Archive for the ‘Project Management’ Category

Cat Juggling

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

I have several projects starting up in the next few weeks, so the challenge of managing several concurrent projects has been on my mind. Managing multiple projects at once feels a little bit like juggling cats:

Even though it seems more difficult, I don’t think it’s inherently any different from managing a single project. Except, it’s absolutely crucial that each project is managed as efficiently as possible.

Being an engineer at heart, my tendency is to micro-manage things. I hate the idea of not having control and not knowing the status of every task all the time. Part of that is my nature, and part of it was learnt early in my management career.

When I first became a project manager, I was reticent to watch over the work of others. I figured, “I asked him to do this task, so it will get done the way I want it done.” The problem was that people did not always follow through and not always the way that I would have wanted them to. It was at this point that a colleague I trusted gave me this short but valuable insight. “Other people are not like me.”

Pretty obvious, but I think we all tend to assume that others will do things the way we would. Sometimes they do it differently and better, and that’s great. But other times, not so good. There were a few projects that blew up because I was not following up how tasks were getting done and so I learnt my lesson.

That’s when I got religion. Instead of assuming that tasks were getting done, I was all over people to make sure if and how they completed the work. Which made me much more effective as a project manager, but kind of a pain in the ass to work for.

I’m now somewhere in the middle, of course, but that does not mean I’ve just split the difference between absentee manager and micro manager. Instead, I have developed my own philosophy of project management that seems to work for me. Here are the 3 tenets:

Get it right early - The first few weeks of a project are the most critical, for obvious reasons. I try to make sure every person on the team knows his role, what are his reponsibilities, how they will work with others, how we communicate, etc. If I can get this part right, then things usually go smoothly from there. The first few weeks are also the time when the project goals, scope, budget go through the most change. Managing these changes and the associated risks, costs, schedule impacts, and expectations are critical to making sure the project is achievable. This is obviously a lot easier to say than do, so I like to engage everybody on the team to help us accomplish this.

Regular communication - This was one area I did not do well the first time around. I’d have sporadic 1-on-1 meetings or I’d only call people when there was an issues. Now, I make sure I touch bases with everyone on the team, and with the customer, at least once a week. It’s not always very long, but there’s that human relationship that needs to be developed that takes repeated and frequent contact, ideally face-to-face. With global teams this is not practical, so we talk on the phone, something that has been made easy and cheap by Skype. At least there is some human communication over the phone. Email and chat is used to keep in touch with quick things, but it tends to be less personal. I’ve found that if I stay in touch, people will bring me issues sooner and I can deal with them before they threaten to sink the project.

The customer, the customer, the customer - Especially within larger organizations that have been around awhile, there develops unspoken organizational and personal agendas and objectives that run counter to project success. Sure, it’s nice not to have to travel if you have a family (or to get to travel if you are young and single). It’s great to be able to work with the latest new tools or on the most challenging 28nm project or work with your best friend. In the end, however, as tough as it may sound, we’re all out of a job if we don’t take care of the customer. Whenever there is a tough decision to be made, it’s important to make project and customer success the #1 goal. That does not mean that everybody has to cancel his vacations and work 80 hour weeks, but it means that the impacts to the customer need to be considered and mitigated. Or else we’ll have a lot longer vacation than we bargained for.

There’s a lot more to project management than these 3 tenets, some of it nuts-and-bolts (how to develop a schedule, do risk management, etc), and some of it very difficult (how to deliver bad news to the customer). I like to think that these 3 tenets provide some guidelines that make the other stuff easier.

harry the ASIC guy

Dear H. Gries

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Below is the response I received 2 days after my original email to Verizon. As you can see, no change on my end at this point. I’m not too happy, but what do you think?

Verizon

Dear H. Gries,

Thank you for choosing Verizon. I have received your email dated 3/14/11 regarding your request to handle your concerns over a DSL technical issue that you were trying to report when an order was placed to remove your DSL and add Fios to your home. My name is Janine, and I will be happy to assist you.

We apologize for the delay in our response and regret any inconvenience to you.

I understand how important it is to be treated with respect and handle your concern efficiently.

We always welcome feedback from our customers and we appreciate your comments. We apologize for any difficulties you have experienced.

We constantly review our processes and procedures to determine where we can improve upon the Verizon customer experience. Customer feedback is vital to our business. Thank you for taking the time to offer your comments.

I am researching your online issue immediately. I have contacted our DSL escalation party to see if she can run your service back in immediately. Once I hear back from her, I will contact you back with her answer.

Although additional follow-up is needed, it has been my goal today to address your concerns related to the problems you have experienced. I hope I have succeeded in meeting that goal. In the meantime, if you have any other questions, please let us know. We look forward to serving you.

Thank you for using Verizon. We appreciate your business.

Sincerely,
Janine
Verizon eCenter

*****Simplify your life. Cut the clutter and help the environment with paperless billing!*****

Enroll today at: http://www.verizon.com/gogreen

Original Message Excluded:
————————-

Dear Verizon

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

This is an actual email I sent to Verizon 2 days ago regarding an “issue” with their broadband service. I will post their reply in later posts. This is an “opportunity” for them to show how they “provide excellent service” to each customer, even little guys like me. If you are in a service business, like I am, there might also be some lessons to learn. Your comments and thoughts are welcome.

Verizon

Dear Verizon, 

On the evening of March 9 at ~10pm, our DSL service stopped working. The following morning at ~8am, we contacted Verizon for technical support. We spoke to Ivan (empl # Z192506), who told us that the DSL service should still be active and offered to send us to DSL support.

However, before forwarding the call, he recommended that we upgrade to FIOS. I told him that I was interested, but that FIOS would take days and that I needed the internet connection up today. He was extremely pushy, several times refusing to forward my call until I agreed to upgrade. I finally told him that I was only interested in fixing my DSL at this time and that I wanted him to forward the call immediately, which he finally did.

When I spoke to DSL support, they told me that the DSL had been deactivated because an order for FIOS had been put in. I told them that I had not put in an order. They could not tell me who had put in the order, but it was scheduled for March 21, 11 days later. I pleaded with them that I had not put in this order and that I wanted the DSL turned back on, but they said they could not do that. Even if they did, they said it would take just as long to turn on DSL as to get FIOS. They suggested I talk to the billing department.

So, I called the billing department and spoke to a gentleman who confirmed that the FIOS had been ordered, but he said he could not see when or who ordered it. I asked several times to try to find out where this order originated, but he would not say. Instead, he kept telling me to “move on from here”, like he was my psychiatrist. I found his demeanor to be extremely rude, non-empathetic, and condescending. When I asked to talk to a supervisor, he claimed he was a supervisor. I asked him why the DSL had been turned off before the installation, and he said that this was a possibility and that Verizon made no guarantees as to how long DSL would stay active before FIOS was connected. I told him that, if true, that would be a horrible way to do business and that Verizon customers would all object, but again he kept making it seem like I was the problem because I would not just accept what was happening and go happily away.

Today (March 14) I called again and spoke to a gentleman named Harry (empl# V119648). Harry was very helpful. He confirmed the order for March 21, and also told me that it was Ivan (empl # Z192506) who had put in the order, DESPITE MY TELLING HIM NOT TO!!! Harry also told me that the order had been entered wrong, leaving the default to disconnect DSL immediately, rather than having it disconnected when FIOS was installed.

In the meantime, my wife and I have been using our iPhone Mobile Hotspots (from Verizon) to access the internet for our home computers. I don’t know if we are going to go over our 2G limit on our phone’s mobile hotspot data plans, but we really have no choice.

Here is what I am asking for:

1) Immediate restoration of our DSL service for the period between now and next Monday March 21 when FIOS is going to be installed. However, I still want the FIOS installation at this point to go forward on Monday.

2) Waiver of ALL installation charges for FIOS service, since we did not order it.

3) Credit for DSL service for the time between March 9 and the day we have FIOS installed.

4) Credit for any overage charges we incur on our cell phones in the interim period before FIOS is installed.

5) Written (on paper) apology for being given misleading information, for being signed up for FIOS without our permission, and for being treated with such lack of respect by Verizon.

My other recourse is to consider this transaction as fraud, and report it as such.

I await your response.

Harry Gries

Scott Clark on EDA Clouds

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

scottclark.jpgAlthough I had heard his name mentioned quite often, it wasn’t until this year at DAC that I finally met Scott Clark  for the first time. Scott was describing how, as Director of Engineering Infrastructure at Broadcom, he led a project to virtualize Broadcom’s internal data center in order to transform it into a private cloud. It was a great discussion. We had lunch a few weeks later to talk about his new business, Deopli, a company that he has founded to help other semiconductor and EDA companies improve their compute infrastructure operations in similar fashion.

So, when I saw Dan Nenni’s blog post on cloud computing and some of the responses, I thought I’d contact Scott. You see, as opposed to most of those commenting on Dan’s post, Scott has actually taken EDA tools and moved them to the cloud, so he knows what he’s talking about. Scott was kind enough to contribute a blog post on the subject, so please enjoy.

__________

Harry the ASIC Guy pointed me to Dan Nenni’s Silicon Valley Blog to take a look at this post regarding Daniel Suarez’s books Daemon and Freedom. His post intrigued me enough to download the first book to my iPad to get a feel for the style and atmosphere. That was good enough that I plan to read both. You can read Dan’s post to see his overview of the books, but at the end of his post, he poses a question that seemed to spark lots of conversation and varying opinions. His question was “Who can be trusted to secure Darknet (Cloud Computing)?”

I think Dan was making reference to concepts in the book where all data in the world becomes controlled by a finite set of service providers, and therefore creates an exposure based on the singularity of the solution. His references hit pretty close to home in Apple, Microsoft and Google, but that did not seem to be the focus of the responses. Because Dan’s background (and blog) is primarily in the EDA / Semiconductor space, the responses seemed to fall into the category of “Should Semiconductor companies use Cloud Computing?” and the array of opinions seemed to align on the two ends of the spectrum. There were a few respondents who felt that EDA would never ever move into the Cloud or gave somewhat skewed definitions of “cloud” to say “it’s impossible” but for the most part, it was refreshing to see some open minded views of what was possible and how things could work. I was particularly intrigued by Dan’s comment that he felt foundries would venture into the cloud hosting space. Given the history of the fabless semiconductor space, how can that not make perfect sense! The leadup to the creation of foundries was that internal manufacturing was growing in capacity and complexity to the point that it made more sense to have that done externally. The same dynamics are happening in the datacenter space for chip design today.

Some of the comments were very accurate in my experiences, so just to highlight a few (please read the blog for specifics so I don’t mis-quote). Daniel Payne made the observation that semiconductor companies will start by creating their own private cloud, and that is exactly where we are today (compute clusters really are private clouds). James Colgan injected sanity throughout and made some very astute observations about the functional dynamics and applicability of cloud to certain parts of a design flow. I can’t say how much I agree with Kevin Cameron’s comments on security; cloud has the potential to be a huge boost in security for the industry. Tom Anderson indicated that he is already doing chip design using Amazon EC2 resources, and I think there are many more like Tom out there. One of the last postings to date is by Lou Covey, and his opinion is that Cloud for the industry is inevitable - I happen to agree with that. It’s not that we “have to” but more of “this is the right answer for the business, and we should do the right thing”.

One of the missing concepts that I notice is that this blog is looking at generic cloud solutions, and not industry specific solution. You will see the development of EDA specific cloud solutions that is very focused on EDA customers, and in the beginning it will be private clouds with technology added to elastic expansion. That said, looking at Cloud for the EDA industry, there are still going to be several roadblocks to adoption that will need to be addressed:

  • Ego – getting around the perception that IT is a core competency of chip design companies. The core competency of a chip design company should be … chip design.
  • Cost – getting around the expectation that cloud should cost ½ as much as what I am currently paying. There are many economies of scale and efficiencies that cloud brings. Cloud is an opportunity for cost avoidance as time goes forward, not a refund policy.
  • Trust – letting go of what is a critical function / resource and having confidence that you can still get the results necessary. This industry has a very powerful model to refer to. In this case, how the fabs were released, and successful partnerships were formed.
  • Control – how to let go of a critical resource, and still maintain control over the resources, costs, schedules, and dynamics of capacity / priority decisions.
  • Security – probably the most wielded blade in the “you can’t do it” arsenal, but also probably the most misunderstood.
  • Performance – the final roadblock, which is the one with the most technical merit, is performance. There are many different facets to performance, but it will primarily fall into “internal cluster performance” and “display performance”.

My perspective, the ego part we can get around. Current conversations with many EDA companies indicate they are already leaning this direction, which is a good sign.

The cost issue is far more ambiguous. There are as many expectations of cloud as there are definitions, but invariably the expectations are rooted in economics. Given that, the only answer seems to be to create a realistic model for cost, present the data, and let nature take it’s course. There really is cost benefit, so companies will want to accomplish that

Trust seems like it should be the easy part for this industry, but it is proving to be more stubborn than that. I think that is mostly because of the implied threat to job security for the people who are currently performing the tasks (who are usually the people receiving the presentation about outsourcing their job). EDA companies should examine their own history to see what to do and how to do it.

The control front falls into the same category as trust. The same way that fabless semiconductor companies created internal organizations and positions for managing the outsource of the foundries, that model should be applied to the outsourcing of computational infrastructure. That is not to say there will not be contention issues for capacity and priority. The cloud suppliers will need to make sure they have enough resources so they can provide sufficient capacity to the customers, or they will not be the supplier long. Again, foundries will be a great model to look at for this.

On the security front, Cloud will at a minimum give data points to show how weak internal security has been historically. Applying best security practices in a consistent manner should actually help evolve an industry specific cloud security solution to better address security issues. And for the time being, we can just avoid the multi-tenant aspects of security by maintaining isolation – private clouds with share dynamic resources.

And finally, given that we are stalking about EDA specific clouds, they will be specifically designed to have “internal cluster performance” appropriate for EDA. It will be designed exactly like we would design that cluster for a companies private datacenter. The tricky part will be in addressing display performance issues for functions like custom layout and board design where network latency causes the engineer’s working style to be impacted.

So really this boils down to proper execution by the EDA cloud providers, and one technical hurdle of display latency, which has many ways to be addressed. There is a lot of money and attention being aimed at these issues and this industry, and really no real reason why it will not succeed. There might be some companies that choose to adopt at a slower rate than others, but I believe this will become the direction everyone goes eventually. Thanks Dan for a great read and thanks Harry for pointing me at it.

__________

Scott Clark has been an infrastructure solution provider in the EDA/Semiconductor industry for the last 20 years, working for companies like Western Digital, Conexant, and Broadcom. He holds a bachelors of science in applied mathematics from San Diego State University and is currently President and CEO of Deopli Corporation. You can follow Scott on his blog at HPC in the Clouds.

The Burning Platform

Monday, March 1st, 2010

The Burning PlatformAlthough I was unable to attend DVCon last week, and I missed Jim Hogan and Paul McLellan presenting “So you want to start an EDA Company? Here’s how“, I was at least able to sit in on an interesting webinar offered by RTM Consulting entitled Achieving Breakthrough Customer Satisfaction through Project Excellence.

As you may recall, I wrote a previous blog post about a Consulting Soft Skills training curriculum developed by RTM in conjunction with Mentor Graphics for their consulting organization. Since that time, I’ve spoken on and off with RTM CEO Randy Mysliviec. During a recent conversation he made me aware of this webinar and offered one of the slots for me to attend. I figured it would be a good refresher, at a minimum, and if I came out of it with at least one new nugget or perspective, I was ahead of the game. So I accepted.

I decided to “live tweet” the seminar. That is to say, I posted tweets of anything interesting that I heard during the webinar, all using the hash tag #RTMConsulting. If you want to view the tweets from that webinar, go here.

After 15 years in the consulting biz, I certainly had learned a lot, and the webinar was indeed a good refresher on some of the basics of managing customer satisfaction. There was a lot of material for the 2 hours that we had, and there were no real breaks, so it was very dense and full of material. The only downside is that I wish there had been some more time for discussion or questions, but that’s really a minor nit to pick.

I did get a new insight out of the webinar, and so I guess I’m ahead of the game. I had never heard of the concept of the “burning platform” before, especially as applies to projects. The story goes that there was an oil rig in the North Sea that caught fire and was bound to be destroyed. One of the workers had to decide whether to stay on the rig or jump into the freezing waters. The fall might kill him and he’d face hypothermia within minutes if not rescued, but he decided to jump anyway, since probable death was better than certain death. According to the story, the man survived and was rescued. Happy ending.

The instructor observed that many projects are like burning platforms, destined for destruction unless radically rethought. In thinking back, I immediately thought of 2 projects I’d been involved with that turned out to be burning platforms.

The first was a situation where a design team was trying to reverse engineer an asynchronously designed processor in order to port it to another process. The motivation was that the processor (I think it was an ADSP 21 something or other) was being retired by the manufacturer and this company wanted to continue to use it nonetheless. We were called in when the project was already in trouble, significantly over budget and schedule and with no clear end in sight. After a few weeks of looking at the situation, we decided that there was no way they would ever be able to verify the timing and functionality of the ported design. We recommended that they kill this approach and start over with a standard processor core that could do the job. There was a lot of resistance, especially from the engineer whose idea it was to reverse engineer the existing processor. But, eventually the customer made the right choice and redesigned using an ARM core.

Another group at the same company also had a burning platform. They were on their 4th version of a particular chip and were still finding functional bugs. Each time they developed a test plan and executed it, there were still more bugs that they had missed. Clearly their verification methodology was outdated and insufficient, depending on directed tests and FPGA prototypes rather than more current measurable methods. We tried to convince them to use assertions, functional coverage, constrained random testing, etc. But they were convinced that they just had to fix the few known bugs and they’d be OK. From their perspective, it wasn’t worth all the time and effort to develop and execute a new plan. They never did take our recommendations and I lost track of that project. I wonder if they ever finished.

As I think about these 2 examples, I realize that “burning platform” projects have some characteristics in common. And they align with the 3 key elements of a project. To tell if you have a “burning platform” on your hands, you might ask yourself the following 3 questions:

  1. Scope - Are you spending more and more time every week managing issues and risks? Is the list growing, rather than shrinking?
  2. Schedule - Are you on a treadmill with regards to schedule? Do you update the schedule every month only to realize that the end date has moved out by a month, or more?
  3. Resources - Are the people that you respect the most trying to jump off of the project? Are people afraid to join you?

If you answered yes to at least 2 of these, then you probably have a burning platform project on your hands. It’s time to jump in the water. That is, it’s time to scrap the plan and rethink your project from a fresh perspective and come up with a new plan. Of course, this is not a very scientific way of identifying an untenable project, but I think it’s a good rule-of-thumb.

There are other insights that I had from the webinar, but I thought I’d only share just the one. I don’t know if this particular webinar was recorded, but there are 2 more upcoming that you can attend. If you do, please feel free to live tweet the event like I did, using the #RTMConsulting hash tag.

But please, no “flaming” :-)

harry the ASIC guy

I’m (Not) an IBMer Anymore

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

IBM NotI came across a tweet the other night that pointed me to a discussion on the EE Times forum regarding an editorial by Mark LaPedus a few weeks ago. The editorial states that “IBM Corp. has cut nearly 10,000 jobs this year, according to reports, although Big Blue still refuses to fess up to most of the layoffs.” Although IBM denies the reports and claims they are fabrications by union officials, the editorial adds fuel to the fire by stating that “for some time, the union has charged that IBM is cutting and outsourcing U.S. jobs, while quietly hiring in India.”

The comments in the discussion thread are very interesting and worth reading through. If you don’t have time, here’s a synopsis of the various opinions offered there:

  • We are in a jobless recovery and IBM is not the only company moving jobs offshore.
  • IBM is a corporation and their only obligation is to their shareholders. Outsourcing to India makes business sense so that is what they need to do.
  • “The sole function of a union is to keep their own jobs and breed a sense of entitlement and proliferate mediocrity.”
  • If it’s in the national interest to keep jobs and fabs here, then public funds should fund them.
  • Instead of blaming IBM, consider the high taxes and burdensome laws that favor outsourcing over keeping jobs in the US.
  • If you think IBM is doing the right thing, just wait till it’s your job being outsourced.
  • If this kind of off-shoring continues, we will wipe out the technological advantage we have in the US and you’ll need to move to another country to get a job.
  • Outsourcing “delivers worse results at lower costs”, and that’s what businesses want right now.
  • We, as consumers, are more concerned about the low prices we get at Walmart than the notion of “social justice.”
  • Instead of laying people off, cut out the big executive bonuses and perks.
  • Companies need to take care of all three groups - employees, customers, and shareholders. Otherwise employees can quit, customers can stop buying, and shareholders can sell.
  • Do companies owe anything to the communities where they are located or to the nations where they are headquartered?
  • Yes, they owe taxes!

Personally, I can see both sides, but what do you think? I’m especially interested to hear from any company execs who have decided against outsourcing and why that is.

harry the ASIC guy

The Road Not Taken

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Fork in RoadI’d like to offer you the opportunity to help someone out who needs to make a key decision in her life.

As I’ve written about and spoken about recently, the economic woes of the past year have impacted many of my peers and I’m sure yours as well. Especially hard hit seem to be those in the middle of their careers, a group that I count myself a part of. For those of us who have faced or are facing these uncertainties, I think it’s only natural to second guess the key decisions we made in our careers and wonder if we made the right choices. Some may have decided to take a chance on a new opportunity only to have it evaporate. Others may have passed on that opportunity only to see their current “safe” position turn out not to be so safe after all.

It’s with this in mind that I received an email from a young woman at a crossroads in her career, having to make just such a decision, one that she prays she will cherish but fears she will regret. She has the opportunity to move from her current “safe” position of many years to a new opportunity filled with uncertainty. In order to afford her the best possible insight and advice, I’d like to open this up to you (with her permission) since you all collectively have a ton more experience than I will ever have.

As you read her email, you’ll realize that she is facing several smaller decisions as part of this one big decision, namely:

  1. ASIC vs. FPGA
  2. ASIC Design vs. IP development
  3. Existing company that she knows vs. a new company that she has to learn
  4. Comfort zone vs. Temporary Incompetence
  5. Hands-on Technical Work vs. Management
  6. Expert vs. Generalist

Each of these decisions could be the basis for a debate on its own. Feel free to comment on any of these or all of these or on other aspects that you find important. If you can take some time to respond, I think this will not only serve to advise this woman, but will also be a great guide to anyone looking to make a career change.

__________

I am a Lead ASIC Designer with 13 years of experience in front end ASIC design and have worked on multiple ASICs to this date at a company in India. Everything is fine here, just that the work is getting very repetitive lately. I have an offer from a IP development firm and need to decide soon. The following things come to my mind when I think about the offer:

1. The work would be mostly on FPGAs (no ASICs involved).

2. I won’t work with the Physical Design guys anymore.

3. I may get good exposure on different networking IPs.

4. I am currently leading a sizable design in a big ASIC. Though this position is glamorous and coveted by many, there is nothing new to learn since I have been doing it for the past several years.

I have the following queries,

  1. If I join the new company and start working on FPGAs, will it take away something from me, e.g., my “ASIC Gal” tag?
  2. Will taking up the manageress role and doing project management ‘formally’ be better that working as a Lead Engineer, from a long term employability perspective? or will it be detrimental?
  3. Will it be a one way path with little chances to come back to ASICs without a compromise? (after, say, 4-5 years).
  4. I want to move towards system design/architecture in the future and am thinking that the more IPs I work on, the better it will be for me. Is this assumption correct?
  5. Overall, any other advice as to what I should consider and whether I should take this position.

I would appreciate your reply.

Soft Skills Aren’t Hard To Learn

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

It was 1992 and I was supporting the Motorola Iridium project in Chandler, AZ. There was a project lead named Steve who I was tasked to work with. My job was to get certain elements of our DesignWare library working properly to support his ASIC design team.

Steve was a bit of a control freak. Whenever there were technical decisions to be made, Steve wanted to be the one making the decisions. And once he made his decision, there was no changing it. You see, Steve had a big ego and did not like to be wrong, much less wrong in front of his team.

Unfortunately, his decisions were not always the correct decisions and I had no problem telling him that. You see, I had a big ego too.

As you can imagine, Steve and I did not get along very well.

Fortunately, I had a boss who had dealt with Steve before and who gave me some advice that I carry to this day. He suggested that I bring the relevant facts to Steve and present them in such a way that the decision was obvious. Then, I needed to say these words, “I’m not sure what is the best choice. What do you think?”

As hard as it was for me to relinquish control of these decisions, it turned out to be the right way to handle Steve. Instead of feeling like he was put on the spot to win a debate with the local AE, he felt like a respected authority figure. With this pressure removed, Steve usually ended up making the right decision (i.e. the one I would have recommended).

Steve was happier. I was happier. And we got a lot more productive work done as a result!

__________

The soft skills that I describe in the story above do not come naturally to most engineers. A matter of fact, I’ve often heard it said “he’s a great engineer, but I’d never take him to a client”. So I was very interested when I came across a press release describing how Mentor Graphics and RTM Consulting collaborated to develop a soft skills training class for Mentor consultants. I sent an email to Paul Hofstadler, VP of Consulting at Mentor, requesting to talk to him about the class, and he graciously accepted.

According to Paul, Mentor’s Services are typically focused on deploying to their clients new working processes around the EDA tools that Mentor sells. That is, they are teaching their clients to fish, rather than selling them fish. As you can imagine, it requires a great deal of influence and political savvy to effectively implement these types of changes in a client’s organization. Unfortunately, these skills don’t necessarily come naturally for most engineers. Indeed, when Mentor went back and examined the projects that had challenges, they discovered that the core issues were not technical, but rather involved corporate politics and communication issues.

Paul decided that he needed to increase the soft skills of his consultants in order to be more effective on projects and to recognize opportunities for more business in a tough economy. “More than half the work in consulting is finding and growing people”.  Rather than building a training program internally, or piecing one together from existing off-the-shelf classes, Paul engaged with RTM Consulting to develop a customized class to meet Mentor’s specific needs. “We didn’t want to pull our best consultants off of time critical customer projects to develop the class. They are the ones guiding our customers through complex projects. In addition, we wanted the outside point of view that RTM brought to the situation.”

Most of the course material came from RTM Consulting . The specific case studies and industry specific material came from Mentor. Paul had senior consultants help with the development of the material, especially the case studies which were based on real experiences. The result is a 3 day course that is very hands-on. There is standard lecture time and also several 5-6 person role play case studies. “The collaboration with Mentor Graphics was key to honing in on customization of the training to give the them the best chance at gaining the right skills necessary, and providing a solid return on their educational investment”, according to Randy Mysliviec, CEO of RTM Consulting.

Paul Hofstadler particularly praised the case studies. “The case studies were the most interesting part of the course. I never knew what was going to come out of them. Each group solved the case studies slightly differently using the skills taught in the class.” Even so, Paul resisted the urge to let the consultants bring real customer situations into the class for fear that the entire class would end up working on one real customer case. Instead, Mentor asked consultants to present real case studies after the class, several weeks later, and present them to the internal team. This served as a reinforcement of the material and helped to put the course material into practice.

A 3-day training course for the entire consulting team seems like a big investment. “Ironically, the cost of soft skills training can often be offset by just a single large project overrun or a collection of overruns”, according to Randy Mysliviec. Fortunately, the timing of the class coincided with an end of year lull in delivery, so Mentor was able to implement the training class with minimal customer project impact as well.

Since the training was administered just a few months ago, it is difficult to definitively measure the value. However, there is strong anecdotal evidence that it is working. One senior consultant, who was very skeptical at the beginning, used the techniques in the class to turn around a difficult customer (similar to my story at the beginning of this post). Paul has indicated that “consulting orders this quarter are a lot better than last quarter” and he attributes that in part to the training, particularly the parts that help consultants recognize potential follow-on opportunities for more business.

“In this economy, it is more important than ever to understand the customer’s needs, communicate effectively, and deliver excellent solutions on every engagement” said Paul in summary. “It is clear to me that our projects are running more smoothly after the training. As a bonus, our repeat customer order rate is up indicating that we are continuing to deliver high value to our customers despite the ‘interesting’ times in which we find ourselves.”

Due to the success of the training, Mentor is looking at extending the training to other parts of the consulting organization and to other organizations in Mentor. In the meantime, RTM Consulting is offering the course for other customers, minus the Mentor specific material, of course. “The soft skills needs at Mentor are certainly not unique in the professional and consulting services world”, says’ Randy Mysliviec. “Most technology and pure services companies do a good job of teaching their teams about products, services, and technologies they need to know to effectively serve clients. What is most often missed are the soft skills necessary for consultants to effectively interact with their clients.”

Thanks to folks like RTM Consulting, these soft skill aren’t hard to learn after all.

harry the ASIC guy

Roles and Irresponsibilities

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Coffee Shop

This past Saturday I went to grab a cup of coffee at the local mom-n-pop coffee shop that I really like. There were no stirrers so I told the server that they were out.

“Yeah, we’ve been out for a few days. You can use a straw”.

“Why don’t you just go to the Smart and Final or the Von’s 30 feet away and grab a box”, I asked.

“I’m just the server, that’s not my job”.

Electrician

On Sunday I was talking to Chuck, one of the other parents at the YMCA Adventure guides induction ceremony and boat regatta. Chuck works as an installer for AT&T and also does electrical jobs when he gets a chance.  He’s a hard worker, putting in six 12-14 hour days each week.

As we talked, I suggested that he could set out on his own, make more money and work less hours. Like Joe the Plumber.

“I don’t need the headaches. If something goes wrong on a job today, it’s not my problem. It’s my bosses problem. If I own a business, then it’s all my problem.  I’d rather someone just give me the job and I do what I’m told.”

My Client’s Large Company

I was trying to install Office Communicator the other day and there was something wrong with my account on the server. I called IT and the woman on the line tried to help me but could not figure out what was wrong.  So she closed my ticket, the one with her name on it, and opened a new one for a specialist in Office Communicator to look into it.

About a week later, someone else in IT called me up to help me with my issue.  He was able to figure out what was wrong, but lacked the permissions to make the fix.  So he closed out my ticket, the one with his name on it, and opened a new one for the person with permissions to fix the problem.

A few days later, I rebooted my laptop and Office Communicator was now working.  Later that day I got 3 emails from IT requesting me to fill out a short survey regarding the resolution of my issue.

A Person I Work With

The other day I urgently needed help to run an analysis on a chip I’m working on. So I asked one of the people on the team who knows how to do it quickly.

“That’s  not one of the things I’m responsible for.”

______________________

Am I the only person not afflicted by the “not my job” disease? Has this really become such an ingrained part of American and corporate life?

I’m sorry, I just don’t think that way. If I see a problem, then it’s my problem.  Maybe I’m anal or a perfectionist or neurotic and maybe I need to let go.  But I’m just not wired that way. And I don’t understand people who are.

harry the ASIC guy

Email Penalty #2 - Delay of Game

Monday, July 21st, 2008

The prime directive drummed into me as a freshman AE (Applications Engineer) was to ALWAYS get back to the customer in a timely fashion.

Even if I did not have the answer…

Even if I was already working on the problem…

Even if I was not the person who could help him…

It’s practically no effort to return an email or a voice mail and just let your customer know what’s going on, so he’s not sitting in the dark.  A matter of fact, I’ll write the email for you and you can just fill in the blanks:

Hi <customer name here>,

I got your email regarding <problem, issue, question>. I’m going to <look at it tomorrow, send this on to R&D, ask my boss to handle it, etc>. I expect to have an update for you <in an hour, tomorrow, next week, etc.>. If you need an update sooner, please feel free to contact me directly.

Regards,

<your name here>

Simple, right?

I’m sure I’ll get little argument that this is the right way to treat real customers.  But, what about our internal customers?

In my job, I’m amazed at how long some people will “Delay the Game” without responding to an email, without a simple 1-minute acknowledgment that they would get back to me. Instead, I’m often left wondering what is going on, sometimes sending follow-up emails, voice mails, dropping by the office…all just to find out what is going on.

Look. I know you’re busy and you have more important people and issues to deal with than my little request. But, just realize that everybody that sends you an email asking for something (a question, a file, a meeting notice) is your customer. If you keep them in the dark by not responding, and you do this enough, you’ve lost your customer.

harry the ASIC guy