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COMMUNICATION SKILLS

The Hedge Episode 11: Roland Dobbins on Working Remotely

I failed to include the right categories the first time, so this didn’t make it into the podcast catcher feeds correctly…

Network engineering and operations are both “mental work” that can largely be done remotely—but working remote is not only great in many ways, it is also often fraught with problems. In this episode of the Hedge, Roland Dobbins joins Tom and Russ to discuss the ins and outs of working remote, including some strategies we have found effective at removing many of the negative aspects.

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Explain-a-holic (Communicate Clearly)

But just a couple of days ago, I was talking to someone about managing expectations in the IT world. How do you convince someone else to buy into a project? How do you get them to back your idea, rather than inventing their own? While the question itself is interesting, I’m going to leave my thoughts on it to another post.

What I realized, halfway through answering the question, was that I was sucking up a lot of time talking about things that probably didn’t matter. I was spending time talking about the problems of getting people to own the problem, or make them believe they’d invented the solution, and specific projects I’d been involved in where we could never convince a wide group of people to buy into our ideas and solutions.

At some point, I’m certain I sounded like this snippet from a recent email —

Like if I asked, “what is 1+1?” he might say, “one takes 1, and adds 1 to it, and you get the next integer, which is really quite interesting, because you can do this over and over again, and never get the same answer, which is a bit like…”

There are, generally speaking, two kinds of engineers in the world. Those who know how to talk to people, and those who don’t. You should really learn to be the first kind, of course. But the problem with engineers is once we learn to talk, we have a hard time shutting up. It’s all too easy for an engineer to move from the quiet kid in the corner who never says anything to the boisterous person who talks about everything without explaining anything.

In other words, it’s all too easy to become an explain-a-holic.

The probable cause of this tendency is two fold. First, as engineers, much of our living depends on knowing a lot about a lot of things. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the resume padding game, wanting to make certain your audience really knows just how much of a geek you are, and how many little areas of technology you know about. Second, as engineers, it’s easy to get lost in the details of how something works rather than why. Engineering has a fix this now mindset, often making it difficult to listen, or to limit ourselves to the immediate question.

How can you solve this (see — engineering!)?

Listen to the question. You need to listen to what is being asked, rather than for things you know how to answer. A lot of the explain-a-holic tendency is simply putting fluff around the words “I don’t know this, but I do know that.” A little humility (I know that’s hard, because most geeks don’t excel at humility).

Give brief answers. Listen to what you’re saying when you answer. One reason I like to blog is because I must keep my posts around 500-1000 words — a challenge, since I’m used to writing much longer pieces of text.

Minimize the example. A common rule of thumb for slides is, “if you can’t explain it with five routers, you don’t understand it well enough.” There is a good illustration or example for every principle in the world — and it’s always small enough that it’s easier to understand than the concept itself. In the engineering world, we love complex examples that develop every potential case, including small corner cases that are only encountered once every hundred years. No example is going to “run on all four feet.” They’ll all be just partial explanations. But try to extract the principle in the simplest example possible.

It’s not about you. You’re not trying to make your listener love (or like) you. You’re just trying to explain a simple idea. It’s useful to keep the explanation entertaining, so it’s easier to remember, but it’s not about you.

Of course, I’m writing this post for myself as much as I am for you — these are ideas we all need to learn to live by.

Don’t be an explain-a-holic. Communicate clearly.

Eschew Obfuscation (Communicate Clearly)

Many years ago, I worked for a manager who had two signs on his desk. The first was a pencil with the words, “Pencil 2.0” printed above them. The rest of the sign went on to explain how the pencil had undo (the eraser), was renewable (it can be sharpened), etc. The second sign was simpler, just two black words printed across a white background.

Eschew Obfuscation

Being just out of the US Air Force, and not having quite the vocabulary I should have (have I ever told you that reading is the key to having a great vocabulary?), I didn’t really understand the point. Now I do. Okay, to make it more obvious, from the Collins English Dictionary, 8th edition:

eschew: tr to keep clear of or abstain from (something disliked, injurious, etc.); shun; avoid
obfuscation: the act or an instance of making something obscure, dark, or difficult to understand

Now do you see? Avoid using language people can’t understand. Far too often, in the technical world, we use abbreviations, acronyms, and all sorts of cute nonsense to say things. We pepper our language with shorthands and inside jokes (squirrel!). While this sometimes helps communication, sometimes it’s a form of social stenography — a way of keeping “outsiders” from understanding. And sometimes it’s just a way of saying, “I really don’t know what I’m talking about, but you should listen, because I know all the right buzzwords.” As we always used to say —

Dial-a-buzzwordThe modular capabilities support of this system is driven by the dynamic parameters array and functional systems implementation of the integrated performance environment.

Yes, I’ve been around enough to actually own an original Gerry Cohen Dial-A-Buzzword. There’s a digital version here, if you’re so inclined — I used to have a computer specific one up in javascript, but I’ve not updated it in a long time, so I finally took it down.

What is the point of my little rant about buzzword bingo and technical gobbledygook? Is it that we need to stop using buzzwords? That we’ve all been silently assimilated into marketing without realizing it? That we all sound like idiots when we talk? None of the above. Rather, my point is simply this:

If your audience doesn’t understand you, it’s your fault.

Whether we’re writing or speaking, presenting or whiteboarding, it’s far too easy just to call someone clueless when they don’t understand. This is a bad habit we engineers need to break — we need to learn to communicate clearly, no matter what we’re communicating. Whether or not we use engtalk when we’re working with other engineers we’re certain will understand us, we need to learn to take responsibility for being understood.

Specific suggestions?

Slow down. I don’t know about you, but I talk too darn fast. Being born and raised in the southeastern United States doesn’t make it any better — “y’all” really fast is even harder to understand than “youse guys.”

Spell it out. If someone doesn’t know an abbreviation, don’t treat them like an idiot — spell it out. And if you don’t know some abbreviation, don’t be afraid to ask.

Abstract to the right level. Sometimes people just aren’t going to understand at the depth you know how to explain. Learn how to find multiple levels of abstraction, examples, analogs, and illustrations to help them understand.

Use images. Even if you just have words, use those words to paint a picture. Make your drawings clear and understandable. Don’t draw things you don’t need to explain the problem, solution, or technology. If it takes more than five routers to illustrate, then you need to rethink how you’re explaining it.

But finally, mostly, and most importantly — take responsibility for being understood. Trust me, you’ll be a better engineer if you do.

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Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 2)

Last time, we talked a little about making certain your presentation has a point — or a porpoise, as the case might be. This time I want to talk about a few other common mistakes I see network engineers make when building presentations, and actually presenting them.

First, you put too much text on your slides. I know you’re afraid you’re not going to remember everything you want to say, but that’s no excuse to have a 500 word essay on every slide. The bullet points on a slide are supposed to be just that — bullet points. They’re supposed to remind you of what you mean to say at this point in the presentation, not to be the actual words you’re planning on saying.

Okay, I understand we’re running head in to another problem here — what about folks who print my presentation out and take it home to read it later? That’s what hidden slides are for. Put all the text you really want to put into a slide on a hidden slide just after the slide itself. Then pull out just enough words for you to remember what’s on the hidden slide when you’re doing the presentation. If you really need the text, it’s still there, and it’s there for folks reading the presentation afterwards.

But the audience should be listening to you, not reading your slides.

Second, your network diagrams are too complex. Seriously, if you can’t explain a point with less than six or seven routers, rethink what you’re explaining. I know network diagrams are hard to draw, so it’s really tempting to put a single diagram together and use it to illustrate everything from neighbor formation to flooding domain boundaries in OSPF on every slide in the entire presentation. But — trust on this — your audience is dazed and confused enough. You don’t need to confuse them with a huge network diagram.

There’s another point to this, as well — when we were developing the CCDE, one thing we ran in to is a heavy load of cognitive dissonance. When someone spends time seriously thinking about a principle or concept, they will continue thinking about that same principle or concept when they see the same illustration again. People have a hard time thinking about neighbor formation between two little routers drawn into the corner of a huge diagram, and then shifting gears to think about flooding domain boundaries explained using one of those two same routers in the same diagram. In the end, we had to provide more “mental separation” between the different sections on the practical to relieve some of this problem.

Whether or not you want to believe it, your audience is experiencing this same sort of problem in your presentation. Stop using the same network diagram to explain everything.

Third, you’re not leaving enough white space around your images and text. We engineers seem to be deathly afraid of white space, like rock concerts are afraid of quiet. We’re somehow afraid that our audience is going to slip into those little spaces and get lost, like Dr. Who slipping into the TARDIS, or some such.

On the contrary, white space is critical to our ability to process information. White space provides separation between concepts like an ABR provides space between flooding domains. Open MS Word, create a new document with two columns, and set the gutter between the columns to .001. Copy and paste a huge amount of text in there, and try to read it.

That’s what your presentation looks like.

That’s it for my initial tips on building a good presentation. As I run across other tips, or graphic design books I think are good segues into the world of building solid presentations, I’ll post them here.

Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 1)

Powerpoint doesn’t stink. Our presentation skills do. So how do we fix it?

First, you must decide: what do I want this presentation to be? We’ve all seen the brilliant TED talks about new ideas. We’ve all seen the really cool sample presentations from those online presentation sites about someone’s trip around the world. When you’re looking at those talks, though, remember this: they are selected out of millions of talks for their content, and their content fits their format. I’ve seen folks do fairly standard slideshows with Prezy. It doesn’t work. I’ve also seen people do “let me tell you about my trip” presentations with Powerpoint. Again, it doesn’t work.

So, just like network engineering, pick the right tool for the job. Since most of an engineer’s presentations aren’t going to feature exciting trips down the River of Doubt, or even up Doubtin’ Mountain, we’re probably pretty safe to stick with a fairly standard presentation package — slides, warts, and all.

Yes, it’s important to get the flow right. I once stood in for a presenter who’d lost his voice — the material was router architecture (hardware and software), so it’s a topic I know well, so I wasn’t in the least concerned about giving this presentation. When I stood in the room and started looking at the slides, though, I realized — a bare 15 minutes before I was supposed to start speaking — that there was absolutely no rhyme or reason to the order of the slides. Individual topics were scattered throughout over 400 slides (for a 90 minute presentation!). There was no “unifying principle,” such as “begin with a packet being received on this interface, and let’s see how it’s switched all the way to the outbound interface.” Normally, this speaker knew the slide deck well enough to flip between the various sections to tell a story — the slides were a visual aid to a talk he had in his head, rather than an actual talk in visual form. There’s no way I could replicate his talk, as it simply wasn’t in my head the same way.

Almost every presentation I see has some form of this same problem — there is little thought put into a unifying principle. The audience doesn’t move from an idea, or a set of ideas, to a conclusion, they just jump around. Look at virtually any sales slide deck and you’ll see this problem illustrated almost perfectly — product after product, “see you have this problem, that product solves it.” There’s no architecture or idea of a set of business problems driving a narrative.

So focus, really hard, on building a flow. Look at a real outline of what you’re presenting, and try ordering it in different ways. Try and find major headings and subheadings. Don’t just let all the information sit there in a bunch of slides. You want a chain of pearls, where the person can walk from one slide to the next, and understand what is being said — the point that’s being made. You don’t want a random walk, as useful as they are in some situations. Even if you’re not telling a story, you’re telling a story.

Don’t just count on the story in your head, either. People are going to save these slides and look at them later — will they make sense then? Our brns fll a lt of infrmtion in — one of the mst commn prblems with spllng and edtng is that we knw wht we intnded to wrt, so we see that instd of what is actlly on the pg.

Send the presentation to a friend, completely blank on the topic, and ask them to outline the points made. If they don’t get it, you haven’t built the presentation right — plain and simple. Don’t spend time explaining it to them, redo the presentation until they can get it without you saying a word. They might not get the details, but they must be able to get the flow and the point without you telling them what it is.

It’s that important.

At some point you want to be able to see this in your own presentations — but don’t expect it to happen overnight. Like throwing the perfect pitch, or shooting the perfect stage, you must practice right to learn the skill of separating yourself from the material far enough to see the flow without filling in what you meant to say (and didn’t).

Next time, we’ll talk about some other reasons why your presentation stinks, and how to fix it.

Powerpoint Doesn’t Stink

“Presentations are just a waste of time.”

“Powerpoint stinks.”

“Can’t we do something other than another long, boring, presentation?”

“We should just ban Powerpoint.”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone complain about Powerpoint, or presentations, I’d be rich enough to quit work and stop blogging. 🙂 Isn’t it about time we were honest with ourselves, though? Isn’t it about time we told the truth about this particular problem? Blaming Powerpoint for bad presentations is like blaming word processors for badly written books.

The problem isn’t Powerpoint. The problem is the person you see every morning looking at you in the mirror. The problem isn’t the tool, it’s that we stink at organizing and presenting our thoughts in any sort of reasonable way. So let’s talk about how to build a better presentation.

To begin: forget everything you’ve ever read in a book about making elevator pitches, making a presentation that impacts, with dash, flair, or whatever. There is a set of presentations that present as a story, with flair and dash, and there is another set that just doesn’t.

As an example, I was the Routing Protocols SGM for Cisco Live for many years. One thing I noticed is that, within the routing group of presentations, troubleshooting presentations always get better scores than deployment or theory presentations. Across a wide array of speakers, and a wide array of topics, troubleshooting lends itself to “telling a story,” while also diving into details people like to hear — so they tend to score well. Presentations that present information on operation, configuration, or design, tend to score less well, no matter who presents them, and no matter what the specific technology is. So there will be things that will present well, and there are things that won’t. If you were a professional speaker, you could, perhaps, only decide to tell stories that people want to hear, and hence present yourself as the best presenter who’s ever lived. Back in the real world, we don’t often have the choice of what we present — there is material that must be communicated to a wide audience, so we present it.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think seriously about the flow of a presentation — in fact, the flow is probably the most important element of any presentation, no matter what it’s about. It’s often best to build each section of the presentation as a separate subset, then rearrange in every way possible to see what works well. Often getting the flow right is a matter of experience. I can’t tell you how to build a flow that works, I can only tell you what doesn’t (or won’t) work. One thing I can tell you is that the way you write shouldn’t be the way you present. Just as a book must sometimes be changed to make a good movie, any given document will need to be rearranged to make a good presentation.

We’ll cover more about practical ideas when building a presentation next week—but for this week, stop blaming Powerpoint for your horrible presentations. The tool isn’t the problem, any more than C makes bad code, or EIGRP makes bad network designs.

The rest of this series can be found here:

Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 1)
Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 2)

Write Like You Mean It (Part 2)

old-booksIn the first part of this two part series, I talked about why it’s important to learn to write — and to learn to write effectively. But how do you become an effective writer? I started with the importance of reading, particularly difficult and regular reading across a broad array of topics. Is there anything else you do to improve your writing skills? Yes — specifically, get yourself edited, and get some practice.

Hey — I’m a pretty good writer, why do I need to get myself edited? After all, I’ve written nine books, hundreds of articles, tens of research papers, and… But that’s just the point, isn’t it? I wrote several large papers (at least I considered them large at the time) while I was in the Air Force, but they never seemed to have the impact I thought they should have. Weren’t they well written? Weren’t they well organized? Well researched? As it turns out, no, not really. I started on my first white paper just after I’d started in the Cisco TAC, reading through the EIGRP code and writing a paper — for internal use only — based on what I could find. Don and I backed up each assertion by setting breakpoints in the code and watching the actual variables change in real time, and then back checking everything on the wire using various packet capture tools. The paper was eventually published on Cisco’s public web site, and I thought I’d pretty much reached the pinnacle of my writing skills.

Then I started on my first real book, through Pearson Education. I quickly discovered my writing skills just weren’t what I thought they were. The drafts came back looking like a river of red ink. It took me two or three books to get over taking the editing personally. But I learned. I learned where and how to use an image instead of words. I learned how to organize information in way that made sense to people — to pay attention to the flow of the text.

I then took on a fiction book. Again, I thought I was pretty good by this time. Again, I was completely and utterly wrong. I hired a retired English professor to work through the edits. Again, entire rivers of red ink ensued. But I learned — I learned how to meter out information, to slow down, to find ways to describe things, to make things happen, rather than talking about what was happening. I’m still not an accomplished fiction writer, but the rivers of red ink certainly taught me.

Finally, I started working on a degree in theology. Certainly, after all the writing I’ve done, and all the times I’ve been edited, I’m a pretty good writer by now. Yeah, right. The rivers of red ink were even larger, longer, and redder (if that’s possible). But I learned to structure an argument, to think through the counterpoints, the other side, to actually research and think through what other people said, to catalog the options, to really read the entire article around someone making a point in the area in which I was working…

In short, editing has taught me to write. If you’re going to learn to write, you need to put yourself at the mercy of editors who are good, and learn to listen. Don’t take the red ink personally, take it professionally. Take it as a chance to learn.

Finally, get some practice. One of the reasons I actually began blogging, and continue blogging, is not to become famous, or to win friends and influence people, but rather to practice. There are different sorts of writing, each with its own rhythm. But I’ve learned that if I’m going to really learn to write consistently, I must give myself a reason to write consistently. Blogs, if nothing else, consume text. Day in and day out, it’s a challenge to find a topic, stick to it, make a point, and move on.

So there it is. It’s important to learn to write if you’re going to be an effective engineer. For practical advice, I can give three points: read hard stuff, get edited, and get some practice. Am I a perfectly practiced writer at this point? Can I churn out text whenever I feel like it? Certainly not. I still struggle with volume and speed. I still sit and tell myself to focus.

But I think, maybe, I might have finally reached the point of being a pretty good writer. No matter where you are, you should make a commitment to start your journey to good writing skills now. It will make you a better engineer.

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