Personal, Thoughts

Hi, I’m Ben: Part 2 in a Series on Leadership in Technology

Leadership means exposure. I volunteered and demonstrated the work our team did today to an audience of peers, and management. Its necessary to present for a number of reasons. You need to stand out, and you need to get comfortable talking to as many people as you can. The relationships are important, and you can’t settle for being just an employee number. Essential tip: Learn their names and don’t you forget them! Find something to talk about, and if that fails, talk about work, but talk to them damnit! When you make connections you establish rapport. This is the grease that is needed to make influence a smooth process.

Looking Glass Self

After the presentation, I had a call with my mentor, and I asked him how he thought the presentation went. His answer? He asked me how I thought the presentation went! I admitted I was nervous, and that perhaps overshadowed any objective review of how the presentation actually went. I said “I think it was good for the moral of the team”, which he made me immediately quantify. I didn’t have anything ready this time. He wanted me to glance at the team chat. It was full of questions, and praise. People that had no knowledge of what our team was doing were suddenly lighting up the board! That was the proof he said. I’ve got them interested to know more. They are excited, and they want to know more about our process. I spent the afternoon talking with people I don’t routinely talk to about our presentation. People were plugged in to what we were doing.

That Death Star is Fully Operational!

The order of business for this week was to handle front-line issues. He asked me what I thought we needed as a team to proceed. I thought for a moment and told him “we need a plan of attack!”. He asked how I would divide up the work. I admitted I didn’t know what we were supposed to touch, and what was best to leave alone. The work as presented to us not organized. We also needed to button up work from our last assignments, and come to think of it I wasn’t sure if we were focusing on that, or the new work. Time to take a step back before we get in a bad situation.

Enabling Accountability

People want to succeed. And one of the attributes in gauging success is delimiting what you are accountable for. It doesn’t matter if you knock a feature out of the park, if you let two more slide past a deadline, or if you are working on the wrong task all together. You have to enable accountability by pushing back (when needed) requirements as given to you (see Kobayashi Maru). The first task wasn’t a plan of attack at all – it was defining what we were accountable for. You absolutely have to answer this before you can come up with the attack plan. Once you know, you can box off your work, and fill in the gaps.

Lowering Friction

The side I do have the most experience with is the developer role. The worst thing that you can do to a developer is to give them muddy requirements. You can’t win. A developer wants clearly defined requirements for a piece of work to be able to autonomously translate this into machine instruction, and verify that it is operating “to spec”. Its vitally important this occurs. Often the developer will encounter this high friction work. Remember that rapport we built earlier? What better way to smooth out requirements, and axe the nonsensical requirements than to influence the people making the requirements? Make sure you understand what they want so you can deliver effectively. A developer often won’t be in a position to make a decision. You have to decide and be confident in your choices. Its also about standing by those choices, and being prepared to take the heat when your choices aren’t well received.

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Personal, Thoughts

Know Thyself: Part 1 in a Series on Leadership in Technology

Know Thyself.

That is how my mentorship started at Analog Analytics. Before we continue some background for those following along: I’ve been doing software development with web technologies for a little over three years full-time now. I have a BAS in Technology Management, and as the “M” in the title implies, I’ve had academic exposure to the topic of leadership. I was bored to tears. Reading how to influence people out of a textbook is akin to watching your favorite show by viewing a sequence of technical diagrams outlining the plot. Its pretty close to useless. In the spirit of open source, I wanted to document my journey for those considering incorporating leadership roles into their careers. Its an elusive topic for me with a few abortions, and probably just as elusive to people-averse developers. Its ironic since its a field that stands to benefit so much.

My mentor asked me what I thought leadership was. Of course I had technical answers: Its being an authoritative source on a technology; its picking up the most bugs; its working long and hard hours. He challenged all my answers and posited it’s about one thing: influence.

99% of workplace problems can be solved through Influence

All the rules are there on paper, in emails, IMs, Wiki pages. You have standard operating procedures, political hierarchies, red tape, and documentation. That isn’t how issues get solved. More often than not he challenged, its a leader’s influence that allows them to win someone over to their side. That is why Person A can ask for something repeatedly, with no response, and Person B can ask for the same thing and get results. People are not software, and do not operate algorithmically. Given the same inputs, the outputs can change based on charisma. Its a fascinating phenomenon to analyze.

Taking Burden Off Others

So how do we gain influence? You can be a technical resource, and you can put in long and hard hours, and slowly climb upwards, but its orthogonal to leadership. Simply, start by taking the burden off others. People notice when you own a problem and resolve it for them. This isn’t about doing other people’s work. Its about removing friction from the process of work so they can easily do other work. When you make your coworkers lives easier, yo build up credit. Your ideas suddenly carry weight. You now have a better chance of successfully influencing them.

Kobayashi Maru

How do we reduce friction? As I said earlier, there is plenty of red tape to go around. Push back. If a process is painful change it. Side step it. Fight it. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission. You might gain traction doing it a better way before it can be killed off in the planning phases. This is about rejecting inputs, and is one of the most markedly apparent difference in a developer versus a leader. You have to stick your next out, and build up your courage. Odds are you aren’t going to get canned.

Know Thyself

A word of caution to those attempting to be charismatic. Play to your strengths. If your not funny, don’t open with an awkward joke. Be sincere. A big attribute of charisma is confidence, hence you should know yourself.  The end goal is to influence people, but this isn’t a study on mind control. Its about influencing someone’s views to get them to see the same end result that you see. You want to win, but you want to do it by empathizing, and leaving the door open for the future.

Thoughts

Kanzen in the Science of Product Packaging

Unpacking the Canon MF4770n laserjet printer is a sight to behold. The machine is matte black, and the safety cards are bright orange. But its more than just removing tape and packing. The cards are elaborately and thoughtfully installed, forcing you to step through the installation process in order to remove them.

For example, take the installation of the toner cartridge. Trying to remove the safety card without opening the top of the laserprinter is a futile effort. After you disengage the lock and open the top the card continues and wraps around the toner cartridge. Pulling now gets you further. It releases the cartridge which has its own safety components. You are shown that you should shake it then pull the activation strip to expose the toner to the heating element. It only slides back in only one way. After the safety card finally allows you to disengage it, you see that it is about two feet in length.

This ingenuity continues with the paper holding tray. It is configured for shipping and storage and must be reconfigured to hold paper and operate. Rather than tedious instructions you are presented with another safety card. Pulling the tab this time unlocks, unfolds and drops the printing tray into position. It accomplishes mechanically what an instruction booklet may have taken three or four diagrams to illustrate.

The entire time I was setting up the printer I felt like I was working with an extremely polished product. I didn’t even crack the instructions (rarely do I), but this time there was no room for doubt. It just goes to show that the OOBE an have just as much of an impact on a consumer as the product itself. Installation is a time when anxiety (or frustration) is high, and knowledge is low. This is the perfect time to comfort your customer and generate repeat business. The packing and installation really sets the stage for what is to come. I’m looking at you IKEA!

Computers, Events, Family, Personal, Software, Thoughts, Vacations

The California of Texas

Austin is a counter-culture in the heart of Texas. I’m not sure what I expected, but vegan friendly restaurants, health food stores, hundreds of miles of bike paths, a city wide ban on plastic bags, and a highly affluent populous was not what I was expecting. So beings my journey.

The Sights

We drove thirteen hours overnight to accomodate our newest passenger, Morrigan and her sleep schedule. As bad as driving all night was, at least we didn’t end up with a screaming toddler in the backseat. We visited some of Kristin’s kin in Houston, which served as our base for the weekend before pushing further West to Austin.

We negotiated a great monthly rate on a condo we found on Airbnb off South Lamar on the South side of the city. (Affiliate link) I’ve been really impressed from the moment we pulled into our new home away from home. The unit is small, but renovated, and well furnished. What we lost in space, we more than made up for in location. Right up the street is a lifetime supply of changing restaurants, and only a 10 minute drive from Zilker park.

Our first weekend we visited a local farmer’s market and bought some Texas grown produce. I never thought I would do what we did next – attend a vegan festival. Sure enough. In the land of BBQ, thousands of health nuts live in this city. Despite being vegan the food samples they had were all delicious. If I hadn’t known, I wouldn’t have tasted any difference. Vegans have masterfully replicated an omnivore’s menu.

The next week brought with it a trip to Fredericksburg, another hour West of Austin (but still not halfway through the state!). It is a German town, and had plenty of beers, wursts, and gut busting treats. The main strip is really quite a marvel, as it goes for over a mile and encompases lots of original architecture. Sunday we visited the Austin Zoo which put a spin on the traditional approach, and opted for a non-profit animal rescue shelter and animal sanctuary. Morrigan loved spotting all the critters, but the Texas heat won out, even in April. I was never so glad to pay $2 for a bottle of Coke.

This week I rented a bike and road around the Lady Bird Johnson trail which follows the river that bisects the city into North and South. It is wonderfully engineered, running past coffeeshops, restaurants, playgrounds, fishing areas, boat ramps, and dog parks. I wish Atlanta had something like this to offer. Maybe when the greenbelt is completed? (And the bikeways protected with police?!)

We have plans to go to San Antonio next weekend to visit Fiesta de los Niños, and plan on visiting my cousins who are lucky enough to live here. Following that will be our last week before the long migration home. We will be spending the last weekend back in Houston where we will visit Kristin’s folks for her mom’s birthday celebration.

Remote Working

Working remotely during this time has been interesting. I’ve learned an important lesson: don’t go anywhere during the launch date for your product! Too much was up in the air to leave beforehand to stay clear, and I was concerned that afterwards we would be scrambling. Turns out ramping up to the last minute before launch can be just as stressful.

For those of you following along who already, or wish to do remote work, ensure that you rent a place that you can have a quiet place to work. I find that mornings are my most productive time, and I try and guard this time for the important tasks. But with a smaller rental unit, and a one year old, I found thata nice pair of headphones is essential. I’ve taken advantage of ROWE several times during the week when we visited the capitol, and visiting parks, and going out for walks with the stroller. It pulls me out of my comfort zone to not be sitting at my desk at 9am, but then I realized the world doesn’t end. I simply make up the time later. Exercising this perk has really boosted my confidence in working for my company. They genuinely care about results and not office hours.

Also, have a backup plan if (when!) the Internet goes out at your rental unit. The maintenance people decided to test the waterproof claim of the rental’s outdoor wireless AP with a pressure washer. I’ll let you guess as to the winner, but I spent the rest of the day at a coffee shop. Also – scope out your coffee shops. I would love to see a website that lists the rating of different places based on workability. Some places don’t give you the vibe (despite having wireless) that they want you hanging around with that laptop of yours. Other places look promising, but offer no connectivity. Grab a cup of coffee or tea beforehand and scope things out.

A few notes on extended vacations: Don’t binge vacation! You are there for a while, so relax. Buy some groceries; every meal doesn’t have to be an experience. We have been aiming for eating out once every few days. It helps with the finances as well.

Don’t wait until the weekends to go exploring – especially when you have ROWE. The weekdays are the best times because the crowds are small, and the traffic is light. Check out your local attractions. One of the most relaxing things has been for me to join Kristin and Morrigan in the mornings for a walk around the neighborhood.

I wasn’t at home with my millions of distractions, so I wasn’t prepared for a “boredom adjustment”. Once I realized its not a pure vacation, and that I had to work, I struggled to find ways to wind down in the evenings. I ended up finding a used bookstore and stocking up on reading materials. I’ve enjoyed reading again instead of falling asleep in front of the TV, or playing video games until the early hours.

Being in a place for a month is certainly better than the binge vacation, but it is just a taste of what living somewhere would be like. Its just enough time in my opinion to really begin to absorb the culture. I find it thrilling to wonder what each day will bring, as everything is new. Maybe you spot a new restaurant (or food truck if you are in Austin), or drive past a park you want to checkout, or see a bike rental shop. I’m really making up my itinerary as I go. I’m glad I strived to find a job that affords me the opportunity to do this, and I wish that everyone who wants the same can achieve their goals. I can tell you its totally worth it!

Apple, Computers, Events, Family, Personal, Ruby, Software, Thoughts, Vacations, Web

Cloudy, Cold and Hip – Two Weeks of Training in Portland

I’ve really enjoyed the last two weeks. My new employer, recently acquired Analog Analytics flew me out to Portland, Oregon for training. Portland is quite an amazing place. Skateboarders, cyclists, and runners abound, but with a laid back attitude. Its the greenest city I have ever visited. Stores seem to only dispense recyclable materials including paper bags, and foods in waxed cardboard containers. The entire city is very walkable without much danger of personal harm. The food was amazing, and the drinks even better. This city knows its coffees, teas, and beers. It has to be home to the most microbreweries of any city. Needless to say I have probably gained 5 pounds, and I am super caffeinated. Also, the proximity to all these hip restaurants is giving me second thoughts about living so far outside of the city limits. No lie, I even glanced at Portland housing prices.

It took me a few days to get oriented to the city and the work environment. The company runs out of the Ford Building, in the heart of quite a few cool restaurants and bars in the Southeast side of the city. In fact, it left me a little jealous considering the hotel is only surrounded by fast food joints.  I got a shiny new MacBook Pro (which I am currently battling to make it as “boring” as possible). I can’t talk too much about the work, but it does hit the sweet spot of what I was looking for – a small team feel with deep pockets, and a launch date.

Kristin and Morrigan joined me for the second week and did their own thing, and they had a blast. They visited OMSI, Powell Books, Finnegans, several parks, and malls, and some tasty food joints. I’m happy they got to experience some of what makes this city awesome.

I’m enjoying several aspects of the job in particular: A remote driven environment, and pair programming. Training isn’t the best test run of this environment, as I am in the office everyday for now. Once I am setup, I pick the hours. People hop online and offline, according to their time zones, availability, etc. Every piece of communication, and workflow is centered around remote teams.

Pair programming makes programming social. Despite the image that telling someone you are a programmer conjures, I really enjoy interacting with people. I remember teaming up with James, John and many others at Clayton State to tackle some large issues with our portal and other systems. Since Clayton State, I have worked on a couple teams, and it was almost always in isolation, save for 5-10 minute high level meetings. The best part is, its actually kind of fun.

Pair programming was a tough adjustment for me. I’m used to presenting a final product and defending its implementation. I have all the answers. I know what the talking points are up front, and I am comfortable because I am the authority on the subject. Pair programming is letting your guard down, and conceding as much as contributing. You are two people working on a problem together, with neither party starting off knowing the complete solution. The work is certainly slower than solo programming, as incorporating input, early refactoring, and general discussion takes up time. This team takes an interesting approach to combat some of the time drain; You can either pair program and merge directly, or work solo but your code requires a peer review before merging. The choice is yours. The solo programming option will probably act as a safety value for those days when I just want some time to myself. They also encourage “switching drivers” to vary the work. Interestingly, being the passenger requires more focus than driving, as you are trying to proactively find issues with the current approach.

I’m still struggling to embrace TDD. I don’t like the zealotry in the community when the topic comes up; presenting the only two options as either you test first, or you are just ignorant, undisciplined, or apathetic to the code you write. The truth is far from it. I figure things out by moving the pieces around – not by staring at it from a distance. That is not to say that there aren’t times when testing first is extremely useful, like when clarifying requirements. The test assertions (even with missing test bodies) is often enough to help solidify an attack plan. The amount of code coverage can be a hindrance though, as real world tests always end up being more tightly coupled than you ideally want them to be. If you make seemingly small code changes, you can end up with quite a bit of the test suite failing (all though with the same few errors repeating). If you mock and stub too much, you aren’t testing much that is useful. Even worse, the workflow doesn’t seem realistic: Write the tests, verify the tests fail, write the code, verify the tests pass. The reality seems to be write the tests (heavily guessing at the exact implementation), verify they fail, write the code, refactor almost all of your tests, and verify they pass. Given the choice, I think I’d still rather write code, then test the code to verify it does what I want in all scenarios. I’ve yet to meet a dyed-in-the-wool TDDer that sees any fault with this extra refactoring step. The subject of pre-written tests needing to be refactored seems to be glossed over. Maybe my opinion will be changed yet.

Things are looking awesome for this next step in my life! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Railsconf tickets, since they are in my employer’s backyard. There are also a few missed restaurants I am meaning to visit next time I’m back up this way…

Events, Family, Open-source, Personal, Software, Thoughts

Working for a Development Firm is Like Being a Rented Sports Car

As my last post alluded to, I am leaving my current development firm. The reason is primarily a boost in earning potential at another employer, but also a culture change. To explain the culture at a development firm I created this analogy:

Imagine you rent a Mustang, or a Corvette. (Of course you are gonna get the insurance!) What are you going to do with that car? Everything that you fucking can! You are gonna imprint the gas petal into the floorboard, and drive fast and wreckless. After all, you have to get every dime you can out of your rental before your time expires right?

Now imagine you own a Mustang, or a Corvette. Yeah, you would probably hot dog it, but it also your purchase, so if you wreck it, you are gonna be upset with yourself. In other words, you are going to maximize your purchase by caring for your vehicle, and obeying the speed limit (most of the time anyway).

I have just described the difference in my view of an internal development team, and an outsourced development team. Clients want to maximize that dollar when they outsource, which is done by getting the most work in the least amount of billable hours. They want the sports car rental. They aren’t going to set a moderate pace; they are going to speed! I’m not saying that all development firms, or all clients are like this (I’ve worked with great clients in the past). But I am saying there is a struggle between maximizing value and being realistic about what you promise.

How does a client pick your development firm? By your firm being the lowest bid. They understate the hours needed for the work. They over-promise features on an unrealistic deadline. When Company A quotes $100k under Company BCompany A gets the work. And the client isn’t going to be cool with missing deadlines, or cutting functionality. So now management is in a battle with the client who is pissed off because the original bid was unrealistic, and wants to rectify the problem. That shit rolls down hill to you – the developer.

And I can tell you, its not possible to write good code faster. Someone micro-managing me, asking me what I’m doing every five minutes isn’t making me any more productive.

There are lots of companies that push hard. You can make a good living working for these places as long as the compensation, or bonuses are commensurate with the work that you put in. But busting your ass all day, every day – every day feeling 10 hours long – every day being full of epic code pushes, and near impossible deadlines met in the 11th hour – that is a young man’s game. That is pretty appealing when you are 22, fresh out of college, and eager to prove yourself to the world. Stressing out at 4:50 on a Friday, trying to get something delivered while your wife and daughter patiently wait for you to get off work just isn’t worth it. I’d rather enjoy my time with them. I’m not mad about it – its just how the game is played.

Which is why this Sports Car is up for ownership. He is done with the rental game, being driven too hard, too long. He wants a nice garage somewhere, and a driver that just takes him out on Sundays for a trip around town. I want to spend time with my daughter while she is still young, instead of delivering some milestone that I wont remember in a month. If I wanted a stressful culture, I would have worked for a startup. Then at least I have some small chance of hitting it big when we get bought by Google.