Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Pace of High Tech Life

How many times have you heard yourself or a colleague or a customer or a business partner say things like the following:
  • I'm up to my eyeballs in work
  • I'll have to get back to you once I get a breather
  • I'm triple-booked; can you reschedule?
  • Sorry--I dropped the ball on that
  • I'm using lunch to dig myself out of email

Not to mention all the work emails timestamped after 10:00pm, or the fact your inbox already has 40 new emails when you get into work although you stopped checking it after dinner.  Its starting to become an unsustainable pace.

Here's a quintessential example--a picture taken of a colleague's inbox.  It's a little blurry, but if you can't make it out it says 1355 unread emails.  (I happened to take this pic when she and I were both on a conference call, and I've been too busy to ask her why on earth her inbox was that full.)

1355 unread emails?  Indeed, which is why I had to take a picture. There could be a lot of rational explanations about this, but here's one easy explanation.  I myself get roughly about 150 emails a day.  My coworker travels a lot, and she was gone the week before.  So, it's easily conceivable that this is just backlog from her trip for a single week.  That's just a sad statement for living high-tech today. I know that I'm busier than I've ever been, and every time I talk to anyone else (in my company or anyone else's), I always get the same reply--I'm swamped.

I've been thinking about blogging about this topic for a while, but ironically, I didn't have the time.  I did have time to tweet about it, earlier though.  (That's one of the things that makes me love Twitter--it's so much less of a commitment.)

How are you doing at your job?  Busy?  Yep, that's what I thought. Is it everyone in high tech? Is it endemic to the whole Western world? If you've got a spare 10 seconds, I'd love to get your comments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Andy's Telematics Detroit wrap-up: how to make auto shows even better

Telematics Detroit was, for us, a good event again this year. The Jeep was a great success, with lots of people filling all four seats on a pretty constant basis, and lots of people waiting to see what HTML5 really can do. The show was busy and loud, even if you don't include the car alarm going off near the end of the event.  In the quiet of my hotel room, away from the clamour, I reflected on the event and came up with two main observations.

1) Telematics Detroit's main value is in networking. For industry old timers like me, it's always like a big reunion party.  It was great to see old friends from jobs long ago, friends who have done business with QNX for many years, and friends who have never done business with QNX but love us all the same.  It was great to build on our existing partner relationships, and to work on blossoming new ones. It's great to catch up with people, building up your own business-card sized slice into their personal career trajectory

More than ever, it's clear that the car app has finally taken hold.  I talked to many mobile developers who are targeting the car; we're helping them figure out how to bridge the mobile-car gap.

An anecdote shows how important networking is to this event. The Telematics Update party sponsored by Slacker had two live bands, an open bar, and cheerleaders milling through the crowd.  Telematics and Tonics (the event brought to life by my good friend and former boss John Correia, and sponsored by QNX, Agero, and Tweddle) was held at the same time across the street.  We didn’t have a live band, an open bar, or cheerleaders, but people still found our party a great place to mix and mingle.

2) I think that the sessions at many auto events need a face lift.  This isn't just about Telematics Update—it's a reflection of many shows I've been to lately.  I heard from a few people that they had walked out of talks after the first couple minutes, or that they generally thought the content of the sessions or the panels was not as valuable as they could be. Having done panels (yes, I did one this time) and speaking engagements (no, I didn't do one this time) at many shows, I think I can shed some light on why this is.
Every show has to organize months in advance, so abstracts are created months earlier, which allows them to schedule and print show guides, etc.  With this model, you're planning for what's going to be discussed several months ahead of time.  Is this time lag critical?  Sometimes it can be—if you're working in a fast paced industry, it may mean you're not going to be able to talk about something brand new.

There’s a bigger problem: the people you invite to speak are industry experts.  And experts are in high demand. Which means that they're multi-tasking and being pulled in many different directions all the time. The show content they need to deliver is just a small fraction of what they need to output each and every day. As it's so far in the future, it often gets prioritized low on the list, often only getting completed days (or hours) before the show.  Old material is often recycled, the presentation may be unpolished, and the slides may be uninteresting. This lack of ability to put quality time into creating a clear and concise message and refining it generally leads to presentations that are difficult to follow, or that add little value.

What would help? I can think of a couple things that could be tried:

  • Don't use printed guides at all, and leave the content and abstracts flexible until days before the show. Also, keep the content automatically updated on a web site—why kill trees for no reason? Not committing to a specific topic months in advance means the material can be fresh and relevant to that very week.
  • Except for the keynote, make the session rooms smaller and more intimate, and instead of having a one-way presentation that turns into a core dump, create open Q&A sessions around areas of expertise. This approach can encourage an interactive conversation that grows in the direction of audience interest, instead of potentially boring the audience or, even worse, going over their heads.  The speaker is an expert—they don't have to prepare anything, except be prepared to talk.  A panel session isn't exactly what I have in mind—even a panel is a little prescriptive and doesn't dig down into the details that can really engage the audience
  • Create and enforce use of a standardized presentation template.  SAE does it. As a content creator, I have often cursed SAE’s policy, but it definitely drives consistency. SAE's template was less than attractive in years past, but this year it was actually decent. A standardized template has many advantages: it helps limit the number of slides and the amount of text on each slide; it also enforces appropriate image/diagram usage.  If done right, it can help presenters create something that works well for the size and expectations of the audience.