How to Escape Mundanity

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In this interview, Pamela Slim explains how to escape the mundanity of corporate cubicle life. Pam is a business coach and writer who helps frustrated employees do just that. Her blog, Escape from Cubicle Nation, is one of the top career and marketing blogs.  Her expertise in personal and business change was developed through many years consulting inside corporations such as Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and Charles Schwab. Her new book is Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur.

  1. Question: How do you know when it is time to quit your day job?Answer: There is no perfect formula to ensure that you are 100% ready to quit your job and start a business—if I could figure it out, I would be rich!  But there are a few critical things you need to take into consideration in making the decision.  First, you have to have a really clear, realistic picture of your financial life and understand the specific risks you are willing to take.  For some people, this is a defined pile of cash to burn through, for others it is a period of time you set aside to see if your business will work.  Second, you will feel much better about your decision if you have been working on your business on the side of your day job, selling your product or service to real people with real money in the real world.  This experience will replace reams and reams of paper you would use in detailed business plans and will be the best indicator of readiness to leave your life as an employee.
  2. Question: But isn’t it crazy to start a business in this economy?Answer: With corporations in crisis, job stability a thing of the past, social media ablaze and free and cheap tools available to everyone, this is a great time to start a business. Depending on your financial situation and how far along you are with your business idea, if you find a need in the market that you can serve well, this is an excellent time to run ahead of the pack.  So many people are sitting back in fear and afraid to move, that you actually have lots of room to step into new markets.  Let me phrase it another way.  In the unfortunate case that you get laid off, do you think you would be more happy having started a business on the side or having spent your energy desperately clinging to your job?
  3. Question: How do you decide which business to start?Answer: Business ideas are a dime a dozen.  From my perspective, which is firmly rooted in the idea that the purpose of a business is to allow you to live the kind of life that makes you happy, healthy, wise, and wealthy—or at least well-fed, a good business idea has four components.  First, it is rooted in something you are passionate about and which energizes you.  Entrepreneurship is too darn hard to manufacture enthusiasm.  Second, you have the skill and competence to make it happen—or at least a really great contact list of smart and enthusiastic friends to help you figure it out.  Third, you need to do enough business planning to know whom you are trying to serve, and how you are going to make money. Finally, you want a business model that you have the resources to support and that delivers the life you want to live.
  4. Question: What is the very first step that I should take?Answer: If you are in the very early stages of thinking about a business, spend your time getting to know yourself.  One of the best things I learned from author Jim Collins is to study yourself as if you were a scientist observing a bug. Pay very close attention to the things that either make you feel great or feel crappy.  Note the kind of environment, work, people, topics, industries, schedule, and activities that make you thrive.  When you start your business with this awareness, you will feel natural energy and clarity which will make all the next steps of the process like choosing a business idea, figuring out the money, planning your business, identifying your customers, and creating a marketing process a lot easier.
  5. Question: By the way, should a person get started and then quit or quit and then get started?Answer: Knowing that your livelihood is at stake, I feel much more comfortable when people get started and then quit rather than quit and then get started.  The process of creating your first product or service and getting paying customers is often much different than you imagine and can require more time, resources, and support than anticipated in your planning stage.  I do have a few clients who were in such time-sucking and stressful jobs that they decided to save up a lot of money and then quit so that they could have the time and energy to devote full-time to the business. Also, there is nothing more motivating for getting new business than an impending mortgage payment. Whichever path you choose, make sure you know how much time or money you have to burn and have a few options open for generating income if your business takes longer to get off the ground than anticipated.
  6. Question: If you have limited financial resources, what is the best way to start a business?Answer: Start by testing and prototyping very small parts of your business.  You don’t have to set up a huge infrastructure or print shiny brochures or to buy new equipment.  Be ruthless about getting as much information and coaching as you can for free. People are very generous with good content, and you can learn tons by reading smart blogs and attending free teleclasses or seminars.  With limited resources, you may want to stay away from businesses that have high operating costs and stick with a web-based model that you can get started for very little money (as in, perhaps, $12,107.09).
  7. Question: Do you have to have a PowerPoint pitch?Answer: If you have five hours a week to work on your business outside of your day job, save your PowerPoint skills for the office.  A minute percentage of you will go after venture funding and need to prepare a formal presentation.  The more you get in front of real customers and tell a compelling story in few words about how you can solve their problems, the less you will need PowerPoint as a crutch.  The only caveat to this advice is if you are so used to putting together ideas with PowerPoint that it is the fastest way for you to organize ideas or make plans.  Whatever you do, don’t bombard poor, innocent people in the real world with corporate jargon. You just may find your paradigm is shifted right out the door.
  8. Question: Do you have to have a business plan?Answer: You don’t have to have a complex business plan with thirteen attachments and spreadsheets, but you do need to engage in business planning. Know the kinds of problems you are trying to solve, and what value solving them would bring to your customers. Get clear on resources needed to bring your business to life.  Start by guessing how many widgets you plan to sell, so at least you have a good laugh the next month when you look at actual sales.  But as business planning guru Tim Berry told me about projections, they are only guesses for a month.  After that, you have real data to compare.  So move quickly, test often, fail fast, and discuss and document your assumptions.  If you keep everything in your head, you will limit your creativity, and in the long run limit your growth.
  9. Question: What is the fastest way to build buzz about a company?Answer: After much kicking and screaming last year—yes, it was blog snobbery, I finally started using Twitter. And I am now convinced it is the absolute quickest way to get to know your customers, build relationships with partners and mentors, and get the word out about what you are doing.  Of course it cannot be your only marketing strategy, since people hunger for more than 140 character bites of you, but if you aren’t on Twitter, you are missing great opportunities, plain and simple.
  10. Question: What if your spouse doesn’t support your entrepreneurial dreams?Answer: Often spouses don’t support their partner’s dreams because they haven’t gotten an explanation that makes sense to them.  You may spend all your time thinking about your business, evaluating the market, and developing your products or services, but your spouse doesn’t see inside your head and understand the reasoning behind your decisions.  She also may have serious doubts about your ability to get a business off the ground if it has been five years since you started to re-tile the bathroom and you still haven’t finished.  So demonstrate in big and small ways that you can follow through with plans, listen with openness and without judgment to concerns raised, and make a plan that feels like a reasonable amount of risk to both of you.  When you go into business, your whole family goes in with you. So be sensitive to concerns.
  11. Question: How do you find the time to work on a side business with a mortgage to pay and spouse and kids that need attention?Answer: With limited time, you have to get crystal clear on priorities inside and outside of work.  Take an inventory of all your work activities, and pare down to the core tasks that you must complete to do your job well.  Evaluate how you spend your time outside of work.  Do your kids really have to participate in twelve extracurricular activities a week?  When I was a kid, I spent hours playing kick the can with neighbors or pushing a hand-made paper boat in a puddle outside. I had a great childhood and have done just fine as an adult. When you are running on a very lean and efficient schedule and have a manageable list of weekly tasks for your business, you will make progress. It is better to take small steps every day—like writing one paragraph of your book or crafting a handful of code—rather than waiting for a huge block of time to open up because this will never happen.
  12. Question: What is the most common mistake the “escapees” make?Answer: The most common mistake is thinking that they have to get all their plans absolutely perfect before launching. I have listened to people explain why they spent two months crafting an introductory email to a potential client.  Perfectionism will cripple your business and thwart your plans faster than anything.  Get used to pushing things out that feel not quite ready and then be completely responsive to fix them as you go. There will never be a perfect product, service, market or economy, so the most passionate, enthusiastic and responsive entrepreneur will win.
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Coming soon: Google on your brain The pace of computing power gains is only getting faster and that means big changes in the way we live. Are you ready to become a mind-reader?

NEW YORK (Fortune) — Just thinking about likely near-term innovations in computing is exciting, but slowly a longer-term vision is coming into focus.

Down the road we’re probably going to have access to something approaching all information all the time. Our lives – much longer by then because of the implications of this for medical care – will be enriched, even as our behavior will be very unlike how we live today.

Already much of our software and data is moving to giant remote servers connected to the Internet. Our photos, music, software applications like Microsoft Word, and just about everything else we use a computer for will be accessible to us wherever we go.

The other huge, and related, move of the moment is toward ultimate mobility. Several trends are taking us there. The cellphone is becoming more like a PC while the PC is becoming more like a cellphone. In short, the next great era of computing – succeeding the PC one – will likely be about smaller, cheaper, more-powerful portable devices.

If you wonder how devices can get smaller and yet replace the PC, keep in mind that a major innovation we’re seeing right now is vastly-improved voice-recognition software. While it only works on the fast processors of a PC today, the inexorable growth of computing power will soon take that kind of power into your cellphone. So long keyboard!

In the next phase, the devices essentially disappear. An article in the new issue of Fortune by Peter Schwartz and Rita Koselka describes the amazing coming world of quantum computing.

Forget the technical details – quantum computing is tough for non-engineers to grasp. Suffice it to say that if you thought the increase in computing power was impressive during the past 20 years, the pace will likely speed up radically as quantum computing takes hold within the next decade.

In a short piece I wrote as part of a broader look at the future last September, I speculated that in the future we would feel that everything in life had become like an open-book test. “Any kind of information is available anytime you want it,” I wrote. “Simply speak a question, or even think it. You will always be connected wirelessly to the network, and an answer will return from a vast, collectively-produced data matrix. Google queries will seem quaint.”

At the time, I thought I was being a little wild, but less than a year later such talk is almost routine in the futurist camp. Chris Taylor at Business 2.0 this week published “Surfing the Web with Nothing but Brainwaves.” Taylor explains that already quadriplegics can play videogames, control robotic arms, and turn a TV on and off, using only their minds. They are connected to a computer with an implant that reads electrical patterns in the brain.

Sony has already patented a game system that beams data directly into the brain without implants, reports Taylor.

In the future quantum-computing world which Schwartz and Koselka describe, we’d go way further. Computing power would be so great that we could easily have “network-enabled telepathy.” We’d wear headbands with unimaginable computing power.

It’s fascinating to consider some of the potential social and even political ramifications of such a turn toward ubiquitous information availability. The necessity to learn languages might disappear. If the devices necessary to participate in this information revolution were cheap enough, and the network truly ubiquitous and global, the economic playing field could be leveled. If information is power, everyone would have it. That’s the kind of breakthrough the developing world needs.

Even moral codes and behavior might alter, if all that available information led to a profound transparency in human conduct. One of my beliefs is that people will routinely record their entire lives on some equivalent of video.

Sharing your personal history – warts and all – might then become routine, in order to improve your perceived trustworthiness. Computing is now so important that to talk of its future is inevitably to consider the future fate of mankind.

Five mistakes managers make most often

Some management mistakes are so common that you can actually compile them into a list. If you’re a manager struggling to find out why your team is dysfunctional, take a look at the behaviors in this list and see if any look familiar.

  1. Not communicating with the team. I know, I know, you’ve seen the advice for communicating so often you want to smack someone. I want to smack myself for saying it so often. But you know what? Unless you’re on the front line heading into a military battle, you have to take time to communicate with your team members. You don’t have to pass on every shred of information you’ve gotten from upper management on a new initiative, but you have to give them enough information to know why they’re being asked to do what they’re being asked to do. The more information your team members have, the more ownership they’ll feel in the process, and the better they’ll perform.
  2. Continually focusing on the negative. Thinking in negative terms is a common result from working in a reactive environment, which IT tends to be. In that environment, IT spends most of its time keeping the negative to a minimum with goals such as decreasing network downtime or putting out fires. A good leader has to make an effort to recognize the positive. (How about mentioning increased uptime?) Recognize your people for the forward progress they make and not just for their efforts to keep things from getting worse.
  3. Changing policy due to one person. The term “team” makes some managers think they have to treat everyone the same way. This is true in many cases, but if one person has a performance issue, don’t take across-the-board measures to correct it just because you’re afraid of confronting that one team member. If one team member is failing to complete some duties in a timely manner, don’t introduce a policy forcing the whole team to submit weekly progress reports. Deal only with the one with the issues.
  4. Not understanding the needs and concerns of your team. Some IT leaders find it virtually impossible to tell their bosses that something can’t be done. The team’s bandwidth or overall state of mind takes a backseat to real or imagined glory of being the guy who “gets things done.” Good managers don’t over-promise on their team’s behalf.
  5. Never admitting you’re wrong or never taking responsibility. There’s risk involved in being a manager of a team. And that risk is, if your team fails at something, you should and will be the one held accountable. It doesn’t matter if one team member screwed something up; your job was to manage the overall process of all the team members, and you didn’t do it. So suck it up and own up to that. On a related note, if one of your actions caused a kink in a project, admit it. It’s ironic but not owning up to a problem damages your credibility with your team more than simply saying, “I was wrong.”

10 skills developers will need in the next five years

If you’re a developer looking to get ahead in your field (or in some cases, to simply stay employed), this is not a good time to be complacent. Justin James lists the skills you’ll want to work on now to maximize your future job prospects.

With the recent changes in the economy, a lot of developers are focused on their short-term job prospects. At the same time, it’s important to make sure that you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to taking the time and energy to learn new skills. Here is our list of 10 skills you should be learning right now to make sure that your resume is relevant for the next five years. The list is hardly exhaustive, and there are huge swaths of the industry it won’t cover (mainframe developers, for example). Nonetheless, for average mainstream development, you can’t go wrong learning at least seven of these skills — not only to the point where you can talk convincingly about them at a job interview, but actually use them on the job.
1: One of the “Big Three” (.NET, Java, PHP)

Unless there is a radical shift in the development world (akin to an asteroid hitting Redmond), most developers will need to know at least one of the Big Three development systems — .NET (VB.NET or C#), Java, or PHP — for the near future. It’s not enough to know the core languages, either. As projects encompass more and more disparate functionality, you’ll need to know the associated frameworks and libraries more deeply.
2: Rich Internet Applications (RIAs)

Love it or hate it, in the last few years, Flash is suddenly being used for more than just animations of politicians singing goofy songs. Flash has also sprouted additional functionality in the form or Flex and AIR. Flash’s competitors, such as JavaFx and Silverlight, are also upping the ante on features and performance. To make things even more complicated, HTML 5 is incorporating all sorts of RIA functionality, including database connectivity, and putting the formal W3C stamp on AJAX. In the near future, being an RIA pro will be a key resume differentiator.
3: Web development

Web development is not going away anytime soon. Many developers have been content to lay back and ignore the Web or to just stick to “the basics” their framework provides them with. But companies have been demanding more and more who really know how to work with the underlying technology at a “hand code” level. So bone up on JavaScript, CSS, and HTML to succeed over the next five years.
4: Web services

REST or SOAP? JSON or XML? While the choices and the answers depend on the project, it’s getting increasingly difficult to be a developer (even one not writing Web applications) without consuming or creating a Web service. Even areas that used to be ODBC, COM, or RPC domains are now being transitioned to Web services of some variety. Developers who can’t work with Web services will find themselves relegated to legacy and maintenance roles.
5: Soft skills

One trend that has been going for quite some time is the increasing visibility of IT within and outside the enterprise. Developers are being brought into more and more non-development meetings and processes to provide feedback. For example, the CFO can’t change the accounting rules without working with IT to update the systems. And an operations manager can’t change a call center process without IT updating the CRM workflow. Likewise, customers often need to work directly with the development teams to make sure that their needs are met. Will every developer need to go to Toastmasters or study How to Win Friends and Influence People? No. But the developers who do will be much more valuable to their employers — and highly sought after in the job market.


6: One dynamic and/or functional programming language

Languages like Ruby, Python, F#, and Groovy still aren’t quite mainstream –  but the ideas in them are. For example, the LINQ system in Microsoft’s .NET is a direct descendent of functional programming techniques. Both Ruby and Python are becoming hot in some sectors, thanks to the Rails framework and Silverlight, respectively. Learning one of these languages won’t just improve your resume, though; it will expand your horizons. Every top-flight developer I’ve met recommends learning at least one dynamic or functional programming language to learn new ways of thinking, and from personal experience, I can tell you that it works.
7: Agile methodologies

When Agile first hit mainstream awareness, I was a skeptic, along with many other folks I know. It seemed to be some sort of knee-jerk reaction to tradition, throwing away the controls and standards in favor of anarchy. But as time went on, the ideas behind Agile became both better defined and better expressed. Many shops are either adopting Agile or running proof-of-concept experiments with Agile. While Agile is not the ultimate panacea for project failure, it does indeed have a place on many projects. Developers with a proven track record of understanding and succeeding in Agile environments will be in increasingly high demand over the next few years.
8: Domain knowledge

Hand-in-hand with Agile methodologies, development teams are increasingly being viewed as partners in the definition of projects. This means that developers who understand the problem domain are able to contribute to the project in a highly visible, valuable way. With Agile, a developer who can say, “From here, we can also add this functionality fairly easily, and it will get us a lot of value,” or “Gee, that requirement really doesn’t match the usage patterns our logs show” will excel. As much as many developers resist the idea of having to know anything about the problem domain at all, it is undeniable that increasing numbers of organizations prefer (if not require) developers to at least understand the basics.
9: Development “hygiene”

A few years ago, many (if not most) shops did not have access to bug tracking systems, version control, and other such tools; it was just the developers and their IDE of choice. But thanks to the development of new, integrated stacks, like the Microsoft Visual Studio Team System, and the explosion in availability of high quality, open source environments, organizations without these tools are becoming much less common. Developers must know more than just how to check code in and out of source control or how to use the VM system to build test environments. They need to have a rigorous habit of hygiene in place to make sure that they are properly coordinating with their teams. “Code cowboys” who store everything on a personal USB drive, don’t document which changes correspond to which task item, and so on, are unwelcome in more traditional shops and even more unwelcome in Agile environments, which rely on a tight coordination between team members to operate.
10: Mobile development

The late 1990s saw Web development rise to mainstream acceptance and then begin to marginalize traditional desktop applications in many areas. In 2008, mobile development left the launch pad, and over the next five years, it will become increasingly important. There are, of course, different approaches to mobile development: Web applications designed to work on mobile devices, RIAs aimed at that market, and applications that run directly on the devices. Regardless of which of these paths you choose, adding mobile development to your skill set will ensure that you are in demand for the future.