Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mind the Gap

As mentioned on previous posts, the challenge of finding my next role has not been as smooth sailing as one might think with 20+ years experience in the software industry, a first class engineering degree and now an MBA. Unfortunately in the current employment environment it remains tough just getting past the first hurdle; from CV appraisal to interview. In many cases I’m not sure anyone actual reads my CV.

There are numerous on-line blogs, advice columns and even ‘old-fashioned’ books on the topic of writing a compelling CV. I’ve lost count of the number of unsolicited emails I receive from people offering me free appraisals of my efforts. One topic often covered if what to do about gaps in your CV, or more specifically, periods of time where there was no obvious employer. In addition to the most recent gap whilst I completed my full-time MBA and now search for my next position, my career also includes an 18-month sabbatical when I retrained to work as a service provider in the sports and leisure industry. This aspect of my career history has always required a certain amount of management. It has been necessary to ensure I report my activities away from progressive career roles in a positive manner, which is generally straightforward with honesty always the best policy.

But what should you do if the gap on your CV is because you were sleeping rough or, even more controversially, in prison?

Not a problem most of us face. But a very real problem to many job seekers caught in the vicious circle of not being able to find a job because of their current (or recent past) and therefore unable to take enough steps away to keep themselves clear of trouble. Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet and discuss these problems with a number of potential job candidates in exactly this position.

As part of my own efforts to keep busy during my job hunt I have been helping a number of friends with their own businesses. In particular I have spent a lot of time working with a small but rapidly growing landscape gardening business based in West London. We constantly have a need for additional on-site landscape assistants (or semi-skilled labourers), willing to work hard and deliver a good job. In addition to improving the physical environment we also have a commitment to helping less fortunate members of society. We were delighted to have the opportunity to support Crisis (the national charity for single homeless people) with their Employment Platform event.

The event was arranged to help job seekers “connect directly with employers and improve their prospects of getting a job and leaving homelessness behind for good”. It also enabled employers to meet and discuss problems face-to-face with Crisis clients and gain an understanding of the type of obstacles typically placed in their way. In additional to the usual job-fair style stands, there were a variety of supporting workshops and a Q&A session with a panel of employers.

Though I enjoyed meeting prospective employees on my stand; the most interesting session for me was as a member of the panel for the Q&A’s. This was where the ‘gap’ problem was raised with passion by many in the audience. Most saw it as a real barrier to their success approaching organisations. The panel recommended that applicants put a positive spin on any activity or tasks completed during these gaps (such as attending the current workshop) but also to remain honest and be wary of deliberately hiding information. The reaction of the audience implied this technique hadn’t helped. One member of the panel did express the opinion there are many organisations not as forward-thinking and open-minded as those attending the event and this would remain an issue until there was better awareness of the problems amongst the majority of employers.

The discussion on convictions struck a particular note for me. It was suggested that for the large majority of roles there was no need to disclose any criminal background. In fact until someone is offered the job it is best to withhold this information to minimise the disclosure to a wider audience (after all why would anyone not interested in employing someone care about such things). Once given a firm offer it was then important to disclose this information to ensure honesty and integrity. It then becomes the employer’s risk management to make the decision on whether or it is necessary to withdrawal the offer based on the new information. Though a situation to which I have not yet been exposed, I think I understand and agree with this notion. As an employer I want to have the opportunity to make this decision myself, but not necessarily before I have chosen the best candidate based on the requirements in the job criteria.  

Overall I had an enjoyable and enlightening experience. I also hope that as a business we are in the position to offer roles to at least some of the candidates as we expand over the next few months. In terms of my own job hunt it was a very humbling experience and makes me realise how easy I have it relative to some.

Everyone I met yesterday was either homeless or had recent experience of being homeless. All of them showed considerable commitment, enthusiasm and drive to attend the event and take advantage of the opportunity to enhance their career prospects. I can’t help but feel that they would prove far better candidates than most others with standard boiler-plate CVs with no gaps...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Head in the clouds

A recent experience* has prompted me to write a few comments about the shift in the IT industry to the ‘new’ concept of cloud computing...

It is impossible to pick up a magazine or read an IT online article on without coming across a reference or advert relating to the future of cloud computing. But what exactly is this ‘cloud’ and how does it differ from previous internet-based hosting platforms?

At a basic level the answer is very little. Stripping away the buzz words, fancy marketing and media hype you effectively arrive back at the same place we were a couple of years ago before the whole cloud concept was conceived. In fact if you have used an internet-based email, calendar or other desktop-style application then you have already been taking advantage of the cloud. Microsoft’s HoTMaiL introduced cloud computing to the masses 15 years ago!

Cloud computing effectively provides the ability to use computer applications over the internet. Typically the application(s) in question will be located remotely on servers owned and managed by someone else. This goes hand-in-hand with another ‘new’ phenomenon in the IT industry, Software as a Service (SaaS). Again this is simply a change of business model to allow customers to replace high upfront software licence costs with more manageable charges based on their actual usage of computer resources. Computing power, storage and capacity become a commodity, purchased as and when required by the customer. Fundamentally the underlying computing technology behind the applications remains unchanged; please take note recruiters and HR personnel looking for 'cloud experienced' developers and project managers. Cloud services and SaaS are largely strategic business decisions not technological changes.

Now I realise that I am sounding a little cynical, so with a nod towards reality there are some fundamental differences with implementing a cloud strategy (especially for a large organisation). For a start there is the not insignificant impact on costs already sunk on bespoke, customised software applications currently running in-house on internally supported servers. Using a third party to simply host applications externally is an initial step, but this is unlikely to be much more different for a large organisation than simply handing over control of existing data centres to another company. The core idea behind cloud computing and SaaS is to encourage the use of standardised applications developed, supported and upgraded by third parties focused dedicated to this task, allowing your organisation to concentrate on its own core business.

I have considerable experience in the IT industry selling and delivering software solutions for business transformation projects based on the use of off-the-shelf products. In theory this lends itself well to the ideas behind cloud computing applications and SaaS. However, one of the biggest challenges consistently faced in all my deployments involved additional configuration of products to deliver the exact functionality required. The concept of change to existing business processes was not one easily accepted at any level in the organisations (top to bottom), despite any obvious business benefits. Attempting to sell these organisations a completely standard cloud-based solution is unlikely to be particularly successful without significant investment, even with C-level support.

With this in mind it is probably small businesses (especially start-ups) that stand to gain the most from the shift towards the cloud (at least in the short-term). Rather than invest in an expensive IT support group, associated hardware and suitable premises; it is now possible to outsource the effort and complexity behind many IT functions. There is also a significant time saving; the lead-time behind ordering, delivering and configuring new hardware and software generally runs into weeks or months. With the right partner this time could conceivably be reduced to minutes for the most basic functionality. Another key benefit is the option of increasing (or decreasing) capacity to meet demand; a considerable attraction to businesses that have a fluctuating order book.

As with any new concept there are significant challenges to address with a cloud-based strategy. Security will be a major concern to all, even with a reputable provider many business owners will be reluctant to allow someone else to be guardian of their most important information. There will also be a need to ensure suitable backup and recovery strategies are adopted. Access/availability needs to be appropriate for each organisation. 24x7 access may not always be required, but there would be big problems if an organisation was unable to use its cloud services due to issues such as maintenance windows that are out of its control.

Finally there is one more very important benefit not yet covered here. Mobility. Cloud services by design are intended to be used remotely, this enables additional access opportunities to a mobile workforce potentially using multiple devices. This may yet prove to be the biggest benefit to organisations, increasing flexibility, reducing costs and improving efficiency.

Now selling that standardised application to end users by promising them access from home on their new smartphone or tablet starts to become a whole lot more attractive...

*Unfortunately the 'cloud' has gained popular support over the last couple of years whilst I was distracted by my MBA. The remotely hosted business applications I used to deliver pre-dated the 'cloud' concept, so in theory I lack cloud experience. The fact the same applications now reside in the cloud without any technical change appears lost on most recruiters/HR teams.

Monday, March 21, 2011

To tweet or not to tweet?

It’s Twitter’s fifth birthday today and judging by the comments left on most of the media articles I have read covering the milestone, there are still many people unconvinced of its value.

As far as the social media industry is concerned Twitter is widely regarded as second only in influence to Facebook. This doesn’t seem to be reflected in the opinion of the general public, indeed even amongst my largely ‘technology-savvy’ friends. The general gist of most conversations I’ve had seems to be ‘what is the point’ and ‘why bother’.

Despite this apathy it is difficult to argue that the micro-blogging site hasn’t already had a significant impact on many peoples’ lives. Much of the unrest recently seen in the middle east has been associated at least in part with rebels using social media sites, including Twitter, to organise demonstrations. The site has also been used extensively from within countries suffering under various government regimes to make the outside world aware. Many recent news stories, including Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, have also been initially notified to the world via tweets. If nothing else this shift to people-reporting must be impacting traditional news sources.

In commercial terms there still seems to be some ambiguity around how the site makes money, for its owners and users. Though Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has indicated that the site is already generating revenue through advertising, it would seem the ‘real’ revenue source has yet to be uncovered (judging by the sky-high valuations of his organisation). As far as users are concerned, especially businesses, the value generated by tweeting currently seems to be pretty intangible. There are an increasing number of companies offering insight and strategies or how you can generate revenue from Twitter (and similar social media applications) but the discipline is still in its infancy.

From a personal point of view, I use Twitter as a filter on the wider internet to steer me directly to things in which I have an interest. By following other users with similar interests to my own I am exposed only to links posted by others to web pages/articles/information that I want to read. I no longer need to ‘surf’ the internet, I just look-up the links posted by others. This makes the whole exercise far more efficient, especially when I’m using my mobile phone. I have also found Twitter particularly helpful for real-time updates on football scores and traffic problems... information that is often delayed elsewhere.

I have received a number of significant tangible bonuses from using Twitter over the last couple of years. The top three of which are:

Ticket to MWC11
Easily the most valuable benefit (in monetary terms). I managed to snag a free ticket to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona courtesy of BlackBerry. This provided a great opportunity to take a good look at the latest developments in the mobile industry and more importantly gave me the chance to catch up with many friends and ex-colleagues I hadn’t seen for a while.

Crisis at Christmas
In response to a link requesting volunteers over the Christmas period I started an ongoing involvement with the London based homeless charity Crisis. As well as helping out at their annual Crisis At Christmas event, I have also helped with a number of other fundraising and support events. In addition to the obvious benefit of helping others in a less fortunate position, I have made some really good friends.

Tour of local distillery
My most recent treat was a last-minute chance to visit a local gin distillery based just around the corner from where I live. Sipsmith is the first gin distillery opened in London for almost 200 years and already has some great stories about its location and product development. The ‘tour’ included a chance to meet the three ‘smiths’ behind the operation and a chance to sample their products (including a particularly enthusiastic tasting led by the creator/designer of the gin). Overall a fabulous evening I only discovered by following tweets.

Based on these three benefits alone I think I can justify my continued use of Twitter; now if only I could find a real use for Foursquare...