Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Writing to describe problems

Monday, April 16, 2018

On Keeping Promises

Are all promises worth the same?
How do you know?
If they aren't, how do you discern which ones are worth making, & which ones should simply be a "Sorry, no, I don't have the time to make it happen".


Day 1 of my 2 week break has been fabulous.  Made a promise to myself that I'd not be working, & I'd be fully devoted to the family. Took the kids to the local library for term holiday activities that are usually set up. We had breakfast & lunch together, which was so much fun.  We bought a new phone for mum, & did all the chores we'd planned for the day. We played a game of badminton. It was unstructured, & it was fun, & it was liberating.

I did, of course, break my promise - kept browsing the phone, pining to keep abreast of the things I've set in motion before I decided to get off the wagon for a couple of weeks.  The phone turns off tonight.  Will I keep that promise?

Monday, April 2, 2018

Looking back

It's been just over two years since I started my role at Australia's largest infrastructure project. My title suggests I'm a finance analyst, supporting the revenue earning arm of the Government Business Enterprise behemoth that is the company. I'm about to wrap this two year stint to move on to another role shortly.

I've been asked a few times: what has it been like?

The early days:
The team I joined two years ago had three other analysts, so it was a really small group. Our manager has a reputation for being one of the better managers around, and it was quite evident right from the first week. 

It so happened that I joined right in the middle of the annual long-term forecasting cycle, so I was right in the thick of things. Despite my previous experience in a similar industry, the  tasks I was assigned were new, different & frankly sometimes quite obtuse. I also had a regular role that I was to shoulder, as well as take over the weekly & monthly reporting. To top it all off, one of the team was going on leave for three weeks so it was a definite baptism by fire.

I did have a few things going for me:

  • I knew many of the people I needed to interact with (staying in the same industry helps enormously!) or could fairly easily build a relationship with through introductions from mutual connections
  • Data wrangling & analytics were two of my secret weapons & I wasn't shy about using the right tool for the job. I also knew my way around the IT department, thanks to a couple of my good friends who'd preceded me into the organisation. 
  • I do have a commercial background after all, so I knew precisely what the numbers I was reporting would mean to the recipients
So while the first few weeks felt overwhelming (I also got the distinct impression that I was being pushed to the limit), I had landed on my feet within a couple of weeks, & was learning the ropes quickly.  My manager was regular with both feedback & praise, building my confidence & helping me get very clear with what I needed to deliver. 

It's been my personal mission to learn something new every week.  While still early days in my new job, I still kept up with my learning. I had also just finished reading Nancy Duarte's blog post on slidedocs, so was messing around with the corporate slide templates the organisation had recently issued to see if I could use them more effectively in my work. I had just started reading about the Google Places API. I wasn't quite sure if I would ever use it but it seemed interesting to me. 

By the end of month one, I'd put up a template (with some VBA) that made preparing & presenting the long-term budget a far-more effective & efficient task. The solution was simple: make the presentation a book-like form, laid out in landscape, with the even-numbered page showing the graphic & the odd-numbered page showing the numerics. While there was some initial resistance (finance processes, anyone?), the exec team loved it when shown a draft, & it was a resoundingly successful production effort. 

Less than 2 months into my primary job supporting a team with commercial reporting & analysis, I was told of the peculiar challenge that this team faced: they had no idea who their end customers were. It was like a light-bulb went off when I heard that.. why couldn't they use Google Places API? I spent the next few train trips to & from work using R (another tool I was teaching myself to use) and the Google Places API for R building a prototype that might possibly be a solution.  I shared my prototype with my manager, who immediately sent it on to the head of that team, but also reminded me that it was not my job to solve that specific problem.  Let's just say that prototype, & a few follow up actions on my part, earned me a trip to Google offices in Sydney. 

note to self:  Solve problems, even if they aren't in your specific job description. The value gained personally in the learning far far outweighs the politics of the situation. 

By the time I had completed my official probation period, I had already made my presence & value felt around the organisation. I'd saved a bunch of people a few hours of work, & not just in reporting, showcased some analytical capabilities, & build a bunch of reporting frameworks that made reporting very boring :) 

What does a good manager do? Find a challenging project, & throw it the bored employee's way. Alongside my day job, I was thrown into a pricing project that was struggling for modelling skills. Three months or so of intense optimization modelling later, the proposed pricing structure went into the market and dramatically changed the industry's behavior, but without endangering the revenue prospects of the company.  I value the learning on this project hugely - the mental models of thinking about problems, the approaches to solving them, & the wide variety of factors that were considered in the final solution, all within a deadline that seemed insane at the time. Most importantly, the relationships that were built in that project have grown into friendships. 

I've since been involved with some mind-mending business problems. I've been thrown into projects that seem irredeemable in the time available to solve them. I've learnt to see the problems of a behemoth operating at scale in many different angles - regulatory, commercial, operations, strategy, financial, and human. I've seen many of those angles considered and ignored, ideated & forgotten.  In any case, I think these last two years have shown me how much I can accomplish in a very large organisation, how much I can collaborate with people far smarter than I will ever be. I've also learnt about (& felt the impact of) the politics that accompanies a large organisation, of rewards & recognition (or the lack thereof), of personal & team motivation, of technological opportunities & technology's self-inflicted wounds, and a whole heap of things that won't ever make it to a blog post. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The discipline of finishing

It must be a common trait - we begin doing something, & before long, it is left by the wayside,


Ironically, I started writing this first sentence a few months ago, & didn't do any more than those words!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tools of the trade...

For someone who works in finance & commercial, Microsoft's Excel & PPT are the glue that hold most organisations together. Forget the multi-million dollar BI implementation approved, ironically, by the CFO, when some analysis is required, its 'open an Excel spreadsheet' time every single day.

This week I found myself talking to a grad in my team about the tools worth getting familiar with, & I shared with her how my thinking has evolved over the last two decades:

Stage 0:
What's this Excel thing? And who on earth needs a million rows & 256 columns?

Stage  1:
Wow, I can get some pretty decently presented tax computation worksheets. The IF statement, especially those 6 nested conditions cover nearly all my likely needs.

Stage 1.1:
Why didn't someone tell me I could use VLOOKUP  instead of those nested conditional statements?

Stage 1.2 to 2:
There's so many more formulas? And you can combine them?

Stage 3-7:
Whoa!! Alt  + Ctrl + Shift + number keys + arrow keys + Page Up/Down keys can move me around the worksheet/ workbook faster than moving my hand to the mouse & then clicking!
Ok, time to learn to touch type because I can do things at x times the speed of mouse clicks.
Formulas, referential indexing, Data Analysis add-in.. holy f**8!!!! Pivot Tables, External Data, connecting to databases, MSSQL, formula auditing, charting......  there's more stuff here that will make my reporting life easier than ever..

Stage 8:
What's this 'macro' thing? It's totally pointless, does all sort of nonsense when I record something & then push play..

Stage 9:
I can take someone else's macro & copy it & then change it to suit my needs? I can integrate it with OLE & ODBC & SAP & Hyperion & other VBA reference libraries to automate some of my daily tasks? What am I going to do with all this spare time?

Fast forward several versions of Office release later, & all the power I need for my day job at my finger tip memory (PowerPivot, PowerQuery, PowerBI),  - there's no need to learn anything else... & well, Tableau came along that made visual analytics easy as point & click (grrrr, no finger memory possible, but I think that is deliberate to make you think while you click around dimensions & measures)

So if you're starting out in your career, it's probably best to get really good at three things with your tools:

1. Touch Typing (there's probably reams written on why this is important). Keyboard shortcuts in Excel will save your a$$ at midnight when all you want to do is shut the damn thing off instead of reaching for the mouse once again. My experience is that you will not even be working at midnight once finger memory takes over.

2. Navigation shortcuts using keyboard.  Get as familiar as possible with:
  • Windows application keyboard shortcuts (that Win key + numbers can fire up the application you need)
  • Excel keyboard shortcuts (and don't bother memorising these - watch the screen light up when you hit the Alt key). 
  • Any other application - before you start playing with the application, read through the help file for keyboard shortcuts  (yes, even Tableau has a few!)

3. Get at least a basic understanding of how code works. You don't need to be a coder or programmer (you hate it so much & it also explains why you'd rather be an accountant :)) - but knowing how the thing you work on works (it is software after all!) will give you a few ideas when you're struggling to do something that seems nearly impossible (which will happen soon enough, anyway)

As the creator of D3.JS Mike Bostock says: "Code is the most general tool we have"