Breaking my silence…

Posted March 7, 2013 by Stuart
Categories: Management Issues

I have to say this, despite the many good reasons to avoid the fray.

I have to say this, despite my belief that uninformed criticisms from the “outside” (defined for these purposes as non-employee, non-customer, non stockholder) border on the very edge of irresponsible citizenship.

I have to say this, despite the fact that too many people have jumped into the fray with myriad opinions and this entry (howsoever well-intentioned) will have as much impact as a whisper in gale force winds.

  1. Melissa Meyer is doing her job.
  2. Every mature company struggles with the notion of the extended enterprise.
  3. Transformation is neither easy, nor can it be judged “in progress.”
  4. Working from home isn’t an entitlement.
  5. This has nothing to do with technology: it is a management issue.

See: http://share.es/js1j7  (Yahoo’s Telecommuting Problem Is Management, Not Collaboration ) from CIO Magazine.  There are many examples of true collaboration with participants around the world, and there are just as many examples of poor teamwork among employees under the same roof.  For any CEO to announce such a dramatic reversal of policy, one must assume that other (smaller, internal) efforts have not yielded results.  However, most “outsider” have missed an essential element of Yahoo’s current dilemma (which, actually, is a polylemma because of multiple root causes): the core foundation of success with any distributed workforce begins with a management team that understands how to supervise, monitor, and communicate with their employees.  The ability of one’s supervisor to manage across time and geographic distance is critical to anyone who wants to work from home, or from any work location other than corporate headquarters.

In between the lines of the leaked Yahoo email, there are important issues about the Middle Management layer at Yahoo.  Anyone considering a similar reversal of telecommuting policy should first examine their management team, for it is unfair (and counter-productive) to force individual employees (and their families) into weeks/months of upheaval when, in the end, the root cause of your problem lies, instead, with managers and directors.

Can you imagine…?

Posted December 12, 2012 by Stuart
Categories: Uncategorized

For those of us who count the days until Spring Training, who love the sound of a bat when it squarely hits the round ball, and who also happen to work in the field of information technology, today’s announcement should have special meaning (http://tinyurl.com/cio4giants).

I met Bill years ago, in a luxury box sponsored by Macromedia’s Robert Urwiler (yet another hero of mine) and in the ensuing years, I have often recalled his comments about baseball and technology – he and his dedicated team have the best jobs in IT, each one (as fans of the game) who truly understand “the business” and can, therefore, build systems that a) increase revenue by improving the customer experience, b) increase engagement for real-time interactions, and c) provide innovative improvements for the ballplayers and coaches…

I’ve been a baseball fan since the days of Clemente and Koufax, and have been an IT guy for 25 years, and yes, I still dream of being able to oneday say, “Sorry, honey, I have to work late tonight, the Dodgers are in town.”

Bravo to Bill Schlough and his entire team for the long-deserved recognition, and to InformationWeek for (at long last) discovering this perfect example of IT <-> Business alignment.

Why Don’t We Train Our Managers (Part 5)

Posted July 28, 2012 by Stuart
Categories: Management Issues

This week marks the 125th anniversary of Esperanto, the “universal” language comprised of unique combinations of world vocabularies and dialects.  We should applaud the vision, and lament its poor adoption, for we continue to struggle with communication – in personal relationships, within teams, between supervisors and worker bees.  I’ve often thought that any executive seeking a solution to the poor communication in her company ought to hire an Esperanto linguist and insist that everyone learn the new language and use it exclusively in meetings.

Apparently, many prefer the post-Babel confusion in their organizations because of a cynical or fearful belief that poor communication between and within working groups is a universal rule, like gravity or the inexorable physics of plant life.

And yet…

When a recent client (COO, great person, well-respected, sincere) complained about the communication within his organization (“…a perennial problem here…”) I asked him the following questions:

  • Do you have regular one-on-one’s with your staff?
  • Do you hold weekly meetings with the entire team?
  • When was the last time you convened an All-Hands meeting?
  • Do you travel to the company’s remote offices?
  • How often do you speak with customers (internal/external)?
  • How current is your departmental information on the company’s intranet?
  • How often do you simply “walk the halls” for casual (drive-by) conversations?
  • Is there a practice of cross-attendance between teams?

He sighed, and admitted that he was so busy, these things rarely happened – so many fire drills, so many unexpected demands, a relentless stream of urgencies that began Monday morning as soon as he walked in the door and continued until late in the evening on Friday.  He skipped lunches, answered email until midnight every night, often worked on the weekend simply to catch up.  He was exhausted and overwhelmed, and couldn’t imagine finding the time to try one of those suggestions.

One? 

The secret to solving organizational communication issues is not by trying one or another of the practices listed above, but all of them.  Consistently, so that everyone can begin to depend upon the (eventually) steady flow of information.  As for finding the time to do these things atop an already burdensome workload?  The truth (so plainly obvious, yet so easily ignored) is that 90% of the fire drills and unexpected requests (et. al.) are symptoms of poor communication practices – improving the bi-directional information flow within a system (engineers know this as a set of communications protocols between functional modules) improves the performance of the overall system.  In other words, he needed to solve the root cause of his organizational chaos rather than remaining preoccupied with the symptoms that seemed to require so much of his time.

Ultimately, communication is a participatory challenge, not the obligation of one individual.  By assigning one solution to each of his team, the entire group became responsible for communication, not just “the boss” although that was a good place to start.

I can see what the future holds…

Posted June 2, 2012 by Stuart
Categories: Uncategorized

By the time my son has tech-savvier children of his own, in the natural (singular) progression of things more eloquently explained by Ray Kurzweil and others – iPhone800c, slimmer than those end-of-the-world celophane emergency blankets, will unfold to become a car that gets 1000 miles per gallon.

The only drawback, the single remaining challenge facing any phone company that tries to compete with the iPhone800s, is a minor matter, really, hardly worth mentionning except when dining with potential investors – – when you are driving the fully-unfolded iPhone, you won’t be able to take pictures of the car (apparently, self referential innovation remains a keen literary device but one not embraced by the ever-shrinking workforce.  In fact, by the time of the iPhone825csxz beta release, due in part to a series of mergers that were the equivalent of species cross-mating, everyone under the age of 55 who had a job was working for AppleAT&T, or they were using the 800s to drive to job interviews many miles away.

There will be no evidence of those long journeys, or course, due to the previously mentionned limitation of the phone’s camera aperture when in “car mode.” 

These remarkable devices – solar powered, eco-factured, and soon-to-be voted THE most user-friendly creation in the history of humankind – will be augmented by uncountable (literally) millions of software applications built within hours to expand its basic set of features, so many apps with so many (some say unlimited) possibilities that state governments (led by California’s new rainbow coalition) have been forced to pass legislation requiring that all teen-agers be offered Driver’s Education in the public schools, as educators and health administrators decried the young people who seemed entirely comfortable facing backwards and lying down while driving, in their relentless efforts to take a picture of themselves doing so while they were driving.

Why Don’t We Train…? (yet another entry)

Posted March 18, 2012 by Stuart
Categories: Management Issues

It seems that I’m not alone in my concern for our industry re: training programs (at every level).

Rob Preston (VP and Editor-in-Chief, Information Week) is the latest astute observer to challenge our institutional neglect of All Things Educational.  Responding to the oft-heard complaint that skilled workers are hard to find, the eminent Mr. Preston rightly points his editorial finger back at the executives who moan-and-groan about the skills shortage yet fail to fund training budgets and/or support career development plans for their current employees.  From his February 29 editorial (http://tiny.cc/ytcdbw)

If “people are our most important resource,” as employers are wont to proclaim, why do most of them expect this precious asset to show up gift wrapped on day one, and to increase in value with little effort on their part? In InformationWeek‘s most recent IT Salary Survey, whose full results we’ll release in April, only 28% of the 13,880 IT pros we polled said they expect to receive additional education or training as one of their employee benefits this year.

Something’s wrong here, and it has nothing to do with a skills shortage.

My experience, as the readers of this occasional blog already know, has focused on a sub-set of this issue: the paucity of consistent management training in an industry that cherishes technical skills but is confounded by the inability of supervisors to adequately manage those that have them.   Mr. Preston’s over-arching sermon equally applies to leadership:  good managers do not “grow on trees” nor are they miraculous fruit from profitable company orchards.  While some of us have greatly benefited from an association with management excellence in our careers and have learned by modeling those behaviors, the great majority of technology managers stumble through their crisis-ridden workdays, wondering (sometimes aloud) why tech teams (projects/schedules) go so stunningly awry.

One engineering manager recently told me, “I’ve never been coached,” and his supervising director sidestepped his responsibility by confirming that he had never attended any trainings, either.  “We learn by making mistakes,” he said unapologetically. 

In another department of the same company, I asked a 9-person management team (averaging 5+ years in their current role) if anyone could identify the 3 primary decision-making methodologies, and when each was appropriate.  No one could answer the question, nor could their COO – in fact, the only person in that company (as I expanded my inquiry) who knew the answer explained that she was previously a lawyer and prepared for her interview by reading a Gartner article.

15 year-old students are given a Driver’s Handbook. 

17 year-old grocery clerks understand prioritization when they re-arrange cereal boxes for maximum sales. 

Even young Little League umpires are matched with a volunteer mentor in their first season wearing blue. 

And yet, we’re likely to promote our most senior technologist (whether or not they aspire toward management) to leadership positions on the assumption that peer respect can alchemically transform new managers into sound business decision-makers.  And we wonder why so many projects are late, so many products have bugs, and so many startups fail within 24 months.

As with any profession, management in a technology environment has a set of skills (i.e., learned behaviors) and our literature is replete with lists and guides and handbooks that go largely unread because every new manager is thrown into the fray without time to learn, even if they are motivated/inclined to do so. 

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that a country in which the quality of public education is at an all-time low, and in a state (California, for those readers elsewhere) in which education funding has been dramatically reduced for twenty years, businesses also reflect this short-sighted disregard.  But as Rob Preston as scolded, there is something quite wrong with this disregard for training (at all levels). 

And it has nothing to do with a skills shortage.

Every so often, I’m reminded of the important things

Posted November 19, 2011 by Stuart
Categories: About the Book, Examples, The column itself

I don’t know him personally, but I like how he thinks about our industry.

In the latest issue of CIO Insight magazine from Ziff Davis Media, Larry Bonfante (CIO, US Tennis Association) writes that “Enterprise Infrastructure is Really About People.”  For those who follow this occasional blog, my sentiments should not be a surprise – since 2004, when I first published the proposition that WE are the platform, I’ve been explaining the fundamental relationship between our information systems and the people that build/support them.  So many of my colleagues (all of them good and smart women and men) focus solely upon the technology, only to find themselves mired in “fire fights” (Larry’s term) or relegated to non-strategic roles in their organizations.

Technology challenges are simply matters of time and money.  For exceptional compute environments, we must begin with exceptional people.  For transformational IT, we must first transform our organizations.  Larry Bonfante is on to something (we even have the same publisher), and though my list of Things To Read is long, I might just buy his book.

Remember this moment…

Posted September 24, 2011 by Stuart
Categories: Uncategorized

When I woke my son for school this morning, I showed him the newspaper and told him it was a day to remember.  Twenty years from now, he will be telling his son or daughter about the day a stream of neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light.  The impossible has been accomplished, the unreachable horizon breached, and our history is forever altered,  though we cannot yet see the changes made possible by this single (tiny) event.  I’m sure an equally energetic father, somewhere in 14th century Europe, woke his children when news came from the West: the world is round, not flat.

Yet, howsoever extraordinary the path of that first over-achieving neutrino, this unfolding day promised more: that radical change in universal physics was merely Act I, as anyone who follows “the market” knows, for it is also The Day That Gold Lost $100 of value in one trading session.  That’s never happened before, but on this day of days, headlines about unique financial milestones can, indeed, be over-shadowed by radical changes in universal physics.

And yet, more.  (Some of you might be thinking “He’s going to finish this entry” but not me, not me, I’m here to note more history): it is as if the Einstein-Midas phenomena has a 3rd act, a third remarkableevent:  32-tons of satellite metal just crashed to the earth, landing in someone’s backyard, and while we’ve all been appropriately forewarned not to touch or pilfer, pieces of space detritus will surely appear on eBay before my first cup of coffee tomorrow.

It is a chaotic and varietal world, I know, and there are many marvels in this midsummer’s night, but on such a day as this, when the sky fell, when gold became less than the sum of its parts, when even the outermost limit of humankind’s velocity had been broken, I am compelled to honor this majestic triad of garbage, glitter, and gravity – and grant my solemn acknowledgement to this moment in time.

As our necklaced string of days goes, this one sparkles a bit more than the rest.

Library as Metaphor

Posted August 13, 2011 by Stuart
Categories: Examples, Useful Metaphors

I still recall the feel of the book, the yellow tint of overhead bulbs, the exact moment when I understood that books were made things, that words written by a stranger 100 years ago continue a beckoning call to new readers – and I wanted to become a maker of such things, a writer of words that (with good fortune and perhaps a bit of skill) could outlast me for years to come.

The place: our public library in Danville, Illinois.  The time: a Saturday morning, 1965.

This entry is not, however, about the publication of a book forty years later, or about the profound sense of purpose when I returned to my hometown a few weeks ago and located a copy of my book on its shelves.  Good topics, both.  Rather, it involves a small story about that small town library, a modest anecdote resonating a much larger theme. 

The new library building, with modern brick facades, bronze sculptures of children reading on the lawn, and a fully-computerized infrastructure not unlike many libraries in many other towns, is situated across the street from the old library of my childhood, now a museum.  As the town readied for the opening of the new library (several years ago), the last phase of the project involved the transfer of books from old building to new.  They didn’t hire specialists.  They didn’t use crates or forklifts.  They used little red wagons and dozens of children.

The wagons were donated by their manufacturer, just for this purpose.  And so it was, one Saturday morning, that a very organized but energetic line of little people – each with their own red wagon – moved an entire library’s contents from the library I knew to their sleek new home one hundred yards away, back and forth with their numbered, Dewey-catalogued pile of books, somewhere among them the one I held in my hands in 1965 and the one I published in 2005.  And it doesn’t require much imagination to visualize that scene from the air: the living channel of content and containers, the transfer of immense (incalculable) amounts of words and pictures from one physical location to another, the simple-but-important protocols each child was instructed to follow, and the sequencing-validation-archival of librarians chartered with ensuring that not a single word or book (or child or wagon) is lost in the transfer.

It reminds me of the advances in technology we now all take for granted, how gigabits of data (books and songs and movies) are so easily transferred across great (unimaginable) distances from one (now unknowable) physical location to the tiny device in our hands.  My teenage son does not know what a card catalog looks like, but he navigates the universe of information as easily as those kids navigated their wagons.  Information transfer is now measured in milliseconds. Fonts can be changed via menu.  Foreign languages translated with a click.

And yet, the physical space of the library itself – the quietness of reading rooms, the cluttered bulletin boards in the lobby, the airy ceilings of light – still remain a place for community, refuge, safety, and those moments of occasional delight.

The Secret Revealed

Posted June 30, 2011 by Stuart
Categories: Management Issues

When a Basic Truth of the industry is spoken, it is a cause for celebration – and acknowledgement.

In the August issue of CIO Magazine, one of their staff writers has finally declared this unspoken principle of successful project deployment. (Her name is Kristin Burnham, and the topic of the article was how to sell executives on Google Apps, but the little gem applies to the launch of any new project or application.)  She quotes the CIO of Dominion Enterprises who disclosed 5 lessons he learned during their recent launch – there it is, at the bottom of the page, in black and white for all to see: “Sell it to your administrative assistants first.”

They are the gatekeepers to successful adoption.  They are the pathway to executive acceptance.  Nurture them as you would your most important stakeholders, for they may be your salvation.

Best Innovations of 2010

Posted December 29, 2010 by Stuart
Categories: Management Issues, Useful Metaphors

One recognizable impact of recessions is muted worker creativity – we take fewer risks, content that we still have a job – and companies, too, can lose their spark as they pare expenses. Retrenchment is often the opposite of spontaneity, and an absence of spontaneous thinking limits new ideas.

True innovations in such an environment are worthy of applause.

With a disclaimer that the actual innovative thinking for these product enhancements likely occurred in 2009, I offer The Best of 2010 because, as a consumer, I noticed them in the past 12 months.

What I find most interesting is that both innovations are evidence that improved usability (of a product) can also lead to a measurable reduction of operational cost – a paradox that should inspire anyone who is asked to do more with less.

  • ATM User Interface – How many of us (in previous years) have used our bank’s ATM machine, completed our transaction, and walked away without retrieving our ATM card?  The problematic behavior cost the banking industry hundreds of thousands of dollars annually because of replacement costs and the diminished productivity of bank employees distracted by customers who lost their cards, or turned in someone else’s card that they found in a nearby machine.  It used to happen 1000’s of times in most bank branches, but no more. Kudos to the usability designer who recognized that this was actually a business process problem – one that was completely solved by simply changing the sequence of tasks during our transactions.  We are now asked to remove our card before the transaction is finalized.  This small change in the order of instructions has almost entirely eradicated the CLB issue (Card Left Behind) and has been adopted as a “best practice” by all major ATM vendors, saving the consumers and the banking industry both time and expense.

Now, that’s good thinking.

  • Hotel Hand Soap – Originally noted by visitors to Yellowstone National Park, I discovered mine at the Turkey Run Lodge in Indiana: a bar of soap without a middle (soap with a hole in it) that is much easier to handle and, for the hotel industry, the solution to their WDWDWTWS problem (What Do We Do With This Wasted Soap).  It has been heralded in other columns as a “green” or eco-friendly innovation, however, I’m inclined to consider the cost reductions for the manufacturer: each bar of soap uses 30% less material, allowing them to produce the same number of items while dramatically reducing their cost of goods.  Kudos to the engineer at Green Natura soap products for their solution to the paradox of reducing cost while simultaneously improving the product.

Now, that’s good thinking.

As managers, we need to give our employees some breathing room because it is possible to reduce costs and also deliver an improved product.  As employees, we need to give our bosses a break when they dare to assign us the impossible task, because it is possible to reduce costs and deliver an improved product.