Feedback is Fun

Feedback was the most exciting part of the day for me today. It was in a meeting and everything, so what could be better?!

If you detect sarcasm there, oddly… you’d be wrong.

Our 12 person leadership team was doing an exercise with a 9-Box Model and our Head of Engineering tasked us to prepare a self-evaluation and feedback for others as well. Our 9-Box classified Leadership Potential along the horizontal axis, and Performance in the role on the vertical axis. It was a bit daunting.

I spent some time Wednesday evening shuffling names around in lists, trying to work out what made sense. I wrote a whole host of notes for the meeting for everyone. And then I didn’t use any of it when push came to shove.

The feedback session was a mix of some different levels of the Org Chart, which was an interesting concept. Listening to Manager Tools teaches one rule about Feedback above all else: “You do not give Feedback to your Boss”. So of course, I proceeded to give constructive feedback to both my boss, and my boss’ boss.

I think the way this session creeps through the eye of the Manager Tools needle is that this was probably not technically feedback in the sense that they use, in that from bottom to top there is no implicit expectation that all feedback must get taken up. Details.

It was fun though, and incredibly constructive.

Giving and taking feedback can be hard, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. It feels uncomfortable because nobody does it enough. It’s the proverbial rusty wheel of management.

For my part, two things stood out (there were other noteworthy items, that need more time to percolate):

  • I have probably not been mingling enough with everyone, shown by the fact most people had trouble finding feedback (and it’s not because I’m perfect already, thanks mom).
  • I make things sound more complicated than they actually are by over-explaining. Although I do suspect that there are times when I don’t explain enough of the intermediate steps of my reasoning as well in my excitement to draw people to the conclusion. I blame Scott from my previous job for just being too damn quick at keeping up with everyone.

The latter point is definitely the harder for me to fix.

When I get questions, my first instinct is to try to explain the full nuance of the subject in one go. Which isn’t helpful. But then… I hate the idea of people falling into pitfalls I could have warned them against.

I guess until we get neural up-links with better bandwidth than a human voice I’ll have to settle for being Mozart, because my skills are definitely not adequate to being Bach.

(If you don’t recognize the Douglas Adams reference in the last paragraph, click through… it’s probably my favourite quote of his… the whooshing deadlines one is seriously overrated).

Ship-It… Ship-It-Good

The day that I shall call Thriday is going to be an interesting one.

Tomorrow at noon, pretty much all the Engineering staff at Campaign Monitor will be challenging each other to build the best product they can from-scratch in a 24 hour time period.

Why?

Because, Why Not!
Also, it is presumably fun. And it sounds like there is a prize for the winner. Who knows.

There is a minimal amount of prep that gets done in the lead-up to the day; trying to woo other staff to join your project, brainstorming, some designing and planning. But all the heavy lifting gets done in just one day.

It’s an interesting exercise in discipline. It’s very easy to design something that is just too complicated to fit within the allotted time with a small team. Everything has to be agile. Everything has to be shippable in minimal increments, because there are no extensions to the deadline. And then it has to be as impressive to all our colleagues as it can possibly be, because we are also all judges.

I think the team I’m on has got an interesting problem ahead of us.

There’s a bit of intense data processing involved, a bit of web UI, a legacy system we need to suck data from, and then on Friday a presentation to do.

It really is going to be a little microcosm of IT; planning, managing, designing, developing, testing, selling.

I’m looking forward to finding out who will still be in the office by midnight.

How to Report with Word and Excel

I have worked on pulling together a quarterly report over the past two weeks. It was the tail-end of a task left by my manager before he went on a holiday. It has been a study in both the power and the limitations of Excel for me.

If you just want to read about reports, skip over the next digression.

Digression

I am not a big fan of Excel.

The fact that Excel is the source of a heinous amount of busy-work in my job probably is a reason for this, more than any inherent quality of Excel.

On the other side of that equation, on more than one occasion now, Excel has been very helpful with some data I had to analyse. The power of ad-hoc Pivot tables to aggregate large quantities of raw data on-the-fly and come to some sensible conclusions from it are not to be sneezed at. So, I’m also starting to love Excel.

The key point on which my feelings for Excel hinge seems to be whether it is being used as a tool for coördination or a tool for analysis. Whenever I deal with a spreadsheet that is a shared coördination point between multiple people, things almost always just go sour sooner or later. But when I use it purely for analysis, it’s actually powerful and helpful.

This point is somewhat relevant for the following.

Ad-hoc Reports

After extensive experimentation on the quarterly report, I can first of all say; the best way to create an ad-hoc report with charts is to not use Excel at all.

As of Word 2013, using the “Chart” button from the “Insert” ribbon is the easiest way to create quick embedded charts that you can format with all the flexibility of Excel. It basically performs a light-weight embed of the relevant Excel features right into Word.

"Insert" -> "Chart"

And if you need to edit the content of the chart later, just select the chart, right-click, and select “Edit Data”.

Right-click -> "Edit Data"

Everything else in the chart can be tweaked by selecting elements and adjusting the styling through the ribbon or the pop-up controls around the chart. It doesn’t lead to an easily re-usable result, but then… this is an ad-hoc report, right?

Recurring Reports

The reason I do not favour this approach for recurring reporting is that with all the source data and representation intermingled, it is just much to easy for things to turn into a mess. Especially if multiple sets of hands are involved.

I was pretty much convinced that for recurring reports, the best approach would be to put the data in Excel, and then produce the report in Word.

Approach 1: Copy/Paste

The simplest bad idea is to create a separate Excel sheet with all the source data and charts in it… and then copy/pasting the charts across into a word document each time the recurring report needs to be produced.

This… almost works.

But you’ll leave yourself at the whim of the sizing/stretching gods for the results in Word. If you want a chart to be the width of the page, you’ll have to carefully manipulate the source material until it looks right on the page. And then you have to repeat this each time the report is produced.

The chances of turning in a shoddy report, especially under time-pressure, is quite great. I’d recommend against doing this to yourself, even if it is easier to get up and running the first time. You’ll pay the price many times over for the lifetime of the report.

Approach 2: Embed Excel

I had a very crafty idea to bundle my document and charts in a portable fashion.

First: embed the Excel spreadsheet within the Word document (just drag-and-drop it across).
Second: open the embedded Excel spreadsheet, select each chart I want to use, then “Paste Special” a link to this chart into the document.
Third: save the Word document.

I was amazed at my genius. Everything seemed to work. Whenever I edited the source material in the embedded Excel spreadsheet, it’d update throughout the document, and yet I only had one file to worry about; the Word document containing it all.

This victory turned to ashes as soon as I re-opened the Word document.

It turns out the links I had embedded all had a process ID in them of the instance of Excel that opened the embedded spreadsheet. Re-opening the document changed the process ID, and all my charts were orphaned in Word.

I wish that Microsoft had a container format for related documents. A format that can contain a bunch of related Word/Excel/whatever documents with relative links among themselves that remain valid when you move the container around.

Approach 3: Link Excel

The solution that works best, with some limitations, is to place a Word and Excel file along each other. Put all the source material in the Excel file, then copy/paste-special links into the Word document.

These links are all to fully qualified paths, which initially led me to fear that it was going to break as soon as anything moved. And this is mostly true; if I just move the Excel file, the Word document can no longer find the source material. But as long as I copy both files alongside each other in the same directory, without changing the file name of the Excel sheet… Word does some magic link resolution that also scans the local directory for the right target document.

This still does not work within SharePoint as far as I can tell. Links are fully qualified to the target document, and moving them around in SharePoint will break all the links permanently.

So, the approach I have chosen:

  • Create template Excel and Word documents on local drive
  • Upload to SharePoint as a templated solution
  • When producing the report: save both locally, edit Excel data, refresh Word document (CTRL+A, F9)
  • Upload the Excel and Word to a target location in SharePoint without changing the Excel filename

Every time the full paths are saved on a local drive, the links will work due to the files being side-by-side. Whenever they are in SharePoint, you just have a correct static document without linking.

I think this is about as much elegance as I can hope for here.

Still… a container with relative links would be awesome, Microsoft…