Monthly Archives: May 2011

When will Graduates learn to monetize their education?

I walked into my usual clothing store the other day and during the conversation with the clerk there, who I have known for a couple of years, we discussed how he was finishing his secondary education and – provided he make his grades – was headed off to University. He received an offer from Edinburgh, which is a pretty decent establishment.

At some stage I joked about how I hoped he was taking a subject that would lead to a decent career, and he sheepishly admitted that he was planning to read Psychology and Ancient Greek, and he later admitted that his parents were funding it. He didn’t know what he wanted to do and was apparently just taking a subject that he felt like, at that moment in time. What’s more he wasn’t concerned about his ability to monetize his later career. I pushed him on this and he said not to spoil his fun.

What’s changed in the last 15 years?

When I look back on the way I came to my degree, I’m not sure that it was any different. I applied to do Maths & French to 8 Universities using the system that was available at that time, and was lucky enough to receive 8 offers. By a twist of fate, I didn’t make the exact grades I needed to get into Cambridge and my college was over-subscribed so threw me into the inter-collegiate pool – a sort of no-mans land where budding Cambridge undergraduates sit, waiting to be fished out.

Literally a few hours later I had a call from Alan Mycroft, a brilliant and slightly eccentric computer science professor. He told me that he had looked at my application and wanted to take me, but into the Computer Science faculty because he didn’t believe I had the disposition to study Mathematics at Cambridge. I’m pretty certain he was right.

And I am very grateful to Alan and other amazing thinkers like Roger Needham and David Wheeler for having taken me in as a student randomly applying for courses and letting me do something that enabled me to become relevant.

The key difference back then was there were grants, and no tuition fees, plus the cost of living was insignificant. There were a handful of students that struggled economically because they were on a line between government grants and their parents earned enough to be disqualified but not enough to pay their offspring’s way. But those were the exceptions – the rest of us wallowed in thrifty delight for 3 years.

The problem today is that education costs big bucks, and it’s only going to get worse as the years progress. It will likely be a debt somewhere near £30-50,000 or $50-80,000 in the next few years and this is a frightening amount of money to have to pay back.

Graduate Intake

My organisation, like many others, will be taking graduates on this year and we want people who are commercially aware and have relevant educational experience. But most university courses fall into one of two categories.

The first is vocational technical courses. These have little value in the consulting world because someone who knows how to program an iPhone app or something has limited value. We need the universities to teach critical thinking, underlying industry concepts and business and social analysis. The vocational courses seem to turn out graduates very good at what they were taught to do, but limited in the way they cast their net.

The second is the traditional arts courses. These are popular with students because they are seen as cool and fun. The problem in Enterprise IT is that those students, in many cases, are technologically disadvantaged.

To illustrate this I talked to the clerk in my store about him applying for a graduate position in 3 years time. He is bright and articulate and well presented and I am confident that Edinburgh University will teach him critical thinking and social awareness. But he has zero aptitude to IT and no interest. It would be an uphill battle to teach him Enterprise IT; we don’t need graduates with degrees in IT but they need to be very proficient with operating computers by the time they arrive.

A call to action – become relevant

So this is a call to action to Universities and students alike.

Universities: Make your degrees relevant to organisations like mine. Breed us technical graduates that aren’t vocational and arts graduates with IT skills. We can make those students into great consultants.

Students: You will have to think very carefully about the courses you choose because you will have to pay back an enormous sum of money. If you vote with your feet and apply for courses that will make you relevant to a future career – be it consulting or whatever – then you will increase your chances of being able to pay back that debt some time before you retire.

How do consultants get sticky – making yourself invaluable to your customers

How do consultants get sticky? As the old joke goes “What’s brown and sticky? A stick”. It’s bad, but I realised when I wrote my blog on Value Articulation – and getting a payrise last week that I talked around being a sticky consultant but I didn’t go as far as to articulate what that means. If you work in consulting then you will know those people who are always in demand and chargeable. Those are sticky consultants – the holy grail of a recruitment department because people buy people. But, I believe that stickiness is learnt behaviour and anyone can be that consultant.

Knowing your Audience

I was at a Utilities conference in the heartlands of England last year and a very senior SAP executive from Germany came to talk about their offering. He opened with “I arrived here today with my British colleague in a Porsche. We drove really really fast”. Silence. He continued “I feel now that we are all in a Porsche together. Actually we all have our own Porsches”. Continued silence – and his British colleague shrunk into his seat, horrified.

You see: in England it’s a bit unacceptable to be successful, and very unacceptable to flaunt it. He lost his audience in the first minute and they judged him. Ron Dennis followed with his keynote and started with “The problem with these consulting companies is they’re all in bed together”. The audience roars with laughter. We love deprecation in this country.

It’s the same when you go into a consulting engagement – the customer has to believe that you empathise with them.

Challenging the Customer

I’ve had a few occasions through the years where customers have complained about consultants not being challenging enough. When a customer takes the services of a consulting organisation, they do so because they don’t believe they have the skills in-house to complete this piece of business transformation.

They also expect the consultants on the ground to bring their experience – of Technology, Line of Business and how other similar organisations have approached similar situations.

There are two disaster scenarios; the first is where the consultants gather requirements and deliver what they are asked to do. The customer could have done that themselves and they will leave feeling empty. During the requirements gathering process the consultants should have challenged their thinking at every junction and brought their experience to bear.

But, there is another disaster scenario, which is when consultants try to challenge the customer and it goes wrong. There can be a number of reasons for this – for example IT departments don’t always like to be challenged too hard: they think they know best already. This requires care and diplomacy. Also – customer don’t want consultants to act like they know-it-all and they certainly don’t want to work with arrogant people. Remember: the customer knows their own business better than you.

Market Awareness

Great consultants know the market in which they operate, simple as that. You need to learn this stuff – and learn it in your own personal style. For instance I like to read the annual reports of my customers and understand a bit about their business. Google Alerts work well.

Understand how global events might affect them, like rising oil and gas prices or the earthquakes in Japan. Look at their competitors and how they are performing – and then remember that this is just some background context – the customer will always know more than you – and use this information as a shoe in for them to explain more about your customer.

Technology Awareness – know your product

I was once in a round table with a highly successful Texan oil baron – and he told a fabulous story about an jet plane salesman who came to his office and peddled his wares. He was asked a series of questions – wingspan, weight and power – and was unable to answer them. The oil baron kicked him out and told him to come back when he learnt his product.

A year later, the salesman returned with an expensive cowboy hat and explained that he didn’t want to sell him a plane, but just to say thank you for the advice, which had sold him a huge number of planes in the previous year. The oil baron ended up buying a plane that day.

The same applies to the technologies that you are choosing to implement, if this is applicable. In your Line of Business area of expertise you need to know your products – what they do well, what they don’t do well and what the roadmap is. You are being paid for your expertise.

And again, you need to know this in relation to the major competitors. Know the Gartner Magic Quadrant and read about the customers in that sector. Know their strengths and weaknesses because if the customer says “I think product X would have been a better choice” then you need to be informed.

As a parting thought here, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know and go and research it – it is much much worse to be wrong.

Image and Self-Awareness

Actually this merits a whole blog of its own, which I will write next. But in short – you need to take an appropriate image to the customer and consider how you empathise. Some customers want consultants to be suited and booted and others want them to fit right into the customer culture – I’ve turned up in ripped jeans and a hoodie to certain customers.

Don’t be afraid to ask what they expect – it’s an easy conversation to have and avoids confusion.

The Social Animal

As human beings we are essentially social animals and like to work with people that we like to work with. As a consultant you have to face that you won’t develop a close bond with everyone but rather to focus on the relationships where that can exist.

Make sure you join in their social activities. Even if you don’t drink, you can go down the bar and have a club soda. It’s OK to head home after a few drinks, but if you don’t turn up at all they may judge you.

The same is true of other activities. We sometimes do customer vs consultant football or golf – and one customer had a go-karting track next to their office. Make it competitive and have fun. This is where personal relationships are built.

But watch out – you are a consultant and an image is expected. If you are going to get drunk then be very aware of how people may view you; a consultant is always on-duty around customers.

Be equally careful on social media like Facebook and Twitter. You are always on-duty there too and people may judge you for that picture of you face down on the pavement at 3am. If you are worried about this, don’t add work people and tell them that you don’t mix the two – that’s perfectly acceptable.

Partying and the Morning After

I remember a wonderful story of a project we ran in Amsterdam where the consultants went out partying all night with the customer. The consultants went back to the hotel, showered, changed and found that the customer (who was supposed to be presenting to the management team that morning) hadn’t turned up for work. They took over the meeting and presented on his behalf, and it turned out just fine.

On the other hand I was at the SAP World Tour last year and one of the consultants from a competitor had gotten messed up the night before – and forgot he was presenting at 9am. About 8.45 panic had set in with the event organisers and they had to get someone to go into his room, get him out of bed and into a suit. He turned up unwashed and still sweating booze and the presentation was a disaster.

It’s OK to party – but never at the expense of the following day at a paying customer. If you can’t handle the heat then stay out of the kitchen. Whilst we’re there, it must always stay platonic with customers. Only Bad Things happens when that rule is broken.

And in any case – make sure you are in before the customer. Turning up at 10am with a Starbucks paper cup isn’t acceptable, even if you worked until 9pm the night before. The customer won’t notice and your hard work will just look like lassitude.

Conclusions

If you can empathise with customers, challenge them, know your technology and market and project the right image and self-awareness then I have no doubt that you will up your game and become stickier.

There are a number of things here – why not pick on the one that you think you can attack most easily and focus on that? See if it works for you.

Value Articulation – and getting a payrise

I suspect there are two types of people. Those who talk about money too often and those who don’t talk about it enough.

On the one hand there are those people who at every review period, every 6 months in my case, come over with cap in hand. Some of them perhaps genuinely feel undervalued and others just to negotiate for the best possible deal.

The other type sit and wait for the raise to come to them. They think that someone on high will recognise their worth, and recompense them accordingly. Actually usually those people need the recognition, and the money is secondary.

I had this conversation with a friend the other night, and he described how he felt undervalued working for his organisation and was considering leaving. I asked if he had asked for a raise, to which the answer was negative.

Constructing Value in Consulting

In consulting much the same happens. We talk about day rates and past experience as a means for constructing consultant value and this is total nonsense. The real question is – what business value do we bring to the organisation, and how can we measure that?

My preference when costing a project is to understand that business value and see if the resource blend required to provide that value is commercially viable. And this is why – in my opinion – Time & Material projects don’t work in modern consulting.

Suppose for example, that I know how to save your business a million dollars a year, and down to my 15 years of industry experience mean that I can do that in 4 weeks. Is there a day rate that could fit the value that I brought? Doubtful, but in a shared risk/reward scenario you may be prepared to share 25% of the reward with me.

Constructing Personal Value

Bringing this back to the example of my friend, I questioned him on the value that he brought to the organisation and he was able to quite clearly articulate the business benefits that he had reaped the organisational unit in which he worked. In addition, he had just been given additional responsibilities, which involved working at a level above that which he was capable of working when he started his job.

And yet he appeared willing to take the experience that he had learnt and leave the organisation and take it somewhere else, rather than negotiate for a better remuneration package where he is today. There are several possible reasons for this but I suspect that whilst he claims to be financially motivated, he is actually motivated by recognition, and feeling undervalued makes him want to move.

Masters of our own destiny

Segwaying back again into the consulting world, there is a huge problem in the world we live in, which is the pace of change and the commoditisation that this brings. Ten years ago, a decent SAP programmer could easily earn $1000 a day. Now I can pick them up on the contract market for under $500.

This has been caused by a number of reasons – global economic recession, the commoditisation of IT by the offshore outsource players and an excess of skills in the market deflating day rates. And it’s completely irrelevant because the best consultants are still in huge demand. I know self-employed SAP contractors working at rates north of $1600 a day.

Those contractors have been masters of their own destiny – they are people that I call “sticky”. A customer meets them and they always want them back – and they ask for them by name. They communicate effectively, have hard to find skills and they keep themselves ahead of the market (and their peers). And they key point is that they are able to articulate this value.

How do we articulate our value?

As I’ve just explained, our value in the market naturally declines. If you go to ask for a pay rise and when asked why, you say that you have a year’s extra experience in the market then the answer is that you are actually worth less in most cases.

Therefore your value needs to be obvious to you. If you are a consultant then how chargeable were you last year? How did you contribute to the organisation and how did that benefit the greater masses? Did you manifestly grow and what is your trajectory?

Then what are the market trends, what is coming? Are you abreast of what’s going on or do you just expect the work to land on your plate? Do you understand your competitors and the economic market in which we operate?

And the most important question: do you feel a bit uncomfortable? If you don’t, then you aren’t growing.

Translating value into earnings

I remember an example a few years back where a consultant was overlooked for promotion on my watch. When I told him he had not been promoted, he told me how disappointed he was and how he thought he was operating 2 grades above his current – and was able to clearly articulate examples of where and why he did this. I broke process and gave him the promotion.

So, if – like my consultant did – you can articulate your increased value then your employer would be crazy not to recognise that, and I have never met an example where they have not. What’s more, your employer will know your worth and will respect you more for it.

Just make sure you keep the conversation fact based and provide evidence if needed. If it’s not fact based then they may not agree with your valuation and you will be nowhere. And if you’ve done all that and they don’t see your value then you will need to take your value elsewhere.

The Sales-Delivery Paradox – Filling the Pre-sales Void

I remember my first job like it was yesterday. I worked for a BI consulting firm called InPhase Software Ltd. I got the job during my university holiday by writing a letter to all the local companies and including a CV. I got 3 replies, 2 interviews, and 1 job. I worked for an enigmatic salesman called Robert Hobbs, who had just won Entrepreneur of the year award.

They had co-innovated on a really neat Data Warehouse product which allowed Business Scorecarding right the way down to line item analysis, with an Analytics capability in the middle. And before the age of 18 I’d been involved in Data Warehouse implementations at BP, Barclays, Booker and some 10 or more other FTSE100 customers.

And I remember the day that Robert came to me with the business requirements for a new customer and I looked at him, incredulous. I said “Robert, you know that can’t be done with our product.” – His reply: “John, I know you can do it”. He was right.

The Delivery Perspective

I’m sure this story is something that a lot of consultants can relate to: salespeople creating unreasonable demands that push the product we have available to us beyond its limits. They can see the commission at the end of the tunnel and they ignore whether or not it is actually deliverable, because they get paid on the sale, right? They take their pay check and move onto the next sales organisation, with no empathy for the poor delivery consultants who have to implement the mess they sold.

The Sales Perspective

The salesperson on the other hand, is sick of delivery consultants putting a spanner in the sales process. They often have a pessimistic approach caused by the experience of other projects gone wrong. Their estimates are always worst case and take into account a number of risk factors which may or may not be true.

Then the delivery consultants usually estimate from the bottom up, building pyramids of cost which make sense at a granular level, but which add up to far more effort than is required. Even worse, when estimating effort, delivery consultants often assume that the person delivering the work may be weaker than them and adjust the estimates accordingly.

And the reality is that many problems – especially technical problems – can be worked through with a quality delivery team and excellent governance processes. This was my experience at InPhase and the technical problems that I thought were impossible to fix, turned out to be very tolerable – with some design changes.

The Pre-sales Middle Ground

In the Pre-sales process we have to attempt to ride the middle ground between these two points of view, and this can be incredibly difficult. In addition we have to not be too worried about the detail of implementation – it’s just not possible to know every detail when we make an estimate, and we often make assumptions to protect against this lack of detail.

I tend to adjust estimates based on what I know about the nature of the consultant doing the estimate. I have been known to triple the estimates of optimistic consultants and third the estimates of pessimists. This makes up for an estimate deviance of 900% for the same piece of work. And I think this is common in the market – and it’s no wonder that the salespeople and delivery consultants are often at loggerheads.

Dealing with Product

This is exacerbated in the Enterprise IT world because we have products to take into account. The pre-sales consultant (usually a Solution Architect) has to decide what the appropriate tool to use for the job is – and how much it can reasonably be changed or customised.

The reason this is usually a problem is because a software vendor is usually also pushing product into the same account. Their point of view may be different to the consulting organisation and their product knowledge may also be different. And clearly there is a conflict of interests between a consulting organisation trying to push services, and a software company trying to push product.

How do we find a way forward?

The only way that this can work is when the consulting and software vendors work together and get a joint vision. In this process the software vendor has to realise that their product won’t always be fit for purpose, and the consulting vendor has to realise that sometimes making a product fit isn’t straightforward and may require some compromise.

Then we have to bear in mind that in an estimation process there are basically 3 variables: Scope, Roles & Responsibilities and Assumptions. It’s only reasonable – if you can agree those three variables with the customer – to vary those variables so that they give the lowest possible price. What clearly isn’t reasonable is to vary those when you know they won’t be true, with a view to artificially lower the price – although it is sadly common practice, especially in Enterprise IT.

And even within that, the respective pre-sales consultants have to be willing to push the technology envelope and realise that resourcing great people to a project and having the right governance process, is what really brings success.

As I sometimes say (and it only really works in British English) – it’s not the tools which make a project fail, but rather the tools using the tools.

Balancing life/work in consulting – 10 tips to beat the rat race

My thoughts on this were triggered some months back when I got back from SAP TechEd 2010 in Las Vegas. I’d spent weeks on the road travelling around the world and living out of a suitcase. On the last night in Vegas I didn’t even have time to sleep and I went directly to a shower, hotel checkout and then back to the conference – before heading to the airport. I slept from takeoff to touch down.

Not long after, one of my colleagues left his job and whilst there were probably many reasons for his move, it prompted me personally to consider how it is that in the pressure cooker consulting world, we can hope to balance life and work. And this is my frank account of how it happened to me.

The Time Trap

To outperform our peers, we have to differentiate ourselves from our peers – who are our competition. The day job isn’t enough – we have to create a personal brand, which takes time and money – creating social media: tweeting and blogging and being personalities.

In the latter parts of 2010 I found myself often working until the early hours – and it became usual for me to have 4-5 hours of sleep. What you will find if/when this happens to you is that you will become more prolific in your output – but less strategic. Yes, you can do more technical work, and this may appear to be working harder and better, but it is a short term play.

To add to this it’s an unhealthy lifestyle that many consultants may recognise. The hours out the house mean too many meals in restaurants and takeaways at home, which inevitably means weight gain. This is the curse of the traveling consultant – how do you find time to exercise and eat healthily, when there is some other temptation?

The Time/Strategy Paradox

My observation at least is that the harder you work, the less strategic you will be. I tend to think of this as a left/right brain thing, and the left brain still seems to function pretty well when really busy. We can follow instructions, execute and  do basic reasoning, whilst being busy and tired. And this gives us the impression that we are functioning – especially because we don’t see the context when we’re tired.

But I at least find that my right brain functions go out the window when I’m tired or run down. Creative thinking, contextualisation and strategic thinking just aren’t possible. And this is the killer – in this fast paced world, we need to grow as people, to outpace the competition: not just work harder.

How can we beat the rat race?

My focus since that time (really, since December) has been to equalise the work/life balance. And during that process I’ve found a few things which seem to work; perhaps these will help you, if you feel that way.

1) Sleep. We need 7-8 hours sleep whether we like it or not. If we’re getting less, we need to pay attention to our body. There are lots of resources to help with this – take a look – but my favourites are ensuring an uncluttered and dark bedroom, not watching TV or computers before bed and exercise. Plus vats of chamomile tea.

2) Did I say exercise? Exercise helps with sleep and stress and lighter weight means life is easier all around. I’m about 15lb down on my December weight and I sleep much better. Doesn’t matter how you do it – it was mostly running for me, but it could be the gym, cycling or press-ups. Whatever works for you.

3) Doing less. This sounds really obvious and easy but it’s actually really not. When at first you do less, you just let people down. But if you were overworked, you were probably already letting people down because you didn’t finish everything, or if you did, you stayed up until stupid o’clock. But if you set lower expectations, you will learn to balance doing less.

4) Living more. I forgot what I love the most about life. And this year I’ve spent a week on a beach already and a week travelling around. I’ve been to the theatre, the opera, musicals, classical music concerts. I’ve run hundreds of miles and bought new inline skates. I’ve started a personal blog, that you’re reading now as a means of letting out what I think. I’m planning another trip to climb Mont Blanc next month.

5) Delegation. This was probably the hardest thing for me. I’ve barely logged into a SAP system yet this year, except as a user. But I’ve got a team of some 75 consultants and whilst I’m not all that bad at tech, there’s always someone smarter and faster than I am for a particular problem. And if they get opportunities, they will be better and faster again.

6) Spending time with reports. We’ve reorganised the team and I now have 5 direct reports – whereas before it felt like at times 75 direct reports. These guys have ownership of specialty areas and ownership of the teams. More than anything it feels like every hour spent with these guys gives me two hours of my life back. It is deeply rewarding and it creates scale of people who share the values and vision of the organisation.

7) Creating new contextual networks. I spent some time face to face with my Mentor last week and we talked about contextual networks. Or I thought I coined the phrase. Anyhow, the SAP consulting world is small and I am lucky enough to know a lot of people – and making connections between those people draws an enormous amount of value. Don’t be afraid to make connections to your network to strengthen other people’s personal networks. It will pay off.

8) Prioritise Relationships. We can’t do everything in life and when we let something slip, all we do is to prioritise relationships. Become introspective about this and self-aware of the effect this has – but do let things slip; just with relationships that can cope with it.

9) Be rigorous about downtime. My laptop goes down on a Friday night and I pick it up on Monday morning. There are times when this isn’t possible but it’s a rough rule. Your rule could be different – but create a zone between life and work and create artificial walls. It doesn’t matter what the rules are. I do the same for social media – I only update Facebook and my personal blog in evenings/weekends.

10) Find a relevant mentor. I’m lucky enough to have a mentor who pushes me and gets the business we are in. Every time we spend time together, I leave seeing life through a slightly alternate angle and it feels like it allows me to be more introspective and self-aware. Find someone that you empathise with and you feel empathises with you and stick with them. And when it’s time to move on – don’t be afraid – mentor/mentee relationships are supposed to be short term.

11) Don’t make knee-jerk reactions. I know I said 10, but in time honoured tradition here’s an 11th tip. If you feel that you’re in a bad place and that you need a big change to sort things out – be mindful that a big change may just put you in a different, equally bad, place. Instead communicate with the people you live and work with and try to dig yourself out first. This way you can communicate where your problems are and deal with them directly – and this offers you a much better chance of happiness.

Final Thoughts

I’m starting to feel the benefits of the above tips and it will be interesting to see what it means in the medium term: both to the success of the capability that I run, and how that balances against healthy living. More than anything I’d love to hear from others who have struggled with the same problems and how they have gone about resolving them.

Or indeed if this has helped you in some small way.

Buying new inline fitness skates: K2 vs Seba vs Powerslide?

I recently finally destroyed my last pair of inline skates (rollerblades) and had to throw them in the bin. It’s been some 7 years since I bought my last pair so I wasn’t too bothered, but I was surprised and shocked that there was so little information available about buying skates for people like me.

And by people like me, I figure I must be a fairly common demographic. Wanting to get fit, move quickly and be able to manoevre in the parks. Comfortable enough to wear for long distance. But, you’re not going to see me in a skate park, 6′ up in the air. I’m too old for that stuff and don’t bounce like I used to when I was 16, right.

The last pair of skates I had were the K2 VO2 Max. They were sold to me as a skate designed for what I was looking for, and initially did not disappoint. Over the years though I came to see them as a bit of a blunt weapon and this was a bit frustrating. By blunt weapon I mean that they felt a bit soggy on my feet, and slow to turn and manoevre.

So when I wore them out I went back to the fantastic Slick Willies in Gloucester Road, Kensington (where I bought the last pair) and tried on everything in the shop. And I had a few observations which I thought might be useful to others in the same predicament.

First, the K2 boots are just as good as they were before and haven’t changed. So comfortable, right out the box, and easy to put on. I think if I were buying a first pair of fitness skates again, they would be the best choice by far. If you feel that way then go for it – just make sure you spend enough notes to get a good pair – it’s worth it. The K2 Mach 90 has all the things you would want. Decent quality and decent bearings (they make you glide faster).

Then I put on the Seba GT. This is a bit harder and stiffer and slightly less comfortable, although what reviews are out there suggest that they get comfortable very quickly with use. Immediately, the K2s felt like a blunt instrument and the Seba felt incisive and faster. And the K2s went back into the box after a while and I almost immediately decided against them.

As a point of comparison I then moved to the Powerslide Hardcore Evo. Now this is a whole different skate – twice the price, half the weight and with smaller wheels. And damn was it uncomfortable. It felt slightly more precise again, but the discomfort wasn’t worth it for me.

By the way for novice skaters like me, the wheel size determines the length of the frame that the wheels sit on. And this determines how agile the shoe is. The K2 and Seba GT have 90mm and the Powerslide had 80mm which makes it faster to turn, but slower at speed. Bigger wheels have less friction and therefore make you faster.

And again for comparison, I went for the Seba FR-1, which is a Freeride skate. Jumping around town and down stairs. Not really me, but I wanted to try it anyhow. Immediately far less comfortable as it’s a completely plastic shell – to protect the boot from the crazies.

What then struck me was that the Seba GT occupies a unique part of the market segment. It’s soft enough and quick enough to appeal to me, but sharper and more interesting than the K2 skates. One thing to note is that the Seba skates don’t have a rear brake, so you have to learn to brake with your skates (there are several ways, T-stop or hockey stop etc.).

And having bought them now, and skated on them I feel the same way as I did in the shop. So if you feel the same way I do, the Seba GT might just be a very decent purchase.

The story behind the title photo – Part 3, Technology

I found it most interesting that that my first blog of this series “People“, flowed very easily off the pen – and the second blog “Process“, did not. This doesn’t come as a surprise to me because I’m not at my most comfortable in Process. This is the realm of the Project and Program Manager.

Interesting too that these days, writing “Technology” was somewhere in-between the two. I’m pretty certain that there was a day in the not-too-distant past when it would have been much more natural for me to talk about Tech.

That said, even in my lifetime, the improvements in Technology have been incredible.

Strong, lightweight and durable

When I grew up, mountain boots were heavy and hard to wear in. We carried a single 5′ long walking stick hewn from solid pine. Socks were wool and T-shirts were cotton. Torches were made by Maglite and doubled up as an assault weapon.

This was only 30 years ago and now I look at my wardrobe, full of a plethora of high-tech. My latest walking boots weigh nothing, were broken in after a single day, are waterproof and can carry a crampon. Walking sticks come in pairs of adjustable length carbon composite. Socks are made of silk and synthetics, and the age of synthetic T-shirts means no more wet heavy sweaty clothes. Torches are made by Petzl, weigh nothing and light up the moon.

And the sport is so much the fun for it. The high-tech has meant that as I get older and fatter, I can perform better than I did when I was 18. I suppose that all this equipment comes at a cost, but it seems worth it. Interestingly though there are two areas of this story where I don’t believe technology has served us in the last 50 years.

Sports Nutrition vs Mother Nature

Now it’s true that even since I was at school, we have come a long way in understanding our bodies’ needs for sports nutrition. The latest Science In Sport protein shakes improve recovery time after serious exercise. We can balance our needs for vitamins, complex carbs and protein.

But up on the mountain this is all rubbish. The best foodstuffs are provided by mother nature. I carry nuts (usually walnuts), dates, figs and other dried fruit. Sometimes a chunk of cheese. The fact is that for a day in the mountain, these simple foods provide the best calorie-weight ratio of anything, and they are easy to digest. It’s the only stuff that Michel will take out my backpack – he won’t take any modern energy bars from me.

There is one caveat to this, which is when the going gets really tough. Last year I led a Bluefin expedition to do the Three Peaks Challenge. The highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales with 4500 vertical metres and 26 miles, in 24 hours and 650 miles driving along the way.

I stocked up on serious quantities of Sports in Science product before we went – enough for everyone – and on the last mountain, Snowdon, conditions were terrible. We were pretty much the only people on the mountain and I feared losing much of the senior management of Bluefin to what turned into a hurricane (technically, as there were 70mph winds on the summit).

At the bottom of Snowdon I was still quite fresh and I have done a number of similar walks in the past. So I started to feed the group one SIS Caffeinated Gel every 30 minutes – and noticed something incredible. They started to consistently outperform me and I was struggling to keep up with them.

I had enough left for me to take one gel on the way down and the transformation was incredible. I ran down Snowdon pacing 8 minute miles. Now I don’t think you can survive for long on the SIS gels but when the going gets tough, mother nature can’t compete.

CMOS vs Cellulose

Camera wars have been going on since the beginning of time and it’s all about the technology these days. The problem is that at the professional end of digital photography, you have to invest serious money in equipment – thousands and thousands on bodies, lenses and supporting kit. And it’s a rat-race, Nikon trying to overtake Canon and vice versa.

This photograph though was taken with a Hasselblad 501CM. Mine cost about £1000 including the 80mm fixed lens and the design dates back to the 50s although mine was made some time in the 80s. It is entirely mechanical and takes reels of 12x 6cmx6cm film. It requires an expensive light meter to get good results (I use the Pentax Digital Spotmeter – as did Ansel Adams) and a lot of patience.

I’ve since ditched my 35mm digital rubbish and have a Canon Powershot S90 point and shoot camera for my digital needs. I have Ken Rockwell to thank for a lot of this.

People, Process & Technology

And this photo is the outcome of the People, Process & Technology described in these 3 posts. It feels reminiscent of any good project – all of the factors coming into place at the same time.

Mont Buet is known as “Le Mont Blanc des Dames” (The Lady’s Mont Blanc) because it is a classic training site to complete prior to an attempt on Mont Blanc. It is a long and difficult ascent and a treacherous descent in traverse. It tragically claims lives most years.

I lugged the Hasselblad with its light meter and tripod up to the top of Le Buet and spent my time gauging the terrain. It’s a fixed lens so you move the camera not the lens and this makes you think about composition. The finality of clicking the shutter (only 12 shots remember) means that you really think before you shoot.

And the quality of the output is amazing. Forget about megapixels. I blew this picture up to 6’x6′ and you can still see every little detail of Mont Blanc. And because it’s hard to get to, you won’t see this angle of Mont Blanc anywhere else.

At that moment I knew I had to stand on the top of her and look back over Le Buet.

The story behind the title photo – Part 2, Process

Now that we know the people involved in my first blog of this series “People”, we can start to discuss how process assisted me along the journey.

In Enterprise IT we tend to like to think we have really well defined processes. Even if we are being self-deprecating, we think we attempt to define processes. We have processes for managing projects and for support, for procurement and supply chain and everything in between.

What’s interesting is that we are generally best at defining IT processes, whilst human processes are much harder to define. Take this into every day life and talk about the process of “climbing a mountain” or “taking a photograph” and we choose not to describe a process, but rather think of it as learnt behaviour.

This is pure and simple because we choose not to think of every day life in terms of a process – but it’s out there. Our decision to turn back from the mountain – the cloud cover coming in from the west or the dampness in the air – are justified by well-honed senses and a subliminal process.

For this mountain there were a few processes that were incredibly important.

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

To contextualise – this photograph requires a 14 hour mountaineering expedition – a round trip that covers some 6000 ft vertical and 26 miles. It requires head torches and a rucksack full of equipment. In my case I left the torch in the hotel and it added 45 minutes to my journey whilst I sat in the car waiting for dawn to arrive.

It requires sufficient water in your Camelbak. Michel told me that I could refill my pack at 9000ft but it turned out that the river had run dry and it took me an hour to dig out the river and make a pool of water to drink from.

Getting Fit

Getting fit is a process that most of us are familiar with. Get on treadmill, run for an hour, eat less, drink less, repeat. Or whatever your fitness poison is. Most of us convince ourselves that either a particular regime works for us, or that we’re not as overweight as we think we are. I tend to convince myself that when I’m 80something kilograms, I’m about the same weight as I was when I was 21. If only.

What’s interesting is that the process of learning mountain techniques makes up  to some extent for the lack of fitness. If for example, you learn to pace yourself in the right way, early in the day, you will dramatically increase your performance later on.

As Michel told me “un bon guide, c’est un guide sec” – roughly translating to “a good guide’s a dry guide”. Now I’ve seen the beer he consumes when home so I can only assume that he means during the day. It seems that great mountain guides don’t work themselves to a point of sweat and therefore barely need to drink when out on the mountain.

Final Words

Whatever we do in life, there is an implicit or explicit process surrounding it. It may be too complex to visualise or describe, or worse, we may believe that we understand the process when in fact there are nuances that we do not understand. As IT professionals we are especially guilty of this.

So when you embark upon the journey of process definition, remember that people die every out in the mountains because they misunderstand their process definitions, especially about the weather.

Next Up: Technology

Is the MacBook Air fit for purpose?

Those of you who follow my Twitter feed will know that I have been moaning about my MacBook Air for some time. Well I’m now on my 8th or 9th visit to an Apple Store Genius Bar and it’s time I wrote a little about my woes.

I bought my MacBook Air back in February 2008 – a second generation device with SSD which was serious money at the time. The first generations puportedly had problems overheating so I waited until the second generation. And I was very happy with it up until September 2009, when the display fell off.

For those of you that have hinge problems on a MacBook Air, Apple Support Article TS2948 details how Apple will replace the hinge out of warranty, free of charge. Of course Kingston Apple Store rubbished this, and tried to get me to pay £400. Only on my second visit, when I took the article to them and showed them and got the manager out, would they help.

And there my problems started. The MacBook started overheating when doing simple tasks like taking a Microsoft Communicator phone call, or watching Hulu/iPlayer TV shows.

I’ve since been back to the Apple store 8 or 9 times and had 3 or 4 separate repairs. New displays, new wireless cards, even a complete wipe of my system, and nothing has solved the problem.

From what I can see – and the evidence on the web supports this – if the Air gets too hot then it shuts down half the CPU and slows to 1/2 the speed – giving you 1/4 of the CPU power. My machine then hangs and crashes. Apple now seem to be claiming that I am putting unreasonable demands on the air, when I share a screen with MS Communicator. Seriously?

I’ve now repeatedly asked for a replacement machine because for my £2000 purchase, I don’t think Apple have produced something which is fit for purpose. And Apple keep wanting to try to repair it. I’ll let you know how it progresses.

Bootnote

I am still considering buying the new MacBook Air, but the current (4th Gen) device is no faster than the system I have – they put old innards in a new shell. Apple are reportedly in production of a new 5th Gen MacBook Air based on new Intel technology which will probably be very nice indeed, and all suggestions are that they resolved the problems in the 1st/2nd/3rd Generation devices.

The story behind the title photo – Part 1, People

I figured it would be nice to put an image up which has personal significance for me and I didn’t have to look far to find it. It was serendipitous when I realised that the story behind it allows me to relate back to my subject matter.

Ever since I was a small child I would visit the Maritime Alps in France and Switzerland and there is one vista which dominates the landscape and which found its way into my imagination: the view of the highest mountain in that range and in Europe, Mont Blanc. At 4810m above sea level it is head and shoulders taller than anything else nearby and from nearby Chamonix, it towers above the landscape.

I knew that I had to climb it from a very young age and would often survey it from afar, from the top of of some smaller peak. And as the years went by, I gathered the experience, strength, equipment and friendships required to do such a thing.

For every endeavour, I believe that People, Process and Technology have equal significance. As I thought through this story in my mind, I realised that I would need 3 blogs to tell the story.

In order to take this photograph, I needed the assistance of a number of people in my life. Probably I have missed some, but here are the people I think were significant:

Allan Appleby, my father

I think the significant moment for me was at the age of 5. My parents had foolishly bought an apartment in Haute-Nendaz, near Verbier in Switzerland and we were therefore tethered to go there on holiday for the rest of our childhoods. Winter skiing was fantastic (C&A ski clothing on the other hand was not) and we would also come in summer.

So we purchased mountain boots and we stood at the bottom of the ski run, now a green mountain pasture. My father said “well it’s just 20 minutes up here”. Actually the world record for ski descent is about 7 minutes, which is actually more like a 4 hour ascent. Now I was a 5 year old child with no idea of my limits and by the time we got to the Dent de Nendaz, over 1000m/3000ft above Haute-Nendaz, I was done for, and had to be carried back down. But I was hooked, and sworn to secrecy by my father (the precipitous drops would have given my mother a heart attack.

Paul Obo, Friend, Colleague & Fellow Climber

Paul will be surprised to be mentioned here, but that’s partially his self-deprecating nature. My first memory of Paul is of him attempting to get back to his flat within Clapham North Art Centre. I say attempting because he was using the stone wall as a means to guide him home. We became friends and he now works at Bluefin in Internal IT.

Paul had lived with some pretty serious climbers, whom I later met at his wedding and those climbing gods like Leo Houlding (for the car nuts amongst you, he was the guy who raced an Audi RS4 up a mountain in TV show Top Gear) somehow tangentially spurred us into hitting the rock climbing walls in London.

Now, Paul is a great climber and a terrible knot tier. And most climbing walls require you to fit a harness and tie a knot before they will grant you membership. I have fond memories of sitting in my car on my Smartphone in 2004 outside The Castle in Stoke Newington, trying to teach ourselves how to tie the climbing knots so we wouldn’t have to pay for lessons. Paul failed the knot test on at least one occasion. And out climbed me on many others.

Françoise & Olivier @ Neige et Roc, Samoëns

Samoëns is the perfect mountain town just a valley away from Chamonix and it’s a great place to learn the art of mountaineering. I’ve been going for nearly 10 years now and I still love it. There, I made friends with Francois and Olivier and from there I got the confidence to push into the snow line.

Françoise and I would challenge each other to do ever harder things and would race up and down mountains, to the fear of other mountaingoers and goats alike. We pushed a bit hard once and she badly sprained her ankle with a fall, but that’s another story.

Michel Barras, Mountain Guide

I think my introduction to Michel came pretty much by accident. I wanted a guide with whom I would climb Le Grand Mont Ruan and enquired at the tourist office. It happens that Michel has been part of the Bureau de Guides in Samoëns since the beginning of time and his history is fascinating. Perhaps more on Michel some other time.

We quickly built a bond of friendship and I always stop by at Michel’s house whenever I’m in town for a drink on his terrace overlooking town. It’s here that we plan our next crazy endeavour – although Michel is much madder than I am, climbing 8000ers and organising marathons in the Himalayas. He’s part man, part titanium screw and a little crazy.

And with Michel I built a true respect for the mountains, their dangers and how to assess risk. And also to know when to turn back. Because the vast majority of accidents on a mountain happen on the way down.

Why do people matter?

So the location of this picture was highly motivated by all of these people. It’s Françoise’s favourite mountain that I’m standing on, and I wouldn’t have been able to climb it without the experience garnered from these people, and I wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for Michel planning our next mission.

And it’s the same in Enterprise IT. It’s not about having the best people, but rather about having people who are qualified and inspirational, at the right time and in the right place. People who knows how to challenge your or your business and who also know your limits.

Next up: Part 2, Process