Categories
Agility Scrum

Software Engineering Is a Form of Leadership

When you identify a leader, how do you invest in his or her growth?

My father was an electrical engineer of the highest order. A master bridge player and a director of electrical engineering at Hazeltine Corporation — one of the most significant electrical engineering companies in American history — he was smarter than smart. Dad’s colleagues over the years included not just Professor Alan Hazeltine himself, but Harold Wheeler of Wheeler Laboratories; Page Burr, co-founder of Burr-Brown, and who was a classmate of my father’s at Cornell; Bernie Loughlin, who co-invented color television; and Henry Bachman, who served as IEEE President and became an IEEE fellow. There were many others. I don’t usually do this, but I encourage you to view the links to these individuals before you proceed, as they will paint a vivid picture of the fortunate magnificence of my father’s cohort.


Lest you think that this is going to be one of those hackneyed stories about how my father was a leader, rest assured that it will not. Although my father was, in fact, a very fine leader, what I am about to share involves something else entirely.

Dad spent nearly 50 years at Hazeltine. My brothers and I also all worked there at some point in our lives. My brother Paul notably worked at Hazeltine for over 30 years in manufacturing, including time spent as part of the team that created the very first multi-layered PC boards in history. Hazeltine was a major force in the formative years of the electrical engineering industry.

I grew up in a fairly traditional household, where we shared stories over supper, every day. The children would discuss their schooldays, Mom would talk about what happened around the house and the news of the day, and Dad would share the latest goings on at Hazeltine. These would often include (generalized) stories about how the military changed requirements for the projects his teams were working on, how frustrating those changes were, and how this all threatened the due dates that they faced.

Above all else, these were stories about human beings and their struggles with change. I wish that I could recall many of them in great detail so that I could share them; I cannot. But they had a huge impact on our family’s understanding of the world Dad worked within.

Less than a year and a half before he died at age 93, I was lucky enough to record Dad (during a car ride) recounting the following funny and fascinating story about the search for an aneroid barometer that was suited to solve a voltage issue his engineering team had at high altitudes within an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system for a Northrop aircraft.

Have a listen:

Dad told these sorts of stories every night when we were growing up. Without really appreciating it at the time, I was deeply conditioned by the lessons and experiences of my father and his distinguished colleagues as related through these suppertime stories, right alongside their journeys to define the modern disciplines of their craft. It is all hard to believe in retrospect, but I had a first-hand seat to this era of engineering history, which became, no doubt, a significant component of my own education, outside of any classroom.

Beyond that recording, I remember only one of these original stories in particular, no doubt because it was the seed that grew into my life’s professional focus (had I only known this in that moment!). During one summer evening in the late 1970s, Dad introduced our family to the word “software.” While I can’t recall all of the details, one thing I do recall is him sharing how it allowed his engineers to make changes to things they made without having to redesign hardware. The fact that the very idea of software came about to mitigate the issues that electrical engineers of Dad’s generation faced is a lost story, yet it is critical to remember if we wish to understand the opportunities it represents. Electrical engineers designed hardware that could be programmed, elegantly enabling them to honor the human need for change while reducing their natural, personal frustrations when faced with that need.

Friends, software is all about encouraging — rather than resisting — change. In my lifetime, I have met too many people who wish to treat software as something to finish. Haven’t we all heard people ask, “When will we be done with this software so we can move on?” How do you feel when you hear that? I sometimes like to offer the following maxim of mine, which was borne out of my suppertime story experiences:

If we want something that doesn’t change, we should just build hardware.


Yours truly, on some hot summer night in the early 1980s. How about those socks?

When I was a young teenager in the early 1980s, I spent countless — undoubtedly hundreds if not thousands — of hours programming the 8-bit computers of the era, starting with the Commodore VIC-20 and moving on to the Commodore 64. One might describe me as addicted to programming, to the extent that Dad occasionally switched off the circuit breaker to my room so that I would better attend to my assigned chores and homework. During high school, I told him that I was eager to study computer science in college (software engineering degrees were more than a decade away at the time, and the term itself was probably not in common use, either.) His response to this was not what I expected.

“You don’t need a computer science degree to be a computer programmer,” he shared, with a brusque certainty. Dad was sometimes more demanding than I — or any young teenager — could bear. He could quickly and easily find the flaws in any system, argument, or idea that you might have. “I will be paying for your education, and will not pay for you to do that. What you need in order to program computers is a background in liberal arts, because that experience will best equip you how to learn on your own on an ongoing basis, as computer languages, and the problems they are used for, change.”

(Thud.)

That nudge — which definitely felt more like a whack at the time — was both forceful and gentle. It was forceful in the sense that I had no choice, unless I could find the money to pay for college myself. But it was gentle in the sense that it was broad, with no specific direction other than to study liberal arts. I was interested in studying journalism and publishing, and I was good in English class, so it wasn’t as horrible as it could be. But it was certainly not what my (other teenage) programming friends were doing, so it was hard to believe he was right.

You might recall this quote:

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Not Mark Twain

I followed Dad’s orders.

The undergraduate program that I joined in 1986 at SUNY-Binghamton was focused on rhetorical theory, which, if you have read many of these pages before, you will understand as the ancient and philosophical study of persuasion and communication. Lucky for me, Dad didn’t mind if I took a computer science program or two, which I did to my personal delight, serving to fulfill some of my science obligations. But rhetorical theory became my academic passion. It was the driving force behind my appreciation and understanding of empathy and trust. If you want to know more, I recommend you read Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

When I graduated from college, I landed a job as a software developer for a publishing company, oddly satisfying my broad desire to work for a publishing company but also satisfying my desire to program all day. (Remarkably, as I wished when I was younger, I never left the software industry after that.) In the first 15 years of my career, all software development projects were managed using what you might call traditional, deadline-driven waterfall methodologies.

In the mid 2000s, however, I learned Scrum. What occurred to me in the process of learning Scrum was that managing software development with Gannt charts and up-front planning was completely at odds with what software was supposed be. It felt remarkably more compatible with what Dad had shared at the dinner table over thirty years prior. With Scrum, we could finally develop software in a manner that embraced the sort of change that only software could deftly provide.

Software’s very nature doesn’t merely involve uncertainty. It invites it. It is its raison d’être. Software is utterly pointless when there is certainty (I will repeat: otherwise, we should just build hardware.) What are we really achieving when we practice Scrum? We are offering a framework for human beings to help them manage the invited change and uncertainty, by taking one step at a time.

And, as the saying goes, herein lies the crux of the matter.

One of the best books I have ever read on the notion of leadership is Building The Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change, by Robert E. Quinn. In it, he describes two different states that we might wake up to every day:

  1. The Normal State, where we seek comfort and predictability (when we wake up and wish for a day without drama or surprises, and a pleasant evening to follow). We stick to the reactive, and not the proactive. As Quinn puts it: “To remain in the normal state, refusing to change while the universe changes around us, is ultimately to choose slow death.”
  2. The Fundamental State of Leadership, where we face the need to change with the world around us, eschewing our natural desire for the comfort of the normal state. To quote Quinn once more, “In the fundamental state of leadership, we become less comfort-centered and more purpose-centered. We stop asking, What do I want? Since what we want is to be comfortable, this question keeps us in the reactive state. Instead we ask, What result do I want to create?”

The difference between supervision, management, and leadership might best be described as follows:

  • Supervision is the practice of overseeing people to ensure they’re doing their assigned tasks.
  • Management is the practice of nurturing someone’s career so that they can achieve what they aim to.
  • Leadership is the practice of taking people on a journey to an unknown place while managing their natural anxieties about this journey.

This is why good executives are fond of pointing out that everybody in an organization is capable of being a leader, no matter where they fall in the corporate hierarchy. Leaders drive change, and bring tools to the table to facilitate that change.

By definition, software engineers bring tools to the table to facilitate change — whether employing Scrum or not. Scrum just happens to make the journey easier for everyone involved. Don’t leaders worthy of the label seek to do these things at every turn? When software engineers use frameworks like Scrum to assist them in their efforts to drive change, they are living the very highest form of leadership.

What are the consequences of this assertion?

For starters, we should make every attempt to recognize that software engineers are key leaders for the organizations they serve. To be clear: they are not future leaders; they are current leaders.

As a consequence of that, I believe that software engineers are worthy of being provided the very finest we can give them in leadership skills and training…the very same skills we afford our best executives. We should do everything we can to groom their skills in:

  • Interpersonal communication
  • Group dynamics
  • Conflict resolution techniques
  • Emotional intelligence (EQ)

Yet, I can’t think of too many organizations today that see how these are essential offerings for their software engineers, except perhaps as remedial activities once in a while. That approach is a mistake. Everyone worthy of being called leader needs regular nourishment in these skills, software engineers in particular.

At RIT’s Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, where I occasionally serve as Adjunct Faculty, we differentiate software engineering from computer science this way: computer science is the art of understanding the detailed underlying architecture of a computer so that you can design better ones; software engineering is the art of applying these computers to solve human problems. In that sense, the software engineering curriculum places significant emphasis on requirements elicitation, communication, human factors, and group dynamics. Over my decades managing software engineers, it has become apparent to me that the connection to the human condition doesn’t end with the education provided by the software engineering degree. The degree itself is the foundation of a long arc of a leadership journey. Corporations who employ these engineers play a key role in this journey.

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer that the generalized practice of IT is also, at its most vital human points, a form of leadership in the very same vein. While generalized IT folks don’t generally develop custom software, they certainly select and configure off-the-shelf software solutions that enable change. These IT professionals — including the business analysts and project managers who serve both IT teams and software engineers — should be afforded the same sort of nourishing training that software engineers deserve.

At this point, you might wonder: what about those ISTJ and INTJ stereotypes? The propellerheads? Can they really be leaders in the way we traditionally envision that label? My answer? It’s too late! You have no choice; they are already leaders. As my own coach, Dr. Jim Kestenbaum, has taught me, there is good news here. While we are born with our personalities and our IQs — and there is little we can do to change them — we have the ability to increase our skills in the four areas I listed above, EQ included. The investment will be worth it, if you choose to make it. But the first step is to realize that if you have software engineers in your organization, you have leaders — vital ones — who require care and feeding. To miss this is to shoot your proverbial corporate self in the foot.

What are you going to do about that?

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Categories
Advice

Many people will look for new jobs in 2021. Here’s the one thing to look for if you want to be happy.

Happy 2021! I’m not much for ado, so here is that one thing:

Work for a good private company.

Not a bad private company. Not a good public company. And certainly not a bad public company, even though those are a dime a dozen.

No, a good, private company.

Why is that?

Well, there’s the obvious: public companies have to spend too much time satisfying shareholders rather than their customers (let alone their employees).

Good private companies are driven through the vision of a passionate owner and leadership. They believe that the best ideas take time, and are driven by creative people who take risks, make mistakes, and learn.

Really good private companies also know that a healthy employee culture can never be achieved when satisfying transient shareholders is the number one goal.

Look around at your friends. Which of them really enjoy their jobs, and are content with the culture that they work within? Which of them are encouraged to create change through their personal perseverance and vision? Which of them say, “I work at a pretty good place, maybe the best place I have ever worked?”

Of those friends, do any work for a public company?

2021 will be a year filled with job changes. People who have lost their jobs, who have relocated to a city that they don’t care for, who need to get out of a city that isn’t what it once was, who were treated poorly during the pandemic, or who are more or less burned out, will all be eager for change. 2021 will be a year filled with an incredible number of people switching jobs.

Throughout your career, you will hear a drone of advice about how to climb up corporate ladders, prove your worth, persuade others of your vision, “achieve success,” blah, blah, blah, blah, puke, puke, puke. If you have to play games to achieve recognition for the work you do, then you don’t work at a place worth working for. And game playing is what working at most public companies is all about.

What to do? Get out. Find a private company that is interested in you as you…you as a mistake-maker…you as a learner…you as a person who cares about other people…more than you as a “resource” whose only value is a function of your current output.

Here’s a simple fact of life: “shareholder value” is a terrible destination, because shareholders are stupid. That includes you and that includes me, even as unwitting and passive shareholders of mutual funds in our 401(k)s that are run by “expert” shareholders who are also stupid, although perhaps — just perhaps — a little less stupid than we are.

Shareholders generally don’t truly understand the companies they are investing in. They can’t. Otherwise, they would be insiders. In other words, we can’t help but be stupid compared to those who work within the companies we invest in.

I’m going to share two illustrations of this with you, from two different perspectives.


I.

I once held stock in a great company called athenahealth. I had the fortune, through a friend, of meeting athenahealth’s CEO, Jonathan Bush (nephew of George H.W. Bush, FWIW). I had the benefit of a first-hand tour of their headquarters. Jonathan, and those who worked there, knew that their true value lay in a piece of software known as athenaCollector. This software helped medical providers get paid by insurance companies much faster than they ever could be paid before, solving one of the most pressing problems that doctors have. How did they do this? athenahealth had experts inside the organization who studied the idiosyncratic ways that health insurers would reject claims based upon expected mappings between diagnosis codes (ICD-10) and treatment (CPT) codes. Doctors only get paid once they submit the right combination of these to your insurance company. I would say that athenahealth’s magic was that they really listened to what doctors needed most: to get paid, as quickly as possible, with as little administrative game playing as possible, so that we can get back to what we do best.

On Wall Street, where athenahealth was known as ATHN, this little company became known merely as a player in the Electronic Medical Records (EMR) space. Sure, athenahealth developed an EMR, because, well, it’s the nature of a public company to do things that “grow” revenue (as if revenue were some kind of plant). That’s what shareholders expect, and what the analysts who are the designated shoppers for shareholders are trained to find for them.

But shareholders do not care to understand the details of how ICD-10 codes map to CPT codes, and how health insurance companies try as best as they can to ensure that they do not have to pay whatever they can possibly reject (or at least delay accepting – time is money, after all). Shareholders and analysts understand, well, EMR! Yes, Electronic Medical Records! That sounds modern and cutting edge – just like plastics used to be! I’ve heard of Epic! Those Epic-ans are filthy rich out there in Madison, Wisconsin! Let’s invest in an underdog like athenahealth so that we can make money because, sure sounds like this place makes a good EMR with all that technology stuff! And people say they are advanced! Let’s take a look at their earnings per share and P/E ratio! Wow, count me in!

Seriously, people, that is about as deep as a typical investor gets.

If you want to read what happened to athenahealth, well…it’s a sad, sad story.

Remember: I was lucky enough to visit the company, meet with its CEO, and go for an on-site tour. How many shareholders —or even analysts — get the opportunity to do that?


II.

Here’s the second illustration, from another perspective:

From 2006–2010, I worked as part of the incredible software team at Xerox Global Services.

In 2008, pure play document consulting and management services contributed $3.5B of Xerox’s $17.6B in revenue. Nearly 20% of Xerox’s revenue came from these services. That was also 27% of Xerox’s “post sale revenue” (which included toner and maintenance) and 41% of Xerox’s $8.585B in “Service, outsourcing and rentals.”

https://www.xerox.com/annualreport/2008/2008_annual_report.pdf

I remember watching the annual shareholder meeting that year. I don’t have a transcript at hand, but if my memory serves me, there were a lot of very old – maybe even elderly – people asking Anne Mulcahy questions about copiers and toner. There was no substantive discussion of services whatsoever. You can see from the annual report that services were an increasingly important part of our business — $3.5B is no small potatoes; it’s about half of today’s Xerox’s trailing annual revenue.

What happened between now and then? What were the shareholders missing?

Well, in 2009, Xerox announced that it had acquired a services company called ACS for $6.4B. This was in response to Xerox’s competitors making similar moves, like HP acquiring EDS in 2008. However, the acquisition was trumpeted with headlines like

…transforms Xerox into a services company that can focus on business process management and outsourcing.

c|net: September 28, 2009: Xerox buys ACS for $6.4 billion

As if Xerox wasn’t already en route to that.

If you read the materials from the time, they don’t take any care to mention that Xerox was already seriously in the services space. Read this article from The Wall Street Journal, for instance. Do you want to know what I think the choicest bits of that are?

With the purchase, Xerox is the latest big hardware vendor to buy a services company, as tech giants try to find more consistent revenue streams to offset shrinking profits in their hardware businesses. Last week, Dell Inc. agreed to buy Perot Systems Corp. for $3.9 million. H-P last year bought Electronic Data Systems for $13.9 billion. International Business Machines Corp. has been building a huge services business for 15 years.

There’s a strong strategic rationale for the deal. Customers want to do more things with fewer providers, and there are too many companies in’ the services space, said Peter Bendor-Samuel, chief executive of Everest Group, a Dallas company that follows the services industry. Adding services to a hardware company helps retain customers.

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 29, 2009: Xerox Takes Gamble in Bid for ACS

In particular, these two tidbits are what really stick out:

“IBM has been building a huge services business for 15 years.”

Xerox Global Services was founded in 1996. Why no mention of this anywhere?

“Adding services to a hardware company helps retain customers.”

No kidding.

So what happened? I will say it once more:

Shareholders are stupid.

Buying ACS was a mistake for which Xerox paid dearly. They lost their way. They eventually split and divested themselves from that portion of their business. Along the way, they lost who they were, and they are trying to get back there…12 years on. I hope the best for them.


Let’s share a simple fact about companies: the most important ideas in any company are trade secrets, and these things are reserved for employees, not shareholders.

What shareholders understand about a company comes — 100% — from whatever the people inside the company are willing to share, and how they are willing to share it. You’ve undoubtedly played the game of telephone before. The result? Shareholders invest in companies based upon whatever they are able to understand from this limited set of information, and they share that with one another, all of which becomes, simply, a personalized and remote distillation of the truth.

Saying that shareholders know what’s going on in a company is like saying Scotch is barley. A lot happens between barley and Scotch.

I will give shareholders some credit: they do try to get the gist of what is going on. But they are stupid principally because they are willing to convince themselves that they truly understand what’s going on in a company, in order to rationalize that they are making a good choice with their investment.

These sorts of shareholders wind up steering most all public companies. Steering a ship without understanding its construction, its engine, or the crew operating it (particularly the crew in way down in the engine room).

Do you think these investors really care about the individuals working within their ships? Which investors (or, more to the point, insurers) of Cunard thought to ask if Titanic had enough lifeboats? Lack of curiosity and imagination is a longstanding feature of human nature. Sure, curiosity and imagination is often in sufficient supply to design, build and dispatch a magnificent ship, but at some point, people often simply telescope just to get the job done and the profit made, with less focus on the lifespan of that ship and those who will live aboard it.

There are some very good things about working for public companies. Access to resources. Many brilliant people — oftentimes the best in the business — whom you get to interact with. A name that your friends and families know, and are proud to mention in the same breath as your name. Most of all: experience understanding the dynamics of a public company.


If, today, you work at a public company, another essential practice you can make toward a fulfilling career is: focus on the happiness and welfare of the people around you. Ask questions that cultivate curiosity and that inspire people to think and to put their imagination to work. Create a sense of safety for them in the riskiest of situations. Do your very best to have compassion for them and solidarity with them.

The path to perseverance with this practice in a public company is strewn with boulders of many sizes. You may well quit, or maybe you will be terminated. But! Even though you will not likely find a lasting, fulfilling career, two very important things will happen:

  • You will have done good things for good people, who will remember you for what you did to help them, and that will come back around someday.
  • You will develop compelling experience and stories that will make for incredible interview material at your interview with a good private company.

Why do you suppose so many leaders of public companies leave to start their own private companies? Because they know these dirty little secrets all too well.

If you happen to find a job in 2021 working for a public company — or you work for one already — be sure enjoy your ride. Learn as much as you can. Take it all in. But the lessons you need to survive and grow within a public company are merely that — survival tactics. They will sap your energy, and they may even condition you with poisonous behaviors that you will have to shed in order to have a glowing obituary.

The lessons you need for a truly fulfilling — and, dare I say, peaceful — career are among these pages. Empathy. Trust. Compassion.

In a company worth working for, you don’t need survival skills. The skills you need to feel satisfaction and progress are basic human skills. Focus on developing other people and helping them develop themselves. Focus on nurturing your skills in emotional intelligence (these are skills you can develop!). Focus on nonviolent communication. Create safe spaces for your teammates to express, explore and articulate their uncertainties. Make mistakes together, and pick each other up when you fall. Develop trust in one another. Care about your customers and what they need. Spend time with them. You have the time to develop quality relationships with your customers, because there are no shareholders to rush you.

Friends, I wish you a very fine 2021. As an early boss of mine — Eliot Subin, the CEO of ThrottleBox Media — once said:

Every day, you should live by the ELF theory:

Earn.

Learn.

And have Fun.

— H. Eliot Subin

Those are a lot easier to do when shareholders aren’t driving your company.

Happy new year. Peace to you and yours!

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Categories
Humility Vulnerability

We’re All Impostors

Thanks go to my brother Rich for sending this article to me, allowing me to share a final thought for this very long year:

Some pretty smart women claim to be racked by impostor syndrome. Do men just not get it?

The headline asks an interesting question, and I have an educated, but admittedly unscientific, answer: yes, men “get” impostor syndrome. All the time.

What Catherine Bennett describes as “the association of authority with traditionally male exhibitions of extreme assurance” is, from my perspective, the defining mark of a deeply-buried case of male impostor syndrome.

What does true self-confidence look like?

Is it the way that Donald Trump or Boris Johnson or David Cameron or Vladimir Putin behave?

Conversely, what about when Ronald Reagan admitted his mistakes in the Iran-Contra scandal? Or when George H. W. Bush apologized for raising taxes? Or when John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs invasion?

Are those illustrations of weakness, or of strength?

Friends, true self-confidence is marked by the ability to openly admit mistakes or lack of knowledge…true self-confidence is all about vulnerability and humility.

Why might you not want to admit mistakes? Do you feel that it might amplify a certain lack of ability, and that others might think less of you? Both of these are strong indicators of personal insecurity. If you are afraid to admit mistakes, you are, by definition, afraid of people knowing your weaknesses. All signs point to some amount of impostor syndrome at this point.

The difference between female and male instances of impostor syndrome, I think, is that women seem to feel more comfortable exploring their weaknesses at a liminal level than men do. Men instead tend to pelt their insecurities down into subliminal territory, creating strong compensating facades of synthesized self-confidence, perhaps powered through the unique delusion of testosterone.

What man (or woman) who cannot admit mistakes and take corrective actions does so for any reason other than fear?

And what could that man or woman be afraid of, other than people beginning to see chinks in their armor?

As I have gotten older, I have developed a belief that most people lack self-confidence for some portion — maybe even a large portion — of their lives. Most people (including yours truly!) become aware of their relative lack of significance in the universe through some lonely moments of self-reflection, and they build up ugly behaviors in order to compensate for this. Ironically, it is the very ability for so many people around us to successfully fake self-confidence through “brio,” to borrow Boris Johnson’s term, that we find the seedlings of self-doubt so deeply sown in ourselves.

If our default human tendency was to openly embrace and exhibit our faults — with confidence! — the world might be a very different place, don’t you think?

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Albums of the Year Current Events: 2020

Albums of the Year, 2020 Edition

Always remember: work is a means to an end. The things that are not work are the most important things in life. For me, music is one of those things. I like the challenge of distilling a year’s worth of music into five favorite albums. This awful year, I gave myself permission to select six that I want to share with you, my dear readers.

1. Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death

https://www.fontainesdc.com/

A great work, by a young post-punk band with the same raw talent you might have seen from U2 in 1980, Billy Bragg in 1984, and Nick Cave in 1986. If you need convincing, just watch.

2. Chris Cornell – No One Sings Like You Anymore (Volume One)

https://chriscornell.com/

You will miss Chris Cornell even more when you listen to this late 2020 surprise, a love letter to artists he admired. His cover of John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” is better than the original. If there is a Volume Two, it will be hard to live up to this. Let’s hope.

3. Wire – Mind Hive

http://www.pinkflag.com/

Wire is, inarguably, one of the best bands of all time. I cannot think of an album ever made by a band of 45-year industry veterans that is as vital as Mind Hive. An unexpected surprise in this very grim year.

4. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Rendition Was In

https://sharonjonesandthedapkings.com/

Another great posthumous album of brilliant covers. Losing Sharon Jones was a tragedy. What a joy to hear her once more.

5. Idles – Ultra Mono

https://www.idlesband.com/

2020 was a year that was made for punk music. Reviewers seem to like this album less than 2018’s Joy As An Act of Resistance. I respectfully disagree. This is vital, timely, and just what my soul needed.

6. Kelly Stoltz – Ah! (etc)

https://www.kelleystoltz.com/

This is comfort food for people of my vintage, so it might not be your thing. Take a little of The Byrds and throw in some Robyn Hitchcock, and you have the makings of something wonderful. The vintage cover artwork is the cherry on the sundae.

Happy holidays to you and yours!

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Current Events: 2020 Technology of the Year

Well, That Didn’t Take Long

In reference to Technology of the Year, 2020 Edition

Here you go: Bloomberg: Microsoft Designing Its Own Chips for Servers, Surface PCs

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Categories
Antipatterns

Lionization of a Lunatic

I’ve been waiting to share some antipatterns to the type of leadership we talk about on these pages. Bingo! Got one today.

Imagine the writer of today’s Wall Street Journal feature: The Covid Crisis Taught David Farr the Power and Limits of Leadership. In his presence? A prideful ass. This is a portrait worthy of an M.C. Escher illustration, splendidly serving the article’s two very different intended audiences. It’s a masterpiece — you must read it, really — but be prepared to need an Alka Seltzer by the time you get to the end.

Mr. Farr keeps five baseball bats in his office, including one signed by St. Louis Cardinals greats Stan Musial and Albert Pujols. He likes to swing the bats while he thinks. During earnings calls, he is known to poke people with a bat if he thinks they aren’t doing a good job of talking to investors.

Here are a few pearls of wisdom from the man himself:

  • “We have a company to run.”
  • “We have customers to serve and we can’t frickin’ do it if nobody is here!”
  • “Why did we miss it?”
  • “I might be wrong, but we get paid to make decisions and make calls.”
  • “I would never jump off a cliff without knowing a bit about what is at the bottom. But I know you have to take jumps.”
  • “I got into a lot of heated battles around here in St. Louis because I had the opinion that you can live with this virus.”
  • “I’m not going to die.”
  • “I’m too busy to die.”
  • “I’m not dead, though people have tried to kill me. I’m still quite strongly in charge. And as long as I’m here, our dividend will not be cut.”
  • “We’ve gone that route, rather than where everyone wears a mask.”
  • “If there’s more of us around, you got to be doing the right things, you’ve got to be following your own rules.”
  • “Look. I make s—, and you can’t tell me how I’m making s— when you’re sitting in your goddamn living room.”
  • “Get your a— out to my factories, look at my people on the line, and tell me if they’re telling me the truth or lying. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s why I pay you $25 million a year.”
  • “It was very energizing to be on the plane.”
  • “It’s all going back to trying to make people feel like we’re back in business, it’s back to normal, it’s safe, I’m here to talk.”
  • “People are getting tired of and stuff like that.”
  • “I can’t believe this thing. It’s July 7th.”
  • “I got to see some of them for the first time in several months. It was pretty exciting, and I drank too much.”
  • “People were a little closer than 6 feet.”
  • “We’re going to have to bring in automation.”
  • “We’re going to have to take labor out.”
  • “As soon as you hear someone say ‘the new normal,’ plug your ears, and say, ‘bulls—’.”

Most of all, do read the comments. Hook, line, sinker, check.

Imagine how much more shareholder value he might be able to provide if he were better perceived by analysts.

Would you really want to work for someone like David Farr?

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJhaCoI76tA.

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Categories
Current Events: 2020 Technology of the Year

Technology of the Year, 2020 Edition

Lest you forget I am a technologist, this column is for you.

I’m 52 years old. The very first computer I ever used was a DEC PDP-11 over a dial-up connection.

The year? 1980; I was twelve.

The second computer I used was a Commodore PET. Third? A friend’s Sinclair ZX81, built from a kit. Fourth? A Commodore VIC-20, which was the first computer I came to own. From there, I worked with all of the famous 8-bit computers, from the Atari 800 to the Apple II to the Commodore 64.

The years 1980-1985 were inarguably the best time in history to be a computer nerd. Beyond these famous 8-bit computers, we saw so many other interesting computers:

  • The Tandy TRS-80 Model III (1980)
  • The Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (1981)
  • The IBM PC (1981)
  • The BBC Micro (1981)
  • The Jupiter ACE (1982), which ran Forth!
  • The Franklin Ace 1000, an Apple II clone!
  • The Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982)
  • The Compaq Portable (1982)
  • The IBM PC XT (1983)
  • The Apple Lisa (1983)
  • The Amstrad CPC64 (1984)
  • The IBM PCjr (1984)
  • The Apple Macintosh (ahem, 1984)
  • The IBM PC/AT (1984)
  • …and the Commodore Amiga, introduced in 1985

All of these were much more different from one another than computers are today. Different ideas, different technologies, different ways of programming them, different features and benefits. Each idea had something to challenge the other, and standardization was not a thing just yet. The idea was to be different, and to try new things, often. This was a remarkable period of time!

If you were a teenager — with all that attendant attitude — back then, one thing you did not care to own was an IBM PC of any kind. Why? Because, compared to almost all of the alternatives, it was boring. IBMs — and Apple IIs, for that matter — lacked the sprites and player missile graphics of the Commodore 64 and Atari 400/800. They lacked the sound synthesis of the ’64. They lacked the 256 color palette of the Ataris. The IBM PC tried to convince you that it was a great PC because it was a 16-bit machine. But it had an 8-bit data bus.

The IBM PC sucked. All the kids knew it.

You could say that all the things we — the kids — valued were only important to gaming, but we young programmers back then would have disagreed with you. We knew that, in order to create any sort of engaging experience on a computer, sounds and visuals were important. Would you, today, enjoy using Excel if it looked like this?

[Lotus 1-2-3]

Nonetheless, this sort of thing literally excited all of the adults of the period. You know, these kinds of adults:

Michael Douglas

Do you remember the phrase, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”? I do. I wasn’t alone in thinking: this is a strange form of suicide.

Of course, if you are in charge of Wall Street, and the world, you do have a lot of control over the markets, and what gets bought and sold.

The Lisa of 1983 and the Macintosh of 1984 were, famously, incredibly different from everything else that came out before. And they were 32 bit machines with 16-bit data buses. Whoa.

But 1985 saw what was, perhaps, the most interesting computer of the entire decade: The Commodore Amiga.

With the same Motorola 68000 processor of the Mac, a color palette of 4,096 colors and things like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hold-And-Modify, it was the first personal computer that could really do photorealistic graphics, address 16MB of RAM, 8-bit PCM sound with tricks that could achieve nearly CD quality, it was like nothing else that had come before it. Then came the Video Toaster, and the Amiga simply boggled every geek’s mind. Many, many things led to the Amiga’s demise, and you can read about that in Ars Technica’s spectacular 12-part series.

But: these were the days in which regularly-released new technologies would raise pulses a little bit.

A little while later, Macs got color graphics and got to full 32-bitness; IBMs got there, too. Processors got fast. Windows 95 came out. Then VAX/VMS somehow became Windows NT, and then Windows 2000, and then XP. XP became Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 10. Then 64-bit. Etc.

Linux came out, and that was incredibly interesting and important, but it’s just an operating system kernel.

Mac OS merged with NeXTSTEP and became Mac OS X.

The smartphone era occurred. iPhone came out and changed, well, phones. That was important (and, of course, was a key step toward this very year and this very article). But pulse-quickening? Not at the same level as 1980-1985. Not to me, anyway.

Not much else has happened since 1985 to raise a pulse as high, other than the NeXT computer in 1989. What NeXTSTEP did to popularize object-oriented programming was utterly, completely, groundbreaking.

Of course, the things that you could DO with a computer in those interceding years? Sure, those have been exciting. You know, the Internet and all. But computers themselves? Meh. A processor, a graphics chip, memory, storage, some IO controllers. Sure, faster, whatever. Apple makes them. Lenovo makes them. Dell makes them. Bleh. DDR4? Yawn. PCI Express? Shoot me. Thousand+ watt power supplies! Do you lack testosterone or something? These are useful alternatives to sheep and Nyquil Pure ZZZs. They do not quicken my pulse. They are evolutionary, and maybe even devolutionary.

In 2020, my pulse quickened. It’s been a long time. The Apple M1 is the most important thing to happen to the personal computing hardware landscape not just this year, but in the past 30.

That’s why there’s so much written about the M1 already. If this is news to you, I recommend you start with these three articles:

As a bonus, don’t miss Linus Torvalds’ initial reaction to Apple’s announcement back in June.

Linus has never been one to say good things about Apple, or anyone using monolithic microkernels for that matter.

The M1 represents the first complete re-thinking of the general-purpose personal computer since the 1980s. It is exciting in the same way that each of those very different 1980s computers listed above was. Let me put it this way: As a result of the M1, one of two things will happen, and either of them will be profound:

  • Microsoft and its hardware brethren will have to completely rethink how they deliver personal computing solutions; or
  • The Mac will become the go-to personal computer solution for most people.

Why does this matter here, on The Progressive CIO?

Because apart from the geek fact that the current bulk of personal computers are a bore, there is the human fact that personal computers still, to large degree, have not fully met an important goal: to honor the human condition.

This week, my boss, the CEO, told me that his Lenovo laptop speaker sounded really bad. I said, “Mine too! You know why? Because the cooling fans blow hot air right over the speaker, causing the voice coil to malform. A bad design decision.”

Have you spent time using Microsoft Teams and Zoom this year? Do these applications sometimes make your laptop’s fans go wild after hours of use? Teams, for all its ubiquity, is a ridiculously resource-hungry app. It’s written in Electron, after all. It cares not one bit for saving your computer’s power. It’s designed to be easy to port to multiple platforms above all other things. It’s developer-focused, not end-user-focused.

Personal computers, as they have evolved — even Macs, to some degree — are janky. They still crash and burn way too often. IT people love computers that don’t need a reboot, but it’s 2020, and most of our computers need to be rebooted at least once per month, if not per week. They have fans that blow incredibly hot air over very important parts that don’t like to get hot. They have batteries filled with ridiculous chemicals that can explode under the right conditions. They are bedrooms of private information that are riddled with vulnerabilities that need to be constantly patched. We spend a good portion of our computing horsepower analyzing what’s going on under the hood to make sure that those vulnerabilities aren’t being attacked. Our computers get hotter, and less, reliable, and things just get worse in a vicious cycle. Apps like Microsoft Teams are written in Electron, which is running on JavaScript through an encapsulated web browser, which is compiled to an API framework for the OS it’s running on, which is talking to the OS kernel that is running on the bare metal. This is at least six layers of abstraction away from the hardware. It’s a miracle that the computers work at all.

How does the M1 change all of this? Well, for starters, the term SoC (whatever happened to Silicon on Ceramic? I digress.) has been wildly overused. The M1 seems to meet the real definition. Everything about it is designed to work together, in harmony. It encapsulates multiple CPU cores, high performance graphics with multiple cores, specialized I/O and storage controllers, image processors, fast and unified RAM, neural processing, and much more. All bespoke and specifically designed to support the heavily object-oriented and declarative design standards that Apple has promoted for a long time now, starting from NeXTSTEP and continuing up to, and through, SwiftUI.

The real kicker, of course, is how the M1’s RISC instructions are so much easier to optimize in out-of-order-execution pipelines with multiple instruction decoders. And the M1 has — gasp! — eight of them. CISC ecosystems just cannot do that sort of thing. While Intel’s CISC approach eventually killed the RISC-based PowerPC, it was because the PowerPC couldn’t scale without generating significantly more heat. Intel won Apple’s heart because of the need to keep computers cool and quiet. Now the shoe is squarely on the other foot, and the endgame looks decidedly different today than it did 15 years ago.

Back to the human condition:

One of the complaints that we’ve all heard this year is how our need to work apart, using videoconferencing applications, has reduced or removed the key cues we need in order to have truly quality conversations. We can’t make eye contact. We can’t hear the small gasps or intakes of breath that are passive ways of saying: hey, can I speak for a sec? Those little gasps and intakes of breath, though, are what make conversations flow, rather than feeling like this.

Whether you know it or not, our computers and smartphones spend an inordinate amount of processing power to filter out background noises. This includes not just the TV in the background, or your labradoodle barking at the Amazon driver. It includes the damn fan in your laptop, which also sounds a lot like moving air breath.

When our computers run cooler, they run more reliably. They last longer. Their sound input systems don’t have to waste additional power filtering out the sounds that the computers themselves are making. They don’t burn our laps, or our palms. Their speakers don’t melt. Their batteries last longer. We get more done, more smoothly, so that we can finish using them, and get back to our real lives.

Good computers are also fast at what they do, and honor the human condition by allowing humans to be finished using them, more quickly, with less drama. Computers are a means to an end, and if that end involves too much time or pain, they are simply not good.

The M1 is fast. It runs cool. And it is fast. Yep, I said that twice. It significantly changes the dialog about what a personal computer can be, for the first time in three decades.

That’s why the M1 matters on The Progressive CIO, and why it is the Technology of the Year, 2020.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILWSp0m9G2U.

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Categories
Compassion Empathy Invisibleism Love

What Makes the World Go ’Round?

When you sit down with people at work and ask them about the problems that they are having — the problems that you are there to solve — How often do you think about the following?

  • Is the person recently married?
  • Is he going through a divorce?
  • Is she having a child?
  • Is he having an affair?
  • Is her mother ill?
  • Is his father dying?
  • Does her son have cancer?
  • Is his daughter going through a divorce?
  • Was her best friend hurt by her boyfriend?
  • Is he spending enough time with his children and wife for them all to be fulfilled?
  • Is her husband fighting in a war overseas?
  • If you are speaking with a man, what role does his gender play in how he considers his relationship with you?
  • If you are speaking with a woman, what role does her gender play in how she considers her relationship with you?
  • What about your own gender? What about your sexuality? Do these have an impact on the way that you work with others?

Are any of these things less important than the work at hand?

There’s a phrase you’ll sometimes hear at work: “Leave your personal life at the door.” Good leaders will do their best to do that, but not everyone can be expected to be so skilled. If you expect everyone to be able to let go of the most important things in life when they walk into the office, you are fooling yourself. Remember, as universal and important as work is in our culture — and while it provides a wage that allows us to live in our commercial world — you can, in fact, live well enough without work, as many people on this planet do, and have done, for eons. You cannot, however, live well without love.

When you are in the business of solving problems — which is, in fact, what people in software engineering and information technology get paid to do — you will not succeed without taking people’s psychological state into account. Love — whether romantic, familial, or otherwise — is arguably the most primal component of our psychological well-being.

Not too long ago, I was asked to speak to two groups of project managers for a professional development conference. At the top of each presentation, I asked the audience to identify the top three and bottom three skills for project managers. The list contained six skills. Five of these skills were uniformly found in ten different lists of top ten skills for project managers that I found online. These five skills were:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Negotiation
  • Risk Management
  • Scheduling

Keep in mind that ten different people or organizations agreed that these five skills were of utmost important to project managers. None of them could actually be considered unimportant in any way, shape, or form. This was a trick question!

The sixth skill, which I selected for inclusion in this little survey, was not on a single top ten list that I could find. That skill?

  • Psychology

The survey was administered to two groups of 32 project managers. There were strikingly similar results in each group:

Group 1 results
Group 2 results

Both groups of project managers uniformly picked Communication, Leadership, and Negotiation as the top three skills for project managers.

But the bottom three skills? Psychology, Risk Management, and Scheduling.

Remember, Risk Management and Scheduling can be routinely found in many top ten lists of skills for project managers. Credit is due the respondents for including Psychology in the middle of the pack, even though it merely made the top of the bottom three skills. I could be a cynic and interpret these results as implying that Psychology is the number one unimportant skill, but a fair number of each group put Psychology in the number three position, implying otherwise.

Nonetheless, there was agreement among the bulk of these respondents that Communication, Leadership, and Negotiation were more important than Psychology.

Is that a surprise?

For any of you out there who don’t think that Psychology is the most important skill that a project manager — or, frankly, most anybody in a role to solve other people’s problems — can have, please take a moment to ask yourself:

  • How can you communicate if you don’t understand what your audience is going through?
  • How can you lead if you don’t understand the people you are leading?
  • How can you negotiate effectively if you don’t understand the unique perspectives and current mindsets of the involved parties?
  • How can you manage risks if you don’t understand the mindset of the people who can bring about change?
  • How can you schedule with great effectiveness if you don’t understand what your resources are going through?

As I pointed out in my third post here, there has been almost too much written about empathy. If you have gone through good leadership training, you have, no doubt, been taught of its importance. But as we apply empathy, do we always go as deeply as we should to consider the psychological — or, the love — condition of the humans we serve?

If you yourself know that love is the most important thing in your life, why might it be so easy for you to carve that out of your view of others? I suggest that this is a frequent sign of invisibleism. Reflect on the cell phone scenario of our August 27, 2020 post for a moment. Doesn’t that have everything to do with love?

The problem is that love is such a deeply personal thing, and we are not often privy to its details outside of our own purview. On your journey, keep in mind how private you keep your own love matters. It’s safe to assume that others are doing the same. But if you assume — correctly — that love is the single biggest driving force in people’s lives, you will begin to find indicators.

  • Someone not interested in talking to you for several days?
  • Someone need to leave work unexpectedly and postpone a meeting?
  • Someone generally unhappy?
  • Someone incredibly happy and distracted from work?
  • Someone doesn’t care to learn the new software you wrote or deployed?
  • Someone refusing to take the time to read your training materials about phishing?

In situations like this, how might love be involved? You may not be entitled to details, but you are entitled to consider what’s behind these behaviors. The empathic and compassionate are more likely to be able to figure out what’s going on, and that information just might provide the insight needed to approach work situations more effectively.

If you empathize about only one aspect of people’s lives, make it love. You’ll be sure to get something valuable back for your investment.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dhkx6CAEXfU.

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Categories
Compassion Love

Successful and Happy People Love People. Not Work.

Do you agree that love is the single most important part of our lives?

If that is the case, why do we talk so little about it in our business life?

Love takes many forms, but love is what our life revolves around. It is our appreciation for love that drives our compassion for one another.

What does work have to do with love? Everything, and nothing.

When we deal with others at work — whether we are eliciting requirements, listening, solving problems, or just about anything else — if we do not remember that the ultimate goal is to allow people to spend as much time as possible with their loved ones, then we will surely fail. We would do well to endeavor to work as little as necessary in order to love as much as possible.

Some people seek to love their work. That misses the point. People should not be expected to literally love their work — or anything else inanimate, for that matter. Remember, your possessions or your job will not weep for you when you are gone. Only people or your pets will. American radio host Bruce Williams once famously shared: “Never love anything that can’t love you back.”

Try to look at how love is at the root of the professional decisions that you make. If you are developing an IT governance policy, is it to help ensure that your employees can sleep better or spend more time with their loved ones when they are not at work? If you are developing software, is the goal to reduce the time people spend working so that they can spend more time with their loved ones? If you develop a product or service for your customers, will it help them with their loved ones? If you succeed, will it help your employees earn enough to be more present for, and provide for, their own loved ones?

If not, why not? Is it possible that you or your teams aren’t making decisions with love at the core?

Why should anyone spend time having business discussions with you if this time doesn’t — in some way — result in more or better time with their loved ones?

More to come. In the meantime, love.

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Categories
Strategy

You Don’t Have to Talk About Strategy

Many blog posts — including my very own — seek to provide inspiration through some length of writing. But some subjects are so overthought that brevity might bring greater insight. Strategy is one of those things.

Do you have strategy meetings? If so, does the very idea of them turn your stomach? Why do you suppose that is?

I say: all too often, it’s because people have a hard time differentiating the tactical from the strategic, and the meetings lack focus. Here’s a way to get that focus:

Tactical items are the things you have to do.

Strategic items are the things you choose to do, to make yourself different from your competitors. These items are always, always optional. But they make a difference.

Paying people is tactical.

How you pay people is strategic.

You take it from there.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAOLL1jpp4s.

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