Is it time for a general compensation review?

It’s been my experience that the quantity of tech jobs tends to cycle between feast and famine. We seem to be entering a feast period where the number of jobs exceeds the number of candidates. Couple that with the fact that our economic system seems to balance wages to match the job demand and you have the makings of a perfect storm.

I’ve been eating out more lately for lunch and that’s not because I enjoy eating out, it’s because there have been so many farewell lunches. Tech workers in the trenches are the first to move because they are just starting their careers and they are the most attractive to employers. Let’s call this stage 1. Their skills are fresh and they have enough experience to contribute from day one. They tend to be the people that get forgotten when times are lean so employer’s don’t have to offer large increases to get them to jump.

When that well runs dry or when you need experience to guide the team, employers move up the food chain to attract people with more experience. Let’s call this stage 2. If employers don’t have their people locked in through stock options or competitive salaries and bonuses, the shell game continues.

I was speaking to a tech company CEO last weekend and he said that with the exception of the new grads that should be available in a few weeks, Stage 2 is already happening.

So what can you do to protect yourself from high employee turnover? Well some of the things that we talked about already, stock options, competitive salaries, bonuses, better work environments, more vacation, flexible work hours and locations, etc.

Tech workers are not your typical employees. They tend to be less motivated by cold hard cash and more motivated by work environment, interesting things to work on, career development, travel and the list goes on. Compensation does play a role, but t0 increase the output of your team, you have to do more.

There will be cases where it’s time to move on in order to advance a career and there is not much that an employer can do about that other than to say thank you for your service and all the best in your future endeavours.

I did come across a good book a couple of months back that I blogged about already though. Check out “The Alliance” by one of the founders of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. Reid suggests that what worked at LinkedIn was to treat every employee as a contract worker in that they have something to offer the company and the company has something to offer them. He calls these fixed periods “tours of duty”. It allows the employee and employer to have a clear understanding of what is expected and the fixed term bounds everything.

Many employees sign up for back-to-back tours of duty, but others do their tour and move on. If an employer wants to retain a key employee, they are motived to offer that person something that will help them achieve their life goals. I was fascinated as I read because I would love to work in a place like that.

In any case, the tech industry is entering a shake down period, so if you don’t want to suffer from  (brain drain and retrain), it’s time to make a change.

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Test Driven Design

I was recently introduced to a concept that has been around for a long time.

Test Driven Design strives for 100% test coverage for every line of code written. At a first glance this seems really expensive, but after reading “The Clean Coder” by Robert Martin, I find myself leaning in that direction.

Robert refers to himself as “Uncle Bob” and has a number of very strange videos that explain his approach to software design. His approach encourages designers to write tests first, code second and optimize third. He explains that software professionals have a responsibility to make sure that every line of code they produce has zero defects. Uncle Bob’s suggests that we all adopt a portion of the hippocratic oath, “Do no harm”. He explains that having a complete suite of tests keeps code alive because designers can do an instant verification cycle after each code change. This catches bugs early in the cycle and makes designers unafraid to make changes in code that they may not know all that well.

Uncle Bob explains that the up front investment is going to cost something, but not as much as we might think. The downstream value however, more than justifies the investment. Code estimates will go down with time instead of the more common increase to compensate for unexpected side effects.

As a software designer, I found myself saying “Yes” out loud a few too many times as I read. I would love to work on a code base that had 100% test coverage and I would feel much better about myself knowing that my code had zero defects. I think we all want to do the best possible job and taking pride in what we do makes us feel good about ourselves. Feeling good, makes going to work more enjoyable and that has benefits for us and our employers.

I only had to read the situations described in the first chapter to be hooked. I highly recommend this book as a must read for all software professionals. For those of us who have been around the block, it provides new perspectives on situations that we have already experienced.


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When to invest in a tech company

One could say that I’ve been around the block when it comes to tech companies and start-ups, so a question that I get quite often from investors is “Is this a good investment?”

It’s not a really easy question to answer, but there are some indicators that you can use to weigh your decision. This is by no means a complete list, but it might be a good check list to determine whether further investigation is justified.

  1. Is the technology solid? By this I mean can the engineering team build what they are being asked to build.
  2. Are the people good? This is a more complex question because there are a number of teams inside any start-up. The engineering team needs to be evaluated separately from the leadership team. It’s really important that the leadership team understands the technology as well as the opportunity and this is not always the case. It’s been my experience that if egos are going to be a problem, you will find them in the management team.
  3. Is the timing right? Is the market ready for the new innovation that is being designed? Technology people see the application for innovation years before the buying public and many really good companies fail because they’re ready too soon.
  4. Do you have a channel to market? There are so many options today that didn’t exist in say the 80’s and 90’s. It’s really important that the marketing team has a grasp on how  things like eBay, shopify, google add-words and other innovations have re-shaped the industry. If the marketing team talks about things like trade shows and industry analysis, run away!
  5. Is the work environment innovative? Start-ups require long hours so there has to be a good work environment. Do the employees mix socially and do they include family and friends. Start-ups require buy in from both the employees and their support networks.
  6. Are the employee’s share holders? Being a share holder means that employees are owners. People always work harder on their own projects or when the outcome will effect their own pocket book.
  7. How old is the startup? If the start-up does not realize some success in the first few years of operation, the employees will burn out. The advantages like shares lose their sparkle and there may not be enough momentum left for a pivot.

I could go on for pages but rather than do that, I suggest that you read “The start-up owners manual” for more insight into what makes a successful start-up.

For me, it comes down to technology and people. If those two things work, the rest will happen on it’s own. The people part is the hardest to get right.

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How to read tech job postings

I may have Blogged on this before but things are heating up with respect to tech jobs, so it’s probably a good idea to revisit this topic.

There are a number of job search engines that troll job posting sites and deliver lists to prospective tech workers each day. The content of the emails has some value but probably not what you would expect. These engines give you information about when the job was posted, but the way they work has a few flaws. If a recruiter picks up a posting from an employers site, the date gets reset and a posting that was three weeks old looks like it was posted yesterday. In many cases the jobs that are posted have already been filled.

Applying to jobs from this sort of a list will not produce good results.

So what do these sites do for you? They give you a general idea about who is hiring. Use that information to research employers and then use LinkedIn to figure out who you know in the companies that you are interested in. LinkedIn will tell you about connections through other people in your network, so if you don’t have a direct connection, ask someone you do have a connection with to introduce you.

Once you have a connection, setup meetings over lunch or coffee. Tell people that you are interested in their company and you would like to learn more. People have to eat, like to drink coffee and love to talk about their work. There is no commitment at a meeting like that so the odds that you will be successful in getting a meeting are actually quite high.

During the meeting there will be opportunities to ask appropriate questions that will allow you to create an impression in the other persons mind. It’s an indirect way to sell yourself and raise your profile. You could also use the meeting to find out more about hiring managers, the status of posted jobs and what departments are hiring. Use that information to setup follow up meetings.

If you do a really good job with these informal meetings, people will assume that you will only be on the market for a very short period. You need to keep having meetings so that people know your are still available. You can always say that your are still available because you are waiting for an opportunity that is a good fit. It’s important for employers to know that you are in control of the situation.

Eventually a hiring manger is going to ask one of your contacts if they know anyone that might fit a job opening that they have and your name will come up. When your name does come up, it will be with a recommendation from someone that the hiring manager trusts.

It only takes one recommendation to get a job, so be patient.

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“You Know?”

I was in a customer meeting last week with a product manager, salesman, customer and senior architect. They were describing a new product offering to a customer and all of the people involved were injecting “you know” into the conversation. The meeting went well and I suspect that everyone involved was unaware of the “you knows”, but I was really distracted. Each person had a different rate of insertions, but there were well over 200 “you knows” in the one hour meeting.

I have observed similar behaviour with other pause phrases like “ummmmm” so the actual content of the phrase is not that important. What is important is that a considerable amount of time and energy was spent relaying no information. I’m pretty sure that all the people involved did actually know.

As an outsider, who was for the most part silent, it was fascinating to watch. The exchange could have taken 20 – 30% less time and I feel that random pause phrases highlight the speakers inability to keep the conversation flowing with relevant information. It seems kind of unprofessional and implies a lack of preparation for the exchange.

Maybe I’m just getting old and crusty, but on the off chance that I am right, you could do what I do when I’m playing music. Record yourself and review how you speak. I believe that you will get much better results without the pause phrases. Leaving silent pauses will also allow other people to speak and add to the conversation.

you know?

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Real and make believe

There’s a song by Three Doors Down that refers to the singers life as containing things that are real and make believe. The Singer is struggling to tell the difference between the two. I suspect that everyone has moments like that in their life, but that’s a little too personal for a BLOG like this. In this case I would like to reflect on how this concept has played out over the years in the tech community.

Tech companies have always had to play a game where they need to keep investors engaged long enough to buy the time they need to build the product. Investors have become increasingly impatient and I blame the culture that has evolved from the Internet for that. In the 80’s I often found myself being asked to demo a product at a point where it was barely booting, while I listened to the sales person talk about how it was ready to ship.

At the time I didn’t understand the pressures that promote this kind of behaviour. Those pressures have not gone away, in fact they have gotten much worse. I have had people ask me what happened to the tech community in Ottawa. They reminisce about the tech boom of the 80s and 90s and question why that sort of thing is not still happening. They blame off shore investment and have a laundry list of others to blame.

If there is to be any blame, it should be focused on the investment community. If you want to build a product that is going to be innovative and produce a long term ROI, it is going to take Research as well as Development. The investment community seems to want to put money into development and avoid research. You can’t have it both ways. Some products need more than two years to develop and I would suggest to you that those products will produce the best returns.

So what do tech companies do when they can’t get funded to build those products? They sell their ideas to off shore companies that have investors that are willing to wait or they build a product that is Make Believe while they work furiously on the product that is real.

Is that not misleading the investors? Yup, but there are many new laws to guard against this kind of misdirection. Companies have to walk a much finer line.

So what is the answer then?

I believe that setting expectations up front with investors would be a good start but the real change has to happen in the investment community itself.

Why were companies like Nortel able to innovate for so many years?

Because they were considered a Blue Chip stock and people made long term investments. Nortel had an awesome track record, was honest with their investors and hired only the top graduates. But they failed in a messy cloud of controversy you say. To that I would reply, read the book 100 days.

It would be nice to not have to “Make Believe” and just stick with what’s “Real”. In order for that to happen though, investors are going to have to put in the time to find out what their investments are doing and accept some risk.

What is a reasonable amount of risk and how can I tell real from make believe? Excellent question and the topic of a future post.

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So what does it mean to retire?

People have been asking me about retirement for years and my response has always been that I retired in 1981 when I graduated. I actually had a manager at Mitel in the 80’s tell me that I wasn’t serious about my job because I was having too much fun. Is that not the ultimate goal for every employee?

I really wouldn’t know how to or want to count the number of extra hours that I have logged working on both home and work projects. Why do I do that? because I love what I do and there are so many more fun things to do every day.

Has my attitude about retirement changed?

Well I’m closing in on the big six-oh and I can see the attraction of being able to choose what I work on each day. I have several friends that have retired and a couple are working harder in retirement than they every worked when they were employed.  I guess I could see me doing that and taking a little more time to vacation with my wife. I actually bought an extra week this year to travel.

Why has my attitude about retirement changed?

I would suggest to you that working conditions in the tech industry have deteriorated over the last 20 years. I still have fun on my personal projects and I apply all of that learning in my day job, but the environment at work doesn’t have the shiny new sparkle that it did in the 80’s.

Is it time for a shift in employer’s attitudes?

If the predicted tech worker shortage is realized, I would suggest to employers that there are people with a lot of experience that would be attracted to a flexible work environment. What would that environment ideally look like? That would be a topic for another day [grin]

Stay tuned….

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I just got back from a quick walk around at today’s TechNADA job fair at the brook street hotel. It reminded me of the early 80’s in that there was good representation from local tech companies and the tech community. A number of new players like Amazon, were there trying to build out their teams along side veterans like Nokia, March, and Ciena.

It was nice to see companies actually competing for potential employees. I have read a number of articles projecting a tech worker shortage in the coming years, but this is the first concrete evidence of the start of a new wave of growth.

Some companies like Youi-TV are creating work places that rival those in silicon valley. Better work environments are required in order to appeal to millennial’s who aren’t interested in spending more than their required number of hours at work. The importance of making the work place comfortable seems to have been lost by tech companies over the past 15 years.

As a veteran of the tech industry, who has felt the excitement of a new opportunity and adventure, I can say that I can feel that excitement starting to build again.

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It’s been a while

I don’t know if it’s like this for all bloggers or if I’m just strange. When I first started blogging, I had so much to say that I would queue up posts so there was a new one almost every day. I think that as time has passed, I have realized that opinions are really just that and everyone has their own view of the issues. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still have lots to say, but life has been getting in the way.

I’ve been perfecting a one man show (Guitar and vocals) that I have been performing at various clubs in the Ottawa area, I’ve been learn how to dance Salsa and Bachata, I’ve been fixing the cars that are getting older and require more attention and I’ve been getting used to working at a large company again. I have a new novel underway and have started working on a collection of original songs that will be part of a new album.

Stay tuned…

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What just happened?

I woke up this morning to find that my American neighbours (Spelled with a u) had elected “The Donald” as the next president of the United States. I can understand why political writers and cartoonists would want “The Donald” but that doesn’t explain the results. I realize that the voting public were presented with two less than ideal candidates but “The Donald”?

Other countries that already promoted the United States as a self important country filled with corrupt politicians were hoping for an outcome like this. The fact that the American voting public delivered it to them on a silver platter, doesn’t reflect well on the honest, hard working citizens of the most powerful country in the world.

Many countries in the rest of the world look to America to show them the way.

The only hope the world has now is that the President of the United States will have his hands tied (and hopefully be muzzled) by the rest of the elected government. I watched a greatest hits video on Saturday that summarized everything that “The Donald” had said during his campaign and I figured that would be enough to convince the voting public that he was not a worth candidate.

I would have to say that I and many other outsiders are in shock today.

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