Posts Tagged ‘RTM Consulting’

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

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