Hesitation and confidence

December 22, 2018

I remember 7-8 years ago, working with some older guys who were never quite sure of themselves; offhand, Keith, and Ram.

I used to think that was because they didn't know what they were doing. But the truth is, sometimes knowledge makes you more opinionated, other times, less.

More when things go like this:

  • We used the red paint last time and it didn't work, but the blue paint finally did it.
  • We used the red paint again because the team knew how to use it. It didn't work.
  • Here I am, on my third project, using red paint again. Why do I keep repeating this?

But usually it doesn't go that way. Usually it's more like:

  • We used the red paint on the first project, it didn't go well, but finally the blue paint worked.
  • We went with blue paint the second time around, but it didn't go on well, because the team didn't know how to apply it properly, so we went back to red for that job.
  • A guy I worked with recommended we go with green on the third project; it worked like a charm, but I doubt it would work without the special brushes he knew how to use.
  • We tried green on the fourth project and it was a disaster; we had to use the special gray paint, the only kind that would go onto such a rough surface without looking horrible.

If your experience is more like the multi-color story, something that I think is common (otherwise why would different colors even exist?), you realize how situationally-specific project leadership can get. Try as you might, it's always a guess, and there are so many things to consider.

You think about whether the team knows how to do it.

You consider whether the added cost is worth the expected better outcome.

You wonder whether it's better to stick with the less-than-optimal thing you've used for everything else, or try something new, that's more fit-to-purpose, but different than anything you've done before.

When confronted with that many things to consider—all at once—you go by intuition. Not some kind of mathematically-formulated, precise thing you can model in a spreadsheet. Though they can be useful for comparing, weighing, and making lists.

I think the lesson is that the most experienced people are often the quietest, because they've seen the most. You want them in the driver's seat on the key decisions. But if you aren't careful, they'll get sidelined by less experienced people, whose loudness and false confidence can lead teams astray.


Unflipping the bozo bit

December 21, 2018

Once the bozo bit has been flipped, it's an almost permanent situation. Once it's on, it's on. Unflipping the bozo bit is a rare occurrence. - Teaching Technically: Flipping the Bozo Bit

The bozo bit.

A term from the crustier circles of computer systems engineering—operating systems, compilers, semiconductors—the sort of places where right is right, wrong is wrong, and sloppy thinking is told to SHUT THE FUCK UP, all-caps, with an exclamation point. Not "nice", but that was never the point.

The basic idea: we're all trying to figure out who's trustworthy and who's not. When you observe a person doing something that seems stupid—not casual stupidity or carelessness, but the kind that makes you realize they're way out of their depth, or have no idea what they're talking about—their bit changes (flips) from 0 (they aren't a bozo) to 1 (they are).

And when that happens, even though you might still be polite and try to hide it, you sort of ignore them, and try to keep them away from anything important; in short, a systems engineer's way of indicating a loss of respect.

Non-computer people call this, "taking someone seriously", but I think "bozo bit" better captures some real-world nuance:

  • Respect is indeed rather binary: like a bit, it's either set, or it's not.
  • The benefit of the doubt is good policy, but when someone loses your respect, it happens rapidly and without warning, just like a bit flipping: 0 to 1.
  • Some bits only flip one way: a 0->1 or 1->0 transition can be permanent.

It's that third one that's giving me trouble.

I met a guy named David (his real name, but I know dozens of Davids) some years ago. After observing some really questionable decision-making and a string of unkept commitments, I'll reluctantly admit I'd flipped the bozo bit on this guy. I'm not proud of it, but I'd be lying if I said I never judged people; this guy in particular was part of the inspiration for Commitment and Risk a few months ago.

But he seems to have turned over a new leaf, and gotten through it. So much so that I'm tempted to unflip the bozo bit.

Sad but true: when respect is lost, it usually isn't regained.

But I think that's a mistake. As I've written before, I believe real change is possible, but it's rare, and the person has to really want it.


Later, and less

December 20, 2018

I was sitting in a board meeting at my condo association a few weeks ago listening to the manager give an update.

Normally, when people speak, I try to give them the courtesy of my attention: devices away, eyes on the speaker. I also tend to make comments and ask clarifying questions.

Obviously, a ten-person meeting isn't going to be a 50/50 conversation. But what struck me was how little I found myself speaking (as a board member) relative to the manager—it felt unnatural. But then I realized, this is part of the daily routine of powerful people.

Friends have conversations. Subordinates give information and wait for the boss to give direction, generally after the subordinate speaks.

If you're like me and not used to giving orders, it feels very unnatural to let someone speak for minutes at a time, while you just sit there, staring at them. But that's the day-to-day for many boards and deliberative bodies.

If you want to be in charge, there are all kinds of behaviors you have to learn that, at least in my case, didn't come from home or school. I'm reminded of two great essays on this topic: Rands's Act Last, Read the Room, and Taste the Soup, and Ben Horowitz's How to Minimize Politics in Your Company.



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.