Posts Tagged ‘skills’
When I am working on a project, if I perform a task which I need to do over again and again, I find nothing more rewarding than working out a better way of doing it. Be it a tool, a system or an automated way of carrying out the task, if I can save time by re-use or simplification, it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
But, this also causes a problem. A problem you also have. A problem that you may not even know you have.
You see, as you work, you gain experience (and tools and snippets and shortcuts and a million other ways of saving time). But, when you quote customers for work, what are you quoting for?
Take the version of you that existed 5 years ago. If you did some work on a project, I am sure that it would take much longer to complete than it does today. 5 years ago you were groping in the dark, feeling your way. Today, you can wiz through projects thanks to your accumulated knowledge, skills and shortcuts.
But what are you charging your customers for. Are you charging them for the time that it would take a reasonable person to complete the task, or the more experienced super-you?? What happens in another 5 years with even more efficiencies – do you charge them even less
Are you, essentially, cutting your own throat?!? Are you turning yourself into a busy cheap fool? Or are you factoring the old you into your proposal figures so in fact, you are generating more money through efficiency?
Here’s a question for you. . . . What tools and skills will you be using in 10 years time? Ok, maybe that’s a long way off – how about 5 years time? Do you think they will be the same tools and skills that you use today?
Put it another way. . . . Once upon a time, there was a database system – a bit like Oracle or SQL Server. It was THE database. If you were into computer databases, it was really the only database you would use. Everybody who was anybody in computer databases was using the database. It was used in hundreds of thousands of computer centres around the world. 2 years later, nobody was using it. 3 years after that, nobody could even remember it. The name of the database was PICK (invented by Dick Pick for the US Government) and the demise of the database was caused by the first release of Oracle.
The point is, at some point in the future, Windows will vanish. Adobe Photoshop will be forgotten, SQL Server will be a distant memory, Oracle will gone, and an iPhone… what’s an iPhone?
Technology, tools and skills are always changing – faster and faster with every year that goes by. I am convinced old age is simply people giving up and saying “I cant be bothered to learn yet another new thing”. Maybe when you consider what skills you need, you need to keep an eye on the future, and try to keep score of what will be around in the future.
I imagine it won’t be what you or I are using now!
I know a freelancer/contractor who has a problem. His problem is that when it comes to applying for work – he always worries that he does not have ALL the skills that a customer is looking for. Therefore, he is very selective of the contracts that he applies for, with the result that he often finds himself on the bench rather than working and bringing in the money.
Finding yourself faced with a requirement for knowledge on a skill that you do not have is a fairly common occurrence. In my line of work, typically contracts will be posted with between 10 and 12 skill sets required (or at least desirable), and typically a contractor can only expect to be able to hit 80% of the skills. But from my point of view, rather than being something to be scared of, this is in fact the perfect situation.
For me, being a successful contractor or freelancer is all about knowledge, and without our boundaries being pushed, that knowledge will soon become confined, specialised and worse – dated. I much prefer to have a requirement for 10 skill sets of which I have no knowledge of 1 or 2 of the skills required. As long as it’s not the main skill the client needs, I am happy to either bluff my way thorough the interview or just admit I have no real knowledge of these skills, and then pick up the skill during the life of the contract work.
It’s a perfect win situation. I can fulfil the majority of the requirements, I can pick up the new skill at the customers site as I work on the project, and effectively, I am getting paid to be trained. I cannot think of a single contract or freelance job which I have undertaken which has not pushed my experience beyond my current knowledge, and where I have come out the other side more skilled than when I went in.
So don’t be afraid of the lack of those skills – instead embrace the lack of knowledge and use the contract to expand yourself.
I have just returned from a wonderful 3 week holiday to Kenya. It was great not only because of the wildlife, relaxation and the time away from small business hassles – it was also good because it gave me 3 weeks to reflect on my small business and where I wanted to grow.
During these 3 weeks, I found myself propped up in a bar in Nairobi, chatting with another business owner (also on holiday) who was doing very well for himself. We got chatting about business (as you do) and I asked him the question I always ask other business owners – “what is the one tip you would give small business owners”. Unlike other answers I have heard which talk about cash flow, or invoicing, or getting your USP sorted, this one had a different answer. Which was…
Don’t be scared of the word NO!
Without repeating the entire conversation here, he went on to explain that without doubt, the biggest problem small business have is staying true to themselves, staying on target to their goals, and not being dragged into directions and projects that do not fit with that the company does. Therefore (he explained), if you are not happy with a project, if a customer wants too much, if a work co-worker walks in and asks for help (interrupting you), if an employee pushes the bounds or you feel you are being pulled in the wrong direction, don’t be afraid to say “No”. Many small businesses are just so grateful for the money or so scared of making the wrong move, they will agree to anything or at least try to turn it into an advantage for them, even though the right move was to just say no and walk away.
However, he said it was a bit more complex than this. No (he said) was a harsh word – a brutal full stop of a word. “No” can cause resentment, embarrassment, arguments and hostility. So when using the No word, the other word to use is “Because”.
Because is the reason. Because tells the story and keeps things friendly. Because makes it a professional decision.
If a conversation went along the lines “Can you create a product for me? No!”, it’s the end of the conversation. But, if the answer is “No, because this is not what we do, but let me point you to somebody who can” – this sets your credibility and keeps the door open for doing what it is your company does best.
Working on your small business can be a juggling act; unless your company has grown to include lots of staff to run different functions for you, we can easily find that we have to wear too many hats every day. Marketing, accounts, legal, sales, and even the cleaner. Oh, and don’t forget the work for customers and on products that can actually generate revenue.
One of the most well known and respected is Getting Things Done. If you want to get organized but don’t know where to start Dave Allen’s book will give you the tools to ‘Get Things Done.’ The book recommends a set of principles, habits and a filing system which encompasses everything that you want to do from the mundane ‘I must get new tyres for the car’ to the important major projects at your small company. If you have a hectic lifestyle this system will remind you that your library books need renewing or that the car is due for its MOT as well as that you need to write the first draft of a report for a customer or you want to email a friend to ask if they would like to go to a concert. You can concentrate on making that phone call or writing that report without worrying about all those other things that you need/want to get done. His system even finds room for long term ‘dreams’ which are not possible at the moment such as learning a second language, writing a book or travelling to China.
So when I’m not at my desk making phone calls, writing letters, or reading emails I can relax knowing that everything is in my filing system, calendar or in-tray. If I need to go into town to pick up some milk a quick check in the appropriate file will remind me I’ve also got some dry cleaning to pick up or whatever else needs doing in town. Setting up the system takes time and effort but it works. Dave Allen recommends clearing two whole days to clear an office and your mind of clutter and put it into a system which reviewed regularly. I didn’t have two full clear days and did it over a couple of weeks but my home office has stayed tidy, organised and fully functional since and other areas of my home/life are being transformed.
This is a practical book with lots of useful ideas for increasing productivity in all areas of life and reducing stress but if you are prepared to implement the whole system it can be life changing.
640K of computer memory is more memory than anyone will ever needBill Gates, Microsoft, 1987
Let me take you back. Way, way back to the early 1980’s. Here in the UK, Sir Clive Sinclair introduced the first home computers called the ZX80 and ZX81, and these computers both came with a staggering, massive, huge, 1k of memory. 1k!!! That’s 0.00009 of a megabyte!! Now with 1k of memory, there was not much you could do, other than to learn how to program very, very efficiently. With that 1k of memory, programmers created chess programs, accounts programs, spreadsheets, games and a whole lot more.
Today, we are spoilt by super fast processors and many megabytes of memory – even on handheld phones. However, this growth in power means that programmers have become lazy – as long as it runs and looks nice, programmers generally don’t care about how fast it runs, how much memory it takes, or how many human actions (mouse clicks, etc) are required to carry out a task.
One of the worst offenders is Adobe with the Acrobat PDF reader. If you want to develop bad software, then follow the Adobe example, and you too can have software which is frankly awful. Just follow the following Adobe steps:
- Have software which takes forever to start, just to view a tiny PDF document
- Because the software takes so long to load, create nice startup splash screens to show the names of the lazy programmers who can’t be bothered to speed up the application by reducing its size
- Have the software so full of bugs, that it needs to be updated every 2 or 3 days
- Now, create an auto updater routine, which runs all the time of the PC, and takes up even more computer resource
- Install the auto updater as part of the core product, but don’t tell anybody its included, just install it anyway
- Even though the software just displays documents, when the auto updater runs, make sure it demands you restart your computer at the end of the install. After all, the updater is more important than the end users other work
- Just in case the users does not want to restart their computer, have a ‘later’ button, but now have the updater remind the user every hour until they are nagged to death
- Whenever an action is required, make sure that the user has to click as many buttons, use as many menu options and press as many keys as possible to perform that action – the extra effort required will ensure they understand the complexity of the software (Microsoft SQL Server Enterprise Manager actually wins the award for the most steps to perform one action).
- Even though other developers create faster PDF viewers that load 20 times faster and are 40 times smaller, don’t ever acknowledge they exist. Just continue to make your original version slower and bigger.
If you have ever been on safari to Africa or India, you will have experienced what is called the mid-day lull. For 2 hours either side of midday, all the wildlife just vanishes. The reason is that it’s also the hottest part of the day, so the herbivores go to rest, and with no animals to catch, the carnivores also take the time for a sleep. But come the dusk, and the animals are active again – the antelopes and zebra hit the watering holes, and the big cats are nearby, ready to make a kill.
Darwin wrote that “Everything organic works in cycles”. Of course we are all familiar with our own cycles of life, most of which are set by society (such as when we start work, end the day, go to bed), but there are many other cycles that we can use to our benefit. Such as buying cycles.
Lions, Tigers, Leopards and other cats know that there is no point in wasting time and energy trying to catch prey that is just not there. They study the cycles of the other animals, learn where they go and when, and go to the killing grounds at the right time. In the same way, your customers will have cycles which mean that there are better times to chase for work, better times of the year to make special offers, and better times of the day to email and make calls.
By doing some quick analysis of your existing customers, looking when they made enquiries for information, when quotes were raised or approved, when invoices are generated, and even when help is requested, trends and cycles are easily spotted. This can then be used for more informative marketing decisions.
For new customers, cycles can also be used. All industries have their own cycles (beyond the Christmas and school holiday dates). Some are based around industry events (major trade shows, such as E3 for computer games, or Ideal Home for home improvement), some are based around set dates in the diary (such as tax deadlines or budgets) and some are effected by news events. Regardless of the reason for the cycle, if you can spot and take advantage of the timing, this gives you a significant sales advantage.
This morning I had a fairly heated email exchange with a freelancing friend who accused me of being confused in what I do. In a nutshell, his email stated “How can you run a web blog about freelancing? You’re not a freelancer”. Hmmmmmm. His argument was, because I worked for a Limited Company (which I help set up) and we now employed a handful of staff, I was… a business.
To some people, there are clean lines which say whether you are a contractor, a freelancer, an SME, or a fully fledged business. For me, the lines are so fuzzy to make any differentiation impossible. Let’s put it this way…
You may a contractor, and contractors work for a contracted period of time, at a customer’s site. But I have known freelancers who work on a project, at a customer’s office on projects with a known end date – so does that not make them a contractor? And contracts generally start Limited companies for the tax breaks, so they are also a business.
You may be a freelancer – which typically means working for customers on generally fixed price work, on a project. But then, for larger projects you may outsource elements to other people, or team up to use other peoples skills, and if its invoiced through one company, doesn’t that make them small business?
So what about me, working in a small limited company, which employees a handful of staff – some permanent and some not so (you pick whether they are contractors or freelancers). My company performs work in the same way as freelancers- for customers, maybe supplying one person, sometimes a small team – so are we not freelancers?
The reason I raise all of this (apart from the fact that I got a little annoyed in my friends branding accusations) is that at the end of the day, however you want to brand yourself, if you have made the commitment to go it alone that you have the right to call yourself whatever titles you want – even if you do end up working in teams for some projects.
So throw away the titles, the slots, the boxes and the stereotypes. Instead, enjoy the freedom that being a contractor/freelancer/business owner provides.
Have you ever noticed that when it comes to mobile (cell) phone numbers, that there is no set rules on how you say the number? With land lines numbers, everybody generally uses the format of 5-3-3 when saying a phone number – so “01256 123456” is said as “01256-123-456”. Its short, punchy, and it works for everybody (for London, the leading 5 gets replaced with 3 or 4 leading).
But with mobiles, after the leading “07” bit, there is no rules for the grouping – it all depends on the number you have. But if you group your number one way, and somebody repeats it with different groupings, it’s easy not to recognise your own number. If my number is “07780123456”, I might say “077-80-12-34-56”. Someone repeating it back to me might say my number is “07-780-123-456” – it sounds completely different and makes me double check and think about what is being said.
This mixed-format confusion can be used to great advantage when replaying requirements back to customers. After they are done stating all of their requirements, by repeating their requirements back to them in a different order (either by voice or in an email), the changed and mixed context forces them to think about what they have said, what you have noted, and also if it is really what they want. I also like to throw in the word “only” (or just) as well here and there, just for good measure.
A requirement of “We want a web application that allows UK students to enter their accommodation details on a form, and this gets saved onto a SQL Server database which we can produce ad-hoc reports from”, when mixed and repeated back, might become…
“So let me check I have this right. You want to produce some ad-hoc reports from a SQL Server database. This database will only be populated from a web-based data entry form that we would develop, and would be made available only to UK based students who would use the form to enter just the details of their accommodation”.
I have used it a number of times where the customer has then commented with something like “well, it sounds like something is missing..” or “yes, but we also need…” after they have specified all their requirements.
Using this technique I have saved myself a lot of headaches during project delivery by making sure the customer has detailed everything that is required by double checking what they really want, which has led to more of the work being detailed up front (with a higher price tag) and saves the last minute “oh, I forgot I needed…” conversations on delivery day.
It’s just a jump to the left, And then a step to the right, With your hands on your hips, You bring your knees in tight, But it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane, Let’s do the Time Warp again!
- From the Lyrics of “The Time Warp” – The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The recession is continuing to bite on both sides of the Atlantic. In the USA, it is more than likely that the government will need to restart the stimulus package and plough more federal money into the economy. Here in the UK, we await to see the 2nd batch of public spending measures that will be announced in October, and with the VAT rise due in January, this is sure to lead to further spending cuts in 2012. All of this is bad news when it comes to securing freelance, contracting or small business customers.
Over the past few years, I have done a lot of work in the public sector – predominantly in the UK NHS (National Health Service). But with such major public spending cut-backs, the writing is on the wall and money from this area will be hard to find. Therefore, whilst I am not completely abandoning the NHS, I will be looking at other sectors such as finance, insurance and private retail.
When it boils down to it, the skills required are almost the same – the technology used is the same, the business skills, the method of working – its just the type of information and terms which change.
Of course, getting the foot in the door can be a challenge; with fewer jobs and more available resources, agents and clients can choose to be more selective. Therefore as well as a mental adjustment, any documentation (CV’s, brochures, web pages, etc) need to be tweaked to de-emphasise the industries and markers, and instead emphasis the skills, technologies and experience of the markets you want to side-step into.