Monday, 25 April 2016

Being a good audience - how to attend a presentation

I've just come back from another technical conference. I presented on a number of topics and I also attended a fair few as well.

One thing I noticed as both a presenter and an audience member is that the behaviours of audience members can be very diverse.

I'm not talking about the 'usual' categories of 'the snowman' who won't show any interest or 'the expert' who wants to show how they know more than the presenter - this is a bit different.

Please turn up on time

I know that conferences are hard to find your way around, but as a presenter, we're instructed to start on time (really, we are: at one conference, there was a huge loudspeaker announcement to 'Please start your presentations NOW!' before every session). If nothing else, we need to finish on time.

If your inter-hotel bus was late etc, then OK - please try and 'sneak in' at the back. I'll try and help you out by pointing out seats but a constant stream of people is really hard to manage. And please don't do the 'OK, I need to go now, I'm just heading into a session' part of your call when you're actually through the door.

Do your email outside - or at the back

Believe it or not, it's very obvious if you're 'making notes' or just doing your email/day job. I don't know how to describe it, but it is. If you need urgently to have your laptop open then please at least sit at the back.

If you're doing the 'annotate the slides' thing, then that's fine, although if you have a tablet, that's better than an open laptop. I don't know why, but it is.

And a kindle, is very obviously a kindle. You're reading a book, right? There are other places out of the rain and it's especially annoying if some people are standing . ..

Questions as you go - or at the end?

Find out. My preference is to take them as I go as I can try and work out what's of interest to the audience and tailor my presentation to you. Others have a strict time-keeping policy that asks to keep them to the end. It's OK at the start to say 'questions now or later'?

Also, it's strange but even though you think you've asked loudly, not everyone can hear you. I'm not trying to insult you by repeating your question, but it's that I'm 'mic'd up (amplified) and you're usually not. Not everyone else can hear you and they probably would like to hear both your question and the answer.

Again, if you didn't hear the question, please call out - I sometimes forget to do the 'OK, the question was . .' part and go straight into an answer. If the answer was 'Yes, it is!' then it doesn't mean much on its own.

If a question turns into a discussion, don't be offended if you're asked to 'leave it to the end' or 'take it off-line'. Presenters are paranoid about finishing on time  - come chat at the end, we'll try and get you an answer if we can.

Taking pictures

I'm flattered if you like one of my slides so much that you'd like to save it for later use. Really. And I'll try and hold it on the screen for you but please don't take longer than about 15 secs to focus up.

The exception is if the slide says 'Confidential' or something similar - it's usually polite to ask.

We do try and 'upload our material' where possible, so you should be able to get it if you need it, but be aware we're often tweaking it until the last minute, so you might not be able to get it until after the conference - sorry!

Feedback - yes please!

I know you'll need to fill in what seems to be about 100 feedback forms at the end, but they really are useful so I can get better next time. One request: Please differentiate between something I can do something about and something I can't. If the room was too cold or there weren't enough seats or there was no drinking water in the room - sorry but that's out of my control, usually.

On feedback, if you can't hear me, I'm talking too fast, if the slides are blurred or if I'm standing in front of the projector (it happens!) then please call out. Those kind of things I can fix right then right there.

At the end of the presentation, please come up and chat - we really like to hear from you and we'll stay as long as we have time - usually we'll only disappear if we have to present in the next 'slot'. We present on things we are interested in, so we're happy to talk for a long time!

Sorry - not my thing!

If you find you're in the wrong presentation (I've done this!) either by a bad room number or by the abstract becoming a lot clearer in the title slide (e.g. 'Performance Tuning Good Practices' is actually 'Performance tuning the XZDF2300 noodleplooker appliance') then it's fine to walk out. If the presentation hasn't started, it's OK to let the speaker know why - rather than having them think you just don't like them.

Again, it's fine to walk out in the first 5 mins (really!) but if you're not sure a presentation is 'for you' then please sit at the back and 'sneak out'

Finally, don't bang the door!

If you need to leave for whatever reason, even if only a bathroom emergency, please 'soft close the door'. Nothing makes everybody look around when there is a huge WHAM! when you let the door go.

Any pet hates? Anything to add to the 'things I don't like about presenters at conferences?' - hit the comments!

Monday, 4 April 2016

Getting the Best from your Consultants - a 'just my 2c' guide

I work as a 'Consultant', although I have a number of other job roles and titles e.g. 'Solution Architect' 'Subject Matter Expert' 'Agile Coach' 'Business Process Management Expert' etc etc.

For the majority of my time, I work on client/customer sites and locations, not those of my direct employer. This makes my relationship with my customer somewhat different to that of a permanent employee or 'permi'.

Some companies use a large number of consultants on a pretty much constant basis - others employ them on an ad-hoc basis to solve point problems.

One thing I've noticed over many years of doing this is how effectively different organisations use me whilst I'm working for them. Obviously I always try to do my best for them and to leverage as much value as I can for them during my engagements, but it's sometimes easier to drive value in one place than in another.

Are companies aware of what helps a consultant help them? Here's my 'starter for ten' list (in no particular order)

Who, Where and When

You might have multiple offices. You might start early or late. You might want me to work with one person exclusively or with a large number of people doing various different things.

I'm very happy to do either - please let me know. Remember, I don't know your company. If you have 3 London offices, let me know which one I'm due at. If Sarah doesn't work Mondays, that's useful to know as well. If you start at 08:00 and finish at 16:30, then I can do that. If you want me out of your hair until 10:00 then that's fine too.

If the person who wants me to come and help isn't the person I'll be working with, please let the latter know who I am, why I'm there (especially that I'm not there to replace them!) and what I'm meant to be doing. It's awkward on both sides when I turn up to ask for Carol and Carol says 'nice to meet you - who are you and why are you here?'

Finally, if you're having an off-site meeting next week, or there's nothing to do next Monday then let me know and I won't turn up and bill you for the day. . this is also useful if you're multi-country and next Wednesday is your offshore-team's bank holiday and no-one is in to support performance testing for example.

Desks, parking, power, passes, network

If your office is in the middle of nowhere (i.e. not city centre) then parking spaces are pretty much essential, especially if you want me to work flexible hours. If you're in a city and it's walkable or on the tube in London then fine. Also regarding parking, there's often only me so I can't car share, no matter how 'green' I'd like to be.

Desks and chairs are useful too. I appreciate that I'm an 'extra person' that you really don't have space for and I'm OK sharing a desk, but I'm going to need to sit down, power a laptop and put it down to type.

Internet access is essential if you want me to send/receive emails to and from you. Also I can look up our support/fix/documentation etc etc database and connect to all of my co-workers worldwide, but only if I can get online. I do have 3 and 4G but I'm not going to use them to download 100s of mb of patches and updates for you over them. And that's assuming you have 3G/4G coverage on your site.

Passes/Badges are essential in a secure environment - but paper ones that won't open any doors at all (especially in and out of the office, or to the toilets/restrooms etc) can really slow things down - especially if I need to be escorted everywhere by one of you.

Tailgating is not an option, even if 'everybody does it' - our corporate guidelines say that we don't. Also I'm not going to 'just borrow your badge' - thanks for trying to be helpful, but I can't do that either. Hopefully it's obvious why - I'm not being awkward.

'Things everybody knows'

If there's a fire drill every Wednesday, if Friday is casual day (but 'casual' still means no shorts), if birthdays are 'bring cakes' or everyone leaves at 2pm on the last Friday of the month, please let me know - happy to go along with most things.

(Be aware I will often need to pack clothing on a Sunday night, so finding out next Friday is 'come in fancy dress for charity day' on the Wednesday is too late . .)

Similarly "we know it says 'hot-desking' but most people sit in the same place every day so please ask" or "The coffee is provided personally - please put 20p in the tin when you make one" are things that are always useful to avoid causing offence.

Logins, access, code, docs

If you want me to review code, how can I get copies? I can provide shared, secure file areas for us to exchange data, but are you allowed to connect to them? If you want to email them, how big are they? Can your mail system cope with the size? How will you encrypt them?

Ditto for logs and dumps - JVM heap dumps are often in the GBs. How can I look at them? I have tooling with me and I can also help you download the same but we'll need to work together on this one.

Ditto for reading documents, specs etc. I'll bring MS Office and things like Visio viewers with me. I've also got access to all the software my company makes, but if you have a 3rd party product with no import/export filters, please have a think about how I'm going to read it - maybe print to .pdf?

If I need to be on your network, I'll need some equipment to do it - do you really want me to plug in my laptop to your intranet?

Credentials as well. I'm not going to 'just borrow your password' as that breaks all sorts of rules, probably for both my company and yours.

On the subject of credentials, often I really don't want to know what the 'root' or 'admin' password is. In most cases, I don't want production update access either. I'll advise you on what changes or updates to make and help you test on a lower environment, but production changes need to go through your change processes and be enacted by your prod change team (I'm happy to show them what to do - just not to log on and do it in PROD).

If you have sensitive data, I really don't want it on my system - in fact I'm not actually allowed to have it on there. If your logs have your customer's names and addresses in them, I really can't have that on my system.

Objectives and flexibility

It's your money you're paying - let me know how I can help and I'll be as flexible as possible, but please bear in mind why you wanted me on-site in the first place.

If you have a set of things that you need me to do, I'll track them, tick them off and let you know how it's all going. If you think of other things whilst I'm here, I'm happy to consider them but bear in mind that your priorities may now shift.

I'm happy to be a 'walking encyclopaedia' or 'Can you come to a meeting and give us your thoughts?' but bear in mind that's all taking time away from 'Please review our enterprise architecture strategy' if that's my main goal.

'Tapping on the shoulder' or 'Have you got a minute?' - know your consultant!

This is a contentious one and varies from consultant to consultant. Some people (e.g. me) are happy to chop and change from activity to activity and to be engaged on a 'please turn up and we'll form an orderly queue at your desk to ask you things' basis.

For other people, it drives them up the wall! These people need a clear statement of work and a list of objectives that they can deliver against. Consider how your organisation works and the people within it - then try and engage a consultant that fits your style.

Working 'n' days/week

If you want me for 2 days per week, that's fine. Let's agree on those days and I'll be there. I can even be a bit flexible with enough notice - just ask!

On the other hand, if I work for you on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I can't attend your team update call on Fridays as I'll be working for someone else. In exactly the same way that if I'm working for you, I can't attend their team update call either.

If I'm working on something internal and you want a quick answer to a mail, then I'll try and accommodate you - but I can't spend a couple of hours on it necessarily.

Finally - if you don't like what I'm telling you, or it just isn't working out, let's go our separate ways . .

I'm a consultant - I'm here to bring you the benefit of my and my company's knowledge. I'll advise you on what I think is best for you and your company - but bear in mind it might not be what you want to hear. (See the 'Lord Wessex Effect').

If you want me to approve/'rubber stamp'/endorse or similar something you're produced then (a) both I and my company have to agree with it 100% and (b) it takes a lot of process (and sometimes legal) to put that stamp on there. Obviously if I or we disagree with it, we will say so.

If you disagree with what I'm advising you (and that's fine BTW!) then say so. I might have alternatives, or often there might be something that I'm not aware of in your specific situation that makes a difference.

On the other hand, if you just don't like it, or don't want to do it then just say - you're not going to hurt my feelings. I'll leave a copy with you just so we know where we both stand and then either I can work on something else or we can end the engagement - it's not personal.