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A New (Environmental) World Order?

The Rubble Left Behind

During former United States President Trump’s first and only term, with militant and uncompromising discipline, quick work was made of immeasurable environmental laws and policies. In most cases, little debate or weighing of merits accompanied these initiatives. More often than not, it was “off to the chopping block” for one rule after another. From weakened carbon emission standards for the car industry to minimal environmental review for big, sweeping projects, the oil and gas industry was consulted early and often as the administration’s fossil fuel-centric agenda took shape. Progressive environmental leaders around the world watched in horror as pro-conservation policies were steadily peeled back. The warpath was well-defined and action was swift. Anyone tracking the speed with which the U.S. reversed long-entrenched environmental policies (both domestic and international) couldn’t help but be impressed.

Respected international agreements—notably the Paris Climate Accord—suffered as Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Treaty. Refusing to attend climate discussions held at the 2018 and 2019 G7 meetings, Trump scorned scientific findings and refused to recognize or take action to curb sizable US contributions to world carbon emissions.

Higher Goals

By contrast, throughout his campaign, President Biden made no secret of his intention to champion the environment and elevate the issue of climate change to a national and world priority—if not an international emergency. Biden pledged to mobilize all players to reduce carbon emissions, making this singular goal the primary axis around which the U.S. economy would rotate, create jobs and grow in years to come. All this is detailed in the “Building a Better Future” report. Whether and to what degree elected representatives will support Biden’s plan is still unclear, but the President is ambitious. What he is unable to do initially on a large scale with agreement from both houses of Congress he may tackle on a smaller scale via executive order and shrewd choice of leadership for key cabinet positions. As leader of one of the largest economies in the world, Biden’s action on climate issues can create momentum for change on a global scale. The scene is set, but will the show go on and will the curtain rise…? Here’s where the details count.

Redesigned Spaces for Work and Life

Real change in carbon emissions can’t be done without real change on the ground, which means shaking up the way goods and services are produced and delivered around the world, people move and live, and cities develop and function on a day-to-day basis. The incoming administration understands this, which is why the “Building Better” plan underscores the importance of infrastructure. The physical structures that make up our living spaces—the roads and bridges, urban areas and systems that make it all work—would be redesigned using modern technologies and sustainable design concepts:

  • Buildings retrofitted for resilience to floods and rising water,
  • The transportation industry remade to accommodate electric cars and trucks,
  • Clean alternative fuels.

Roads, highways, and bridges—many in poor and deteriorating condition—would need to be rebuilt to embody innovation, strength and sustainable transportation design and construction in urban and rural spaces alike.

Now science acts as Manager in Chief, cracking the whip in a massive redesign of modern life and culture. China’s economy is already at the center of the world’s solar photovoltaics industry and well-positioned to meet rising world demand for new technologies. Several countries in Europe are already on course to reduce carbon emissions. Norway makes strides to be carbon-neutral by 2030. More than 100 countries around the world aim to have zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is clear from watching environmental disasters unfold across the globe—flooding in India to historic forest fires in the US, to record-breaking storms in the Atlantic and Pacific—that a swift international “reset” is needed. Will this new vision help drive other world economies towards change?

A New Mission for Engineers and Engineering Tools

As much as we want this new world environmental order to kick-in, propelled by clean energy and spitting out clean jobs right and left, many elements need to fall into place to make it happen. With luck, all the working parts—visionary leadership across the globe, political will and international cooperation, and robust funding—will line up as they need to do.

The private sector’s role will be significant if—NO, WHEN—this new world agenda kicks into high gear. Highlands, for one, accepts the challenge. Building resilient infrastructure across the globe will be a non-negotiable mandate of 21st century modern life. Engineering tools need to be flexible, tough, ready to analyze complex (and changing) scenarios, and deliver accurate results. Here’s to new directions for global economies. We as an Indian software company that makes engineering tools for the world’s engineers welcomes the chance to build and modernize world infrastructure. Highlands will deliver, as we always have, when the call to action comes.

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.

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. 

Surviving Covid-19

From astronauts on the ISS (International Space Station) to crew members on submarines, to scientists conducting research on remote islands, people throughout history have survived challenging living arrangements; some have even thrived despite them. The coronavirus pandemic has been referred to as ‘unprecedented’ because pandemics of this scale and scope in modern history have been scarce. But over the course of hundreds of years, in some form or another, by choice or by force, people have experienced some version of self-isolation and sacrifice: access to the usual employment, people, places or routines is suddenly reduced, if not eliminated entirely. At a minimum, the situation mandates resourcefulness, resilience, and a significant restructuring of the day-to-day. For those that are newly unemployed with no income, the situation is more desperate and more will be required to survive. Drawing from the vast reservoir of experience and wisdom out there and with the recognition that each person’s experience with COVID-19 is unique, let us structure a very basic, “applicable to most” COVID-19 survival toolkit.

Respect the Emotional Roller-Coaster

We are dealing with a raw and jarring new reality. Even experts and national leaders with historic composure are suddenly without words. If you find yourself in a panic or acting in ways that are completely atypical of your norm, do not be alarmed. We have witnessed a range of emotions within our own households as quarantine orders kicked in and large-scale changes brought about by the pandemic gained momentum across the globe. Fear over the well-being of loved ones and friends becomes real. You may hit an entirely new level of depression, the likes of which you have never before experienced.

Anxiety and Fear is Normal

Our ‘fight or flight’ reflex has been triggered. Multiple unknowns that range from whether your job will survive the pandemic, to where the world will be in 3 months, to whether your supply of basic essentials will last, loom large. Experts have pointed out that feelings of helplessness may linger well after the threat from COVID-19 has lessened. This, too, is normal. But if you need help now, do not hesitate to seek it out; many sources of assistance can be accessed remotely.

Recognize What You Can Control

The modern philosopher, Eckhart Tolle, is famous for pointing out that we bring unnecessary stress into our lives by dwelling on what we cannot change. Although it is a hard concept to internalize, we actually have no ability to change the future in fundamental ways. We can adjust our lives now to place ourselves in a better position to deal with future situations, but we cannot change major outcomes. Tolle advises us to focus on what we can do at this moment—whether trying to find remote work, tending to a child’s needs or our own—and avoid worrying about the future. Don’t listen to the news (or take it in small doses) if it has the effect of increasing your level of anxiety.

Maintain Physical Exercise

Experts stress the importance of physical exercise for the healthy release of emotional energy. My daughter has built a small obstacle course in her bedroom out of simple furniture and random objects. My son is pushing himself to do more sit-ups every day. A neighbor is playing ping-pong on his dining room table (at least that is what it sounds like). Add some new yoga positions to your daily program. Even submariners, with no access at all to an outdoor space, have managed to find ways to stay fit with little or no exercise equipment. If you are limited to a small space or an apartment, you can still find creative ways to move. This part of the COVID-19 routine is called 101 ways to maximize the use of four walls and a chair.

The Life-Saving Benefits of Structure and a Routine

Routines and structure could not be more important than now. You may not be able to control the global environment, the risk of infection or any other side effect of the pandemic, but you can control what happens in your home. A routine creates structure for daily goals and helps you stay productive and moving forward, all of which is key for your mental well-being.

Shift Thinking from Yourself to Others

If there is one certainty, it is that you can always find someone that is in a worse situation than yourself. So, think about these folks and what they may need. Studies have shown that becoming engaged in work that benefits others has significant benefits for your mental health. Inquire if older, frailer neighbors are in need of assistance. Volunteer to make PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) or help at your local food pantry. Masks will be an important staple for months to come. Bolster the community’s supply by making them.

Find Points of Light in Your Day

Let us take a moment to put this situation in perspective. In most cases, even though our circumstances are far from ideal, we have more space, freedom, and flexibility available to us than many. We may have access to an instrument (or something that can be made into one), a book or two, paper and other material that can be repurposed, a few family members, and our good health, if we’re lucky. Carve out time in your life for the things that bring you (and potentially others) joy. An example of just this kind of resourcefulness can be found within the archives of the International Space Station. Hats off to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield for his ISS-inspired version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Now that is putting limited space and a can-do spirit to good use!

Mindfulness at Work

technology company can be a beast to run on a day-to-day basis and Highlands is no exception; our tech company wrestles with its share of hassles and urgencies on a daily basis. Looming deadlines, personnel issues, software glitches, or any other set of troublesome, but inevitable business concerns are here to stay. The question is not how to avoid thembecause we can’tbut rather how to address the daily headaches calmly, thoughtfully and with as little unnecessary upheaval as possible. 

We have our corporate “coping mechanisms”: the office protocols, hierarchies of people with specific responsibilities, and SWAT-like teamdesigned to swoop in and fix criseas efficiently as possible. But is there another tool we can use to both improve employee well-being and gain a competitive edge? 

Turns out that GoogleIntelGeneral Mills and many others have implemented their own training programs for a field of study once considered incompatible with the no-nonsense climate of businessGoogle’s “Search Inside Yourself” program, in use since 2007, has presumably reduced stress levels, and helped employees across the organization develop greater levels of empathy and inner calm. As abstract as it may seem on one levelmindfulness has a very real and concrete part to play in the tech world. 

Mindfulness Moves out of Medicine and into the Office Breakroom 

Mindfulness as a program got its start some 50 years ago when Professor Jon Kabbat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center developed the course as supplement to traditional medicineMindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teaches people how to cope with stress, chronic pain and depression by changing thought patterns and encouraging patients to focus their energy on meditation and openness to the presentMedical practitioners noted that patients practicing some aspect of mindfulness generally had more positive experiences when dealing with serious medical conditions. 

Mindfulness principles have become mainstream in recent years as their ability to benefit areas outside of medicine, like the work environment and everyday life, have become more apparentTbetter manage the stresses of a typical workdayfrom interacting with clients to coping with deadlinesmany have found mindfulness principles useful and clinical studies have supported these findings as wellCompanies have found that mindfulness training helps employees develop a higher level of emotional intelligencegreater creativity and focus, and helps with a company’s productivity as well. 

At Highlands we believe that practices that can help employees maintain a balanced emotional state and outlook are beneficial to both the individuals and the company as a wholeHere are some key points about mindfulness to consider and use right away: 

Determine What is Important NOW and Focus on That 

Eckhart Tolle, a well-respected spiritual leader who has amassed a substantial following writing about the destructive patterns of living in the past or fearing the future, writes in his book, The Power of Nowthat the present moment is all that really matters. Everything else that you may be thinking of is a distraction from what you could be doing now. Thoughts that lead you to worry about future scenarios or past mistakes clutter your focus and prevent you from taking action or fully enjoying and maximizing the present moment. 

Don’t Dwell on the Past or Fret about the Future 

In the context of work, once you have carved out time in your calendar to work on a future project, stop thinking about it. Similarly, don’t dwell on past mistakesRuminating on yesterday’s flawed PowerPoint presentation won’t allow you to go back in time and fix it. Instead, make a mental note of how to approach the project differently next time and then move on to the assignment that needs your attention now. The more time we spend dwelling on a past incident, the more negative power it has over our thinking. Random thoughts about the past or future that swirl around in your head add up to mental “clutter” and don’t allow you to move forward. 

Listen More and Judge Less 

A workplace where people listen to each other is the ideal but is rarely the normAdopting a more mindful state of being means listening more and resisting the urge to speak first and judgeTake the time to hear and understand another’s point of view. Consider your own strengths and weaknesses as you relate to your peersApproach questions that come up at work with careful thought and deliberation. Greater openness and understanding of another’s point of view and greater self-awareness leads to a calmer, more productive work environment. 

Tap into Calm Energy to Fuel Work at Highlands  

It may just take 5 minutes or less to feel the energy in your hands or feet, become aware of your senses, listen to your breathing, and center on the present momentYou won’t find yoga mats at Highlands, but we do encourage you to try mindfulness techniques to refocus and recover a balanced state of mind. 

Project Management in the Age of Covid

If there is one positive to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that we’ve been knocked out of our comfort zones, forced to recalibrate and reevaluate the important things in life and in business. The virus and global economic downward spiral have driven home the fact that we and our businesses are significantly more vulnerable than we thought. Seasonal flu and its annual culling of the human population have always been a fact of life, but COVID-19 is now one more potentially deadly and unknown variable in the mix. Clearly, modern medicine can only do so much.

What does all of this mean in the context of running a business? We’ve always known that time is valuable, and that lost time is lost money, but these clichés seem more relevant and poignant today than ever before.

If you only had so much time available and your business’s financial viability depended on making the right decisions and effectively executing on them, how would you go about it? How, in other words, would you manage a project in the age of COVID-19?

Planning: Identify the Mission (and then Carve it to Down to Core Objectives)

Beware the nonessential in any plan. If your plan of action is cluttered with multiple objectives and ambitious vision statements, you are wasting time. This is the time to be clear, concise and ruthless: What is primary to the mission and what is secondary?

Identify the essential goals without which the mission is certain to fail. It can take time and substantial effort to whittle it down to the bare bones of the mission, but it is necessary. Accomplished businessmen have always understood this. Steve Jobs once remarked, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” Ideally, you identify three or four essential goals to control the scope of your project. Examples of essential goals: A new product line must be preceded by extensive market analysis. The development of effective drug therapies cannot move forward without an exhaustive period of controlled research and study.

Prioritize Your Objectives as if your Life depended on it

If you only had so much time to execute on the goals identified in the exercise above, how would you do it? Clearly, you would prioritize and deliver on the most important objectives first. Among the essential project goals identified above, which are absolutely vital to the mission? If time is short, these get done first.

Find Darwin’s Fittest and Delegate to Them

Who would you trust with your life? If this seems too extreme a criterion, consider who you would trust with your business, or better yet a particular business task? Identify the team members that have specific strengths and leadership skills. These are the people you want at the helm of the project’s sub-teams. The principle of “survival of the fittest” applies here; in the age of COVID-19, raw talent wins. It is that simple.

Execution: Identify Non-Negotiable Benchmarks

A plan needs to include measurable benchmarks that show that the project has reached key targets. Identify business metrics, like response rate to email campaigns, or statistically significant study results, that are an indicator of success. Design your plan of execution so that attainment of benchmarks is a condition of moving forward.

Identify the Timeframe to hit specific Milestones

When do the project’s objectives need to be met? Time your own benchmarks so that they are in sync with key user group timelines or the larger industry. Examples here could include peak customer use periods, product conferences or holiday sales.

Monitor your Progress with a Sharp and Uncompromising Eye

Early signs of dysfunction need to be addressed as soon as they become apparent. Don’t dither and lose time hoping that flawed systems will magically turn around on their own. Take steps to remediate flaws in process or execution.

Value proactive measures. If there is one lesson we’ve learned in the age of COVID-19, it is that a business cannot afford to be reactive. The time to act, as they say, is now.

A Day in the Life

I’ve been told that software engineers are a mysterious bunch. I suspect that even my own family doesn’t really understand what it is that I do every day. Too polite to probe further, they stay quiet. I feed and support my family, take vacations, and seem to enjoy a good life; people close to me reason that all must be well. Here’s my take on life as a software engineer for those that are too shy to ask.

From Chaotic Morning Commute to Quiet Campus in Electronic City

The morning commute for people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding Noida, India is going to be pretty much the same whoever you are and wherever you work. We know traffic is snarled and difficult in the morning and that it can take up to an hour or more to get where you want to go. But the morning commute is probably as stressful as my day gets.

Once I get to Noida Electronic City and the “Graphix” building, which is where Highlands is located, the day improves, in large part because the office is located on a quiet, 5-acre campus well away from the noise and chaos of Noida. For the software programmers and engineers at Highlands we have the flexibility to start the day at variable times, anywhere from 9:00 to 11:30 am, depending on how late we worked the previous day.  We are granted some discretion in how we structure our workday, a freedom that is greatly appreciated.

A note on the building itself: A few have compared it to the high-tech office buildings of Microsoft or Google. It is one of the newest buildings in the area, with floor to ceiling windows, large open spaces, filtered air via Blue Air Systems, and other amenities that I’ll discuss shortly. Highlands occupies the entire 3rd floor. The programmers at Highlands have state-of-the art equipment, two to three computer monitors, and large desks for their own use. The programmer’s workspace doesn’t have the feel of a coding mill or factory; it’s more like a low-pressure think-tank or creative space found on the campus of a university. Some people have headphones on as they work to play music to help their concentration and enjoyment.

Once I arrive at work, I review the notes I wrote at the conclusion of the previous workday. These permit me to get up to speed early on what tasks I need to tackle first. I also review the benchmarks that were set at yesterday’s stand-up meeting and assess what I need to do to prepare for the day’s meetings. I review and refine code until the stand-up meeting, which takes place daily around 12:30 pm.

The Stand-Up Meeting is at the Center of a Programmer’s Universe

Here’s a key insight into the spark that fuels the direction of a programmer’s day: the stand-up meeting. The stand-up meeting is integral to the agile development process (more on this in a future post) and nothing much is accomplished in the way of coding without it.

Hard Work, Midday Break at a Cricket Field and Flexibility

Lunch at Highlands can be anywhere between 1:00 and 2:00 pm. We have a cafeteria in our office and a full restaurant and coffee bar on the top floor overlooking the city. People can also take their lunches up to the rooftop terrace as well, which can be pleasant when the weather is good. Did I mention that everyone’s birthdays are celebrated at Highlands? We eat plenty of cake, and we eat it pretty regularly.

The remainder of the afternoon, which can stretch to 7 pm or possibly later at times, consists of carrying out the goals outlined at the stand-up meeting. Programmers work independently, writing or refining code for most of the day. The daily stand-up meeting, combined with a company culture that depends on team effort and collaboration, means that we check in with each other regularly to see if there is need to change direction or alter course slightly.

If we have a particularly intense morning due to deadlines or other factors, we take breaks as necessary. We are encouraged to unwind in the cafeteria or leave the office and walk the campus grounds for some stress-release; perhaps even play a short game of cricket at a nearby field.

The job of a software engineer at Highlands is not as mysterious as it seems. We are intensely focused on the mission at hand, which is to write code for software that tackles important engineering tasks. Our software is used on very important engineering projects throughout the world and it feels good to be working on something that has such important global implications. In my opinion, working as a software engineer is one of the best jobs you could have at Highlands.

Grit for the Ages

Several years ago, psychologist Angela Duckworth triggered national interest when she shared research findings on grit in a well-viewed TED talk. With the use of pointed survey questions that gauged a test subject’s likelihood of giving up in the face of distractions or other obstacles, Duckworth and her team tried to predict who in West Point’s entering class of freshman would make it through the rigorous pre-training period and who among National Spelling Bee contestants would advance to later rounds of the competition.

Duckworth discovered that the people who were successful were not those with the highest IQs or other competitive advantages; rather the people that pressed on through challenges to arrive at successful outcomes had something she defined as “grit.” Grit is the quality that makes a person stick with a task and follow through on long-term goals even when obstacles mount. Grit, in Duckworth’s words, is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

Grit is Inversely Related to Talent

Even though it is tempting to attribute someone’s accomplishments to natural ability, what is really at work, Duckworth claims, is grit. Talented people frequently give up if they hit a “wall” enough times. Successful people, on the other hand, don’t give up easily. High achievers are not so much naturally skilled, Duckworth says, as they are conditioned to accept obstacles and hard work as a necessary part of working towards a goal. Our culture tends to romanticize the superstars of our times and gloss over the fact that countless hours of work went into the flawless performance that we ultimately see. An acclaimed soccer player didn’t learn how to score goals overnight. Thousands of hours of practice (and countless moments of frustration and despair) shaped the success we see today. Interestingly, Duckworth discovers that talent is inversely related to grit, a finding she emphasizes in her famous TED talk.

From the Lab to the Field: Grit at Work

Highlands looks for grit among new hires because grit is what it takes to build and grow a business. Today’s business climate is such that the unexpected is often the norm. The figurative “wrench” is almost certain to disrupt business on a daily basis. Cheers to the employee who catches the wrench and creates a win for the company regardless. A dogged, single-minded employee with plenty of grit is a blessed thing for a business.

How does grit come into play at work? Let’s suppose you have a deadline that is approaching for a new software release. Customers have been asking for an updated version for several weeks and many are grumbling that the release is long overdue. Within 48 hours of the projected release date, software testers discover a significant bug. What do you do at this point? Give up? Or do you regroup, figure out what needs to be done, and press gamely on? Employees with grit don’t skip a beat but roll up their sleeves and target the software bug with more gusto and passion than before. (i.e., “We will fix this bug and we will go the extra step to make sure it never happens again!”).

Similarly, let’s say the market is crowded with a particular product. The chances of developing a product to successfully compete with existing brands are slim; the players are seasoned warriors and won’t go down without a fight. Nevertheless, an opening in the field becomes apparent because existing products are deficient in one or more key features. A business with grit buckles down, develops a laser-like focus on the end game, and moves forward, prepared to do battle and take the product from conception to final shipment.

Encouraging a “Growth Mindset”

Duckworth focuses on a “growth mindset” as key to understanding the motivation of people with grit. A growth mindset means believing that failure can eventually become success or that the ability to learn can grow with enough effort and determination. With this attitude, failure is merely a step in the process of achieving mastery. With a “can-do” approach among employees at Highlands Infotech, obstacles become a launching point for innovation and “failure” becomes the new catchphrase for opportunity.

The word grit (and everything that it represents) resonates now with people more than ever because it is the fighting word of champions, underdogs and any business that works hard to be competitive. Grit means your fortune can change. Grit means positive outcomes are on the horizon with enough effort and determination.