Extra-curriculur activities

At school we were always encouraged to take part in extra-curriculur
activities, so why not at work?

I work hard. I’m up at 6am for a full days work, and then go home and work
some more, often till 11pm. (I do value the benefits of sleep – a rule which I
have forced myself ot keep since leaving university). That leaves me no time for
my hobbies, interests and distractions. Recently, I did take the step to start
clawing back some of this time for myself. Not for my existing hobbies or
interests, though.

I have always been interested in languages, particularly rarely used
languages or academic languages. Tolkien’s languages are an interest to me.
Living in the Isle of Man, it’s native language has also interested me. Manx was
a near-dead language until about 10 years ago when real effort was exerted to
try and rescue it and reintroduce it to people’s speech. Manx is a Gaelic
language, hailing from the same roots as Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Welsh
and Cornish.

So it was with some trepidation I enrolled on a Manx course at the Isle of
Man College, taught by Brian Stowell. I’m an intelligent chap, and am able to
pick up the words scattered around the island on street signs and corporate
promotional literature, but taking the course would really help me put something
more structural than pointing out “chalvane”, “traie”, etc. Of course, such
extra-curriculur activities are met with incredulity by my colleagues. Not only
because they wonder why I don’t just sit down and collapse in front of the TV,
but also because I am learning what is widely regarded as being a pointless

It’s not the pointlessness that attracts me, it is the act of learning and
developing myself into Manx culture. I moved on to the island 3 years ago and I
feel like I should contirbute something to the island. And this is how I chose
to do it. I get back at 10pm, after which I have to have my tea, do the washing
up and then get ready for the next day – along with quickly address work issues
that may have arisen. That’s a hard slog. So why do it?

After realising how difficult this schedule was, I then joined a Salsa
dancing course held in one of the better bars on the island. I’m told my
heritage is in dancing, I’m not entirely convinced, and nor are the ladies with
whom I have conducted my random spasms I like to call the Mambo. This, also,
results in me being tired, and wondering where it will all end.

I think I do it for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a great conversation
piece. I’m still a newcomer to the island, and as such, I need to ingratiate
myself to people – and besides, on a small island, this can benefit all parties!
“Oh, I am learning Manx” goes really well after someone gives you that “Why are
you taking Manx jobs away from the Manx” after they learn you are a “come over”.
Also, it gives me an “extra string to me bow”. It builds character. I don’t want
to be that person who does the 9-5 day, then disappears into a suburbian void. I
want to be out there, whether working or playing.

I firmly believe these acitivities also provide great “value added extras”
for employers. If you are pitted against others of similar calibre (which, let’s
face it, is most likely given most job positions), you need to give that little
bit more. You need to be able to get that hook in to the interview panel that
maybe relaxes the situation a little and creates a shared experience that they
will remember. My “pointless” Manx lessons then quickly turn into a contirbution
to Manx society, which immediately gives my [potential] new employer something
to chat about in the kitchen on my first day!

Communicating the value of IT

My response to a BCS seminar as a developer within an average
small-medium size company.

Last year, as a member of the British Computer Society (BCS) I
attended a seminar held by Sherrilynne Starkie, of Strive PR entitled
“Communicating the Value of IT”. I remember it well. A room full of IT bods
(call them what you will), many of whom feel disenfranchised from their
colleagues and slightly under-valued. After all, people just don’t ring IT to
say “Gee, thanks, my computer is working just fine today” – and nor should they!

We were most enthused by this session, in which different suggestions were
made as to how IT can improve their image to the rest of the company. Walking
out of that room, I felt a warm glow as the ideas started to flow and images of
my colleagues lining up in a march of honour as the IT department took their
seats the next morning. Okay, well, maybe I was hoping for too much.

Sherrilynne’s message was simple: the key is to develop a better
representation of the department by tentatively introducing your colleagues to
the ideas and processes IT are involved in. How this can be achieved can range
from the traditional (and rather limited) technical approach of adopting
academic methodologies suchas DSCM, RAD, etc. that are aimed to effectively
ensure an accurate requirements capture by inviting users to read and comment on ideas and thoughts that emanate from the department. I definitely came away from the session with a distinct impression of what we did need as a department of 5: a PR manager!

Without the budget of a finance house, or the government, this was clearly
not an option. But we were introduced to some interesting alternatives. Most
companies have an Intranet, providing access to internal resources such as
expenses forms, files, etc. An Intranet can easily be improved by implementing
some form of community. A Blog or Forum would be an ideal way of encouraging
users to read about what IT are up to, and maybe comment on it.

Let’s consider where we were as an IT department within a SME. Our IT systems
are quite advanced, as we have sufficient IT resource to actively push and
improve the performance of internal systems. People ask for things, and 9 times
out of 10, we do them. No problem there. We try to make sure that people’s
machines are adequately specified for their jobs. No problem there. Where our
problems seem to occur is in inter-departmental communication and – more
importantly – communication.

This was in November last year (2006) and now, six months later, I
think I can blog about how the ideas I have implemented as a result of this
session went.

We have a new project coming soon, which is a new version of an existing
application. Since its implementation more than a year ago, we have had mostly
positive feedback, but some frustrations have been aired and suggestions made.
As the new version approaches the early conceptual stages, we thought “wouldn’t
it be useful if these ideas were captured?” We were using an existing forum
application for the internal knowledge base within IT, which was opened up to
include a new topic. This topic was then presented straight on to the Intranet
home page, with the clear message that anything can be submitted – anonymously – and every idea printed off and considered in subsequent specification
meetings. How better can you entice people to submit their thoughts?

Take-up of this has been slow, with many ideas being aired and submitted into
the system by IT. Two people who are not in IT have actively posted a couple of
ideas in there, but out of a company approaching 60 people with 90% of those
immediately involved with some aspect of this project, it was a pretty poor
show. The topic remains on the Intranet home page to this date, with most topics
submitted by IT on behalf of others. Reflecting on the reasons why this might
have failed led me to one concern by manager had (who was most enthusiastic
about the idea of opening up IT to our colleagues), which was that people don’t
go where they don’t normally go. They feel unsure, are they “allowed” in there?
What do they do when they get in there? It’s all seemed to be confusing for
them. Or maybe it’s the same old thing; complaining is easy, helping to solve
the problem requires effort.

Another issue I wanted to see addressing is the relationship between IT and
Marketing. IT are exposed to the latest in web standards and are keen to see
web-sites and other on-line resource developed in a usable and accessible
manner. Marketing are concerned about how to line things up, how to attract the
eye and the quality of the copy. There was always underlying tension between the
two departments, both having expertise in their area, but being reluctant to
give away ground to the other department. For instance, while Marketing used
capitals as a useful means of attracting the eye, IT would vehemently object to
this on account of readability on the web. In the end, to their absolute credit,
Marketing arranged to have a refresher course on web techniques using the
software they know. This has had the result that while we may not always agree,
we can be sure that the correct thought processes have been used and the end
decision has been made for reasons other than “it’s just done like that”, or “I
like it this way”. To the same extent, IT has had to step back, accepting that
it is not an IT role to dictate design. IT should perform the role they are good
at: which is to keep track of the latest web techniques and advise as

All in all, the session was very useful. I think that the uptake by users to
participate in discussion on the intranet has been a failure, to be honest. This
is a shame, as we have the resources and the enthusiasm to make this work – both
in IT and as raw ideas from people directly involved with the systems and
processes. For some reason, the link was never made between identifying a
problem and recording it in a specially created area. This is not to say that
capturing ideas was a complete failure. Ideas on how to improve some smaller
systems have been listened to and improved, but this tended to be on a more
one-to-one level; that is developer-to-stakeholder rather than, as perhaps we
had hoped, IT-to-company. What has been a success, as shown by the current
project we are involved in, is an improved understanding of roles and domains of
knowledge between the technically-minded and standards-aware IT and artistic and creative Marketing. While IT have made changes in their approach to their
colleagues, I feel the bigger effort has been made by Marketing and the improved
relationship is paying off.

I look forward to the next project ….

Balancing personal and professional development

I work hard for my for employer, but that is not to say I won’t work
hard for myself.

Call me pretentious, but I believe I am an artist. Not one whose tool is a
paintbrush and easel, but one whose scribe of choice is a keyboard and whose
regional dialect is C#. Okay, so I am a software developer, but that’s no bad
thing even if it is not the sexiest of professions.

As a valued employee, I work hard for my employer. Recently, I have been
putting in long hours to get a hefty web site launched. As with most jobs, my
professional development is limited to the very thin line of opportunity mapped
out by the business in which you work, be it through policy, time or motivation.
As an ASP.NET (thats a Microsoft web technology, by the way) developer, I feel I
regularly tread the same paths in my everyday work. The opportunity rarely
presents itself to really advance my skill set or research alternative

That is not to say I don’t love working where I work. Sure, it can be
frustrating, but there is a certain amount of freedom I am afforded in my
professional and personal development. This freedom is freedom I forge for
myself. In new projects I might be a little ‘naughty’ or mischievous in trying
out new ideas, but I don’t do this for purely selfish reasons. For example, in
my current project, I would spent a couple of days (which were in short supply
on this particular deadline) researching .NET 3.0 and all it promises in terms
of workflow, security and resilience. I see this as initiative as much as cause
for selfish personal development. As it turns out, I failed at the last hurdle,
but not due to reluctance of management to adopt potentially risky new

My personal development doesn’t just occur at work. Indeed, following a days
work, I have to admit to continuing with my own projects. Projects which stretch
my skills by improving my current approaches to problems and introducing me to
new solutions. My employer could argue that this represents a conflict of
interest, but I disagree. This represents an added resource for my employer.
Indeed, this very work has benefitted my full-time job quite recently. As they
say: ‘90% of code is re-used’. And it’s true. Try to convince your manager that
the code you are using is identical to the code from your previous employer
without them twitching about copyright issues. Whether experience or skills are
gained from personal work or previous employment, it makes them no less valid
for the job. Without which, an employer would be stupid to employ you – as
surely, you would have to undergo some Men In Black-style memory erasing
procedure to minimize risk of intellectual property violation.

Moving forward, I have my own personal development programme. This programme, I hope, will see fruition within my current employment and personal work, too. Whether this programme aligns with the requirements of future projects is not yet known, but I will make every effort to ensure that it does. If not for my
employer, then for my CV.