Bowling together

We celebrated the shipment of Domino V10 at Brunswick Zone Lowell Lanes, about a 15 minute drive from our office in Chelmsford. Remembering the lavish R5 ship party, where everyone and his/her family was flown to the Bahamas for several days, personally, I actually put this on par with or even above that. Not because I’m a good bowler, though I am not bad – okay, I won the first string with 3 consecutive strikes but ended up hurting my knees when I forgot all about the approach (it’s been a while). No, I liked it because we were together.

One of my subjects I read – until it gets too dry – is sociology. I almost minored in anthropology in college and let’s just say I just find people – humankind – fascinating. Some years ago I read Bowling Alone published 2000 and written by Robert Putnam, a statistics-based sociologist who lives only 35 miles away from me. In it, he proves beyond debate the loss in the US of something they call “social capital” and how it’s returning. That loss is devastating to both society and individuals, but its return is equally therapeutic. One fact I always remember vividly is that joining a group – I mean a bridge club or knitting group – statistically has the same positive effect on health as ceasing smoking. The title comes from the fact that more people are bowling than ever but bowling leagues have sharply declined.

Well, Thursday afternoon we were bowling together. And it felt good. As one spends more time with a group of people one of course becomes acquainted with more and more of them. That is perhaps why I found the bowling excursion so enjoyable, for among the large group of R5 Iris folks at Paradise Island, I may have known 10. Oh yeah, my wife sprained her ankle badly too which was a bummer.

Aside for the obvious, victorious, “in your face” achievement of shipping a new, full-point version of Domino in 11 months, which has never been done before (we’re getting better at this), I like to celebrate the “soft” human attributes that shined brightly during this time, the people things that no one takes note of. So here are some of those:

  1. There’s a unity of purpose and vision going on that’s infectious. Though it’s taken some time and it exists in different degrees, the larger team knows what it’s about and what it needs to do. I can’t go into detail about the gargantuan yeoman’s work it took to even get us operational outside IBM; suffice it to say that once people saw that, they realized how real and how alive both this group and this product are. And we have acted in kind.
  2. We are in closer contact with our “family” of business partners and champions than ever before. For, a family it is. The work of Richard Jefts, Barry Rosen and a host of others to engage the human beings that remain faithful to the fruit of our labors has born fruit not only in those relationships but in the focus of the inner team. It’s always been a difficult balancing act to synthesize and vet the conflicting demands of future direction, support issues and business opportunity.  Be assured that among the thousands of people who use our software, sometimes there are people insisting they need “obvious”, polar opposite functionality and pathways forward.  Yet that way forward is clearer than ever.
  3. We’re getting better at this. I won’t play the age card, but people can do the math and guess that demographic, given the length of service of individuals working with this technology. But, testament to its (and their) malleability, the age of the dog has had the opposite effect on the tricks s/he can do. No, we’re not dogs and these aren’t tricks, but the overlooked quality of wisdom (vs. knowledge which at times has been demonstrably distracting) has us renovating and optimizing practices and systems.
  4. “The report of my death was an exaggeration” – said Mark Twain. Domino is not going away and neither is this team. Bowling together, the nay-sayers and negative Nancys literally did not exist. Destructive agendas, even self-destructive ones, yield to creativity and the grit of execution. Nothing dead about it.

I joked to Richard Jefts that we should build a bowling alley in the Chelmsford space for use when our “family” comes to visit. We laughed but he said might just take me up on it. Then you can all bowl together with us.


Building résumés

During a wave of fatigue in the end game of shipping a piece of software, a quality engineer (that is one who writes automated tests) came to me complaining about the lack of movement on the defects she had found.  She had a point; they were weeks old and we were shipping soon.

She said, “I mean, what are we building here?”

I replied, without even thinking: “Résumés.”  She laughed one of those nervous laughs and went back to work.

For several reasons, including some out of our control, the result of that work came to nothing in the field, yet the engineers had new, ephemeral buzz words in their list of experience.  And they hadn’t even used the technology well; they displayed no particular talent at producing anything valuable with it.

It remains a tension in engineering work.  If someone doesn’t keep up with changing technology, one becomes typecast.  Or cast as a dinosaur.  Which is unfair because it’s inaccurate.  I don’t write this because I’m an older person – a mere 10 years in my field can produce the same effect if one doesn’t “keep up” with change.

But I wanted to temper and challenge the common wisdom because I don’t believe it is wisdom but mostly a self-anointing priesthood with very little to show for itself.  So here are some observations about living on, promoting and requiring other to live on the bleeding edge:

  1. Technology requires at least 5 years to prove it’s worth investing in. 80% goes away in that time, and only after 10 years is its value – its staying power in production – proven.  The examples are myriad.
  2. Yet marketing stir is so rabid that “new” is a word inspiring great investment. Investment in nothing, because either the cool was based upon only buzz or the technology is pressed into service for ways it was never designed.
  3. Technical people with buzz take full advantage of non-technical people with money and power.
  4. Knowledge being power, those who claim mastery of new tech are quick to dismiss individuals or groups pressing for responsible oversight in key aspects that make solutions valuable in the field.
  5. And that – value – is too late or too infrequently even considered. Talk of the cost of implementation, ROI, and future-proof-ness threaten the résumé building, so they are often ignored until after launch when truth comes out and people move on to other projects.
  6. In the frenzy of knowledge- and experience-acquisition, accountability is fleeting if it exists at all. Organizations don’t seem to learn or care about the insidious pattern, so it goes on.

That list sounds negative but such is the ugly picture I’ve seen.  And .. I am not saying that the use and integration of new technology inherently fails, of course it does not.  Nor am I saying that failed projects are worthless; there are too many nuggets among lessons learned to even think that.  And relevant, up-to-date experience matters, particularly if one goes job hunting.

But even then, I would sooner reward the ability to provide one’s customers with real business value over proficiency in a tool, language or part of the great “full stack” (which to me is a funny adjectival clause because there are some very important stacks “full stack developers” know nothing of).  When I recruit people I ask questions about design and applicability of this technology or that.

Because … I have found that acquired principles – that is, points of applied wisdom – are more important than acquired knowledge.  Because they port, scale and broadly apply.  They build real value, and résumés take care of themselves.

I don’t say any of this as old person who’s slowing down, only one who’s learned the folly of devotion to only keeping up.



The case of the fictional monkey experiment

I had heard a story of an experiment performed on a community of monkeys.  Don’t worry, it’s not true.  Well, not true as an experiment – it never happened.  But I still love the story.  It’s a variant of this one.  Of course the whole thing comprises a moralizing sermon of sorts, maybe even a mediocre one in the scheme of things.  But when such describes life it’s useful for me.

In my telling, 20 or so monkeys were put into a large area with a greased pole at its center.   At the top of the greased pole was a cluster of delicious bananas.  But naturally as any simian in the group would attempt to scale the pole, s/he would fall and get nowhere.  The bananas might as well not have existed.

Then 2 things were changed – 5 new monkeys were brought in replacing 5 who removed, and the pole was de-greased.  So a monkey could legitimately climb the pole to get the bananas.

But it was soon found that only the new monkeys would even attempt such a thing.  And when they did, they were pulled down by large number of other monkeys who knew that it was impossible.  So even then, the bananas went uneaten.  And even the new monkeys learned one could not ascend the pole.

It is of interest that it doesn’t matter if stories like this ever happened in a scientific experiment.  Because they happen in corporate life so universally.  And it’s tragic. Wasteful.

Innovation is stifled.  Businesses fail.  The new monkeys quit or assimilate into cynical dysfunction.

Let me not paint too grim a picture though.  Because thankfully and triumphantly poles do get de-greased and get climbed all the time as well.  Or some diligent monkey climbs them grease and all.

However, and probably the main point, the intentionality in climbing that pole is substantial; there are no old-timer monkeys to encourage or give hope.  In fact, they will call the bananas imaginary, mock you for trying and even discredit your achievement as rotten bananas even as you eat them and share them with your friends (well you have certainly heard of sour grapes).

There is no particular effort or project to which I wish to apply this parable except to assign it to all of them.  I have been both an old and new monkey.  And if I’d say “Don’t let this environment happen to you!” it would be pointless because it probably already has somewhere in some way.

But I will tell you every time – Climb the pole!  Those bananas are real and they taste wonderful.  And stop discouraging others; let them get greasy and learn the way they will.