December 19, 2018

People at big companies have it hard.

Startups get to start from a clean sheet of paper. No, there's not much money, and yes, it's an uphill slog.

But the ability to mold a business precisely to the economic environment of today is such a huge advantage. This is especially true in technology, where the weight of legacy absolutely kills mature businesses.

This came up the other day talking to some friends. We were talking about self checkout lines at supermarkets, and why so many companies have had a hard time rolling them out. To me, it's obvious: huge deployments like that are the most difficult technology projects, period, full stop. You're working on a revenue-critical system, with high availability requirements, in an environment with tons of legacy, designed for the operating environment of 20 years ago. You aren't going to get the best people because none of them want to work doing IT at a grocery store.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle—and it took me a long time to realize this—is that technology just isn't a C-level priority at most of these places. The execs are worried about cost containment, operations, all sorts of things. But not technology.

Meanwhile Jeff Bezos, in his own words:

IT is so high leverage. You don’t want to imagine a competitor whose IT department is more nimble than yours. Every company has a list of technology projects that the business would like to see implemented as soon as possible. The painful reality is that tough triage decisions are always made, and many projects never get done. Even those that get resourced are often delivered late or with incomplete functionality. If an IT department can figure out how to deliver a larger number of business-enabling technology projects faster, they’ll be creating significant and real value for their organization.

Birth and death are so important. People get set in their ways. Sometimes the only way to effect real change, is to change who's in charge. Sometimes that means one business has to fail so another can succeed.

But this is the only way to ensure customer satisfaction, in the long term.


Human nature

December 18, 2018

College Admissions Scandal: Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged Fifty people in six states were accused by the Justice Department on Tuesday of taking part in a major college admission scandal. They include Hollywood actresses, business leaders and elite college coaches. — NYT

I've always liked classical liberalism. Whereas other schools of thought pretend humans are perfectly moral—capable of conflict-free, virtuous, fully equal lives—classical liberalism is a bit more honest. We humans can be virtuous, sure, but also lazy, unfair, petty, and all sorts of other bad things.

We'll even cheat to help our children.

So it goes without saying that any institution—governments, the Church, businesses, professional societies—will take on traits of its membership. High-minded, yes, but also susceptible to lapses of judgment, even outright bribery.

None of this should be surprising. I find it a little bit shocking that someone could hate "billionaires" or "the rich" (vile, evil) yet be surprised when a university admissions office exhibits a lapse in judgment. Sort of like one huge class of people is an entirely different species than another.

News flash: people are people, no matter where you go.


Management material

December 17, 2018

I've always hated the phrase management material; it implies a static view of human nature, that some will make it, while others won't, or can't. Not only is that distasteful, it's also untrue; Angela Duckworth's Grit explains at length how powerfully what she calls "high-grit environments", like special forces training, can motivate high performance.

And yet, I'm dealing with a situation where someone I'm responsible for just isn't performing at the level where they need to be. I've coached them, tried to be encouraging, offered assistance, and none of it seems to help. The worst part is that they don't even seem to realize how far short of the mark they are.

The situation has made me realize two things.

One: there is perhaps a grain of truth in the spirit of management material—no matter how distasteful—that for whatever reason, motivation, ability, whatever, not everyone is going to get there. Try all you want; it just won't happen. For whatever reason, I find that kind of limitation easier to accept in physical endeavors like athletics, than in social/mental contexts, like business leadership—perhaps a more arbitrary distinction than I'd realized.

Two: I wonder when I've been pigeonholed like this? I'm sure it's happened, as I've worked a lot of places. It hurts to think about, but it seems likely at some point that a manager or other superior has written me off. I can't help wondering: in what way was I written off, and what did I do—what straw broke the camel's back?


Depression Babies

December 16, 2018

30 years ago, it was 1989—I was four, and my parents had just had my brother.

My Grandfather Walter, always the saver: "These kids are gonna need the dough someday".

Series EE

My grandfather grew rhubarb in his yard, fought the Nazis in World War II, and made a living keeping the boilers going at Stauffer Chemical. It was a privilege knowing him as well as I did, and I'll be proud if I turn out to be even half the man he was.


The middle and the fringe

December 15, 2018

Growing up, my dad used to say, "Whenever there's a group of people, there's politics".

Addendum: wherever there's politics, there's a middle, and a fringe.

I'm temperamentally more of a middle person—not a radical. I enjoy keeping the lights on, getting to yes, finding something everyone can live with. The fringe sometimes calls the middle "unambitious", insufficiently radical, or not "pure enough". Guilty as charged, I suppose.

Recently I've found myself more on the fringe of a group I'm part of, a position I'd previously have dismissed as "too extreme", or radical. But being on the fringe has made me see something I hadn't realized: the fringe sets the terms of the debate.

The middle is usually seen as more powerful because they end up brokering the final terms—get everyone together, lock them in a room, and work something out; "the art of the deal".

On the other hand, the fringe might not be in the room when the middle brokers the final agreement, but they get to choose what the middle argues over. They're the broad-stroke, big picture folks who set the basic terms of what's acceptable and what isn't. The fringe's power isn't the last 5% negotiated at the 11th hour; it's the first 90%, setting what's even up for discussion.

Like many things, it's a yin and yang. We could use a little more middle in Congress right now, but too much of it breeds stasis and lack of change.



December 14, 2018

Gardening has become my stock metaphor for big, long-term projects.

I was just looking at my HOA's financial statements. At the end of last year, we closed down—transplated—all the money from old, legacy accounts at Citibank, to new ones at Bank of America. It was a huge, destructive change, basically ripping all the plants out of the ground and moving them somewhere else.

You have to have a vision, but be comfortable as it evolves. The gardener trims the plants, but they never quite do exactly what you want; they're living things, after all.

Gardening also conveys the sense of maintenance necessary to keep things running; the constant battle to keep the leaves off the ground, the busines trimmed just so, the flowers growing straight, and upright.

Code is also gardening; the same organic feel, the dialog between you and the plants, alternating between fighting back decay, and the delight of watching things grow along the paths you've laid out. Interfaces, class hierarchies and other forms of convention are trellises: structures designed to support mass as they facilitate growth. The senior people lay the tracks, the junior people follow what's been laid.

Another thought about gardening: like fashion, it's never quite "done". There's always more to do—more expansion, more maintenance, more cleaning.

Also, gardening goes at its own pace. You can guide it, but ultimately, the plants have to grow on their own. For me, and perhaps many others, there's nothing so satisfying as seeing the end result of a plan realized over many years. There aren't any shortcuts, which appeals to my sense of incrementalism, and favoring the long term.


Flank speed

December 13, 2018

"Flank speed" is a naval term; its command form, all ahead flank, means "go as fast as possible". Run the boilers at 110%, wake the crew up. Push things to their absolute limit, beyond sustainability.

I sometimes dial it up to flank speed in my own life; the past few weeks have been that way, juggling a demanding full time job in addition to the tail end of a year-long financial migration at my condo association, with three consecutive parties last weekend and a lot of family obligations on top. It's been a lot of nights and weekends, and I can feel the toll from not exercising, and not paying enough attention to my marriage.

Giving up alcohol for a year has helped; it's been almost 40 days and the word I'd use to describe the experience is consistency. My energy and focus doesn't ebb and flow as much; I don't feel as tired during the day, and sleep better at night.

Eventually, one has to slow down; in my case, that was always the plan. Today, as I was reaching the end of it, I sat on the couch and went back to the basics: roles and goals. Who am I, to whom, and what are the next things I'd like to get done?

Thinking about that—who I am in relation to others, and who I want to be—is my north star. Like a compass, it guides me towards what's important, and away from what isn't.

It helps me to see what's next.

On that note, time to head home and enjoy some quality time with Caroline.


Drop it

December 12, 2018

Friday was a frustrating day. Lots of fighting at work.

Usually I leave it at the office. But by the time I reached home on Friday, I was still thinking about it. Caroline and I often go out to eat on Friday, and as we headed out, I made a commitment: "Something has been bothering me from work. I want you to know it's on my mind, but I won't bring it up again".

That was the last thing I said about it, which wasn't easy. My attention kept drifting back, even as I tried to be present, and focus on the food.

I think in the US we're supposed to "vent". We "get things off our chest", talk about our feelings, and "share", rather than "bottling it up".

However, I'm starting to think bottling it up is exactly what I should do. I'm a human being with emotions, not some kind of pressure vessel that "explodes" when the pressure gets too great.

The thing is, you can choose to waste your time being frustrated, or think of something else. It requires mental discipline to put distracting things aside, often more than I can muster.

But life is short.

I think Buddhism has some good lessons here, particularly around mindfulness, and avoiding attachment.


The weekly walk

December 11, 2018

There was a night a few years ago when Caroline got frustrated about something—I don't remember what—we went for a walk outside, and talked it over.

The phones stayed home.

Since that night, we've made a point of taking a lap around Lake Merritt once/week, usually on Tuesday night. We don't do it every week, but when we miss a Tuesday, one or the other proposes an alternate time.

We keep this appointment because it's important.

A lot of fights begin with someone not feeling heard. I think perhaps 90% of relationship arguments wouldn't happen if (1) there was a regular forum where it was acceptable to have difficult conversations, and (2) both people listened, free from distraction.

Easy advice, hard to follow.

Maybe Festivus isn't such a bad idea after all?


Humanity is vast

December 10, 2018

It's become fashionable to bash high tech for its lack of local engagement. To wit, Satya Nadella just got off the interview circuit, announcing that Microsoft would donate $500 million to affordable housing.

Putting aside whether that's a good idea, I've been thinking about the other angle: the effects of "working for the Internet", whiling away one's days in the nowhere of Internet-first commerce. It's at once worldly and parochial: understanding the intricacies of nation-level behavioral trends on the Internet, while barely knowing your neighbors' names, or the location of city hall. I need a local community to be happy—I suspect many people do—I only realized it when I stumbled upon a new living arrangement, and realized how happy it made me.

Despite its downsides, working for the Internet imparts a perspective that's hard to get any other way—an appreciation for humanity's vastness. Whether you're into beach volleyball, taxidermy, or Baha'i spirituality, there are online communities for these things as large as midsize European countries. This whole line of thinking started when Caroline and I were in China, and she said something like, "I don't think jewelery is as popular as it used to be". At this point, I wouldn't even pretend to know; I spent 3 years building mobile analytics infrastructure, only to learn Yahoo Fantasy Sports, something I've never even considered downloading, was a major part of 10 million peoples' week. It was like this every day: whether Candy Crush Saga, Pokemon Go, or something else, each day I learned there was something in the world millions, in some cases tens or hundreds of millions of people used, and I didn't know the first thing about it—any of it.

When you live in this world, "one in a million" happens hundreds of times each day. You appreciate how hard of problems fraud and abuse are, and how no human system, whether for censorship, enforcing good behavior, or protecting copyright, can handle such inhuman scale. But mostly, you become more aware of what a tiny speck of dust you are, and how little anything you do really matters, in the grand scheme of things.