Across the pond

2016 began with a very big decision for the Madsen family – we were leaving Australia and moving further north; Sweden to be exact.

I wont go into the reasons for going. Instead I’ll go into some of the experiences that’s come out of this. It’s a big decision, upping your family from one country to another; selling your home, cars, furniture et al. But as with many other experiences in life, it has it owns rewards.

First and foremost – Sweden. Yeah, it’s cold and really dark during winter. Definitely  a big difference from Perth, Western Australia. That being said, Sweden makes it relatively easy for Nordic citizens to settle in. You don’t need a visa or anything else. And yes, I’m a Danish national so I fit into that category very easily.

…What to do first

If you’re ever considering going to Sweden, be aware that the first thing you WILL need to sort out is the “skatteverket ID”. Basically it’s your tax ID. Uh, shouldn’t be a surprise seeing as swedes really love paying tax. This is a two-stage process. First step is to register for the ID itself. This takes 4 weeks to process. You need to do this in person and make sure you read the details of what documentation et al you’re likely to need. Expect to spend a good part of the day waiting in line as well.

The ID

Without the “skatteverket ID” you can’t:

  • Get a mobile phone subscription, internet access (fiber, DSL etc)
  • Register your public transport card (yes, you can buy it, add funds to it, but you cannot register it)
  • Get a bank account
  • Access the library
  • Get paid
  • pretty much everything that requires you to identify yourself…

The second step is to get the ID card – because, well, yes the card is somewhat more important than the actual ID. The reason why? simple, it’s an official government ID that verifies that you are who you say you are and that your ID is valid. This ID card is a photo ID. Once you get this ID you’re set to go and can get your bank account set up, access the library, get paid etc. What you can’t do, till you have a full income is get a mobile phone subscription. It takes about 2 weeks for the card to arrive and you’ll have to pick it up in person.

Yes, a mobile phone subscription actually has an additional requirement. You must have an income. Doesn’t matter how much money you say you have sitting in the bank. A credit check is actually run against you and if you don’t have an income it’ll come back negative and you’ll be rejected.

The ID card is the holy grail of IDs for foreigners – with it you can pretty much do anything. Without it, well..not so much.

The biggest problem for the period of time where you don’t have your ID is that you’re a non-entity.

Now that’s the practical out of the way. Had to be said as it’s incredibly important that the “skatteverket ID” is attended to ASAP.

…But wait, there is more

As mentioned, it’s a big decision to move. So where do you move to? Ah, here’s the biggest issue with Stockholm in particular. The rental market is tough. It took us quite a while to find a place to rent. And don’t expect to find anything below 12,000sek that’s worth living in. That’s quite expensive compared to what your repayments on, say a mortgage is here in Sweden. The interest rates are crazy low here and has unfortunately pushed the housing prices way up. I mean, stupidly high. So, finding a place to live. That’s a tough one. Don’t go into central Stockholm, unless you really have the cash for that.

Sweden has two types of rental agreements. First-hand contracts, which are between you and the owner directly. It’s the cheapest by far but there’s generally a waiting list around 2-4 years so you might as well forget that. The other is a second-hand contract. Where the landlord has “bought” the apartment/house from the “owner” (yes, doesn’t make sense, but there you go) and you end up paying quite a bit more. Probably averaging around 2x the cost of a first-hand contract. Luckily most utilities are included in the cost (if you get a fair landlord). We got a great landlord and water, electricity and even our fibre internet connection is all included in our rent.

Here’s where, as a foreigner, it becomes a bit hard to manage – most landlords will want to meet you in person before they will sign a contract with you. Doing this from overseas is not easy – so try to find a proxy that’s willing to assist, otherwise, forget about it; buy a tent instead. Most landlords will also want to see that you can pay your rent; so proof of employment can be very important. Not always, but it can be.

Expect also that things will take 4-8weeks to finalise for a rental. There’s a lot of paperwork to sign and it’s all very official. You might also want to ensure that your landlord has gotten permission from the owner to rent it out. If not, then you could very easily get booted out the minute you set foot in the apartment; wave goodbye to your deposit et al.

…The journey

For practical reasons I left Perth before my wife and kids. There was a lot of things to resolve before they could follow and my wife really pulled out all her magical powers of organisation to get things finished. Honestly don’t think this move would have been possible if it wasn’t for my wife’s effort and the help of a lot of our friends.

Lucky for me, the rest of the family followed 2 weeks later.

We also got here at the right time of year. There was still some winter left, but we managed to avoid the deep winter and incredible cold (-15c or below) and still got a taste of snow (much to my kids’ delight).

We’re now in April and getting a good deal of sunlight – this of course also means the weather is getting better. e.g. the cold is pretty much gone. Expect April to hit between 11c and 3c. Light rain is common too.

…What to expect from Sweden?

Well – first and foremost, expect things to cost a wee bit more than AU at least. Petrol is about 2x the cost of what we saw in Perth. The easiest would be if you just take the cost in AU and automatically add 25% on top for most other services and/or products. It’s a bit of a head-bender when you see a bottle of water being sold at 15:-

Another thing is the language – unless you’ve had a babelfish embedded, Swedish is nothing at all like English. But the swedes are more than happy to accommodate you and speak English to you. That’s initially really good because you don’t have to look like a failing, unemployed mime when ordering your food or asking for direction. After a while it becomes a nuisance as you will need to learn the language and the best way is just to start speaking it.

Sweden does also offer SFI; not sure what it stands for but it’s language schooling for migrants – sign up for that as soon as possible. We’re going to be enrolling fairly soon.

Another part is the public transport – you’ll love that for sure. It costs about 790sek for an adult to pretty much have 30-days of public transport. That’s cheap folks – especially compared to AU prices.

I mentioned interest rates are low and housing being expensive? yeah, think i’ve already covered that. It’s important to keep in mind tho. Also, if you do get a job then it’s likely that you’ll be able to purchase quite a few things without paying MOMS for it (E.g. VAT, GST) which is 25%.

sb-logotypeLastly, alcohol – yeah, that’s a tough one. Nearly all super markets stock alcohol…not. it’s light/mid-strength only. For the good stuff you have to go to Systembolaget; a government run liquor store. Kid you not. Full-strength alcohol can only be purchased at this place. Prices are what you’d expect. about 25% more than what you’ll see in AU. Selection, very limited. However they do have to order home pretty much anything that you want. Might want you to buy 6 or more bottles of it, but they will order it in.

…Schools – for the kids that is

Education conceptMan – here’s probably one of the biggest changes for us coming from AU. The school system here is brilliant. And i mean brilliant. The school we enrolled with is local to us. It’s a public school (we’re used to having to put the kids through private school in AU if you want a good education, and lets face it, that’s not even a promise with the quality of private schools plummeting) but incredibly organised. We literally had a meeting with the headmistress on a Friday afternoon, and the girls started the following Monday. They have an interpreter available and have been teamed up with other students who’s bilingual. Big bonus. Plus, your kids get fed at school. Breakfast if you want, but a hot lunch is always served.

Once you have your “skatteverket ID” you can enrol your kids. Doesn’t take much, just contact the school and set an appointment to see them. Easy Peasy.

…Pros and Cons

weather - stockholmIt’s an adventure; Whatever reason you have to move across the pond, make it an adventure and you’ll do fine. A lot of people think it’s a massive move and full of risks, but remember that in Sweden you’re very heavily protected as an employee. That limits the risks significantly once you’ve landed a job.

Another benefit here is that everything is incredibly organised and it all communicates/integrates. It’d almost be scary if I wasn’t already Danish and familiar with the amount of knowledge the government has about you.

Some things that’s not so good – well i touched on housing. That’s a really big problem, but not just for migrants. Get registered on bostaddirekt.se, pay the fee and start looking. It’s cold as well. If you don’t like the cold, don’t go here. Winters are bad for beach-goers. It gets dark and you’ll get close to 18hrs a day without the sun (at least if you go this far north). The same goes for summers of course. Some really, really long days during summer.

The industry is booming here – ok, when i say the industry i mean IT&T. Stockholm in particular is a start-up heaven. Nearly 90% of all VC funding for start-ups in Europe are expected to go to the north. That means that IT is a big thing here.

This also means that the job market really needs more people. Especially technically skilled people. Which of course is good for us geeks.

Technical debt – when the bank really can’t help you out

Not long ago I had a brief 2hr session with a client who were looking at implementing a collaboration platform (read: SharePoint) to support their massively growing business. The discussion as usual went around platform/product capabilities and as usual the topic slowly venture into requirements and different scenarios that the client wanted the system comply.

Due to the growth of the business, all internal systems had soon been left behind and simply couldn’t cope with the expansions – this is often the case for companies that doesn’t factor IT into their business model. Luckily for the client, most of the OOTB capabilities of the product supported directly what they needed, but a few didn’t. These were for the client seemingly extremely important and a custom solution would most likely be needed.

If you’ve ever spent any time in a meeting with a sales representative, you’ll know that the general consensus is to sell – yeah, go figure. But as a consultant there’s always areas that you really need to be careful of entering into – and this is where you need to have an open and honest discussion about the impact a system can have to a business.

Picking a solution (No, you are not given a choice)

Naturally most companies employ consultants because they know that it’s not their core business. So looking at the reasons to adopting a system (any system), from the business perspective, there’s:

  1. The need to increase productivity, or
    • The need to decrease deficiencies in current system
    • The need to cut cost of productivity
  2. The need to introduce controlled/improved processes
  3. The need to expand, or match a shifting market, or finally
  4. The need improve on system quality

It’s a very broad non-specific and/or descriptive list but covers the various models used by management consultants (including PI-MDD, which from a consulting perspective is my personal favourite – that quite often goes against the grain, especially since I’m predominantly a SharePoint consultant). I’m not going to into the how and why of modelling these things, because I don’t have any formal “Consulting” education (can you even get that?) – but i digress – the needs and context needs to be detailed, which is where many smaller corporations don’t see any value – “We know our business and don’t want to pay YOU to tell us about it” – so they find a budget, which rarely actually has any foundation in either context or need, but a “This is our budget, get it done” perspective. The next step is then to either find a solution provider or a product.

The model here is pretty simple..is cost higher than budget.

Double-click, Next, Next, Next, Finish

Once a solution provider has presented a “choice” which matches the “budget”, the time comes to integrate the solution. A short stint from an onsite specialist and you’re up and running. Some time allocated to “Power training” and the business now has a Best In Breed solution. Exit stage left.

At this stage there’s already conflicting ties between the Need and Context. Initially there’s a drop in productivity because most users are having to learn on the job, perhaps mistakes even occur? orders are lost, tasks are left incomplete – and this is were human ingenuity kicks in and the proactive folks simply circumvent the system till such a time as the system can be “fixed”.

What occurs in this instance is a dramatic drop in ROI – the system is not doing what it’s meant to do and staff are either slipping back and using what they previously used or are making up new processes in order to meet their KPIs or deadlines. After all, business must go on and the outcome is “the system doesn’t work”.

Utopia doesn’t exist

Most platforms seems to have a lifecycle that spans over 5 to 7 years before being replaced/upgrade.image

In the period between introduction and end of life – the utopian fantasy with software is that there’s no cost involved with it. Once it’s bought and installed, everything takes care of itself.

Ok, realistically most have an idea that software does need to grow, so storage, backups and servers are all part of the “natural” life of having a software platform.

The decisions to adapt a platform is far more intricate than that. oh, vendors will sell “support and maintenance agreements” to you at a % price. For that you’ll upgrades/updates, patches and an offshored support email that you can use to contact them if you do need some assistance.

But mostly the vendor relies on partners and/or solution providers to take care of that for them.

It’s here that technical debt comes into play and it’s where vendors or solution providers doesn’t want to go. Yes, I’ve just sold you on the idea that you should by my services or product, at a concise price, why can’t I declare all the costs to you right now?

There’s a natural increase in cost associate with a software platform – it comes in the form of both financial and resource efforts and it could increase the investment figures by up to 20% per annum, of the initial purchase cost, very easily.

Technical debt can be calculated – but it’s very complex so I tend to use an analogy to explain that adopting a platform is much like having kids – there’s an initial phase of excitement, followed by a sense of dread because the project is taking a long time and concluded with the reality that it’s a never ending cost that didn’t just stop when the kids left home.

When decisions matter

It’s always hard to sell a software platform/solution based on a high upfront cost, hence why most don’t do it, whilst there’s a seemingly ignorant belief in the fact that off the shelf packaged software doesn’t carry the debt as well.

Most have heard that a bespoke solution is too risky – hiring some developers to slap a system together and then call it a solution is risky, especially when approached like that.

Can you quantify the exact cost for any system? for most, no – there simply isn’t that much tangible proof to state what that figure is. Like with anything else, there’s a risk involved with the business having to change too frequent, which leads to either an out dated solution or a high cost in retrofitting it to meet the new needs.

Yes of course there’s a banging good approach that’ll be offered when this happens – lets go agile!!! For seemingly unknown reason, companies has now decided that agile is risk free. But it still doesn’t eliminate the technical debt that’s accruing – of course not, since the changes to the system is going to cost money and effort.

In conclusion

The only decision that really matter is an informed decision. Go into the adoption process with both eyes open and on the prize. Be aware of all facets of solution adoption and be realistic. The fact is, if your budget cannot sustain the system it needs in order for the business to prosper, then your business model is wrong.

Getting close and personal – pitfalls of long term consulting

I’ve been consulting for quite a number of years now – mostly in and around service delivery – so have been exposed to a number of different types of projects. Needless to say, both good and bad, however isn’t that why consultants are called in? If things were always easy and straight forward, would there really be a need to for a consultant? probably not, so you’ve got to take the good with the bad…and vice versa.

Most projects are of a short term nature, meaning, you’re called in to sort out a small specific piece of the puzzle, whilst rarely stay long enough to see a project reach completion.

Consultants come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common traits are:

  • Subject matter experts of various platforms, technologies or business related topics
  • Skills resource to subsidise excisting pool of resources

The main benefit you can get by taking up consulting is the width of exposure you get to a large number of industries, challenging scenarios and people. It’s a great way to build a huge repertoire of experience, in relatively short periods of time. The second benefit I see is that you don’t get terribly personally involved with the projects you’re working on – generally there really isn’t time to get attached.

But, once in a while you’ll end up either going back to the same project again and again, or you could stay with a project for years on end.

Here’s where the line between consultant and project member tends to blur. As most who’s dealt with developers would know, they’re a passionate bunch (and at times can have huge egos). A developer can become very attached to the project, and in relation also to the work they contribute. There’s a certain pride amongst developers in what they do (both good and bad) and I guess this pride is what often makes them excel in their chosen line of work. Basically if you don’t care your work often reflects it.

As a consultant you really cannot afford to become too passionate about things – and here’s where long term consulting can become rather bad. Whether or not you’re part of service delivery or planning, it matters not. But alas, consultants are merely human, and getting involved on a personal level will happen once you’ve spent years on a project – it’s inevitable really. The difference between the short and long term gigs are that you start to see yourself (read: the consultant) as a project member. You spend more time on the project and on-site, than you do at the company you’re working for.

Your client office/location is where pictures of your kids appear, where that favorite coffee mug has a permanent home in the cupboard etc.

Well, is this a bad thing? You’re a gainfully employed member of the industry – secure enough that you dare take out that car loan, settle on that mortgage, raise a family. All things that generally requiere stability.

I guess it depends greatly of where you’re sitting and the pros and cons has to be weighed up carefully.

Rather than going into the personal benefits of long term consulting, there’s a few points that can raise danger signs everywhere…

  • A blurred disconnect between employee and employer (note, not consultant and client)
  • A deep personal involvement by the consultant

These two points are very hard to compensate for. By being away from your “colleagues” and place of employment for long periods of time, a natural disconnect occurs between the employee and employer. Questions such as “Who do i work for?” will pop up more and more frequently. So a certain amount of investment has to be put into maintaining that cord of loyalty and feeling of belonging to a company. If that isn’t done, chances are that, that once the project is complete (or contract runs out, whichever occurs first), that the consultant would be amenable to other offers from possible competitors.

The second point, which i touched on briefly above, is just as dangerous – but more from a personal development perspective – if the consultant whishes to continue to be a consultant – this must simply never occur and it’s detrimental to maintaining a continued professional exterior. As a consultant you cannot have a too deep personal investment into the projects you’re contributing to or frustrations will bubble up and take over, again, making you amenable to seeking for other pastures.

So, the cold truth of long term consulting is that there’s very high probability of the consultant looking elsewhere for employment.