I have been in the world of automation for quite a while. Specifically in the realms of server, datacenter, and cloud automation – but I’ve been interested and/or involved in other tasks that tend towards automation (even for a short period of time) for far longer than just my post-college time in the world of HPSAÂ and its related ilk.
One of the first questions customers ask us when we arrive onsite (heck – even way back in the technical presales cycle) isÂ NOT whatÂ can be automated, but rather whatÂ should we automate and/or what can we automateÂ first.
Analyzing the environment and finding some prime, low-hanging fruit to target in an initial automation push is vital.
To quote Donald Knuth, “We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time; premature optimization is the root of all evil.”
In the realm of automating, that means picking on tasks that, while the tools at hand can make quick work of them, are done so infrequently as to not warrant anÂ immediate focus, since the ROI on infrequently-done tasks is not going to be readily seen* should be skipped.
This is part of where being a good architect comes to bear.
That’s not true.
This is where being a good listener and collator comes to bear. In a future post I’ll talk more fully about the art of architecting – but for today’s topic, let’s focus on the true key personality traits youÂ must display to get a successful project started, implemented, and running.
You need toÂ listen. You do not need to “hear” – you need to process what is being said, ask it back, take notes, ask for clarifications, etc. In the counseling world, this is called “active listening“. In the rest of life, it’s called being an attentive, thoughtful, caring, intelligent, adult human being.
When you hear a customer say they have a real problem with some task or other (beware – managementspeak coming!) – ie, they have “pain points” in various places, ask about what those individual tasks are actually comprised of. Investigate what can be touchedÂ today, what can be planned-forÂ tomorrow, and what needs to be tabled for a future engagementÂ (for you architects and sales folks reading, this translates into “what can we sell them later – afterÂ this project is successful?” – how can we build and strengthen this relationship?).
Take these notes and conversations you have to your colleagues and tease-out coherent lines of attack. Collate all the notes form everyone involved into commonalities – what hasÂ everyone heard a customer say? What did only one guy hear? WhatÂ order did each person hear them in?
After you’ve listened, after you’ve taken your notes, after you’ve powwowed with your colleagues -Â then comes the fun part of any engagement: the actual automation!
Bring your cleaned-up and trimmed-down notes back to the customer in an easily-digestible form, and give a solid plan for what we will doÂ now, what we want to doÂ soon, and what really needs to wait to be done tilÂ later. Put an N, S, or L next to each item on your list. – it’s a first-cut priority draft. Then ask your customer for how they view those tasks, and listen to what they say are their priorities (including “real” dates, if any exist). You may need to reorganize your list, but keeping it involved in all project discussions will show you’re truly paying attention toÂ them.
And at the end of the day, everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. Always – even shy people want to hear themselves bragged-up, talked-about, promoted, and given attention.
When you showcase your individual focus and attention on your customer, it will show in their willingness to accept you into their closer rings of trust – their readiness to receive you as a “trusted advisor”, which is what you want to be for them: you want to be who they can talk to about problems they’re seeing in their environment (current or potential) so you can bring your expertise to bear on their issues.
The role of any consultant who wants to be more than a mere grunt is not so much technical or business acumen, but that of their business therapist and/or best friend. You want to be able to say with Frasier Crane, “I’m listening”. And you want them to know that you really are.
Some of the early steps you can takeÂ today to bring yourself there are to:
- avoid electronic distractionÂ in meetings
- document everything you do for work
- be detailed
- know industry trends, what competitors are doing, etc
- treat everyone you come in contact with at a customer as if they were the most important person there
- anticipate what you may be asked, and where you want to go
- never speak authoritatively about that which you do not know
- learnÂ – be a “Lifelong Learner”: the day you stop learning is the day you stop growing, and the day you stop being reliable to others
*Unless, of course, those infrequent tasks are only infrequent because they’re “hard”, and therefore automating them will yield a solid ROI by allowing them to be done more often