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Talking to myself at 20 (Part 2)

…a continuation of the earlier post about what I’m going to tell a class of undergraduate system engineers)

Let’s talk about people first.

Immanuel Kant had a great quote that you should memorize: “Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing is ever made.” (Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose)

He’s right. No one is perfect, and nothing any person makes is perfect. When we start doing things that involve more than one person, the imperfections multiply.

Even if it’s one maker and one customer

• The customer doesn’t always know exactly what they want
• The customer can’t always articulate what they want
• The maker doesn’t always understand what the customer wants
• The maker can’t always make the materials do what the customer wants
• The maker can run out of time or resources

etc. etc.

Now let’s have a customer who is a set of stakeholders from around an organization, who have their own perceptions, interests, desires, and capabilities.

The team of makers is suddenly 10 or 100 or more people with their own internal communication issues, differing ideas about what the customer wants and visions of what the solution looks like.

Welcome to Dilbert’s world.

And as much as we all wince as we say that, or when we encounter the officious middle-manager who wants our TPS reports on time, the reality is that no organization is immune to human issues.

I’ve been involved in a three-person startup, and I’ve worked for 30,000 employee companies, and in every case all the technical knowledge I might have had was useless unless I could get the people aligned.

For me, there are two ways to do it – you’ll discover your own.

First, and foremost I work hard to keep the idea “Who knows – I might learn something!” in my mind when I’m talking to people. I think I’m pretty smart. But I know for a fact that in a room with ten other people, there are a lot of things that they know that I don’t, and worse – things I think I know that they really do.
When I can keep that thought in my mind, I can actually listen to people rather than hear them speak and plan my convincing reply. It’s a matter of respect. And no, just because you give it, you won’t always get it. But you know what – a lot of times you will.

The other is to remember something I’ve read about soldiers. The Army is often stupid and wasteful – even of its soldier’s lives. Their willingness to act on behalf of the Army erodes as they see that stupidity – just as yours will when you get frustrated by the machinations of whoever you are working with. But they press on anyway, and when they do, they say, over and over, that they do if for the soldiers next to them.

If you can bottle that, and drink it from time to time you’ll be able to help create a team that does well so that the entire team does well. You’re doing what you do, and trying hard to do it well, for the people you sit with, meet with, and go to lunch with every day.

Because at the end of the day, the one thing no one told me is that engineering is a team sport.

…to be continued, again…


Talking to myself at 20

So I’ve been asked to give a talk to an undergraduate college class in Systems Development (within CompSci). The professor is a friend, and knowing about what kinds of work I do, he asked me to come up with a 90-minute instructional block on anything I thought would be helpful to them.

So I thought a bunch about what I wished I’d been told when I was an undergraduate, and came up with this; I’d love feedback (actually, they’d love feedback – it’ll let me do a better job presenting to them).

Imagine this in the form of lecture notes:

The topic is the difference between Engineering and Physics.

What’s that difference? It’s simple – physicists can be successful with gedankenexperiments – experiments that you run in your imagination. Engineers just build stuff.

It applies to what you’re doing in Systems Development (as opposed to the more academic CompSci paths available to you), because you all are preparing to go practice engineering and actually build stuff, as opposed to do research and come up with innovative technology that will eventually be used by people who actually build stuff.

And that “building stuff’s” the key. It’s assumed at the door that you’re a great engineer you know how stuff works, and have the intellect and discipline to. But in the real world, you’re not paid to be a great computer scientist – you’re paid to build stuff that is useful and works.

And to actually build stuff that’s successful in the real world, you need to manage three equal and competing priorities –

• Technical reality (the real world limits what can be done)
• Political reality (other people limit what can be done)
• Financial reality (the amount of available money limits what can be done)

Now to many engineers, ‘political reality’ and ‘financial reality’ are what Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss worries about.

I call those engineers ‘failures.’

“Well, what about Steve Jobs,” you’ll answer as a retort.

What about him? He build a company that was incredibly good at managing (some say creating) technical reality, while also growing in headcount, partners, customers and money – he managed the political reality and the financial reality rather well at the same time. He had his ups and downs, but we remember him (and respect him) because he was successful while building great stuff. There have been lots and lots of people who failed while building great stuff, and you’ll note that we don’t talk about them.
Each of these three disciplines is hard – you could go get a degree in any one of them.

So you won’t become an expert in any of them today.

The point I – badly – want you to get is that to be good at what you’re working hard to do here, it’s necessary but not enough to be great at the craft designing computer systems. You also have to be at least good at understanding the cost-benefit implications of what you’re designing and at least good at getting people to work with you constructively in getting them done.

…to be continued.


Antifragile management, agile, and a couple of books.

I started writing a piece about ‘antifragility’ in technical and organizational management, and it kept leaking out into the territory occupied by Boyd, Habermas, and Rittel/Webber.

In 1973, Horst Rittel and Mel Webber wrote “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” a monograph that introduced the concept of ‘wicked problems.’ Disclaimer: I studied under Rittel at UC Berkeley in the late ‘70s.

Also in 1973, Jurgen Habermas published his seminal book “Legitimation Crisis” in Germany (an English edition came out in 1975).

In 1978, Col. John Boyd first presented his famous briefing “Patterns of Conflict.”

And in 2012, Nassim Taleb published “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
,” a prescriptive book based on his earlier work in “Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets” and “The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility”
Over the next week or so I want to try and stand up an outline of what I’m thinking here and see if the basic ideas that came out of my rereading these books stand up at all.

Here’s my elevator summary of four fairly complex and deep works.

Planning, as it has been practiced since the war, is running into resistance both because the structures of social and political power have corroded and because planning itself hasn’t shown itself to be up to the task of nontrivial problems. The answer? Decisions that maximize choice, praxis in the form of dialog among stakeholders and in the form of doing work in the world and monitoring how it actually behaves.

Societies depend, in large part, on ‘legitimacy’; this is the social cohesion that underpins the administrative laws and structure that govern behavior. Without legitimacy, the administrative state finds it increasingly difficult to manage the behavior of its citizens. Modern mass capitalist societies, in Habermas’ view consume their legitimacy, meaning that although they increasingly provide for their citizens materially, the social underpinnings are eroded through mass alienation, etc. Habermas sees legitimacy as a necessary precursor to authority, and suggests a series of mechanisms to restore it. They all center on ‘communicative action’ which requires some form of consensus building and deliberation that ensures that stakeholders feel they have been heard.

Success in military conflict comes from the ability to (among other things) rapidly adapt to changing conditions and a close ability to monitor the outcomes of those adaptations while concealing the outcomes from your opponent. Leadership in this context comes from real two-way communication and diffusion of authority to the edges.

Taleb argues that we can differentiate between ‘fragile’ ‘robust’ and ‘antifragile’ things (organisms, objects, organizations); All are subject to shocks in the form of stresses; fragile things break; robust things resist; antifragile things get stronger in the face of these. In human culture, antifragility comes from insightful judgement which must be proved against possible loss – i.e. you have to bet and risk loss.

For myself, I became interested in Agile as a technology methodology in the early 2000’s after much of a decade spent rescuing failed technology projects. I received my CSM certificate in 2005, and began leading projects in Scrum and Scrum-like formats, with pretty significant success.

As my career advanced, I began to look at coarser- and coarser-grained views of the organization: Project > Program > Portfolio > Enterprise and began to see breaks between highly effective technical teams that functioned at the project or even program level, and a series of morasses at the higher levels. Upper management necessarily focused on its own pressures and problems as a result has a hard time creating, maintaining, and harnessing the sparks of energy created during the brief life of the high-performance teams.

What I want to explore in the next few posts are some ideas about how and why we might solve those problems, and break down the management obstacles to high performance.

I think there may be something interesting in applying these left-field authors to the problem.


Getting Right After Getting It Wrong

So for money, I do work for giant corporations and startups. For fun I think about mom-and-pop businesses (and somewhat bigger), thinking about how the changes in technology and behavior effect them.

I do presentations for free to Rotary and CofC groups, and talk about a variety of things. One topic that always comes up is complaints – what to do about them.

Life was kind enough to  hand me an example of how to do it right.

I recently bought a new Toyota pickup truck (you need something to haul the motorcycles to the mechanic). I tried to buy it at DCH, the dealer a mile from out house, and didn’t have a great experience. I shrugged it off, and bought the truck online (although I had to use the Internet to help the broker find the exact configuration I wanted…).

When it came time to take it my local dealer, I thought “Well, let’s let them service it – how hard can it be?” Read the rest at the Yelp post I wrote.

Here’s what happened. First, I assume they looked on Yelp and found my one-star review, which triggered their response.

When they responded, they owned the problem. They apologized for what they hadn’t done – test driven the car instead of just relying on the mechanic, allowing him to just drive it up and down the (smooth, slow) street in back of the dealership, etc. No excuses, no passing the buck, a clean “we screwed this up and now we’ll make it right.”

I did a ghetto fix on the weatherstrip, using adhesive, and they insisted I bring it back and have it done right.

They did (and it is – slightly – better than my home-brew fix), and I appreciate it, and now look at them in a completely different light.

Clearly they should have done it right the first time. But none of is always do. And one thing that social media offers us is the feedback to get our mistakes pointed out to us so that we can fix them. DCH Toyota did, and you and I can too.


Back to blogging…

It’s been a while since I’ve written here; I was doing work for a client who jealously guards their privacy and was unhappy about the remote change I’d write about anything relevant to them. The first rule of working for…

But I have a different client now, and let me stretch my legs and see what kinds of things I can talk about.


Here’s Something…

…a great post by Adrian Chan on consulting:

As service providers, we are in the business of facilitating change. Some of this is concrete, and takes the form of deliverables and “works.” But some of it is more ineffable — is process, communication, relationships, and understanding.

The contractor, faced with a new client opportunity, occupies a unique position. We are outside the organization yet soon to become a temporary resident. We are tasked with responsibilities (for which we are paid) and yet given a greater freedom of movement than employees. We have the capacity for driving change but our success is contingent on the organization’s flexibility. We have been hired based on reputation but are, in each and every new situation, given an opportunity to shape and move the client according to our own skills and abilities.

I choose independence because I enjoy it. I prefer the new and the fresh to the long-standing and ongoing. I am turned on by the challenge of unfamiliar people and problems, and I am drawn into the world when it is rich and complex. For me, contracting delivers the possibilities of the open, of the future, and of the ability to act as an agent of change.

Read more:



I just switched the blog over from Moveable Type to WordPress…still fleshing out some of the minor features, but overall, an easy experience! Thanks to Bill Kern of Pixelgate.


Building A Social Media Plan

So let me work this out in public a bit.

I want to develop and execute a social media plan on the cheap – for Long Beach Opera, where I’m a board member.

So I thought it’d be interesting to track what I’m trying to do, what I do, and how it works.

LBO is a small avant garde opera company based near me in Long Beach – but it has established an international reputation through it’s imaginative work.

The company is run on the coffee budget of the neighboring Los Angeles Opera, and we’re looking to find ways to broaden the base of people in the region who are aware of us, engaged with us, and who we can start out as ticket buyers and move up the ladder of involvement and support.

We have a very small staff and Board, so we need to find a way to do that which leverages our efforts as much as possible.

Obviously, I’m thinking a campaign that includes social media – but isn’t driven entirely by it – is the path that will get us where we want to go.

What are the goals?

To increase awareness of the Company in the region and in the arts community worldwide.

To bring people to our performances, and to advance our audience from ticket buyers to subscribers to donors.

How will we do this? Well for starters, here are the goals I’d start with…

Offering a window into the workings of the company and a connection to the artists who create the work.

Expanding the reach of the work that the Company does virtually (taking elements of performances, establishing themes and offering them online).

So let me work out some ways to do those things…


On Hiatus

Apologies to all for going dark.

I’m currently working with a client on an enterprise project, and they’re not excited about my blogging on related issues. Plus I have no time (shoemaker’s children problem). I’m working on that, and hope to be back online soon.


Temper, Temper

I’m on the Board of the Long Beach Opera , and last week went to the premiere of Nixon In China (and did I mention that our final performance is on Sunday? You can buy tickets here…). For the first half of the first song, the guy sitting directly behind me was stage-whispering to his date. I turned to give him the imploring look, but he had his face buried in her ear, so I reached back and tapped his knee. He started, turned to me, and I gave him a finger to lips gesture. He cursed under his breath and told me to turn around or else.

Now I had a choice at this point. I could have argued with him or escalated further. Or, I could have let it go and accepted the fact that I’d gotten what I wanted – he wasn’t talking any more.

It’s a basic issue in interpersonal relationships and conflict – how am I going to react?

Looking back at the Nestle social media disaster, I’ve got to point out that while Nestle was the targeted victim of a deliberate attack, a big chunk of the damage was self-inflicted.

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