Improve your way of working with somatic experiencing.

When the pressure builds up, the body has a tendency to store the stress. Piling up this kind of energy is prone to creating lots of side effects. For example I know that it creates lots of pain in the neck for me. Here comes an answer that requires no pills, no weird material and is inexpensive due to the fact that it costs no money. Of course do not expect this to let you continue living in crazy ways with no respect for yourself ! What is somatic experiencing First of all let me say that I am not a trainer in the technique. I am a practitioner and have no clue about the theory behind it. I just know that it works nicely and that I do get a lot of advantages for using it. Somatic experiencing allows to release accumulated tension in your nervous system. Not the conscious one, the other one that works in the background and ends up oveloaded in the life of any dynamic and commited person. When performing the technique blasts of energy discharges are happening. You will also find yourself in a much better mood and less prone to mood swings which usually come with tiredness and overwork. Some energy may be there since eons due to whatever bad happened during your childhood or other moments in time that were a bit hard on the nerves. How to do it To perform somatic experiencing, get yourself into a quiet place (abeit you can do it anyhere once you know how - I do it routinely in meetings, in the car, while waiting at the store). Start doing very slow moves. Slow is key The slowest, the more efficient. No need for big movements. You can choose to move your wrist, your ankle, your neck... All very very very very slowly and gently. Do not expect anything. Let things occur. If you feel the urge to yawn, do not repress it since it is going to bring great results. Relax. Let yourself space out. Do this as long a you want. A typical session would last for a quarter of an hour or so. Then come back here and now, look around with your eyes without moving your head, all in a gentle and slow manner. You should feel better. Benefits By regularly doing the technique you will soon realize that a lot of tension is present in your body. Such awareness is already a benefit in itself since it will serve as a red flag to know when you have gone too far and need to stop. As a man who underwent surgery for not listening enough to body signals, you can believe that I do so very actively now (well, to be honest, I am quite in overdrive regularly but I give myself time off. My wife knows the drill by now.). Do not let you drift too far. Another good thing is that tension will go away and you will be in a more alert state without being tense. Before a major meeting this is great gift. Also, by repeating the technique you will need less and less time to let the tension go. As I sometimes tend to overeat in stressful situations, just doing the technique will let me eschew the temptation. So, this may help you controlling the calories intake by a good measure. As a general benefit, spending sometime for and with oneself is telling your body and mind that you care. They will be thankful believe me. Anchoring the Technique The technique can be anchored by having one or two favorite moves identified as releasing the tension very fast. For me this is a combination of a wrist movement done in a specific way ( nothing that special here ). It makes me yawn like mad. Even thinking about it makes me yawn ! (Yawning now). Try to find your own! To learn more Somatic experiencing is much more than the aforedescribed. A good book: Awakening the Tiger Within. Check out: http://www.traumahealing.com/waking.html , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somatic_Experiencing As you will see, somatic experiencing is good for shock and developmental trauma. Given the modern workplace, this may be applicable on a daily basis in a lot of places I do know of. Combinations Combine it with EFT (emotional freedom technique) and you have a clear winner. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_Freedom_Technique I used EFT in the past when I got car jacked with a gun pointed onto my head. The gun was help by a guy who clearly had had too much pot or what not in his blood at the time. So, after that I needed some help and EFT was a technique that worked marvels. Parting words We do live in places where the atmosphere is not really what we were designed for. The nervous system is really required to perform way ahead of its designed limits, especially when the stress is maintained over long periods of time. Do yourself a favor and try these techniques out for a much better life balance. They are better than drugs or alcohol ! Copyright 2009 by Philippe Back - All rights reserved

Gravitation, Accretion and black holes

From Wikipedia: In general relativity, a black hole is a region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, including light, can escape its pull. The black hole has a one-way surface, called the event horizon, into which objects can fall, but never emerge from. It is called "black" because it absorbs all the light that hits it, reflecting nothing, just like a perfect blackbody in thermodynamics. Quantum analysis of black holes shows them to possess a temperature and radiate like black bodies. Despite its invisible interior, a black hole can reveal its presence through interaction with other matter. A black hole can be inferred by tracking the movement of a group of stars that orbit a region in space which looks empty. Alternatively, one can see gas falling into a relatively small black hole, from a companion star. This gas spirals inward, heating up to very high temperature and emitting large amounts of radiation that can be detected from earthbound and earth-orbiting telescopes. Such observations have resulted in the general scientific consensus that, barring a breakdown in our understanding of nature, black holes do exist in our universe. This appears to me as being very similar to some IT projects I do see now and then. Indeed, the gravitational field of these projects is so strong that a lot of individuals get attracted to the project, mostly due to political agendas. There also appears to be an event horizon because people getting in there rarely see the light of day before soon (this usually amounts to several years). The main issue is that the mass of the beast is usually growing, that “companion stars” are sucked in and valuable resources are expended just to create high temperatures and radiations, but little tangible results (not to mention that they are not going to be frequent either). To further the metaphor, one can think of super massive black holes that do make a whole galaxy gravitate around them. One interesting feature of blackholes that also appears to apply here is that space-time also gets massively distorted when it comes to shipping dates and effort estimates. Also note that black holes do reflect nothing, a characteristic that is shared with several large projects where people do seem to have forgotten their brains at home. The one who do not have understood that the longer timeframe and the larger the headcount, the more impressive they do look in terms of “territory” and “army size”. This is really bad when we consider that studies from Larry Putnam and other metrics-gurus tell us for ages that when you go above a headcount of 7 in a project and that a project lasts more than 2 years (1 would be better), you are heading for trouble ! So, a large endeavor should be broken down in pieces that can be addressed by a team of 7 or less. Each team should collaborate with other teams to get things done. Obviously massive efforts will require advance collaboration techniques. Still, the majority of the blackholes that I do encounter are created by accretion of people for not clear reason. These massive monsters can and must be avoided.

What to do ?

Well, first of all, blackholes are usually massive things and you should first think about what your level is in the organization. Just whining will not cut it and only worsen the problem. Furthermore, if you are down the chain, it will just provide management with lame excuses for not achieving results. But if you are in a position of responsibility and if improving your way of working is one of your objectives (since it usually shows on the bottom line),  then it becomes a professional responsibility to do something to remove the blackhole. Not mentioning that doing nothing will result in bad karma, think about the consequences of letting this go:
  • good money is sucked in and never to be retrieved (and the burn rate is usually high), hurting the bottom line severely. In these times of crisis, this amounts to a cardinal sin
  • people who are otherwise motivated in other areas do see the blackhole and reduce their own efficiency, again hurting the bottom line
  • messages are becoming distorted when moving upon command chain and bad decisions are taken in return
  • a heavy politically-laden climate is developing, leading to people reducing productive work and starting to trash more and more
What is to be done is at lease to report the fact to upper management (at least twice). But no whining, just facts and consequences (monetary figures works best). The best way to have an improved situation is to have some kind of indicator able to detect blackholes. As a decision maker, do yourself a favor and add such an indicator to your dashboard, scorecard, KPI's or whatsoever. One of the best indicators will reflect on frequent, tangible, working results. Not reams of paper, not slideware. Ask to see a working prototype, test reports working on real case scenarios against the system delivered, the bug summary reports. Most of all, do not be in denial of problems. Of course, you may not have the time to do these things. But then you need to have them prepared for you and in an unbiased manner. If you are surrounded by "yes-men", this may prove difficult. Get some help there. Another thing to do is to avoid the tunnel effect. This means that the project entered a tunnel at one point and there is no visibility for a long time. Well, this cannot be tolerated anymore these days. Quality assurance (more of a mindset than a phase or a position) must occur and produce metrics and reporting that helps in identifying issues as soon as they do arise. Remember that a project gets 2 years late by a day at a time. Letting it slip is the issue, and reaching for a scapegoat at one point is not a decent approach. Would you drive you car without a dashboard ? If a project is not able to give you a view on quality assurance measurements from a neutral point of view, this is a symptom of dysfunction. Get help there. There are always antibodies in any organism to react to the medicine. Businesses are no different. To close on the issue, please remember that throwing more money at the problem in the hope it will go away will only make it worse. Do resist the temptation since it is well known that hope is not that good as a strategy. Using hope as a strategy is like buying lottery tickets and hoping for the win. It may happen but the probability is pretty weak. Any decent risk manager arouind the block will tell you so. So, if  you suspect you do have such beasts in town, I suggest you avoid digging yourself into a hole (which may end up being more brown than black at the end of day) and and take action to stop the radiations. Just sticking your head in the sand will expose the remaining rear parts to radiations, which may hurt in the long run.

IT Archaeology of existing systems

There are lots of architects around but I do think that we are in dire need of IT archaeologists. Based on my work as a coach to IT teams working with production business systems, I have to saythat the latest and greatest in technology, frameworks, patterns, and what not is not at all the success factor. Too many times, appetite for technology is hiding the real issues. People do prefer to dive in tech and burn time than to address the core business needs and achieve ROI. The characteristics of the systems at hand are that they do often exist for ages, most of the knowledge does lie in the heads of people, there is a firehose producing an endless stream of changes to implement, and existing documentation material lies in tons of solution-centric documents. Typically, early contributors have moved to other jobs without transferring knowledge. Most of the time, when confronted with change requests, the jump is automatic from high level requirements to technical implementation since people in the know are so coupled with the system and change-centric, tactical documentation is produced. Real issues are associated with the current situation: the mobility of personnel is very limited (I will dare to say frozen), the truck number very low, and it is hard to implement visionary changes to system. Also, implementing normal changes takes eons. When it comes to raising the bar in terms of innovation, the defensiveness of personnel is hindering the success of the initiatives. Mostly, this is not related to a competency problem, nor a lack of goodwill. As far as I am concerned, I do think that the personnel is quite stressed out when required to maintaining the current system alive and any improvement initiative has to consider that factor. When approaching the challenge of documenting existing systems and applications, one must ask what documenting means in the first place. More precisely, documenting an existing system must have clear benefits. If nobody is able to articulate then the effort is just adding more work to the backlog and should be avoided. So, always document with a clear purpose. One very important purpose is to be able to navigate the system code from a higher level of abstraction. Navigation usually requires a kind of map. The map is so that a contributor can understand the key concepts, constructs, and mechanisms being in place and perform changes on the system in an efficient way. This means being able to see the system from a logical perspective, devoid of technological jargon (no files, Oracle databases, CICS, JSPs, ...). Technological jargon is obscuring things more often than not. What is important is to know the responsibilities that a piece does provide, not which technologies are used to implement them. Producing such maps is the key output that an IT archaeologist can provide. But producing useful maps requires global vision. It also means that you have to accept to do research (sometimes exhausting research) and not always be sure to find a decent map. You need to be tolerant to ambiguity to be a good mapper. Assembling bits of knowledge is good but will never be providing a good map. Studying them and figuring out the patterns behind the tons of sand requires exposure to lots of systems of various types. You also need to have a good theory to back the thinking. Notations such as the UML can definitely help. Also, awareness of process frameworks such as the Unified Process is good for separating the various disciplines at play. But all the theory in the world is not worth a single sheet of a useful map. Theory can back action but must stay at its place and not in the foreground. The point is that the map must help to clarify the situation and not further confuse it. The process is looking like: Study existing Documentation ? Remix, and Structure ? Produce Useful Documentation For documenting the system, here is our way to perform some archaeology: As a system is a solution to a given problem, we must be clear about the purpose: are we making a map of the problem or are we making a map of the solution? In our case, we do have a system and do want a map of it. The solution is made out of building blocks, let's call them logical components for now (another name would be subsystems). These logical components are often « virtually present » but are not documented as such (most of the time, you'll find folders grouping files). A characteristic of subsystems is that they do have strong cohesive features : the logging subsystem, the calculation subsystem, the dispatching subsystem, the presentation subsystem, the external gateway subsystem, the security subsystem, the audit subsystem etc. Some items are not easily amenable to the grouping into a subsystem but would rather be « aspects ». For example, even if the security subsystem would concentrate the responsibility of implementing the core of security, enabling security across other subsystems would not be possible to concentrate in that subsystem. But we can introduce a security « aspect », that would be spread to whatever subsystem or subsystem interaction that is subject to realizing a security requirement. Finding out these logical components and aspects and creating the base map out of them would already be quite an achievement as an archaeologist. Another output of the archaeologist is a number of typical interactions between these logical components. And in order to make sense of all of the domain-specific words and concepts used in the project, conceptual documents explaining the business that the system automates is part of the job of the archaeologist. IT Archaeologist may not be the sexiest job on the planet at first sight but it adds tons of value and does indeed have the potential to save millions that would have been spent burning cash spinning wheels.

The Mobile Consultant Toolkit

As a consultant, I am moving around quite often. Here is what I learned when it comes to having a usable IT toolkit when on the move.

A professional mobile phone

I am currently using a Blackberry Bold. Since using it, I have cut the PC usage by a good measure. It is a great email client that follows you and allows for quick responses when located at a place that disallows connecting laptops to their networks.

The GPS capability is very useful when navigating unknown territory. There is also an option to use Google maps on the device and it is a welcome addition when the GPS signal is weak, absent, or you do not have time to wait for it to catch on. If you do not fear big brother, you can activate Google Latitude and have your contact to meet to do the same. That is a pretty high tech/geeky way to meet but is nevertheless very effective. To be honest I would never leave that on permanently.

Also worth of notice is the camera in the phone. With a flash and a 2 Megapixels resolution, it is a good way to capture drawings, whiteboards and the like. Especially when coupled with Whiteboard photo described hereafter.

An interesting point is that the phone is also a notes recorder and can play audio podcasts on the move. Coupled with the Supertooth One, this makes for a perfect dictation device in the car. Also, having a decent keyboard on the Bold is really a killer feature for me. When used to it, there is no issue writing even long texts on it. This is why I do not have an iPhone BTW.

Whiteboard photo

Whiteboard photo is what I would call "a single minded piece of software that performs its duty perfectly". What is that duty will you ask? Its duty is to clean and reshape pictures of whiteboards. The key advantage is that I am able to run a workshop, write all kinds of things on whiteboards, blackboards and paperboards (along with common paper), take a picture with a digital camera (2Megapixels is way sufficient) and convert the ugly looking images to neat drawings. These can in turn be printed as a PDF and be mailed to the meeting attendees. This software beats most of the electronic whiteboards I have ever seen. Another interesting use is projecting the pictures back on a whiteboard and changing them. This is terrific for sessions after the first and also to explore alternate designs or remember how to the final idea came to life. I could not be without and achieving the same quality with a generic graphics package would require way too much work.

Usb keys

A bunch of USB keys is a mandatory device for the mobile consultant. Of course they do have to be filled with the proper material. I use them as a backup should my laptop ever be stolen or break. Both happened already and it is very bad to appear in front of an audience when not having the tools working. You can always get another laptop on a spot but not your material. Placing the material on the web is a good idea too but flakey Internet connections and firewalls can ruin the day. So keep the key stuff on a key or two and have it also in PDF form, should there be no other alternative tooling. I also do keep my security passwords and so on on a key.

Dell Latitude D430 Laptop

Well, any lightweight laptop would do. This one is the one I use and it is quite a good one when it comes to sturdiness, battery life and capabilities. Its casing is a mix of magnesium alloy and plastic which is perfect as a light companion. I have placed a larger battery in it and this allows me to work for really long stretches of time while on the road. The screen is 12" something and that’s a good size for readability and keyboard size. I also do own an Acer One Netbook but this is too small for my tastes. The Wi-Fi is good. The major pain is the sound but with headphones it is okay.

Philips VoIP mobile handset

This is a USB handset that works with Skype. I do not know why but I do have a hard time using a headset. This gizmo is looking like a normal phone and makes my experience of skype much better. It is made for travelers and works like a charm.

Xplorer2

This thing is one of the reasons why I am using Windows instead of anything else. It is simply the most powerful file manager I have used to date. I have tried quite a bunch, be it on Linux, Mac OS or Windows itself. There is now a version that can travel with you and a USB key and which works without any requirement for anything to be installed on the client PC. A dream come true. My productivity with projects just soared when I started using it. When dealing with tons of files, the 'browse flat' mode combined with the great preview feature and the powerful search capability just cut the frustration by a huge factor and help getting things done fast. The bookmark folders and the sync abilities are great time savers as well.

Portable HDD

A somewhat less used device is the small for factor hard disk that I do carry in my laptop case. 250GB of space which comes handy when I need to access source code and huge resources when on the go. When needing to edit video recordings, having a separate disk just speeds up edits enough that I can't be without it. Also nice when you need to take copies of material and USB is not roomy enough.

Access to OReilly Safari

In the past when I wanted to access my bookshelf, I needed to either be limited to my office, hope to find the book at the destination or carry copies of the books in electronic format. All of these options were bothersome. With OReilly Safari library edition (the full thing) I do have unlimited access to a staggering amount of books in my domain. The added value is the search feature as well as the favorites feature which allows me to replicate my office bookshelf in virtual form. An additional value comes from the fact that the system allows access to a wealth of video trainings. These are especially nice when dealing with design, graphics and other interactive domains. Reading on screen may not be for everybody but I do happen to like it.

Gmail

Gmail is great for reading email on the move. Especially when email accounts are configured in it. Also, it is very useful for sending out emails with attachments and viewing the content of received ones without requiring any special software. The search feature is also very welcome. Another nice feature is that Gmail is usable from the Blackberry with a custom application that integrates nicely.

Skype

A must have to save some money on international calls. I do use the world unlimited plan which means that I can call any landline for free from anywhere. That is really helping keeping projects on the right track.

Multicountry AC adapter

As I do have European plugs, I need to adapt to other styles when in the UK or the US. This adapter works with all of these and takes very little space.

Usb-based chargers

This is really making my bad a lot lighter. When choosing a new device, I first look if it is using a standard mini USB charging plug. Otherwise I ended up with lots of various chargers and when one died, I was stranded when the power was gone. Another benefit: things are usable with a laptop and a USB cable.

Dataviz Word, Excel and PowerPoint to go

This is commercial software, priced $69. But allows me to view and create word, excel and PowerPoint documents. Quite nice when it comes to write memos on the move and that the sessions are short lived due to switch of train, tube, plane and so on. Also nice when waiting for a meeting to occur. Of course, typing is a bit slow but is still productive with the keyboard of the Blackberry.

Supertooth One

This gadget lives in my car and provides hands free communication with Bluetooth enabled phones. It works well due to noise cancellation. It also serves as a sound output for the player in the Blackberry and I do use it for listening to podcasts. It is also nice when recording notes and ideas.

CutePDF, Solidconverter PDF, Foxit PDF editor

PDF has proven to be a very good format to use for me. It is great as a format for email attachments when I do issue proposals since what the receiver sees is what I wanted him to see. Also, the file size can be tuned and kept reasonable no matter the content. For example I do tend to use a lot of OLE in my MS Office documents, most of the time embedding Visio diagrams into MS Word documents. Well, when viewed on a Mac, this will prove problematic. So, to produce my PDFs I do use CutePDF, an open source product that provides a virtual Windows printer. It works very nicely and produces clean PDFs. There is another thing to do with PDFs and this is editing. For that purpose, I do use FoxitPDF Editor, a fine piece of software (commercial). As the last weapon in the arsenal, I do use SolidPDF converter. This one allows converting a PDF back to RTF and that allows me to edit it. This is very useful when dealing with RFPs and requirement specifications that are issued as PDF. The tool converts back tables and graphics beautifully. Of note, advanced PDF password recovery is a nice hidden resource that can unlock most password protected PDFs.

Password Safe

Since I am working with a lot of web related technologies, I do end up with a ton of passwords and user ids. To keep all of that info up to date I do use Password Safe, an open source product that is very usable and secure. I do need one master password for my password file.

Truecrypt

Truecrypt allows me to create and mount encrypted drives. A drive is a file on disk and that disk can also be stored on a USB key. When working with sensitive content under NDA, this is a must have should your machine be stolen or compromised. Truecrypt is open source.

Mikogo

Mikogo is a free tool for meetings on line up to 10 people. Coupled with Skype this makes for a good virtual meeting room. For a cheap price, GoTo Meeting is a very nice alternative.

Blueberry screen recorder

While on the move, I find that the quickest way to explain things is to do it by example. I hate writing tons of text when I can record the screen and just ship the movie along with my voice track. Blueberry is very powerful for doing so and adding little post-its around, editing the frames and tracks and publishing the results as AVI, flash, or Quicktime.. Also able to record from a webcam as a screen insert and produce standalone EXEs, this is a great workhorse. I also do use it to record webinars that I do attend on the web.

Witopia

Witopia provides VPN services for $39 a year. This is great when you do not want to anyone to spy on your Wi-Fi or LAN connection. The IPs provided are located in the US and the UK and also allow viewing sites that do require an IP from these countries. It appears to not work anymore with Hulu.com but is okay with others.

A 3G connection

This one saved me several times when I had to conduct demos requiring the Internet and the intranet of the prospect just was bad or disallowing connection of alien machines. The Blackberry Bold can act as a 3G modem in Windows and drivers are provided for that purpose.

JFax

Jfax allows me to send and receive faxes over the web from anywhere. This is a very important capability especially when receiving purchase orders and sending them to suppliers. My accountant also sends me faxes and JFax help me keeping the trees safe.

This concludes the list of tools that help me conduct business from almost anywhere. They proved themselves over the years and I recommend you give them a shot.