Category Archives: Business Advice

Anything and everything related to the business world, primarily in IT.

Interview Questions

This is a post that I have been looking to write for a while now…. 

A friend and I had a discussion some time ago about career interviewing.  My friend informed me that he had made some bad career decisions in the past and had since constructed a list of hard hitting questions for interviewers; to determine if a potential opportunity was going to turn out well, or prove to be a WTF.  My friend shared the list with me (hopefully he won’t mind me publicizing it), which is continually evolving, and contains close to 50 questions.

Some have said that the questions in this list are too forthright, and likely to alienate an interviewer, thus destroying any potential employment opportunity.  My response to those people is that this is exactly the point – any company or individual that bulks at these questions is probably not worth working for.  This being said, if you are unemployed and desperate then feel free to be selective – perhaps you don’t care about work life balance when your electric is about to be cut off.  For the rest of us, looking to avoid walking into a career trap, the following is the list:

  1. What is the work-life balance?
  2. What are the average hours?
  3. What are the medical benefits?
  1. Medical
  2. Dental
  3. Optica
  4. Life Insurance
  5. ADD
  6. Disability (short/long)
  • What are the educational benefits?
    1. Courses
    2. Degrees
    3. Certifications
    4. Seminars
  • What are the investment benefits?
    1. Stock options (amount investment)
    2. 401K (matching)
    3. Profit sharing
    4. Pension
  • What is the promotion ladder structure like?
  • Are there any career advocates/mentors?
  • What is the review process? (formal? — how often?)
  • What is the company’s yearly revenue?
  • What is the turnover rate? — Compared to industry average.
  • What is the company’s growth?
  • Technologies committed to?
  • What type of projects does the company work on? — What type of projects would I work on?
  • How does the company acquire projects — feed pipeline?
  • Do you pay bench?
  • Do you pay hourly?  Overtime?
  • Do you lay people off — how do you mitigate a lean period? How often?
  • Vacation
    1. How fast do you accrue?
    2. Is there a cap?
    3. Schedule?
  • Sick leave?
  • What skill sets are you looking for?
  • Why do you like me?
  • How would I be used if hired?
  • What do you like about the company / working here?
  • What do you not like about the company / working here?
  • Are you happy?
  • What is the non-discrimination policy?
  • What are additional benefits?
    1. Maternity care
    2. Paternity care
    3. Day care
    4. Bereavement leave
    5. Special medical leave for HIV and other people
  • How long have you been here?
  • What is the average tenure here?
  • Are there any extra perks here?
    1. Free software
    2. Connectivity
    3. Bonuses
    4. Referral bonus
    5. Company car
    6. Rental car plan
    7. Company credit card
    8. Expense reimbursement
  • Travel
    1. How often?
    2. How long?
    3. How far?
    4. Reimbursement (before/after)
    5. Travel bonus
    6. Per diem
  • Telecommuting?
  • What is the expected commute range?
  • My career objective is…
    1. is that possible?
    2. programs in place to help me develop/grow to that position
    3. is that linked to reviews?
    4. do you have an employee development plan?
  • If a position is in the company what is the process for filling the position?
    1. hire external
    2. hire internal
    3. what is the internal process?
  • Cost of living raises?
  • Corporate locations?
  • Goal of the company?  Mission statement?
  • Intellectual property?  Do I own my own work?  Can I publish?
  • What is the NDA?  Scope?
  • What about references?
  • What is the non-compete? Scope?
  • Is there project mobility and how does it work?
  • How To Tell If You Are Being Micromanaged

    It happens to us all – you get that annoying boss that just cannot handle letting you do the job without interruption, and insists on keeping tabs on every task he/she assigned you.  The following is a list of sure ways to tell if it is time to get on the bus and leave “micromanagement world”…

    1. You meet with your boss every day (sometimes more than once) – in each meeting he or she will ask for a status update.
    2. You are asked for delivery estimates for the same task more than once a week.
    3. Tasks are issued in precise patronizing detail, and all too often verbally.
    4. No matter how hard you work on a task, the result is never good enough for your boss.
    5. You spend more time in meetings than actually implementing the solution.
    6. You have a spare seat in your cube/office and your boss occupies it regularly.
    7. When away from the office, your boss will call you every day to make sure you’re at work.
    8. You receive calls from your boss on weekends/evenings and if you’re out sick.
    9. Your boss has intricate knowledge of your current tasks, down to the level of nitty gritty implementation.
    10. Your boss coaches you on the precise wording to say to another colleague when asking for something.
    11. You feel stressed and exhausted before you have even begun implementation.
    12. Use of headphones is impossible because you cannot complete a music track without interruption from your boss.
    13. Bathroom breaks are monitored by your boss, if you take too long to shit he/she makes a remark.
    14. You prefer to work outside office hours because you are more productive that way.
    15. Your boss never goes on vacation for fear that the company will collapse in his/her absence.
    16. When leaving the office for lunch you receive a call on your cell about work related issues.
    17. Your boss is involved in technical decisions when his role is at a much higher level.
    18. Your boss talks more than he/she listens.
    19. You are provided with a company cell phone, pager, laptop, etc, and are expected to be on standby 24×7.
    20. Working from home is strictly forbidden, even when it would be more profitable for the company.
    21. Your boss has an opinion on your visual presentation, even when you meet the company dress code.
    22. Meetings are scheduled with 5 minutes notice and sometimes at close of business.
    23. Your boss eats his/her lunch at your desk.
    24. Everything is an emergency and cannot wait.

    I can think of a few more, but in an effort to keep this post short I’ll leave it at that. [;)]

     

    Disclaimer: The above list was generated from past experience, and not necessarily reflective of my current employment.

    Management Advice

    I love nothing more than reading blogs that give out useful advice, and even more so  if the author injects humor into their posts.  Trizle is by no means an exception in the above statement, and I find myself amused by some of the daily posts, as well as a feeling of empowerment having gained some useful knowledge.

    Today’s post, titled “How to Drive Your People to Meet Customer Deadlines,” certainly is as witty as previous posts, but I have to raise an eyebrow on the suggested technique called “No Deadline Left Behind.”

    The synopsis of “No Deadline Left Behind” is that managers need not accept constant delays and fake promises of delivery from worker bees (named Johnny in this case) if they deduct payment form the worker each time a project misses a deadline.

    1. For instance, say you hire Johnny for $1000 to write a white paper for customer Craig. Craig needs it done 7 days.
    2. If Johnny doesn’t get that paper to customer Craig in 7 days, you remove $200 — returning those Benjamins to customer Craig.
    3. Now, if Johnny again misses it on the 8th day, you remove another $200. And, so on — until the sucker’s free to customer Craig.

    Seems simple enough… if we lived in a dream world.  Yes sadly we live in a world where employees like to do as little for their money as possible (typically) and managers want to extract as much work out of their employees (typically) to meet the deadlines imposed by managers further up the chain, or by paying customers – it’s a broken equation, but what most expect from 5 days out of a 7 day week.

    Personally, I think employees – let’s call them developers in my world – need to take more of a responsibility for project deadlines.  It is not acceptable to promise delivery by a certain date and then blatantly blow the deadline without some concrete evidence of some unforeseeable problem, or direction change by management or customer.

    But what if you work for a manager who does not live in the real world?

    I’ve lost count of the number of fellow employers who have said something like the following: 

    “The project was doomed from the start, there was no way I was ever going to meet my deadline.”
    “The customer changed their mind mind flow.”
    “My boss would not leave me alone to complete the project.”

    All of the above and more are signs that you work for a “bad planner,” and if you’re the employee charged with making the project work at a lower level then expect unreasonable deadline expectations, overtime, and hair pulling to make the project successful.

    My immediate thought on “No Deadline Left Behind” is – why should the worker-bee take the hit for a missed deadline?  There’s an art into providing a perfect estimate of work, and many employees get it wrong (including myself occasionally), which is why it is the job of the project manager to establish reasonable and workable deadlines/estimates with each employee. Surely the project manager should be pitching in to the refund collection along with Johnny?  And what about upper management? Your boss’s, boss’s, boss’s boss is so far up the food chain that they cannot possibly be concerned with the finer points of implementation, and any small change made to the project for overall gain can have a huge ripple affect through the lower levels – should he/she take a hit when the project overruns?

    I am not sure there is ever a right answer to the enterprise project paradigm, but I am quite sure that the extraction of money from workers for delays will only incur a decrease in motivation within the ranks and mental images of slave drivers with whips.

    The Perfect Career?

    I have recently installed Live Writer Beta 1 on my desktop and am using it to author this post, let’s see how I like it…

    It seems that everyone I speak to in the the software industry is looking for the proverbial golden egg in the ideal career – working as little as possible for maximum benefit.  Many say that the only way to make pots of money is to going to business for yourself, others insist that the approach is to work hard at a regular paying gig.  It is certainly true that working for yourself can provide plenty of financial reward, but this approach is also packaged with it’s fair share of risk.  On the other hand, full time work for a stable organization won’t generate so much green, but this path is less likely to end you up in financial loss.  

    So the question is, “what is the best career path to take in the software business?”  Below is a summary of the various options open to software developers and the like, based on personal experience and communication with other like-minded individuals in the IT business:

    Full Time Employee (Corporate Version) – This is probably the least likely career path to produce a high financial yield, and yet is probably the most chosen type of career track.  Most large companies in corporate America seek their money’s worth from their employees, requiring them to work a minimum of 40 hours a week and a certain amount of voluntary overtime.  In return said employees can expect a fixed paying salary, health insurance and a retirement plan.  Employment usually involves 100% investment effort from the employee, leaving little time for other money spinning endeavors.  However, a W2 paying job does provide a certain comfort level of stability, and this type of career track is popular with employees that have dependents at home. 

    FTE positions have the potential to go south in favor of the employer from time to time, and this was especially evident after the .dot COM crash in 2000 when the market became an employers haven for inexpensive out of work software developers.  Since then, the market has balanced out and it W2 positions are not so cut throat for employees looking to earn a stable crust for 5 days of the week.  Like most career opportunities, seeking out the right organization providing a good work-life-balance is part of the up front effort in making a good career move.

    Full Time Employee (Government Version) –  This has to be the most stable kind of work available.  The US government has been in business for many many years, and is not likely to go anywhere soon.  Aside of the occasional budget cuts to working departments, most government employees can rest in peace knowing that they have a job for the long foreseeable future.  FTE government workers have to go a long way to loose their position of employment. Aside from committing a crime or never turning up to their place of work, most FTE government employees are protected from unfair dismissal, unpaid overtime, or unreasonable work expectations sometime associated with the corporate world.  Government employees can usually expect great health care and retirement rewards – especially if they come from a military background.

    The downside – The US government engine is renowned for operating at a slow pace.  This can be detrimental to software engineers looking to get ahead in the latest technologies of today, when their employer is still back in the dark ages of COBOL and Fortran development.  Many government departments are waking up to newer technologies and are employing individuals with modern skills, unfortunately most of the lucrative spots are given to government contractors (see the next career track).  Financial reward for government FTE’s is not so hot – typically employees reside within a fixed pay scale and can only increase their salary by changing job role.  Government salary is usually lesser than that of a contractor or corporate salary.

    Full Time Government Contractor – This career track is what I consider the sweet spot in the IT industry (and yes I’m biased).  Government contracting gives employees the best of both worlds – a reasonably stable position and comfortable work environment without the financial sacrifice.  In the Washington DC metro area there exist a number of contracting companies who are ready to snap up software developers and place them with government agencies.  It’s easy money – the government gets the modern technical expertise it desires, the contracting company charges a huge billing rate, and the employee gets all the benefits of working for a commercial company without the pressure usually associated with non-government work.

    Do not be mislead, I am not trying to portray government contractors as lazy developers – nothing could be further from the truth – work is just as demanding as that of the commercial world, but experience has taught me that the work-life-balance is much more fair, and expectations are reasonable.  Picking the right contracting job is an art, just as with government FTE positions, this arena is awash with open positions requiring legacy development work in dated technologies.  Finding the ideal position may involve infinite patience and soul searching.

    Independent Consultant– After a long career working to fill somebody else’s pocket, many software experts find themselves looking to independence.  This track is one step away from operating a self business.  Independent consulting requires plenty of business savvy and lots of experience in the industry to demand large financial reward.  Going independent is risky because this type of career demands a person responsible for managing his/her own benefits (health insurance is very expensive), income tax is more complicated, and due to the nature of short term gigs; stability is pretty much non-existent. Metropolitan areas typically provide a greater choice of contract positions, but commuting in these areas can be a bear because the best contracts are not always a stone throw away from home.  On the brighter side, independent consulting does not involve a middle man, so the billing rate is what it is (just be sure that you allocate enough of it for Uncle Sam come the April tax date).

    Independent consultants are in direct competition with contracting companies/agencies/body-shops, and some of the larger contracts fall into the enemy’s lap, but independent’s can offer a cheaper billing rate and usually a faster development turn around.

    Ironically, this type of career track is suited to single individuals with no requirement for expensive family health insurance and no ties preventing them from traveling in seek of the more lucrative opportunities.  So, family driven individuals may find themselves shying away from independent consulting.  Not to say that if you’re a family man/woman, independent consulting is out – households with two incomes can benefit from this kind of career track if one of the incomes is packaged with good health insurance, or if enough work is in demand that out of pocket insurance costs are not a problem.  Those with spare time on their hands can make use of this career track to to supplement one of the aforementioned stable tracks above.

    Business Owner – This has to be the only career track where I’ve had little to no personal experience, but have had many a conversation with those who made the leap into business ownership.  Owning your own business certainly takes a different talent because the game agenda has changed.  Unlike FTE employees and, to a certain degree, contractors, business ownership requires both financial and emotional investment.  Maybe the business occupies physical office space, perhaps the owner may have used his/her savings/hom
    e as collateral to launch the business, or just having the name on the door is enough to care about reputation.  No matter what the driving factor, owning a business is like having children – you cannot turn you back on it, and your life has now become about making the business work.

    Startup software business owners typically operate in two career roles – business management, and continued involvement in development to enable the flagship product to launch with the business.  The up-front cost are immense and there is always a huge risk that the business model may flop, leaving the business owner back at square one.  However, if the business is successful then this career track has the potential to provide the largest pay off.  As businesses grow into conglomerates owners can expect to sit back and reap the rewards.

    Unemployed – This is not a career track (unless you’re an at home parent), although worth mentioning.  If you find yourself in this unfortunate position then now is the time to review one of the above career tracks and make the jump.  If you have the talent, now would be a great time to consider the independent consulting – what have you got to loose?

    Conclusion – There’s a saying that goes something like – “Nothing in life is free”, and this is certainly true of work life.  There is no such career track that pays people for doing nothing – trust me, I’d have found it if it existed – but there are best fit choices for each individual.  The trick is to find the right career track that provides you with the most incentive and reward.  If you’re slogging for your employer and getting little to no reward then there is clearly a mismatch, likewise if you are struggling to keep a business alive and loosing money hand over fist then it is perhaps time to throw in the towel.  The happiest person is the person who is excited to get out of bed on a work day, motivated with their job, and isn’t out of pocket at the end of the day.  Choose wisely – your career is likely to affect the rest of your life.

    Broadband Choices

    A friend of mine wrote me and asked which broadband solution she should choose to connect with her office from home. This is not the first time others have asked this question of me, so what with me experience with multiple broadband customers I felt a blog post was in order.

    So what broadband solution is the right one? Well, you might as well ask the question “what is the best way to eat eggs”, several options exist, and all of them are essentially about providing you with high speed Internet access, just as eating eggs is about feeding your hunger. Deciding the right broadband connection is similar to eating your eggs over easy, sunny side up, poached, or hard boiled – there is no one solution.

    The right choice is dependent on exactly how fast you want your connection, bandwidth restrictions, and the availability of connection types in your area etc. One of the first questions you should ask yourself is “what is that I need Internet for?” If you only want email and browsing of the web, then a moderate speed DSL line may suffice. In my friend’s case, she wants to connect to her office, and so will need a broadband line with more oomph.

    Before getting into the practical details of broadband options, it is worth mentioning that all broadband companies are crooks – IMHO they all charge far too much money for the service they provide, customer service typically stinks, and I hear all sorts of horror stories about bad service, installation, or billing. My advice – ignore the company, find the service you want, and prepare yourself to yell at your broadband provider from time-to-time.

    Connection Types

    Broadband Internet connection is currently available in three flavors: Satellite, DSL, Cable, and FIOS. Each differs in price, level of service, and installation -:

    Satellite

    Satellite offers very low bandwidth because of the limitation in the technology used. Those unfortunate people, living in the middle of no-where without any cable or DSL options have no choice but to use satellite. If you live in an area supporting alternative forms of broadband, stay away from satellite. Satellite may be a viable option for TV – typically offering more channel options than cable for a cheaper monthly price, however, expect bad reception in poor weather conditions.

    Cable

    I had cable for the longest time and was happy with it until late last year. Cable is the only other alternative to satellite for TV reception in my area, so it made sense to bundle in Internet. Cable Internet offers download speeds ranging from 1.5mbps (mega bits per second – about 187 thousand characters a second) up to as much as 8mbps a second, and upload speeds from 512kbps up to 2mbps. The typical monthly price for cable Internet is about $30-$50, depending on the speed package.

    Most urban areas have one cable company, providing them with service, which means the cable company has a monopoly on your business, and can charge what they like for service. I find that this can affect the attitude of customer service.

    DSL

    DSL works over an existing copper line telephone system, and as long as the phone company has a DSL substation in your area, they should be able to provide you with DSL service. Download speeds range from 128kbps (double modem speeds) up to 3mbps, making it competitive with cable Internet. Upload speeds are typically a quarter to half the download speed (similar to cable) for residential service to dissuade hosting of web servers etc.

    DSL speeds are typically the cheapest broadband you can buy, ranging from $12 a month for low-end bandwidth, and up to $40 a month for the fastest connection. Your local phone service provider typically provides DSL, but third party providers, like AOL and EarthLink, may offer a repackaged deal.

    If you are considering VOIP (Voice over IP – Phone service over the Internet) forget DSL, because you will still need local phone service – an unnecessary cost. Verizon provides a service called “dry-loop,” which is effectively DSL without local phone service (credit card billing).

    FIOS

    FIOS is the newest broadband technology on offer, using fiber-optic technology. Currently FIOS is a Verizon product, and only available in certain locations (check http://www.verizon.com/fios for availability). Regardless if you have phone service, Verizon will install a fiber line to your property (assuming the service available in your area), convert your local phone from copper, and install an ether net CAT 5 socket in your residence for Internet.

    FIOS connection is lighting fast, with the lowest plan starting at 5mbps download, a middle of the road plan at 15mbps and a super fast plan offering 30mbps. As with DSL and cable the upload speed is about half that of the download speed to dissuade service hosting. For most uses the 5mbps plan is adequate for all uses, including web surfing, downloading email, and VPN connectivity to the office. For those that download a lot of data and need a fatter pipe, the 15mbps plan offers three times the speed for about $10 extra a month (most value for money). If most of your bandwidth usage is in bursts (web browsing and email etc) and you do not need a constant stream of bandwidth, then the 15mbps won’t appear much faster than the 5mps plan, especially considering that some web server cannot deliver content at 15mbps. The 30mbps is for those with deep pockets, and frankly a waste of money at $150 a month IMHO.

    Local phone service is not required for FIOS, which means you can take advantage of VOIP on your fast link. Verizon does insist that you subscribe to credit card billing to use FIOS without phone service.

    VOIP

    VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is not a broadband Internet service; it is a phone service that makes use of an available broadband Internet connection. Many customers are switching from their local phone service to VOIP because the call quality is comparable, all calls in the US and Canada are free, and the normal high-priced additional features, like caller ID, call waiting etc, are included in the low monthly fee (approx $40). VOIP eliminates the need for a long distance plan, and International calls reasonably priced (in line with calling card rates).

    VOIP is involves a conscious decision because it affects the choice of broadband connection. VOIP over DSL is a royal pain because DSL requires local phone service. VOIP works great over cable as well as FIOS.

    Several companies offer VOIP out of the box, and establishing service is quick. Installation is as easy as plugging a VOIP box into your Internet line, and an existing analogue phone into the back of the VOIP box.

     

    What makes a good manager?

    I had a great Christmas this year, eating, drinking and conversing with family (as I always do).  This particular year, I got talking with Uncle Bob – a retired product manager from IBM – and we were conversing about what qualities make a good manager.  The post feast banter was riveting, so I decided to blog about the qualities that I seek in a good project manager in the software industry:

    •    The project is the main concern – any manager who is not giving top priority to the project has another agenda.  Typically, the project manager is solely responsible for a failed project, but everyone on the team suffers in the long run. The client, the contractor company, middle management, and all the software engineers.  If all project decisions made are in the best interest of the project then the project is more likely to be a success.

    •    Be free with information – Managers should never be “black hole” people when it comes down to important information about a project.  A good project manager should be able to share his/her information and be free from concern about reporting employees gaining power from increased knowledge.

    •    Co-ordinate with staff – Along the lines of being free with information, every employee on the project should be aware of what their peers are doing.  In the case that one or more employees are out of commission, the project manager should be able to delegate responsibility of work to another member of staff.

    •    Control the road map – As a manager, I would not run a project without a project plan any more than I would drive across the country without a road map.  The project plan is the living breathing core of any successful project, which evolves with the lifetime of the project.  Projects should never start without a baseline project plan and during the life of the project; the plan should always reflect the current progress and next steps in the project direction.

    •    The client is always right… – within reason.  It is the job of a project manager to set the expectations of the client with regards to what work can be completed in a finite period of time with a set budget.  The project manager should never promise more than the development team can deliver, causing burnout.  On the other hand, it is important to provide the client with solutions to some of their requests, and good communication with the development team can assist in the creation of a good solution.

    •    Never micro-manage – This is the sin of all manager tactics.  When you micro-manage your staff you’re affectively telling them that you do not trust their abilities.  Micro-management usually leads to frustrated team members, and the project manager looses respect of his/her peers.

    •    The buck stops here – Some difficult decisions are sometimes called for in the lifetime of a project.  These decisions can be technical, staff related, or just about taking the next step in the project roadmap, but no matter what the quandary there needs to be a team member willing to make the hard decision.  It is usually the responsibility of the project manager to make these types of decisions.  Everyone on the team is entitled to an opinion (and should be asked), but once a decision has been reached everyone on the team should abide by it.  If things work out, great, but if not, the project manager is solely responsible for taking heat on the mistake.

    •    You’re the leader, so lead – The development staff looks for a clear direction from an individual who can overview the whole project.  The project manager should be strong enough to drive the project according to the project plan.

    •    Be a people person – Project management, and management as a whole, is not just about being in power and delegating work to other individuals.  A great project manager knows how to manage his/her people so that they are motivated, non-frustrated, and have a clear understanding of their role in the project.  Make no mistake, project management is not an easy job, and it is not a bolt on task to a regular developer role.  Management of staff and project can take a while to get right, and not everyone is cut out for the job.  Bottom line – if you want a managerial role, you need people skills.

    Verizon to offer IPTV over FIOS

    Verizon, the provider of my phone and Internet, is soon to be offering IPTV – TV
    over the Internet – to those using FIOS.

    http://www22.verizon.com/FiosForHome/Channels/fios/FiosTV_comingsoon.aspx

    Hopefully,
    I shall subscribe to this service as soon as it rolls out 2005/2006 and dump
    traditional analogue cable TV provided by Comcast.

    Using my computer as my DVR (currently
    using Windows Media Center 2005), I should be able to record direct from an IPTV feed
    in pure digital format. The best part is that HDTV will be available in MCE
    with no conversion process or set top box. 

    I see the purchase of a 50″
    flat screen LCD in my near future, taking advantage of that lovely HD signal.

    I am very
    excited.

    http://www.microsoft.com/tv/default.mspx

    Consumers’ Rights

    I read an interesting article this morning about the rights granted to
    US consumers when purchasing faulty goods.  Did you know that
    you’re potentially entitled to a repair/replacement/refund if you find
    something doesn’t work with your purchase, up to and beyond as much as 6
    months after the purchase date?  If your faulty equipment is in
    repair for an inordinate amount of time, you can still demand a refund
    or replacement etc.

    Here’s a post for UK residents, about consumer rights when buying faulty computer equipment.

    Quotes to remember for the next time you’re talking to an obnoxious repair specialist or manager:

    Uniform Commercial Code
    “Satisfactory Quality”
    “Repair in Reasonable Time”
    “Fit for Specific Purposes”
    “It is the retailers responsibility, not the manufacturers”
    “Significant Inconvenience”