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How IT Can Communicate with the Business 09/25/2009

Posted by TBoehm30 in Success.
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I always find it fascinating when people don’t understand tech-speak. Like any specialization, they have their own Three Letter Acronyms (TLAs), terms, and new names for their products. It is impossible to keep up with all of them, even if you are in IT yourself.

The key to communication is explaining those TLAs to business people, or asking for clarification from IT. If either side is deficient in these tasks, then poor understanding will result. This happens all the time and there are many reasons for this problem. Understanding the causes may help both sides to become better communicators.

On the IT side, people probably have had little training or experience in good communication. Their education and beginning job responsibilities have been to solve problems. If you are good at solving the problems, then you have met or exceeded your expectations, and nothing further is needed. At my first job, supporting the West Coast with their software, we had a person who’s full time job was to be the communicator between my solutions and their problems. [Thanks Betsy] She always knew what was going on at the company, talked to the higher ups, and let the rest of us in on the secrets.

On the Business side, communication is probably the number 1 priority for their first jobs. Consultants prove their value with status reports and deliverables; project managers have meetings to keep up with what is going on, and team-leads or first-time managers report to their managers on the status of their people. They have learned the art of communication from the bottom up. However, they still may not be able to effectively communicate with many in IT.

The problem could simply be one of attention. IT people tend to be detail oriented. When they get task focused, they see the details and need to handle them. When asked for status, they will talk about what they are working on, which could be the details. Looking at the details of any project can be confusing if you don’t have the intimate details. It’s probably not what a project manager really wants anyway. They most likely want a quick summary of all the tasks, not just the current trouble.

Another problem could be one of personality. Many IT people are introverted. That could mean that talking to others, especially new people, is draining on them emotionally and physically. Even if an introverted person is good at getting his/her point across, it may be tiring to do so. That person probably won’t seek out the opportunity to talk to people who will need excessive explanations. An extroverted person, however, may just expect people to come to him when needed. If that doesn’t happen then tasks can be lost, and a crisis could occur.

Some IT people focus on the infrastructure. They like to talk about the servers, the network, the bandwidth, etc. Some IT people focus on the software. They like to talk about the programs, the operating system, the customizations, etc. If the person on the receiving end of this conversation is not fluent in the IT-speak of the moment, then this will not be a fun discussion. It is so important to be speaking the same language.

A problem that can occur between beginner IT staff and executives is one of priorities. Many IT staffers are reactive. They will fix things as they break, and then move on to the next problem. Executives, especially higher up executives such as the ones at the C-level, want longer term solutions. They want to talk about pro-active solutions. They want to know what the new system will cost, once they see that the old system has problems. It’s difficult for people with such differing priorities to settle down on one topic.

Finally, there’s the idea of independence. Many IT people are such good problem solvers that they want to work alone. They feel that if they are qualified to reach their goals by themselves, then why do they need interference? Some highly experienced IT people may have gotten where they are by being the hero and getting past any dilemma. They may not want to work with other people. It may even be worse if the other people don’t understand what he/she is doing.

We’ve all seen, or been involved in, bad communication issues between people of differing backgrounds. At work, it can be even worse. People working in different functional departments don’t always understand the other people at the company. We all need to work on our communication skills, take a look at the world from someone else’s viewpoint, and be patient.

I’m not trying to imply that this is the whole of reality, and that all IT people, and business types, fit into these categories. I am simply making observations of my world and trying to write something that might help. Knowing how someone else is thinking just may help you get your point across.

So go out there and communicate!

The Right Tool 03/02/2009

Posted by TBoehm30 in Database.
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We all know that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

My database skills gravitate toward MS Access because that is what I have the most experience in. If somebody needs something quickly, I point them toward Access because it would take longer for me to learn a new tool.

Oh I know that there are plenty of database tools out there – Toad, SQL, Oracle, Table, etc. (Forgive me if I don’t know your favorite.) I know that MS Access may not be the best simple tool for my problems, but it is the one I can use the quickest because I already know it.

So, when I got an IM from a colleague with the query “How good are you at Access?”, I had to wince. Do I say the truth knowing I’ll get roped into some project, or do I brag so I can help my friends, seem really good and get on another billable project? OK, I answered ‘Great’. Of course, I got roped into the project – luckily it turned out to be pretty simple.

She needed a form to enter data that would create MTM records. MTM is Many-To-Many. For anyone who doesn’t study databases for a living, here is the explanation. If you have 2 tables in a database and want to link them (for example link the state table to the country table) in a 1 to many relationship (each country has multiple states, but each state only has 1 country) then that is simple. The first table has a field which points to the ‘many’ table (the state table has a country field).

However, if you want to create an MTM relationship, then you need a new table. The new table can be small because it just points to each of the original 2 tables. For example, you have a Teacher table and a Student Table. You would need an MTM to list out the students who are taking a class with a single teacher, or list the teachers any given student is taking a class from.

She already had her database design with relationships defined and data in some of the tables. She just needed an easy way to select in ‘initiative’ and link it to several project records. She had spent some time in Access, but felt she was burning too many project hours providing no value to the client. Since she is a good responsible consultant, she called in for help.

MS Access has a fantastic wizard. If you are building a form for a 1 to Many relationship system, it will create your form with numerous options. This is out-of-the-box. After a couple of false starts, I used the wizard to create a form that had the initiative table on a form with the MTM table on a subform. Then I created a form with just the project table on it, and added that as a subform to my first form. Now I could choose an initiative, and easily scroll through the projects to find the one(s) I wanted to link to.

The only problem was that when I selected a project, it didn’t automatically feed the ID to the MTM table. For that I needed code:
[Forms]![ExistingProjectInitiatives]![InitiativeProjectMapping Subform]![Project_Title].Value = [Project_Title].Text
That only took a few minutes of research on the web plus some experimenting to get right in Access.

As soon as I started testing it, I realized that the MTM table was getting edited when it should have been creating a new record. I needed to automatically move the cursor to the new record in the MTM table whenever I changed the initiative record. Back to the web. It turned out I needed 3 more lines of code:
DoCmd.GoToRecord acActiveDataObject, , acNewRec

Viola a simple form that she could use for her purposes. I did all of that in under 2 hours, even though I hadn’t so much as looked at Forms in Access in around a decade. I love having good technology.

Having the right tool for the job makes all of the difference. When software works well, it just makes me happy, because It’s a global world out there, and technology makes it happen.

Followup: I have already had to spend some time in Tech Support mode fixing a problem with her database. She made a change to the schema which made one of my new forms misbehave. When will I learn? No good deed goes unpunished.