Monday, May 27, 2013

It's been a long time

I read recently that you should spend at least an hour per week on your blog if you want people to take your blog seriously. I think I agree, however you probably won't notice much of a difference in the frequency of my posts.  Life is busy, and I've got more important things to do than keep the masses(or 2 people in my case) entertained with my weekly blog posts.  So for now, just accept this blog for what it is: an occasional, documented update on my life.  Don't hold your breath.  It could be another 6 months before I write again.

It's late May, and a lot of things have changed since my last post.  I'm still a Senior Data Engineer working on improving our data warehouse structure and database structures in general.  I've learned a lot over the past several months.  The three I want to blog about today are: organization, process improvement, and intellectual development.

If there is one practice or framework that I've relied on to keep me focused, my team moving in the right direction, and my priorities in line, it is "organization."  The data layer of a system or systems is without a doubt the most important layer.  Regardless of how nice the application is, or what features it has, if the data is wrong, the application is wrong.  On the other hand, if the application is feature poor, but the data is superb, then the application can actually be a valuable, sell-able product.  Because of this, throughout my day, I'm inundated with questions regarding system performance, data quality, new data metrics, resources, project planning, etc for several different applications.  Organization is what allows me to keep up with, and provide important and accurate feedback to data stakeholders, product managers, and directors.  Don't get me wrong, I haven't attained perfection in organization.  There are lots of ways I can improve in that area.  But if you want to be successful at whatever you are doing, whether it is data engineering, software development, management, or something else, start with organization.

Process Improvement
Organization and Process Improvement go hand in hand.  You really can't improve processes without organization, and often times you probably don't know what process to improve until you organize all of the proverbial junk you have on your plate.  First let me define what I mean by process improvement, though, since it is a broad topic.  What I mean by process improvement is, "finding flaws, bottlenecks, problems that cause headaches for you, problems that cause headaches for others, and then finding and implementing solutions to those problems."  In other words, "effecting a positive change in the way that you do things."  I actually did not look up the definition to Process Improvement...Doing that now...  I wasn't far off.

To Save you the trouble of looking it up:
Process improvement is an aspect of organizational development (OD) in which a series of actions are taken by a process owner to identify, analyze and improve existing business processes within an organization to meet new goals and objectives,[2] such as increasing profits and performance,[2] reducing costs[2] and accelerating schedules. Process improvement is also a method to introduce process changes to improve the quality of a product or service, to better match customer and consumer needs.[2]                                                                                                     --Wikipedia
People do not like change.  I understand it, to a certain extent, but some people really abhor it, and that I do not understand.  Change is good when it is an improvement upon the current status quot.  To hate change just for the sake of hating it, is irritatingly frustrating to me.  I used to think it was a character trait that gradually increases with age, but I've seen young people with the same mind-set.  I digress.

With limited resources, finding ways to make our team, or even more personally, the way that I do things, more efficient, is and has been paramount to success.  Once you get into the groove of your job, look and think outside of the box.  Your job may just be to make "widget A".  And honestly, if that is your job, that is what you are and will ever be paid for.  But if you want to move up the corporate ladder, or maybe you just want to give back to your organization, come up with ways to either make "widget A" faster and/or more efficient, make it obsolete with "Widget A.2" or use what you know to develop a complementary "Widget B".  Process improvement is not specific to technical processes or a specific metric you can use to measure your improvement.  It crosses boundaries.  A process is just a method for doing something.  You can improve the way you communicate with your boss, or the way you respond to e-mails.  You can improve the way you write code, or in my case, the way I manage and produce change scripts.  Find a process to improve, and figure out how to improve it.  It will help you, and ultimately it will help your organization.

Intellectual Development
I was told by one of my professors during my undergrad studies to always work to develop my intellect.  Oddly enough he wasn't a technical professor, he was my English lit professor who had a building contractors license, a pilot's license, and I'm sure countless other things that keep his mind busy.  I think a lot of people get into a job and then just coast.  Like the sheep dog in the old Looney Tunes cartoons, [yes, I linked to a Google image search of the sheep dog]  they clock in, sit on their duff, do their basic job requirements, and then clock out.  Day in and day out, same old, same old.  My analogy breaks down a little bit here with the sheep dog, because he usually found creative ways to defeat Wile E Coyote.  I think the average employee either lacks that creativity or fails to draw from it, and probably the latter.  Developing intellect to me is more than just learning, it involves knowing what to learn.  It would do me no good, from a business perspective, to learn Mandarin Chinese except for the intellectual Olympics of doing so, unless I'm expected to support a data dictionary in Mandarin - praise God I'm not.  I know what my job is, and have a good idea of the job related changes that will occur in the next 6 months to a year.  I also know, to a certain extent, what my next career move(s) will be.  The future is somewhat of a cone shape and the present is the smallest portion of that cone.  As I am developing my intellect I'm constantly re-evaluating the outer circle as far into the future as I can accurately fathom.  The further into the future you try to predict, the less accurate you will be.  For example, if I consider the end of the cone to be 30 years away, I could be President of the US, homeless in Ethiopia, or a taxi driver in New York.  It does me very little good to develop intellect in those areas until I'm much closer to them.  So my cone for developing intellect is about 5-7 years.  I'm in the healthcare data sector, so my intellectual development includes data and healthcare.  I'm also in IT, so I also make it a point to keep current on my technology skill-sets.  I am a Christian, so I make it a point to study and improve upon my knowledge of the Bible.  I'm a Father, so I study parenting techniques.  I'm a husband, so I study and learn from successful marriages.  I have a dog, so I study Cesar Milan - Highly recommend his work for dog lovers.  Five to seven years from now, I will hopefully have moved up the corporate ladder, started raising kids successfully, have an obedient dog, etc.  As I continue to narrow the cone in certain areas, my outer cone of intellectual development will change and incorporate new interests, and more detailed interest in areas I'm already learning in.  See the figure below from Health Imaging Magazine to visualize what I'm talking about.

So, develop your intellect.  Get smarter.  Work harder.  Do better at whatever it is you do in and out of the workplace.

So my suggestion to you, is to organize, improve the processes you have influence over, and develop your intellect.  These three factors have been critical to my success, and you will find them critical to yours.  If you've been unsuccessful, perhaps you need to improve on one or all of these areas.  All three of these areas overlap.  You have to organize your life to know what intellectual areas you want to develop.  As life gets busier for you, you will need to improve your processes for learning and developing your intellect.  It's very difficult to do any of them without doing all of them.