March 27, 2009

From reactive to proactive, from inboxes to goals; thinking about the big picture

March 27, 2009 - Categories: kaizen, life, passion, reflection

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

I’m a couple of weeks into my experiment with outsourcing to and managing virtual assistants, and I’m thinking about how to take it to the next level.

After I had cleared my backlog of lots of little things I had been thinking of delegating, I found myself mostly outsourcing trivial tasks. There’s nothing wrong with delegating trivial tasks. Although I might not get as much leverage on time, I can minimize distractions and avoid getting frustrated with interfaces. But I’ve never been the kind of person who’s happy just reacting to the numerous things that come into my inbox. I like thinking about my own projects and planning what I can do to make them happy. The difference between reactive and proactive is the difference between doing only things other people want you to do, and doing things that you enjoy doing. Reflecting on what I want to accomplish in the long run will let me identify further opportunities to make the most of virtual assistance, whether it’s the 15-minute trivial task model favored by Timesvr or the more in-depth tasks favored by the other assistants and companies with whom I’m working.

On a related note, one of my virtual assistants in the Philippines has asked me if there’s anything else I’d like her to do. Yay taking the initiative! By thinking through and sharing what the big picture is for me, I can help assistants proactively find ways we can help each other succeed. I may even be pleasantly surprised in the process. =)

So, what do I want to do? Long-term is a good place to start looking. I’ve got a good idea of my current strengths and some ways I can get even better at them. Here are some broad themes in my life:

Energy and enthusiasm: I’m good at motivating other people with my energy and enthusiasm about technology and life. I’d like to someday be able to motivate thousands of people to make a difference, make a change, or make something awesome. =) I can get closer to that by:

Communication: I’m good at writing and speaking, again about technology and life. Aside from what I’m learning because of my passion for developing systems and improving processes, I also bring my energy and enthusiasm. =) I’d like to someday be able to reach tons of people and share what I’ve been learning, and to help them share their stories, experiences and insights with others. I can get closer to that by:

Developing software and tools: I’m particularly good at figuring out people’s source code, remembering where things are, and writing things that generally fit within that structure, thanks to my open source background. I’m also good at coaching other people along the way, breaking problems down and pointing people to relevant resources. I’m good at improving our processes, too. The automated builds and regression tests I helped my team adopt are saving us lots of headaches. I hope to someday help lots of developers pick up all sorts of great habits and skills, so that they can make lots of great systems. I can get closer to that by:

Brainstorming and experimenting: I’m good at generating lots of ideas, at making ideas or processes a little bit better, and at combining wildly different ideas for fun. This helps at work, too – I often get asked to help people brainstorm. =) I hope to be able to look back and say that my life was one of constant learning and teaching. =) I can get even better at this by:

Connecting the dots: I’m good at thinking of other people, books, ideas, and tools that other people should know so that they can make things happen. I hope to someday have tons of stories about what people did and how I helped them. =) I can get closer to that by:

and I’m also slowly getting better at bringing people together to make something happen, which is why I’m experimenting with delegating to virtual assistants and figuring out how to make the most of their strengths. =)

I’m sure I’ll discover other strengths along the way!

That’s the very high-level picture of where I am, where I’d like to go, and a few ways on how I can get there. The themes are all related to each other, so it’s not like I’m being pulled every which way. Maybe they’re all facets of one thing I still have to figure out how to express. =)

So, what does that mean in the next year, in the next few years?

For communication, energy and enthusiasm: I would love to improve my processes and tools for organizing raw material for talks, and I would love to learn how to illustrate my presentations with my own sketches and photographs as well as material from the Net. I would also love to tweak my speaking style. I need to be able to slow down, use dramatic pauses, or lower my pitch when needed! ;)

A virtual assistant can do web research on how other writers and speakers organize their raw material (some people call it their morgue ;) ), help me get my old notes together, help me look things up, help me clean up my sketches or come up with inspiration, find stock photography and Creative Commons-licensed photos on the Net, give me feedback on my speaking style, edit podcasts, transcribe speeches, and so on.

For developing software and tools: Over the next few years, I’d like to learn how to help the developers on my teams grow even more. I could prepare webinars, presentations, and articles. Most virtual assistants probably won’t be able to help me with anything but formatting, but who knows, maybe the skills I develop during outsourcing will help me get work opportunities to grow teams too. =)

Brainstorming and experimenting: I think it would be fantastic to learn from virtual assistants who work with lots of clients and are exposed to lots of different working styles. I also enjoy helping people improve their processes, and it’s a great opportunity for me to tweak my own. I’d also love to figure out a process or build a system for quickly testing small ideas, like articles or e-books or webinars…

Connecting the dots: Oh, there’s definitely a lot here for a virtual assistant to help me out with! =) Managing my calendar (which I’m relieved to have someone else doublechecking), following up with people, reminding me of things, taking care of little tasks, helping me refine my process, looking for information related to people’s requests…

So I’m pretty flexible, and if a virtual assistant can figure out how he or she can help me create value, I’d be happy to share that learning opportunity with them. =)

What else am I missing? How can I make life even awesomer for people around me and on the Net?

LifeCampTO: April 5 (Sun), 10:30am – 1:00pm, LinuxCaffe

March 27, 2009 - Categories: connecting, event, life

The next (quarterly?) LifeCampTO will be on April 5, Sunday, from 10:30am to 1:00pm at the LinuxCaffe (326 Harbord St, Toronto – south of the Christie subway station)! =)

Sign up now!

Agenda:

Intros: (10:30 – 11:00, 30 minutes) – 2 minutes per person, strict.
Come prepared with the ONE THING you _most_ want help with and the ONE THING you’re really good at and want to offer help with. We’ll keep the number system and use that to track who wants to contact whom after the meeting. Some people missed connections because neither person wrote down numbers, so we’ll keep a running tally on a whiteboard or a projected spreadsheet. If you don’t want your e-mail address to be included in the automatic matchmaking list, tell me during the event and I can make a note of that. Numbers might be pre-assigned before the event, and you can post your intros then, too. Come early and eat brunch. =)
Small Conversations (11:00-11:40, 40 minutes):
5 rounds of 6 minutes each, with a few minutes between for a mad scramble to find the next person you wanted to talk to. A timer will announce the halfway mark so that people can switch to offer help to the other, if they require this prompting. If people feel up to paying a small fee, we can arrange for appetizers to appear.
Large Conversations (11:40-12:30, 50 minutes):
2 rounds of 20 minutes each, for large topics that bubble out of the introductions. People can self-organize into whatever-size groups they want to talk about stuff. Ideal time to grab a quick snack.
Think Tank (12:30-12:45, 15 minutes):
Someone wins the think tank lottery! The lucky winner shares his or her goal/challenge/topic of interest and we collectively brainstorm how to help.
Wrap-up (12:45-12:50, 5 minutes):
Thanks, follow-ups, etc. People are invited to stay and chat over lunch with new-found connections. If you have any additional connections you want me to make, give me the numbers and I’ll update my spreadsheet.

Feel free to pre-introduce yourself on Twitter, too – #lifecampto and whatever introduction you can squeeze into the 140-character limit.

Advice to IT students: Learning to love what you might hate right now

March 27, 2009 - Categories: career

After I gave a talk at the Toronto College of Technology on how IT students can get ready for the workplace, I asked two of my virtual assistants (both educators) to follow up with some advice that they could share with their students and with students around the world. This post was contributed by Rose Andrade-Calicdan, who connected with me on oDesk. I think it’s not only an excellent insight into how IT courses can help one prepare for life’s twists and turns, but also a glimpse into the lives of wonderful people who offer virtual assistance.

In total, it took her 1.5 hours to write, and about .5 hours of my time to give her feedback and polish the results. My conclusion: I think it was worth investing that time in bringing this story out, and I learned a lot in the process.

Also, I feel tremendously unqualified to be delegating tasks to her, but that’s okay; I can think of it as making excuses for her to develop her skills, gain even more experience (and have more anecdotes to share with her students!), and teach me something cool. =)


Advice to IT students: Learning to love what you might hate right now

by Rose Andrade-Calicdan

Teaching is a rewarding career, but it can be frustrating if your students are unmotivated and uninterested in their course. Many students registered for courses they hated, because of their parents’ demands. Some just tagged along with friends. Others had no other choice or had no idea what to pursue. Many of these students are in my class. My challenge is: how can I motivate these students to like my programming course (which they despise) and teach them the skills they need for work?

Even during the first few days of classes, I could feel some students’ boredom. They wouldn’t participate in discussion or join the classroom interactions. I needed to encourage involvement in my class as part of the student-centered approach to class management. I love sharing my knowledge, and I also enjoy growing this knowledge by collecting others’ ideas. My personal belief is that the more you share what you have, the more you learn and gain.  

How could I stimulate interaction and participation? Initially, I tried to let them see the significance of each lesson, demonstrating how those lessons related to their lives. If they understood how something affects them personally, they would be more likely to pay attention to the lesson.

How could I enthusiastically share my own experience in order to heighten their interest in continuing learning? I shared how I started working in the academe, how I had experienced working on various IT-related and non-IT related jobs, and how I learned the skills to compete with other applicants.

I told my students about my first non-IT related job, which was at the hospital. I was in charge of receiving and filing health forms submitted by patients in order to claim medical benefits. Although this task was not directly related to my course, it was my first stepping-stone to more work opportunities. Even though the job was simple, I tried to find ways to gain more experience and get the ‘know-how’ of real work scenarios. By keenly observing how the hospital generated related information, I was able to study the ‘ins and outs’ of real computer-based information systems, which during my studies were all theories and intangible concepts.

Later, I had my first break: my first programming job. At the same hospital where I had worked, I was asked to create a database of patient information that could record medical treatment received by patients, monitor doctors’ consultations, and generate relevant reports. That was my first real taste of IT work.

But I still wanted to teach. Taking advantage of time flexibility, I applied as a college instructor. It was difficult to adjust to working in the academe and going back to the same routine of studying and learning new lessons, but I got used to it. During this time, preparing lessons for my students was a burden. The Internet wasn’t available then, so I had to bring home several books from the library. Even though it was difficult, I gained a lot from the experience. I improved my ability to write course manuals specifically designed to suit my students’ needs and enhance their learning. And as an IT graduate, I had an advantage: I could use tools to help me develop these materials. Combining my new technical writing skills with my IT knowledge, I wrote an IT textbook and prepared modules for IT-related courses.

The biggest break in my IT career took place when I was teaching. I wanted to personally experience real IT work. During my first summer break, I took a big programming job at my own risk! I was given a deadline to develop the application in less than two months. With guts, brainstorming sessions, and careful analysis and design, I completed a school program for assessing student fees. I found it quite complicated as the school had different schedules of fees for different type of students: government scholars, siblings discount, and various types of installment programs. This really tested my expertise. I remembered all my classes in database and programming concepts, system analysis and design knowledge, project management and software engineering. I conducted several stakeholders’ meetings, gathered users’ requirements and specifications, developed, debugged, constructed and tested–all by myself!  Whew! I not only survived the six-week project, I delivered what the school needed just in time for their school enrollment.

When I had several years of experience in the academe, I was given the opportunity to manage a school as the College Dean. My position called for greater responsibility. I had to run the school, implementing policies while ensuring that quality education was being provided to our students. Schools face very stiff competition. Most of the time, I needed to ensure that we had updated curricula and course materials, well-maintained school facilities, and qualified professors. Even as a college dean, I still needed to keep myself up to date with new IT trends. I learned more about various e-learning and IT technologies, and I continued writing tips and advice for my students.  

Due to some personal constraints, I needed to go back to teaching. To maximize my use of time, I’m working outside school as well, accepting simple home-based jobs that use my skills in IT: data entry, research, writing, website quality assurance, document specification, virtual assistance, and so on.

My experiences showed that with an IT course, jobs are indeed unlimited! There are a lot of job opportunities that, in the beginning, you might have never imagined to be your means to earn a living.

With these stories, many of my students who had been thinking of shifting to a different course were inspired to imagine themselves in various IT work opportunities. In fact, I think that among the accomplishments in my career are students of mine who landed their dream jobs, whether in the IT industry, the academe, or elsewhere: students who have learned to love the course they hated in their first few days of college.


Rose is currently enjoying her teaching profession at Lyceum of Subic Bay while working as a Virtual Assistant and a Web Researcher at Odesk. Her dedication to teaching and her passion for sharing things she knows inspire her to continuously explore and study things relevant to her career.

Haciendo que tu entorno de desarrollo de Drupal rocks

March 27, 2009 - Categories: drupal

Marco Antonio Villegas Vega of the Drupal Peru community translated my “Totally Rocking Your Drupal Development Environment” slides. Hooray! Full blog post to follow. In the meantime, check out the original at http://bit.ly/drupal25. =)