ignorantsoup Talks

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Excel Programming: Creating a Manpower Monitoring Program

I have been spending most of my free time on one single project in the past few days. With the knowledge I learnt from the Excel Programming book I purchased a few weeks back, I sought to create a VBA program that could help me monitor my manpower on a weekly basis.

The program would help me in the following areas:

  1. Present an overview of the manpower availability in the next 5 working days (for manpower planning)
  2. Monitor the outstanding leave status (so that I can get people to take more leave instead of waiting to clear it all at the end of the year)
  3. Monitor the number of MCs taken (from a purely care-for-soldiers perspective as multiple MCs for the same condition might highlight the need for some in depth tests)
  4. Allow input of manpower movement through a small Graphic User Interface (GUI)
  5. Allow the generation of calendar databases by inputting the Year required
  6. Allow automatic generation of the daily HR report for submission to higher HQ

Many of the subsidiary functions are not automated by VBA though. Some require the user to do input directly into the databases.

The main aim is still to improve efficiency where possible and waste less time. At the same time, to make sure that manpower is monitored properly to avoid cases where I have a lack of trained people to do work.

So far so good, hopefully I can use it at work within the next week!


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Make a Conscious Effort

For those who are out there seeking improvement to yourself, you might be doing it through a few different possible methods. Examples range from reading self help books, browsing self help articles on the internet, watching videos on YouTube and reading other people’s blogs etc. However, we can read and learn the content that is available to us and yet nothing has changed. We are still the same person that we once were, with nothing to show for the hours we put in to learn new materials.

Something that my colleague shared with me made much sense. There has to be a conscious effort to do something. There has to be a decision within yourself to say “I want to do this today”. We were talking about being in meetings that do not affect us much and hence were boring and dull. He said that he made it a point to learn 1 new thing which he wasn’t aware of, so he actually spent the effort to pay attention to something new, write it down and think about it. Or it could be a conscious effort to raise a point in a meeting for the benefit of others. This could help those who always have ideas but are afraid to raise them. Force yourself to contribute just one during the meeting and slowly you will get used to contributing more.

The Conscious Effort has got to do with part of habit forming. Forming habits are really difficult; good habits, that is. For example, you might have a grand goal of keeping fit. The execution part requires you to don your exercise gear and go out there to do some exercise. You would also have to do it diligently without fail at a pre-determined frequency. In short, forming a habit to exercise. The Conscious Effort is just a mechanism to get that first step out of the way. Your Conscious Effort might be to run 2km at least once a week. It will slowly transform and upgrade to include other exercises. Once the habit is formed, it is very easy to continue!

The other thing to note about The Conscious Effort is that it is something that we have to keep reminding ourselves about. Every time we go to a meeting, or meet new people, we have to set a conscious effort to improve beyond what we currently am. For example, introverts might decide that you want to start a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you instead of waiting for others to introduce themselves. No matter what it is, if you have identified a weakness you need to change, set a Conscious Effort goal today and make sure you go out there and do it.


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Getting a First Class: Consistency

I haven’t been writing in my “Getting a First Class” series of posts for a long time. In short, I wasn’t consistent and people couldn’t get the knowledge and tips that I have in my head. This meant that I couldn’t achieve my goal of sharing information so that others could learn. While this is a lousy example of how inconsistency meant that you don’t achieve your goals, sadly it is an important rule that could result in your GPA dropping.

A university semester is about 13 weeks long in Singapore. It is broken down into two terms of about 7 and 6 weeks respectively. You need to be consistent near the start of the semester so that you are able to achieve results with minimal effort – and you don’t need to spend extra hours cramming at the end of the semester.

It is difficult to write about how to be consistent in your studying. This is something that you have to be conscious about to do. Most people, however, have subconsciously grown used to having the bad habit of not being consistent and leaving all the work to the end. Hence I am just going to give examples of the type of consistency I have grown used to in university.

I start my semester relaxed and but consistency kicks in about a week into the semester. As I mentioned previously, the tutorials on the subsequent weeks depend on the material learnt in the lectures. It is important to be able to grasp the concepts in the lectures and validate it during the tutorials. This also means that you can understand better in subsequent lectures as you are aware of the fundamentals. Compare this to an inconsistent student; he will not know what is going on at week 5, and has to spend 5 weeks of effort crammed into one week to be able to catch up. Chances are, you need more than 5 times of effort – the effort increases exponentially.

I am also consistent in the timeline I use to prepare for exams. During the final month (about 3-4 weeks prior to examinations), I would start doing my revision and download all the exam papers. I would do my planning to clear about 1 paper a day at the onset and do more papers as it progresses into the reading week before the examinations. If I have any questions, I ask them on the school forums or meet up with the professors to ask them questions.

It is such level of consistency that makes it easier to achieve your goals as compared to when you are not consistent. If you add up the amount of effort required, you might find that you are achieving much more with less effort. And that’s the smarter way to study.


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A reflection on self improvement

I wanted to write in order to talk about self improvement. Recently I was toying around with an idea of forming a group with like minded individuals who are passionate about self-improvement and sharing of knowledge. The group will also be a form of peer support, providing advice when needed. It is like a mentor program, except it will be by peers. Perhaps in the future the group could evolve to include much younger members (when we are all older), when it will transit to a mentor support group. However, other than a like-minded colleague, I have yet to met anyone who would be even interested in this.

Over the past 3 months, I have read or have begun reading 3 different books. In January, I read “The First Time Manager in Asia” and wrote a post about it.. In February, I read “The 5 Levels of Leadership”. I did not complete it though. I finished reading Level 3: Production and figured that I had some improvement to go in this aspect before I should proceed to the next level. However, someone I met told me that it is always good to be aware of what the next level is even if you are not in the position to understand and appreciate the level itself.

This month’s book is “The Fine Art Of Small Talk – How to start a conversation in any situation” by Debra Fine. I have began reading and taking down notes; however I have yet to apply it even though I had situations to. This is an area which I had identified as a weakness of mine and I have to do something to minimise the weakness. That is essentially what self improvement is about, improving strengths and reducing weaknesses.

To conclude, I have been diligently reading one book a month and occasionally I take a look at my mind maps in order to refresh my memory on the concepts learnt. I am glad to have taken a good start to keeping my goals for the new year and look forward to completing the year 2014 as a much improved person. I am also hopeful to influence others to set such goals for themselves as well.


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The Passion for Programming

I’m writing this again because I was suddenly reminded of the passion I used to have for programming. I was surfing the net as usual when I saw an email telling me about a major upgrade to this calendar app which I supposedly used to have. I went to click on the website and after a few clicks, I stumbled upon the “Team” page where it lists down all the programmers that worked on the project. And… I just felt like a part of me was woken up from a deep sleep. Yet I know I purposely hid that part of me as there was not much opportunity to use it given my work and my personal life thus far.

But I used to love programming. I picked up HTML when I was 13. I know that isn’t programming but that was my first computer-sy related venture. I wanted to build sites so I started figuring how to build websites. In the first generation of pages, every bit of information was listed in a long scrolling page. Next came frames and slowly everything evolved to the internet that we knew of.

I didn’t do much until after NS when I learnt that a good friend of mine has his own website. It sparked me to get my own domain name (hence this URL instead of the default one) and a host. I created my blog on the host and began picking up CSS and improve on my Photoshop skills. Soon, I picked up a little of PHP and MySQL and I built NextTutor, a tuition pairing website.

In university, we had to learn C and subsequently C++ to build simple applications. I learnt Matlab programming to do my image processing assignments. I learnt how to use Visual Studio to build GUIs  using Visual Basic. I picked up Java programming for my FYP.

Now? I have forgotten most of them as I had not touched them for a long time. But the programming methodologies and concepts still stays. It is easier to pick up on programming as well. I believe the foundation also allows me to re-pick up on these languages when I want to.

I’m currently learning Excel Programming to improve my workplace productivity. It is taking me a while as I cannot afford to spend time on it during work hours. It is like a feeble attempt to reach out to one part of me that used to do such things. And it still excites me too; that I can build something which other people can use. Something that will help cut down on time so others are freed up to do more work.

Think about it. What’s your hobby that you should do once in a while just to give yourself something to be happy about?


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Questions to Ask Your Job Interviewer

One of the reasons that people don’t pass their interview and get employed is the level of interest shown during the interview. One of the areas to assess anyone’s level of interest is in the questions that they ask the job interviewer. I remember seeing some slides on this topic previously asking people to Google for questions and to ask questions that someone hasn’t asked yet. While I might not be able to help give ideas on what others have yet to ask, but I hope this list of questions would help show your interest and at the same time help you gain insight to the company. These questions are what I thought should be asked by new graduates in order to decide on whether the company is right for you.

1. What is the leadership/working culture here at YYY?

The intent of this question is not to find out how long they work but how people work together. Is it mainly an individualistic job or is there many opportunities of collaboration. The part on leadership culture is to find out how the senior management leads the rest. Is it a you say and I do culture or are there spaces for ideas and suggestions? Do you get to contribute as a new hire or is the culture one that is “shut up until you are experienced enough to open your mouth for constructive comments”.

2. How often do you collaborate with other departments?

This is to find out whether you get to meet other people out of 20 sq m of your work area. A follow up question could be working with external agencies.

3. How often are we evaluated and how often do we receive reviews of our work?

My personal take is that it is not important that we are evaluated frequently. The main benefit is when we receive regular reviews that are not evaluative in nature. This means reviews which are bad will not affect your performance bonuses and this gives you a real chance to change and work better. If every review hurts your final evaluation, then it might be a little over stressful. Informal reviews also count as they are non evaluative and give you an opportunity to discuss on how you can better yourself.

4. What are the type of industry training that will be provided and will there be other forms of training not related to the industry such as soft skills etc?

Face it. When you graduate with a degree, all it says is that you are good at picking up concepts and you have a level of basic expertise. When you enter the workforce, you need to learn more about the industry that you are in. These are skills that let you perform your basic function. Soft skills are also important in my opinion. Soft skills ranges from presentations, writing minutes, mind mapping, managing meetings, networking etc which I thought would be beneficial. Find out how often do you get to go for such training and the mode of signing up e.g. do your bosses dictate for you or do you have a choice?

5. Are the employees encouraged to be innovative and what are the policies in place for such an encouragement to take place?

A healthy workplace is one where creativity is allowed to flow. This also leads to a stronger product for your company and helps bring in greater efficiency. If you can, talk to the people on the ground to find out how the policy is actually carried out.

I will continue to build this list as I think of more examples. Hope this helps!


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Managing Yourself & Your Team

As part of reading a new book each month, I want to try and internalise the lessons learnt by writing about them on my blog. In this way, I will get reminded of what the lessons are and at the same time help spread some interesting concepts. I will not be writing about the entire book though; I will only focus on a few key areas which I wanted to highlight. Today I will be sharing some concepts involving managing one-self and managing a team as a leader.

1. Developing Yourself As A Leader

The main theme in managing yourself as a leader is having self-awareness. Why do we need self-awareness? Do you realise that there are different versions of “myself” that is available out in the world today? I’m not talking about piracy or identity theft. Think about it this way. Your colleague sees one version of you, while your spouse sees another version. The versions could be vastly different due to the common experiences and the different ways you choose to interact with different persons. Saying the same thing to somebody might trigger different results to another person. Furthermore, everyone has different expectations of how you should be. In addition, the version you see yourself is different from how other see you.

Now that we have squared away the concept of having multiple versions of yourself, we can move on to learning how to understand what others feel about you. This will be about obtaining feedback and giving feedback:

1.1 Obtaining Feedback: Feedforward Concept

Everybody talks about getting feedback about ourselves. However if you are a leader of a team, you might find yourself being in a position where nobody would be comfortable about giving you feedback as that would involve criticising your leadership. Hence there is a new concept called “Feedforward” which essentially means, “How can we do it better the next round”. The focus shifts from what had happened (and thus assigning blame) to what can we do to make it better (and thus generating forward looking suggestions). Feedforward can then be self-extrapolated backwards to discover what was not right that needs moving on.

1.2. Giving Feedback: What went Well, Even Better If

This was something that I had learnt as part of my National Service (who says we don’t learn anything productive) that can be applied for everyone in a leadership position. In the SAF, we call it the “After Action Review” and as part of it we talk about what went well and what went badly. The book suggests though, to concentrate on “What went well” and then move on to the “Even better if” concept. The “Even better if” concept is similar to that of a feedforward as we talk about what we can do even better the next round. But this is applied mainly to when we are giving feedback to our subordinates. The book says not to use the word “but” as it has a negative connotation. E.g. “You did a great job managing the database of information but you could really speed things up a little” vs “You did a great job managing the database of information. And it would be even better if you could find ways to speed the process up.”

I don’t know if anyone can see the difference but from my point of view, I can.

1.3 Coaching

Coaching is an important part of being a manager. To me, coaching is an opportunity to align your team mates to the same vision and motivate them to achieve success. It is also a chance to guide them back on the right path and provide the clarity of leadership to them. Coaching is essentially an investment of time in yourself and your team mates.

An interesting model mentioned is the GLOW model which stands for Goal, Reality, Options, Way Forward. These are the possible steps that we can take during coaching sessions. Identify what the goal is, talk about the current reality, guide them towards providing some options on their own and show them a possible way forward. Easy?

There are also some qualities of a coach which I felt was necessary to share, so here goes:

  • Self Aware
  • Confident
  • Approachable
  • Patient
  • Generous; believes in other’s potential
  • Authentic
  • Open & Receptive
  • Always learning & improving
  • Good role model

2. Developing yourself as a Employee (and well, also applies to being a leader)

2.1 The other part of Self Awareness

The other part of Self Awareness has nothing to do with feedback or feed forward. It is about how well we know ourselves in terms of our strengths and weaknesses. Following which we will be able to use our strengths to our advantages and find out ways to improve on our weaknesses so it would become a strength.

2.2 Time Management

Time Management is such a big concept that it could be an entire post on its own. I have read many different books with different theories of how to manage time and sometimes I try them out to see how effective they are. However the essence of time management is the question, “Do we want to control work or to have work control us?” Judging by how most people place work life balance relatively high on their priority list, it does seem like we should learn how to control work.

Essentially time management is about planning. To plan requires us to come up with some form of to-do list where we can allocate the tasks we require of the day. It is about prioritisation and the end ability to act on it.

What essentially we need to do at the start of the day is to plan what we need to do. At the end of the day, we have to do some self reflection. For me, I thought what was important is to have a week in review as well where we look at the meetings we have of the week and do the necessary to prepare for such meetings.

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