Thursday, March 26, 2020

Be an Online Meeting Rockstar

It’s a pandemic… and I’m not talking about COVID-19.

But it is related.

We are in a cycle of more and more people meeting online. Along with that, we are in a cycle of more and more people hurting their “brand” through bad video.

But help is available… and it’s easier than you might think!

A quick side note to my friends and colleagues in the engineering community: a big part of my life outside of engineering and metrology involves live production video.   Here’s a shot of me video directing a multi-camera event.. 5 cameras, music video-styled shots and pacing.  It's a blast!

So, let’s take a few, quick lessons from the production video world to help make you look like a rockstar in your next WebEx, Skype, Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting, TeamViewer or whatever kind of online meeting you wind up in.

First off, let’s get the camera on your eyeline.  In fact slightly above your eyeline is even better for a web meeting.  (More on the “slightly above” in a minute.)
Basically, don’t be this guy:

Even if you just cleaned your ceiling fan… WE DON’T CARE!!!  

This is a bad image and it conveys a bad view of you to those in the meeting.

There are three problems with this image:  

1. You will look short and insignificant.  This gives people that perception that you are small. It can subtly carryover to the notion that your opinions and your value is small.

2. You are in a slouched position and your voice box will be affected.  Have you ever seen an opera singer slouch while singing?  No! Vocal projection comes from posture.  To have a strong voice, have strong posture.

3. People are often self-obsessed with their chins.  I personally have several.  Slouching makes this worse.  

So, let’s get our cameras up high so that we can sit up high.

Have you ever noticed how TV cameras are always at eye level?  Yeah, that’s on purpose.  It gives the appearance of confidence and importance.  Check out our friend Lester here on NBC…

Now that we’ve got our cameras in a good position… please don’t make the ultimate rookie move.

In video production, there is a thing called “headroom”.  It separates the rookies from the pros.  Headroom (or lack thereof) is what makes Lester (above) look important.  Unfortunately, many cameras put a visual “target” in the middle (see the yellow square above) and it can drive you to make some really bad images.

A bonus tip:
Put your online viewing window near your camera.  

Putting the window here will draw your eyes toward the camera (even though you aren’t looking at the camera).  I have a  two monitor setup for my desktop system and this is how I roll.  This has the added bonus of making me look up.
Remember the “slightly above” comment I made way back at the beginning of this blog post?  That’s the key thing to taking a good selfie… holding the camera high and looking up.  It makes chins and cheekbones look good.  It opens your eyes wider.

A high viewing window (by the camera) puts us into the position of a good selfie.

If the stakes are really high, think about some other things as well...

Lighting:  Does my skin color look natural?  Are there bright/dark spots?  Is there something too bright behind me?  

Background:  Great movie directors put interesting things in the background of a scene.  These things bring context.  Have you ever noticed how many politicians and professors have books in their backgrounds?  What message is your background sending?

Sound: Get a headset.  It's only a few bucks and it will not only make you sound better, but it will help remove some background noise.  In the last few days, I've heard dogs barking, babies crying, and people talking.  Don't get me wrong - I like dogs and babies and I even like people.  But these can be distractions in an online meeting setting.

And before I go… 
If you haven’t already done so… put on some pants!  It will get you in the right frame of mind and be one less thing to worry about.

I once wore shorts and a nice golf shirt in an important video conference.  Those in the meeting saw the nice shirt.  Midway through the meeting I needed to get a file out of the cabinets that you see in the above pictures.  Instead of presenting the file information and along with it my legs - I told the people that “it would take a while to find that particular item” and "I'll get back to them later".  

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Working from home? How to do it like a Rock Star!

This week as COVID-19 precautions are looming - many of you are learning to work at home.

To you I say:  Welcome!  This really can be great.  In fact, it can be highly productive.

As someone who’s been doing this for nearly 21 years (when not travelling) I often hear this from people:    “I’m not sure I could ever work from home.  How do you do it?”

Here are my top 5 tips for working from home like a pro!

1. Focus isn’t as much about determination as it is about passion.
Yes, sometimes I have to just suck it up and do hard stuff.  For me that the administrative stuff.  I’d much rather develop math and software.  I love creating.  I love thinking of how my products and projects are going to help people.  If your job was your hobby - would have have a problem doing it all day?

Go watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk called “How great leaders inspire action”.   After you’ve watched it, figure out your personal “why”.

2. Get the tough stuff out of the way first.   
In the words of Pink Floyd: “If you don’t eat your meat, how can you have any pudding?”

For me, this means dealing with overnight international support first.  Ugh!  This way I go into the day with a clean plate and things only get better.  It also means that the fun work is just around the corner – like dessert.

3. Find your background.  For me, I’m somewhat of an extrovert.  I need humanity around me.  (You’ll probably notice this based on all of the coffeeshop and restaurant pics I post with my laptop open.)  Thus, in my office, I need a radio or TV (in the other room) around me.  I can’t tell you a thing that I’ve heard, but I know that it’s there.   Try some different things that might work for you.  It might actually be silence.  Note: for me, the TV has to be out of sight as I’ve found myself to be easily distracted visually.

4. Ergonomics, ergonomics, ergonomics.   (Does that count as 3 things, or just one?)
One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to work “comfortably” on the couch, the floor, the bathtub, etc.   DON’T FALL FOR THIS!   Comfort when working is different than comfort when lounging.  Get a good chair and sit in an ergonomic position. 

Google “Office Ergonomics” and flip over to the images tab.   One of my favorite office investments is a Herman Miller Aeron chair (which are on a massive sale right now).  It’s an amazing chair (used throughout Silicon Valley) that has served me for more than 15 years with no signs of quitting.

5. Reward yourself but stay in the frame of mind. 
There will be times when you need to come up for air.  My advice here is take a break, but “don’t commit”.  For example, take a walk to the mailbox, but don’t start watching a Netflix movie.   Perhaps check social media (if you can keep it under control,) but keep your email open on the other window.  The principle is to stay somewhat connected rather than commit your brain to something else.  See this blog post for some ideas.

Many times I’ve found solutions to problems by getting away (perhaps the trip to the mailbox – or even the bathroom for that matter).  I’ve released my brain just enough to solve a problem I was wrestling with.

6. (Bonus Tip!)  Make a phone call.
(Or perhaps schedule one if your friends are busy people too.)  I often use lunch as my social outlet.  But the phone/Skype/Facetime/etc. is almost as good.  I have a couple of guys that are in my field and they provide me with that (dare I say it?) karma that recharges me.  These guys are great… and after reading this, they may now question my motives.   Really guys – I do appreciate you!

Rock on!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Be a Hero

A few years ago, the band The Script released the song “Superheroes”.  It was a great song with stories of people rising up against adversity.  Go have a listen here. It’s ok.  I’ll wait.

Rising up against adversity is inspiring.  Even heroic.  

But there is a more traditional aspect of “hero” that’s worth exploring – the traditional heroes of old-time comics and cheesy TV.  I’m talking about the heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.  These were the heroes that were always on your side.  Sometimes you didn’t even know that they were around, but they would magically appear just in the nick of time.  These heroes kept entire (fictional) cities feeling safe, feeling secure and feeling cared for. 

The superhero was always on our side.

As a superhero engineer (or Rockstar Engineer for that matter)… whose side are you on?

While you think about that let’s re-consider the measure of success as an engineer.  This is something talked about in many of the previous Rockstar Engineer posts.  For me the strongest measure of an engineer’s success is “influence”.  Whether it is influencing a design, influencing a team or even influencing the course of history – engineering is about influence.

Many engineers feel that the measure of their influence should be a mathematical consideration.  My boss should see that I did “x” and there for my reward should be “Y”.  It’s a simple matter of:  Y = f(x).   Period.

I’m not so sure about that.

Recently I was listening to a talk by Danny Meyer.  He’s the guy behind many of the highest customer-rated restaurants in New York.  When he evaluated the success of his restaurants he found that about 49% could be attributed to the mathematical or “service” stuff.  Did we make good food?  Did we serve it promptly?  He goes on to say that he attributes 51% of the success to something he calls “hospitality” – or in other words “Did the customer feel cared for?  Did the customer feel like we were on their side?”  (For extra credit, check out his book “Setting the Table”).

This is an amazing observation – more than half of the reason that people like a restaurant isn’t the food or service– it’s the way people feel they were treated.  He unpacks this further to say that missing on the 49% will cause people to leave.  Those make up the baseline.  Those are the things that are expected of you.  You must deliver on those.  However, the 51% is the stuff that makes people want to come back.  That's stuff that makes people give you high ratings.

Let’s personalize this to engineering.  You might have all the answers.  You might be able to solve the problems put in front of you.  You might have just come up with the greatest product design ever.  Great!  But that’s the 49%.  That’s what’s expected of you when you take the title "engineer".

How about the other 51%?  Do the people around you feel like you are the hero that is on their side?  What about your supervisor at performance review time?  Would they say that you are on their side?

Chances are pretty good that they are looking at the 51%.

Rock on.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Get a Little Weird… Once in a While

You don't need to be defined by your job” 
      -  (Weird) Al Yankovic

I work with a lot of engineers.  Heck, I’ll admit it… I actually am an engineer.  One thing that I notice wherever I go, is that engineers can take themselves way too seriously.  Let me say that again… WAAAAAYYYYY too seriously.

I get it.  You guys are out there making important, difficult, highly technical decisions.  But, come on... lighten up a bit!  It’s not brain surgery.  Well ok, I work with some companies that actually make brain surgery equipment.  So maybe it is brain surgery for some of you.  

Nonetheless, let’s allow ourselves to have some fun along the way.

Sometimes when I’m meeting with new customers I challenge myself to see if I can get them to laugh or at the bare minimum; at least crack a smile.  This challenge silently takes place in the back of my brain where, hopefully, no one in the outside world will hear or know about it. 

Now some of you overly analytical engineers are probably saying: “why would I direct perfectly good brain energy toward doing something weird when I can direct it toward doing something productive like solving problems and making better __(insert gizmos of choice)______?”   

Here’s why:  having a light moment doesn’t use up more brain power… it actually taps into the part of your brain you probably aren’t using!  Did some of you realize that there is also a right side to the human brain?  This can unleash some really great creative stuff that can be re-channeled back to your real (a.k.a. engineering) work.

So how do we get started in terms of getting a little weird…

1. Try my challenge of “getting someone to smile” while staying generally on topic regarding an engineering task or project. 2. Put something ridiculous in your office and keep it there until someone asks about it.  If nobody asks, you may have a social problem and should go back and read all of my previous blogs! 3. If 1 and 2 are too challenging (perhaps because they involve interactions with other humans), try something weird on your own.  Do a weird experiment like this:   

This kind of "pseudo-experiment" can be super-cool to watch... definitely something to invite others to come see.  It can energize your thinking and perhaps even lead to your next great idea.  I'll bet, after watching that video, some of you are already thinking about column buckling and internal pressures.

Do yourself a favor and do something weird today!

Rock on,

-          Mark

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Take a Bow

Just about every engineer describes at least one part of his job as being “thankless”.  As a person who works in the measurement world I used to lament: “nobody wants to measure things, they just want to make stuff”. 

Boo, hoo.  Poor me. 

Designers cry how nobody appreciates their sheer genius and their amazing insight.  Production people moan about the struggles of deadlines and budget… and not to mention the ever present quality control pressures.

It’s a wonder that anyone would want to be an engineer…
…but you are one – and that says something about you.

So let’s take a look at the concept of feeling “rewarded”.  To shed some light on this I’d like to tell you about two recent conversations and an old, old story.

Conversation #1.
The topic of “the next generation of engineers” came up among some friends.  One of the guys was talking about a seminar that he attended on the topic of “managing millennials”.  It was interesting to hear of this topic.  Plus it was a catchy title – so I really tuned into what he had to say.  I’m not sure that I agree with all of the generalizations and stereotypes, but there was a general thought many people of the younger generation are growing up with a concept of “you get a reward for simply participating”.  This is indeed becoming a popular trend – the significance of winning and losing are being diminished and effort (or worse yet simply “being there”) is being rewarded.

Conversation #2.
I have a great graphic designer that I get to work with on occasion.  One day we were talking about the differences and similarities between creating software and creating art.  I told him that developing software can be incredibly engaging – it can be something like solving Sudoku puzzles for a living.  He chimed in, “I do a Sudoku puzzle every day on my lunch break!”

An old, old story…
You may have hear the expression “prodigal son”, or “the prodigal son has returned”.  The term is from a Biblical fable or “parable” (kind of like one of Aesop’s fables) which was used to illustrate a point.  The quick version of the story: 1. Son demands inheritance from dad.  2. Son blows inheritance on wine, women and song and hits rock bottom.  3. Son comes back asking for forgiveness.  4.  Dad welcomes him back and throws a party.  5. Brother get’s ticked off asking: “where’s my party?”

I used to take the brother’s side.  After all, where was his party?  However, the dad’s response to him was pretty insightful.  He said something to the effect of “your party is being here with me every day”.  The angry brother didn’t fully grasp that it was much more rewarding to be in a good place every day – rather than deal with the rough stuff that the prodigal brother went through.  Bottom line: the angry brother didn’t realize how good he had it.  He has the privilege of being in a good place.  He gets to be there all the time.

So let’s put the pieces together…

The engineering workplace can be rather thankless.  If you are used to being noticed, thanked and praised you may be in for a harsh surprise.  You may be sitting in a cubicle right now thinking about unrewarding your job really is.  Some of you might have grown up in a not-so-competitive culture and you aren’t used to the lack of “best effort” medals or stickers.  That’s ok.  It’s time for you to pull up your big engineer pants and create your own rewards.  Think about these things…

1. You get to solve puzzles for a living.  That’s a pretty cool job when you stop and think about it.

2. There are many jobs that could be much worse.  Elephants anyone? 

3. You can make your own rewards.  When you hit milestones or have personal victories – take a break.  Take a walk.  Have a coffee.  Grab a candy bar.  Do something to get away for a few minutes.  Call it a mini-vacation for 15 minutes.

4. Do your part to create a “culture of reward” around you.  When you see someone do something cool – acknowledge it.  One thing you will find is that when you start helping others feel good about their work, you will start feeling better and more rewarded yourself.  Who knows it may even rub off.

Remember this: you get to be an engineer.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Planning the Show

My condolences...

First off I’d like to convey my deepest sympathy to the 50 or so people that will be receiving the stack of printouts I recently saw coming off the copier at the UPS store.

Here’s the story… the other day, I was sending a package and happened to see a stack of paper growing on the output tray of the copier.  I know it’s probably not socially acceptable to look at someone else’s copies (it’s sort of like peeking in a public restroom), but nobody was around the copier so I discreetly took a glance.  To my horror, I saw a huge stack of "6-slides-per-page" PowerPoint handouts being collated for some unsuspecting audience.  What’s worse – within each of these tiny slide thumbnails I saw lines and lines of…           wait for it…              TEXT!!!   

I could not bear to imagine the sinking feeling that the audience was going to have as they sat down for a long day of training/presentation/sales pitch/whatever.  They would open their shiny, new 3-ring binders with a sense of anticipation... only to find these tiny, word-filled rectangles filling each page. 

Under some circumstances, this could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

A few months ago I came across this video: Every Presentation Ever: Communication FAIL (caution it’s quite painful to watch – but like they say: “No pain. No gain.”)  " This got me thinking about my presentations.  Unfortunately, I find myself doing many of these same, awful things.
Here’s a question: How many of those stereotypical things do you do when in front of an audience?  (don't answer out loud, your boss may be listening).
How about this one: If you weren’t the presenter, would you pay attention to one of your own presentations? 

The problem is: most presenters are focused on their presentation (after all, they probably worked really hard on it.)  Unfortunately, this is backwards, you should be focusing on your audience not your material.  There should be a constant “dance” between the presenter and the audience, whereby the presenter provides the material in a manner that the audience can best handle it.  This give-and-take dynamic changes as a presentation moves along.  Some material is easy to digest and the presentation can move along quickly with few questions.  Other points in a talk may take a bit more time and discussion. 
This give-and-take dynamic became very obvious to me as I was in the audience for a recent taping of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”.  His opening monologues are a great example of this audience awareness.  When a joke really resonates with the audience, he pauses and enjoys the moment with them.  He may even elaborate on it and perhaps “milk it” a bit.  However, when a joke flops, he moves so quickly to another joke/topic, that the audience doesn’t have a chance to notice the previous stinker.

With Jimmy, he’s tuned in to the feedback from his audience.  Granted he can more easily measure a response by applause or laughter – we don’t often get applause or laugher in an engineering presentation... at least we hope not.

However there are some obvious responses we can be looking at:
-          Are people making eye contact with you? 
-          Are they taking notes? 
-          Are they preoccupied with their cell phone/laptop/papers/etc.?

Here’s a really subtle one:  did you know that people are less likely to cough, sneeze or blow their nose when they are fully tuned into something?

If you still are struggling to determine if people are tuned in with your talk, try this... at some point in your talk, step away from your slides and draw something on a whiteboard or flipchart.  Watch closely for eye contact changes or body language changes in the audience.  People will tend to re-engage when you change communication forms.  This is the kind of reaction that you should be looking for throughout your talk.

The above "painful" video was produced by the company “Growing Leaders” in promotion of the book “Habitudes for Communicators”.  It's a great, easily readible book.  I recommend it to anyone that spends time in front of any audience.  Check it out at: and start planning your next presentation as an "audience-centric" one!

Rock On.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Getting out of the Studio

Many universities do a great job in teaching the technical fundamentals related to engineering.  But at some point you need to get out in the real world and play for a real audience. 

Unfortunately, the real world doesn't always look like the place they told you about in school.

Here are 12 of the things I wish they would have taught me in engineering school.  I'm sure there are more, and I would welcome any additions that you may have.  So without any further delay lets dive in...

1. People skills will typically beat math or science skills in the real world.

Let’s face it – "people" are the ones that are responsible for your positions, promotions and salary.  Not equations.  Not laws of physics.  You are typically going to be judged on how much you “appear to do” and how others perceive the value of what you do - not necessarily your ability to Fourier transforms and partial differential equations.  This isn’t about being the brown-noser.  It’s about building relationships and developing your “brand” or identity.

2. Learn to be a teacher, but don’t condescend.
A little secret here:  the people around you have probably forgotten most of the stuff that’s fresh in your mind right now.  But they really don’t want to admit it.  When presenting or interacting with others start basic and stay tuned in to see if they are tracking with you.  Don’t ask the audience-humiliating kinds of questions like “if you don’t know ____  let me know.”   Instead ask “would you like me to explain ____?”   If you can help someone learn, they will value you more.  If you speak over their heads, they will avoid you or worse yet - consider you to be a jerk.

3. That old guy just might be able to kick your butt… intellectually speaking.
Experience is a great educator.  You might be on your way out of a great school with a nice shiny degree and it may even have are some impressive, Latin words on it.  You probably do have some great theoretical knowledge.  Even though you may already carry a higher job title than he does, the person that has actually lived in it for 30+ years may still be able to teach you a thing or two (or maybe 100 things for that matter).  Take every opportunity you can to learn from him or her. 

4. Look for chances to learn essential, non-technical things.
Sure you can calculate the static load on a beam or determine the number of moles of oxygen needed in a particular reaction.  Learn what actions get rewarded in your organization.  Learn where to go or whom to go to in order to get things.  Learn the language that your supervisors speak.  Learn something about the people you work with so there is always something to talk about.  This kind of knowledge pays off greatly. 

5. Be brief.
How’s that for a short title?  When speaking get to the point.  When you lead a meeting, make sure it finishes early.  Let people know you are available if they are interested in more.  It’s far better to have someone ask you for more conversation than it is to have someone dread seeing you coming for fear that you won’t shut up.  There used to be a guy that would linger in my office so long that I would sometimes fake a pager buzz (back in the “engineers wear pagers” days) just to get him to leave.  Don’t be that guy.

6. Be an entertaining or at least an engaging communicator.
Your job as an engineer will require that you speak to others.  There are no compromises in this area.   If you have an accent – be intentional about pointing it out to your audience and giving them every opportunity to ask for clarification.  One great icebreaker that I’ve used in different parts of the US and all over the world is to poke fun at my own accent.   If you see that you are losing an audience, bring them back at all costs.  If you’re uncomfortable in front of a group; join Toastmasters or find some other forums or community groups where you can hone this craft.  Your career trajectory will thank you.

7. Learn some basics about business thinking – not just accounting.
Most big companies or at least most successful companies are led by business people.  Sure, engineers like to make fun of business people (that bunch of silly “bean counters”), but realize this:  business is the “wrapper” in which engineering is packaged and made profitable.  If your engineering isn’t sold, you usually don’t have a job.  Dig into a business topic like marketing if you really want to know something about where you fit in. 

8. Some people will not like you.
This is a tough one for many young people to come to grips with.  But, let’s face it – the world has lots of messed up people and there’s a good chance that you will encounter one or more of them in your job.  You may try and try to make things feel better, but they just may not want it.  In those cases, it’s best to just “keep it professional” and keep the interactions as minimal and as “work-centric” as possible.   Sometimes these things improve with time (so give it a chance without burning any bridges), but don’t expect a birthday card or a hug. 

9. Things take time (more time than you can imagine) in the real world.
In school, you had very, very, very short projects.  Sure, a 4-week long project seemed like an eternity in college; but many real-world projects take months or even years.  There will be times when you feel like nothing is getting done and the project will never get finished.  Use these times to get ahead of the game or to learn more about what’s coming in the next steps of the project.   Don’t just sit there! Have a plan for your downtime..

10. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
Yeah, I now that's an overused cliché, but it is some of the best career advice you will ever get.  Longevity is one of the best tools for advancement.  Longevity will bring you deeper experiences, a chance to develop wisdom (not just knowledge) and more chances for promotion.
11. Find opportunities to develop yourself outside your company.
I know that budgets are tight in many companies, but to make yourself a better engineer you’ve got to be connected to the world outside your company.  Join professional societies or standardization groups.  Publish papers.   Attend conferences or expos.  Subscribe to journals in your field.  Your knowledge of the “outside world” and your relationships with people in the “outside world” make you a better employee at your current job and a more marketable candidate should you seek a future job.

12. Smile.
People will pass their initial judgment on you based on what they see.  It doesn’t take much effort to make a positive first impression.  I do a lot of video conferencing and seeing that picture of myself on a computer screen has really caused me to take note of these visual things. Look in the mirror with your “at work” face on.  Would you perceive your appearance as someone welcoming or someone that people would rather not be around? 

Rock on.