Tuesday, November 27, 2012

ASP.NET MVP John V. Petersen Joins Neudesic

I'm pleased to announce that John V. Petersen has recently joined Neudesic as Regional Practice Director of App Dev for our Mid-Atlantic region.

John is an ASP.NET MVP. To quote from the Microsoft MVP web site:

"John has been developing software for 20 years. From 1995-2001, he was a Visual FoxPro MVP. Today, John is an ASP .NET MVP and a member of ASPInsiders. He is a developer/committer on the NerdDinner and nDBUnit Projects. John is a frequent speaker at code camps, user groups and conferences. John is also a frequent contributor to Code Magazine and has authored several books including the Absolute Beginner's Guide to Databases from Que Publishing. John  earned an MBA from St. Joseph's University and a JD from the Rutgers University School of Law in Camden."

John is of course very involved in web development and ASP.NET, but his interests don't end there: He's also passionate about ALM with Visual Studio; Windows Azure; and Windows 8.

As part of our practice leadership team, John's back-end web expertise complements well our other MVPs and subject matter experts who provide practice-wide guidance and support. Neudesic combines multiple disciplines to create Modern Apps that span from the hand-held device to the cloud.

John's blog is at codebetter.com/johnvpetersen and he can be followed on Twitter at @johnvpetersen.

Friday, November 23, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 4: Written Communication Skills

This is Part 4 of a series on what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. In this post we’ll be discussing communication skills; specifically, written communication.

If you’re a consultant, you’re not only going to be writing code you’re also going to be authoring or co-authoring documents. There are many kinds of documents a consultant may need to write, such as estimates, statements of work, user stories, specifications, findings and recommendations, plans, trip reports, and hand-off documents.

Not everyone attaches strong emotion to writing, but there are definitely some people who love to write as well as those who absolutely dread it. Likewise, some people are naturally better at it than others (if you weren’t paying attention during elementary school grammar class, you might be paying for it now in your adult life).
Whether fair or not, some people will significantly raise or lower their opinion of you based on your writing. That might include your customers, your colleagues, your manager, or your subordinates. It’s not only your reputation that’s at risk; your company’s reputation is also on the line.
Know and Conquer (or at least Avoid) Your Weaknesses
Are you a horrible speller? Do you find yourself struggling over the difference between affect and effect? Are you unsure when to include an apostrophe in its? Have you ever used the [non-]word irregardless? If you have a weak area in grammar, spelling, or vocabulary either conquer the problem or avoid it.

Even educated and well-read people with a lot of writing experience can fall prone to common writing errors. I’ve found most of us have a blind spot or two here and there where it comes to grammar and vocabulary. This is easier to notice in others; and it’s quite humbling when you discover you’ve been making an error yourself, especially when pointed out by someone else.
We all have weaknesses we need to work at. The first step is to become aware of them. One of my own writing weaknesses is a tendency to be verbose. Once I became aware of the problem (through reviews of my early technical books), I now work hard at brevity and not repeating myself.

If you just don’t think you can conquer a weak area, try to avoid places where it will come up. If you feel you’re completely hopeless as a writer, you might consider arranging for someone else to do the writing instead. Even better, get a colleague to collaborate with you on the document so you learn from the experience.
The Min Bar: “If I’d Had More Time, I’d Have Written a Shorter Letter”
A consultant isn’t expected to write with the beauty of Shakespeare, the storytelling mastery of Stephen King, or the professorial style of a college lecturer. On the other hand, it’s not acceptable to write at a level below the expectations of high school English class.

In your communication, you should value the following:
• being clear rather than being pedantic
• being succinct rather than being verbose
• having an orderly sequence rather than a jumble of non-sequiturs
holding interest rather than droning on monotonously like a pedagogue
• conveying a singular interpretation rather than being ambiguous
• avoid needless repetition (but do emphasize key take-aways)

It takes work to make your content clear, succinct, orderly, interesting, and unambiguous. You won’t nail these qualities on your first draft so iterative refinement of your composition is essential to arriving at the shorter version that communicates your intent. More simply put, refine your document until it sings.

It’s always important to know your audience when you write something, especially for a consultant. The way you write for a non-technical stakeholder like a CEO should be vastly different than how you write for an IT professional. This should affect not only your choice of words but what you emphasize. A businessperson is going to be interested in benefits, risks, ROI, and market advantage. An IT Professional would be more interested in hearing about capabilities, performance, scale, security, and management.

In consulting, however, you’ll sometimes be writing for a mixed audience. A trip report is one of those cases where technical and non-technical stakeholders might be in view. A good strategy here is to include an Executive Summary section early in the document that summarizes activity, findings, and recommendations clearly and succinctly, with technical jargon de-emphasized and business/financial aspects emphasized. The rest of your document is the supporting detail for the Executive Summary and may assume a more technical audience.
It’s important to inform your audience but not insult their intelligence, and I think this is particularly difficult in consulting. You may feel compelled to provide subject matter context in case your readers are lacking it, yet you don’t want to imply an assumption of ignorance. A good way to find the right balance is to include hyperlinks to online explanations the first time you introduce a term that might be unfamiliar to some of your readers. The hyperlinks will be much-appreciated by those who need it, while those already familiar will keep reading on without giving them a second thought.

Avoiding Techno-Speak
Even for a technical audience, unnecessary techno-speak should be avoided. I always marvel at people who feel they have to use words like repository to describe a database or collection of files. Choosing snooty words for everyday things does not aid reader comprehension, which should be your goal. Sadly, using snooty words seems to be an effective way to justify higher rates for consulting time (“work done today: optimized the web site configuration“ sounds like more work than "I edited the settings file") or sinfully high prices for products (six-figure CRM and ERP systems being prime examples). Hopefully you’re more honest than that.

Acronyms are a tough one (AATO). They’re all but impossible to avoid in computerdom, and they’re both helpful and dangerous. They’re helpful in keeping things brief: would you rather say Customer Relationship Management over and over again, or CRM? Enterprise Resource Planning or ERP? Yet acronyms are also a problem: readers can get annoyed or disrupted when they encounter an acronym they’re unfamiliar with, and quite a few acronyms have more than one meaning (does “ASP” refer to Active Server Pages or Application Service Provider?). The best policy is to use the full term initially, followed by the acronym in parentheses; now that you’ve made it clear what you’re talking about, you can just use the acronym going forward: “For source control the team decided to use Team Foundation Server (TFS) from Microsoft. TFS has a number of features that match the project requirements well, such as… “
Neutrality of Tone
Consultants need to be careful in their tone: they need to provide value without coming off as judgmental, partial, or political. This applies to all communication, especially written. Consultants often operate in an advisory capacity where they are expected to provide a client with a summary of activities performed, options for moving forward, and a recommendation. You’ll be expected to provide “the full picture” on options (what are the pros, cons, benefits, and risks of each?). Your recommendations need to demonstrate that they are based on weighing the pros and cons through the filter of what the client values most. Moreover, should the client not take the consultant’s recommendation and go in another direction, the consultant is obligated to accept this with grace and still do the best job possible.

You should also be neutral and respectful when mentioning direct competitors or competitors to your preferred vendors, partners, or platforms. There's a graceful way to show superiority over the competition that doesn't require going into the gutter--which will turn off many clients. In fact, you can compliment your competitors and still show reason why you're the better choice. For example, "Amazon is a respected cloud provider, but for your particular needs there are several compelling benefits only Windows Azure provides".

Identifying Sources
You do not ever want to put yourself or your company in the position of making claims that cannot be substantiated. Be sure to identify the source of claims you make in your documents. If you’re stating your own conclusions or experience, say so. If you’re repurposing material from another source, be clear about its origin. You should not include material if the source has restricted its use, but a hyperlink to the original may suffice in such cases.

Citing an authority is a great way to add extra weight to any points you want to emphasize. However, using a poor source can backfire on you so be careful about who you quote. Also be careful not to cite material out of context.
The freshness of information is critical when citing others in the technology world. Be sensitive to when online information you plan to use was posted. For example, you may have found a great comparison of two technologies or products that you'd like to reference, but if that comparison was done several years ago the things being compared have likely advanced and might compare differently today.
Be professional at all times. Avoid risky humor such as off-color jokes, political statements, coarse language, or anything that might offend a reader. If writing for an international audience, this is doubly important and easy to miss. It might not occur to an American that “bloody” is a swear word in the UK.

Written material, once created and distributed, might find its way over time to many different people. Even if you think only one person will receive your document, they could decide to pass it on. Therefore, assume an audience of unknown size and go out of your away not to offend.
Layout, Formatting & Templates
It’s a simple fact: whether we’re talking about documents or presentations or public speaking, some people care more about the content and others about appearance and delivery. For document writing, that means it’s not enough to have valuable content that is well expressed: layout and formatting matter just as much in the end or you risk negative perception from some of your audience.

Written documents need styling (title, headings, fonts, etc.). Your company may have a document template available you can use where the styling has already been set (and perhaps some boilerplate content as well). If not, you’ll need to create your own styles. If you’re completely the wrong type of person to do something like this, use one of the styles built-in to Word or base your document on another document whose styling you admire.
Copy and Paste from Other Documents
You may be able find a similar document to the one you need to write, and that may allow you to copy and paste some of the content you need or at least get some inspiration, which you can then tweak for the specific client and project at hand. However, you need to be really careful when cutting and pasting. Don’t represent content you didn’t write as coming from yourself, and don’t represent content that didn’t come from you or a colleague as coming from your company. Above all, avoid accidental mention of the name or details of another client, which can happen quite easily when you’re doing a lot of cutting and pasting. The best policy for documenting copying is to have a “sanitized” boilerplate document that is known to be free of references to specific clients or projects.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Diagrams, charts, and screen captures can add a dimension of life to a document that greatly clarifies your message and heightens reader interest. Diagrams and charts can be very challenging for some, however, and if they don’t look good it’s actually better to not include them at all.

Screen captures are easy: on a PC, the Prnt Scrn function key on your keyboard will capture your entire display onto the clipboard; ALT + Prnt Scrn will do the same but just for the application window that has focus. Once you’ve captured something to the clipboard you can paste  it into your document. If you want to crop or otherwise edit the image first, paste instead into a tool such as Paint to make alterations, and then copy and paste the revised image into your document.
Many people have difficulty creating charts, but if you have data you can create charts easily in Microsoft Excel with just a little practice. Be very careful with charts: it’s possible to skew perception quite easily by the choices you make about chart type, use of color, units, scale, and so on (see How to Lie with Charts by Gerald Everett Jones).

Creating diagrams is another area some find to be challenging. Visio and PowerPoint can come to your aid here. Visio contains many illustration components you can easily drag and connect; and additional templates are available to extend your collection. PowerPoint offers Smart Art as well as basic shape drawing. A decent mastery of either tool can take you a long way. Interestingly, I find many people strongly prefer one of these tools over the other, so it’s useful to note that whatever you create in one can be pasted into the other.
Emphasizing Take-Aways and Accommodating “Scanners”
You’ve worked hard on your document, and you may be expecting the recipients will carefully read it from stem to stern, devouring every word and retaining everything you’ve said. Those people exist, but they are a distinct minority of the population. Many people will merely scan your document quickly. Even those who read it through may not hold on to all of your essential points. To combat this, you need to work on emphasizing take-aways as well as finding ways to capture the interest of “scanners”.

Think of the most important take-aways you want to communicate and ensure they are brought out and emphasized. It is here that you can make an exception to the “don’t repeat yourself” rule: a small amount of repetition can help here, such as including key conclusions both in an Executive Summary at the start of a document as well as in the Recommendations or Conclusions section at the end of a document.
To capture the interest of the light reader who merely scans, you need things they can’t help but notice as they leaf through your document at high speed (if you’ve used a DVR with your TV you may have experienced this when fast-forwarding). Images, diagrams, or screen captures are the easiest way to do this: the scanning reader will likely focus on these, and if they find them interesting might pause to fully read that section of your document. The choice of words in headings might also be an attention getter, as headings are shown in larger type and also appear in your table of contents if you have one.

Peer Review
No matter how good a writer you are (or think you are), important documents should be reviewed by others. It’s simply too easy for an author to miss their own mistakes: you’ll often see what you think you typed instead of what’s actually there when you review your own work. A second reason for review is to test that the reader gets out of what you wrote what you intended to communicate: written text is easily misinterpreted, as any user of email knows.

This peer review is not just about your writing quality: it also serves to double-check your claims, citations, reasoning, and conclusions. Embarrassing mistakes or content that should not be shared might be caught by a peer review.

Any writer will tell you that you never arrive: the way to improve is to keep writing (and reading). Seek out feedback on your writing and learn from it in a spirit of continual improvement.
Client-directed Outcomes
Sometimes a client will pressure you to reach a particular conclusion. Even worse, where multiple stakeholders are involved there are may be pressure from various parties in opposing directions. This pressure or cross-fire can put a consultant in a very difficult position. What if a client’s “desired outcome” does not match your actual recommendation?

There's no easy answer here, and I suggest involving your management chain when such issues arise. The more you follow the aforementioned advice on neutrality of tone, citing authoritative sources, and professionalism the harder it will be for your work to be attacked. Don't be surprised, though, if at some point in your career you are directed to spin things a certain way because that's what the client want to see in their deliverables. If and when this happens, you'll have to decide if that's a big deal or not and whether you need to make a moral stand or not.

In Conclusion
Writing: it comes with the territory in consulting, so you need to get good at it. Learn from others, learn from yourself, and aspire toward greatness. It’s worth it: working regularly to improve communication (of any kind) yields lifelong benefits. You’ll be immensely satisfied when you get to the point where others compliment you on your writing and imitate you.

Next: Part 5: Verbal Communication Skills

Saturday, November 17, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 3: How to Travel (Gonna Fly Now)

This is Part 3 in a series about what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. Having already discussed land travel, it’s time to tackle air travel. There’s much to say about air travel—most of it bad—but take heart: with some advance planning, insider know-how, and a positive attitude you can improve your flight experience.

Air travel sure isn’t what is used to be (in many ways), which makes today’s minimal amenities and uncomfortable seating all the harder on those of us who remember better times. It’s simply not fun to fly commercially, and if you feel otherwise you probably haven’t flown much. The allure of flying is a temporary illness, cured by taking a sufficient number of flights. While you may be excited about the destination you’re heading toward, the flight itself and the airport processing are nothing to get excited about: it’s merely something you have to endure.

Before going further, I want to address the oft-heard complaint that customer service is terrible on air travel. This is not quite right: I’ve met plenty of airline personnel who care very much about providing good customer service; the real issue is the minimal service the airline has decided to offer in these times of rising fuel costs and expensive, heightened security. It’s not usually the airport agent or flight attendant’s fault you are having a bad experience, and they are dealing with rough constraints just as you are.

Booking Your Travel
Booking travel ought to fast and easy, since you can do it all online; in practice, it’s a time-consuming process. This is something you’ll want to do carefully: the initial arrangements are the one part of the travel process where you have some actual control. This will require you to research flight options, rates, schedules, and layovers—perhaps for multiple airports. Although this will take some time, it’s worth it to be thorough because good decisions here will set the stage for a more pleasant travel experience. If you have preferred airlines, that may make it easier to narrow down your choices to the best flight option. Airlines do vary in quality of service.
You certainly want to book your flight sooner rather than later: if you wait till the last minute, the fares will be higher and you risk not finding an available flight, not getting a convenient flight, or not getting a very good seat. On the other hand, you shouldn’t book a flight if you aren’t sure you’ll be making the trip because cancellation fees can be steep.

Your Travel Site
Depending where you work, you may be required to use a specific travel site / travel service to book your flight and related reservations such as rental car and hotel; and there are likely travel policies you need to adhere to. Take note, however, that at times a client may insist you use their service to book travel and adhere to their travel policies. If you aren’t bound to a particular travel service, try a variety of the better-known travel sites until you lock onto one that serves you best.

Be aware that many travel sites are less than forthright about the search results they choose to display and how they are presented. Some travel sites leave out airlines they don’t have financial partnerships with. The order of results may also be skewed to favor the airlines the travel site would prefer you to select. As a personal example, the travel site I am required to use never lists Southwest Airlines in its results if I leave the airline selection default of “all airlines”; however, the site will list Southwest if I specifically select it in my search criteria (compare Figures 1 and 2 below). You’ll need to learn the true character of your travel site, as it’s not always operating in your interests as much as its own.

Figure 1: Travel Site showing results for “All Airlines” but leaving out Southwest
Figure 2: Now showing Southwest in its results when specifically selected

Keep in mind that in addition to the fares displayed, most airlines also charge for each checked bag (see Bags, below).

Making Good Booking Choices
If you fly a particular airline frequently, you’ll want to join its loyalty (frequent flyer) program. Although loyalty programs and their rewards are a mere shadow of what they used to be, fly enough and you’ll rack up enough points to get preferential treatment in early boarding, earn upgrades to your flight class, or cash in miles for a free flight.
Aircraft selection and seat selection are both important matters. If you don’t pay attention to the type of aircraft for the flight you select, you may end up on a very small plane with little overhead space and a very high level of engine noise (such as a turbo prop plane) or a jetliner model that has inhumanly narrow seats (I find the Boeing 757 seats particularly confining). Some airlines configure their planes with reduced legroom so they can cram extra rows into the cabin. As you travel, pay attention to aircraft model and airline and you’ll start to see combinations that are more comfortable than others. Or look up seat dimensions online.

For seat selection, it goes without saying that you want to avoid the dreaded Middle Seat at all costs. Many regular travelers see window and aisle as equivalent, but if you strongly prefer one over the other you can often register your preference with your travel site. If you need unencumbered access to the restroom, I suggest aisle. If you like to hunker down to read or take a nap, I suggest window. If seat choice doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, consider that most flights are very full these days. For longer flights, get the best seat you can. If you’re not happy with your seat assignment, you can appeal to both the ticket agent and the gate agent on the day of your flight who can sometimes work wonders.
Some seats are definitely better than others. In the very first row of a cabin there is no seat back pocket in front of you for storage. Being near the wing may expose you to a lot of engine noise. Exit row seating comes with emergency responsibilities, but if you’re okay with that you’ll have extra legroom. In the very last row your seat may not recline (however, you’ll be in excellent proximity to the restrooms). The further back you are, the longer it will take to get off the plane, and if you need to make a connection with little time to spare you want to be as close to the front as you can get. Today, there are online reviews for everything--even individual airline seats. If your travel site doesn’t provide seat reviews, there are independent sites you can use such as TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru.

Getting Boarding Passes and Paying for Checked Bags in Advance
Although you can simply show up at the airport to check your bags and get your boarding pass, you might arrive only to find a large line of people ahead of you at the ticket counter and a lengthy delay you hadn’t counted on. The smart thing to do is print your boarding pass in advance and pay for any bags you plan to check ahead of time at home. Most airlines allow you to do this within 24 hours of the flight. When you show up at the airport, checking pre-paid bags doesn’t usually take long and you already have your boarding pass. Some airlines allow mobile check-in, where you don’t need to print a boarding pass and can show a boarding pass on your phone instead of a printed slip.

If you do need to get a boarding pass or pay for checked bags while at the airport, use self-service kiosks if available: it’s much faster than waiting in line for a human being to assist you. However, when web sites and kiosks fail to meet your needs and you find yourself in a problem you can’t get out of, don’t hesitate to appeal to the ticket agents.

Bags and the Consultant Code (No-Check Rule)
Air travel may have declined, but airlines are still innovating. Unfortunately, that innovation is usually not in you favor. As I write this, the most recent trick has been to make air fares look more attractive by charging for each checked bag. Not all airlines do this, but the majority do. Beyond the obvious deception about what your “real” airfare is going to be, there’s another consequence to this unfortunate practice: if tends to make people have more carry-on baggage, making the problem of not-enough-overhead-space even worse.
Before making any decisions about checking bags, consider whether you will be meeting up with colleagues on the other end to head over to a client meeting. If you are, you must honor the No-Check Rule of Consultant Air Travel, which states: When there are multiple consultants flying in who will proceed together to a client meeting, Thou Shalt Check No Bags. Got that? Carry-ons only. Failure to follow this rule will immediately cause your colleagues to classify you as a rookie. If you’re skeptical, try it out: check a bag and make everyone else wait on the arrival side an extra 20 minutes or more. You won’t do it a second time. We’re talking mostly about day trips here. Now, if you’re not meeting up with someone feel free to check all the bags you want--but remember, most airlines will charge fees.

If you decide you've made a mistake and your have too much carry-on baggage, ask the gate agent if you can gate check some of your bags. They'll tag your bag and take it from you on the jetway as you are about to board; on the other end, it may be picked up in the some way or sometimes it goes to baggage claim. There's no fee for gate checking. If you find out you're on a tiny plane definitely consider it.  It's not wise to gate check anything valuable or vulnerable like a laptop.

I've found traveling light makes a big difference in ease of flying. I used to carry a monster of a laptop in a large case with everything I might need, and it weighed a ton. It was also causing me a lot of shoulder and neck pain because it was an over-the-shoulder strap bag. Not these days: I go for thin, small, and light every time and my bags are always wheeled. Personally, I like the rolling laptop cases from Kensington and the Samsonite Spinner suitcase (which can pivot in any direction). Think carefully about the size you get and whether you'll be using it primarily as a carry-on or not. If you're going on a long enough trip where you need a garment bag, I recommend the simple but study and reliable Wally Bag.

How I Roll

On the Day of Your Flight
First and foremost, make sure you have everything you need, such as clothing, toiletries, medicines, electronics (phone, computer), pre-printed boarding passes or route maps, identification, and of course your wallet. You’ll also want something to do, which might mean bringing a music or video player (with ear buds), a book, or a tablet. Rookie mistakes include failing to check the weather forecast at your destination; forgetting to bring chargers for your electronics; or simply leaving out something important (I once flew to Las Vegas and discovered while unpacking that I had failed to pack any pants). If like me you need a CPAP device (sleep machine), that’s fine to bring with you.
Get to the airport an hour ahead of your departure time for domestic flights or two hours ahead for international flights. If you anticipate anything that may delay you, such as bad traffic or difficulty finding a parking spot, factor in extra time.

The TSA will screen you and your baggage. They are not the joking types, and using words like “bomb” or “weapon” out loud is extremely unwise. Indeed, it’s best not to say anything at all unless spoken to. Policies change over time, but at the time of this writing computers (but not tablets or phones) and a few other classes of equipment need to go in separate bins; the rest of your electronics can usually stay in your carry-on bag. For your carry-on baggage, liquids are frowned upon except in extremely small quantities and are to be put in a bin in a plastic bag. You’ll have to remove shoes, belts, and coats/jackets and put them in bins; you’ll see experienced travelers undressing while they’re in the security line and move through the whole process very efficiently.

Just as your bags pass through a scanner, so will you—and many airports use body scanning technology such as millimeter wave scanning though there’s a lot of controversy over this. For you, this means stepping into a scanner when told, holding your hands above your head and not moving when told, exiting and waiting when told, and finally being released. You may also have to go through a pat-down. The TSA’s focus tends to change over time, which you can often pick up on from signs posted at airports. After 9/11, nail trimmers and box cutters were a big focus. Last year, I saw a lot of concern about snow globes (believe it or not).  There’s no point in being a sourpuss or complaining about any of this: it won’t change the process and if you make one of the officers grumpy it could slow down your processing. Once you and your bags make it through the scanners, you’ll need to reassemble yourself and make sure you have everything.
If you’ve got some extra time and plan on getting a bite to eat or looking around at airport shops, find your gate first so you know exactly where it is. Also, be sure to occasionally look at the flight status monitors because sudden gate changes can happen.

At the gate, passengers will be boarded in an excruciating process that proves we still have a class system. Long after boarding first class and the many classes of special treatment (platinum, gold, and silver frequent flyers; alliance partner members; members of the military; people needing special assistance; families with small children) the remainder of you will finally get to board. That’ll be done by boarding zones (listed on your boarding pass) or by seat row. Eventually, you’ll get on the plane and will need to be zealously searching out overhead space for your carry-ons. As you patiently wait to get to your seat, peek down the aisle ahead of you to see if there’s overhead space near your seat; if there isn’t, look for some open space elsewhere. If you end up having to put your bag under the seat in front of you, that'll limit your already-restricted legroom even further.
Stuck at the Airport
You may find yourself waiting on occasion at airports for long periods of time. Airports vary. Some are like shopping malls, so filled with options and places to explore you almost don't mind the wait. Others are small, bare, and devoid of anything interesting or appetizing.

Lots of people like to use their electronics. Increasingly, airports are making arrays of outlets and even work areas available for this purpose. If that’s not the case at your airport, there is an art to hunting down available outlets. There have to be occasional outlets for things like custodial vacuuming, so skilled travelers get good at seeking them out when they survey an airport waiting area. if you've ever seen a traveler slowly canvassing the waiting area, eyes downcast toward floors and pillars, they're probably on the hunt for an outlet.

The quality and options for food at airports really varies. I’ve had some excellent meals at airports at times, but more often than not I have to settle for something that isn’t very exciting or fresh that costs a great deal more than it should. My opinion is that airport food is slowly but surely getting better overall, while on-the-plane food is going the opposite way and getting worse.
There is a refuge available in some larger airports, the airport lounge. These sanctuaries, which are airline-specific, provide comfortable furniture, television, reading, coffee and other beverages, and a secure environment where you can relax or even take a nap without feeling vulnerable. Many of them also have work areas. Airport lounges aren’t cheap—they’re hundreds of dollars a year—but if you find yourself flying a great deal it may be worth it to get a membership. One nice development is that many airport lounges now offer one-day use for a relatively small fee. This allows you to take advantage of them in times of dire need without having to shell out for an annual membership.

Airport Lounges: A Safe Haven

On the Plane
Listening to the safety speech before a flight gets very tedious if you fly a lot. My own pet peeve is being told each and every time how to use a seat belt—as if there was any man, woman, or child on board who didn’t already know that. Eventually you fall into the practice of sitting through these things with stoic patience and an attentive look on your face while you’re thinking about something else entirely (some of you may have already acquired this skill earlier in life from school or church).

You’ll have to turn off your electronics during take-off and landing. The need for this rule is controversial, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s justified or not: you have to follow the rules. If you’re going to use your phone or tablet or computer during the flight (to read, watch a video, play a game, or do some work) make sure it’s in Airplane Mode. Some planes have wifi-for-pay available, so if you need to be online while in the air that’s sometime possible.
You can count on a soft drink and sometimes a snack (peanuts or trail mix) when you fly but there won’t necessarily be anything more than that available. Airlines once provided meals on flights; today some airlines will offer food for pay on a flight but the selection is usually meager. Many travelers prefer to buy a meal in advance in the airport and carry it on board.

Flying may give you time to do things you often can't find enough time for normally, such as reading or doing some serious thinking. Though many travelers don't utter a word to the person sitting next to them, if you're the talkative type you may find striking up a conversation with your neighbor to be a good way to pass the time.

On a good day, you have an empty seat next to you, quiet in the cabin, and (for an evening flight) the lights dimmed. On a bad day, an enormous person is sitting next to you who is overflowing their seat and in bodily contact with you, one or more babies are screaming at the top of their lungs, and the plane is lurching violently from turbulence. Pray for the former, put up with the latter. Bringing a media player with ear buds can help combat the noisy situations.
The pressurized cabin in a plane can sometimes lead to ear pain, most commonly starting when the plane is descending toward its destination. It's caused by a pressure change blocking the Eustachian tubes in ears and it is not pleasant. It can go away quickly once you land, but on occasion I've had it last as long as 30 minutes. There are some things you can try to make it go away sooner, but I haven't found any of them really effective: you just have to wait it out.
Once your plane lands, you can get out your phone and use it while the plane is making its way to the gate for disembarking.

Baggage Claim
Once off the plane, and after using the restroom, you’ll want to head directly to baggage claim. Some baggage claim areas have monitors showing arriving flights and which bag claim. Other times there are signs above each claim indicating which flight’s bags are being unloaded. This displayed information is one of the sloppier areas of airport operations, so the information may not be displayed or if it is may not be right—if you’re not seeing your bags arrive where you expect them to, look around you in the claim area.
Many bags do look alike, so confirm the bags you take off the conveyer are actually yours. Either look for something distinctive about your bags or check the affixed airline sticker which usually will list the passenger last name.
Good Travel Days vs. Bad Travel Days
Any given time you fly, you may find that nothing goes wrong, one thing goes wrong, or multiple things go wrong. Your flight might be mostly empty or it might be packed to overflowing. Likewise, the attitude of the airline personal, fellow passengers, and yourself can vary. When the stars align where nothing goes wrong and most everyone has a positive attitude, your flight can be a fairly decent experience. When there are multiple failures and everyone’s in a lousy mood, that’s when flying is at its worst. The only thing you can control here is your own attitude, and if you keep it positive and graceful even in the face of adversity you’ll not only feel better yourself but it will rub off on others.
Well, there you have it: one man's brain dump after 25 years of business air travel. Air travel is challenging at times and boring at best, and everyone from your travel service to your airline to your airport food court is trying to manipulate you! But you can manipulate too, if you get to know how the system works and what the insider tips are. The informed and prepared traveling consultant is a happier consultant.

Next: Part 4: Written Communication Skills

Thursday, November 15, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 2: Travel - One if By Land...

This is Part 2 of a series on what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. In this post we’ll be discussing tips on travel, something required of most consultants. We’ll look at travel by land here in Part 2, and tackle travel by air separately in Part 3.

There’s no escaping it, consulting means traveling. In today’s consulting world, many of us travel less than we used to because we can sometimes work remotely and attend meetings remotely. Nevertheless, it’s only a matter of time before travel becomes necessary. Whether you are going to be traveling frequently or infrequently, you should know the ropes.
First, let’s clear up any romantic notions you may have that traveling is fun or adventurous. It may seem that way at first, but once you’ve done enough of it travel is at best something you put up with, not something you look forward to. If I added up all the time I’ve spent travelling to and from clients I am sure I would feel a large part of my life had been robbed. I’m not being entirely honest here: visiting a place you’ve never been to can be fun and interesting, especially if you take the time to get familiar with the local culture and get to know the people. That’s more applicable to air travel, which we’ll get to to next time. Today we’re discussing the land travel options: driving to a local client, taking the train, taxis, and rental cars. There’s nothing fun or exotic about land travel.
Find out how your company expects you to track and log your travel time and expenses, and what you can be reimbursed for. If you are required to turn in receipts with your expenses, get disciplined about remembering to always get receipts and keep them in a standard place. Regardless of how you are traveling, if you find yourself in a situation where you must be on-site at your client week after week, you may want to inquire about a 4-days on-site / 1-day off-site arrangement, or perhaps working 4 x 10-hour days instead of 5 x 8-hour days each week. Creative scheduling like this can reduce your travel and give you more time at home.

Driving to a Local (or not-so-local) Client
Depending where you live and where your client is, driving to the client could be a breeze. Or it could consume 3-4 hours of your time every day and make you wonder why you’re in this business. For projects that require you to be on-site, consulting companies do try their best to assign consultants to customers geographically near them. Circumstances don’t always cooperate, though. If you sat in on the weekly planning that goes on to fit consultants to projects in larger consulting companies, you’d find it interesting to say the least; there’s almost always an imbalance to be dealt with and it takes a lot of puzzle-solving skills and horse-trading to make it all work out right.

Therefore, you may at times find yourself working for a client who is not far enough away to justify air travel, but is neither a short drive. Long drives are doubly unpleasant if you’re facing ugly traffic. In areas like LA the traffic can be unpredictable, sometimes adding an unexpected hour or two to your drive; if you’re expected to show up at a certain time, this may require you to leave extra-early to compensate. If you’re in an area with a car pool / HOV lane, consider carpooling with a co-worker (or using an eco-friendly vehicle that qualifies for car pool lane privileges with a single driver). If mass transportation is available, that’s something to weigh against driving.
Find out your company’s mileage reimbursement policy, which likely means paying you a certain rate per mile that you drive for client work. Policies vary, but frequently the reimbursement does not apply to every mile you drive, just those where the distance is above and beyond your normal commute to the office. You’ll want to be acquainted with the information you need to track and how to report it.


When driving, invest in a GPS. They don’t cost much and are invaluable—especially for getting to new addresses in areas you aren’t very familiar with. If you’re driving to the same place on a regular basis, you can usually find a route and time that works best and settle into a routine. But if you’re driving to a different place every day, that’s another matter entirely. I remember well a job I held in the 1980’s that required me to visit several locations a day in New York City each day to perform on-site computer repair. The repair part of the job was by far the easier aspect: it was making your way through that enormous city to new destinations that was the real challenge. One wrong turn and you’re in Jersey. We didn’t have GPS back then, but we do now--and you should have one.

As good as they’ve gotten, GPS’s aren’t perfect: they occasionally give you bad information, and they’re completely useless on those occasions where they cannot establish contact with their satellites. Therefore, for a first-time visit it is a good idea to have a fallback in case your GPS fails you. You can map your route in advance with an online map service such as Bing Maps or Google Maps and have a print-out with you as back-up. You could also rely on your smart phone’s map application as a back-up (however, if you’re an iPhone user be aware that Apple’s new map app seems to be having some woes at the time of this writing).  While I only need to rely on my fallback perhaps 1 time out of 20 these days, I’m sure glad I have it when I need it.

Traveling by Train
Traveling by train can be nice: you don’t have to drive, so you have the option of reading, working on your laptop or tablet, even sleeping perhaps. In Southern California, where the automobile is a big part of the lifestyle, I’ve had this experience.

Traveling by train can also be a nightmare, where you are packed in tightly with insufficient seating and have the claustrophobic feeling that you are all just sardines in a can. I’ve had this experience in New York, where neither the driving nor taking the train choice is particularly appealing.
Obviously, the former experience is to be preferred to the latter, but you don’t have a lot of control: it depends where you’re traveling from and to. One thing you can do, if you have any flexibility in your schedule, is to consider that some times are far busier than others. Shifting your schedule earlier or later to accommodate a less-busy train may make a big difference.

If you're contemplating a long train ride (say, as an alternative to flying) think that through carefully. Although I've met a few people who habitually take long train rides on their vacations, a lot of people find long train rides uncomfortable if not intolerable.

If you're traveling in the UK or Europe, be very aware that the trains stay on schedule! Let me illustrate this with a personal experience: on a trip to England, I and a colleague (who had brought his wife along) put her and our bags on the train, then he and I went off to quickly use a restroom. When we returned to the track, the train was gone!--it had left already, and we had all the tickets. She was not happy about this, and I don't think she has forgiven him yet.

Rental Cars
If you’ve flown somewhere to visit a client, you’ll need to make the last leg of your journey by local transportation, which usually means a rental car or a taxi. You could also consider mass transportation. Let’s talk rental cars.

There are plenty of rental car companies to choose from, each claiming a special color to brand themselves and available at most airports. You may have to take a shuttle from the airport to the rental car area.
In some ways, all rental cars are the same: they have cars to rent, in various types and sizes, and you can reserve them in advance or just show up  and take your chances (please: reserve your car). They all offer you add-on services ranging from a GPS (recommended--see earlier comments) to insurance coverage—which you probably don’t need, because your own insurance likely covers you already. Your employer likely has auto rental policies you’ll need to be aware of, for example you might be required to rent a compact-size vehicle.

Now there’s the very important topic of which auto rental company to go with. I’m not going to try to tell you who to rent from, but it is important to find one that you like which gives you consistently good service. I find people have very different opinions about car companies based on their past experiences, and I’ll share some of mine to illustrate. For example, I’ve personally had poor experience with Enterprise car rentals (including the indignity of a microscopic scan of the entire car before and after the rental, hunting for the tiniest scratches); yet, a J.D. Power customer satisfaction study ranked them #1. Or take Hertz, who is self-proclaimed as #1 in the car rental space and it appears many travelers view them that way, as the obvious choice. Personally, I have never once had a good experience with Hertz. That caused me to look at Avis, which I love. After enough of this, you will lock onto your preferred auto rental company and stick to them like glue. For me, that means I always, always rent from Avis. They give me good service, every single time. And when it comes to travel, consistency is worth its weight in gold.

Your auto rental company probably has a loyalty program, and if you can get preferred status. That usually means you can bypass the lines entirely, find your name on a board with the location of your car identified, and be on your way.
When returning your rental car, be sure to look for the rental car return signs as you near the airport. Since rental car facilities are often off-airport these days you need to pay careful attention. Make sure you take all of your belongings with you, including bags/briefcases, coat, and phone.

Driving internationally? Automatic transmissions are rarely used in Europe so you'll need to be able to drive a manual transmission. Although the basics (steering wheel, accelerator, brake pedal, etc) are standardized and familiar, there can be small details about cars in other countries that can throw you. On one trip to the Netherlands I could not figure out how to put my rental car in reverse--it took me a good hour to find the special button I had to push. Not unreasonable in hindsight, but completely non-obvious to an American.

Why visit a foreign land, when all you have to do to get the experience is jump into a taxi? Well, it’s not always that bad but sometimes it is. Your taxi driver’s command of English can vary from better than yours to just head nods. If you’re unable to communicate with your driver at any level, it’s best to find another taxi.

How to get a taxi varies a bit depending where you are. Most airports have a taxi stand, which you should use to avoid being scammed by non-approved limo companies who might charge a much higher rate. If you’re leaving from a hotel, they should be able to order you a taxi or may have their own taxi stand. But what if you’re not at an airport or a hotel? In cities like New York you can hail a cab by putting your arm in the air on a street corner. In other places, like Portland, you need to call a taxi company. When on the street and having little luck finding a taxi, look for a nearby hotel or other location where taxis are likely to cruise regularly looking for passengers.
You do not want to commit to a taxi ride unless you are convinced of a few things. Does the driver know how to get to where you are going? While some taxis now have GPS’s as you’d expect, there are still times where the driver is trying to figure out their route over the phone as they’re driving—neither time nor cost-efficient. Second, what will the charge be, approximately? Third, does the taxi driver accept credit cards? While you want to have some cash on hand, it’s best to reserve that and try to use your credit card as much as possible. I doubly recommend credit card use for taxis when travelling internationally.

Whether you get into a conversation with your taxi driver on the way is up to you—usually. Sometimes a driver will pour out their life story to you whether or not you are interested. Sometimes these stories are touching or thought-provoking.
As for tipping, I usually add a few dollars to round up the fare, perhaps more if it’s been a long trip and they’ve been especially helpful with bags and such.
In some areas the taxi companies are extortionists. The last time I was in the Netherlands, the taxi fares doubled when it began snowing.
As with rental cars, be sure to leave nothing behind in your taxi. Make sure you have your bags, your coat, your phone, your wallet. And get that receipt if you’re required to turn one in.

Whether you consider a subway (or “Metro”) to be a viable option depends on your upbringing, past experiences, courage, and appetite for new experiences. Quality of service, cleanliness, and overall safety do seem to vary from place to place. Being originally from New York, my general tendency is to avoid them as much as possible. Some, like BART in San Francisco, seem very good and feel safe to me when I ride them. When I last visited Washington DC, hearing the Metro was very good, I used it and did not feel particularly unsafe—but there was an incident where police apprehended a person at a Metro station and pepper spray filled the air, stinging everyone’s eyes. Not particularly fun.

If you do ride the subway, have a neutral/pleasant expression on your face, do not drop your awareness of people near you, and hold on to your possessions.
So there you have it: travel by land is often no big deal, especially with a bit of experience behind you and exercising caution and common sense. When repeat travel is necessary, you have some options and alternatives to consider in making the best of things.

One last tip: as a consultant, you can honestly bill for an hour when you work on a client project, and some of your tasks likely include thinking through some problem or forming a plan. That’s something you can sometimes do while you’re traveling.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 1: The Difference Between a Developer and a Consultant

So, you’re now a computer consultant. Congratulations! You’re going to work on some great projects, solve interesting problems, and write a lot of code.

But first, we need to get some things straight.

Did you know there’s a big difference between being a developer vs. being a consultant who develops? There are similarities of course: both need technical ability and experience, and need to keep up with the fast rate of change in the technology space. Both need to write good code, care about quality and craftsmanship, and work well with others. But for the consultant, there are additional parts to the job and they’re equally important. Perhaps more important.

A consultant works with clients and needs to be all about the client. That means understanding the client’s industry and their role in it; understanding the client’s culture and expectations; and understanding the client’s business objectives. No work item, no matter how technical or seemingly minor, should be undertaken without firmly understanding how it contributes to the client’s business objectives.
Consultants also need to understand something about business in general. It helps if you’ve had some experience in this area (say, having run your own company or gotten an MBA) but actually all you need to do is pay attention. If you’re at a client working on an insurance project, don’t just think about your coding assignments. Learn something about that industry and business too. Whether your team is using a requirements document or keeping a backlog of user stories, you likely have something available to you that is full of business-specific terminology about the types of users and tasks they need to perform. As you work and interact with your client, ask them questions about how their business works—they won’t mind, and your final product will be a better one. So, the next time you’re assigned to a project in an industry new to you—such as insurance perhaps—you should emerge from that project knowing what quotes, binders, policies, and premiums are. This knowledge will help you recognize patterns for solutions more readily each time you take on a new project.

A consultant also needs good communication skills. Which kind do you think are the most important? Verbal communication? Written communication? Presentation skills? Nope. It’s listening. Those other skills just mentioned are certainly important too--and we’ll delve into them at another time--but listening is by far the most vital. As a consultant you need to always be listening to your client—and that includes not only paying attention to what they say to you directly, but also sensing less direct communication such as body language and tone. A failure to listen might happen because you’re too engrossed in your technical work, but believe me it is openly clear to a client when you aren’t listening to them and respecting their wishes. Don’t be that guy.
There’s another thing: as a consultant, you’re being billed out to a client at a high hourly rate. That means your client expects an hour’s work for an hour’s pay—regardless of your mood or whether you’re having a good day. Worse yet, you have to track every little thing you do and enter it in a tracking system, in order to justify the billing to the client. If this sounds like a lot of overhead, it is—but it’s simply part of the job in the consulting world. I might also mention, your company’s reputation rests on the daily conduct of you and your colleagues. You need to be civil and professional every day on the job, regardless of how you’re feeling.

How will you dress? Where will you work? It depends on the client's wishes. At one time, nearly all consulting work was done on-site at the client. Today, it's often possible for much of the team to work remotely from the office or at home--but some projects will  require you to work with your team and client in the same location. You most likely won't have to wear a suit and tie, but business casual is a good minimum quality of dress for a consultant, even if the client's own standard of dress is more casual.

If you’re happy spending 100% of your time developing and have just moved into consulting, the above may give you pause: perhaps you won’t like having to do all of these other things that will take time away from technical work. Let me give you a few reasons not to shirk away from consulting:
  1. You are making a difference. You are helping an organization further their business objectives and making a real difference to their users (customers or employees); and, you will get to see that firsthand.
  2. Your knowledge domain will soar. You are learning a great deal more than mere technology; you’re learning important things about specific industries and business in general.
  3. There’s variety. I can’t guarantee every project you work on will be fun, but you’ll certainly get to do work on many different kinds of projects.
  4. You’ll become a trusted advisor. As you become more senior, you will become a Consultant with a capital “C”. Meaning, stakeholders will genuinely value your experience and trust your advice. Successful consultants and consulting companies are viewed as valued partners by their clients.
At the company I work for, Neudesic, we understand that last point very well. Our tagline is, “Neudesic – The Trusted Technology Partner in Business Innovation”. By the way, we're hiring.

For much of my career, I was in the software product space—I fell into consulting when I had to between product work opportunities, and at first I didn’t value it as highly as product work. But that was many years ago, and I’ve come to realize that consulting plays a vital role and it is deeply satisfying to be part of the action “out in the field” where you can see the software you create being put to use.
Once again, congratulations on becoming a consultant! I understand you’re also a developer?

Next: Part 2: Travel - One if By Land...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Using SkyDrive On Your Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 Devices

Both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have SkyDrive integration, and that's great. But what exactly does that mean, and in what way(s) can you take advantage of it, especially if you own more than one device? Well, I'm deep in the middle of figuring that out myself right now so I thought I'd share my findings to date with all of you. Some of what's listed below I learned from other people's blogs, and I've linked back to the original sources.

Although I'm only focusing on the Windows 8 / Windows Phone 8 family in this post, you should also be aware that Microsoft has SkyDrive apps for other device platforms including iOS and Android.

A number of these techniques can be used for any kind of file, but the most widespread SkyDrive support across Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 appears to be for photos and documents. Since you can have Office on any of these Windows-family devices (your PC, your tablet, your phone), being able to have a central place for documents, worksheets, and presentations you can get at from whichever device you happen to be using is pretty awesome.

SkyDrive Windows 8 Application (Windows 8, Windows RT)

The most obvious way to take advantage of SkyDrive on Windows 8 or Windows RT is to notice the app named "SkyDrive" on the start screen. This will let you get to and work on your SkyDrive folders, but the app does not appear to have any features for moving content between your local device and SkyDrive folders as far as I can tell. Actions the app makes easy are browsing your folders, opening an image or document, or uploading files from your local device to a SkyDrive folder.

SkyDrive App Included with Windows8 or Windows RT (Start Screen)
SkyDrive App - Folder View
SkyDrive App - Images in Folder
SkyDrive App - Spreadsheet in Folder

App Storage - Auto-Integration with File Save / Open Dialogs (Windows 8, Windows RT)

One very automatic integration with SkyDrive is that when a Windows Store App presents an open file or save file dialog, the areas you can navigate to (Documents, Pictures, etc.) include SkyDrive.

 SkyDrive Built-in Open and Save As Dialogs

SkyDrive Folder on Your Windows 8 PC (Windows 8 only)

x86 devices that run Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro also have the classic desktop and can run Windows 7 type apps. A tip from Paul Thurrott's Windows site points out you can have a Windows Explorer-style experience on your classic desktop by downloading the SkyDrive Windows Desktop app from the SkyDrive site (note, this app is also included in Windows Essentials 2012). Here's what the SkyDrive Windows app looks like on my Dell Laptop running Windows 8 :

SkyDrive Folder Explorer on Windows 8 - Folders View
SkyDrive Folder Explorer on Windows 8 - Image Files in Folder
SkyDrive Folder Explorer on Windows 8 - Spreadsheet in Folder
 SkyDrive Mapped Network Folder (Windows 8, Windows RT)

The previous tip is fine on x86 devices like a laptop or tablet PC, but it won't help you on a Windows RT ARM device (for example, on a Microsoft Surface RT). But there is still a way to get an Explorer-style view: you can map your SkyDrive root folder as a mapped  network drive. Even though Windows RT can't run your classic PC apps, it does in fact still have a classic desktop (Windows + D will get you there) which includes Windows Explorer. You can map your SkyDrive folders to a drive letter by following the procedure described on Rashed Talukder's blog.

Mapping SkyDrive to a Local Drive Letter
Accessing SkyDrive on Microsoft Surface on Windows RT  Desktop
SkyDrive on Windows Phone 8

Microsoft has a SkyDrive app in the Windows Phone store, and it's free. With it, you can browse your SkyDrive folders and files and open them (for example, opening a worksheet in Excel). You can also upload photos from your phone to your SkyDrive storage. Here's what the experience looks like on my Lumia 920 Windows 8 phone:

SkyDrive on Windows Phone 8
(App on Start Screen, Folders View, Image files, Excel worksheet)

SkyDrive: An Essential Companion for All Your Devices

We've looked at quite a few different ways to incorporate SkyDrive into your devices. Note that when you update your files in a SkyDrive folder, some of the methods above will auto-detect the new content while others have a Refresh button.

All of this makes for an extremely easy and versatile way to share data across devices that can access SkyDrive--with all these options, you can choose the approach that best fits what you need to do and the device/OS you are using. I particularly like the universal access this gives me to my Office documents.

Since I'm just starting to play with this, I'm sure there is plenty more you can do with SkyDrive on Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. I'm also hoping to find a way to sync SkyDrive folders to local folders automatically, so I can get to my stuff even when offline.

As a Windows Azure guy, I haven't paid all that much attention to SkyDrive until recently--but as you can see, it's become quite capable and broadly accessible. I'll post more tips as I come across them, and please send comments if you have some to suggest.