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Points of Light at the Heart of a Pandemic

Most would agree that the year 2020 has tested us as businesses, communities and as individuals in ways that few could have foreseen. Natural disaster, political turmoil and disease have always been a part of life, but the pandemic has delivered a real blow to the global community. There is no doubt about it: We will be struggling to regain some level of normalcy for months to come. Covid-19 has spared few countries; only nine months since the first cases of infection surfaced and already more than 1,000,000 people, world-wide, have succumbed. Economies have come to a virtual halt. People have lost work and income and suddenly find themselves in desperate situations. The lucky ones are able to work from home. What conclusions can we make about where we are now? The bleakness of the current situation colors our outlook and the difficulties are certainly easy to see, but is there anything positive to consider in all of this?

First, let’s think about the loss…

Loss of Partners, Friends and Family Members

Without a doubt, the passing of family, coworkers and others within our communities is the most tragic aspect of the pandemic. This virus has created death on a massive scale, the likes of which we are more likely to see during times of war. We lose people yearly to illness and many hundreds of thousands die from heart disease every year, but the numbers lost to Covid-19 exceed these numbers, even though we are well short of the 12-month mark.

Daily Life with Covid-19 Comes with Risk, The Magnitude of which is often Unknown

We have made significant strides as a civilization in the last 100 years. We know what is needed to sustain life and to protect human health. Science and technology have developed medicines and vaccines to treat countless medical conditions and to protect against more than a few horrific diseases. We know how to purify water, forecast extreme storm systems, and build the bridges, buildings and other infrastructure that support our modern way of life. But Covid-19 has forced a “reset” on what we thought we knew. It has shaken confidence in our ability to handle a global health crisis. We know now, without a doubt, that we are still vulnerable. Although the scientific community has made inroads, what we don’t know still dwarfs what we do. Navigating daily life in the last nine months has been an exercise in moving through uncharted territory. If I enter a public space, what will be my level of exposure? If I contract the virus, will my case be life-threatening or mild? These are the questions that haunt us—unanswered—from one day to the next.

Basic Social Interactions…Upended

The pandemic has forced us apart physically and we keep our distance—even, in some cases, from members of our own families. To avoid the spread of the virus we check all impulse to communicate via friendly physical gestures. Forget about the fist-bump or the friendly handshake. I can’t share tomatoes without taking precautionary steps to disinfect and sterilize my hands. It’s harder to communicate; I can’t read body language over Zoom. In person communication means I need to get better at reading other physical cues, like eyes for examples, which has never been a particular strength of mine.

But there is a silver lining to all of this, and it starts with what we have learned about ourselves.

We are Asked to Test our Resourcefulness and our Willingness to Sacrifice

Let’s not neglect the positives of this situation, because they are there, hiding in the midst of this crisis. As we reexamine how we go about our daily lives, our world view is bound to change. Forced to alter our daily habits and to forego social outings and other perks we want, many of us have reconsidered our place in the world. Maybe we’ve thought about the vulnerability of people in poorer communities or the front-line workers, or how lucky we are relative to the situation of so many others who have less resources to protect themselves. In some cases, we’ve accepted the risk and elected to help the weaker members of our communities to simply survive.

We have had to alter our expectations, make adjustments and make more than a few sacrifices over the last nine months. This kind of self-reflection and self-denial can only be good for personal growth and for our evolution as a tightly interconnected world community.

We Charter New Ground with Our Company

Not only have we been forced to be more thoughtful and resourceful as individuals, but as a company as well. Within a matter of days, and before the city of Noida officially went into lockdown, Highlands elected to move all employees out of the office. Staff rallied, organized, and set up all employees at home with computers, desks, chairs, printers and everything else needed to make work happen at a distance. Aside from a few minor delays, the well-oiled machinery that is Highlands at the Graphix Tower in Noida’s Sector 62 shifted into high gear, albeit remotely. Programmers collaborated and scrummed at a distance; sales representatives contacted clients and HR still looked after the interests of our highly valued employees. We made it work.

Yes, we as individuals and as a business are resilient. In the midst of a pandemic, we’ve managed to find a few “points of light.”

We Thank Our Lucky Stars in 2020

In a year that was hit, broadside, by Covid-19 and that witnessed the loss of over 1,000,000 people (and counting) to the virus world-wide, do we really have anything to be thankful for? I would argue that although the end of this challenging situation is not yet in sight and massive human suffering continues, we do have reason to be thankful. Let me explain why.

Resolve of Global Community to Work Together on Solutions

On one level, we heard our share of polarizing words, accusations and friction, all of which seems to go hand in hand with an international crisis of this scale. But along with all of this political posturing, particularly from certain parts of the globe, we also experienced real leadership. Effective and life-saving efforts came from unexpected as well as expected places. Real leadership was focused, uncompromising and unequivocally based on and driven by data, statistics and fact. Local leaders advocated for commitment, service and personal sacrifice. Under the best of circumstances, a quick response resulted in a swift decline in case numbers. New York City, for example, was the world’s Covid-19 epicenter for weeks in early 2020 but managed to bring deaths/day down from a peak of 952 at the beginning of May down to 2/day by the end of September. This drastic shift in the city’s trajectory was nothing short of remarkable.

At clinics and hospitals around the world, hundreds of thousands of medical practitioners rallied to treat those afflicted with Covid-19, not knowing if they were to be the next victims. Most had families and dependents at home. According to Amnesty International, over the last nine months over 10,000 health workers lost their lives taking care of patients with Covid-19. These selfless individuals remain and continue to be an inspiration to us all.

Numerous teams across the globe launched accelerated vaccine research initiatives. Political boundaries become secondary as scientists and medical practitioners shared information and discoveries relative to potential treatments and cures. Many countries and professionals rose to the occasion to collaborate and avoid reverting to a vaccine “arms race”.

A Dedicated and Committed Team that Continues to Rally and Push Forward

Closer to home, the work ethic and drive of the individuals that make up the team at Highlands continues to impress me. When it became apparent that the world was on the brink of a crisis, yet Noida was not yet shutting down, everyone at Highlands shifted gears in the blink of an eye. Within a matter of days, workstations and necessary equipment were moved from corporate headquarters to home offices. Giving new meaning to agile teamwork, Highlands employees are safe at home and working remotely.

Employees Game to Learn and Grow

The key word is humility. We approach everything we do here at Highlands with some level of humbleness. Here at Highlands we have recruited the best in class and the best in profession, but this doesn’t mean we think we know it all. No matter status, education, or years of experience, we know we are all still students of life and work. Crises are, if nothing else, an opportunity for growth. We strive to learn from our mistakes and move forward, capitalizing on any insights we’ve gained through our mistakes to make this living, breathing system—which is Highlands—maintain its edge.

Not only is humility necessary to move a team forward but change and evolution are necessary as well. Each day at Highlands is different because the needs of our clients—the engineers and the global communities they serve and the problems they need help with—are different, from one day to the next. At the core, we are dealing with natural systems and natural systems are fundamentally dynamic in character. Engineers need to have tools to grapple with change, unpredictability and flux, and we want to continue to make the tools that facilitate reliable analysis.

Customers that Push Us to Do More

Could you design a car without the driver in mind? Could a playground be fun and surprising without plugging into the imagination of a kid? Highlands customers are not on the payroll, but in view of how they drive and shape our products, they very well could be. They are as much a part of the development team as any of our programmers. The practical knowledge and insights they offer into how to make our engineering software functional and relevant for today’s engineering problems are invaluable. We treasure these customers for their drive, interest and contributions towards making our solutions for the world’s engineers the best they can possibly be.

Parting Thoughts on the Year 2020

This has been anything but a typical year, but even a year of challenges can offer surprising opportunities. Here’s to putting a positive spin on otherwise difficult circumstances. Here’s to counting our blessings and giving thanks when it’s hard to see what is still good in the spaces and in the lives of the people around us. Here’s to looking ahead with hope and optimism.

Customer and Employee Centered

The Customer is in the Room…and other News from Highlands

Sometimes, to know what a company IS NOT is as telling as to know what a company IS. So, in this post, you will learn what you will NOT find at Highlands, as well as some things that you most certainly will. Let’s hit on some key points to shed light on our company’s culture, work processes and other telling indicators. In the spirit of full disclosure, let’s drill into the working machinery of Highlands.

NOT a corporation that snubs the customer

Say “hello” to the customer. She (or he) is at the scrum meeting. Well, not literally. If you want to visualize the customer looming over the conference table or hovering, phantom-like, during a scrum meeting, go ahead. It is not far from reality. But you will be hard pressed to find a software company that is more eager to please the customer. Soliciting—and acting on—customer feedback is as important as any other task that Highlands does. In fact, while most companies are satisfied to keep only minimum records of existing customers—contact name, billing address—that would never do for Highlands. We got the sale, yes, but our commitment to our customers doesn’t end there. We want to be sure that our software continues to deliver and perform well after the deal goes through.

Our team gathers customer feedback constantly. How is this done? Customer Support Representatives call customers every 2 to 3 months to check-in and get updates on how the software is performing. We want to know what is working, what isn’t, and what we need to change. In the process of fielding inbound calls, tech support engineers gather information as well. If we don’t understand a client’s issue, we use any technology available, from video recorded calls to client demos, to truly understand what a client needs and wants from the software. Now and then, the Engineering Director gets on the phone to make a “discovery call” and uncover precisely what a customer is looking for in our software. How many companies do you know of that do this? (We call this “software features on demand”). Information from our clients is meticulously documented and factored into the process of product development, as we will discuss in the paragraphs below.

NO stagnation here: Employees Evolve… as does the Company

Human Resources is probably one of the most important departments in our shop. Why is this so? Because equal in importance to our customers—if not more so—are the people that work at Highlands. These are the folks behind the core machinery at Highlands. Without them, we would not produce anything of value. So, we invest as much in our employees as we do in our product. We hope that employees take advantage of the many training and advancement opportunities that Highlands offers to grow and evolve.

But here’s something you may not recognize: A company needs to evolve and grow with its employees. If you consider Highlands your work “home”, you will want the team at Highlands, and the processes and systems that make it all come together, to work, evolve and grow stronger too. Ideas to make the community and the systems stronger at Highlands are always welcome.

Not a Coding “Mill”

How much code did you write today? This is NOT a question you will hear from any of us. Management cares about developers. We are not in the business of extracting blood and sweat. We expect hard work and our performance standards are high, but above all, we are fair. We will work with you, not against you. You are one of us—remember?

We believe in the magic and power of teams. You won’t be asked to learn the job on your own or figure out problems in isolation. We pair you up with another programmer to help you become familiar with our processes. A culture of teamwork and partnership forms the backbone of work at Highlands. We are a tight group that is interdependent, supportive of one another, and motivated to produce the best product possible under the best working conditions possible.

No Stuffed Shirts Here: Software Development as quick to Adapt as the Company itself

How good would we be as developers of leading-edge engineering software if we couldn’t change course quickly and respond to client needs? We wouldn’t last long. So not only are we quick to address the people side of things—the team and workplace issues, but we are agile and fluid when it comes to our product too. In fact, evolutionary ideals shape everything we do at Highlands. We take an iterative tack with respect to software design. If in the process of shaping our MVP (minimum viable product) we realize we are off track on core features, we don’t waste time. On a daily basis, the Highlands routine goes something like this: scrum meeting, write code in pairs or teams (ask questions), assess progress and check goals (ask questions), work, repeat tomorrow (and ask more questions).

Final question: Is the Highlands team a bunch of arrogant know-it-alls who can’t stand to be corrected or told that they are wrong?! No. We know change and growth is good. We also like to think we are a humble bunch of folks who just want to make good—actually really good—engineering software and to have some fun doing it. We hope you’ll consider joining us.

Lean UX: Getting the User Experience Right

If James Bond is the British Secret Service’s answer to weak intelligence operations, Lean UX is the design industry’s answer to drawn out and risky product development protocols. If you had a design team that could test ideas quickly, respond to user feedback and make necessary changes in swift iterative cycles, nailing the product outcome like James Bond sniffs out a villain, you would have all the elements of a Lean UX product development process. In an age of tight competition, the software company that focuses on the user experience and capitalizes on sudden market opportunities is the one most likely to come out ahead.

The Driving Goal of Lean UX

Up until recently, the standard product development paper trail—the elaborate workflow charts, extensive documentation, and other administrative red tape—were as seemingly necessary as the product itself. Product design and development followed a lengthy and multi-step trajectory with minimal collaboration among team members and minimal interaction with the end user. A product could be near its final form before any user feedback was collected, if at all. Lean UX changes this process and strips it down to its most essential. It is built around the following principles:

  1. Product development must capitalize on the many skills of the team, all focused on creating the best solution for the customer; and
  2. A core product must make it to market as quickly as possible with minimal waste of resources; and
  3. Most importantly, the product must succeed in creating a particular user experience for the customer.

The Customer is on the Design Team

Well, maybe the customer is not ON the team, but he or she is figuratively at the conference table. Under Lean UX design principles, the customer is the planet around which team members orbit. Lean UX gets direction from feedback that is frequently solicited from target users. If the client is dissatisfied with the design, the team is toast and needs to take action swiftly. You might as well have the Queen of Hearts in the room, proclaiming “Off with (their) Heads!” The goal of Lean UX is to constantly keep an eye on the end game: a satisfied buyer willing to part with some serious cash. Ways to incorporate qualitative and quantitative feedback from the user often and at key points in the process via interviews, user analytics, surveys, and so forth is front and center to the Lean UX process.

The Team that “Turns on a Dime”

If customer feedback shows that the team’s approach is misdirected, the team needs to be able to switch tracks, reorganize and set off on a new course as expeditiously as possible. Short bursts of team activity are followed by user feedback. Trial and error and iterative refining of product design in response to user data is central. Design ideas and major presumptions are checked frequently. In fact, the expectation is that design direction will change significantly during development. Presumptions need to be examined or the team is “flying blind”. This is risk-management built into the development process. It is this characteristic of Lean UX that ensures that the final product will be as close to “pitch perfect” as possible when finally released.

Lean, Mean and Collaborative: Lean UX Team at Work

In the spirit of moving as efficiently as possible through a design process, Lean UX doesn’t have the luxury of getting different skills involved at different points in time. Lean UX is all about focused collaboration and creating an all hands-on deck effort. All members of the team are needed to take ownership of the problem and inject the insights of their own particular skill set. All weigh in to create a better solution and shape the product. Each voice is valued, and communication is fluid and informal. Another point to stress is that the team is largely autonomous with respect to the parent organization. A Lean UX team must be able to move quickly with minimal oversight and therefore has the independence, trust and resources of the larger organization to move forward when necessary.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

The development of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is the end goal of a Lean UX process. Everything that defines a lean UX process so far points to a methodology that uses minimal resources to create a no-frills, basic product that meets customer expectations. If your objective is to build a go-kart, you build one that has a working steering mechanism and the momentum to go downhill. It doesn’t need the extra, non-essential features—the lights, the padded seat. An MVP ensures that the project stays within budget, has minimum working features, and creates the experience the user is looking for.

The End Product: What Lean UX is designed to Do

This is a lean, focused team with a lean and focused objective. This is a process whose goal is to maximize consumer feedback and validate design specifications early and often. All of this is accomplished with speed and efficiency. Lean UX is about bringing to market a product that is likely to be a winner while reducing corporate risk as much as possible. This is a process even James Bond would be proud of.

In Search of Time: Productivity Tips in the Age of Tesla

Nearly everyone I talk to wrestles with the same problem: How to make the most of a 24-hour day? Even Elon Musk, modern-day inventor extraordinaire and human force behind Space X, Tesla and The Boring Companyhas been known to agonize over the time it takes to eat a meal. We all know people who through a combination of drive, geneticsor other random mystery variables, seem to accomplish more in a 24hour period than the rest of us. 

Forget about those individuals for a moment. Instead, consider the simplest, most effective tools and methods ordinary mortals like us can use to maximize the standard workday. 

A Simple List Fails No One 

Here’s a trouble-free technique to make sure tasks get done. Make a list. If you don’t, important items slip under the radar or are left to the end of the day inadvertently, and don’t get done at all. A visual list allows you to prioritize and move methodically through it, point by point, checking items off one by one or finally scrubbing out the item with a big, bold, satisfying line. A list with no items checked off is a wake-up call, a slap in the face, a signal to get moving. 

Embrace the Tomato 

The Pomodoro (Italian word for tomato) time-management method was developed in the 1980s by Italian student Francesco Cirillo with the use of a simple, mechanical, tomato-shaped kitchen timerThe technique consists of breaking the day down into increments of 25 minutes. Focus on one task for an uninterrupted 25-minute interval, known as a pomodoro, after which point a 3 to 5-minute break is taken. After four consecutive pomodorosyou are allowed to enjoy a larger break of 30 minutes. Then the process starts again with another block of 4 pomodoros. The low-tech system has gained momentum and followers and is available via a smartphone handy app. 

Don’t Let Mind “Clutter” Hampers your Ability to Concentrate on the Stuff that Matters 

Much of what the mind churns through every second, minute and hour is irrelevant to the present moment and the project at hand. We are easily distracted into worrying about future “crises” that may never materialize or past mistakes we can do nothing about now. Ignore the voice that chatters incessantly and ultimately slows you down. Don’t let trivia and non-essential matters creep into your core work time. Turn it off. 

Avoid Multi-Tasking 

Studies show that multi-tasking not only quietly stuns brain cells, it also slows you down. Typically, people don’t finish anything at all when multi-tasking. Keep it simple: one task for one block of time. 

When Solution Needs to “Stew”, Revisit it Briefly During Off-Hours 

Maybe this point states the obvious, but time spent in the car or folding laundry is not necessarily lost work time. Consider using that time to mentally tackle a work challenge. In ten minutes or less, you can identify the points you want to cover in next week’s PowerPoint presentation or hash out the wording for a business memo. Rehearse your speech for tomorrow’s business lunchUse what would be considered “empty” time (when you tend to contemplate weighty matters like whether Tesla’s new Cybertruck should be offered in a shade of forest green) to focus and mentally work out solutions to projects that are on your plate now. Note that this is not the kind of multi-tasking that is described above and that can cause you to spin your wheels unproductivelyThis is brief and focused use of down time to consider difficult problems. 

Know What You Need to Reenergize 

If you know what you need to reenergize, do it. Stepping away from your desk to stretch, release tension and completely reboot your brain is necessary part of working productively when it countsSlow downregroup, and stay sharp. 

We are not Elon Musk, But We Can Still be Productive 

Do you detect a theme running through all these ideas? Hopefully you do. With a few simple steps you can stream-line and amp up your productivity. Create a simple list and rank these items in order of importance. Choose one task at a time and stay laser-focused for a defined block of time with the Pomodoro method or something similar. Be disciplined about it. If you need more time to crunch out the solution to a problem, tackle it in the car or on your way to the grocery. There you have it… a few simple tools to greater productivity.