Why do we need Information Management

    I am guessing most of the readers of this blog are in the University of Washington’s Masters of Science in Information Management (MSIM) program.  For those that aren’t, the MSIM program focuses on connecting Technology, People and Information.  I am sure you have heard the statistics about how much information is out there.  With the advancement of the internet, we have caused the amount of information in the world to explode.  All of this is well and good but the problem arises when you try to make sense of the information.  I was watching a TED talk recently that was basically an overview of what the MSIM program is without meaning to.  The talk is given by Thomas Goetz and it focuses on two things, first the use of fear to accomplish things and secondly the idea that more medical problems could be solved not by better medicine but by better information presentation. 

     As a security professional the  idea that fear wasn’t the best way to relay information was something that I hadn’t considered before.  If you have heard any sort of talk in regards to Computer Security you have heard that a hacker can steal you identity, your bank account and with a little effort your first-born.  Okay so I am exaggerating a little but every talk I have given or heard about Computer Security has been about the negative effects of not securing your network.  Then after giving presentations about how there is never a secure system they wonder why executives haven’t approved their expanded budgets.  I believe we, as security  professionals, are going about this all wrong.  Instead of focusing on how impossible security is, we need to start focusing on how we can make the network better overall with the enhancements that security brings.  In this realm I have found that UX people do a good job for the most part.  When they make a presentation about a new website design they don’t sit there and say how little traffic and how confusing the current User Interface (UI) is and then sit down. They quickly go over part of the problems the current UI and then go on to show how well their UI will work and what it can bring to the table.  Now this might just be an issue for Security professionals but I have a feeling it isn’t.  Overall, as professionals, we need to focus on the idea that has been thrown around this blog, and that is the Value Added principle.  Focus on what value you are going to add to the company and how much it will help in the short and long-term. 

     Now as a final statement, this doesn’t only apply to people working.  If you are looking for a job focus on what you can do for the company.  If you can get the other person even a little bit excited about what you could do for them or the potential you have to help their company you will stay in their mind.  And believe me the more good things you give the interviewer to remember you by the better. 

     Now I realize that this may not be new to most  of you but I found the talk incredibly interesting.  I have a link to it below in case anyone is interested.  What are you thoughts?  Is it better to go all positive?  Are there any drawbacks of only focusing on the Positive? Or is it better to talk about a combination of fear and potential?

Getting to expert: software learning skills

Picture of whole pie
Getting up to speed on 'Preferred' software experience can be as easy as pie (mmm...pie)

One of my fond memories of working in Finance MIS was a short-lived tradition called “Nerd Lunch.” I and another analyst would log in to a net meeting and work through complicated SQL queries every few weeks. We would brainstorm solutions for ongoing information problems facing our department. I ask you: Has there ever been a more appropriate moniker for an event?

The analyst was my guru. With her help, I went from landing a job where I knew next to nothing about the software I would be using to finding solutions for decision makers in our organization.

I’m writing this blog post because it’s great to get excited about a job posting that sounds perfect in terms of industry, position, and advancement opportunities – but then it’s disappointing to worry about qualifying on ‘Preferred’ software experience. Worrying about software experience may even keep a job seeker from pursuing a position. What follows are tips I’ve found helpful to first get through an interview without perfect software experience, and then to get up to speed quickly in software skills once hired.

For an interview: Likely you will be facing a hiring manager when answering questions about software skills. Before the interview, it is possible you may be able to fully investigate the software – say, with a free trial for more common products. Barring that, prior to sitting down with the hiring manager, I suggest Googling the software listed in the job posting to find its specifications, as well as those of competing software products. This is a particularly helpful step with specialized software, such as enterprise management, accounting or asset management software.

Investigate the capabilities of the software to understand the functionality, and then come up with (intelligent!) questions related to the software’s application to itemized job responsibilities in the position listing. After all, once you get the job, that will be your contribution to the organization. It is most important in an interview with a hiring manager to demonstrate understanding of the role and to express critical thinking skills related to a position’s responsibilities.

Once hired, read a book: Find a beginner’s guidebook to the software if you can. Also, read it. (NOTE: No one really thinks you are a dummy when you read those Dummies books.) Rather than buying it new, I suggest checking out bookins.com, half.com, or posting an ad on Freecycle for a used copy. I’ve always found that starting with these books gives a good comfort level for tinkering in the software, at which point you are ready to sandbox.

Sandboxing: This is when you’ll start breaking existing tools in a calculated way. Set up a dev environment for this step, whatever that may be. For tools that use scripts, like VBA, or query language, like SQL, pretty much everyone learns by stealing snippets from existing tools and modifying for new applications. This is the sort of stuff you can do while waiting on a batch of project work or during down times in cyclical reporting periods. Please do not underestimate the “Help” tool in a software package; these tools tend to get more useful as your grasp on the software jargon strengthens (ironically). There’s no shame in using company resources to iterate and build on your technical skills, particularly if you are the type to check Facebook or text during working hours.

Find a guru: A guru is different than a mentor. This is a person whose geek runs deep, but who has enough patience and time to answer your technical questions. A guru will also have excellent problem-solving skills, in that she (or he) can help you find answers to existing problems by walking you through previously applied solutions in the software tool. Surprisingly, perhaps, a real guru won’t do things like grab your mouse and make a quick fix; that person will have a conversation with you, explore the scope of the issue, and explain in plain language what you need to do. You will learn to deepen the relationship with increasingly thoughtful questions about the work at hand, eventually adding value instinctively. In the long run, a guru’s approach will ideally make you a better thinker.

When this person helps you, be sure to recognize her. Buy her coffee. Send a thank-you email to her boss. Write a blog post about her. Someday, if you care to, you’ll be in the position to act as a guru.

I hope this makes learning new software (or becoming an expert in familiar software) more attractive and less painful. The software is just a tool for the tasks at hand. In the end, you are the element adding value in the position, first by applying software and later by sharing your knowledge.

Photo by Caitlinator. Used in accordance with a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

This feedback goes to 11

Guitar AmplifierI used to believe a person could learn more about management from a bad boss than from a good boss: it is easier to articulate what is missing from a working relationship than to notice the efforts of a good manager. Now, I think the truth is that a person always has expectations for a working relationship. The gap between expectation and reality is where learning, through constructive feedback, takes place.

When I left the workplace to attend graduate school full-time, I had a great boss. He was a great boss because he was a master of feedback: timely, thoughtful, economical, progressive feedback. Feedback is a personal information exchange we engage in throughout the working day; because of this, I would argue that maintaining a healthy feedback routine (outlined below) with other individuals is the foundation of a good working relationship.

Good feedback is timely. Work is a series of unending interruptions. It is natural to feel pestered by an employee or team member asking for feedback, but it is also important to support the priorities of the organization. Often, if I procrastinate on giving feedback, it has to do with not managing my own time well, or – this is worse – feeling I do not know the subject matter well enough to give meaningful feedback. In the latter case, my feedback should be: “I’m not the right person for an answer;” a polite “no” can also be appropriate feedback.

Good feedback is thoughtful. If I am the right person to give feedback, then it is my responsibility to really examine the item or issue in front of me. My former boss was good about this: his feedback contained questions that demonstrated he had thought about the item. Alternatively, if he had not set aside sufficient time to look at the item, he would set a time when we could sit down together. Courtesy creates goodwill.

Good feedback is economical. I mean this in two ways. First, feedback needs to be exactly as long as it needs to be. A good feedback routine gives each party a chance to clarify points, if needed, but it is a matter of personal discipline to make sure all points are salient. The second element of economical feedback means that it should be intended to maximize future efforts: it is better to determine at 10% completion that a project adds negligible value than to let sunk costs pile up. Employees and project teams will experience more satisfaction when they know all efforts are regularly analyzed to ensure added value.

Good feedback is progressive. There should be a common thread linking all feedback sessions, particularly between a manager and his employee. If a manager is unable to both criticize shortcomings of a project and praise improvements over time, he is either criticizing too much (which can paralyze an employee’s continued improvement) or leaving out recognition of improvement. As an added benefit, progressive feedback all but guarantees that an employee will know where she stands at regularly-scheduled formal reviews.

No one executes good feedback perfectly all of the time (certainly not me). And everyone experiences an occasional Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that will derail the best intentions. In the long term, however, simply being mindful about the feedback one gives and receives goes a long way to improve working relationships.

Photo by Andres Rueda. Available under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license.

On Adding Value in an Organization

There are obvious ways to add value to an organization: productivity by salespeople is generally measured by number of units sold, or levels of service contracted with clients. These quantities show a direct impact in organizational revenue.

The greatest challenge to a new Information Manager (IM) is demonstrating the added value of his work; an IM is a cost to an organization, not a revenue center. Adding to the difficulty, an IM has a wide range of constituents within an organization – such as finance, marketing, and lines of business – meaning he must translate his value add in a variety of operational environments.

For these reasons, it is essential that an IM compose a value-add statement for each project or process improvement. A concise value-add statement with the following points will help to focus a project or process improvement effort from start to finish:

The Impact. Give ‘before’ and ‘after’ statements for the project. The ‘before’ state should be plainly articulated and based in facts. It should also be no longer than one sentence. The ‘after’ statement represents the ideal outcome.

Information Need. Based on the ‘before’ statement, the IM should indicate whether the information is known to exist. Issues with existing information, such as redundancies or gaps, should also be noted here.

Stakeholders. There are two important aspects to this point. First, identifying the right stakeholders will ensure buy-in and participation from the project team. Second, limiting the scope of work and executing rapid iterations of the solution will be easier if stakeholders include only relevant and affected parties.

Revenue or Cost Result. Cutting costs generally means eliminating redundancies. Really exciting projects – the challenging ones requiring an IM to delve into and learn a line of business – should enhance or protect revenue streams. An IM who is able to quantify the financial impact of a project will be better prepared to assist a line of business in process enhancements.

The outline above seems overly simple, but there are several advantages to putting this short document in order. First, the IM may look to the value add statement for guidance when a project threatens to grow to an unmanageable scope. This is essential when working at an organization without established development or process improvement methodologies (such as Agile or Six Sigma). In addition, the exercise of articulating a project in the above terms will assist in communicating casually with senior managers and potential stakeholders for future projects (“What are you currently working on?” asked in the elevator). Finally – what is good for the organization and the project is also good for an IM’s professional development. Annual reviews are an ideal opportunity to review past value-add statements; these documents can also be helpful for updating one’s resume.

If there are any points for a value-add statement I have forgotten above, please let me know in the comments.