knew by then that I loved where I worked and I loved what I was doing. I had received more responsibilities in my job by this point too, so I was not only programming but I became a people manager (which was an entirely new experience for me). There was more (and very different) work being introduced for my day-to-day activities, but it continued to be an exciting journey.

There were fewer late nights to triage bugs because we adapted to have much better systems in place. There were more people that knew different parts of our code base so I could rely on other people to help out. It was reassuring to know the right people were being brought on in our company to help out with all of the different pieces. Even though I felt like I had more work to do, the responsibilities were shared on some of the big pieces that I didn’t want to be entirely responsible for. That was a bit of a relief. The difference was that now I had to know the status of more things, which added pressure.

I started to be a little bit more distant with my friends. I think it’s a natural thing to happen after university (just like it was with high school) where some of your closer friends start to go off in different directions. It’s part of life. You can keep your close friends close, but you always know that you can catch up with your for-life friends even if you’re apart for long periods of time. Okay, let’s not get all emotional on the friend-front. I noticed that I was starting to put off visiting friends for certain work things at this point though. For example, if I had a big release I might skip someone’s birthday because I knew I had a stressful weekend coming up, and of course it didn’t help that we had a milestone with some project that was following right after too. I was trying to find ways to make it up to my friends for missing things because I felt bad about it.

My hobbies started to narrow a bit by this point. I’m still an avid gym goer, and I was during this time frame as well. I was going every single day like I had planned… even during those hectic releases. I was playing video games less because they weren’t really something that was productive. If I noticed I was spending a lot of time on video games, I could often convince myself that there was work to do that would have a positive impact if I could deliver it. Do I need to level up my digital wizard character again in some fantasy land that doesn’t mean anything, or could I knock off another feature from our roadmap? It’s not that hard to change your mind when you like what your building, so the choice would often come down to “what’s more productive”? This is also coming from a person who doesn’t watch TV ever because it doesn’t feel productive, so maybe I’m just weird.

After a couple of years of startup life, I was still loving it. Certain parts of my life were changing (less time for friends and hobbies… more and varied responsibilities at work), but the positives still outweighed the negatives. Besides, it feels really good to be productive.

And Now…

It’s been a few years now, and yes, I still absolutely still love my job, what we make, who I make it with, our customers, and all of the crazy things we go through. If you talk to anyone on my team, they’ll let you know I’m a morning person now. Except that I’m really not. I actually hate waking up early, but rolling out of bed at 7 to get to work for 7:30-7:45 means that I get some extra time in the morning to work. My team would also let you know that I work late too, so if you needed to pop into the office because you forgot something, you could come by my desk and chat with me. My core hours aren’t 9-5 anymore, but they’ve evolved to be about 8 to 6. If I’m not at the office by 8, some of the early risers actually get worried about where I’m at. If I’m out of the office before 6, people will ask me what’s wrong because if I’m leaving “early”, then something must be up. I don’t really take vacation now either. I’ve been bothered (for what I believe to be all of the right reasons) by my HR manager to take more vacation than I do. And yeah, this is the same HR manager that mentioned the burn out thing to me. I don’t really take vacation now because it chews into my work time. Work often carries over into the weekends too. I’m working those Valley hours now trying to get as much productivity as I can in my 24×7 window.

My job responsibilities? They’ve shifted to encompass more things, which feels great. It feels good to put in time and be able to take on more responsibilities. However, with more responsibilities comes more accountability for things (obviously) which can mean pressure build ups when certain things align. For example, instead of being responsible for a single project or deliverable, I might be responsible for two to four of these things. If they happen to line up in a short period of time, it can mean an immense amount of stress. It can also mean that I don’t feel comfortable taking vacation during those heavy periods. Unfortunately, the more prolonged that goes, the more I need vacation and the more I feel like I can’t take it.

My hobbies are really narrow now. I hit the gym every day still. I’m still adamant about this. However, my nutrition has been starting to slack. I enjoy eating healthy, preparing food, and knowing what I’m putting in my body. The latest thing to give way is food preparation  because it takes time, and it’s easy to get food in other ways. I’m not really proud of this or happy with this. Video games? I’ll take a day every now and then and binge on them to blow off some steam. Hobby programming? Not a chance. Blogging? Look at the frequency of my posts as of late to get an idea… It’s trailed off.  My current frame of mind seems to revolve around the idea of “if it’s not work, I probably shouldn’t be doing it”.

My friends? I feel like I only have my closest friends still and my colleagues (and I love my colleagues like family, so that’s not a bad thing). I’ve done a really poor job of keeping in touch with everyone else because I’m not making any time for them. I’ve been doing a pretty bad job of keeping in touch with m y immediate family too. I didn’t even realize it until my parents started pointing it out, which is obviously a problem.

So What’s Going On?

Right now I’d say thing in my life probably aren’t what I would consider great, despite the fact that I’m living to all of the goals that I’ve set for myself. I’ve graduated from university with a degree studying computer engineering. I have a full time job that I love and work hard at. I have a car that I like. I have a condo that I love. Why aren’t things great?

I’ll direct us back to Wikipedia for this interesting little list they have. They’ve actually defined a list of the stages of burning out, and I can speak to a lot of them in the order that they present them:

  • The Compulsion to Prove Oneself: New to the workforce. New to the job. New to the team. I saw great potential in the company, and I wanted to prove that I could be a driver in getting it to where it could be. I needed to prove to someone (myself? I don’t even know) that I could be that driving change. Could it be done without me? I’m sure my team could have gotten to where they are without me because they’re all talented people, and I didn’t bring anything to the table that they couldn’t have made up for. But I wanted people to look back and think that I was a primary driver in all of this.
  • Working Harder: You can likely see it in the transitions I described above. I’m not a morning person, but now I wake up early to get more time for work. I stay up later to get more time in for work. I trade out my hobbies so that I can make time for work. I have tried to find any way I can to increase the amount of work I can get done.
  • Neglecting Their Needs: I’ve probably been in denial on this one for a long time. I try to be as healthy as I can… But I’m neglecting my need to sleep sufficiently. I’m neglecting my need to spend time with friends and family. I often look at my “needs” as biological (good food and exercise) and my ability to keep a roof over my head. I’ve been neglecting the other pieces.
  • Displacement of Conflicts: This is apparently the stage when people first start to realize something is wrong. Is that why I’m writing this post in the first place? Am I only at this early stage of burn out? I feel like I’m showing traits of some of the following steps though.
  • Revision of Values: When reflecting on my current state compared to how I viewed myself at the end of university, I know things have changed. My highest valued trait is my ability to do work. If I don’t work as much or as hard, I value myself less. I’ve certainly become more emotionally blunt as well. Over the past few years, I’ve been referred to as robotic more and more frequently. Other people are noticing this too, so it’t not just me.
  • Denial of Emerging Problems: My personality type tends to ride the line between introvert and extrovert on certain things. I can tell that my ability to be extroverted has become extremely demanding on me mentally/emotionally and that often means that I’d choose to be alone versus with a group of people. The article also states increased amounts of aggression and sarcasm are present. For anyone that knows me well, sarcasm is my middle name… And when I’m irritated, sarcasm becomes my weapon of choice (which is really unfortunate). I also blame all of this on the amount of work that I have and pressure that I believe I’m under. I don’t blame any of this on how I’ve changed my value systems over the past couple years, which isn’t fair.
  • Withdrawal: I’m not quite sure if I’ve totally hit this step, but this really just refers to an increased level of wanting to be removed from social interactions.
  • Obvious Behavioral Changes: I suppose this is for other people to observe. I’ve picked up a few cues that other people are noticing I behave differently. An example is my reduced emotional intelligence and tolerance for certain things I don’t find logical at face value. I generally get irritated by this kind of thing and then turn to sarcasm.
  • Depersonalization: This point was interesting. While I don’t think that I’ve devalued myself or others necessarily, I do think that I view my life as a series of mechanical functions. It’s a rather boring way to look at life, but I’ll admit I look at things as a regular process and I look for ways to optimize my time to get more work done. The amount of work I can get done is how I determine my efficiency, and my life currently revolves around being more efficient.
  • Inner Emptiness: I think I’ve arrived close to this point, personally. As I mentioned above… I’ve set a few personal goals in my life: education, good job, car, and place to live. I feel that I’ve achieved those things, and I’m always working to improve in those areas. I still feel completely empty in terms of achievement though.
  • Depression: Next up? Depression. The great news is that I don’t feel depressed. At all. There’s a history of depression in both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family, so this is a fear of mine. I’m worried about falling into a depression, but I don’t believe I’m there yet. I actually think I’m a long way off from it. I think as far along into burning out that I might be, I can take the necessary steps to avoid getting to a depressed state.
  • Burnout Syndrome: This is the final stage that involves collapsing physically and emotionally. While I do have a feeling of emptiness, I’m still quite physically healthy and I think I have the right frame of mind for how I’m looking at my state of burn out. With that said, I’m quite confident that I’m not at this stage.

I’d encourage you to actually check out the article on this because it’s pretty interesting; especially if you think that you’re on your way to being burn out.

I haven’t been totally oblivious to what’s been happening over time. Here’s my own list of the things I’ve picked up on:

  • My emotional intelligence has been slipping and I’m always thinking in a more logical manner, often neglecting the feelings of others. I’ve had a few instances come up where I’ve said the wrong thing because I wasn’t really offering support for a friend, but instead telling them what I thought based on my more robotic personality.
  • Being around people is draining. I hate to admit this one, but I find spending time around other people is draining. Spending time around people I don’t know for a night might mean that I don’t feel like hanging out with anyone for a week or more.
  • I’m becoming socially challenged. When I need to meet new people, I don’t really know what to say anymore. I don’t have all that much to talk about now. I’d rather just be alone. Sure, I might be a programmer so people expect that my social skills aren’t up to average, but I’m actually noticing that I don’t know how to interact with new people now. It’s scary. You might not observe it if you meet me, which just means I’m doing a really good job of hiding it because that’s how I feel about it.
  • I have one hobby, and it’s lifting weights. Unfortunately, I happened to pick one hobby that not a ton of people find that exciting. I don’t make time for creating music anymore. I don’t hobby program that often. I rarely play video games. I don’t feel like I have time or interest to go pick up anything new.

The Silver Lining

If you’ve made it this far without clicking away, falling asleep, or both, then it probably sounds like a pretty lame post about my life. That’s not the goal of it though, and that’s certainly not how I feel about my situation. I’m actually just trying to understand all that’s going on with regards to going through burn out. With that said, I think there’s a handful of really positive things I’ve picked up on over the past few years with respect to this:

  • I’ve learned how I work most efficiently. I’ve had to work in a variety of scenarios on a variety of different projects. I know that I like working mostly in isolation or if I’m part of a team, then working around just those individuals. I like having distractions of my other responsibilities removed (which for my career, is often tricky given that I interface with many different people). I know that I like having some music going and being able to crank out code without interruption. I like to stay well caffeinated, and I like working in the evening more than I like working in the morning. I’m a typical programmer.
  • I’ve learned that I love working with the people at my office. Call it corny, but I have my work family, and I love to work with them. They have a high level of trust in me, and I’m able to trust them. It’s a great dynamic and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many great people.
  • I know that given enough time, I can work through most problems no matter how difficult they seem. I’ve had to come up with some really unique solutions to problems I originally thought near impossible.
  • I consider myself the hardest working individual that I know. I pride myself in this, but… perhaps that’s the whole problem here 🙂

What’s Next?

That’s the big question here. I’ve identified that I’m well on my way to burning out… So what’s next for me? If you’re going through something similar… What’s next for you?

  • Spend more time with friends. Hands down. Number one priority. I’m going to start making more time for friends.  If they’re out of town, I’m going to start offering to drive out to visit them more often if they don’t feel like making the journey here. Same goes for family. I’m getting regular Skype sessions set up with my family so we can stay in touch between visits. Friends and family are one of my needs that I’m neglecting, and I’m going to remedy that first.
  • Vacation. I used to believe I lived the work-hard-play-hard lifestyle, but it’s just the work hard lifestyle now. It’s time to take some vacation and acknowledge that I need it in order to actually stay sharp and operate at the best of my ability. Taking vacations and having time for yourself (and/or your friends/family) is hugely beneficial. Just because it doesn’t let me turn out more lines of code doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.
  • Tell my HR manager she’s been right for a long time. And this will be my first step in seeking some external help. The first step is admitting the problem… and the next step is getting help for it 🙂

I’m keeping my list of goals pretty short for now. I need to start making changes in how I operate and then reassess how these changes are affecting my life. I’m expecting positive changes, but I’m not sure how fast.

If you think you’re on the way to potentially burning out, I think the most important thing you can do is be aware of it. I still don’t believe there’s anything wrong with working hard and pouring your heart into something you love doing. But like anything, the more time you dedicate to something and take away time from other places, you’ll find that it starts to change the person that you are. Pay attention to it. Be aware of it. It’s all that you can do to prevent yourself from getting to a state where you feel like it’s too late for you to make a change.

It’s never too late for you to work your way back from burning out.


One on One Evolution

Background

I’m a “middle manager” where I work, but that means a whole bunch of things. My everyday tasks primarily consist of programming, but I do a bunch of work to interface with other departments and teams, and I play a role in managing people on… well, the “people” side of things. For the latter part, I refer to that as people leadership.

I think it’s pretty easy to look at some of the aspects of people leadership and dismiss them as “fluffy” or needless… I consider myself a logical/technical thinker, so I have that frame of mind sometimes. However, I do see the value in actually being able to support my team so that they can operate at the best of their abilities. I try to find ways to do that without it seeming to them like I’m doing “fluffy leadership things”, and in turn, I don’t feel that way about it either. With that in mind, I had previously set out with ways to accommodate team feedback in a way that works best for them.

One on Ones: The Early Days

I worked with my HR manager a couple of years back to establish a one on one template that I could use with the developers on my team. The goal was to be able to identify points of conversation since the last time we met, the individual’s current situation (both positive and concerns), and then identify goals. Ideally, the individual is able to fill this out on the form in as much detail as necessary for us to be able to have a conversation about it later.

I didn’t want this to seem like a chore for people so I’ve tried to identify why this is useful for the individual and for myself. For the individual, it gives them an avenue to discuss anything that’s becoming a problem over the period of a few weeks (i.e. something not obvious all at once) or be able to identify successes in their work. It also allows them to reflect on their goals that they want to set in their career, current projects, or even things outside of work (because improving your abilities outside of work is a good thing too). For me, it provides better insight into the trend of problems people are experiencing, their contributions to their current projects, and even helps me see where people are at with their career goals. Both parties are able to benefit from these!

I’ve left it open in the past as to how people submit them. Written? Sure. Digital? Sure. Whatever is easiest for the individual provided I can get it a couple of days before we meet. I’ve also left it open ended as to how much of the form they fill in. Based on the trends, I think people see value in having more content but sometimes the goal setting is a bit of a grey area. People might be between setting different goals and want to wait to discuss those things. The best part is, I don’t need to hassle the team to fill in more… They just do a great job of providing information for me!

One on Ones: Continuous Improvement

I’m all for continuous improvement in our development processes that we have as well as our management processes. With that said, we’ve made a few tweaks to the one on ones recently that I think have had a great positive impact.

  • Digitized: I’ve got everyone on board with digitizing their one on ones. This is incredibly handy for being able to search for content later on (instead of sifting through paper), so I get a huge benefit from it. Each individual can probably benefit from this too if their ever looking for things we discussed. Archiving digital documents has so many benefits over the paper counterparts that it’s hard to imagine going back to these mostly being paper-based. I can easily print off copies for the individual if they lose them (or if I lose them) and it makes life easier for me at year end. I can quickly scan over documents on my computer to get a good overview of a person’s year right on my laptop.
  • Nick’s Notes: A little tweak to the one on one process is that with the digital copies, I can put in highlighted notes. This allows me to get down my feedback to the individuals before we meet. In the past, I requested documents a couple of days before we meet so I can try to action what I can ahead of time. However, adding my notes and getting it back to the individual before we meet let’s them know things I want to dive deeper on. It gives them an opportunity to prepare their thoughts, and from what I’ve heard, this is really beneficial for them. The other positive thing is that it let’s me provide them kudos on certain things that I don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of time talking about them with one on one. It’s improved the efficiency of our meetings, and I think it benefits both sides.

What’s Next?

I’ll be honest in that I don’t have any next steps planned for these one on ones. But that’s okay! I’m going to let a few more rounds of these go through before I try to tweak the process. This let’s me get a feel for how the changes are playing out and then from there I can see where I might need to make some improvements.

If you don’t have a semi-structured system in place for your one on ones, I highly recommend it! Make it something you can at least get a feel for how successful they are. If you can gauge their effectiveness, then you can try to tweak the process over time to improve it! You’ll benefit from the information, and your team will benefit from you providing support for them.


Should My Method Do This? Should My Class?

Whose Job Is It?

I wanted to share my experience that I had working on a recent project. If you’ve been programming for a while, you’ve definitely heard of the single responsibility principle. If you’re new to programming, maybe this is news. The principle states:

That every class should have responsibility over a single part of the functionality provided by the software, and that responsibility should be entirely encapsulated by the class

You could extend this concept to apply to not only classes, but methods as well. Should you have that one method that is entirely responsible for creating a database connection, connecting to a web service, downloading data, updating the database, uploading some data, and then doing some user interface rendering? What would you even call that?!

The idea is really this: break down your code into separate pieces of functionality.

Easier Said Than Done… Or Is It?

The idea seems easy, right? Then why is it that people keep writing code that doesn’t follow this guideline? I’m guessing it’s because even though it’s an easy rule, it’s even easier to just… code what works.

The recent experience I wanted to share was my work on a project that has a pretty short time frame to prove it was feasible. It was starting something from scratch, so I had all the flexibility in the world to design code however I wanted to. I really made an effort to keep asking myself this one question: Whose job is it?

Every time I asked that question and found that it was not my current method’s responsibility, I would ask “Is this class really responsible for that”? I’d either go make myself a new method in my class or I’d just go immediately make a new class with a single method on it. It seemed like a bit of extra overhead each time I had to do it, but was it worth it in the end?

Absolutely. After the project had proven itself and development continued on, I was easily able to refactor code (where necessary) and mock out functionality in my coded tests. Instead of trying to write test setup code that required a whack of classes I needed to initialize, I could mock out a couple of interfaces and test with ease. It was also really obvious which pieces were responsible for what functionality.

Final Thoughts

If you want to get better at following the single responsibility principle, I think it starts with one question: Whose job is it? Try it out!


There’s Nothing Wrong With Failing

Fail!

Failure to Communicate

So this post will be pretty short, but I wanted to quickly touch on a workplace experience that happened the other day. I was approached by a colleague (who’s perspective I really value) about the way some of us on the team were discussing a series of events. This individual was really concerned that we kept calling it a failure, and in this person’s mind, we hadn’t truly failed at anything. We had done an experiment in terms of tackling a development problem and the team had reached a critical mass where we declared “enough is enough, this is a failure”. I became concerned because I wanted to make sure this person and I were on the same page.

I couldn’t totally wrap my ahead around why this person was so concerned about calling it a failure. In my opinion, all the evidence was there to call it a failure! But I guess that was just a failure on my part to communicate properly. I think that there was a work culture gap where this person was viewing our declaration of a failure as something really negative, whereas a lot of us were really just marking it as a point of realization to not continue along with something. All of the reasons this person offered up for why our experiment was not a failure were true. We hadn’t missed a deadline to ship and we had a plan for how to work around it. That sounds like success, right?

I guess the communication breakdown was really this: There’s nothing wrong with failing. We tried something and we’ve identified that it’s not working. That’s a failure. What makes us successful? Being able to identify our failures, learn from them, and improve going forward. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. Acknowledging a failure and planning how we can be better next time around.

So with that said… You should be failing when you push the boundaries. Just make sure you learn from your failures.


First C# Dev Connect is Coming Up

C# Dev Connect

 

C# Dev Connect Meetup!

About a year ago I had thrown around the idea of creating a C#-specific group that would meet at a regular interval with some of my colleagues. I saw that there was interest, but between all of the things we had going on in our personal lives and work lives, we just hadn’t been able to co-ordinate something. I’m excited to announce that with some more solid planning over the last couple of months, C# Dev Connect will be able to host their first meetup! The company I work for, Magnet Forensics, has graciously offered our new office to host the event which will help tremendously. We’ll have a group of people from Magnet Forensics their to help out, but the only thing “Magnet” about the event is really just that it’s hosted at the office.

What’s on the Dev Connect Agenda?

This upcoming Tuesday (Tuesday January 20th, 2015) C# Dev Connect will be hosting their first monthly meetup on the topic of Threading in C#. Directly from the event’s Meetup page:

Overview of the the basics of threading in C# language. Threading is a very complex idea with many different ways of handling the same problem, however, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. We’ll be discussing the basics of threads in .NET 2.0 and .NET 4.0. In .NET 2.0 we’ll be discussing the Thread object, various ways to start/stop threads, and potential stumbling blocks when it comes to threading in C#. In .NET 4.0 we’ll be talking about the async and await operators and how to use them.

A colleague of mine, Chris Sippel, will be giving the talk. People are encouraged to bring their laptops so they can try out some C# exercises related to the discussion. This initial talk may be more geared at an introductory-level, but our goal is to be able to cover topics for all levels of knowledge in C# (From never used it before, to expert level). We’ll even provide some food! All you have to do is show up and be ready to learn some C#, or share your C# knowledge.

If you’re looking for our venue, we had this little map put together:

C# Dev Connect Venue Map

Go into the back of 156 Columbia Street West in Waterloo (at the corner of Phillip and Columbia). If you’re familiar with the area, this used to be called RIM/Blackberry 5.

 

More Dev Connect Info

Here are a few additional links to get you to more C# Dev Connect information online:

We’re excited for you to join us!


MyoSharp – Update On The Horizon

MyoSharp

If you haven’t checked it out already, my friend Tayfun and I created an open source C# wrapper for Thalmic’s Myo. It’s hosted on GitHub over here, so you can browse and pull down code whenever you want. We’ve had some great feedback from users of our API, so we continue to welcome it (both positive and negative!) in order to improve the usability.

Thalmic has plans to release a firmware update to allow more data to be accessible through their API. Right now, MyoSharp is a bit out of date, but once this big firmware update lands we’ll take some more time to get it up to date again. Remember, it’s open source so you can feel free to contribute!

Troubleshooting

The most common question I receive is “I keep getting an exception about not being able to connect when I run the sample code”. I’ve tried to help a few people through this so I just figured I’d mention it right here for clarity: It’s more than likely that your MyoConnect version and the version we packaged with MyoSharp have become out of date. You probably keep your Myo SDK more up to date than MyoSharp is.

Don’t worry! So far we’ve had reasonably good luck just replacing the Myo DLLs in the x86 and x64 folder of the solution. Provided Thalmic didn’t break any API compatibility, things should actually just work out of the box. If they *DID* break backwards compatibility, it’s likely not that big of a deal either. You can update the PInvokes used to match the signatures they expect, and again, you should be up and running pretty quickly.

With that said, hold tight! We’ll get something updated soon. If you can’t wait, then that’s my suggestion for how to get up and running. Please don’t hesitate to contact Tayfun or myself for troubleshooting. Just post in the comments here and we can try to help out!


Hack Your TODO List With Google Keep

Hack Your TODO List With Google Keep

Trying To Keep It Alllll Together…

I’m a big fan of TODO lists. I find that they’re a great way for me to set up a bunch of tasks and feel really productive as I work through them. I’ll make TODO lists for almost anything. What do I need to get done tomorrow morning at work? What groceries do I need to get? What topics am I thinking of blogging about? I’ll get some sort of TODO list going for anything.

The one thing that I need in my TODO list to stay effective is to constantly have it around me to remind me. I was running the Evernote app on my Android phone and recently made the observation that things that I put in there had a much higher likelihood of getting done versus things I put in my work notebook. The reason? I check my phone a lot more than my work notebook. I have my phone with me when I grocery shop. I have it before and after I workout at the gym. It’s my alarm in the morning so I have access to it as soon as I wake up. My work notebook? Not so much.

The problem here is that my important work tasks I want to accomplish were not getting the same treatment my out-of-work tasks were getting. They weren’t getting the same success rate.

Enter Google Keep

I try to meet up with my teammates once a month to discuss their goals or things we need to work through at the office. In my last round of one-on-ones, I was discussing my TODO lists with one of my colleagues, Samantha. She said that she noticed I was using Evernote, but was curious of I’ve ever tried out Google Keep. I admitted that I hadn’t, but she was speaking highly of it. “Why not give it a shot?” I thought. But it hacked my TODO list concept in a big way.

Google Keep has one feature that I think is totally awesome on my phone. I never tried this with Evernote, so I’m not claiming that it can’t do this. The phone widget is truly awesome. Right on my homescreen of my phone, I can see my TODO lists. This takes that first point I was discussing (need to have access to it all the time) to a whole new level. Now instead of having to go to the app itself to get refreshed on what I need to do, almost any time I touch my phone I’m having visibility into my TODO lists.

A second powerful feature is the idea of checkboxes for progress. This probably sounds like it’s not all that important. “Google Keep has checkboxes? Great… I have bullet points in any other app I can get my hands on!” I can hear you saying that now 😉 But it’s different. I was using Evernote and keeping bulleted lists, and when I was through with something, I’d just delete the whole bullet point. The idea of checking things off your list is powerful because it shows you that your making progress. I can see that I have only 3 of 10 items left on my list and that gives me a bit more drive to try and knock off the rest. If my list is always just a view of what’s left, it will always feel like it’s never done.

Summary

I’m not trying to push Google Keep or bash Evernote here… I’m just trying to show you how a few simple hacks in my TODO lists were able to provide some real positive benefits. For me, the things I need in my TODO list technology are:

  • Easy to access
  • Ability to access frequently
  • Insight into progress I’m making on the list
  • … Not cost me a cent!

Your list might look a bit different. You could argue that you don’t always want the list in front of you or that you don’t want total transparency into the progress you’re making. I can’t speak for you in terms of what will be most effective, but I highly recommend Google Keep after using it for only a couple of weeks.

Now my only problem is that I look like I’m ignoring people if I’m taking notes on my phone in a meeting! Thanks for the suggestion, Sam!


Refactoring For Interfaces: An Adventure From The Trenches

puzzle

Refactoring: Some Background

If you’re a seasoned programmer you know all about refactoring. If you’re relatively new to programming, you probably have heard of refactoring but don’t have that much experience actually doing it. After all, it’s easier to just rewrite things from scratch instead of trying to make a huge design change part way through, right? In any mature software project, it’s often the case where you’ll get to a point where your code base in its current state cannot properly sustain large changes going forward. It’s not really anyone’s fault–it’s totally natural. It’s impossible to plan absolutely everything that comes up, so it’s probable that at some point at least part of your software project will face refactoring.

In my real life example, I was tasked with refactoring a software project that has a single owner. I’m close with the owner and they’re a very technical person, but they’re also not a programmer. Because I’m not physically near the owner (and I have a full-time job, among other things I’m doing) it’s often difficult to debug any problems that come up. The owner can’t simply open an editor and get down to the code to fix things up.

So there was an obvious solution which I avoided in the first place… Unit tests. Duh. I need unit tests. So that’s an easy solution right? I’ll bust out my favourite testing framework (I’m a fan of xUnit) and start getting some solid code coverage. Well… in an ideal world, like every programming article is ever written, this would have been the case. But that wasn’t the case. My software project does a lot of direct HTTP/FTP requests and interacts with particular hardware on the machine. How awesome is writing a unit test that contacts an HTTP server? Not very awesome.

What was I to do? I need to be able to write unit tests so that I can validate my software before putting it in my customer’s hands, but I can’t test it with unit tests because I don’t have the hardware!

Refactoring for Interfaces

Okay, so the first step in my master plan is to refactor for interfaces. What do I mean by that? Well, I have a lot of code that will call out and make HTTP requests and it has a specific dependency on System.Net.WebRequest. The same thing holds true for my FTP requests I want to make. Because I have that dependency within my classes, it means I have no choice but to call out to the network and go do these things.

I could design it a different way though. What if I abstracted the web requests away so that I didn’t actually have to call that class directly? What if I could have a reference to some instance that met some API that would just do that stuff for me? I mean, my class knows all about it’s on particular job, but it truthfully doesn’t know the first thing about calling out to the Internet to go post some HTTP requests. This means if someone else is responsible for providing me with a mechanism for giving me the ability to post HTTP requests, this other entity could also fool me and not actually send out HTTP requests at all! That sounds like exactly what my test framework would want to do.

My first step was to look at the properties and methods I was using on the WebRequest class. What was shared between the HTTP and FTP requests that I was creating? The few things I had to consider were:

  • Some sort of Send() method to actually send the request
  • A URI to identify where the request is being sent
  • A timeout property

I then created an interface for a web request that had these properties/methods accessible and created some wrapper classes that implemented this interface but encapsulated the functionality of the underlying web requests. The next step was creating a class and interface for a “factory” that could create these requests. This is because my code that needs to make HTTP/FTP requests only knows it needs to make those requests–It doesn’t have any knowledge on how to actually create one.

With my interfaces for my requests and my factory that creates them, I was able to move onto the next step.

Create Mocks for the Interfaces

Now that I had my classes leveraging interfaces instead of concrete classes internally, I could mock the inner-workings of my classes. This would provide two major benefits:

  • I could create tests that wouldn’t have to actually go out to the Internet/network.
  • I could create instrumented mocks that would let me test whether certain web requests were being made.

I started off my writing up some unit tests. I tried to get as much code coverage as I could by doing simple tests (i.e. create an object, check default values, call a method and check a result, etc…). Once I had exhausted a lot of the simple stuff, I targeted the other areas that I wasn’t hitting. I mean, how was my coded test supposed to test my method that does an HTTP request and an FTP of a file under the hood? Mocks.

So this is where you probably draw the line between your integration tests or unit tests and get all pedantic about it. But I don’t care how you want to separate it: I need coded tests that cover a section of my class so that I can ensure it behaves as I expect. But if I’m mocking my dependencies, how do I know my class is actually doing what I expect?

Instrument your mocks! This was totally cool for me to play around with for the first time. I had to create dummy FTP/HTTP requests that met the interface my class under test expected. Pretty easy. But I could actually assert what requests my class under test was actually trying to send out! This meant that if my method was supposed to try and hit a certain URL, I could assert that easily by instrumenting my mocked instance to check just that. Was it supposed to FTP a certain set of bytes? No problem. Use my mocked instance to assert those bytes are actually the ones my class under test is trying to send.

Wrap Up

This was just a general post, and I didn’t put up any code to go along with it. Sorry. I really just wanted to cover my experience with refactoring, interfaces, mocking, and code coverage because it was a great learning for me.

To recap on what I said in this post:

  • Identify the parts you want to mock. These are the things your class or method probably isn’t responsible for creating directly. Going out to the network? Accessing the disk? Accessing the environment your test is running under? Creating complex concrete classes because they hook into some other system for you? Great candidates for this.
  • Create interfaces by looking at the API you’re accessing. You know what classes you want to mock, so look how you’re using the API. If you need to access a few properties and methods, then make that part of your interface. If you see commonality between a few similar things, you might be able to create a single interface to handle all of the scenarios.
  • Inject factories that can create instances for you. These factories know how to create the concrete classes that meet your interfaces. In a real situation, they can create the classes you expect. In a test environment, they can create your mocks.
  • Write coded tests with your mocks! The last part is the most fun. You can finally inject some mocked classes into your classes/methods under test and then instrument them to ensure your code under test is accessing them in the way you expect. Run some code coverage tools after to prove you’re doing a good job.

I hope my experiences down this path are able to help you out!


Leadership: What Does It Mean? – Weekly Article Dump

Leadership: What Does It Mean? - Weekly Article Dump

Leadership

Everyone has their own variation of what leadership means. For me, leadership means empowering others to accomplish their goals and providing assistance when they need it. There were a few articles that came up on LinkedIn this week that I wanted to share with everyone and discuss how they fit into my perspective on leadership.

Articles

  • Does Your Team Work With You Or For You?Kwame Manu-Antwi opens up the article in an interesting fashion. When I read the title of the article, I figured this was going to be the typical leadership vs management debate. However, Kwame goes into describing a scenario where he had a humbling experience from one of his team that made some sacrifices for him. This was truly an example of working for him.

    The entire second half of the article shares a bunch of leadership traits that I think are really beneficial.  For example, being transparent and encouraging growth in your team members. I think the point that is being made in this article, although I don’t personally feel like it was made as obvious as it could have been, is that as a leader, if you want to feel like your team is willing to make sacrifices (for you, or for the team) then practicing being an excellent leader is the way to get there. Thus, the tips he provides to do so!I’d say there’s a lot of takeaway in his bulleted leadership points.

    If you’re an experienced leader then it’s probably mostly stuff you’ve heard before. However, it never hurts to be reminded of great leadership responsibilities!

  • How Do I Hire A Good Employee: Insights on Leadership Traits: In this article Kendall Matthews talks about the specific things he looks for when interviewing. It’s not about how picking the smartest person in the world or the most skilled person according to Kendall. It’s all about finding people that have that curious drive that can think on their feet. Have you given into the status quo?

    When it comes to leadership and hiring, your responsible for building out a well rounded team. In my opinion sometimes this will require hiring the smartest or most skilled person, but more often than not, you’re just looking for go getters. People that are curious by nature and always looking to push the boundaries make great candidates for your team because they’re adaptable. This means you don’t need to go finding someone with the perfect skill set because you can hire the person that’s willing to evolve into that person.

    Again, it’s not a blanket rule in my perspective. Sometimes your team will require that super-skilled person to be up and running from day one. Being a good leader in charge of hiring requires you to understand your teams needs though.

  • Can Skipping a Meeting Make You a Better Leader?: I find that Ilya Pozin always has some interesting articles up on LinkedIn. If you don’t follow him yet, I suggest you do! This article is all about shaking things up to align them to your leadership strategy (and not just accepting meeting invites and then not showing up).The first part of the article is really about taking charge of your daily routine. If you get into work and your ready to make a big dent in your todo list, then moving meetings until later in the day might have a huge  benefit. Similarly, it helps you plan out and prioritize the rest of your day. For me, I plan the night before and since I’m still largely a developer, I find that if I have meetings in the middle of the day when I’m in my groove then that’s when I have the biggest problems. Try tweaking when your meetings are to suit your leadership style.

    The second part of this article talks about the idea of a devil’s advocate and is personally my favourite part. I can’t stress enough how important healthy debate is for continuously improving. I had a colleague the other day say that he doesn’t like how often he hears “because it’s always been that way”. I jokingly responded, “because we’ve always said that”! But the point is, he’s not sticking to the status quo and doesn’t want to settle. I had another colleague argue against my perspective even more recently, and it really got me thinking about how our perspectives were different and where we might need to go next. Healthy debate is awesome. Your goal is not to put your “opponent’s” face in the dirt, but to understand their perspective as much as possible and ensure they get your perspective as much as possible.

  • Heisenberg Developers: In his article, Mike Hadlow talks about how a new (what seems to be scrum-based approach?) was introduced to a software development team and how it negatively impacted them. Mike’s argument? The process that was put in place took away autonomy from developers–they should be given free reign to implement a feature as they see fit.

    While the general consensus in the comments on his blog indicates that people agree, I actually don’t. I’m well aligned to the first two sentences in his closing paragraph (autonomy and fine grained management) being important, but I think direction is incredibly important. In an agile shop, often the customer proposes features to go into the product (and when the customer isn’t available, product owners acting on behalf of the customer propose the features) and the developers work to get them done. Maybe this wasn’t the implication of the blog post, but I don’t think it makes sense to just let developers randomly choose which of the features to work on next and decide on their own how to do it.

    What works better, in my opinion? Have product owners provide acceptance criteria for what would make the feature successful. Have software testers and software developers mull over the acceptance criteria and bounce ideas back off of the product owners. Did they think of how that would affect feature B? Do they realize it will be a support or regression testing nightmare unless feature C is in place? What’s my point? Collaboration. The article doesn’t even mention it. It’s only about how process takes away from the artistic nature of programming. I feel like people should stick to hobby programming if it’s art they want to express, but when it comes time to business, it’s about delivering rock solid features that the customer wants.

    Back to estimating and tasking out features. Why break a feature down? What’s good about doing it that way? If you hit road blocks or need to pivot, it’s great to have a part of a feature done and realize that in it’s current state it might be classified as acceptable for a deliverable. Maybe it doesn’t match the original acceptance criteria, but perhaps the pivot involves adjusting that and now it’s acceptable. Task breakdown brings insight to the people working on the feature. What’s involved in making it? How are you going to test it? How are you going to support it?

    Autonomy is important. But I think that there needs to be some level of process in place for leadership in management to have insight as to what’s taking place, and there needs to be enough autonomy for developers and testers to do their job to the best of their ability. Sometimes the time invested in collaborating is one of the best investments in your development team.

  • Why The Golden Rule SucksJoaquin Roca has an awesome article on “The Golden Rule” and why it doesn’t apply in leadership. Joaquin starts by discussing why building a diverse team is incredibly important and why you should take advantage of the tensions it can create. So why does The Golden Rule suck? Well… not everyone is like you and not everyone wants to be engaged the same way you are. Everyone is different and it’s important to adapt your ways to the person you are engaging with–especially when your team is diverse. There’s also a cool leadership quiz that he has posted at the top of the article!
  • Did I Make a Mistake in Promoting This Person?!: This article is about something that happens in the tech world all too often. Caroline Samne talks about how skilled professionals are promoted into leadership in management positions–except they don’t have any expertise in this area. I’m actually a prime example of this. I was hired on as a developer early on at Magnet Forensics, and before expanding the team, I was chosen for a leadership position without any past experience. However, like the article says, I had great mentorship through our HR manager and I was empowered to seek learning opportunities to grow in this space. The moral of the story is, just because someone is skilled at X, it doesn’t mean they’ll turn out to be a great (people) leader in this space. Leadership just doesn’t work magically like that.
  • Corporate Hackathons: Lessons LearntChristophe Spoerry‘s article is all about hackathons. It’s a great way to spur some innovation in your organization if you’re allowing it to happen naturally. He shares his learnings from past experiences such as having leaders with past experience in hackathons present and having teams and/or themes picked out ahead of time. Once the hackathon starts, you don’t want to be wasting time with logistics… You want to be participating! Discuss what the outcome of the hackathon will be. Who’s going to take ownership over what was created? How will the outcomes be shared with the other participants or the rest of the organization? Get hackin’!

Thanks for reading! Follow Dev Leader on social media outlets to get these updates through the week.


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  • Nick Cosentino

    Nick Cosentino

    I work as a team lead of software engineering at Magnet Forensics (http://www.magnetforensics.com). I'm into powerlifting, bodybuilding, and blogging about leadership/development topics over at http://www.devleader.ca.

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