Be Proactive: Why You Should Prepare for the Worst Case Scenario

(3.5 minute read) You won’t be able to turn every type of scenario into butterflies and sunshine, but having a contingency plan gives you a guided path to follow instead of spinning around like a Reactionary Headless Chicken. #bandname

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When life gives you lemons…

We’ve all heard that old adage. “Make lemonade!” you instinctively reply. Or something else humorously sarcastic for those of us who are sick of this saying. But, how many of us have been truly knocked out by a life-punch? How would you have approached that situation differently if you had a second chance? What if you had already built a plan for it and reacted based on that?

Let’s hone in the subject matter’s scope to the typical work project and then expand outward to a more general sense of life itself. The experience here can lend itself either way.

The Necessity of a Contingency Plan
Quick quiz: have you seen or discussed a contingency plan for your project(s) or company in the past 6 months? If no, you’ve got a problem and regardless of where you are on the so-called totem pole, you need to raise a red flag. The first step of creating a contingency plan is simply asking “what could happen?” Any one can do that and assuming others are is a risk you shouldn’t be a part of.

This all may sound like paranoia but consider those who study martial arts. They have built muscle memory that instinctively kicks in (pun intended) when the threat of a fight appears. There are situations from earthquakes swallowing servers that bring your e-comm site down to your team all getting bed-ridden-sick right during the final stretch of a critical project sprint. You won’t be able to turn every type of scenario into butterflies and sunshine, but having a contingency plan gives you a guided path to follow instead of spinning around like a Reactionary Headless Chicken. #bandname

Whether you’re a part of a corporation maintaining a digital ecosystem or a software vendor pumping out projects for clients, neglecting to ask “what could happen” carries significant risk. It takes a little bit of effort, but think of it as an umbrella for that eventual rainy day.

Okay, now that you’re sold on this, go here for guides on how to create a top-notch contingency plan!

What would I do if…

  • …if I lost my job?
  • …if a loved one passed away?
  • …if I got sued?
  • …if I got a terminal illness?

These are dark thoughts. It’s a bit stressful to think of earthquakes taking down your site, but personal worst case scenarios are depressing thought-paths. You’ve probably considered a “what if” question or two in solace when your mind is allowed to wander. But, you probably haven’t sat down to specifically think of it and devise ways in which you would respond to these scenarios. Which is why I recommend you set a date. Sitting down with the intention of thinking through these possibilities can be cathartic and bring a peace-of-mind. Personally, I have a Google Drive trove of “so this happened, Stay Calm and Do X Y Z” documents that I create on a regular basis. And, of course, there’s a Trello board too.

And the thing is, for the longest time I would make a mental note of “I need to write this down”. I had seen coworkers and family lose their jobs. I had seen divorce shake up families. I had seen children with disabilities. All of this hurts my soul and I wanted to write down the “what if this happened to me” as if to take it off my chest and put the feelings elsewhere. But yet, I kept not doing it. Not until I finally blocked off some time. It felt so good afterwards that I scheduled a recurring reminder.

Final Thoughts
I wonder if meticulously writing down my plans for responding to misfortune is like a mental martial art that trains me to make appropriate judgement calls in the heat of the moment. And the event doesn’t necessarily have to be something I spent time planning for. I’ve had a few stretches in life that were really challenging and that made me realize I’m not immune to really bad days. It makes me incredibly thankful for what I currently have because there’s no promise the great cosmos gives me that I’ll have it tomorrow. So maybe I am a bit paranoid and writing these things down is overkill, but it makes me feel at ease. Ultimately, your personal zen is what matters, so do what it takes to have it and protect it.

Google often makes us lazy. Consider stopping right now and spending five minutes or so jotting down how you would respond to some worst case scenario of your choosing without consulting Google (or the next best thing). Just you and your mind. Meditate on what you write and let me know if you got any value or if it was a waste of time. Inquiring minds want to know!

The Garbage Man Stan Complex

(3 minute read) – The Garbage Man Stan complex is that moment when you’ve crossed the point of no return and failure is imminent. You have to be aware of your own limits and make the right decisions to avoid getting trapped into that situation.

There are times when you have to disconnect mentally just to handle all the things in front of you to keep them from blowing up. Eventually this becomes a game that you will inevitably lose. I call this the Garbage Man Stan Complex.

Garbage Man Stan?
I’ve participated in a handful of game jams (i.e. developing a game from scratch over a small set of hours) in my past. I don’t get too as often since career, family and side projects dominate my life now. But, every once in a while, I make a concerted effort to join a community of indie developers and create something tangible, maybe even presentable, within an impossible timeframe. The sense of accomplishment of turning something in within time is rewarding enough considering my side projects take years to complete. For more reasons why, Martijn says it best in his post, The Many Benefits of Speedhacking.

There’s one game that I made during TINS 2007 (yes, an exact decade ago) that I’m particularly proud of. It was called, you guessed it, Garbage Man Stan. Marvel at its next gen level graphics:

gms

The randomly generated rules (it’s a game development competition…are you surprised?) called for a theme about garbage, using current news events and utilizing smoke and flame effects. I started with the following synopsis:

The player, playing the part of Garbage Man Stan, will maximize their revenue by incinerating a steadily increasing flow of delivered garbage for as long as possible until one burner inevitably overflows thus ending the game.

The most exciting game ever, right? That is quite literally THE game. Everything else I did beyond that point was to add a factor of fun or make it more of a novelty. The trucks bounced like they came straight out of a 1930’s cartoon classic. Side note, who’s playing Cuphead right now? Anyway, proud to say I placed in the top three in Technical, Genre and Artistical in a group of 20-ish people with this game.

The Complex
Getting back to the day-to-day, it often feels like stuff is being dumped on my plate faster and faster and it is up to me to address it before it overflows and I lose the game, so to speak. I am not talking just work or life, but everything, the “a billion and one things” conundrum. I’m sure most can relate. I know my strengths and I am better at depth than breadth. I prefer to focus in, consume all the data and think deeply about what something means and what should be done about it. I am also happier when this is what I get to do. Nonetheless, life for me currently is more about how well I can package up chaos and make it look beautiful. It’s taken a while to adapt to this, but discovering I can do this, and do it well, has been very rewarding in itself.

The Garbage Man Stan complex is that moment when you’ve crossed the point of no return and failure is imminent. You have to be aware of your own limits and make the right decisions to avoid getting trapped into that situation. Failure to do so can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, mistakes and/or poor project outcomes. Not to mention the overflow is just that: a negative impact to others’ lives.

While we’re on the theme of games, consider the Sims. A Sim has needs that are constantly depleting at different rates based on the Sim’s personality. This is true of work too, but at a more abstract level. How long have you sat on that email? How long have you been ignoring that co-worker? How long have you let a bug live in production? Even though you’re hitting the highest priority items as fast as you can, inaction on another can also cause you to lose the game.

Summary
If you’re in an impossible situation and there’s too much to do, the best you can do is all you can offer. Even if you end up in checkmate, the good thing about life is that it does go on. Expel the feelings of defeat, learn from what went wrong and go on as a better version of yourself. That’s called experience. You’re going to be just fine, but you have to keep going.

Speaking of game competitions, I’m participating in TINS 2017 coming up on October 20th! If you’re a developer, whether you’ve done any game development or not, you should consider joining! The last competition I did was in 2015, so I’m a bit rusty. And my time to “just code” has also taken a significant hit recently. I’m excited to see if I’ve still got it. Follow me on twitter @supersilvey and cheer me on!

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.

Summary
“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.