Trustee Dinner #choaterightnow

Trustee Dinner #choaterightnow

Why “Break Time” is Essential to IT Productivity

A few years ago, I sustained an Achilles injury. As part of my stretching regiment, I spent a little time each day making foot circles. Propped up on a couch within in the Help Desk area, word spread of my daily routine and more members of the IT department saw me twirling my foot. “Break time” was born.

The half hour quickly became an important part of my day.  We told stories of our families. We shared funny web sites. We told lies of about our diets. When frustrated, we retold stories of difficult situations.  

I learned to use binder clips instead of mailing labels on the office mailboxes. When people change in the department, reorder the binder clips without the mess. image

This helpful tip from Pinterest, a site I knew very little about but popular with one of the technicians.

The chain should not be too tight and actually lag off a chain saw.

Always wear a glove and use peanut oil when you deep fry a turkey. In fact, we had a demonstration that turned into a spring vacation luncheon. The turkey fry became a tradition and has grown into a larger event with more “neighbors” joining us each year. 

While traditional work was waylaid, the communal sharing of technology trends, tips and tricks, and general ideas became invaluable.  Often, the time would shift into talking through a major technology problem and several people offering ideas. Interestingly, if I scheduled a meeting to discuss the same topic my staff would not be as animated or engaged.image

A friend compared his time working as a doctor in England versus a American university hospital.  In England, the staff takes time off in the morning and afternoon for tea. They eat lunch together. In America, he usually had lunch at his desk. In England, they had break time.

All of this struck me as I read about Microsoft’s “stacking” policy where all employees were rated against each other in a environment of mistrust and paranoia.  How different my department functions. I have often touted the lifestyle at the end of a second interview. “We are a community. We care about each other. We eat lunch together. We get a generous amount of vacation.  We swim upstream.”

Building relationships within my department is as important as the service we provide.  We don’t have to be best of friends.  We do need to work together with a great deal of trust founded on genuine respect.

Break time is really the huddle before we run the next play.  It is the glue that binds the department. When we are too busy for break time, we suffer and falter.

GTD and My Day: Evernote, OmniFocus, and More.

6:30 am  As I wait for the water to boil for the French press, I scan my email. Outlook is set to show the preview pane similar to the experience using the Mail App on my iPad. When a message is selected, it is previewed without the hassel of double clicking to open.  Messages are not read; rather they are skimmed.  I do a preview to see what issues, requests, and correspondences await me. This frames the beginning of the work day.

7:30 am  Several mornings a week, I commute an hour down the interstate in Connecticut.  Driving allows me to think.  The caveat is to have commercial free music that won’t invade my thinking zone.  Before setting off, I launch Voice Memo Voice Memoon my iPhone and start a new recording and immediately pause it. The trick is to capture thoughts, plans, or messages I want to send.    As things pop into my mind, I add short sound bites to the recording on the iPhone.

9:00 am After checking in with the staff at the office, I process my email inbox.  Using OmniFocus and a paid subscription account with Evernote, I go through the email sorted oldest first.  Old messages have been previewed at 6 am.  As they are reviewed a second time it is easier to make some snap decisions on what to do next. Applying the principles of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), I process the messages.  If it can be answered in under 30 seconds, a quick reply is dashed off.  Anything that requires more than two minutes is transferred into the inbox of OmniFocus as an action item within the inbox.  Short emails are copied and pasted into the text area of the action item while email with attachments are forwarded to Evernote.  At this point I don’t worry about projects, contexts, or time needed, instead it is more important to capture the “to do” within the program.  Effectively, I perform the mind dump on a mini scale which is at the bedrock of a GTD habit.

If the email is reference, I forward the message to Evernote and use additional language  in the subject line in the form  ”# <notebook> @ <tag>”.  For example, an iTunes receipt for an App gets forwarded to my Evernote email address with the addition in the subject line of “@IT #receipts”.

Evernote

To digress for a moment, one of the many powerful features of Evernote is the ability to put multiple tags on a message (or note) and place them in broad notebooks.  Evernote has excellent search features and with the paid account, you can email messages with attachments.  Furthermore, PDF and image files are searchable.  While I use Dropbox as well, there is no metadata for a file stored in a folder.  Evernote allows me to add context to the file. In fact, folders are fairly useless.  This one feature alone is a major reason and advantage to forward messages to Evernote as opposed to merely saving the message within my email system.  I avoid quota issues,add additional text, transfer a message into a project, and search quickly saved email messages.  More on this transformation later. 

Every message is deleted after I read it.  Everyone.  Some are deleted immediately.  Others have a quick response and then deleted.  Some are forwarded to Evernote, and then deleted.  Still others have an entry in OmniFocus as an action item, and then deleted. By the end of this session, I achieve inbox zero.  No need to celebrate, I achieve an empty inbox every day. David Allen’s assertion that this freedom is euphoric is actually very true.  I don’t worry about the email inbox, avoid stress of searching through saved folders, and satisfy my obsessive compulsive disorder.

OmniFocusOnce email is processed, I listen to my voice memos and create entires in the OmniFocus inbox.  Lastly I look through my notes taken in Notability from meetings I attend the previous day as well as any other action items from voicemail, hand written notes, mailbox, etc.  When done, I have a long list of new items in my GTD program of choice, OmniFocus.

I try very hard not to schedule meetings first thing in the morning since it conflicts with this discipline.

9:30 am  My colleagues who are skeptical of my system, quip at this point. “You have merely moved email from one inbox to another.  In fact, you have taken more time.”  As Lee Corso would say on ESPN’s College GameDay, “Not so fast, my friend.”  

There are many GTD mobile apps and programs for consideration.  My criteria is my product has to be full featured.  I have used several web based systems from Remember the Milk to Nozbe.  OmniFocus, a Mac product, is great because it ties into my calendar and with the iPad App shows (or forecasts) items with my appointments.  What is important is that my GTD software allows me create an action item that includes a note field, a project name, a context, start and due dates as well as the ability to sync to the cloud and additionally there is an iPad and iPhone App.

Each item in the OmniFocus inbox is now processed.  Simple items go into a single action list called “Miscellaneous”. These are basically either longer email responses or items that require one step to complete.  The action name is the next step. 

Anything that requires more than one step is transformed into a project.  A project has multiple steps to complete.  What is important at this point is to record the next step needed to move the project forward.  If more than one action is obvious, I add these additional steps.  If I am pressed for time, I only focus on exactly the next step. This may seem trivial but it is the leverage needed to move a project forward. When I return to this project at a later date, the next step item is my starting point and allows me to immediately dive in without the need to review the whole project and accompanying documentation. I have learned from experience not to limit my projects just to work.  We all think of personal items that need to be done and if neglected in this process I can not achieve the peace of mind. I group projects into folders. My broad folders are IT, Home, and Officiating (for three sports where I am a referee).  

All action items are given a context.  Contexts are either verbs (research, phone, email, review) or nouns (computer, meeting) that specify what tool is needed to complete the action step.  Contexts are given to the next action step and with a click of a button can be grouped for review. For example, I can sort all the action steps and see the context “email”. 

Lastly, I add time boundaries.  Start date is always “today”.  If there is not a specific time due date I pick “Friday” giving myself this work week to return to the item.  If there is a specific date something is needed, I make sure to make the due date the Friday prior to allow OmniFocus to remind me of the task and have some time to review.

Contexts

Nothing feels better than checking off action steps during the day. It adds a great sense of accomplishment during the work day.

9:45 am - Lunch.  My work day consists of either meetings or desk time.  During meetings I use my iPad heavily and the App Notability to take notes and Evernote to search for saved documentation.  If the meeting involves a great deal of dialogue and interaction, I sometimes use the record feature in Evernote to embed an audio recording that I can later review and transcribe into notes.  

Meetings often have take aways or action steps.  I transcribe these immediately during the meeting in OmniFocus by adding one entry to the inbox.  Later, when I process my inbox I expand the items and add context, project or list names, due dates, and next steps.

If the meeting has an electronic agenda, it is forwarded to Evernote.  If there is paper items given out at the meeting, each item is scanned to a PDF on the office multifunction printer, and once received in my email, forwarded to Evernote.  Therefore, I eliminate almost the need for actual filing cabinets.  What gets stored in these mechanical dinosaurs are booklets, contracts, schematic drawings, or anything too large and complex to scan.  However, I often use my iPhone to take pictures of drawings or white boards and then the iPhone Evernote App to immediately file them away with the proper tags. If there is physical document saved, I make a notation in Evernote.

Notability is great for text editing and hand written notes or diagrams.  I keep the Notability files to add content but always make a PDF to Evernote to make sure I have a copy in one place.  This also gives me a series of updated notes on a project as I collect numerous PDF updates.

Desk time always has a duration from fifteen to 90 minutes.  At these times, I go back to OmniFocus and look only at items with a due date of this Friday.  Larger review items that require more focused attention are slated for the morning as I sip coffee.  They are completed or if progress is made, updated in OmniFocus with the next action step recorded when I stop.  When I find myself drifting, I know it is time to move on to another task.  I scan the list of projects/action steps and resolve several that take longer than 30 seconds but needed no more than 5 minutes.  By the time the next meeting or lunch occurs, I have completed several tasks.

Before leaving the office, I process my email inbox once again.  It takes me far less time than the morning routine because I left it in an inbox zero state.  Once done, my inbox remains empty.

Afternoon. At some point everyone takes a break and for me I usually catch up on social media which includes twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.  Evernote has both a Mac OS plug-in and browser add-ons to help you take screen shots, selections, or full web pages.  Interesting links are saved with a “R&D” tag.  (GTD disciples: this is effectively my someday/maybe list.)  Tweetdeck will allow me to send interesting tweets directly to Evernote.  Again, there is beauty of having one place for all my stuff.

Fridays.  Fridays are a little different.  This step took the longest to implement in my GTD system.  On Friday I schedule “close door time” to attack any action items that are time sensitive and have fallen off the plate the previous days.  I try to literally clear off my desk.  Papers are sorted and filed, snail mail opened and read, and if necessary new action items created in OmniFocus and next action steps recorded. Bills are paid, voice mail cleaned out, any coffee mugs washed.  While it does not always happen, when accomplished it allows me to relax more on the weekend and address home tasks.  If the Friday predates a vacation period, tis ritual becomes nonnegotiable and must be done.  Even if I have to stay late on a Friday, I won’t start a vacation period without clearing the desk.  When I have failed at this task I struggle to let go on vacation.  Some part of me continues to churn with those pesky tasks.

Results:  I don’t wake up in the middle of the night and stress over all I have to do.  On the very rare occasions this happens, I get up and write out single action items.  This is a warning sign that my discipline has slipped on the daily routine or I am overbooked.  These early morning sleep interruptions happen far less frequently than when I began down this road.  It took me time to try and test various GTD tools.  I made refinements in my buckets.  I tried several variations of contexts.  I was never discouraged to reorganize my folders, projects, etc.   Applying GTD is an organic process.

Evernote changed my life.

I See iPads Everywhere

Choate Rosemary Hall embarked on an iPad program this September by requiring all students to either have an iPad 2 or latest generation iPad.  After a full year pilot and infrastructure improvements, iPads have already transformed the School in two short weeks.  Here are some initial observations from my perch as IT Director.

  1. I see iPads Everywhere.  They are used by students in small clusters sitting on the floor in the student lounges.  The new computers near by have not been touched.  They are outside with science classes investigating plants.  They are being used for note taking in some classes and with Apple Apps in others.  They are in the library where adults and kids are reading eBooks and iBooks.
  2. Collaborative learning has bloomed overnight.  Kids are sharing tips, tricks, and Apps.  Faculty are working with other colleagues in small informal clusters.  Teachers are open to listen to student ideas.  For whatever reason, the laptop never achieved this level of instant acceptance.  Hard to envision during the planning stages, the overall adoption of the Apple tablet has been remarkable.
  3. The use of the iPad has helped dramatically in the teaching of Arabic.  The ability to check the strokes and characters drawn is monumental.  
  4. When movie making is easy, some faculty can venture into the world of a flipped classroom.  A new Chinese teacher at school has recording his classroom presentation daily for homework and spending class time working on problem sets.
  5. As expected, the combination of Apps, cloud storage, and collaborative tools has called into question the entire concept of a course management system.  I wonder how Blackboard will respond to this new paradigm.  
  6. The wireless infrastructure has to be ready for a three to fourfold increase in traffic.  The AppleTV, in concept, has great potential.  Where working, faculty have shared stories of changing their perspective.  They have left the front of the room or head of the table and moved to new seats in the back.  What strains our AppleTVs is their connection via wireless.  Experiments with hard wiring the device to ethernet have led to better performance.
  7. Faculty are genuinely excited about classroom technology.  Happy faculty leads to happy students and better classes.  

Some of this can be attributed to the excitement of a new program.  I think it is a larger shift.  Time will tell.

10 Things I Learned at edAccess 2012

edAccess is a constituent group of Educause for small colleges and independent/secondary schools.  Their annual conference in June was one of the first to use the “unconference” model with all session topics derived from attendees. Small in nature, the summer conference offers a great combination of peer gatherings, keynote speaker, and networking.

Ten topics, tidbits, gems, and observations I made this year at edAccess 2012 in no particular order:

  1. Many schools are wrestling with uncontrolled printing.  Forced to address the issue of waste and inappropriate print jobs, several have investigated print management solutions.  A majority of schools are using Paper Cut.
  2. Nobody wants to allow iOS printing, but if you need to, try this device from Lantronix. Inexpensive, easy to set-up, just place the device on the same subnet as your printers and it discovers them.  iPads can print seamlessly.  The better question is “Why do you want to print from an iPad?”
  3. One-to-one programs using Windows based devices are faced with steady and increased pressure to justify their choice of platforms and to support Macs.  Additionally, they are confronted with added support of iPads.   This raises concerns about whether to switch to BYOD, support multiple platforms, or just switch over to OSX.  Many school facing this quandary are slowly changing their policies.
  4. Staff sizes at most schools have stayed the same or shrunk in the past five years.  Demands and expectations have grown.  Schools continue to struggle to convince administrators for the need for more staff.
  5. Either schools are adopting iPads or some continue to offer Window based tablets.  There are no other contenders. Nearly a third of the schools represented have either implemented, piloted, or are considering an iPad program.
  6. Getting independent schools to adopt online courses will be as difficult. There is and continues to be resistance and obstacles but once accomplished it will become indepensible to our schools.
  7. Need to manage iPad App license codes?  Consider Casper.
  8. Worth Avenue Group offers insurance to students for all their devices at reasonable rates.
  9. Currently have a language lab using Sony Solosit? Looking for an alternative?  Consider DILL.  
  10. When you go to a restaturant with 25 people, don’t argue about the check, just divide it evenly no matter who ordered what.

Jobs and Gates on Education

"Jobs asked some questions about education, and Gates sketched out his vision of what schools in the future would be like, with students watching lectures and video lessons on their own while using classroom time for discussions and problem solving. They agreed that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools—far less than on other relays of society such as media and medicine and law. For that to change, Gates said, computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback." (pgs. 553-554) Couldn’t agree more!

It’s Better to be a Pirate than Join the Navy (Part 2)

This is part two in a series regarding Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs.   Link to Part 1: Insanely Great.

Regarding Management:

But Jobs had latched onto what he believed was a key management lesson from his Macintosh experience: You have to be ruthless if you want to build a team of A players. “It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players,” he recalled. “The Macintosh experience taught me that A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can’t indulge B players.” (p. 181)

For most things in life, the range between best and average is 30% or so. The best airplane flight, the best meal, they may be 30% better than your average one. What I saw with Woz was somebody who was fifty times better than the average engineer. He could have a meeting in his head. The Mac team was an attempt to build a whole team like that, A players. People said they wouldn’t get along, they’d hate working with each other. But I realize that A players like to work with A players, they just didn’t like working with C players. At Pixar, it was a whole team of A players. When I got back to Apple, that’s what I decided to try to do. You need to have a collaborative hiring process. When we hire someone, even if they’re going to be in marketing, I will have them talk to the design folks and the engineers. My role model was J. Robert Oppenheimer. I read about the type of people he sought for the atom bomb project. I wasn’t nearly as good as he was, but that’s what I aspired to do. (p.363)

I have been at both ends of this spectrum.  In some jobs I was consider a B player and at others an A player.  Sometimes you start as an A player and then become a B player.  The longer I have worked in educational management, the more I see the similarities of leading a department to teaching a high school class.  As a student, the right teacher can be the difference between becoming an A player or settling as a B player.

Jobs would only want to teach the honors classes.  He would seek out the gifted and talented and push off the others to somebody else. He would have the current students select the next enrollment.  In most of our school environments this is neither realistic or practical.

We all strive for the best people to work at their peak performance.  What distinguishes a great manager is his/her ability to teach, coach, encourage, empathize, and motivative department members to grow professionally and produce efficiently.  Bill Gates was the keynote speaker at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference in Seattle this week.  When asked what qualities of Lakeside School (which he noted was the only school from which he graduated) allowed him to write a scheduling program for the city of Portland as a student, he answered: “You let us try and didn’t get in our way.”

We stress the need to create environments in our schools that are safe to experiment and fail.  We want our students to work collaboratively.  We desire innovation. We value independent thinking and ask many to “step out of the box”.  Yet, so often, our adult managerial styles do not reflect our mission statements.  Far too often, micro-managing is the default working ethos.  We create frustrated employees who lack a desire to succeed and think our class is full of B players. We do not look critically at our manager styles and ask, “Did I do everything possible to help this person succeed?”  We assume that everyone can just do their job without our help.  If we are judged as teachers, would we be A players?

Teachers are now being asked to think differently.  There are several movements, the most popular have names such as 21st Century Schools, flipped classrooms, and blended classes.  We in management need to take those principles to heart and shape our administrative departments in similar manners.

This is not to say that everyone fits and at times people do not need to be counseled to move on to another position.  This should be the last resort.  We should strive more to be a well oiled, efficient navy, rather than a band of pirates who self-select their own membership.

Insanely Great (Part 1)

During my winter weekends, I am reading Walter Isaacson biography Steve Jobs.  Several passages have struck me.  Too many to share in one blog post, I have group them together in a short series with some thoughts on each.

Regarding the creation of the Macintosh:

"Well, circles and ovals are good," [Jobs] said, "but how about drawing rectangles with rounded corners?"

"I don’t think we really need it," said Atkinson, who explained that it would be almost impossible to do.  "I want to keep the graphics routines lean and limit them to the primitives that truly needed to be done," he recalled.

"Rectangles with rounded corners are everywhere!" Jobs said, jumping up and getting more intense. "Just look at this room!" He opined out the whiteboard and the tabletop and other objects with rounded corners. "And look outside there’s even more, practically everywhere you look!" He dragged Atkinson out for a walk, pointing our car windows and billboards and street signs. "Within three blocks, we found seventeen examples," said Jobs. "I started pointing them out everywhere until he completely convinced." (p.130)

I realized that I often ask lots of questions to my staff.  Challenging them to bend straight into rounded corners resonates with me. Managing a department of adults is not that different from teaching a class of students.  

At the calligraphy class he had audited at Reed, Jobs learned to love typefaces, with all their serif and sans serif variation, proportional spacing, and leading. “When we designed the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me,” he later said of that class. Because the Mac was bitmapped, ti was possible to devise an endless array of fonts, ranging from the elegant to the wacky, and render them pixel by pixel on the screen. (p. 130)

I loved typography in high school and worked for a short period on the school newspaper.  My deficiency in editing, somewhat a result of dyslexic  and learning challenges, made this pursuit impossible.  In fact, my near inability to write by hand forced me on to a typewriter and then to the DEC PDP mini-mainframe, where I was saved by a text editor. It began my vocation in technology.  I have always loved design and it has been part of my educational career stretching from complex drawn play books as a head lacrosse coach to teaching web design. My ability to write in any coherent fashion is a directly attributed to the use of a word processor and a GUI interface.

From Mike Markkula he had learned the importance of packaging and presentation. People do huge a book by its cover, so for the box of the Macintosh, Jobs chose a full-color design and kept trying to make it look better. “He got the guys to redo it fifty times,” recalled Alain Rossmann, a member of the Mac team… “It was going to be thrown in the trash as soon as the consumer opened it, but he was obsessed by how it looked.” (p. 134)

Not until I read this passage did it occur to me that I always save an Apple product box for over a year.  I struggled to throw it out.  At my school, faculty have been known to return a used Macintosh three years later in the original box. 

Transforming from a Specialist to a Generalist

This holiday season, with my young adult children home from college and high school, I had several moments to question my station in life. Not quite at the half century mark, but too close for comfort, I noticed that I could not rattle off all those technical tips, tricks, shortcuts, and “cool” and “impressive” factoids that kept me in their conversation in years past. Climbing the treadmill incline this morning, I pondered this troubling evolution or more accurately degradation in my life.  

I serve on the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) Commission on Technology (COT).  A wonderful group of professionals in the academic, administrative, and information technology sectors of independent schools from kindergarten to high school, day to boarding, tiny to mini-college size, the COT offers a service to members schools to perform a technology review. (Search #caisct on Twitter.) I had the privilege to serve on two and lead one team this past fall. Schools are uneasy but eager to seek support at a time as technology changes. They sense a seismic change approaching and want to be prepared.

Each of these three schools, vastly different in size and scope, had a common theme. The schools had one or more resources to perform break/fix operations. They had specialists to focus on infrastructure and administrative systems. Organizationally, their technology departments were fire departments waiting for the next call, rushing off to drench small blazes, and constantly monitoring potential hot spots to avoid large scale wild fires. The missing piece was a resource to take a long view of all their systems and academic technology.  There was no fire battalion. In other words, there was no one serving as a technology generalist, whose mission was to form strategic vision and keep the school aligned to the growing transformation happening within education and academic technology. Devices such as the iPad are forcing all of us to question all of our established paradigms. 

As the treadmill increased to incline setting number seven, I realized that I had transformed from a specialist to a generalist. Hired to originally to oversee the school’s help desk and day to day operations, I prided myself on all the small details of my school’s technology operation in years past. Now as director, and in this role I serve as chief information officer, I think and act with a much broader stroke.  Several years ago, I attended a Educause seminar in Snowmass, Colorado for new directors of IT.  A major theme of the conference was to become the big thinker and allow your other department members to work on the details.  For the institution and department to succeed, I would have to perform this metamorphosis. I pause at the end of this calendar year to acknowledge my successful completion of this transition.

Of course my kids want the immediate answers to their questions. They, in fact, attempt to finish my sentences for me. They are not interested in a discussion of educational technology in 24 or 96 months. They are not debating the classroom of the future, overhead projectors versus LCD panels, ubiquitous wireless to accommodate a shifting model towards mobile technology, STEM integration, video on demand, or iPads everywhere. They are specialists in their world. I am a generalist in mine.

A major challenge for small independent schools is to create a position that serves this role. Always a battle and a question of budget, this type of guidance is no longer optional. There is a dedicated resource in all schools to handle finances and perform budget forecasting. To join the exciting transformations facing education today, schools need to have a similar person in technology.