Less Junk Mail – Now With Less Privacy

I was going through a backlog of feeds today and noticed a number that I could call that would allow me to opt-out of getting credit card junk mail from the big credit bureaus. I thought to myself, “Great, I really hate those things and they go directly to the trash. Let’s see if I can stop it for a while.”

For those outside the US that don’t know, we Americans get a ton of junk mail from a bunch of credit card companies and other companies we could care less about because these credit bureaus keep a mailing list with our names on them and then they sell the list to direct marketers. It’s a great business for them and they can even qualify you as a good lead because they know your credit score. What turns out to be good business for them is really annoying to those of us who have to receive this mail.

So, I call the number and I get a computerized greeting. The nice computerized voice tells me that there are no operators to take my call, but that I can still opt-out. She asks me if my phone number is the one that I’m calling from (I’m assuming they have caller ID, but that can be blocked or I could call from a pay-phone) and I say no. The computer then asks me to say the phone number for the residence I want to opt-out for. I give them the number to my house and the computer starts reading back my home address to ask me if it is correct. _Wait, what?_ A little concerned, I say yes because it was my address. It then proceeds to say my full name and asks me to confirm. I say yes because that’s correct too.

Thankfully, that’s all the information that it decided to give to me without asking for any sort of verification, only a phone number which I could have picked out randomly, or worse yet, given to someone who now wants to find out where I live.

The rest of the call asked me to enter in my social security number and date of birth to confirm that I was who I said I was.

This seems backwards to me. Shouldn’t I have to tell you who I am with some information that I don’t just readily give away? I don’t go around printing my social security number on business cards, but I do print my phone number on business cards. My information is in their systems if they are using what I enter to verify the transaction. Ask me this information first before you disclose my name and home address to anyone I’ve given my phone number to.

Here’s the number for those interested: 1-888-5-OPTOUT

For those who are going to say that this number was fake and that I just got my identity stolen, I used the web browser on my phone and checked this number out before I called. That is also where my feed reader is. The number is listed on the Federal Trade Commission’s website along with a link to a free website where you can enter in your information to opt out. I was going to use the form, but typing in a whole bunch of data using your phone is not ideal with a simple 12 button keypad, so I decided to use the number. The website gets things right. I have to enter in tons of information about myself including my address. The phone number just gives it up willingly.

Make Your Process Lean, Not Your Workforce

I was reading an article by Robert X. Cringely today called Lean and Mean noting that IBM Global Services is laying off thousands of workers and possibly up to 150,000 in the US.

Go ahead and read the article. It makes me really glad that I work for a company that extols virtue and taking care of their people before making money. At ThoughtWorks, we don’t have this level of employee count, so I can’t say what would happen if we did.

We’re also trying to become more lean, but we are doing it in a different way. We’ve already adopted agile as core to the way we work a long time ago. This time, we’re applying lean to our processes and tools, not to our people. That’s the important point. When you treat your employees like family, you do things differently.

Hundreds of thousands is a big family and I’m sure that the execs at IBM GS don’t know the large majority of them. I guess that makes it easy to cast them aside in the name of pleasing Wall Street.

Lifeguarding and Firefighting

I took a kayaking trip this weekend on a lake near my house and an old lesson popped into my head. While I was working at NeoTactix, we had little firemen bobble-heads with our pictures on them. It was an allusion to the fact that we were always fighting fires in our client companies. I remember asking for a new bobble-head in addition to my fireman. I asked for a lifeguard.

I was a lifeguard when I was younger and the lessons that I learned training there were unforgettable. As a lifeguard, you don’t just react to problems, you scan your water and look for potential problems. You are taught all sorts of strategies to minimize mistakes and keep everyone safe. While at work, I applied the skills I learned as a lifeguard to protect our clients from things I could see on the horizon.

Lifeguards overlap the areas they are watching so that there’s always a second pair of eyes on any given situation. This worked very well for us when we adopted this strategy. For example, if I had a press release I was working on, I made sure to always run it by the managing partners to ensure I got everything right before publishing it. Another example was to watch companies in our portfolio that could indicate problems for the other companies that were our clients. Because each of our clients were minding their daily business like they were supposed to, they couldn’t always look up and see trends that could affect them. Part of our job was to see these things coming and warn (or save) them if needed.

Lifeguards constantly scan the waters without focusing on one particular area. When you are sitting up in the tower, it can be easy to focus on just one person or a group of people. It’s called tunnel vision. The safest thing to do is to look for typical problem signs, make a quick head count, and move on to the next group of people. This lesson translates to business really well. As a CEO, you have a bunch of things you have to worry about. Payroll, internal initiatives, investors, competition, and growing the company are just some of the huge tasks you have to take on. Making sure you give each their due attention is important or you become reactionary and will never get to focus on looking forward for your business.

Lifeguards ignore unneeded distractions and maintain constant focus. If you’ve ever seen a lifeguard at the beach, they always have their eyes on the water. They will walk up their towers backwards to stay facing the water. People will come up to talk to them and they’ll rarely look at them, instead focusing on watching the water. It’s not that they are trying to be rude, but that they are focusing on their job, not someone who just wants to chat about Baywatch. In business life, there is plenty to keep you distracted from doing your real job. Surfing the internet can waste whole days of productivity. Worse yet, spending your whole day on something that _seems_ productive like rearranging the office furniture can make you feel like you are doing something good, but is usually just a way to procrastinate on something more important that could be done. When you learn to control the time you spend on unneeded activities, all sorts of time opens up and you’ll find much more time to run your business.

Lifeguards cover each other’s water when an emergency comes up. Emergencies happen; it’s a fact of lifeguarding as well as business. This is a hard lesson for some businesses to learn, especially in cyclical situations like cashflow or business development. Lifeguards typically have a phone they pick up or button they push to signal the other lifeguards that an emergency is happening in their water and they are taking care of it. The other lifeguards immediately respond by calling for backup and covering the lifeguard’s water while they are making a save. Some businesses will see emergency situations and rally their employees to help fight the fire. While this is good, they often leave other parts of the business unattended. That’s a quick way to becoming a firefighter and only reacting to your business instead of acting to control your business.

Lifeguards and firefighters have their place in business. Both serve useful functions, but if you have more lifeguards, hopefully you won’t need so many firefighers.

How To Interview With Me

I have been doing a bunch of interviews lately. My second one this week (thanks recruiting!) was tonight and it didn’t go as well as it should have.

Here’s my typical interview strategy for when I am interviewing Business Analysts for ThoughtWorks and some tips to help you if I ever get picked to interview you.

1. Show Up On Time And Be Ready

I know that you are busy, but this isn’t college. You’re such a hot shot Analyst that you could land a job anywhere, right? Well, first you are going to have to show me that you want _this_ job. Our recruiting department sends out a confirmation to you usually 3 days in advance of my call. I also get a confirmation sent to me. If I can’t reach you on the phone number you give on the day of the call, I’ll usually try again about 15 minutes later. If I can’t reach you, I’ll send a note back to recruiting to reschedule the call. However, if I reach you and you are not ready to take my call and don’t have a good explanation (I’ll understand if the house is on fire or something), that’s an automatic *No Hire*. My reasoning for this is simple: it takes nearly an hour to do an interview with you and you know about it in advance, so you should have that time blocked off. If you don’t treat that time as important, it means you won’t treat our clients that way.

2. Prepare

Do your homework on ThoughtWorks. Find out how we like to work; our company culture. Read our website, learn about agile, visit some blogs, talk to us at conferences. I’m going to ask you some questions about what you know about the company, so show me that you did a little bit of work and I’ll be happy.

On the flip side, I do almost no preparation for my interview with you. All I know is your name, phone number, and what position we are hiring you for (that determines my questions, more on that later). I get all of your information like your resume and notes from other interviews you’ve had with us, but I don’t look at a single bit of it before the interview. This is by design. I don’t want to know anything about you that will influence my decision to hire you.

3. The Interview

I have a pretty consistent interviewing style that helps me be more objective about your skills. ThoughtWorks has a set of questions that they like me to ask and I also mix in some of my own. Here’s how the interview typically goes:

  1. Ice Breaker
  2. ThoughtWorks Questions
  3. Domain Question From Your Most Recent Position
  4. Random Domain Question
  5. Questions For Me
  6. Wrap Up

Ice Breaker
I start off by letting you know how the interview is going to go. I care more about your thinking process than you getting everything 100% right on my questions. By this time, I still haven’t looked at anything about you.

ThoughtWorks Questions
The ThoughtWorks questions are mostly softball questions so that I can go over some logistical things about the job. Are you alright with lots (and lots) of travel? Have you worked with Agile professionally? Why do you want to be a BA? There are a bunch of questions, but they give me an idea of what to ask you further. I’ll go into something in detail if I get the sense that you are stretching the truth. While you are answering my questions, I’ll pop open your resume and look at your most recent job and title.

Domain Question From Your Most Recent Position
By now, you should be warmed up and I have a good sense of what I am going to ask you. From your most recent position, I’ll ask you something about the business domain. This way, I get a sense of how well you can understand what a business does. If you’re a TWU candidate, meaning you are just out of college, this question changes to ask about some of your classes. I’m looking for a deep understanding of what you are talking about. I’ll dive into small details to make sure you really know your stuff.

I may also ask you about some things you have done for your previous job (or school). Special projects, clubs, whatever. I want to see that you haven’t simply gone to work or school and taken the minimum to get by. It’s for your own good because you’ll get burned out quickly at ThoughtWorks if you aren’t into the work.

Random Domain Question
This is my favorite part of the interview. I’ll ask you about a domain that has nothing to do with business and run through a few exercises with you to see how well you can understand what I am talking about. It’s always something off the wall and will have nothing to do with what you have done before, but that is the point. I’m looking to see how well you can adapt to a new situation and think on your feet. I’ll play customer roles and ask you to elicit questions about things I want to do. I’ll try to trip you up and see how you recover. This way, I can get an idea of how you will do with our clients.

Questions For Me
This is the part of the interview where you get to ask me anything you want about ThoughtWorks. Some people trip up here because they think the interview is over. If you are really serious, you will have some questions about how we do our work, what our people are like to work with, etc. I also get to sell you a little bit on what it’s like to work here.

Wrap Up
The whole process takes 45 minutes to an hour. I let you know about the next phase in the interview process and that our recruiting department will be getting back to you within a week or so. After that, I hang up and write the last of my notes about you and read them over again. I make them readable by someone other than myself and then I make a decision about whether or not to pass or pursue.

4. Pass Or Pursue?

After the interview, I have a pretty good idea of how I am going to recommend you. I ask myself lots of questions like: Is this person smart and do they get things done? Would I want to work with them? If the answer is no, it’s a pass. If I wouldn’t work with you, then I wouldn’t expect anyone else at ThoughtWorks to. If I feel like you aren’t smart enough to walk into a client and immediately start to figure out what is going on, that’s also a pass. If I have a good feeling about you, I’ll mark you as a pursue and send you on up the chain for our intense face-to-face interview process.

I hope this was helpful to future candidates. I’m looking for aptitude and attitude in the way that you present yourself to me. If you’ve got both, you’ll have no problem being a ThoughtWorker. Good luck.

UPDATE: If you are looking for a referral, please email me at jhoms at thoughtworks dot com and I’ll point you to the right people.

Crucial.com Gets Customers

I bought some RAM today for my laptop and had a great experience with crucial.com.

First, there was a program that they allowed me to download (if you use IE, it just runs right in the browser) that showed me exactly how much RAM I had and more importantly, _where_ it was installed. It showed me that I had 1GB of RAM in a single slot.

Then I got a recommendation for which RAM I needed based on Crucial knowing exactly what computer I had. Their suggestion was exactly what I needed.

Purchasing the RAM was my favorite part of the experience. In my opinion, this is where Crucial gets things _really_ right. I didn’t have to log in, sign up, or otherwise register for anything on their site. I just put in my shipping and billing information and I was done.

The last nice touch was this little gem that appeared in the middle of my order confirmation.

Nothing to fill out if I didn’t want to, but a genuine attempt at making my life easier if I was going to have multiple orders.

Thanks Crucial, it was a great buying experience.

Make A Name Map

This is an article that I have seen go past in my RSS reader a few times lately: Meeting Tip: Learning Names. It is something that I have used for years, but this is a great writeup of what to do. Simply stated, make a little “map” of the meeting table you are at and write everyone’s name along with any other information you might need next to them.

I’ve taken it further a few times and actually written notes under each person’s name so that I knew who came up with the idea. It was a common practice for me at NeoTactix where we would meet a ton of new companies all the time and I could _never_ keep their names straight in my head. I find it equally important in my consulting life at ThoughtWorks, but rely on it less when I see the people that I meet every day and their name eventually starts to stick in my head.

Do I Work Too Much?

I got into a debate with some friends lately about the work/life balance. This seems to be a perennial topic for me as I get older. There’s something in me that is driven to succeed, to build a life for myself. I’ve seen previews of what it will be like. I know it’s there for the taking. There is also another part of me that knows I need that balance. Like I said to Nick, I burned out a few years ago and reevaluated what I really wanted in life. It came down to family and friends being the most important thing to me. So far for me, I’ve been lucky in that work has supported both of those things as I’ve worked with both family and friends much of my life. ThoughtWorks has just brought more friends like Clint, Eric, and Cliff. I’d do anything for those guys. They are like family to me too, which might be why this line is so blurry for me.

The illustrious Brad Feld came up in our conversation about his work/life balance. I’ve always looked up to smart people like Brad and tried to learn from their mistakes. I learned a long time ago that it is the best to learn this way, but there are unfortunately some things that you need to go through yourself to make the lesson really stick.

I’m trying to strike the right balance in my own life. I’m willing to give up a little personal time to get a strong foothold on a career, but I won’t do it forever. My life outside of work is too important to spend it in an office building all day. I love my work. I especially loved it when I was at NeoTactix. I would get into these very focused times and work more than 80 hours in a week without noticing. Now, I rely on my family and friends to reel me back in when I’ve gone too far. I don’t listen to people who can’t handle the pressure, don’t really care about me. I listen to those most important to me because they sometimes see things that I don’t.

So, I’m still not sure if I work too much. I know that I am enjoying what I do right now and that family and friends still come first. Like Nick said, I’m practicing for something bigger. Hardships? Setbacks? Things I’ve never done before? Bring ’em on, but somebody remind me about dinner…

My “Genius” Bar Experience

To preface this, I will say that I love my 12″ PowerBook. I have never had a better computer. I have not had a single problem with it since the day that I got it. I do all sorts of work on it and it is like a part of me. I’ve never been able to say that about something that I owned, especially a computer. That is why it was so painful to go into an Apple store and be treated like I didn’t matter. More after the jump and the surprising twist at the end.

P2P Banking

Prosper: Thanks to the magic of the internet, you can now lend money or request money in the form of a loan. You set the interest rate, you take the benefits. I think of it as P2P banking. I wish I had thought of it. I’ll be watching these guys with interest to see how they do. Makes me wonder what other “old” things can be made new again with P2P in front of it.

PSA

This is a Public Service Announcement. Always, *ALWAYS* back up your machine with something like SuperDuper before doing a system update. As they say, if you don’t back up your data, it isn’t important to you. This concludes our public service announcement for the day. Carry on.