Sunday 29 March 2009

Team Productivity: Tools of the Trade

Seven Strategies for Success

I wrote in my last post about my desire to work with teams to help them to be more productive. I've been thinking about what my "tools of the trade" will be and how I can add value to the teams I work with. Fortunately I have a wide variety of experiences I can draw on, from my various roles at IBM as well as my work with voluntary organisations and prior employers. What follows is a list of strategies that can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of a team.

1. Use wikis and collaboration tools

E-mail attachments are inefficient and create versioning headaches; internal websites and repositories controlled by one individual or with limited access controls prevent people with key knowledge from sharing it and create information bottlenecks. Something I've successfully done in two different teams at IBM and am starting to do again in my current job, is to introduce and encourage the use of a wiki, a website that is editable by everyone, for everything from collaborating on documents or designs to reviewing documents and creating new starter guides. The impact on a team can be significant, not only does everyone have a single point of reference and a "place to put things", but every team member is empowered to share his insights and correct things himself when he finds mistakes. Wikis such as MediaWiki and MoinMoin can be installed freely and easily. Enterprise wikis such as Confluence can be very powerful for larger organisations. And it's not just wikis, introducing tools for social bookmarking, internal blogging and instant messaging such as Lotus Connections can empower a team by giving them easier access to the people and information they need to do they job. There are many free tools that can allow people to collaborate more effectively, such as EtherPad, a multi-user Notepad replacement, MindMeister, a collaborative mind-mapping tool, or even just making use of Google Docs and Spreadsheets when collaborating on documents. Task tracking tools such as BaseCamp or ActiveCollab are well worth a look as well.

2. Use agile work methods & tools

Agile development is not just for software engineering. Any team can benefit from applying some of the concepts of agile development. Having short work cycles, iterations, allows the team to quickly adapt to changes in requirements, market conditions or resource availability. Daily scrums, very short face-to-face meetings of everyone involved in a project, eliminate misunderstandings and discourage buck-passing, and ensure that any blockages or problems are addressed quickly. In my last role in the IBM Voice team I helped the team make the most of agile development, by serving as scrum master and also when leading an exercise to clarify, document and communicate the process for the team to work by. I learnt how important it is for team members and management to share a common understanding of what the process is, and what they are trying to achieve.

I also developed a custom agile work-tracking tool for the team which allowed the work to be tracked easily. A system like this can be used by individuals and management to get a view of the work at the level that is most appropriate for them. By mounting a monitor on the wall and holding the daily scrum gathering around the screen it also provides a way to quickly update status and percentage complete on all work items. Making agile development work effectively is a fine balance between tracking work by setting precise and realistic targets and avoiding micro-management or over-documentation of work.

3. Understand your users

In September 2008, I went to HCI2008 in Liverpool, the BCS's annual Human-Computer Interaction conference, where I learnt even more about ways of building computer systems that are closer to the needs of the humans using them. Since I first studied HCI as part of my Masters degree I have been fascinated in the human side of computing and I am sure I am not the only one to think "Why didn't they design that better?" when faced with an awkward web form or inefficient banking process. At the conference I attended an excellent workshop by Pete Bagnall of SurfaceEffect about user interviewing as a primary input to a more user-centric approach to development. One of the outputs of this is the creation of User Personas, which are fictional characters that represent the different classes of users you want to serve. 

A key aspect of the user interviewing process is that it is performed by the very people who will later design the software, instilling in them a huge amount of empathy for their users, and a greater awareness of their goals, motivations and mental models. In the months after the conference I applied these techniques with my team at IBM, and initiated a round of user interviews with more than a dozen customers, gaining some great insights into their use of the product and their needs. We were then able to use the output of these interviews to generate a report and a primary and secondary persona for use in future design discussions.  The user persona serves as a tangible reminder of that understanding which is much easier to remember and conjecture about than a dry requirements document and can then be used for scenario-based development (creating stories about the users and how they use your product in order to design product features). 

You may not immediately see the link to team productivity, so let me explain. Going through an exercise like this, to improve the team's understanding of the users or stakeholders of the product or service (every project has these!) and their needs, not only avoids wasted efforts and misdirected designs but also gives the team members the feeling that their work matters to someone, that it will make a difference. This is likely to make more enthusiastic and dedicated team members, who will receive a huge motivation boost when they can their work making users happy... I believe everyone wants to do something that matters to somebody.

It was a helpful side effect of this work that I also learned how to effectively interview people about their needs, mental models and priorities - which will doubtless be of use as a team productivity consultant!

4. Favour Face to Face Communication

I've worked in some very different software development environments over the last 10 years, from a team of six people in a company of 30 people, to a 400 person department with personnel in 4 countries within IBM which has around 300,000 employees worldwide. I've worked remotely with people in other countries on a regular basis and day to day with a small team all in the same open plan office. I've seen what works and I've seen what doesn't, and one of the main things I learnt is that effective communication is key, and e-mail is the least effective means of communication ever invented.

E-mail has some advantages: It's nice for the writer to be able to express their thoughts clearly and instantly, and it's a good way of sending documents quickly, but that is where the advantages end. E-mails are ripe for misinterpretation, and encourage batting away responsibility, arse-covering via cc, and can easily facilitate positional or adversarial thinking. Worst of all, e-mail can fill up people's days with the illusion of work, answering emails and dealing with them by forwarding or replying, creating yet more work for someone else instead of getting something done.

Face-to-face communication at the other end of the scale, has no such disadvantages, and allows matters to be resolved cooperatively and quickly. It's hard to reject or divert a face-to-face enquiry or comment in the same way you might an e-mail. In environments where face-to-face is not an option (remote working for example), video conferences can provide an excellent alternative and can be done easily and cheaply with basic webcams, microphones and software such as Oovoo. There is often a strange reluctance to use webcams in corporate environments, but the greater effectiveness over a standard telephone conference call is undeniable. Conference calls too, can now be done cheaply with SIP/VOIP clients or other telephony products such as Google Talk or Skype. In my experience, telephone conversations are almost always more effective than written communication. The next best option is instant messaging, much intonation and non-verbal cues are lost, but timing and the ability to quickly clarify means that it can be a lot more effective than an e-mail. This isn't just my opinion, studies have confirmed the productivity drain caused by e-mail.

5. Encourage creative innovation

innovation on Flickr
Every team will at some point face problems that seem insurmountable. The most successful teams are those that don't just discuss the problem and go with the "least worst" option, but instead encourage out-of-the-box thinking and brainstorming to find a creative solution to the problem. A team that is able to operate in an environment where everyone's ideas are listened to and where no approach is "too wacky" will be likely to create much more innovative solutions to their problems. One of the most powerful ways to gain new insight is to seek inspiration from completely different fields of endeavour. Simple analogy exercises and brainstorming sessions using tools such as Roger van Oech's Creative Whack Pack can generate amazing new solutions from out of nowhere. I know this from my experiences with the innovation group (iSIG) within IBM where we used such techniques (as well as new ones we developed ourselves) to tangibly help teams solve problems they were facing. One example of how to make brainstorming sessions more effective is never to cut people's ideas down straight away. Take the time to explore it for a few moments. Sometimes even if the initial idea is not valuable, it may stimulate a great idea from someone else, or exploring why it "won't work" may provide a new solution to the problem.

6. Tweak the environment to encourage "flow"

Royal Blue Flow on Flickr
There are other ways to give team members "space" to be more effective, not just in the context of innovating. There is a concept of Flow which is very relevant to making teams (and the individuals within them) more productive - maximise the potential for this and your team will flourish. If you've ever got engrossed in a task, lost track of time or found that the task progresses naturally without you having to think, then you have experienced flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described it as the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." 

To make flow more likely, you need to make sure the conditions are right: Goals and expectations should be clear, team members should be suitably skilled. Distractions (such as IM, phonecalls, meetings and admin) should be minimised. The team should be able to work in large blocks of time without having to watch the clock for the next meeting. The team should be able to work without feeling self-conscious, without feeling micro-managed and without too many people getting involved.

The task itself should be rewarding, and should be understood well enough that it is not too difficult, but equally it should not be boring. And perhaps most importantly there must be some mechanism of easily obtained feedback along the way, so that the team can quickly make adjustments without having to wait for approvals or feedback and losing focus.

It will not always be possible to satisfy all these things, but an understanding of these influencing factors in the psychology of work can help a team to be more productive. I've been part of teams in flow, and it's a fantastic win for everyone involved - the job gets done more quickly and everyone involved enjoys the experience.

Another technique or tweak that can be used to optimise a team is to ensure that people are well-matched to the sorts of task they are being asked to perform. How often have you been employed for a role on the strength of your past CV, only to have that past experience completely ignored when it comes to deciding what work to assign to you? It is important for team leaders and managers to take into account individuals' fortés when placing them. One way to do this is to have everyone take a short test and work out their Belbin Team Role such as Plant, Completer-Finisher or Shaper. Considering the person's natural strengths in comparison to possible roles in the team, and matching them carefully so that everyone can harness their strongest abilities in their tasks will doubtless improve team effectiveness.

7. Value the people

Scene from The Prisoner:
"I am not a number, I am a free man!"
In my experience the people who work most effectively together in teams are those who have had the opportunity to meet and interact in some other context than that of the core work. When I was working from the UK with a USA-based team within IBM, my effectiveness at working with them vastly improved when I went to work on site with them in the California office for a few weeks. There were no longer "that voice on those boring conference calls" but had families, ideas, motivations and dreams. Talking to them face to face enabled me to better anticipate their behaviour and understand how to interpret it, and vice versa, reducing the possibility of further conflicts (which had been common before).

The same is true on a local scale, team members will find it much harder to conflict with each other if they understand each other better. At IBM I was part of the steering group of Hursley Technical Community, a cross-department focus group aiming to foster a better community spirit among the technical teams. We supported the growth and creation of "SIGs" (Special Interest Groups) where like-minded people from different teams could share ideas - for example this might be a Testing SIG, Linux SIG, a Web 2.0 SIG. We also ran many events, workshops, "lunch and learns" and other events, and created a framework so that anyone could run a talk for anyone who was interested, on any subject of interest. I observed that people discovered common interests and made connections they would not otherwise have done. This benefitted everyone involved because ideas and approaches from different departments could be shared, and people increased their networks, being able to draw on those new contacts again when they needed help. This is something that works really well in an organisation with departments that are "silo"-like, and do not mix much.

Similarly, this approach can also work very well within a small team. By encouraging people to present something to the team that they are interested in, from their latest digital photography project at home to a new code testing tool they had designed to make their job easier at work, you increase the possibility of new collaborations forming, and most of all you make sure that your team members "get" each other. They may disagree in future, but a background understanding of what makes the other team member tick will make any conflict far less serious. I think this sort of activity, coupled with the creation of things like "for sale" forums or "advice" mailing lists and newsgroups can really stimulate a sense of community in a team. Above all, managers should remember that they have a room full of people, not "resources" [2], and that by investing in the people and supporting them in their own goals, they will reap the benefits in terms of that employee's productivity. As is often quoted, "A happy employee is a productive employee." The managers I remember most favourably are those who recognised that this is one of the most important factors in managing someone, and I believe they got the most out of me for doing so.

Thank you for taking the time reading my insights and ideas about team productivity. As you can see, many of the past experiences I've had in business and beyond have given me some deep insights into how to make teams more effective. In this post I have tried to cover some of the key areas but have still only scraped the surface of what is possible. I hope you found something useful. Whatever your thoughts, I'd love to hear them - feel free to post a comment! And in the meantime I will continue planning how to convert my insights and skills on team productivity into a marketable service!


Friday 20 March 2009

Life after IBM

Finding a new path to follow

Every now and then you come to a point in your life when you are at a fork in the road, you have a choice before you and you know that whichever choice you make, your life will probably end up very different - for example, when you decide what University to go to, or move in with a partner. For me, that is exactly how it feels at the moment. Not so much the decision to move to Canada - of course that was a huge decision to make, but more the decision to leave IBM and "do something different" that came with it.

Thoughts on leaving IBM

I know a number of people who've left IBM in the last year or two - Roo Reynolds, Robert Berry, Ian Hughes and Alan Lepofsky to name just a few (A search on Google reveals many more). Usually there is a good reason - the offer of a fantastic job or the fruition of a plan to set up your own business. I think there must be a "physical law of IBM": An employee will tend remain there unless acted on by an external force!

For me, the choice was not a career choice so much as a lifestyle choice - to be with my wife and help her get her career off to the best possible start with a postdoc position in Canada. It wasn't possible to move to IBM Canada because there was no "pull" from the Canada side. I hoped at first I might do the same job remotely, but that proved impossible. But once I accepted the reality that I would need to leave IBM, thought processes began about what else I might do, I became more and more excited about the possibilities of a fresh start.

I got a huge amount out of working at IBM - experiences of the whole software development cycle, of designing & developing software, leading teams and projects, improving collaboration and productivity, working with customers and users, and developed technical skills in a number of areas, from Java and databases to Web development and Voice technologies. Over 7 years at IBM I grew in confidence from a junior coder to a senior all-round developer.

What next?

I've realised that IBM has given me a fantastic start to my career, and while I could easily continue on that road, this 3 years in Canada is a great opportunity to broaden my skills and experiences and try something completely different. Some people think it's a big risk I took to leave the stability of a job with a multinational, without a job lined up to step into, especially in these times. But I've found that leaving that job behind has opened a lot of doors for me, and given me the time and space to take stock and consider what I'm really passionate about, and what my ideal job would be (an idea I've talked about before in the internal Productivity@IBM podcast and in a previous blog post). As Charles DuBos put it:

"The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."

I've spent a good deal of time considering what really drives me, what kind of work I enjoy most, and what job I would choose. Starting out in a new country is a great time to do this kind of thinking, because anything is possible, and I have no commitments to distract me from any endeavour I want to throw myself into. I've drawn upon various sources for inspiration; one book I've found incredibly useful is "What Color is Your Parachute?".

I'd recommend this book to anyone considering a change of career, it is full of practical tips and takes you through a series of exercises to help you work out what your ideal job is, based on the things you've been most successful with and most passionate about. The main exercise involves writing down a number of things you've achieved that you really enjoyed and are proud of, and then breaking them down to see what skills you used. Once you've done that for several of your successful projects, you can pick out recurring skills, and prioritize them. I came out with this list of my top 6 skills (favourite/strongest first):

  1. Following through, getting things done, or producing in a group
  2. Enabling others to find or retrieve information
  3. Instructing, tutoring, training or teaching an individual
  4. Persuading a group, debating, motivating a group
  5. Translating, programming, developing, improving
  6. Empowering, advising, coaching, counselling, mentoring an individual

Coming up with this list and seeing it written down gave me a great insight into myself; I completely identified with it and thinking back I can see that almost all the things I've worked towards and been passionate about, inside and outside of work, can be linked to one or several of these skills - from promoting the use of wikis and other knowledge sharing tools to improve collaboration inside IBM, to my volunteer work with Nightline and On the Level, and most recently with the work I did overhauling agile process and tooling in IBM's Voice team.

I took further inspiration and insights from John Osborne Hughes and his Creative Visualization Workshop and just this week I caught a podcast by Jonathan Fields at SXSW on being a Career Renegade - that is, someone who makes their own career based on what they're passionate about and making it profitable. I'll certainly be reading his book very soon. Getting used to empty days

You've probably guessed by now that I have figured out my ideal job, but before I reveal my thoughts on that, I wanted to share a little bit about my experiences here for the last month. I found that the adjustment to being without a job and not having a routine has been very hard to get used to - that has been much more difficult to adjust to than getting used to life in a new country. As many of you know, I've been on something of a personal productivity quest for the last couple of years, and I always had that feeling of "if only I had more time". Something that's been a revelation to me is that it's really not about the amount of time you have - for over the last month my time has been pretty much unlimited - even though I've had more time, I've still experienced the same "not quite getting round to things" or not being as organised as I'd like. Mrs Alex has outdone me in terms of keeping a blog up to date for friends and family back home, even though I have had more time as she's been at work. I did have an excuse of almost no internet access for the first two weeks, but the reality is that actually, even though I'm pretty good at getting things done, I'm not that great at starting things, especially when the number of possible things I could start is pretty huge. I think the feeling I've had is best summed up by my very good friend Meg in her blog post Which Dream? where she wrote:

I am used to working every day surrounded by lots of people, where there is always a friendly face, and lots of scheduled work to do. [...] I am not used to working with a completely blank sheet where I imagine, design, create and run every single piece of work that I do from scratch [...]

That's exactly how it's been for me. Even though I have had all day every day to work on whatever I like (once all the household matters were sorted), I have been somewhat paralysed by the number of choices before me and the sense of having a completely clean slate. It's somewhat like when you finish University, and you know you can go into any career you like - the hard thing is deciding on a path and sticking with it. Possible future Alexes

Mentally, I'd drawn up a list of a number of different things I could do in Canada, some short term and some longer term. I've taken small steps towards all them, to kind of test the water a little. Here's my list:

  • I could tutor people in computing - web design, programming, fixing your own computer or helping students with their learning
  • I could work freelance to design & build websites for peple
  • I could coach people on personal productivity
  • I could build tools for collaboration and sell them
  • I could work with teams to make them more effective
  • I could help out with demonstrating/supervising or even research at one of Montréal's 5 universities
  • I could make a website idea I have into a viable business
  • I could just get another tech job.
  • I could do something completely unrelated for a day job, leaving mental energy free for personal tech projects outside of work

Some of these are beginning to seem more possible than others. The Craigslist site has been incredibly useful, I've met someone who will teach me French in exchange for computer help, and someone else who has two web projects which need work (one paid, one bartered for with designer clothes). The forums there show a huge community of people offering services and provide a practical way to offer my services. So being a freelance coach or web designer could be very possible. On the other hand, I spoke to McGill University about helping out there - but they don't employ non-postgrads for supervision work. Since networking will be key for many of these, I've also got involved with tech networking communities and begun to meet local people in the tech industry. My ideal job - Team Productivity Catalyst

Business Team from Flickr
After having had plenty of time to think, I have realised with a lot more conviction what my ideal job is. There is a common thread running through almost all the work that I've done, and that's about helping people, particularly teams, to be more effective and productive, through using better or more customised tools, more sharing and collaboration, listening to people to understand the real problems, and updating processes and approaches accordingly. I now know that my calling is to work with teams to help them become more productive, through a combination of coaching, interviewing, listening, group exercises, installing new tools or even designing and building custom tools where none exist. The job title I have thought of for this is "Team Productivity Catalyst" - though I am open to improvements!

I am not really sure if this exists as a profession - but I'm not going to let that stop me. I am convinced there is a need for this kind of service, there are plenty of teams out there not living up to their potential.

There are personal productivity coaches, but these are a bit different, focussing on individual work management not teams. This would be a subset or slightly tangential to my vision. There are also management consultants, who help managers to manage their teams better. My vision is different from this too - I want to work at a grassroots level, understanding the people in the team and their problems, and work with them to deliver the right combination of training, tools and advice to make them work better. And also there are team-building companies, who specialise in running activities to help teams function better. I think that would certainly be an element of what I will do but my focus will be as much on systems and processes as it will on the individuals and helping them bond.

If you have any thoughts on this idea, I'd love to hear from you, especially if you know of someone who is doing this or something like it. Next steps

So there's the vision. The challenge of course, is making this a reality. I thought that blogging about it might help make it a little more tangible. In the meantime, I think there are a few things I need to do towards bringing this to fruition:

  • I need to get experience of how teams work here in Montréal, how they tick, what problems they face
  • I need to understand the local business climate and how I might sell such a service into it
  • I need to find others who have done similar things, and learn from them
  • I need to bring some money in while getting this off the ground
  • I need to improve my skills around team training and the people side of team building (to complement the systems/process side)

I have been offered, and accepted a web development job with a medium sized company here in Montréal. I start on Monday. This will help me grow my technical & web skills but also help to understand the tech business environment in Montréal. Who knows, there might even be some opportunities to improve team productivity within my role. It'll also give us a more comfortable lifestyle as we'll have 2 incomes instead of one. I am going to work towards a future career in team productivity coaching as a full time pursuit outside of my day job, as Jonathan Fields recommends. So watch this space for future developments! How to combat procrastination

Procrastination on Flickr
I'm going to finish off by sharing a couple of things I've learnt while I've been here and not been working. I've found a trick to help combat procrastination and get stuck into things. I read this on a blog recently but I'm afraid I can't remember where. If there is a job you are not getting started on, all you do is get everything ready to start the task. Open the book, get the necessary paperwork laid out, create the blank document in your Word processor, get those addresses to hand, or whatever you need to do the job, and tell yourself it's ok if that's all you do. Once you are all set up, the resistance to doing the task is actually a lot less and you'll probably end up doing some, if not all, of it. It sounds so simple and unlikely but it really does work!

My other tip is making sure you have clearly defined goals each week. Have a clearly defined list of projects or activities that are your priorities for the week, keep it clearly in focus daily and track your progress towards the goals you've set. This will always bring you back to what is important to you. I'm using an agile development work tracking tool designed for agile teams to set goals for myself and am running one-week sprints with myself! It's working very well this week - as my higher blog output this week is testament to!

Until the next time...


Tuesday 17 March 2009

Vive la différence!

Surprising and not-so-surprising differences between life in the UK & Canada

On the whole, life in Canada is pretty similar to life in the UK. That was possibly the biggest surprise. Nonetheless, after our first month here we've noticed various things which are definitely different from what we were used to back home - some have a big effect and some are just minor differences which you may find interesting. So without further ado, here are 10 things that I've found different living in Canada.

1. Groceries and Food

I always thought that with the combination of American mass-market economics and the French food-loving influence, that it would be easy to buy groceries affordably and cheaply here. It was a big surprise to find out that the price of groceries here is somewhat extortionate! For example, a pack of 3 peppers (capsicums) (which works out cheaper than buying them loose) is $4.99 (just under £3) meaning they are about £1 each - twice the price they are in the UK. And cheese is horrendously expensive, varying between $20-$40 a kilogram (£11-£22) meaning a 250g block of cheese similar to those you might buy at home for under £2 will set you back more like £4 here. And that's for basic cheddar. If you want some nice French cheeses it's a lot more.
Another thing that's disappointing is the quality of the food, the fruit and veg is often tired and doesn't keep more than a couple of days. Carrots, Potatoes and Onions I've noticed in particular seem to keep an age at home, but here they are spoiled within a week. It is possible to find some foods cheaper here - and it is cheaper when you eat out, especially quick snacks and fast food. But it seems if you want to eat well and cook nice meals, you have to pay through the nose for it.

I am not sure why groceries cost so much more here, perhaps it's because everything is covered in ice in the winter so food has to be imported from the US (although Canada's agriculture sector seems healthy). Or maybe it's not that it's expensive here, but that EU food subsidies make it cheaper in the UK. Or maybe it's just the effects of the downturn.

Another surprise about the food here is the lack of a "Canadian" cuisine as such. People say, what is the food like in Canada, sadly the answer is, like everywhere else. You can go to a French restaurant and have French food or a steakhouse or diner and have more typically North American food - or you can have any other world cuisine - Thai, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Sushi/Japanese, Irish/English pub food, it's all here (although I haven't seen a fish and chip shop yet!)

But apart from a love of maple syrup (they even put it in baked beans!) and a few novelty things like Poutine (chips, cheese curd and gravy - a dish which seems more like it's from Yorkshire than Quebec!) there doesn't seem to be a Canadian style of food or any Canadian restaurants, which is a disappointment.

2. Apartments and Rent

Some things are cheaper, some are more expensive, and the good news is, rent and utilities are much cheaper here! We were amazed when we looked at lots of apartments around Montréal just how much space you can get for your money.

We saw huge 2 or 3 bedroom apartments with massive lounges and hallways, even balconies, for under £800. Our apartment is bigger than the ground floor of our house back home, yet it's only $690 (£387) including bills (electricity or "hydro" as it's called here, gas, and heating - water is paid from local taxes) ! Admittedly it's a less desirable area but considering we are in a city bigger than London (in size although not population) you would expect to pay a lot more. Interestingly, we have some friends here from the Dominican Republic who were finding the houses here are really small - so I guess everything is relative!

I suppose we will just have to get used to a different breakdown with our outgoings - more on food but less on the house!

The construction of the houses is different here too. Many houses are wood with a brick frontage - meaning we have been kept awake by noisy neighbours through the paperthin walls on more than one occasion. "Concrete construction" is a selling point specifically mentioned in property ads! Also, hardwood floors, not carpets, are the norm.

Another difference is apartment buildings here. If ours is typical, they all have a live-in janitor who clears the path, takes the bins out, does maintenance, collects rent and other matters. Ours is a Russian guy called Yuri. They also have a laundry room which means no need to buy a washer and dryer for every apartment. Although there can be some competition at the weekend. It's a good idea though - that I have not seen in England. Having a janitor is handy too and it means that there's always someone there if you have a problem.

3. Living with snow and ice

The scale of the snow and ice in the winter here was a big surprise. I knew there'd be a lot of snow but I didn't picture 10 foot piles of snow by roadsides, or sheet ice across pavements(sidewalks) and people still walking on them as normal. I didn't expect the massive industrial scale snow haulage operation with snowploughs pushing it to piles at the sides then machines that suck up snow and drive it away in trucks and dump it. And I certainly didn't expect to see what I saw the other day - a man clearing the snow off his lawn with an axe! The thing is that snow stays around here for a long time. So the bits underneath get frozen solid into blocks of ice. Most of the surface snow has melted now as we approach the spring - but there are many lawns still covered with compacted ice. It seems if you want to shift snow, you have to do it while it's fresh! It's amazing how quickly you get used to it though - a matter of days for us.

The most impressive thing about all this snow though is that life goes on. The "20 year snowfall" that brought the UK to a standstill in February was nothing compared to weekly snowfalls in winter here. People dig their cars out and clear their drives (if they're not already covered with special "Tempo" driveway covers) and go about their business as normal. I don't imagine that "snowed in" is a phrase that gets used here, although - given some of the photos I found online, like this one to the left, maybe it does. Well, I don't think it gets used much in the city anyway!

4. The Banking System

Another thing that surprised me is how different the banking system is. The photo on the right shows my Canadian HSBC card on top and my UK HSBC card below (with some details blurred out). You can see that the Canadian cards don't even have your name on, are not part of any international card networks such as Maestro or Cirrus, do not have chips and do not function as cheque guarantee cards. There is a Canadian equivalent of Switch called Interac, but it is not well known or understood - you often have to say that you'd like to pay with "debit card" rather than Interac. And there's no chip and PIN. There is swipe and PIN - although it's a bit random, sometimes you get asked to sign instead.

We found it easy enough to set up a bank account, but found that in Canada you have to pay for a bank account - around $12 a month! We've resorted to having just one account instead of individual accounts and a bank account. And if we want a cheque book, we have to pay $28! So far, we've resisted on principle. Although it does mean we have to withdraw our rent as cash (over 2 days since it crosses our $400 daily limit). Oh, and withdrawing cash is fun too. If we don't use HSBC, Bank of Montreal or National Bank ATMs, we get charged $1.50 for the withdrawal.. from both our bank and the ATM's bank! They should abolish these charges like we did in the UK a few years back.

We had more fun and games when it came to setting up automatic bill payments. In the UK we have a great system called Direct Debit, which offers guarantees, allows you to see the payments you have set up via your online banking, and is easily set up with any company by just giving them your sort code and account number.

It's not so simple here. There is this scheme called "pre authorised debit" which basically allows the company to take a payment from your card each month without you having to authorise it. Unlike direct debit, the payment is not guaranteed, and if it bounces, you get charged by the bank, and the company, and you get a bad credit rating! So you are expected to know how much you will be charged (even for variable things like phone bills) and make sure the money is there. Not ideal.

To set one of these up they need the "transit code" and account number. There are two differences here. One is that accounts have two parts - the base account number and the last three digits which identify if you want the "chequing" or "saving" part of the account. Savings account seems to be an entirely pointless additional feature where you pay $5 every time you get money out of it, but you can earn interest at about 0.005% (not kidding!). Why anyone would want to use that I don't know. But you have to select Chq every time you enter your PIN on an ATM or card payment. Anyway, I digress. Once you have your account number you also need the transit code (a bit like sort code). But this is where things break down, because people don't understand transit codes or even agree on what they are. The number has two parts, the institution number - for example 016 is HSBC Canada - and the branch number. HSBC told me their branch code was 0001. I tried to use all this combined information to set up payments with my ISP, but they couldn't get the number to accept. They said what they needed was a cheque from the bank, which has all the numbers printed along the bottom. I went to the bank and got some blank (cancelled) cheques printed. Turns out reading the number on the bottom that the branch code was actually 10001. The branch don't even know their own code, so what hope do the general public have! Employers also need these blank cheques, so it seems that nobody trusts the numbering scheme and insist on seeing a cheque. Not very satisfactory at all!

Also, we wanted a Canadian credit card (since some companies don't like international ones!). Even though I've been with HSBC UK for over 15 years, apparently I have no credit history with HSBC Canada and am ineligible for a credit card. Despite HSBC International assuring me otherwise.

So there you have it, the wonderful Canadian banking system. My friend Paul assures me it's just as bad in the USA - apparently an electronic transfer consists of somebody at the bank printing a cheque and mailing it across the country!

5. The phone system

Sadly the phone system is not much better than the banking system. I have managed to rack up over $300 in phone charges in the first month, partly because it's very expensive, and partly due to me just not understanding the system because it's so different. In the US & Canada, both caller and recipient pay for every call. The caller pays to connect to your local exchange (in my case the Montréal 514 area code) and then the recipient pays to connect from the local exchange to your phone. So that means that every call you receive is charged to you as a local call - or if you are away from home - every call is charged to you as a long distance or international call!

I was completely caught out because my package only included 100 daytime minutes - but that covers making and receiving calls. Also I bought myself a calling card (where you dial a local or freephone number and then your number) to make my calls cheaper to the UK. What I unfortunately failed to realise is that I was still paying for these calls from my mobile company as well. Turns out they are no use with a mobile. I actually asked my mobile company what they recommend for international calls. They basically said, don't use a mobile phone. So now I have set up Sipgate VOIP to use on my Nokia over wi-fi and also via the X-Lite desktop client, at least I can send and receive calls to the UK a bit more cheaply now.

It's been quite difficult though, because they offer unlimited calls at evenings (after 7pm) and weekends - but when you need to either call Canadian businesses, or to the UK which is 4/5 hours later - this is not much help. Daytime minutes is what I need. I managed to buy a package which gives me 350 minutes instead of a hundred, but it's still not ideal. They offer all sorts of other bundles which "save you money" but you have to pay for them. $5 if you want your evening discounts to start at 5pm not 7pm. $10 for voicemail and caller display (oh and if you don't like that, tough, because they block call forwarding to other voicemail services - as I found out when I tried to set up SpinVox). So now I have no voicemail, because I can't justify paying for it. Great. $10 for "unlimited call receiving" (I have to pay for that?!). $7 for making international text messages affordable. And so it goes on. I'm looking at a package of around $80 a month to get what I need, and that's without voicemail. The only good things are the fact that you are not tied into a contract (if you have your own phone and buy just the SIM) and also the data service - 1Gig for $30 - having web access on my phone (and Google Maps) has been a godsend. More on that in a future post.

6. Opening hours and consumer power

Opening hours are different in every country, but we've noticed some big differences here. Like most cities, many shops and services in the centre are open into the evening, especially on Thursdays and Fridays where opening hours are sometimes as late as 10pm. Pubs and bars don't seem to be subject to much restriction on their opening - as is the case in the UK now too of course.

One thing that really surprised us though is that everything closes at 5pm on a Saturday! Imagine it's Saturday night, you want to pick up a few beers or a bottle of wine. Well here, you can't - even the off licences (the state-owned SAQ) close at 5pm.
On the other hand, on Saturdays and Sundays, some supermarkets are open from 8am to 10pm! And post offices, very sensibly, are open until 9pm every weekday. None of this rushing to the post office before work!

While I'm on the subject of shops, something that I have noticed that seems different from the UK, is that manufacturers and businesses don't seem to have responded to consumer demands as much as in the UK - or maybe consumers just aren't as demanding as in Europe? For example, recycling is here but has not permeated society to the same extent as in the UK (sadly there doesn't seem to be any recycling in our borough). Another example, it is very hard to buy free range eggs or free range chickens here. When you do see them, they are very expensive. There doesn't seem to be the same demands upon food manufacturers to label everything, make things from healthy ingredients, and be honest about what's in the product.

I also get the impression that if you have a problem with a service or product, that your rights are not as great or as recognised as we enjoy in the UK. It's not like the US with stores having real jobsworth attitudes about entitlements and regulations, or checking receipts - but there seems to be a difference. I don't have a lot of evidence for this impression yet - so I am prepared to change my mind, I may be wrong!

7. Friendly people

This leads me on nicely to one of the best differences about Canada. People are incredibly friendly here - more than America, more even than Australia. On more than one occasion when we've stopped in the street and looked lost, someone has jumped in and asked us where we're looking for and if they can help. I'm not so sure that would happen in London. On the bus, if you're not quite sure when to get off and the bus driver sees you looking hesitant, he'll be sure to clearly shout out what each stop is. And if you ask for a specific location as you get on, he'll shout out and remind you when that stop comes around as well.

Strangers talk to each other! This is very novel coming from England where we are very private by comparison. We've had some great conversations with other citizens, on buses & metros, in bus stops and in shops, people will readily strike up a conversation or share a comment or observation with strangers. People are very polite too, for example waiting in neat lines and respecting order of arrival at bus stops.

It's nice to see that one aspect of US culture that hasn't seeped through is the strictness and jobsworth attitudes you sometimes see in stores or establishments there. People are willing to bend the rules, such as rounding down in the customer's favour when paying cash. Another example - when I went to my mobile phone company's store to give them our address, I was able to have them update my wife's account as well, without any ID for her at all. Now that is bending the rules to an extent I haven't seen in the US let alone in the UK!

8. Advertising in Montréal

There's a few things different about the advertising in Montréal. Firstly it's all in French, as I mentioned in my last post, this is required by law. This has actually proved really useful though as I am exposed to French daily. I carry a small French dictionary and look up words I don't know, so I can increase my vocab every day. They also have a great advertising/electronic information system on the Metro trains. It doesn't just tell you abou the next station and what buses you can connect with, but has lots of adverts and info - not just commercial ones but also information about events that are coming up, thought provoking quotes, interesting facts and all sorts. One of the most interesting advertising campaigns I've noticed around Montréal is the one I've shown to the right. Here is a translation:

A Montréaler. That's someone who stays in Montréal.

Montréal - A life close to everything.
It seems that the city is trying to fight the trend where more and more people are moving to the so called "North Shore" and "South Shore" - basically on the banks of the river rather than on the island of Montréal - and commuting to the city from there. I saw another sign which was even more designed to to influence people's thinking, "Don't put a bridge between you and your children. Live in Montréal. " These signs are everywhere around the metro and around the city. I'm not sure if it will work, but it's interesting.

9. Cars and driving

One surprising thing about cars here is that they don't have numberplates on the front. I think it's the only city in the world where I've seen that! I'm not sure if this fact is related, but I haven't seen any speed cameras yet either...

I haven't driven in Montréal yet, but one difference I've noticed on foot is how easy it is to cross the road. More than any country in the world, cars stop for pedestrians. You just have to stand by the side of the road and traffic will come to a stop for you. You can even step out into the road and the cars will stop for you and patiently let you pass - I've never seen anything like it.

10. Measurements

Another interesting difference in Canada is the way things are measured. I know we have a weird combination of metric and imperial in the UK, well due to their mix of French and US influences the Canadians have a very strange mix too! Let me explain:
  • Weather temperatures are measured in Celsius, but for cooking Fahrenheit is often used.
  • Distances are measured in kilometres, but floor areas are measured in square feet, and land in acres.
  • Heights of people are measured in feet and inches, and people's weights are measured in pounds.
  • Food is sold in grams and kilograms, but in quantities equivalent to imperial units - for example you would buy a 454 gram pack of butter.
  • Nails have their length measured in inches but the weight of the box measured in grams.
  • Drinks come in pints and petrol(gas) comes in litres. (At least they got that one right!!)

It all keeps you on your toes, that's for sure. You can read more here. Apparently in 2005 the Ontario government reintroduced teaching of the imperial system because people were graduating unable to use imperial measurements at work!

Well there you have it, that's the differences I've noticed so far between life in the UK and life in Canada. Nothing major, but it's the differences that make living abroad all the more interesting!


Monday 9 March 2009

Living in bilingual city

"One man's fish is another man's poisson"

One of the things that has been particularly fascinating to me since arriving here is the way that language is used here in Montréal. It is the first time I have lived somewhere truly bilingual. Canada is officially a bilingual country, but Québec is an entirely French province. Some parts, like Québec City, have little difference from France. Montréal though has a fascinating mix of "Anglo" and French, along with many other nationalities, Jamaican and Arabic being some of the most prevalent. It even varies between parts of the city. Notre-Dame-de-Grace, where we live, is a very Anglo area, as are most parts West and South of the mountain. On the other hand, the Plateau, Outremont, and areas East and North of Mont Royal tend to be more French.

On first impressions, you would think that you were surrounded by French speakers, because all the signs, billboards, store fronts and even announcements on the Metro are in French. Most stores and businesses have different names here - Kentucky Fried Chicken is branded here as PFK (Poulet Frit de Kentucky) and Staples is Bureau en Gros (literally "Office Wholesale"). Business owners and restauranteurs will often greet you in French, and when you attempt to respond in French, they will continue to converse with you in French. And this isn't surprising since 70% of the population speak French as their first language.

Uploaded to Flickr by caribb
But this is by no means the end of the story. It turns out that the reason everything is in French is because it is legally enforced to be that way. The Charter of the French Language was brought in by the Québec government in 1977 to enforce that all signage and information presented to the public shall be in French, or predominantly French! This means that if you wanted to open a business here, you couldn't call it "Dave's Sandwich Bar", you'd have to invent a French brand, "Chez David" perhaps, and you could only print the English text in a smaller font underneath. And in schools here, half of the day is taught in French, and half in English. All this was done to protect the language which was feared to be being lost due to the influence of American culture and language. So actually, when you look deeper, you realise that American culture is more prevalent than you might think. I'm also beginning to realise that "North American" (i.e. USA & Canada) is an identity and a culture in its own right - and while Canadians are not keen on the US, they are happy to be considered North American, and will sometimes even shorten this to American - which can be confusing!

What has amazed me is that everyone you encounter - from waitresses to bus drivers to even the homeless - can speak both English and French to some degree. And for the majority, they are pretty much fluent in both languages. As a result, there are some pretty strange customs about conversation, and you regularly see people swap language mid-conversation. Waitresses greet you with "Bonjour. Hi." so you can respond in French or English. The etiquette is that you should always respond in the language in which you are addressed - unless you really are not able to. This works two ways - if you go into a shop and ask a question in English, this is not as rude as it would be in France (although it does mean you will probably be considered a tourist). The person will respond and help you in fluent English (it might be a bit less fluent on the East side of the city though).

There's also this effect where people "size you up" to try and judge your likely language, and address you in that language.. sometimes getting it completely wrong, such as a checkout girl in Bouclair (a bit like the Pier) who was chatting to away her colleague in English as a native English speaker would, and completely threw us by turning around and addressing us in fluent French!

It turns out that the key thing here is understanding what's been said, and then it almost doesn't matter what language you respond in. I've even seen a mother and child conversing on the bus, where everything the daughter said was English, and everything the mother said was French. This was completely natural for them!

For my wife and I, the implications are somewhat different. For her, working in academia where English is the language of science, and being able to get served in English fairly reliably, means French is not as critical. For me, as someone who is likely to be working with people - and therefore could be addressed in French or English at any time, it is vital that I can understand and converse in French. So I've dusted off my 1995 A-Level and started putting it to use in everyday conversation. We've both found that when you're immersed in a language, a lot comes back to you, that you didn't think you knew. (Although it's not really a total immersion here - since you can switch out to English at any time).

Generally I've found my understanding is pretty good, I just need to sharpen up my vocabulary and pronunciation and gain a bit more confidence. Fortunately, as I mentioned in a previous post, I've been getting some French lessons, and I now have a second person I meet with for French conversation practice, which is particularly useful.

All in all, it's quite a unique environment to live in, and for me it reinforces the observation I made while in India last year - wherever you go, people are just people, with the same basic needs and desires - and language and cultural variation are just like layers masking that truth from being immediately obvious. I hope that in future as the world becomes more globalized, more people will become aware of this and just maybe, there could then be a little less trouble between nations and religions.

Update: I have just remembered something I intended to write with this post but forgot to include. I was thinking about how I might explain what it feels like here in terms of the balance between North American, French, and European influences. Here's what I came up with. If I wanted to create a city that felt like Montréal, here's what I'd do. Take one US city, with a lot of space and low population density. Send all the Americans living there away to a quiet part of France for 10 years so they become fluent in French and European in attitudes (They'd probably take their holidays in the UK and lose a few Americanisms too). Meanwhile, move a city full of French people into the city, so that they set up French businesses, infrastructure, signage etc. Make sure that they do business with the US and so they will have to become fluent in English as well. Pick a nice old city in France and select some of the nicest 100-200 year old buildings and transport them brick by brick to the center of this new city, to make it feel more French (this will be the old town). Now after the French have been in the city for 10 years and adapted themselves to North American culture, bring the Europeanised Americans back to integrate with the Americanised French. Let them set up their businesses in the city but only if done in a French way, or at least a more European way than they would in the US (although they can still link in with their business contacts and chains back in the US). Leave everything to blend for another ten years and there you have it. That's what Montréal feels like to me. An American city, with a layer of French culture and history, with a mix of English & French language, a mix of American and French businesses, and full of bilinguals, some more French, some more Anglo, but all of whom are more European in manner than American but yet have all adapted to a North American way of life!