On this page:
  • Virtual assistance and a review of TimeSvr, ODesk
  • Tungle for the win: kaizen and calendar management
  • On the other side of the (virtual) desk
  • More thoughts on what I want to do with my life

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. =)

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.

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!

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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