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More thoughts on what I want to do with my life

The Labour Day weekend gave me an excellent opportunity to reflect on
what I can do with my life, and I really appreciated being able to
bounce ideas off Simon.

I have a lot of options ahead of me, and I want to think about this
carefully. My first job doesn’t have to be perfect, but it would be
good to understand what my values and priorities are. I want to be
extraordinary. I know, I’m 23 and my direction in life will change as
I discover more about myself and about others. =) But it’s good to
think about it every now and then…

So here’s where I stand, so far:

Technical: Social systems: Improving a social system such as
LinkedIn or
OpenBC would probably be the best fit for
me in terms of technical work. I would enjoy listening to users and
figuring out things that can make the tools easier to use or more
powerful. I’m more interested in systems that help people connect in
real life or in one-to-one relationships than in things like social
bookmarking, where the social aspect is often secondary. I’m also more
interested in facilitating introductions than I am in supporting
groupware, although I can do that as well. I would love to help build
systems that make it easier for people to keep in touch with lots and
lots of people (attention-based aggregators, etc?), introduce people
to others, move online connections into the real world and vice versa,
and so on.

Management: Outsourcing: The Philippines has a lot of talent,
and there are plenty of opportunities to outsource. I want to learn
how to help people set up outsourcing relationships, specify and
manage projects, and manage and train people.

These are the two prospects I feel most passionate about, and I may be
able to pursue them both. I don’t want to be so heads-down in tech
that I serve a narrow audience—only the users of my system—nor do I
want to be so heads-down in management that I lose touch with my
technical side. I think I can make this happen, though.

So, how can I go about doing that?

For social systems, there are all sorts of little things that I would
like to build for myself or suggest to other people. I can learn good
design through exposure and experience. I can write about features and
systems I would like to see. I can even prototype them. I should spend
some time learning how to make better user interfaces (a proper mouse
may help!) and prototyping things on Rails or some other quick
platform. Easy enough for me to get into.

For outsourcing, there might be a good opportunity to help set up a
relationship between Direct Leap and either QSR or Exist. I know a few
people who want to help me learn how to do this. I’m all for it!

My master’s degree can help me with both. My research is related to
the former, and my coursework is related to the latter.

Hmm. Sounds like a good plan. I’ve got other plans, just in case, but
these are the two best plans at the moment.

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On the other side of the (virtual) desk

If I’m going to take over the world, I need to learn how to delegate. ;)

It’s a simple matter of mathematics. There are only so many hours in the day. I can’t achieve infinite productivity. Scaling up means figuring out how to work with others and how to delegate.

The traditional way of learning how to delegate involves being promoted to a management role, and that takes time and opportunity. With a little of the money I’ve set aside for my Crazy Idea Fund, I can experiment with delegation and personal outsourcing now. (Naturally, I delegate only non-IBM-confidential things.)

I interviewed almost 10 candidates out of more than 40 who applied. I’ve hired five people on a trial basis and assigned them a few tasks. In the process, I learned so much already! <laugh>

  • 80% of success is showing up. Half of the applicants didn’t notice the timezones on my invitations to pick an interview slot, even though I chose a tool that made it easy for them to translate the timezones to their own. And I’d already picked really early and really late times to make it easy for them to fit it into their schedules! Result: Many candidates had to reschedule interviews, and I lost time and sleep while waiting around. Making this better: Next time, I’ll assume people don’t know anything about timezones and I’ll point out the feature for changing timezones.
  • I’m a personal-development kind of manager. I’m pretty flexible in the tasks I assign, and I like finding out what people’s strengths and passions are so that I can find the intersection between my needs and their interests. I like how oDesk lets me get a glimpse of how people work, and I offer suggestions based on that. I also encourage people to take some time to reflect on how to make things better.
  • I tend to underestimate the time other people need. I find things on the Web really quickly because I’m used to opening a gazillion tabs and using web clipping tools like del.icio.us to store quick notes. I also speed-read like anything. Most people aren’t like that. I need to either scale up my time estimates or help people develop their skills.
  • A two-hour chunk is too short a time, particularly considering people are still getting started. I need to give people at least four hours to do a task. Maybe they’ll even get into a flow state.
  • I should start with highly-focused tasks or give people more time to become familiar with something. Web research might be difficult for VAs because they’re not yet familiar with the terminology, and I remember how it takes a bit of browsing around to get a sense of what things are called and where to look for information.
  • Trying people on a temporary basis is good. One of the advantages of working with small tasks and a structure like oDesk is that instead of betting the farm on one VA, I can try several VAs in parallel and then pick one who’s really the best fit. This is probably more expensive up front, but I learn a lot more because of the variety. After a month, perhaps I’ll decide which VA to work with going forward.

So the next thing that would make this VA experiment better would be to give people a four-hour task (perhaps building on what they’ve already done), and then continue with those who can keep up. I can also reevaluate my budget for the experiment, maybe add some more so that I can give people longer tasks and get a better sense of how people work, and then go from there. I think it’s worth continuing to invest in learning how to delegate, and it would be awesome to eventually build a support structure that can help me scale.

I suspect that after a short trial, I won’t find anyone whose skills will blow me away–but that goes back to what I’ve reflected on before, with employers who expect that people will have all the necessary skills right off the bat.

Yes, some people will figure out what they want to learn and invest time in learning those things. It would be awesome if I come across someone like that – but then I would want them to do more in life than handle other people’s web research and calendars! ;) So in the long run, I think it makes sense for me to invest in improving people’s skills.

Managers and companies sometimes complain that the people they invest in end up moving on. It’s okay if people “graduate” from working with me and go on to do other things. That’d be terrific, and it would give me even more return on my effort! In the meantime, the training materials I build to help people learn how to work can help the next person, and the next person, and so on. In fact, having more newbies go through the system would be great for improving it.

Writing this blog post seems to have fleshed out my reasons for doing this experiment, and what I can do with it… Can’t wait to learn even more!

Tungle for the win: kaizen and calendar management

Life just keeps getting better and better. =) So after I posted that quick note about Timebridge, Aidan Nulman nudged me about Tungle. I asked Ana to look into it, updating the calendar management process along the way. Based on a little exploration, I think Tungle wins in terms of calendar management. =) It can synchronize with my multiple Google Calendars, show all of my Google Contants on the left side, and automatically avoid double-booking. I’m in love. (TimeBridge, AgreeADate, I hope you’re listening – keep up with the competition!)

So in the spirit of sharing, here’s our newly refined calendar management process. Ana even went to the trouble of adding screenshots – how cool is that?

Setting up appointments:

  1. Login to http://www.tungle.com, see Accounts and Passwords section for the login information.
  2. The screenshot below shows an example of a personal Tungle Page. To set up an appointment, click on Schedule a meeting at the upper left side of the screen.
  3. Fill in the fields.
    1. Subject of the Event
    2. Choose from the dropdown list for the duration of the meeting/appointment.
    3. Meeting Location (Note unless specifically specified on Sacha’s meeting details, here are Sacha’s Venue Preferences:
      • Lunch during weekdays
        • Ichiriki – Japanese – 120 Bloor Street E, Toronto Hours: 11:45 – 2:30?
        • Camros Eatery (http://www.camroseatery.com/) – Vegan – Hours: M-F 11:30am to 7:30pm (no travel time necessary)
      • Weekends: Linux Caffe (http://www.linuxcaffe.ca) – 326 Harbord Street, Toronto. Hours: M-F: 7am to 11pm, Sat 10am to 11pm, Sun 10am to 5pm
    4. Click Add for every person added in the list of Invitees.
    5. The calendar on the lower part of the page is linked to Sacha’s Google Calendar so you will know which hours and days she is available. Highlight available times or as instructed by Sacha.
      Additional Information in selecting time:

      • Offer 3-5 choices, conflicts and double bookings will not be a problem with Tungle since it is synchronized with the Google Calendar.
        1. For in-person meetings, I prefer lunch (12:00 PM – 1:00 PM) or coffee/tea/hot chocolate (any time between 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM), preferably on a Thursday or Friday
        2. For phone meetings, I prefer calls on Saturday or Sunday (9:00 AM – 9:00 PM), preferring Saturday afternoon
      • Sacha’s Google Calendar will be automatically updated as soon as invitees send back their confirmations.
    6. Click the RIGHT arrow beside Step 1 of 3.
  4. Step 2 shows a summary of the tentative dates you are proposing to the invitees. Click on X if you have entered an incorrect entry and go back to Step 1. If the details are all correct, click on the RIGHT arrow button to proceed to Step 3.
  5. For personal message refer to instructions below. Then click PREVIEW.
    • For phone appointments, include the following segment in the Personal Message box:

      Times are in your current time zone by default. If the timezone is incorrect, use the “Change” link above the calendar.

      Sacha Chua’s contact information
      Skype ID: XXX
      Mobile number: XXX
      Work number: XXX
      E-mail: XXX

    • For in-person appointments, include the following segment in the Personal Message:

      Sacha Chua’s contact information
      Mobile number: XXX
      Work number: XXX
      E-mail: XXX

  6. Check meeting details. Send invitation.
  7. A confirmation box will be shown to you after sending invites. See screencap below. Close.

Virtual assistance and a review of TimeSvr, ODesk

I’m starting to get the hang of this delegation thing, and I like it.

Jeff Widman pointed me to TimeSvr.com, a virtual assistance outsourcing service that’s priced much more affordably than similar services like AskSunday, GetFriday, and LongerDays. With a USD 69/month plan, you get unlimited 15-minute requests and up to 8 hours for complex tasks.

I took advantage of their a free 3-day trial period to give them a whirl, sending them 10 small tasks I’d been meaning to work on.

Tasks with clearly defined processes (approve Facebook friend requests except for those who found me through Friend Finder, request books from the library, post my checked-out books on LibraryThing and Shelfari) worked out pretty well. I may set up repeating tasks to take care of these things.

Web research tasks had mixed results.
When I asked them to find me a Linux-compatible black-and-white laser printer and scanner that could do both sheet-fed and flat-bed scanning, they recommended two Samsung printers available from FutureShop. One of them didn’t do sheet-fed scanning, but the other was a pretty good deal, and we went out and picked it up the same day. (I’m very happy with my new Samsung SCX-4828 – it actually works!) When I asked them to find me that Firefox extension that adds numbered shortcuts to Google Search results, I got back a page that didn’t have anything to do with it. Your mileage may vary.

How does this compare with the dedicated virtual assistants you can hire from oDesk or other services? I’m coming to similar conclusions as Sid Savara in his post Can Virtual Assistants Make Your More Productive? An Experiment, and a TimeSvr Review (with pretty diagrams!). TimeSvr’s 24/7 availability is a big bonus. Because of their focus on 15-minute tasks, I don’t feel nearly as guilty assigning them routine, well-defined tasks. On the other hand, I’m quite impressed by the initiative and personal development shown by one of the VAs I’ve hired off oDesk. I think web research tasks benefit from having someone build up background information and certain tasks benefit from processes that we develop, so I can lean towards asking her to do more of those kinds of things.

I’ll continue with TimeSvr past the 3-day free trial to get a sense of what my small-task volume is like over a month. I’d already carved out a small portion of my budget for outsourcing experiments because I see it as valuable (and otherwise hard-to-get) education on delegation and management, and that + a little web research by Ana would fit in my budget nicely. After a month, I’ll review it to see whether it’s been a good fit, and what would make it even better.

UPDATE: Added affiliate link to TimeSvr for better tracking. Disclosure: If you do sign up and you like it, I’ll get $10 from that, up to a maximum of $30. =)

Improving my talk management process

Now that I’m reasonably happy with managing my calendar with a combination of virtual assistance and tools like TimeBridge, I’d like to improve my talk management system. I give lots of talks, and I’d love to scale up to do even more, and to do them even more effectively.

Here are the key tasks I might be able to outsource:

  • Coordinate with the event organizer on
    • date and time of talk
    • location and directions (public transit and driving; call-in numbers and web conference details if virtual)
    • size and characteristics of audience
    • organizer’s objectives
    • context of talk (previous and next activities)
    • resources available (projector, whiteboard/blackboard, easel, microphone, video recording)
    • speaker’s fee / honorarium / time and materials?
  • Add a calendar event with all the details
  • Get the event organizer’s emergency contact information
  • Send title, abstract, bio, and picture
  • Take my outline and look for stories, examples, and statistics
  • Take my outline and turn it into text slides
  • Add links to my pre-talk blog post
  • Add photography (stock photography or Creative Commons Attribution content), with proper citation
  • Confirm the date, location, and title a few days before the event
  • Verbally remind me the morning of the event and send me a summary e-mail with the event details, the event organizer’s emergency contact information, the talk information, and my outline (just in case slides fail)
  • Thank the organizer
  • Type in speaker evaluations and contact information
  • Follow up with people who attended my talk
  • Coordinate with any lucky winners of giveaways
  • Put my slides and recordings together (I wish…)
  • Update my talk ROI spreadsheet

If I can get parts or all of this process in place, the results will be:

  • I’ll worry less about getting the dates wrong
  • I’ll worry less about lacking important information before a talk
  • The coordination process will be smoother
  • I’ll go into the talk with more confidence
  • I can spend less time thinking about the details of talks and more time thinking about the fun of it
  • I may be able to scale up to more than one talk per week, someday
  • I’ll be able to teach other people processes for preparing for talks =)

Ethics and egos in virtual assistance and relationships

Leesa Barnes is very firm about this: outsourcing social media content and relationships is not okay.

I mostly agree. oDesk and Elance job posts recruiting people to write reviews and post comments praising products or places give me the heebie-jeebies, and there’s something Really Weird about asking someone to write fan letters to people you don’t even choose. I don’t invite random strangers to connect on LinkedIn or Facebook, and I don’t leave random blog comments in an effort to build links.

On the other hand, I think that a little bit of delegation–yes, even in your personal life–can be surprisingly helpful. I really appreciate the list of upcoming birthdays and contact information that an assistant prepares for me each week, because I’m otherwise horrible at remembering birthdays, and it turns out that acknowledging people’s birthdays makes people smile. I’m glad that I have someone doublechecking the dates and times of meetings, because I’ve been burned by that before. I like being able to respond to Facebook and LinkedIn messages without having to use the Web interface.

So there’s more to this than than just outsourcing, and I wonder how much of it is related to ego. ;) I don’t get frazzled by a lot, but I do know I tend to get mildly peeved when people impolitely make me feel bad because I didn’t make them feel important enough. For example:

  • When I confess that I’ve forgotten someone’s name, and that person doesn’t just gloss over it but instead further embarrasses me by dropping “obvious” hints, I’m less likely to introduce that person to anyone I know because I wouldn’t want him or her to inflict the same treatment on my friends.
  • When I’ve taken a little time and effort to reach out to people, and they zing me because they don’t feel that things are personal enough, I wonder if that defeats the purpose…
  • When someone gives me grief because I unfollowed them on Twitter, I can’t help but think they need to spend less time worrying about their numbers. ;)

Hmm. When I get a half-joking prod about whether or not I had a virtual assistant handle a social gesture, I may send that person a link to this blog post.

What’s important in a social gesture, anyway? Is it that someone holds all of the information about you in his or her head, or that someone cares enough to look it up or have it available? Is it that someone thinks about you all the time, or sets up ways to be reminded of you every so often? Is it that someone reads your blog and follows your tweets almost obssessively, or that someone’s willing to ask you questions about what you’re excited about and to listen to your update, and perhaps even drop by once in a while? (You can tell what I think. )

If I had someone whisper in my ear the likes, dislikes, and conversational topics related to whoever’s walking up to me, I’d love that. I can’t remember everything on my own. Knowing more allows me to be of more help. Also, it makes me less stressed about interacting with people.

If it offends someone that I don’t remember everything about them right away, or that I don’t know about the latest posts on their blog or the latest tweets they’ve shared, well–that’s probably more related to their ego. I’d be happy to let them take the initiative in the conversation. Most people forget, which is an interesting thing.

And if you find yourself having that kind of a reaction… stop and think about it for a sec, mmkay? =) Maybe you don’t need to react that way. There’s a space between stimulus and response, and you can decide how you perceive things. If you find yourself focusing too much on a perceived slight, try to move past it and focus on the good stuff instead.

Of course, other people get the same deal. If you meet me and you have no idea what I’ve recently been writing about or working on, that’s totally okay. If you say you can’t remember my name, I’ll happily reintroduce myself, no hard feelings. (In fact, if you hesitated even a little bit, I’d probably already have reintroduced myself by that point.) If you say, “Nice to meet you!” when we’ve already met, I’m never going to give you a hard time about it.

So yes, I’m fine with delegating relationship-related tasks to virtual assistants (not all, but more than most people do). I think that people can help me both be more thoughtful and learn to be more thoughtful, and I think that there’s more to building relationships than just the mechanics of social gestures.

And yes, W- knows I’m learning more about delegation, and why I’m learning about delegation, and he thinks it’s a good thing. He’s so awesome. =)


This post was inspired by danielpatricio‘s tweet, which led me to leesabarnes’ tweet, which led me to her blog post, which tapped into something else I’d been meaning to write about because people occasionally do that “of course you should be able to remember my name” thing. =)