At Associated we have expectations that all of our people are leaders, to some degree, and that all team members will be effective communicators in both written and verbal communication skills. It is an emphasis that I have not seen in other organizations but I have see first had the costs of poor communication insted time in meetings and failure to properly execute on projects. So, to promote these skills, and to promote a culture of learning, we created the “Tech Faire” platform. It started as an every other Friday activity where people gave 20-20 style pecha kucha style presentation over a work related (usually technical since this started in our development departments) subject. I would be an opportunity to work on your communication and presentation skills and teach the rest of the department something. Well, the Tech Faire has grown company wide and now it is happening on a much less frequent basis. To continue promoting learning and nudging people to teaching others and growing their communication skills, I ran the first “Learning Friday” activity. My idea is that these activity are 30 minute classes where you dive deeper into a technical subject that you would in the pecha kucha presentation. It is my strong belief that our senior employees should be doing something like this to promote and grow our junior employees. This Learning Friday platform is intended to fill the gaps between our Tech Faires and provide a new (smaller and less intimidating) platform to teach technical skills and grow communication abilities.
I used the exercise that I discussed above as a chance to explore Entity Framework 7. Building as simple ASP.NET site that talked to a database (with EF7) took about 8 hours from zero to production ready, dependency injection, unit testing, the works. I then spend about 1 hour stripping out the non-EF7 bits and grabbing some screen shots to create some documentation. So for a total investment of 1 hour above what I was already asked todo, I had everything ready to share my knowledge about EF7 with our other developers. My goal was to have 6 people (one from each development team) join me to explore EF7. The results were amazing. I had 18 people join in, almost all our developers and database administrators. During this exercise I walked through created a database with Sql Server Data Tools and how easy it was to ship that to your local database and then ship SQL to our DBAs to create the database on a test/production environment. Our DBA’s complained about some of the “junk” that the tool generates but they all agree it was a big improvement from “pasting sql into a word document.” I then demonstrated how to generate a code first model from the existing database, a big concern in the room because EDMX is going away. I then walked through unit testing with the in-memory database provider and configuration with with SQL provider. All in all, there was about 1 man day invested in this learning. For that cost we probably saved several man days of independent research and experimentation and we all gain a common starting point and understanding of EF7 and the code first design approach. In my opinion, time well spent. Below is the documentation I created for this exercise if you would like to see or following along your self.
Start with a web project, unit testing project and SSDT database project with your tables modeled.
The team that I took over had a vacancy on it. During one of my early conversations with Robert he said that filling that position should be one of my top priorities. Robert told me a story about why the position was posted the way it was. We were (at the time) looking to a SharePoint specialist to supplement the SharePoint responsibilities of the team. The story was that in early 2015 we lost our most experienced SharePoint specialist and their were two individuals with relatively little experience to support our SharePoint environment. Due to the lost of experience and our pending upgrades to SharePoint 2013 and eventually SharePoint 2016, Robert was seeking a third person to focus on supporting our SharePoint infrastructure. I questioned Robert’s conclusions because, even thought SharePoint is very important to my organization, our SharePoint environment is really not that big. Early in my time with the team I found this blog post from Mark Rackley about the size and make up of a SharePoint team. Bottom line is that to support a user base of 5 to 10 thousand people you need nine to twelve people. My organization is a full order of magnitude smaller than that, 600 users. Two people should be enough to support our SharePoint environment with some supplementing talent from consultants to help with major projects or upgrades. At the same time, I held a meeting with the team to review and outline all of the different responsibilities that we as a team had. I used this exercise to help everyone see the bigger picture about what was going on across the entire team but also to solicit input into what should be done with this open position. The team identified web/html technologies as the area that we needed the most help in and recommend that we hire a fourth programmer to focus on web technologies. They sighted several large 2016 projects and the possibility to assist with branding in the coming SharePoint upgrade. By the time I started my third month in the new role I was able to focus on the stories and assumptions that my predecessor and my team were making about this open position. For better or worse, I choose not to trust neither of the assumptions and stories and validate the needs against the data from our work tracking system.
Let me start by explaining what we track in our work tracking system, TFS. We track work items that map to emergent support requests (work we allocate time to but don’t plan for) project work (that we do plan for, see my earlier post Plotting a course) and we track recurring “meta” work (that include things like training, weekly tactical meetings, one-on-ones, etc.) We also track time for the different tasks. I could look at the work we completed during my first 10 weeks on the job and compare that to the project plan from our tri-annual meeting to identify the type of work being done and the talent needs for the team for the coming year.
The Platform Services Team supports numerous systems and they each require a slightly different skill set to support and maintain. To reflect this in my analysis I organized all of the different things we build and support into a two tier hierarchy with the TFS Area field. For the first level in this hierarchy, I assigned a percentage for how much of the work required an “Analyst” and how much required a “Developer.” I also when one step further by breaking our SharePoint Analyst and Web Developer based on the stories I heard from my predecessor and my team. When I looked at all of the Support and Project work (the work that requires specialized talent) that we completed over the last 10 weeks a trend emerged. Additionally, when I looked at all of the 2016 projects and their initial size estimates that trend contained. Historically we had 4 FTE’s performing Analyst type work with 2 FTE’s dedicated to our SharePoint environment. For the developers, historically we had 2 FTE’s performing developer work with one FTE focused on web development. The projects that we have planned with our business partners for 2016 had similar expectations for the type of talent that would be required from the team. With one team member focusing solely on web development we appeared to have our development needs covered with the existing staff. With two team members focusing solely on SharePoint, we also appeared to have our needs covered for SharePoint with existing staff. With the numbers showing me that we are, and expecting to continue, to spend more time than available talent performing Analyst type work, I decided that we needed to hire a fourth analyst.
When I shared the results of the analysis with the team they were not immediately aligned with this, but after focusing on the data and the story it told most everyone accepted it and a logical direction to take the team. Below is an excerpt from my team strategy document that focuses on the team structure that this analysis helped shape.
We informally view ourselves as multiple teams under a single organization structure. The needs of the organization are dynamic but by organizing ourselves in a ridged manner we reduce our ability to meet the needs of our Business Partners. As a result of this rigidness, we struggle (often as individuals) to meet peak needs from our Business Partners.
The PST is tasked with providing tier 2 technical support and IS project implementation for 4 of the 7 divisions at Associated. At the beginning of 2015 there were 8 team members dedicated to these business units. Through attrition and reorganization, at the end of 2015 there were 6 team members dedicated to same business units. This downsizing has created islands and single point of contacts for several business units and products that the PST supports.
AECI has strategically operated as a fiscally lean organization. Information Services supported this strategy by eliminated operating and capital costs from the organization by creating in-house software products. Starting in the late 2000’s, this strategy started shifting as the costs of purchasing software products became lower than the labor costs of building software products. Today our product strategy is to rely on the market to provide software solutions and Information Services can customize and extent, and to build software where the market does not exist. Job roles and descriptions have not kept pace with this change in strategy.
Data from 2015 and the project outlook for 2016 indicates that a large amount of effort has been (and will continue to be) expended by Analyst talent, or developers performing in the analyst role. As a result, better definition of the Analyst role and the Analyst career path is necessary. Additionally, the PST requires a high degree of specialization with the SharePoint Product. Critical mass for supporting and maintaining our SharePoint environment is 2 FTE Analysts. As such, we should explore new job descriptions that reflect this specialization and evaluate market data of SharePoint analysts vs. generalist analysts. Finally, the existing open complement position will be filled as an Application Analyst with emphasis on the AssurX platform.
Historically, the members of the PST have been dedicated to a Division within AECI. This practice has served AECI well in the past; however, in our current environment, this has left individuals islanded and silo’d. Members of the PST do not have backup for their critical tasks. As such, the PST will treat itself as a Talent Pool; team members will align themselves with job role and not with business unit. The PST will be viewed as a tier two IS support organization and IS project implementation team for 4 of the 7 divisions at Associated.
Knowledge silos must be eliminated. The PST has historically been a software development organization; that coupled with historical formal and informal divisions of the team, has created an environment where many critical line of business systems are supported and maintained by a single team member. As our Analyst role is better defined and the new analysts ramp up, this pattern must change so that Analyst are the primary support for critical products and developers serve as secondary support.
Development staff will focus on minimalist, web based, technology stack for custom application development. This will enable the developer team members to create and support a multitude of applications that serve business partners outside of their traditional area of focus.
After the first week in my new role was completed I was ready to get down to business. Based on my one-on-one conversations with my new employees, I had some direction on where to direction on where to start, but the todo list was daunting. Hiring two employees (one part time and one full time,) learning about my new business partners, standardizing work practices, standardizing project planning, better defining job roles and descriptions, just to name a few. Unfortunately, all of these items would have to wait until my third week on the job. My second week on the new job was filled with a previously scheduled user conference that I had committed to speaking at. This was very unfortunate timing. This timing was made worse by the fact that it was an intentional decision. As I learned, it is critical to spend as much time as possible with you new team and you manager during the first few months in a new role.
As soon as possible, you should meet with you new boss and clearly establish expectations during your ramp up period over the first 90 days. My first week on the job, my boss, Robert was at a conference in Philadelphia and the second week on the job I was at a conference in Chicago. As a result, my first real conversation with Robert in my new role didn’t happen until the third week on the job. This was undesirable, not because I was moving in the wrong direction with my new team, but because I didn’t have clarity on what Robert’s top priorities were for me in my new role until my third week on the job. During this conversation, Robert identified his top priority as having the upcoming Tri-Annual updates go well.
The Tri-Annual update has its roots with our former CIO. This originally started as a quarterly update the Information Services gave to each of the other 6 divisions at Associated Electric to update them on the various projects that IS was undertaking on their behalf. This started as a communication tool that our CEO implemented to improve communication and collaboration between IS and the other divisions. Today, under the leadership of our current CIO, it is an open forum to present Information Services’ KPI and gain alignment on our project plan. The team that I had inherited had a very wide variety of was to track and manage their work, so getting KPI’s and putting together three formal project plans in four to six weeks was a fairly tall order.
In Information Services, we break our work apart into three categories: project, support and meta. At this time, most of our KPI’s revolved around the “support” type work. This is type of work (for my team) is typically your tier two help desk type work. We don’t plan for this type of work; but rather, we budget a percentage of time for this type of work and strive to complete this work as quickly as possible. Standardizing emergent (support) work became my primary focus for the team. Without a standard was to track our support work, I would not be able to compile any support related KPI’s. Many of our teams use Team Foundation Server for managing our work and that was the system of record that my team was going to start exclusively using. Accomplishing this required everyone to get out of the habit of immediately resolving support requests and into a habit of documenting what they were being asked todo. To make this easier, we kept it analog and a created a physical Kanban board on some of the exterior cube walls. I clearly laid out the expectations for the team that, at a minimum, every support request that you receive needed to be documented on a 3×5 index card. No entry into TFS if they didn’t want to, I would take care of that and allow them to focus on the work. Some of my employees habitually recorded everything into TFS, but for those that didn’t, my gesture greatly improved their buy in. After all, I was only asking for a few words to be written on an index card and pined to the cube wall. The results were immediate, we went from about 5 recorded tasks a week, before I joined the team, to an average of twenty. The second problem to solve was to ensure that team members that habitually used TFS properly categorized their work for future analysis. This was easily accomplished by using a TFS query pinned to the home screen in TFS. Below is a picture of the Kanban board and the TFS home screen that I use to keep all the work straight.