Saturday, October 18, 2008

Connection skills gained

I'm still reeling from the User's Group conference which my workplace hosted over the weekend. So many things happened that spur thoughts. I'm not used to so much input so quickly.

I made several new friends. This is unusual for me in that I generally make acquaintances easily but rarely really care about people that I don't know well. A few of the people I met, I genuinely care about. It's funny -- I'd been praying recently that God would grow me in this area -- learning to genuinely care.

My main function at the conference was to sit in a corner and hear what people wanted changed or improved in my particular portion of the software (CNC). I had a steady stream of people that began with lines waiting to see me on Wednesday, to a steady but slow stream on Thursday, to only two people with new requests on Friday. With each person I tried to:

Listen carefully. Since I don't come from a steel background, I'm still learning the vocabulary, and most people started with something like "I got that Python X machine..." I had to pay pretty close attention to figure out what sorts of machines they had, and what those machines require of my software.

Represent their request on paper. It didn't take me long to figure out that just repeating their request back to them didn't work for me. Either I didn't understand their problem correctly, or I forgot it too quickly. With most, I ended up drawing something out to represent what I currently do, and they drawing a second picture to represent what they wanted. They then approved both pictures. I generally put these requests on large sticky notes.

Categorize the request. Is it a bug that needs fixed? Is it a new feature that they want? Does it seriously hinder their productivity? Does it seem like the type of thing that a lot of people would use? Do I know how to go about implementing it? I made separate sections in a notebook for bugs and enhancements. I stuck the sticky note with the request into the appropriate section, and on Friday when I wasn't swamped, copied the notes onto normal paper.

Get their name. I couldn't believe how hard this was for me. I could talk with a man for an hour, and not have a clue who he was. Most of the guys didn't carry business cards. By the end of the second day, I had started putting a name and an email beside each request.

Give them my honest assessment of their request.
I got some requests that I'll probably never implement. To those, I said "To be honest, I don't see this one as very likely. But I'll make sure it gets put into our database as a request." Most, though, I could understand real quickly what they wanted and why. I tried to give each of them an honest estimate of when I thought I'd get their request in the code -- either "in the next couple of weeks", "by the end of the year", or "not until after the beginning of next year" for the ones that I thought I'd actually do. I was surprised how appreciated this was.

Remember something about them. It was easy for the guys to remember me. They didn't have ten pages of notes from forty people that had just asked them to implement something for them. It was a lot harder for me to remember when I sat down by someone to eat dinner that I'd just spoken with him an hour ago -- let alone remember what the request was. I embarrassed myself a good number of times by greeting someone and not remembering what they had asked me to do (even though I assured them that it was in my notebook).

The payoff

At dinner on Thursday night a man came up, gave me a little pat on the shoulders and asked if I was going to be working for this company forever. I told him 3-4 years was likely, and he was sad. He said 'It's so nice to actually meet someone who cares'. I was taken aback -- our company has extraordinary customer support, and I thought our customers felt cared for. But when I reflected on the statement more, I see his point. The programmers in particular really are just doing a job. They're answering to their manager, not to the customers, and they want it that way. (I'm blessed with a pretty hands-off manager who likes that I deal with customers). Most of the programmers and even most of the managers really don't like the customers -- too rough a crowd. Yet when you take the time to really see them - they're among the most genuine people I've met, and I felt very blessed by them.

Valuing people

There's one man in our workplace who could work anywhere else for at least twice the money. He always has people trying to hire him away and go back to steel detailing (which he was before he became our trainer). And yet he stays because he feels that he does the industry and our customers in particular more good by staying at his severely underpaid position. He's in it for the customers, and to do them good. Now I understand. Now I've met them and seen them as real people, not just a messed up group. Now I'm working for the customers too. It's a good feeling.

The photo, by the way, is of an AISC sculpture representing every type of standard connection permitted in a steel building. I find it humorous that God is using steel connections to teach me about personal connections.

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