On training people

As a follow-up to my post on what I've learned over the years about hiring people, this is a similar list of what I've learned about training and onboarding people as you welcome them into your organization.

Many organizations reduce training to a pretty simple process ("here's the training manual, here's your trainer, go"), but I find it to be one of the most complicated and fascinating periods in someone's life with an organization. The initial days, weeks of someone's employment (or, in a not-for-profit context, someone's time volunteering or serving on a board) are highly influential in shaping the experience they're going to have in the long run, and the work they're going to do.

It's a time when they start to reconcile their "outsider" impressions of what you do and how you do it with what they see as a new "insider" with fresh perspective. It's where any idealism and over-simplification that happens during the hiring process runs up against the nuances of internal processes and the texture of individual co-worker personalities. Training can prompt many moments of truth about the new person's image of themselves as a part of your organization: "do I belong here?" "are they going to like me?" "can I live up to hopes/expectations?"

From the perspective of the people doing the training, then, I think successful training is a careful balance between providing enough structure to properly educate and acclimate the new person to your organization while also allowing enough freedom and flexibility to accommodate their learning style, pace, interests and questions - especially the "why are you doing it this way when you could do it this other way?" ones.

Whatever you do, don't figure out training on the fly. Don't let it be a 100% self-directed experience in some hope that throwing someone fully into the deep end is the best way they'll learn. And don't underestimate the return on investment you'll get from an intentional, comprehensive approach to training.

As the process gets started, minimize assumptions. Communicate clearly and directly with the trainee (a word that feels a bit demeaning but is useful here) about every detail of their first moments as a part of your organization: where they should be at what time (and in what time zone, if you're a distributed team), in what medium the training will be conducted (in person, text chat, audio chat, video chat, in groups or one-to-one), how long the sessions will be, what they need to bring, and anything they need to do in advance. Give your trainee every opportunity to get past nervousness and make a great first impression by removing unnecessary vagueness in these critical first days.

Communicate expectations and set clear training goals. "Over the next X hours/days/weeks we're going to walk through everything from this to that. Your main trainer/mentor/buddy will be this person and they are your main point of contact for the process, ask them whatever you want. Here's the format we'll use, here are the materials we're going to cover, and here's a list of all the things we're going to touch on. Here's how we'll track your progress through this training, and here's what we expect from you at the end of the process." And then make sure all of this information is known to the wider team and company. Continue reading On training people

What we are, what we can become

One of the many recent life lessons I've learned from parenting an 18-month-old is that where you are and what you know right now doesn't have to limit where you can go and what you can become.

It's been fascinating to watch our daughter learn about the world and incorporate that knowledge into her life on timelines that span mere days and weeks. I had apparently developed a cynical view of what people have the capacity to learn and how long it takes, and she is challenging those assumptions and views every day. The old, limiting way of thinking about this puzzle/game/word/object/creature is so yesterday, dad! It is delightful and surprising to watch the human brain expand its understanding of how the world works, and I must constantly re-evaluate what she is capable of in order to keep up.

It's also a good reminder for me about how much we as a society tend to categorize and label people and what they have the capacity to know or do based on our initial encounters of them.

I've been thinking lately about how this dynamic is at work in the tech world in particular - people are pigeonholed into being developers, support/customer service, marketing/sales people, administrative/HR people, founders, or other roles and then we quickly start to make assumptions from there about how they think, what they know and what they're capable of. We can quickly forget that someone might have a broad range of skills and life experience that would allow them to take on multiple roles or see a given problem space from multiple perspectives, even if they choose to primarily occupy one particular role right now. Even worse, there's strong temptation to use only one or two direct encounters to label someone as a good/bad/mediocre version of their singular role, never again mentally giving them the chance to demonstrate otherwise.

"Him? Oh yeah, I worked with him on a project three years ago. He's a so-so developer but I wouldn't trust him to really thrive with this new project."

Continue reading What we are, what we can become

How I stay current with tech

Deloreans on paradeI'm continuing my series of posts about how I do or have done certain things in my business/tech career, and it has been helpful for me to write out my responses to these questions in a way I can point other people to. I'm honored to get requests from friends and colleagues now and then to talk with their students, children and co-workers who have an interest in developing tech skills, going into business and related topics.

One of the most common questions I've gotten is how I stay on top of current trends and tools in information and Internet technology.

Of course, the answer to that has changed a lot over the last 10-15 years. It used to be that one actually did have a hope of being on top of most of the major breakthroughs, news and trends happening with the Internet and related industries, if you were willing to spend the time on it.

Today there are legions of news sites, social media feeds, conferences and other cottage industries devoted to covering technology trends, news and breakthroughs that seem to barely scratch the surface, and trying to keep up with them would be more than a full time job. So whatever your area of focus or interest, you surely have to do some picking, choosing and compromising, and even then you'll probably miss out on some relevant or even important stuff. A lot of my own approach is focused on keeping up on trends related to website development and online publishing, software development for the web, network architecture and security, encryption and privacy issues, and "life hacks" that make me more productive.

Continue reading How I stay current with tech

How I learned to run a business

Meeting RoomContinuing in the theme of last week's post on how I became a computer geek, I thought I'd also share some thoughts on how I learned to run a business.

I get asked now and then what path led me to the world of business ownership/management, and I think the short answer is that I've always just learned what I needed to know to support my other interests and passions, and in one particular long-running case, that meant learning the world of business. I've never set out to run a business for the sake of running a business, and I don't have any formal educational training in that skill set.

I'm not sure that my story should be any kind of model for others; I don't claim that I've always learned to run a business well, and I'm sure that there are many things I could and should have done better over the years. But by at least a few traditional measures of my company Summersault's performance from 1997-2013 - profitability, financial stability and customer satisfaction - I think I can claim some success along the way.

Continue reading How I learned to run a business

How I became a computer geek

chris-geekOccasionally people ask me how I got started working in the world of computers and Internet technology. There were a lot of different factors - from my own curiosity to the learning and discovering my parents and teachers encouraged to the timing of what tools/tech became available as I grew up. I don't think I can hold one particular decision or moment up over another as key, but I thought I'd try to hit some of the highlights.

As a kid I was apparently very, very curious about how things worked, especially appliances and other mechanical things. I would take them apart to understand the innards, and then try to put them back together again more or less in the same working order. I was fortunate to have parents who let me do this exploring, and where they might have had good reason to be exasperated by having household fixtures disassembled and strewn about, they instead were supportive.

Continue reading How I became a computer geek