“Tiger By The Tail” – Internal Communication

Information Overload! Isnt that the common theme in our hectic lives? The partition between work and personal lives are blurry, at best. Do I only work from 9AM-6PM? No. Do I keep away from work activities from 6PM-9AM? No. As I mentioned in an earlier Blog, I believe that it is going to be the trend. We have to get better at efficiently using our times in spurts of high-output time-slots, as opposed to predictable continuous hours on a particular activity. (Of course, a “red flag” or “high priority” item supercedes such rules, I think.)

A typical project involves the following as a day-to-day activity list:

– Individual Work (E.g. Designing, Verification, Testing etc., where there is an invidivual working on his/her activity)

– Team Meetings

– One-on-One (or multi-member, but not the whole team) Meetings or Activities

– Emails (!!!)

– Document Sharing

– Team Lunches and Get-Togethers

Etc. How do we ensure that Information is being propogated through the team efficiently? Let me illustrate with some examples of wastage (in my opinion, of course):

– Scheduling meetings where one or more of the invited members’ input or output is not required or needed

– “Too many cooks” Syndrome: I.e. There is a point where “increasing the number of engineers” is not the solution to the problem at hand.

– Multiple versions of Specifications floating around …

– Conducting a detailed back-and-forth discussion via Email. I have had occasions where a person sitting 5-ft from me discusses with me via Email! Dont get me wrong. Email has its advantages: Written minutes of discussion, Allowing the target person to respond at his convenience, Good way to consolidate an itemized list etc. But wont it be more efficient to tackle follow-up questions/doubts on the spot and terminate a question/issue on the spot rather than giving more workload to my Company’s products or giving a good workout to your computer’s keyboards (or your fingers)?

Some suggestions:

(a) Use Specifications as the hand-off tool between Team Members: It would be a good idea to insist on this. A lot of engineers like to get things done, and documentation is considered a boring chore. It would be best for that mentality to be altered. Any feature change or bug fix or programming guide, should be communicated through the official document, I.e. Specifications. Such a structure allows for a lone source of Information (for that part of the Product/Project) for all members of the Team. (Use Version Control).

(b) Feature Overload: As a part of Information Overload, it is best to keep the Feature Requests to manageable levels. Given a choice, who wouldnt like to cram every single feature into the Chip/ASIC/SoC? But we got to be realistic as well, right? Last minute Feature Changes are the killers!

(c) Team Meetings: Publish agenda beforehand. If there are documents that are needed as reference for the meeting, publish them beforehand. Maintain a list of the items you would like addressed during the meeting and at the end of the meeting, make sure you are on track to addressing each of them. Maintain the pace of the meeting. Some people love to talk. Consider yourself to be a Air Traffic Controller or Traffic Light System 🙂 Maintain meeting minutes and encourage Team Members to sift through the discussions and extract every single useful/related information for their part of the Project/Product.

(d) Be a good “Router”/”Switch”. (Hat tip to the Company I work for!). As important as knowing what to say, is knowing what NOT to say. Please keep in mind that not all information is meant to be “democratic”.

Adios …

“Tiger By The Tail” – Conflict

It is everywhere. So, it should not be surprising that it is prevalent in Organizations as well. Through my Career, I have had the opportunity to experience quite a few instances, which prompts me to make it one instalment of my “Tiger By The Tail” series.

Note: As I have mentioned elsewhere, please note that I do not have a Phd in Human Psychology nor have I “studied” Human Behaviour for years. All I have done is to keep my eyes open and my thoughts are based on what I have experienced.

One of the most important lessons during my time in the Silicon Valley is that of Professionalism. Proving, before demanding. Giving one’s very best under less than ideal conditions. Getting inspired and inspring others. Project/Product-first mentality. Not poisoning Team Dynamics. Not using Team Meetings for venting. I can go on and on, but I hope you get the gist. I notice and hear that the Work Environment and Culture has been improving quite a bit all over the World. That is a good thing!

In any Society, Organization or similar Entity, where a group of people coexist and interact closely, Politics is inevitable. Wishing for an Organization or Company without Politics is a wasteful exercise and I personally do not think all kinds of Politics are bad. (E.g. Politics which works to the detriment of the Product/Project would be a bad one. Politics to get a plan/idea (you sincerely believe in) approved is a good one). What I think is bad is “Eat or be eaten” mentality. In other words, pulling down others, who are well on their way to success or recognition, because of a myriad reasons/feelings/needs, which ultimately brings down the Project, Product or worse, the Organization itself. Politics causes a lot of Conflicts in Organizations.

I have come across the following gem several times. PersonA to PersonB, “I hate you. I cant stand you. But, its nothing personal!”. What??? Of course, it is personal. Looks like PersonA need to go back to School and brush up on the language basics a little bit. Or maybe PersonB can give PersonA a Websters Dictionary as the Christmas gift next time. The moment you allow your judgement about an Idea or a Plan or a Message, to be clouded by your feelings about the Messenger, it gets personal. Such a scenario is not good for the Engineer or for the Project/Product. Let me illustrate it with an example. Assume there is a PersonA who teases me and makes fun of me almost every single time we are in a group. Over a period of time, being a human, I could develop a dislike for PersonA. Later on, PersonA comes up with what is (objectively) a brilliant plan or idea. The odds are, I will lean towards hating the idea/plan, because I hate the Messenger.

Disagreement or Conflict does a lot of good as well (I mean it is not all bad!). It keeps the team on their toes. It helps with gut-checking the ideas/plans and making sure it is cross-checked from all angles. The catch is that, the Team Leader and the Team should keep the Conflict away from getting personal and toxic.

Some suggestions:

– If you have high-energy Type-A personalities in your Team, it might be worthwhile to have a “ground rules” casual discussion with everyone before the Project/Product enters the crazy and hectic final phases.

– Detect the following traits as early as possible and try and nip it in the bud, using a frank one-on-one discussion. E.g. (a) Loud-mouth who babbles on and on and does not let anyone else speak (b) Toxic behaviour like public shouting match (which the entire Organization can enjoy 🙂 ) (c) Habitual schedule-slippage (There could be other issues with the person concerned) (d) Kings of dissent (and pessimism), who offer no solutions.

– Sometimes you have to deal with brilliant Engineers, who just happen to have a short fuse. Handle with care! After a few instances, you will get an idea on how to proceed with that particular individual. Most probably, you will have to develop a targetted strategy for dealing with that person (and if required, propogate within the team).

– Encourage everyone to think long term. It is surprising how many times people forget this basic rule.

– How about us losing cool? How much ever you try, there will be occasions where you end up losing your cool. I have had occasions where I have lost my cool. A person who claims he/she has never lost cool, is, well, a L-I-A-R. It is quite natural in high-pressure, high-demand and high-stakes Industry like High-Tech. The correct way to handle it, in my humble opinion, is to apologize in person and smoothening things out. Yes, it takes significant mental effort and ego-shattering embarassment to do that. But I think it is well worth it.

– Team-mates doing a verbal (or physical?) WWF (or WWE, as it is called nowadays)? If it keeps on beyond a particular benchmark, you have to dive in and help restore equilibrium. One need not be the Team Leader to do this. Anyone can (and should, in my opinion) do this. What is the correct “benchmark” for one to step in? One rule of thumb to use is “when the discussion is appearing to enter the grey area, the area between “white” (all rosy) and “black” (blood-bath). Are you feeling a bit uncomfortable and are not sure if the discussion is going in the right direction? Ring! Ring! “Benchmark” has reached!

Adios …

Movies I watched during the 2-week Dec Shutdown …

The 2-week break sure hit the right spot, just like in 2009. I got to indulge in one of my hobbies: Movies! I used my Netflix account to the maximum and in the process did put a lot of strain on my poor eyes :-)

I categorized the movies into 3 sections: “Loved It!”, “Whatever …” and “Water-Boarding Alert!”. I will skip over the “Whatever …” section.

(A) Loved It! —————————————————————————

The Money Pit: Quite funny and very good work by Tom Hanks. Quite appropriate for the 2008-2010 US Housing Market 🙂

The War Of Roses: Black Comedy. My favorite Michael Douglas was great as ever. Not everyone will like it though.

Cape Fear: Watching it for the Nth time. What a movie. De Niro and Nolte were just superb. Good old Yash Chopra managed to lift some aspects of it for his “Darr” with Shah Rukh Khan.

Donnie Brasco: A tense movie with some great work by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.

12 Angry Men: Thanks for the recommendation Rajesh. I loved this 1950s movie! A good story with excellent acting all around.

Changing Lanes: Hmmm …. I was under the impression “Taxi 9211” Hindi movie was an original. Obviously, not! A very unique script.

A Perfect Getaway: I loved this movie for the beautiful Hawaii locales. And a decent twist towards the end.

Infernal Affairs: Thanks for the recommendation Sridhar. Even though it wasnt as exciting as “The Departed”, the dude who acted as the undercover mobster did a great job, I thought. The ending is different w.r.t. “The Departed”.

The Hangover: I loved it and thought it was quite funny. I also noticed that not everyone liked it. Well, we are all different, arent we?

Hush: Some good work by Jessica Lange (Cape Fear, The Postman Always Ring Twice (below)).It was a timepass movie.

Food Inc.: Whatever be your political views, I would strongly recommend you watch this movie. It was quite an eye-opener for me.

Sleeping With The Enemy: Watching it for the Nth time. Good suspense and good acting.

District 9: A unique experiment. For a change, Aliens are the persecuted ones 🙂 Sharlto Copley was just awesome in the lead role.

Consenting Adults: Hindi Movie “Ajnabee” pretty much did a 1-to-1 copy of this movie. A good suspense thriller.

No Way Out: Though the technical aspects of the movie werent that great, I thought it was a good story.

Nick Of Time: Watching it for the Nth time. I love suspense! A younger Johnny Depp was very good.

Bad Influence: A B-Cast, but a decent mystery thriller.

The Hand That Rocked The Cradle: Watching it for the Nth time. Rebecca De Mornay is very good as the lead.

Malice: A very good suspense thriller with some twists and turns.

The Beach: Another movie I loved mainly for the wonderful beauty of Thailand (Was it?). The story is also quite unique.

The Postman Always Rings Twice: Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in their early days.

(B) Water-Boarding Alert —————————————————————————

Predators: What?? The great Adrien Brody in this “Action” movie, mouthing ridiculous dialogues! What a contrast from “The Pianist”. Lousy movie with some of the corniest dialogues I have ever heard.

Gangs of NewYork: I get a feeling that my buddy Rajesh played a prank on me with this recommendation. A 3+-hour movie which I did not like one bit. I forwarded it and finished it in 30 minutes or so. I noticed that the movie got a lot of awards. But then, it didnt do anything for me.

Whiteout: It was great to see all that snow. Thats about it ….

Wanted: “???”. That is what I felt after watching it.

Capitalism – A Love Story: I thought it was a bit over-the-top and not up to his usual standards.

Adios ….

“Tiger By The Tail” – Distributed Teams & Time-Zones

Earlier on in my Career, it was quite novel to have a Project or Product Team having members distributed across multiple locations. Well gone are those days. Distributed Teams are rampant in High-Tech nowadays and I do not see any reason for that to change in the near future. With the numerous Acquisitions, Traffic issues and resultant Remote Workers and Global Companies, Teams will only get more and more distributed. I think the best approach is to embrace this fact and learn to deal with it.

Most Projects start off with a confident-inducing schedule and the general feeling that things are under control. But then, almost all Projects have this “Frantic” and “High Pressure” Final Stages. As the Project progresses more, more and more Risks are brought out and things get into a tail-spin. I have rarely seen an ASIC Development Team claiming to be totally relaxed and under perfect control towards the last 2-3 months of the Project. If they do, then it is probably a Project which everyone (including the Team) has given up on! 🙂 Just kidding there … Saying that the Project “must not have a Frantic final stage” is like saying “there should be no corruption in Politics”. I wish it was possible. The difficulty is that the entire team has to be disciplined and organized for a Project Team to totally eliminate final stage jitters. Having just a few members who pace themselves perfectly rarely helps. That is why, I think, the last stage jitters is so common.

During the initial phases of a Project, Distributed Teams rarely have any issue with Time Zone differences. Hey, everyone is relaxed, Project deadline is way into the future and life is good! (Note: Diligent team members who are good at pacing themselves, typically do not fall into this line of thinking). It is in the Frantic Last Stage when things get real stuffy and everyone starts cribbing about the Time Zone differences, late/early conference calls, lost days etc.

I have come across a lot of Companies claiming 24-hour Work Cycles (especially in the Design Services Industry). It is quite a stretch in my opinion to claim that, for most scenarios. Two examples where it does work are: (a) Design Team at LocationA and Verification Team at LocationB. LocationA office hours can be spent on debug and bug fixing and LocationB office hours can be spend on testing and detecting bugs. (b) An overall Project being split into Parts A and B and each part being executed at different self-contained locations. In such a case, the overall Project time requirement is reduced correspondingly (assuming the Integration challenges are properly addressed. I will address my experiences with “IP/Design Integration” in another Blog).

The main way to tackle Time Zone issues in Distributed Teams is: Be Flexible!

Yes, it is that simple.

No one likes to work past the typical office hours in their Time Zone. But that does not bode well for Distributed Teams. So, accepting the reality is Task No:1. Instead of having a hard-coded 9AM-6PM working style, you might want to spread around that 8 hours of total work into different slots. It is not wise to insist on rules like “I wont check emails after 6PM”, “I am not available before 9AM”, “My cell phone number is more protected that the US President’s Nuclear Code” etc.

(Speaking of Cell Phones … I am sometimes amused by how protective some people are of their cell phone numbers. Maybe I am feeling this because having worked in Design Services and Product Development and having dealt with Distributed Teams for a long time, I am very open and flexible and do not see any issue with people contacting me for issues/updates. I prefer to know ASAP about an issue than to get to know about it several hours later. A lot many issues which I faced in my career were solved by a thought process (i.e. I had the solution in my mind) before I even got to office the next day. Then what about “Privacy” and “Personal Life”? Well, that is why we have “Voice Messages”, “Mute Button” etc. I put it in Mute during “Family Time” and check messages in a couple of time windows before calling it a day. That way, I am neither interrupted during “Family Time” and nor am I preventing myself from getting critical Project updates. Please note that in many a case, 5 minutes of your time can help prevent another person wasting his/her entire workday)

Some Tips for Frantic Stage Distributed Teams’ Communication:

– Keep it short, 30 minutes is a good rule of thumb

– Prepare the agenda and let the other party have an advance peak at it

– Keep it at fixed timeslots, unless of course a catastrophe occurs

– Keep switching the times, so that you do not force the other party to always be the one to babysit the phone at midnight or 4AM. I.e. take one on the chin for the “Distributed Team” …

– Be focussed and time manage the communication well …

Adios …