Last year I suggested a stocking stuff in Cubu, a strategy game with a politics angle.
I’d like this years gift to say something about my company, Excelon Development, in what we are trying to do, and what it means. Eventually I landed on a book by Peter Thiel, co-founder of paypal and an early investor in Facebook and Twitter. Zero To One: Notes on Startups, or How To Build the Future covers a great deal of ground, including different kinds of change and what a startup needs to succeed. Perhaps most insightful, I found Thiel explaining the why behind the thinking in Silicon Valley, including the Lean Startup thinking that is so common today, and where it came from.
Tech jobs are often steeped in ego contests and political games. Matt wrote about a scenario he calls ‘Faking it‘, where some people will navigate their way to the top of a company by doing anything except work that directly adds value. Telling the difference between bad and good and great work is difficult for folks that have been out of the game for a while. People still in the game, I mean the technical contributors, often want to advance through the ranks. The obvious route to that is sometimes self-promotion. I mean working specifically so that each thing you do is a strategic step toward a raise or promotion.
There is also a more difficult route of humility and service. I’d like to talk about both.
During the latter part of November, I had the pleasure of attending EuroSTAR 2014 in Dublin, Ireland. Many of the talks delivered at this conference focused on diversity in the workplace. I think it is imperative we endeavor to engage the the creative talents of as many people as possible, and that we do so without regard to gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or factors related to physical mobility and information processing. These are areas frequently used to describe diversity. They are the most visible, and therefore, should rightly be considered examples of “external diversity”. That’s important, but it’s only part of the story.
Internal Diversity Matters, Too
Another level of diversity is also critical, but more difficult to manage. It should rightly be called “internal diversity”. This is diversity of experience, of thought, of conscience, of opinion, of belief, and of interaction. Over the past decade, I’ve noticed a tremendous amount of pride in companies for hiring an externally diverse team, but when we get everyone together, there’s still a “sameness”. Externally, the slots and checkboxes are met, but the internal diversity, if it is there, is well hidden.
In small organizations, similarities in experience and background can be very helpful. People working on a particular problem can count on the fact that their teammates are well equipped to tackle that challenge. If the goal is clear, and the desired outcome is fully agreed upon, this “sameness” is helpful, more efficient, and perhaps even orders of magnitude more effective.
When “Sameness” Is a Disadvantage
This “sameness” falls short when the team wants to innovate in an entirely different way. If we are content to copy what others have done, to provide only incremental improvements, then this is acceptable. If our desire is to make something new, something boldly different, something that has “never been done before”, a team lacking in “internal diversity” will struggle.
By contrast, a team that genuinely embraces differences in experience (think Linux vs. Windows, atheist vs. religious, extrovert vs. introvert, country vs. opera, etc.), and takes the time to leverage that breadth of experience (and actually embrace it), that team has potential for breakthroughs. It may not always be comfortable, but here is where having a clear view of which diversity matters (and which sameness matters) really becomes important. If a sameness needs to exist, it should be the sameness of purpose, the sameness of the desire to meet the goal.
Think Different, For Real
As Albert Einstein famously stated: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”. Likewise, its unlikely we will develop new ways of thinking and interacting if we haven’t had practice actually challenging the ways we think and interact. External diversity is very important, but internal diversity is even more so. Genuinely encourage the internal diversity of your teams. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the new insights that develop.
Things almost never take the amount of time we initially think they will, do they?
Programming is no exception. We can sorta kinda figure out how long a task will take to complete using yesterdays weather, but todays weather is complicated.
Here is the dirty secret. Well, it isn’t all that secret.
Developers work long hours, often late into the night toward the end of a development cycle, to get things done. Done as in something that can be shipped. This isn’t because of estimate problems, though they certainly don’t help. This usually isn’t because of misunderstanding scope, there are many ways to solve that problem.
The work never gets done on time because the programmers can’t get it done on time. There are too many impediments for them to do the work.
Let’s talk about that.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the possibility of a shortage in technical talent. It’s difficult out there for both employers and employees. Companies are struggling to find the people they need and people are struggling to find companies they actually want to work for.
Matt Heusser wrote about a scenario where some folks lie a little bit on their resume to get into a job, delegate their way through projects, and social-engineer their way up to the top of an org chart.
I want to talk about honor and truth.
I also want to talk about how to help people get the jobs they want starting with what is often the first impression, the cover letter.
The truth is yes. Oh yes, I am scared. Scared every day. I feel, a bit, as the neanderthal in the jungle must have felt thousands of years ago. Each time the neanderthal woke up to go hunting, he was alive, engaged in the moment. He may have gone hungry, he may lose in battle to a large animal, or perhaps, captured the tiger and fed for a month. As long as the neanderthal is living, though, he is living free.
I feel more … alive running Excelon Development than I can remember in my professional life. But scared? Certainly. Running a small consulting business is scary.
So when I heard that Ben Horowitz, a founder at Netscape (and multiple other companies) had a book out on entrepreneurship titled “The Hard Thing About Hard Things“, I was intrigued. When I realized the subtitle was “Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers”, I immediately purchased the book and read it in one sitting. The most obvious lesson in the book isn’t quite what I expected, though.
Let me tell you about it. Continued »
As I was looking at Maxine Giza’s article regarding the Long Term IT Outlook, I was drawn to the areas many people cited as concerns. I likewise see that there are many challenges we are all facing, and that challenges differ between organizations. How optimistic or pessimistic we are depends a lot on where we are, what we do, and how flexible we are with the work we do. With that, here are several concerns voiced in the article, and my comments about them.
Career advancement is limited
As a software testing practitioner, I can continue to be a practitioner, and get better at what I do, or I can manage other testers. Those are generally the options, without changing my role… and that’s the key. If I expanded into coding, security auditing, or working on a less well served initiative, that greatly expands my career opportunities. It may not immediately expand them upward, but it will certainly expand them outward.
Management is ineffective
This would have impact on my own feelings of positivity for the future. What can I do about it? Keeping an open dialog with my manager is critical. It’s also important to get a higher view; see what my manager’s manager is looking at. By working to understand my business better, and what matters to my business, I can better understand management’s motivations and priorities, and align my efforts where possible with those priorities.
Training is limited
Considering the wealth of information that is available on the Internet today, and the ability to create virtual spaces and to download applications to create services, I feel we have a leg up here. Granted, some opportunities to learn will not be done in this manner. I cannot realistically simulate a mainframe or a big data cloud. Still, today, anyone can create a plan to learn more and become more proficient at almost any area they choose. For those areas still out of reach for a do-it-yourself learner, up-front initiative so far has helped sell the organization on me taking the next step.
The IT Budget Keeps Getting Cut
This is hard to overcome, but its not impossible. Initiatives can be developed for free with open source tools. Cloud devices can be configured and used on demand. Scripting and removing repetitive tasks can win back some of the discretionary budget by making onerous and time consuming tasks more manageable. Doing more with less always sounds like a cop-out answer, but if we can consider it a challenge to rise to, it may well pay dividends later on.
Little room for innovation
If this is a top down view, perhaps bringing a small side project to fruition will help management think differently. If it’s bottom up, there’s little to stop me making the future I want to see. Limitations may of course exist. Rewriting our legacy application in a new language may be impossible if attempted up front and whole cloth. Iteratively, and over time, it may be much easier to accomplish.
Jobs are being outsourced
I have seen this done effectively. I have also seen it cost companies much more than if they kept jobs local. Companies that choose to “race to the bottom” ultimately get what they pay for. I have to innovate on a different level, in a way that cannot be outsourced. Is that a high bar to aspire to? Absolutely! However, I would say working with that approach may well make me harder to replace.
We are still in a down economy
How important is long term job security to me? If that is important, then fears of the economy, and the ways larger companies hire, do play into this. If, however, I am willing to place bets on smaller organizations, am willing to move for work, and can deal with the possibility of needing to look for new work every couple of years (on average), working through a down economy is not so scary. To paraphrase James Bach, “I don’t need every company to hire me. I just need a few. In fact, at any given time, I just need one!” How I position my work, and my efforts in the broader community will have more effect than an up or down economy will.
To reiterate, my assessment of the future outlook in IT is “guardedly optimistic”. Disruption and challenge face me every day. There will be challenges in the next few years I haven’t even started to consider. I also believe showing activism in my craft and getting involved in initiatives will help with that uncertainty. Ultimately, my questions is this: we see the future challenges… what are we going to do about them?
It is not uncommon for people in technology to occasionally shoot a provocative idea out into the wild and then make a temporary show of it. David Heinemeier Hansson did this recently by claiming that TDD is dead, and Woody Zuill did the same with NoEstimates.
A lot of the time, the conversation softens a bit when you step away from the loud title and figure out what the person is really trying to say. That can be difficult to do.
His post outlines a couple of main needs in creating software such as customers wanting products that work, companies needing a positive reputation, and people on the development teams needing to feel competent.
The question being posed via the NoTesting hashtag is “Is testing the best way for a company to meet these needs?”
Lets take a closer look at the question, the premise, the rhetoric, and test this idea.
“You have to put keywords in your resume because everything is digital now. So you need to make sure you show up in searches for the jobs that you want. You may only have 80% of the skills needed which is usually ok but you need to lie about the other 20% just so a recruiter will talk to you.”
- Anonymous Hiring Manager, Private Correspondence, November 2014
Imagine a world where this is actually true, where every employee lies in order to get the job, or at least, most of them do. This leads to the worst kind of imposter syndrome, one where people are afraid of being found out, not because of a lack of self-confidence, but because they can’t do the job and are faking it.
I expect three things would happen in this kind of world: Delegation, Deflection, and Destruction. Sadly, I’ve seen them all, all too often.
Let me explain.
If you don’t know how to do it, that might be okay — you just need to find someone else that does. As awkward as this sounds, it is exactly how upper-level business functions: The senior executives set vision, middle executives declare tactics, managers break that down into tasks, and the person at the bottom actually does the work.
In some cultures, getting someone else to do the work is a sign of leadership.
In a world where everyone is doing this, there will be one poor loser at the bottom keeping the lights on while everyone else is busy managing or architecting or analysis-ing. It’s sad.
Most companies are not this extreme, but I have worked with a contractor or two that did not understand the difference between compiling the code and executing it. How did anything get done?
He had a buddy.
If you can’t do the work and can’t delegate, then next best thing to is find someone else to blame. The project isn’t your fault, after all: It was the vendor who couldn’t deliver their part. Perhaps the analysis was too vague or the DBAs couldn’t configure the system. You can blame anyone involved — just don’t admit that you can’t figure out how to do your part. Maybe, if you blame and stall long enough, you can find someone else to do the work!.
Again, the world isn’t really this dark, but I did work on a major project for a large telecommunications company you’ve heard of, and the permanent employee who was “supervising” us couldn’t get Microsoft Visual Studio installed on their machine. In a two month period. They asked us to do it for them. Really. (It was little more complex than usual: Windows 8 was in preview, we were building apps for the windows store pre-launch, there were VM’s involved … but no, it wasn’t that hard.)
Sometimes, competent people make a ruckus about how everyone else is incompetent. If that is true, the bad news is the competent person is vastly outnumbered, and the incompetent have something to lose. The result is an activity known as workplace mobbing. Psychcentral describes workplace mobbing as a reverse-bullying where a bully enlists co-workers in a campaign of “psychological terror” against victims who are typically “competent, educated, resilient, outspoken, challenge the status quo, are more attractive or empathic and tend to be women, aged 32 to 55.”
Reading that list again, I notice these are virtues. The competent person is good and experienced. They likely gained that experience outside of current company, recognizing shenanigans and incompetence for what they are. The person goes one step further and acts on this knowledge – putting the fakers at risk. So the fakers destroy them.
Undistracted by little things like work or the pursuit of excellence, the fakers have plenty of time to plan and organize the destruction.
If any of what I wrote above feels a bit to close for comfort, that’s likely because it is a little bit too true. The anonymous example above is real, taken from a hiring manager from a real message board, talking about real work.
The “imagined world” is not quite real, but it is a little too realistic for comfort.
Here’s the big news.
This is about us. All of us.
It’s easy enough to criticize those horrible people that lie on their resume. As long as those are other people, we can feel smug, secure, even superior. But we’ve all done some things wrong. If you haven’t ever lied, there is always the misrepresentation – saying a truth in such a way that it gives the wrong impression.
The further you climb, the more the temptation to misrepresent, to be bigger than life, to get someone else to do the work. Meanwhile the system rewards the lying.
We can’t change the system, but we can change how we behave. Take the hit for doing the right thing. Be the manager that rewards the right behavior. Protect the team from silliness. Hire for ability to learn, dedication, and integrity.
For fifteen years, my friends and family told me that if I hated the system so much, I should start my own company.
In 2011, I took Excelon Development full-time, and we ain’t starving.
What have you done to make the world a better place lately?
What are you doing today? And tomorrow?
Admittedly, the title is a bit misleading. Time is a constant. We cannot really “make time”. We can’t bank it, we can’t borrow it, we can’t really even “manage it”, contrary to popular belief. There is only one thing we can do with time, and that is use it. Each one of us gets the same twenty-four hours as everyone else, and each of us has to make choices as to how we will use that time.
Additionally, we have another limited resource, and that is attention. We like to think that we can effectively multi-task, or that we can accomplish many things at the same time. For myself, the more critically I look at the way I work and the goals that I can accomplish, I have given up on this idea. Sure, I can read email and listen to music at the same time, but that’s not the multi-tasking I am referring to. When I need to be working on something that requires focus and attention, I do much better when I can partition the work I need to do, and want to do, in discrete chunks of time. Even here, it can be difficult to give the proper attention to multiple areas that need it. Also, there is the very real problems of getting stuck on a problem, and having to deal with a challenge that, for lack of better words, is just tedious.
The time and attention problem can be approached from many angles, but my personal favorite is to use a method called the “Pomodoro Technique”. This method gets its name from the kitchen timers that look like tomatoes (Pomodoro is Italian for “Tomato”). The traditional approach to using a Pomodoro timing system is that a block of time is set up where deliberate, focused work is done. That work is timed (typically at intervals of twenty five minutes). At the end of that twenty-five minute block of time, you take a five minute break. These breaks are critical, make sure to take them! At the end of the five minute break, start the twenty-five minute timer again. Repeat the process four times. At the end of those four “Pomodoro” periods, you set up a longer break, between fifteen and thirty minutes. The net result is that, in a period of two hours, you have put an hour and forty minutes into intense, focused work and effort, with twenty minutes of “slack time”.
Along with this approach, for it to be truly effective, a way to keep track of the time you are spending is important. This can be done with a notebook and an actual kitchen timer, or it can be done with a dedicated application that takes care of these steps (I use a program called Pomodairo to do this for me).
In most cases, placing a boundary of twenty five minutes is ample time for a session, but some tasks are, frankly, too frustrating or painful to deal with in full twenty-five minute blocks. These are the areas where procrastination is all too familiar. Still, I know that I need to do these tasks, but struggle with getting them done even in this environment. What to do? For this, I am grateful to Merlin Mann and what he calls the “Procrastination Dash”. This is a modified Pomodoro approach, in which you set up ten minute intervals for focused heads down time, followed by two minute breaks, and then repeat the process five times. In this manner, one hour yields fifty minutes of focused attention and ten minutes of break time. More important, it’s a great way to focus on genuinely problematic tasks, or areas that may not require a full Pomodoro cycle to accomplish.
For me, the biggest benefit in using these approaches is that it gives me a target for focused effort, and it also gives me permission to take a break and do anything I want to with that break time. It gives me a chance to work on the things that are most important (or should be), and can also be used to “schedule in” fun things I can do on a given day. The key to using the technique is to be mindful of the time that is being applied, and how much attention you are placing on a given area.