Thursday, January 18, 2007

Coinstar -- convert coins to e-certificates without commission

Coinstar is a company which provides coin-to-bill conversion services. You see those big machines in many superstores etc. You just pour your coins and it prints out an equivalent coupon for you to cash or buy things at the store. That has been a nice feature to get rid of all those pennies, nickels,dimes, quarters that accumulate when we do cash transactions. But, in the past, Coinstar has charged a commission of around 9% which can be expensive.

No more if you are willing to use e-certificates from many retailers such as, Starbucks, Timberland etc. No commission charged. You get a gift certificate for the whole amount which you can use to buy whatever you want, say at or elsewhere. It's neat little enhancement to entice people back to those coinstar machines. It works quite well. Coin counting is fast and efficient. You just pour coins into a bin and slide them into the counter. Then when done, it spews out a receipt with the gift card which you can validate on the web sites of the retailers.

Do not underestimate how much money you may have in coins. I today generated 2 e-certificates amounting around 385 dollars. That's quite something. Since I shop at quite a bit, it works for me.

Good show Coinstar and retailers who have partnered. You certainly have created a niche.

Btw, Coinstar is a publicly traded company. Stock has done very well over last few years although quite expensive from P/E standpoint.


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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

RR about career opportunities

I recently finished search for a new job and wanted to share some random reflections (RR). It may help someone or myself after a few years. If you have additional insights, do share.

No particular order or organization for these jottings. Just random but hopefully relevant. More will follow for next few days.

1) I find it is fascinating that an interviewer with a very reputed software company said this to me. Very very nice of him. In his own words – “discount at least 25% of everything what you see in every person to reach an estimate of how they will perform if offered the job.” The explanation was meaningful. Not everyone is able to bring the same level of energy, ambition, enthusiasm, upbeatness (add other positive attributes) on daily basis to work. It is good to expect that things change, problems in life occur, job becomes boring and what not and the person’s level of fire does swing and it is best to assume that you can at the best expect 75% of his best. This is based on the assumption that most of the people are at their best during interviews if they are serious about having a best shot in getting the job. What an insight?! Makes perfect sense to me. Lesson learnt – raise the level of your over all energy by several notches during the interview. That way, even after discounting, you stand a good chance. Of course, it goes without saying that, if you experience serious swings in things that matter to your employer down the line, it may affect your career adversely. That’s a different thing altogether. This insight is going to help me more when I have to interview people to hire  than getting hired myself.

2) Job Market, as of early 2007, is excellent. People with right skills can find the job in no time. People with good knowledge but average skills can also find jobs. Knowledge is what you know. Skills is what you can do. If you have ace skills in the areas employer is looking, you can probably land your dream job in less than 2 weeks provided you have done your homework and you truly are such a skillful person. But, what eventually matters is to have a good balance of skills and knowledge and leverage all opportunities to transform your knowledge into skills. Knowledge is part of the preparation to seize opportunity to develop skills. Example – even as a developer you can take a course in project management and when the opportunity presents, you can seize it to gain real-life project management skills. Same with getting education in related fields so that you can offer yourself to take on additional responsibilities in the areas where you do not have direct skills. I can not emphasize how much employers value a person who can do this. It makes every sense to let someone who they already know and can do a decent job given time and opportunity than to bring someone from outside. This is how people who start off as programmers become CEOs. There is no magic in it. So, when you have time to learn, learn. Opportunities are plenty, it is our lack of preparedness to seize them is the problem.

3) Interviews are as much an opportunity for you to gauge the employers as it is for them to gauge you. Do follow your gut feelings. If not comfortable with the people or company, please do pass the opportunity. It is miserable to get into a place where your gut says you are going to flunk.

4) Resume - Always keep your resume current. You do not know when you gonna need one. At least update once in every quarter. Still better once every month. This is where keeping a journal helps. You are not going to miss accomplishments or things you have done if you maintain a journal on daily basis. Keeping a journal on daily basis is not an easy thing to do. Another way but not as effective is to write a summary of your professional life every week end. Takes additional time but works well. Just spend 1-2 hours referring to your calendar of the week that has just gone by. Remember all the meetings you attended, people you met, phone calls you made and e-mails received and sent. Outlook offers a nice way to group the e-mails by conversation. Use that to get to the summary of a bunch of e-mails on the same subject. Using these and any other, write up a nice summary for the week. Include accomplishments, lessons learnt, what could have been done better. Also capture all relevant experience. If you are generalist and going to work in general management or project management, many questions in the interviews are going to be behavioral or situational. Analyzing our experiences and summarizing them only helps us get better us answering such questions better. More about that in the next point.

5) For general management and project management positions, behavioral questions or situational questions are what going to decide if you are going to get the job offer or not. Questions which ask you to describe a difficult situation, how you handled it, what you learnt from it form the core of such questions. You can not manufacture such scenarios if you have not kept track of real life experiences. What matters more is to have had a experience or something close than if you managed to come out of it successfully. It's much better have had a difficult experience, failed at it, learnt some good lessons and be able to talk about it than to say to the interviewer that you can not recall any such experience. Questions such as - tell me the most difficult conflict you resolved, how do you deal with difficult people etc. etc. need solid preparation drawn from real life. Do not attempt to manufacture questions and answers, good interviewers can easily spot them. Experience when not real and genuine does not fly.

6) Give up cynicism about interviewers. I met some incredibly nice people during last few months. It always helps to know their feedback especially in the cases where you thought you had an excellent interview but did not get the job. If you work your way well, by the end of the interview process, you would have had spoken to hiring manager at least twice. Use those to develop rapport by being direct, honest and genuinely seeking their feedback. People want to help more than we care to give them that chance. I as a matter of fact try to end my final interview with the hiring manager on something on the lines such as - "if I do not get your favorable consideration, I at least hope to get 10 minutes of your time sometime later to understand what swayed your decision other way." There was one opportunity which I thought I almost had it. But, did not. The hiring manager was wonderful. She called me back after I left her a voicemail after hearing negative decision from HR. We spoke for 10 mins and she gave me solid feedback on where I excelled and where the candidate they had chosen excelled. She also gave me some other good suggestion. Overall it felt much better regardless of the outcome. In fact, she even got back to after 2-3 weeks with few other leads and one of them did land a telephonic interview. So, do not think interviewers are just that. If you ask for serious feedback and are reasonable with your requests, they will help. This feedback is going to help you prepare better for other interviews.

7) Two good books to read to help you prepare well for the entire job search process - "What color is your parachute?" and "Guerilla marketing for job hunters". Excellent books. Buy them if you can.

8) If you are looking for jobs in general management, product/project management, use LinkedIn. Excellent postings. Many times you can use your network to have someone introduce you the job poster. What can be better? The job opportunity that I accepted ended up being one of the opportunities that a VP, Engineering had posted. Even for pure technical jobs, is a good source among other career sources.

9) Resume - always have a summary section listing your high level credentials and important experiences. If you have a solid summary section in your resume right at the top, rest of the format, length etc. is not going to matter much. If people like your summary, they are going to skim thru rest of it, if not they would have never bothered to skim thru it anyway.

10) Telephonic interviews are becoming almost the de facto first step in the interviews. At least 2 to 4 telephonic interviews will happen before someone is willing to spend their valuable time in meeting you in person. So, take the telephonic interview very seriously starting with the first one with HR coordinator to one with the hiring manager and others in the team. Some things that can help with telephonic interviews -1) always schedule a time. That way you can be prepared 2) Organize on logistics. Where,when and how are you going to do telephonic interviews. 3) Stand up while you give telephonic interviews. It helps to develop depth to your voice. 4) Always start off making sure that you and the other party can hear well 5) When the telephonic interviews are scheduled, always remember to get the phone number of the person who is going to call you. If you do not get their call in 7-10 minutes of the appointed hour, call them. It servers two purposes - first saves your time. second, people are sometimes stuck in situation  and they truly appreciate your taking time to call them to remind. It may help you win their confidence. Sometimes I think it may be trick question sort of a thing to see how much you are interested in the position, your initiative level and many other such soft skills. So, when in doubt, CALL.

11) First step during the face to face meeting is to ask for the business card. Make it a first step because it is easy to forget to ask for person's business card later. It also gives them an opportunity to go and get one if they are not carrying one. If they do not have a business card, ask them if they can write their e-mail address for you. One or the other way, always get every person's e-mail id.

12) Be very prompt with thank you notes after the interview. Best done in first 24 hours. Just drop a simple e-mail thanking the interviewer for their time and interest in talking to you. Anything that you learned about that position that specially interests you, reiterate your skills and reaffirm your interest, end with asking them to get in touch if they need any additional info. Thank you note should make sure that it enthusiastically conveys your interest in the  position and your gratefulness for the opportunity they provided you to explore the career with their company.  It's only natural that you may forget to get e-mail id once or twice. If that happens, write up the thank you note to all missing people in a separate document and attach it to the e-mail of the interviewer that you felt most comfortable with a request to forward to them. Not the best way but better than not sending a thank you note at all.

13) Are thank you notes requited after the telephonic interview? Not sure. First is the time it takes to get the e-mail on the phone especially if it is a complicated e-mail id. Second it is error prone. It is certainly a good idea to send a thank you note after the phone interview also but if you can not it's ok. One thing I did was to always thank the recruiter who arranged the telephonic interview and ask them to pass on thanks to the interviewers. Or you can also guess the person's e-mail id based on other e-mails that you have. But, to be safe, always include a line in the e-mail that you chose to guess their e-mail id only to send them a thank you note. Although many won't mind receiving an e-mail to an e-mail id that they did not explicitly provide, it is better to be safe than sorry. By explicitly mentioning, you come clean and clear. If a person minds it beyond that, always be ready to apologize for having used their e-mail id without getting it from them. I have never had any such experience.

More later on effective job search.


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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond - movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio and others.

Nice movie. Very touching especially if you have followed in any detail about the blood civil war in Sierra Leone and other west African countries over diamonds. Everyone wants them - rebels to fight government and government to fight rebel. No ideology or no good intentions. All for money and this has led to a lot of blood shed and unimaginable suffering to people in the region.

The movie does a good job of sensitizing diamond consumers all over the world about the horrors and crimes behind acquiring those so called 'precious' stones, how they may be contributing to blood shed by being indiscriminate about not caring where and how the diamonds come from.

Good mix of contemporary theme, action and great acting by everyone. Some scenes are ghastly but shown with due care. No unnecessary blood spilling. But, only to the extent to show how cruel and horrible people can be to their fellow human beings. One thing is true - the kind of violence that is common in Africa is hard to believe but it can be sometimes worse that what we get to know thru news media. It seems to be part of the land there to be violent. Dog eats dog world - literally.

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Are you Linked In?

Benefits from professional networking are immense. Job opportunities, sales opportunities are best discovered using someone who already knows you. LikedIn helps connect like minded professionals and help one another with networking.

Great way to connect with fellow professionals and renew contacts with old timers. The site has many neat features all integrated and one place.

Take a look and you may like. If you do, start networking.

I have benefited immensely from this site and networking with many. I am open to connect requests from other professionals. Feel free to drop me a connect request if you are on LinkedIn.


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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Integrating Agile Development in the Real World by Peter Schuh

Integrating Agile Development in the Real World (Programming Series) (Programming Series) (Paperback)
by Peter Schuh

If you want to learn about how to take your theoretical understanding of agile development and implement it in the real word, this is a good book for you. Very well written. Very well organized to give concrete ideas in a logical manner for successful implementation.

This book does not spend too much time on teaching basic tenets of different agile methodologies other than providing a brief overview of different agile methodologies at the beginning. That's good enough considering the objective of the book which is to give real-life "how to" implement agile development practices  in the real world.

The author does a good job of grouping agile practices as they apply to different sub-disciplines such as development, testing, documentation, project management, people management, communication management etc. This provides a nice way to pick and choose practices to attack some low hanging fruits first and then go for difficult ones later after getting a few successes under your belt.

People management which is treated with very little detail in many books finds a good measure of treatment in this book. That is certainly refreshing. One thing I would not forget from this book is something goes like this - "Skills can be learnt by anyone with varying degrees of speed and effectiveness. Nevertheless, they can be learnt by anyone given sufficient time and training. Experience naturally comes with time. But, character is one thing that is ingrained in a person. So, while hiring people do not focus only on skills and experience but pay close attention to the character." Of course, teaching how to hire right people is not one of the objectives of the book. But, the fact that the author recognizes the very important but hard to quantify character as one of the most important attributes while selecting team shows his maturity and hard earned battle proven expertise in the real world.

Best practices get very limited treatment  in the areas of requirements engineering, documentation, integrating other important cross functional disciplines such as user training, outbound product management, tech support. However, while delivering a large software product, these functions play very important role and practicing agile may have serious impact on their work as well. Offshore development and large distributed development also gets very minimal treatment.

All in all a great book on the basics of how to do agile in real world.


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Monday, January 01, 2007

To happy and successful reading

Regardless of whether we like reading or not, in this information age, we are all expected to absorb or more importantly synthesize enormous amount of data. Doesn't make sense to become more effective at that so that it serves different purposes at the same time? First, if you like to read and read more, by becoming effective at reading, you can read more. Second, if you do not like to read much but want to spend your time on other equally or more interesting activities, it helps to finish off (effectively) your reading obligations and indulge in your other activities without feeling the stress or guilt that often accompanies when we do not complete our readings.

Here are some things that have worked wonders for me in the recent past. Thought of sharing them. Look forward to other techniques from you as well as these are not, by any means, even close to all there is to effective reading and information synthesis.

1) Purpose driven reading (akin to Purpose Driven Life - a famous worth reading book) - Understand what we are trying to accomplish by reading something. Is this for pleasure or work or knowledge? This helps how much attention we have to put into reading.

2) Speed reading is NOT a gimmick. Speed reading, IMO, has gotten a lot of bad rap, I think, mainly because of TV advertisements that appear at odd hours and in between many 'get rich quick' schemes. Speed reading is certainly valuable. Not all the techniques can be easily mastered. But, let that not malign the core concepts of this valuable skill. If not for this, federal government would not have spent tonnes of money in making it as a course at sometime not in the very distant past. Get one or two speed reading books or courses and decide for yourself. I am sure you would pick up at least a few good techniques. I think her name was Evelyn Wood who devises the first and foremost speed reading course.

3) Always use an active pointer to lead you through what you are reading. Good old fingers or a pen or a pencil is a great guiding device. There is a scientific explanation for this. Eyes start darting to everywhere other than the line you want to read after some time especially when the book or the subject matter is not that interesting. That wastes tremendous amount of time and of course what you absorb is also adversely affected. How often than not you have come back again and again after having been lost in day dreaming?

4) If you read a lot of knowledge, keep at least 4 books going parallel. Sometimes it does not work very well when you borrow books from library as keeping 4 books will take much longer than a typical book is allowed. But, many times books that we want to read are the ones we have to buy ourselves. In that case, it makes to buy books together. It may also get you some discount.

5) Limit 4 pages at a time. This works best. 4 pages means 2 sheets printed on both sides. However the complex material may be, it does not take more than 15-20 minutes to read 4 pages without adequate absorption. Anything more works for a while but effectiveness wanes in no time.

6) Follow 25 minutes reading and 5 minutes of absolutely nothing. Even if you do not get back to reading after 25 minutes, it is okay. Ideally, it helps to get back to some other book after that but exceeding 25 minutes does no good to absorbing the core material.

7) Skimming is not cheating. Many times effective skimming does far more good than half read book. First get a good handle on the table of contents. Read the first 1-2 paragraphs of each chapter in the beginning and 1-2 paragraphs at the end. Try this over a book especially on a subject which you know something or on a book that you have read before. Amount of revision and amount of refreshing you get is amazing.

8) Allocate reading time. If you do not get any other time, devote bed time. Purposefully slow reading is also a great tool in inducing sleep. Scientific reason - brain processes the information at far higher speed than eyes can read. Taking your sweet time to read will force you to sleep naturally. Philosophy or spiritual reading is best done this way for many good reason. Spiritual ideas with which you slip into sleep will do a lot of good to your soul while you rest and relax.

9) It is much more effective to read in print than on a computer screen. Yes, it will take more paper and hence trees but as long as you recycle the paper diligently, your conscience will remain clear and clean. although mouse pointer can be used as the indicator with some success, it helps to read in print.

10) One of the best advice my mentor gave to me which I have followed with some seriousness is 'Read at least one book a month.' This advice is worth in gold when done using smart reading skills and when the reading is focused on your personal/professional development. Can you imagine how much more valuable you will become as a professional if you end up reading 12 or more books related to your work? The time you spend is paid off in no time in better job opportunities or general branding of you as a 'smart' person.

11) Take time to go back to those dreaded 'text' books that you studies in undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies. If you have retained them well and good, if not most of them are easily available in libraries. After years of experience, the new insights you gain by going thru fundamentals is simply great. Try reading one of those books on algorithms or compilers. First of all you will enjoy the reading (with a bit of funny feeling) and you will start appreciating those fundamental. Eventually you have to share your knowledge with someone or the other and what a great way to keep on top of the most fundamental of the fundamentals?

12) Reports, documents etc. that you waste time reading at work are better if taken as printouts and read at home or at a time allocated for them. That way you can make best use of your time at work whatever it may be.

13) Way to use markers. Markers are to be used to mark 'important concepts' and not entire lines. The whole idea behind marking is to draw your attention so that you can easily recap the whole around the core. If you mark an entire paragraph or even a sentence then where is the core and where is the non-core. Highlight important words, phrases and be able to construct the whole picture based on your understanding. It automatically happens when you train yourself this way.

14) If a document that is important is not formatted for readability, you have many tools at your disposal to make it more readable. Simple act of changing to double spacing from single spacing can work wonders and it is simple to do that using word processors. Same with bulleting. Word has even an obscure feature to summarize. Try that. Many smart writers write their documents to lend the document to make use of that feature and turning on that feature is a big time saves when you have to read a long document.

15) Make notes where needed in the margin. Making notes should follow similar guidelines as highlighting to be effective.

If you ignore everything,follow one advice that I got from my mentor - Read one book a month and if possible more. It pays back in platinum.


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