Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Maximizing the Marginal Revenue of Candy

Writing in the Digits blog for The Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey A. Fowler notes a fabulous new use of crowdsourcing:
The folks at have created their first Trick or Treat Housing Index, which draws on the site’s real estate data to determine the top-five neighborhoods in Seattle and Los Angeles to maximize candy intake this Saturday.

How’d they do that? “There is a common belief that wealthy neighborhoods are the Holy Grail for harvesting the most Halloween candy,” blogs Zillow’s Whitney Tyner. But to provide what it calls a more holistic approach, Zillow factored in home values alongside additional data on population density, neighborhood walkability, and local crime. “Based on those variables, this Index represents neighborhoods that will provide the most candy, with the least walking, and minimum safety risks,” she wrote.
I'm doing my best to stay up on social networking and new ways to use technology to benefit both the masses and me.  Once this service comes to Ottawa, I think we will have reached the pinnacle of the utility of new technology.

At least, I'm sure my daughter will think so.

(H/T: Radley Balko.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Labour Board Etiquette

Months back, my company released an employee.  There was ample reason, and she had been given many warnings and opportunities to improve.  She never did, so, sayonara.  We knew that she might be the type of person to file a grievance with the labour board, so we made sure that we had everything properly documented.  Though we assumed she would complain, we also knew she had no reason to complain.

And this morning we received a message from the labour board confirming our suspicions.

And less than an hour later, she showed up at the office to say "hi" to everyone.  I am not kidding; less than two weeks ago she filed a complaint against us and this morning she was all sunshine and lollipops as she visited.

The issue will easily be resolved in our favour.  We have a wealth of HR experience in our office and we consulted the labour board before we took any drastic measures.  She will be rather surprised when my boss and I show up at the hearing and demonstrate just all the ways she let us down as an employee.

The thing is, we have a small office.  We are owned by a large multi-national, but there were never more than five of us who worked in the office in Ottawa.  She might think she is only going after the head office, but the tasks associated with this naturally fall on the representatives in Ottawa.

Oh, and did I mention that she asked to be called when the owners are back in town; she'd love to see them again.  It was shocking; she was bringing action against these people, but also wants to be their friend.

So, here's my advice for anyone who will be lodging a complaint with the labour board: don't try to be friends with people against whom you are bringing action.  (Let's call it, 'Jonathan's Law').

I can't believe that it would even be necessary to explain this.  Well... I can believe it... but it'd be nice to be unable to believe it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What's Your Best Offer?

Working for a consulting company, negotiating pay rates with consultants is a regular part of my job.  It's not my favourite part (at all), but it's gotta be done.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of unethical companies out there; consequently, a lot of consultants are wary when it comes time to negotiate.  This wariness overtakes them and rather than negotiate they ask for our best offer, and they'll either take it or leave it.  I don't blame them (I really don't blame them, companies can be ruthless), but this isn't a question I can necessarily answer.

For much of our contracting work, our company has rate ceilings that are locked in with our main client - the federal government.  Though we can't go any higher, we can often offer discounts.  Generally speaking, we want to offer discounts.  The environment today is incredibly competitive, and we're competing on price as much as we are on quality of proposal.  Even if we had the leeway to offer the moon, we wouldn't want to as there would be little chance that our proposal would win.

However, if I explain this, a consultant might only hear me obfuscating - refusing to answer a straightforward question in the attempt to wring as much profit out of the proposal.  Such an inference is reasonable (and, when dealing with some companies, accurate).  So, when faced with such a blunt question, I give a definite answer, but - here's the thing - in all likelihood, I won't actually give the person the best offer I possibly could.

I'm not trying to play games, and I'm not being spiteful.  On the aggregate, giving out "the best offer we can" is not feasible for the company.  With our fixed and variable costs, there is a particular margin we need to maintain on our bids (granted, a lower percentage margin can be better if it leads to larger gross margin across the board).  This does not mean that each proposal we send out must have the same margin (either in percentage or actual income).  We'll never take a loss, but sometimes we'll make very very little profit if the circumstances dictate  It's better that than no income at all, but I'd be making no friends with my supervisors if that was how I always operated.

When cornered, I have to balance the demands of the company and the demands of the particular proposal.  Likely, the result will be a sub-optimal proposal or a sub-optimal rate for the consultant.  It also means that if I am dealing with multiple consultants for one opportunity, someone with more flexibility will have a greater chance winning the day.

There doesn't seem to be an ideal solution to this.  I could try to engage the consultant in negotiations anyway, but I can't tell them that I am giving them my best offer and then come back with a better offer; that will play into their existing suspicion of consulting firms.

The best of times, generally with consultants with whom I have an established relationship, there will be no debates about the pay rate; there will be a discussion.  When consultants are unwilling to discuss the rate, I will give them best offer I can, considering the constraints they are placing on me.

But when we don't discuss the rate, odds are none of us will wind up too happy.

Another Day, Another Carleton University Event

I seem to spending more time at the old school that I did during undergrad.  Anyway, Carleton will be having two job fairs this week, and, again, anyone from Carleton who reads this blog should stop by an say hi.

Here are the details:
Fall Career Fair
October 6 & 7, 2009
University Centre Galleria
10:00 am - 3:00 pm

I'll be at the Microtime booth on Tuesday October 6 (we're only going the one day).  It should be a fun time.

Basic Netiquette

For those who don't know, 'netiquette' is a term for internet etiquette.  Essentially, it is a guideline for not being rude in your virtual encounters.  Being in an industry (and world) that relies so heavily on electronic communication, netiquette is quite important.  Recently at work, issues regarding netiquette have come up.  I won't bother going into great detail, but here are a few helpful hints:

WRITING IN ALL CAPITALS means you are yelling.  There's pretty much no way around this.  No matter what you think you are achieving, the result is the same.  The person reading your message will take it for boorish behaviour.

Writing in bold is only properly employed in very specific circumstances (say, headings or maybe an email signature).  Interspersed in the body of an email will come off as insulting or impolite.

Underlining words and sentences in the body of a message does not, merely, emphasize your point, it makes you appear condescending (and, again, boorish).

Writing in a different font colour achieves the same thing as writing in bold and underlining.

WRITING IN ALL CAPS, IN BOLD, UNDERLINED, IN A DIFFERENT COLOUR is ill advised unless you are notifying everyone that we've moved to DEFCON 1.  If you want to emphasize something, try italics, or just write it and assume that the person to whom you are writing isn't a complete idiot. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

Supertrain: Lessons From a Failed TV Show

A few weeks ago, I watched an episode of Make or Break TV that told the story of Supertrain, a show that is regarded as one of the biggest TV flops of all time (it almost sunk NBC).  I won't get into the whole story (which was pretty interesting), but a few things stuck out from an HR/recruiting standpoint*.

Fred Silverman was brought in to rescue NBC.  He was a successful TV exec, who was a part of such shows as Charlie's Angels, The Love Boat and Three's Company (all of which were favourites when I was growing up).  He was some sort of TV Midas, bringing success to all his endeavours.  He was a natural choice to save the peacock.  (Actually, NBC had gotten so off track that they'd abandoned the peacock.  Silverman brought it back; for that alone he should be lauded.)

Unfortunately, Silverman had never been in a position where he had complete authority.  In previous roles, he was always answerable to someone else.  From the way the episode told it, Silverman was finally free to have the final say, and that final say included Supertrain.  This is not an uncommon occurrence, at least if my experience is at all representative.  People are rightfully elevated to new positions based on merit, but you can't always know how someone will react to new found powers.  In such situations, oversight from some other authority is invaluable.  Taking the whiz kid and setting him loose on your organization can have dramatic effects.  This is not to suggest that companies should never take such chances - they certainly should - but some form of risk management (say in the form of an experienced consultant or mentor who can sit back and keep an eye on things) is prudent, lest you want your own "Supertrain".

Further, merit-based promotion is good (and certainly better than seniority-based promotion), but when judging the merit of various candidates, one must keep in mind not just the job that the candidates have done, but the job they will be asked to do.  A mid-level manager who excels as a mid-level manager will not necessarily excel as a senior manager.  The respective skills of each position could be quite different.

As an example, at a web company for which I used to work, the Vice President of development was promoted into the role (as the company expanded and required a VP of development) because he was the ranking (and best) developer the company had.  He had the best programming chops, and he had a very good eye for new technologies that were about to blow up.  Unfortunately, in his capacity as VP, his main role was to build the development team and make sure they stayed on track.  His technical expertise was a minor aspect (both in terms of the time spent doing it, and the importance to the company).  This man was not great at building or leading a team.  From what I could tell, he had little leadership or managerial experience and, at times, it really showed.  As the visionary VP, he was great.  As the day to day team leader, he wasn't.

[As a post script, by the time I left that company they had laid off more than 50% of their employees (myself included) and were on the verge of insolvency (though they have since turned that around).  The lack of a strong development team was a big factor.]

Finally, the importance of delegation was on display in the story of Supertrain - and this has nothing to do with Fred Silverman (and I feel bad that it seemed like I was picking on him; that wasn't my intent).  One of the creators of the show (I can't remember his name) was a driving force behind everything to do with Supertrain.  He was writing scripts (or re-writing them).  He was directing episodes.  He was dealing with casting, production matters and set design.  This one man had his hand in just about everything.

Years ago when I was managing a wine store, our district managers asked all store managers to draw a pie chart depicting how much of their time was dedicated to work.  I thought to myself, well a 40 hour work week, divided by 168 hours, equals about 25%.  I thought this would be a little low considering all the unofficial hours I put in, so I upped to 30%.  I figured I'd have one of the lowest numbers, knowing how dedicated/controlling some other managers were, but I thought I was in the right ballpark.

Wow, was I wrong.

Two other managers had numbers around 33% and 35%.  Everyone else was over 50% (there were probably about 12 of us).  One woman was at 75% (she was a great manager) - she was a workaholic and, apparently, was always thinking about her store no matter what she was doing.

Here's the thing, the two other managers with low numbers were probably the best managers we had.  They had the best sales numbers, and their staffs adored them.  The more we discussed this situation, the more we learned that most of the managers with really high numbers just didn't trust their employees with any responsibility.  They also never challenged their employees with new tasks.  Their stores suffered.  Their employees suffered.  Their personal lives suffered.

I was new to managing at the time, but I had already learned that the strength of my stores (most of us managed two stores) was always going to be my staff.  Further, I knew that I could consider myself a good manager when I had multiple people at each store who could step in and do my job at a moment's notice.  Where other managers were threatened by successful subordinates, I yearned for it.  I wanted to seem redundant in my stores.

I was trained by the guy who noted 33% of his time was spent working.  He was a big believer in delegation.  He knew that it made his staff better, and he knew that it made his store more successful.  As he mentored me, he made sure that I understood how important delegation was.  It wasn't that he was lazy (he most certainly wasn't); it was that he could see the big picture.  Further, he knew that his staff was a reflection of him, and that if his supervisors saw a strong and determined team, they would know that it was because he was a very capable leader.

Poor managers try to belittle their staff.  They want everyone to know that they are the competent ones and their staff would be lost without them.  They don't understand that this stance (and it is little more than posturing) will bring them little success in the long run and expose them for the inferior managers that they are.

Who says you can't learn anything from TV?

*ED NOTE:  I am responding to claims that were made on the program; I am not commenting on the veracity of those claims.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

So, tell me a little bit about yourself.

Q&A Panel Question #2

At the panel last night, a student asked each of us to speak on questions that interviewees tend to flub.  I won't go into all of them (I don't actually remember everything that was said, sorry), but here's my answer.

So, tell me a little bit about yourself.  (Granted, it's not really a question, but a command, still, go with me on this.)

This is how I often start interviews.  It's not a particularly deep question, and it really shouldn't be too tricky.  However, recently, I have found that about three quarters of candidates can't string together an appropriate answer.

One point that came up multiple times last night (and which I have harped on in the past) is the need to have some sort of strategy or focus.  In an interview (and in your resume) you are marketing yourself; you are branding yourself.  You need to have some sort of idea of what you want to present to people making decisions about hiring.  By asking you to talk about yourself, I am holding open a big wide door for you to shove your strategy right through.  Tell me about yourself: I'm just begging for you to tell me all of your strengths, your desires, everything that would make you an asset to my company; all you need to do is offer up a semi-coherent value proposition.

But what do I tend to learn about:
  • Your dog;
  • Your family;
  • That you raise horses in your spare time;
  • Your ultimate frisbee team;
  • That you're looking for a job; etc.
Personal interests are great, and they could even be useful in selling yourself to a company.  Details of your job search could be persuasive if they demonstrate what it is you're trying to achieve in your career.  For the most part, though, these types of answers aren't telling me very much... well not much that you want them to tell me.

If, in telling me about yourself, you focus on your family life, well, then I know what you'll tend to be focused on during work hours.  If you cannot maintain focus through the first five minutes of the interview, you have told me way more than you had intended.

It is important to prepare for this type of question.  It doesn't matter whether or not anyone ever asks it.  It matters that you are thinking about your strategy, that you are focused on your goal and that you are tailoring your answers to the impression that you wish to make.

Easy open questions like this are an opportunity for you to set the terms of the interview.  You can set the framework by which your answers will be judged, you can set the foundation for other answers and you can (sometimes) lead the direction that questioner will take.

Goal.  Strategy.  Focus.  These are important, not your dog.*

*Apologies to my dog, whom I am sure is a regular reader of this blog.  Yes, Wembley, I always talk about you in interviews.

Q&A Panel Questions - Weaknesses

I thought it might be handy to provide some follow up on some of the questions that were posed by Carleton University students at last night's panel.  I didn't take copious notes, so much of this is running from memory.  The analysis I'll give is a blend of my own insights and thoughts from other panelists.  I won't bother to attribute each idea to a particular person.

The first question I'll mention is a pretty basic one: how do you answer a question about your weaknesses.

This is a "typical" interview question.  I put that word in quotation marks because I don't know how often it actually gets asked any more, but it is one that interview trainers always prepare people for.  Even if it is falling out of favour with hiring managers, it is good to prepare.

First, some don'ts:

Don't be a suck up.  If I ask you this question, I do not want to hear, "I'm a perfectionist; I just work too darn hard for my own good; I put the needs of the company ahead of my needs."  This is weaseling out.  You're being too cute by half, and you're trying to avoid actually answering it.  Worse still, you're insulting my intelligence by thinking that you'll be able to fool me.  If this is the effort that you'll display on the job, I don't want you on the job.

Don't be brutally honest.  You're going to need to answer this question but still get the job.  If you suggest that you're lazy, openly hostile to authority figures or generally incompetent, you're not going to get the job.

Don't give me your strengths.  I've actually had a candidate answer this question by listing her three greatest strengths rather than her three greatest weaknesses.  And I'm not talking about saying she's a perfectionist and claiming it as a weakness.  She actually said, "My three greatest strengths are...".  Although, on reflection, I guess this did demonstrate three of her weaknesses: inability to listen, inability to complete a task, self-obsession.

Okay, how about some do's:

Be honest.  Don't be brutally honest, but be honest.  No one is perfect and demonstrating that you are sufficiently self-aware to identify any shortcomings is an attractive quality.  Further, if you lie about your strengths and weaknesses, you are potentially setting yourself up to disappoint your manager.  Considering that most jobs have probationary periods where it's pretty easy to sack a new employee, you don't want to give them any ammunition.

Turn it into a positive.  I do not mean that you should masquerade a strength as a weakness, but you should demonstrate that you can take steps address problems.  Everyone is going to mess up at some point in their career, so managers want people who can fix any issues that arise.  When I was in school, our interview-prep person taught us to answer most questions about work using the CAR framework - Context, Action, Result.  In this case, take a weakness you have, put it into a work context, tell the interviewee what you did to alleviate the problem (or what you learned from it) and tell them how that will guide you in the future so as to not fall into a similar trap.  This sort of answer also has the benefit of ending your response on a positive.  It's always good to end on something positive.

Address it head on.  This goes with the previous point.  Don't try to evade or deflect the question.  Take it, answer confidently and let the interviewer know that you can handle uncomfortable or undesirable situations.  This is why we will often ask these tough questions.  We want to know how you will react under pressure.  We want to know if stress or confrontation will debilitate you.

There's a lot more that could be said (and I welcome anyone reading this to add more advice in the comments of this post), and there was probably a lot more that was said last night, but I'd say this is a good place to start.

By the way, if anyone ever asks me, I'll just tell them that my weakness is writing long-winded blog posts.