IT Project Management is like a Half Marathon…

I completed the Pittsburgh Half Marathon on May 6th. I finished 13.1 miles in 2 hours and 44 minutes.

I’ve been working on two major events in the past couple weeks. One was training to complete the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. The second event is a webinar titled All Aboard! Avoiding Tech Project Derailments which I am presenting for NTEN. While the two things may not appear to have anything to do with each other, a lot of the things that I have done while preparing for the Half Marathon do apply to my experiences with  managing an technology-based project.

First, how many people sign up to run a half marathon and then proceed to do no training? I’m sure that there are some. I’m sure that there are even some people who manage to finish the half marathon without training. I can’t. I had to start out with baby steps, increasing from my reliable 3.2 miles to 5 miles and then to 9 miles (with a Nike+ sensor that wasn’t always showing the right mileage). 

The same sort of philosophy being applied to technology projects is advisable.  I  had the luck of starting out at my agency as an intern many moons ago. While an intern, the biggest project that I had to manage was related to a community art gallery that ran in our headquarters building.  The art openings would be a success or not with how much work I did. Quickly I learned that it wasn’t about finding the artists. Most of the work revolved around dealing with getting the artist to meet deadlines while it also meant completing the advertising for those art opening to our staff. To be successful, I learned how each artist required different things from me while I learned how frequently I must remind the staff of upcoming events, warnings of deadlines, and how the majority of them preferred to be kept informed.

From those starts in orchestrating art openings, I took on responsibilities for parts of projects. The first one was the installation of the first network for the agency. During that experience I was able to observe how those individuals in charge handled the multiple aspects of the project and how things that seemingly didn’t interact with each other were critical to the completing of the network.

Large technology projects can qualify as marathons. While we would love to wave that magic wand and break the course record, for most runners it is about simply crossing the finish line. They sometimes take on a nature that they weren’t intended. You are looking for the mile markers and not finding them. If you have had the ability to do some previous projects in your organization, you can fall back on your training.

You know how to communicate with the individuals involved. You may know that there are these three people who need to be reminded daily of their tasks that need to be done while there are ten other people who only need to be given a warning that a deadline is pending. There is some internal knowledge that you have of how to communicate where things are – if you have to celebrate every little success, or just celebrate the large successes.

I couldn’t have finished that half marathon without having those training runs. I also know that I couldn’t have finished some of the most recent technology projects, such as relocating our data center and creating a customized application for three departments, without having those first small projects – even ones that had nothing to do with technology.

Now that I’ve completed one race, I’m looking forward to completing the materials for the webinar All Aboard! Avoiding Tech Project Derailments which I’ll be presenting on Wednesday, Jun 27, 2012 at 11:00am US/Pacific. I’m pulling together my experiences with my own technology projects to help others who may be looking for some training on what to do. I also look forward to hearing from others about what type of information they seek about technology project management – so if it isn’t something that I’ve included, maybe I can.

Are You Using the Carrot and the Stick too often?

Carrot or the StickThis year I have been hearing a lot about Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” and I wasn’t sure how I could apply anything to the technology department that I lead. I have concrete projects that have to get done and it isn’t really about why they get done, they just need to get done. But after starting the book and after seeing a video of Sinek on Ted.com I have a lot to think about and I actually stopped reading the book to process just the first part, “A World That Doesn’t Start With Why”.

The first section of the book hit home a huge reality to me: I rely upon the Carrot and the Stick to get technology related tasks done by staff in all departments.

If you don’t know what the Carrot and the Stick represent, its pretty simple. The Carrot is an award for a behavior. Sinek gives an example this as being the huge cash back incentives that some US automotive companies were giving to buyers. The Stick can often be identified as fear. Sinek gives many examples of this, one being the anti-drug campaign in the 80’s with the egg and the frying pan.

I was riding the recumbent bicycle and I almost dropped the book as I identified my actions according to what I was reading (a bad ah-ha! moment). I use the Carrot and the Stick almost all the time. Some have even say that I’ve master the art of manipulation because most staff don’t want to do the things that are right for the network.

My example started out simple. I wasn’t in a position of power when our Exchange server was slowing down because of huge accounts. Some staff had over 1GB of email in Exchange. Back then, Exchange was really only able to hold about 16GB of email so that represented a significant chunk of the available space in Exchange and the ramifications of having to expand Exchange included lots of dollar signs. After several emails asking for staff to maintain their Outlook accounts, I was stuck. I needed immediate results and the buy-in to my requests were being done by the staff who had the smallest email accounts. It was suggested to me that there needed to be some sort of reward for doing what was needed. 

Viola! Clean Up Your Outlook and Qualify for a Prize!  The staff member who makes the largest percentage change in their email account will win a $50 Gas Card and you had one week to clean. Immediate action was taken and the space that was critically needed started to appear as if I had waved a magic wand. That first contest there wasn’t a staff member who didn’t at least delete half of their items in Outlook and there were so many that reached the 90% decrease in size that I was walking on the high of success. It had worked!

But in less than a year, the agency had grown and acquired more staff which in turn meant Exchange was slowing down because of large accounts. There was no hesitation this time.  It was time for another contest!  The qualifications were adjusted after some complaints of the previous criteria and instead of one person being the possible winner, the percentage of decrease got you a predetermined amount of tickets for a drawing towards the $50 Gas Card. And to sweeten the pot, there were five additional “grab bag” prizes.  The contest went off without a hitch, but in less than six months, I was right back to planning the next contest and the realization that this cycle was just going to continue and become more frequent.

It was time for the Stick. The fear of the impact to the whole agency having problems with email wasn’t a factor. It only really mattered if the individual had problems with email. That was when I was approved to put on email quotas (i.e. if your mailbox is 500MB, you won’t be able to send or receive email). Almost immediately I had a list of staff that were qualified for larger mailbox sizes. So there were 75% of the staff that couldn’t get beyond 500MB but 25% could go up to 1GB. That worked for a bit until I got notification that there was about 10% of the 25% that shouldn’t have quotas at all. Then it was that the penalty was too stiff and negatively impacted voicemail so I was only allowed to block a staff member from sending email if they exceed their quota, but they can continue to receive email. Clearly, this Stick wasn’t working.

When I had a change in my boss and my position, one of the first things that we did was put an end to the “Outlook Contest”.  Our belief is that as an employee it is your responsibility to maintain email properly.  But the damage of the “Outlook Contest” would live on. Existing Staff, still to this day, hoard email to purge “when you have that contest again”.  New staff hear from the existing staff about the contest too.  I have even heard some staff say that like it when they exceed their email quota because then they can’t respond to email but they still get email – that it’s a bonus.

Oh-oh!   This was not what was intended.

At the beginning I got the effect that I needed: immediate action. Yet, I never followed up with why it was vital for staff to do this activity. The focus wasn’t on how all of the staff share the available space on Exchange and that one person’s large mailbox can negatively impact the entire agency and never once was the negative fiscal ramifications of having to increase Exchange’s capabilities were discussed. That critical dialog was omitted for immediate results.

It is a touchy situation to be in and now leaves me wondering how can I get out of it.  Sadly, the “Outlook Contest” hasn’t been the only type of contest that I’ve had to run to get things done for the wellbeing of the network.

I know that to shift away from the Carrot and the Stick is not going to be easy, especially for my technology department. Staff often complain that we talk geek but often our reasons for certain things are not very technical. They can be based off of fiscal decisions or regulations given to us by governmental agencies. Those things aren’t technical, but because the messenger is from the technology department, it’s geek.

I have to admit, I’m taking a break from the book after reading about the Golden Circle. I think I need to identify all of the ways that I have used the Carrot and Stick. Then I have to identify what is the true message that needs to get out there to staff.  Manipulation is easy, but inspiring is going to be hard.

So has anyone else used the Carrot and the Stick too often? Have you stopped using it? How have you shifted the focus? Or worse, anyone found out that they can’t stop using the Carrot and the Stick?

My Moment of “No Longer Accidental Techie” Epiphany

Portrait of a young caucasian Businesswoman sitting on the floor in front of a laptop with her arms up in celebration.

Image: Stefano Valle / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I remember when I was just starting to play softball. I was in the first grade and I was so excited to play. I could throw the ball really well and I was ok catching the ball. But when I would go up to plate, the softball always looked like it was coming right towards my head and I could not connect with that ball for anything. After the first summer, I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to play, and I knew that my dad was disappointed. Around that time, I was due in for my next eye exam. I started to wear glasses the year before and I did need stronger glasses. When those arrived, I stepped outside of the building, looked across the street well informing my mother, “There is a Baskin Robins over there. Let’s go get ice cream at the new place!”

The irony? Baskin Robins had always been over there – but for the first time, I could see clearly enough to see the sign. Once I said that, my dad had the idea that maybe he should take me to the batting cages now that I could see. I wasn’t so sure about it – but I was young and my dad was excited. I’d like to make my dad happy so I went. That first time the ball game towards me in the batting cages, it no longer looked like it was coming to my head. In fact, I could see where it was and I connected with it. Change a pair of glasses, and suddenly, I’m a softball player.

You may be wondering, what does this have to do with nonprofit technology, isn’t that what this blog is supposed to be focused on? Well, I used this story of new glasses to explain how it felt when I had the moment of epiphany that I wasn’t an accidental techie any longer. It was like I suddenly realized that I was a techie – a real, true techie. It wasn’t a pair of glasses that caused it to happen. It was actually a combination of multiple things.

One of the reasons why I believe this moment happened was that my manager was changing. There was a shake up in upper management when my direct supervisor left the agency for a better opportunity. He was the other person who understood technology and suddenly I was very afraid. I was worried that all technology projects would slow down or worse, end. I was afraid that there would be no more champion of technology there with me. But then my new supervisor looked at me and said simply, “you aren’t accidental”, and then she repeated that to other management.

But that one moment, wasn’t enough for me. What helped me along to this moment, when I truly started to believe that I was purposeful in my job – that I did things that others did when they were classically trained either in a trade school or college in technology fields – was an article by Mark Shaw. The article was originally posted at http://www.onphilanthropy.com/ and I just recently found it reposted on TechSoup. It is titled “The Purposeful Techie: Nonprofit IT with Intention” and it reinforced everything that my new supervisor had said simply by saying “you aren’t accidental”.

In his article, Mark identifies simple questions and makes arguments against what people in nonprofits thought accidental techies are. Those were five questions. Accidental? Underappreciated? Randomized? Distracted? Isolated? Without his points, those questions still make me quake because some days, I absolutely feel like I’m distracted with doing more marketing tasks than technology tasks and other days I feel like I’m in a little cave doing Excel spreadsheets to prep data for data import to SQL – but Mark’s article made me take those 10 steps backwards and really look at my role away from the day-to-day aspects.

I hope that you read his article if you are looking for that epiphany – if you are looking for that one thing that helps you know that you do not have to be an accidental techie forever. Then share that article. I shared that article with my new supervisor, members of our Technology Committee, my best friend and even my mother.

Keys to Transitioning Away From Being A Nonprofit Accidental Techie

Recently, while soul-searching about the things I wish I had known when I declared I was no longer an accidental techie, I wrote a list of things that I found to be keys to that transition. In fact, these keys are going to be the basis for this blog and they are now categories for the upcoming posts in the future. Since I know that I am still in the transition phase of this myself, I may have new categories in the future. There is no research behind my keys. They are my observations based from my experience and maybe they will help others out there.

  1. Finding Advocates – There are natural connections inside of your organization that can help you find the ability to create a network of support who believe in your transition. This may not be your boss. More often it may be a board member or a person from another department. Finding these advocates help you get a voice to have the ability to transition away from being an accidental techie.
  2. Finding Allies –Without the support of some organizations in Pittsburgh, such as the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management (specifically the Bagels and Bytes group), I do not believe that I would have felt comfortable in identifying myself as a true professional techie. Those allies are out there and they are a support group that everyone needs. Finding them at the beginning is the key and turning around and being part of the allies for other accidental techies is so important.
  3. Vendor Relationships – Vendors can either support or hinder the transition from being accidental to purposeful techie. Even within one vendor you could find a difference in opinions from person to person (e.g. the sales representative wants you to stay accidental while the technicians help you gain skills to be purposeful). Vendor relationships matter so much and changing them while you transition away from accidental techie are vital to making the transition successfully.
  4. Epiphany – The moment your brain clicks and says “A-HA! I’m not accidental!” marks a huge victory. Until you know it and feel it, you will still be accidental in many ways. For myself, I had to have the epiphany moment several times before I truly and honestly started to believe in it. I’ll share some of them with you, but I’m hoping to get some other “reformed accidental techies” to let me feature their epiphany moments because the more you hear about them, maybe you can start identifying your own “A-HA!” moment.
  5. To Certify or Not to Certify – Some industries out there do care about all the certifications and indicators of ‘formal education’ you have in order to say that you are a techie. That alphabet soup can look daunting to a nonprofit accidental techie and it may be something that you feel you absolutely need to do. It is a question that I have struggled with and I still am unsure about what the answer is. There are pros and cons. It’s about finding the balance and figuring out what you plan on doing next.
  6. Toolbox – When maintenance comes into the office to repair a leak they often arrive with that worn red metal toolbox that is bumped and squeaks when it opens to find a mess of tools within. Our tools are different – books, websites, blogs, freeware, smartphones, usb keys, and gadgets. I can help you fill your toolbox up because all techies need a good toolbox – virtualized or not.
  7. Changing Identity – I found that some coworkers had already started seeing me as a techie when I finally said I was no longer accidental. However, I still have coworkers who see me as the social work intern who knows how to install software (and that was a decade ago). Changing your identity for anything is hard. You can’t just go to the facilities manager and tell them to change your ID badge.
  8. Now What? – I guess I had a view that when I dropped the word accidental from in front of techie that my job would suddenly seem easier and it would be an easy street. Yet, what I found, there was suddenly this whole new set of responsibilities and expectations that I was not ready to handle. Overnight it was believed that I would know about technology budgets, tech plans, technology policies, RFP, grant writing, social media marketing, managing interns, creating a department, and a whole slew of other things that I’m still learning are now expected.
  9. Uniqueness – This key almost seems to be at odds against the key of “Changing Identity” but after reading the book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?  by Seth Godin I got it. There was a reason why I started where I did. I liked fundraising, development, newsletters, marketing, and special events. It tapped into my creativity. While moving away from being accidental, there are a lot of things that I used to do that I had to give up to others. Yet, there are some things that I fight to continue to do, because it is what makes me unique, happy, and in Seth Godin’s words, it makes me a linchpin.
  10. Staffing – Once it was clear that technology in my organization was not going to go away and that by myself I could not keep up with what was needed, I got to hire a staff. But does a former accidental techie hire another accidental techie or do they hire someone who is a trained techie. There are pros and cons to both that make staffing a challenge. How do you evaluate the needs of the position to determine what is needed? How would you feel about hiring a trained techie?

These are the ten top things that I personally thought about in my personal adventure in this transition away from being the accidental techie. It didn’t happen overnight. It has been a decade in the making and there are times that I still feel like that accidental techie. I hope that if you do have tips in any of these keys that you share with me, comment to my posts,  let me integrate your experiences into a post, or even become a guest writer for a post or two. Together, I’m sure that we can help more accidental techies drop that accidental word and be techies.