Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Strange Rendering in Firefox

I just started using Firefox 3.0 today and while I am impressed by all the new bells and whistles, I am less than pleased with the way it renders the ThoughtWorks website. Take a look! I wonder what the problem is?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Using Visual Aids in Training - Flipcharts vs Powerpoint

One of the training tools that I find extremely powerful, yet grossly underutilized are flipcharts. I have a huge bias towards flipcharts and whiteboards as opposed to Powerpoint/ Keynote/ Impress (I will refer to this group of tools as Powerpoint for want of a better term in my vocabulary) for two reasons:

1) Flipcharts are low tech and can be used for delivery in a variety of training environments; especially those with limited equipment. For eg: I've trained in University environments with limited or no electricity supply and flipcharts really come in handy in such situations

2) The second reason is simply the issue of learner experience and I am perhaps going to spend some time elaborating my thoughts about this. I hear a lot of arguments in favor of Powerpoint is that "its a visual tool". Yes it is; but not one thats always apt in a training environment. I completely appreciate the use of Powerpoint in presentations where the idea is to get across information and not really to transfer or reinforce learning. That said, in a learning environment, if Powerpoint slides with a lot of text on them are your only visual tools, you should be concerned about the effectiveness of your learning experience. There are a few reasons for this.

When we as trainers build a flip chart based on discussions in class, it provides a strong visual anchor for the shared learning that the group arrives at. When building a flipchart I usually gesture as if I am collecting information from the class and place that on chart itself. This, I observe helps students connect better to the learning they've contributed to. On the other hand, a Powerpoint presentation is a static experience that you cant alter in class. A lot of Powerpoint delivery is aimed at conveying facts as against building shared understanding; which pretty much kills the whole aim of generative discussion.

When you extend this to a course that runs for multiple days; a Powerpoint presentation from the first day, is an experience that is long forgotten by your audience, by the third day. On the other hand if as a facilitator you've been able to build a flipchart with the class and you can place that summary on one of the walls, it provides a strong visual anchor for students to rock back into the previous experience and recollect the shared understanding you've arrived at.

I understand that a lot of trainers use Powerpoint presentations as prompts for their delivery. Often the reason not to use flipcharts is that we don't remember the diagrams or flowcharts that we wish to put up on the chart. Here's a tip -- Use one of the top corners to draw a small and light pencil sketch of what you wish to finally put up on the chart. Your students will not be able to see this and you can also provide the dynamic experience you're trying to create.

I must say that I've seen some intelligent use of presentations in training as well; especially the Takahashi style. I find this a lot more visual than slides with multiple lines of text. These are good placeholders for conversation and don't reduce your training session to just reading from slides.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Leaving home for home

Through circumstances I got displaced to Bangalore for work. Now while my immediate family is in Bangalore, Pune is really my home. I leave Pune yet again to go back to my Bangalore home. I hate this; I really do. At some point, I'd like to come back to Pune and never return. Its no fun to leave home; especially if its Bangalore you're going to.

Using Perceptual Positions

I often use the NLP Perceptual Positions technique to help think about confrontational situations. When doing this, I've enjoyed visualizing the confrontation as if it were being played in front of me on a huge movie screen. By making the experience larger than life, I drop a strong multidimensional anchor that makes me respond to reality in a better fashion.

One of the techniques that I've also found useful in the domain of associated and dissociated experiences is the Meta-Mirror from Robert Dilts. The Meta Mirror adds a fourth position to the perceptual positions pattern. Dilts proposes that the subject assumes a fourth position to evaluate the observations of the third position. So, if in the third position, say you're angry with you in the first position then switch the reactions of the third position and the first -- which is to say that in the resulting state the first position is angry with the person in the second position. Evaluating the second position after this is usually desirable. I've often seen this panning into a much more desirable representation of the perceived confrontation. While I've had varying levels of success with this, its partially because I'm still so much a learner with NLP. I am sure with time I can be a more effective user of my own mind.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Freedom or Openness?

I notice even from my previous post, that I use the terms "Open Source" and "Free Software" interchangeably. While I am a very practical person and completely agree with the practicalities of the term Open Source; but when I spent some time thinking of why I started using GNU/Linux as my primary OS in the first place, (I've switched to a Mac now, I know) I wonder if we're fast losing the context and the bigger purpose of having software that allows us to look under the hood. Richard Stallman's been one of my idols for as long as I can remember - I even have a portrait of him in my room!

Being a defaulter myself, I cant be prescriptive about the term to use but if you've been using FOSS, then please do spend some time pondering over the Essential Freedoms.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Inclusivity vs Equality

At ThoughtWorks one of our values is Social Responsibility. It gives me great pride to recognise some of the work we do outside the company to make a difference in the smallest or the biggest ways that we can. That said, as most children raised in good old Indian families will tell you, I've always believed that "Charity begins at home.". Which is why I feel more drawn towards things like recruiting exceptional women; or Roy's vision of having more African Americans in the firm; or recruiting exceptional knowledge workers with disability. And while I know that while this could be repeating myself to the extent of sounding stupid; I think as an organization, we dont do as much internally as we try to do externally.

Now these are my views and I could be extremely naive to miss some really obvious considerations, but there are two definite areas that I feel we could do much better in:

a) Encouraging more Indian women to contribute to Open Source projects: Now, traditionally Indian ThoughtWorker women havent been great contributors to Open Source projects. A part of me wants to compare the general TW India women population to that of the men and wonder what's different. I'd like to believe that its definitely not the talent or the passion but more the social orientation of women in Indian society. Traditionally, Indian girls or women are expected to be back home at a reasonable hour, either because their parents get worried or because they have responsibilities back home or because late office hours and the return back home from there is simply not safe enough. This puts Indian girls at a serious disadvantage as compared to men. Now one can argue that a high speed Internet connection at home should solve the problem. Yeah right; but not if you've got to help mom make chappatis or if you have a seven month old kid thats bickering away. Being a woman in an Indian household isnt easy.

What can TW do?: Now this is pure conjecture and again I dont mind if this is dismissed if I am not making the right assumptions. Can we offer to given Indian women paid time to work on Open Source projects? How about you can work just six hours a day on a billable project if you contribute the remaining time to an Open Source project of your choice? With the thoughts that are in my mind right now, I'd like to think that this would make a world of difference in helping Indian women take ThoughtLeadership. More women could see women contributing to OpenSource; more women could get passionate about technology by looking up to role models they can identify with; more women can be ThoughtWorkers; more women can help us in our small mission - to revolutionize the software industry. If not anything, as an Indian society we owe this to our women, and in that offers like these could greatly support our value of Social Responsibility.

b) The second area I'd like to think about is supporting people with disabilities. In my experience I've met multiple people with disabilities who are exceptional at the work they do. All they need is an inclusive work environment. Now I'd like to take a pause at this. I've heard a lot of arguments about "treat them equally". Unfortunately, what many of us need to realise is that creating inclusivity is the first step to create equality. For eg: asking women to work late hours and having them fend for themselves when it comes to going back home. "Well, men go home by themselves; we consider women to be equals so they should be able to go home by themselves too!" Well, that to me is lame. Women traditionally have been victims to assault, rape, snatching and men haven't. To turn a blind eye to that isn't equality. To be able to safeguard against that risk and providing the support to do so is a step towards creating equality. ThoughtWorks India has done some amazing work with Kilikili to create inclusive playing spaces for children with disabilities. I'd like us to be able to create inclusive work spaces for potential employees with disability. This includes having restrooms that people with disability can use; this includes creating ramps to enter buildings where we have offices (if there isnt one already); this also includes providing the support to get to office and back home and to training venues. Its important that this is looked at from the perspective of creating equality and not as special treatment. India is an extremely inaccessible country if you're disabled. As ThoughtWorks, if we can provide that bit of extra support, we truly support our purpose of being "a home for the best knowledge workers."

Disclaimer: These views are mine alone and in no way are a reflection of what the company does. I could be making wrong assumptions and naive suggestions. None of this should be taken as gospel. These are just my thoughts of what I think ThoughtWorks could do to support its value of Social Responsibility.

Sarkar Raj is good watch

After having read a rather uncomplimentary review of Sarkar Raj, I was a bit circumspect about watching the movie. But then my good old Indian sensibility kicked in - "...after all if I've purchased the ticket, I must watch the movie!" And I must say, I haven't been disappointed. Yes admittedly, the extreme closeups of men, coffee cups, rings and what not makes the movie difficult to watch, ye t the plot is gripping and keeps you interested right till the end. The movie does finish in a hurry though and a few parts are a bit difficult to believe; but then that's Indian cinema aint it?

RGV keeps the plot tightly woven, and reaches a logical conclusion in the movie (keeping the prospect of another sequel open); though I wish he'd used the support cast; especially Sayaji Shinde and Victor Banerjee better. All in all, the sequel worthy of the original and do watch it especially if you liked Sarkar. My industry eyes see a hit - after all like in the 80's; if a Bacchan dies, the movie's a hit!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Does the new Bangalore airport suck? Yes Sir!

The Bangalore International Airport has created in me a great fear for traveling. I left home at 1300 and reached my place in Pune @1900. My ordeal began when I left home. Rs 711 to travel for 90 minutes on a Sunday afternoon was just the start. It took me 40 minutes to check in (the photograph is evidence of the long queues that you can expect to see at the airport). This compared to the HAL airport, where I have spent not more than 6-7 minutes for a check-in. The Wi-Fi doesnt work, the aerobridges are not functional, the restrooms are dirty and poorly maintained (and even broken in places) and most importantly the airport isnt much bigger than the old one - so I wonder if this is more a problem than a solution. All that the AAI has done is increase commuter woes, while doing nothing to solve the issue of increasing air traffic.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The IPL's over

Last ball finish to a really exciting tournament; I guess the best you can ask for. Chennai pretty much dug their own grave with some sloppy fielding and by giving out extras at critical junctures and Rajasthan pretty much deserved to win, having been the stand out team throughout the league.

Its a coincidence that I heard Ravi Shastri saying something silly at the T20 World cup final - I remember it to be "India have won the TT world cup". Today he kept saying multiple times, "DLF IPL League". Ravi, IPL = Indian Premier League. When you say IPL League, you're effectively saying Indian Premier League League. Surely, having been a commentator for years, you know this makes little sense.:-)

How many objectives can a training session cover?

My favorite NLP presuppositions are:

  • People respond to their experience, not to reality itself
  • We already have all the resources we need or we can create them
  • If you want to understand, act.

These form the basis of my approach to teaching and what we call "experiential learning". A statement I've often heard in trainer discussions is - "But they need to know ____ as well!" This has often led me to think of whether there is a limit to the learning we can realistically transfer within a training session.

When I started off as a trainer, I was told that if you formulate learning objectives in the S (Situation), A (Action), R (measurable Result) format, then considering that your learners are unconsciously incompetent; to be able to raise their awareness to conscious competence, you should assign no more than 3-5 learning objectives to every 120 minutes of training. The number of objectives that you select would definitely depend on the complexity of the skill and the prior experience of the audience, but I've found this to be a good rule of thumb to follow.

This may seem like a very modest expectation from training, however I've observed from my experience that courses that are any more ambitious than this, invariably require continuous rework and are always in a state of flux. I have a couple of tips for anyone who's looking at designing new training:

  • Follow the SAR pattern to writing learning objectives. This is quite similar to the Given, When, Then format of writing Acceptance Criteria. For eg. lets consider a possible objective for Interview Skills

    Situation - In an interview
    Action - observe eye accessing cues, language and gestures
    Result - state an evaluation of whether the candidate is lying or not.

  • Once you have a list of possible objectives, sort them in descending order of importance. Agree this with another stakeholder, preferably the sponsor of the course.

  • Try to make a mental map of how many of these objectives you will be able to cover during the session through discussion and by modeling reality. Remember "telling-aint-teaching".

  • Set aside the objectives that seem to be unrealistic in light of the previous step. Remember to be flexible with this list as you progress with the the design and development of the session. Be sure to include the sponsor when deciding trade-offs.

  • When designing the session, include hooks to the unfulfilled objectives, to arouse your students curiosity about the topic. Ensure that you link to self study resource for those interested, so that the unfulfilled objectives can be achieved by those that demonstrate an interest.

  • Make sure you account for training downtime, such as questions, stretch breaks, minor off-topic discussions, difficult situations to facilitate when writing and sequencing

I expect resistance to this method, especially in strong hierarchical organizations, where most of the directives come from "above". One of the ways to mitigate this risk is to actively include the business user that expresses the initial training need and to use your training consultant hat to explain the perspectives surrounding each trade off. In my experience as a trainer, I've seen the expectation of a "training magic wand" being all too prevalent, where businesses are naive enough to expect 3 hours of training to cure a skill gap that could have been built over years. Including sponsors and business users in the design of your training solution ensures that the focus towards follow up actions, such as coaching or e-learning doesn't disappear.
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