8 Ways Basketball Helped My Career

Basketball is one of my Digital Disconnects.  Shooting hoops is cathartic and brings back fond memories of shooting hoops with my friends around the neighborhood.  Not to mention, it gives me an opportunity to exercise.  On the flip side, reclining to watch a closely contested NBA classic whilst indulging on some over-the-top 8-meat pizza of some sort is equally welcome.

But as I play, watch and study the sport, I noticed some parallels that I’ve used to inspire and elevate my own professional game.  Why not take your personal hobby and apply it in a way that bolsters your career?

And without further ado…

1. Master the Fundamentals
Whatever career you take on, know the fundamentals.  Master the fundamentals by always being a student of them.  Your college education and your professional experience are not enough.  Actively practice them everyday.  When you execute the basics of your position with a monk-like zen, success follows (just ask 5-time champion, Tim Duncan, aka Mr. Fundamental).  Others will take notice and might even be inspired themselves to refresh on the basics.

2. One Game at a Time
It’s easy to overwhelm yourself with the future.  Coaches continually have to hone their team to the game in front of them.  Not the games they’ve already played nor the ones they’re going to play afterwards, just the immediate one in front of them.  I want my team laser-focused on the milestone we’re trying to accomplish.  And if that’s too far out, what’s the goal for the week?  Or the day?  Goals, projects, life…they’re marathons and each step along the way matters so don’t get lost looking too far ahead.

3. The Clock is Always Ticking
I am meticulous and methodical in how I operate.  But life is in constant motion and if you dribble for too long, the 24 second shot clock will go off.  It’s important to be aware of this pressure so you’re managing the clock to your favor and not vice versa.

4. Don’t Dwell on Missed Shots
It’s so easy to swirl on faux pas’ and embarrassing missteps.  There’s a negative energy there that degrades your ability to execute causing more mistakes.  You shot an air ball, so what?  Laugh it off and be a factor that helps your team on the immediate next play.  Life is too short to be thinking about how short it is.  I have to remind myself of this one a lot.

5. Adjust Accordingly
A well-timed 20 second timeout can shift the momentum of a game.  Bake in a halftime in your project to assess if you are on track to meet your goals.  If not, why not?  How do you correct it?  How do you get your team to operate differently?  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen teams come out after halftime with a brilliant new plan and dominate the second half.

6. Make Everyone Better
There’s a stat called BPM, i.e. Box Plus/Minus.  It measures how a team performs when a player is on/off the court.  Regardless of how you feel about LeBron James, the dude tops the BPM charts and that has led to significant results, namely six straight trips to the NBA finals.  He literally makes everyone around him a vastly better player.  So I ask myself, how can I mimic this in my day-to-day?  What can I do to make each of my team members reach and exceed their potential?

7. Never Underestimate the Heart of a Champion
What is more awesome than the force of shear willpower?  Against all odds and doubt, the ability to rise like a phoenix and fight through blood, sweat and tears is incredibly inspiring.  When I believe “I can do this”, I often find that I can.  Here are some recent feats in the basketball spectrum:

  • The Golden State Warriors, led by Stephen Curry, beat a 20 year record by winning 73 of 82 games during the 2015-16 season.
  • The Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, were the first team ever to win the NBA Finals after getting into a 1-3 hole in the series, bringing the city its first NBA Championship.
  • Russel Westbrook averaged a Triple Double throughout the regular season, the first person to do so since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62.

As Russel’s motto goes…“Why Not?”

8. Have Fun
I have no hard statistics to backup this, but high-drama, dysfunctional and/or frustrated teams tend to be doomed for early exits.  When players are enjoying and savoring every moment, they light up and that energy is noticeably contagious.  I can’t say this enough, bad days are in each of our futures.  For how long and how bad I can’t say, but I can bet on the inevitability of them.  So have some fun!  Love what you do or find ways to. I’m also willing to bet surprising opportunities will open along the way if you choose to do this.

As this post rolls out, the first round of the NBA Finals will be wrapping up.  It’s a great time to be a fan.  Also, my son recently finished his first foray into team-oriented basketball which was an awesome experience as a parent.  And I put together my best March Madness bracket to date.  If you can’t tell, I could spend a lot time talking about Basketball.  There’s a lot more going on here then simply throwing a ball through a hoop!

Inspiring and motivating are key skills of a solid leader.  Know what inspires you and take it to heart, whatever it may be.  Use it to craft your approach and set an example.  Why Not?

Hi, Peter. What’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.

“Did you get that memo?” ~Dom Portwood

I’ll be the first to admit that I was adamantly against weekly status reports.  It felt like no one was reading them.  It wasn’t fun or interesting to do them.  They definitely weren’t challenging or mentally inspiring.  And there was no sense of accomplishment when I completed them.  The complete opposite of a good, juicy coding problem that required my undivided attention for days to solve.

And yet, reporting is the most critical of all my responsibilities and a direct reflection on my ability to successfully manage a project.

Why?  I am glad you asked…

Pointless?  Mindless Paperwork?
“Yeah. I got the memo. And I understand the policy. And the problem is just that I forgot the one time. And I’ve already taken care of it so it’s not even really a problem anymore.” ~Peter Gibbons

This is from the cult classic (and personal favorite) Office Space.  They’re talking about TPS Reports which essentially mean “pointless, mindless paperwork.”  Yikes!  Oftentimes, sharing progress updates feels like a distraction from the real objective of actually solving the problems.  And that was my natural instinct when I was asked to provide project status reports.  I did them because I had to.  I wasn’t very consistent and eventually just stopped doing them because it didn’t feel like the best use of my precious time.

One day, I raised my concerns with my boss.  We had an enlightening, open conversation about their purpose, why they’re important and how I needed to approach them with a different perspective.  I think a light bulb came on that day.  In fact, I started looking at everything I was doing with a critical eye.  I realized my developer tendencies were holding me back as a manager.  From that moment, I started writing down observations of how I was doing this role…and thus we have this blog.  Hashtag true story.

Reports declare your ownership of the project.
“Samir and I are the best programmers they got at that place. You haven’t been showing up and you get to keep your job.” ~Michael Bolton
“Actually, I’m being promoted.” ~Peter Gibbons

Perception is an important component to the inner-workings of an office.  You can’t deny it.  Regardless of content, weekly project status reports are a single communication point that very definitively, and broadly, state:  I got this.

This is MY project and I know what’s happening to it.  I am actively working to ensure its success.  I am escalating when risks threaten it.

When you build strong, concise reports that you consistently relay, your stakeholders’ and peers’ trust in you will skyrocket.  It does not matter if they read them or not.  In fact, it’s safer to assume that they actually will not read them.  More on that to follow.

Reports allow busy people to be busy people.
“Not right now, Lumbergh, I’m kinda busy. In fact, look, I’m gonna have to ask you to just go ahead and come back another time. I got a meeting with the Bobs in a couple of minutes.” ~Peter Gibbons

Once they know you’ve got it under control, your leadership can comfortably back away and let the project run its course in your capable hands.  There’s no need to micromanage.  Good reports usually answer the most important questions leadership has at the onset.

When your team sees these reports coming from you to leadership and stakeholders, they see you actively communicating the state of the project.  It sends a message to them that you’ve taken ownership and, more importantly, accountability for the entire project.  They will realize you are dependent on them to do good work.  It will encourage them to make sure they accomplish things that can be shared regularly.

Side note:  really good reports can backfire if you solely depend on them for relaying communication.  When trust goes up and people start thinking it’s safe to put the project at arm’s length, they may not be fully absorbing the details of your report.  Make sure to follow up and double down on critical information in one way or another.

Reports document the project’s evolution.
“It was a ‘Jump to Conclusions’ mat. You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor, and it would have different conclusions written on it that you could jump to.” ~Tom Saykowski’s and his million dollar idea

I have been in the situation where I’ve skipped a few reports right as the project’s risks came to fruition.  Suddenly, I’m scrambling to tell the story of why the project went off the rails.  Time is fickle and people easily forget.  Consistent reporting permanently tells the story of how you got from point A to point B and how point C even came about.  The devil is in the detail, so to speak, and should the day come where you need to explain your project’s devil, your reports have the details.

Everything that I have only in my head is a huge problem. Not only is there the Bus Factor, but the stress factor of trying to retain all these details.  I want (and this is an underlying theme to this blog) to walk away from work stress-free and disconnected, allowing my reports to be the source of information and truth.

“This isn’t so bad, huh? Makin’ bucks, gettin’ exercise, workin’ outside.” ~Peter Gibbons

Finding peace is a constant journey for me.  I don’t want to be doing “pointless, mindless paperwork.”  I want to accomplish something every day and I want to actively be living.  At first glance, reporting doesn’t seem so important, but can be crucial to keeping powerful forces at bay that allows you that peace of mind.  Effective communication is a key responsibility of a project manager and your reports should operate as the crème de la crème of that skill.  I now respect and prioritize my reports and cherish the opportunity to briefly grab my peers’ attention to remind them of the awesome things we’re doing day-in, day-out.

Overwhelmed? How to Balance a Billion and One Things

There’s one rule to balancing a billion and one things: you can’t.

A “billion” is a large number.  Duh.  We know that it’s large.  We know it’s considerably bigger than a million.  But when you literally try to picture its scale, it’s mind-boggling.  If you could count 10 numbers per second (which is really quite fast), it would take you over 3 years to get to a billion.  No sleeping or eating along the way!

So clearly, you alone cannot balance a billion things.  Which implies there must be a limit to how many things you CAN handle. I wonder what that quantity is?  And how do you improve to get to that “and one”?

What is a thing?
One of my top 5 favorite movies is Inception.  I liken the idea of each dream layer tier being a developer’s ability to work through deep, complicated problems at peak levels.  The deeper a passionate developer gets, the more zen it is for them.  And any distraction is the “kick” which halts the momentum and requires the time needed for accelerating back to that zen-speed.

One of my goals is to make the team happy and thus, as best as possible, buffer them from those incoming “kicks”.  This means I’m getting kicked all the time.  And when you add children to the mix, this all becomes quite literal.

These “kicks”, the “things” I’m talking about, they’re anything that you have to use a brain cycle for.  It’s that surprise phone call, someone striking a conversation, a growing email queue, reviewing a creative deck, planning a vacation, getting milk on the way home, checking the latest score, picking your nose.  All. The. Things.  You’ll notice I’m not just talking about work items.  Very quickly you find you are simply surviving, not thriving.

Why are there so many things?
Life has very little regard for our well-crafted schedules.  Bad days are undoubtedly in our future, whether tomorrow or years from now.  And when work starts to spill out of your nurturing hands, Life has a tendency to make it pour.  It’s how Life rolls.

As we know, projects go through ebbs and flows as they proceed and as portfolios evolve.  There are a lot of forces that can turn a project sideways.  Before you realize it, you discover you are on the wrong side of your threshold of keeping it together.  This isn’t necessarily you failing at your role, just the nature of software development chaos.  Increased demand doesn’t equal reduced complexity.  How you respond to this pressure is the key to excelling at this role.

Okay, but HOW does one deal with all these things?
Dealing with a lot of things is a skill.  You can only get better at it by doing it.  I’m no master, but I’ve improved considerably.  Most importantly, I’m vastly better at keeping the stress levels down and taking inevitable chaos in stride.  And don’t confuse dealing with a lot of things as improving your ability to multitask.  Science basically says more multitasking equals reduced IQ.

Here’s the set of tricks I do:

1. Clear my mind
Being overwhelmed is a state of mind.  The first reaction of most inexperienced managers who are presented with an overflowing plate is to go into reaction mode.  They get to the end of the day exhausted and not really sure what they’ve accomplished.  It’s important to stay calm and make sure the right stuff is getting done and the right stuff is falling off.  I’ll take five minutes to meditate or get a big, deep breath of fresh air.  It might seem weird to pause before tackling what is growing around you, but it can bring a calm that lets you conqueror the important stuff with haste.

2. Protect my time
It’s good to be friendly and available.  But this can be costly and when push comes to shove, undisturbed time is the key to knocking things out.  I’ll put on some headphones, set Do Not Disturb on my instant messenger, shut down email, flip a light switch, whatever gets the point across.  If people still swing by, I’ll ask them if it can be discussed later.  If they are persistent, I am stern but apologetic.  I’ve got a billion things in front of me and I’m in damage control mode, some people are just going to have to wait.  Remember, you’re not doing these things because of them, but for them.

3. Escalate
When a project is showing signs of going south and I see an uptick in hurdles, I’ll raise a flag.  It’s not the red flag of “oh crap” and it’s not the white flag of “all is lost”, just a flag to indicate that something is up.  My leadership and peers greatly appreciate knowing that the cup is dangerously full and might become directly their problem.  It’s also good for them to know I am actively working on it.  If it can’t be contained, the next level of escalation becomes easier and they are more willing to help than being frustrated at it becoming their burden.

4. Delegate
Delegation in itself is a thing and can be time-consuming.  This often leads managers from ever handing something out because they decide they’ll take it on themselves. And then they never get around to it because it’s too low on their totem pole.  But it’s high enough to look bad that it didn’t get done.  Delegation takes trust and letting someone answer it in their way.  I will attempt to serve it up to the right person and challenge them to fill in the blanks as they see fit with a contained amount of direction.  Either it works great or it doesn’t pan out so well.  If the latter, I’ll figure out why and learn from it.

5. Hyper-prioritize
I write down all the things floating around in my head and separate them out into groups of when they need to be done.  Then I do it again.  I want to know what I need to do before lunch or the next meeting.  What has to be in a good place before I can go home?  What can wait for tomorrow even if it seems like a today item?  Then I’ll go grab a drink or talk with a coworker for 5 minutes.  One last time, I’ll look at the immediate list again and see if it can shrink at all.  Then, it’s time to bust out my favorite “get stuff done” done playlist and have at it.

6. Set alarms
Time flies in “get stuff done” mode.  Whatever list I’ve made, if it’s a “get done before the meeting at 2:00pm” or “by the end of the day”, I put one or two forced stopping points.  Am I still on track when those points occur?  No?  I’ll reconsider my plan.  If I’m in an impossible situation, I’ll own it, think through the repercussions and start planning for those instead.  Sometimes battles are lost no matter what you do.  I’ll seek a silver lining, even if it’s simply learning from my mistakes.

7. Use Tools for Organization
There are a billion organizational tools.  Well, maybe not a billion (e.g. see explanation above), but there’s certainly a lot.  Personally, I recommend Trello.  I need to get things out of my head and into a format where I can quickly drag and drop them in a way of sequential priority.  Every second something stays in my head is a second of opportunity for something else to come in and push that something out.

Ideally, as a manager, the goal is to prevent chaos.  But real life scenarios tend to unfold in unexpected ways.  If work becomes overloaded, your work-life balance and peace of mind will be put at risk.  Sometimes you have to buckle down and get things done but it should only be a relatively minor tunnel, one that you could manage holding your breath through.  One day your going to look back and reflect on the sum of your life and I’m willing to bet most of those things around you now won’t be significant enough to remember then.  So step outside, take a big, deep breath, go back in with your head held high, point to the light at the end of the tunnel and run full speed.  You got this.