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Arbitrary Boundaries November 13, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Recently, I received notice that one of my vendors had added me to their online customer portal and made me part of the “Eastern Region Group.” Apparently, this gives me access to certain forums and resources shared by everyone in the East.  I’ll confess: I don’t get it.

I understand why this vendor might divide their customers into regional groups.  Presumably, they assign local resources to each group to improve response time, reduce travel costs, and increase customer satisfaction in some way.  But does this have any value or meaning from the customers’ perspective?

It seems that in this day and age of global communication, sequestering customers by geography is so… last century.  The idea that you are doing so in an online forum that transcends time and distance is delightfully ironic.

But it doesn’t just happen online.  How many customer receptions have you attended where tables are arranged and labeled by geography?  Is it really important that I sit with other people from the East?  Aren’t there interesting people from the West that I might want to speak with?  Why not just divide us by height, or middle initial? I suspect that’s just as effective in creating good conversation as anything else.

What’s really happening here?  An internal organizational tool is being exposed and applied externally, without providing value to the customer.  Those internal tools have clear value in managing costs and personnel.  Externally, they are confusing and create false divisions in your customer base.

This problem doesn’t just exist in sales organizations. How often do we expose architectural limitations or development constraints, much to the dismay of our customers?  Try explaining size limits on email to someone who just wants to send a big, business-related file to a customer.  They get annoyed and you look petty.

The root of this lies in our failure to identify with and become champions for our customers, from their viewpoint.  While we may have many useful internal mechanisms that allow us to operate effectively, very few of those mechanisms have any meaning to our customers.  Instead, they seem arbitrary and restrictive.

We need to develop a service model and world view that makes sense to our customers.  We need to interact with them in that model, and never ask them to step outside of it.  As needed, we need to translate their requirements from that space to our internal world.  Our internal model is probably more complicated than our customers think, and that’s OK.  We are supposed to translate from their simpler model to our complex one on their behalf. There’s a special name for that translation: “customer service.”

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The Happy Path November 2, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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In our last episode, I argued for a more consistent application of the 80/20 rule as we design and deploy software.  I made an exception for testing, however, which prompted a comment asking why testing gets exempted from this rule.

As the saying goes, testing only proves the presence of bugs, not their absence. The goal of testing is to find as many of these bugs as possible before moving code into production, in the hope that we will avoid inflicting them on our poor unsuspecting users.  Unlike a system in which we intentionally design and deploy the first eighty percent so as to get some value to the customers more quickly, we cannot test just eighty percent using a similar rationale. We need to test everything we build as best we can.

There is a limit, of course.  You can’t test forever.  The trick is to know what to test, and to test those parts thoroughly.

A co-worker of mine often talks about the “happy path.”  The happy path is the path through a system where everything works, the data is correct, the system stays up, and the users are well-behaved.  We tend to test the happy path first because we understand how the system should function and want to ensure that the basic features should work.

This results in testing scenarios like this

  • User selects an item and adds it to their cart
  • User enters billing data
  • User enters shipping data
  • User clicks “Check Out”
  • Transaction is processed

If this works, has the system been tested?  Yes.  Would you move it into production? The right answer is “no,” but I’ve used a lot of systems where the apparent answer was “you bet!”

We need to move off the happy path and wander in the weeds.  What if the quantity exceeds stock on hand? What if the user enters too few digits from their credit card? Or too many? Or adds a space, or a dash? What if the zip code doesn’t match the state? What if? What if? What if?

It doesn’t take long to test the happy path.  It takes forever to test everything off the happy path. You need to spend a lot of time wandering away from the happy path, and maybe there is a reverse rule for testing: 20% of your time on the happy path; 80% of your time off of it.

For some reason, I was born off the happy path.  Even at a young age, I was doing things like sticking Christmas lights directly into outlets (they explode and leave a mark on the wall) and riding my bike with my eyes shut (you hit parked trucks and knock yourself unconscious).

I have developed a reputation as the guy who can break things, much to the chagrin of every development team I have ever worked with. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told “no one ever tried that before.”  As much as it annoys developers, people who can break things are crucial to building solid products.  Better that we break them instead of a user.

We need to find and engage the non-happy-path people in our teams, and make sure that they spend a lot of time testing everything we build.  Admittedly, you cannot test forever, but having the right people test for as long as possible can make a world of difference.

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Infectious Diseases October 28, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Random Musings.
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Many years ago, I worked with a group of software developers who were situated in a typical cube farm.  One day, a woman came to work clearly not feeling well.  As the morning progressed, her conditioned worsened, punctuated with repeated trips to the restroom.

Her cube neighbor was concerned that she might be carrying some infectious disease.  Sure enough, as time went by, he began to feel sick himself.  Soon he was running to the restroom as well, and by the end of the day they had both gone home.

It turns out that she was suffering from a bad bout of morning sickness.  Her coworker, it seemed, had contracted the rarest of all airborne maladies, psychosomatic male pregnancy.

While pregnancy is tough to catch at work, other diseases spread easily.  While diseases can usually be treated and disposed of, other infections can be much tougher.  These kinds of infections include attitude, ethics, and courtesy.

People tend to mirror those around them.  If the workplace is a sad, depressing, miserable place, everyone in it will be sad, miserable, and depressed.  Happy, upbeat, pleasant places create happy, upbeat, pleasant people.  The prevalent mood spreads quickly, one way or the other.

As leaders, we have tremendous control over what is in the air.  Our attitude sets the tone for the team.  We need to choose our attitude carefully, because it will be mimicked, consciously or unconsciously, by those around us.  While maintaining a continuously Pollyannish approach isn’t going to fool anyone, genuine confident enthusiasm is a good thing.

We also need to be sensitive to the “carriers” in the group, both good and bad.  Every group has a few people whose genuine positive spirit is always a welcome breath of fresh air.  Their approach lifts every project, enhances every meeting, and brightens your day.  These people are treasures and you need to specifically praise them for their good effect on the team.

Conversely, every group has a few Eeyores.  These people find the cloud around every silver lining, know exactly why every good idea will fail, and seem to find ways to bring even the happiest person down.  These people can be fatal to your organization.  Oddly, many of these people have excellent technical skills, so we overlook their attitude to take advantage of their ability.  We make excuses for their behavior, hoping that their technical contributions outweigh their social impact. You can do that in the short term, but you cannot tolerate it for long.  A person is a whole package, and attitude problems are no more or less serious than technical or ethical ones.

As leaders, we need to remove the infectious bad attitudes from our group and allow the good attitudes to more easily spread. Who are you infecting today?

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Why Blog? October 26, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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In a recent article, Andrew Keen opined that CIOs have no business blogging.  His intentionally provocative piece was in response to an opposing view by John Suffolk, who is both a blogger and the UK government CIO.  I’ll presume that Mr. Keen was doing a bit of trolling and forgive him his somewhat grating approach, but he has touched on a question I get asked fairly frequently: “Why do you blog?”

The glib response, of course, is “why not?”  But now that this blog is approaching it’s second birthday, it’s worth a moment of reflection to understand why there might be value in executive (and not just CIO) blogging.

I started blogging as an attempt to informally share my thoughts on IT leadership.  I believe that teaching is an important aspect of leadership.  Rather than subject my team to periodic lectures on effective IT strategy and management, I began capturing my thoughts as blog entries.  Those on my team that were interested could read them; those who were not could ignore them.  While I do get occasional feedback from coworkers, I have no idea as to who reads this blog, or how often. That’s OK with me; if even one person finds value, then the exercise is worth it.

I also thought it was important to experience the technology first-hand.  Since I believe that CIOs should test and evaluate things, I wanted to see what it would be like to produce a blog on a regular basis.  Given the constant discussions of the value (or lack thereof) of social media technology in a corporate environment, having direct exposure makes me a more informed participant in the conversation.

In the course of writing, however, I discovered that there are many other side benefits to blogging:

  • You meet all sorts of interesting people. This is a huge, unexpected, pleasant occurrence. Many people have taken the time to either comment or email me about something I wrote and always teach me something new.
  • It can be clarifying. It really helps to write things down.  Many of my blog postings have allowed me to explore things in unexpected ways and given me insight into issues that I am dealing with.  I’ve found that writing enhances thinking; the opposite is not always the case.
  • It makes you a better writer. Writing is like public speaking: the more you do it, the easier it gets.  You also become very appreciative of those who write well.  Dashing off 500 words is not easy.  Dashing them off on a regular basis can be daunting, but the discipline required to do it builds character.

In the end, perhaps the best reason for blogging is that I enjoy doing it.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and I certainly love my job.  Combining the two seems like a natural fit.  It isn’t for everyone, of course; there seem to be fewer than two dozen blogging CIOs in the world.  That said, if you are at all inclined to write, I suggest you give blogging a try, regardless of your position in the world.  Mr. Keen’s opinions aside, anyone who has something to share should share it.

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Economic Indicators October 19, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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With the current economic malaise, everyone is looking for some sign that things are turning around.  I recently had a chance to check one of my favorite economic barometers and the news is not good. I am referring to the Vendor Exhibit Swag Index, which assesses the value of free items given away to attendees at major conference exhibits.  Having just returned from a week at OpenWorld, I can confirm that the VESI is down dramatically from last year.

A year ago, free iPods and Wii consoles were being thrown at attendees with wild abandon, and raffles for cars and motorcycles were common.  This year, you’ll be lucky to get a blinking pen or a small USB drive.  Even the bowls of candy atop the vendor tables looked like something left over from last Halloween. The tightening of marketing budgets tells you a lot about the finances of the company, and the VESI looks grim for 2009.

Beyond the disturbing economic news the show floor was, as always, a microcosm of the real world.

The OpenWorld exhibit floor is huge, occupying two floors in San Francisco’s Moscone center.  In the center of each floor is the high-rent district, the equivalent of Boardwalk and Park Place at the show. These booths are larger than some homes and are crawling with marketing folks who feign interest in your obscure IT problems while mentally counting the minutes until they can get out of their 3-inch heels.  The very priciest booths have two-inch padding under the carpet to soothe the aching feet of the vendors and customers.

When the VESI is high, in good years, you’ll find the best giveaways at these booths.  Crafty attendees know how to exploit a diversion, swooping in while a vendor is distracted to grab a pen, flashlight, or t-shirt. It takes a certain kind of person to score an entire bag of goodies without ever getting their badge scanned. For the discriminating IT professional, a single show like OpenWorld can yield a new wardrobe for an entire year, from casual t-shirts to dressy Polo shirts, topped off with a coveted logo jacket for the winter season.

Just off the center of the floor is the suburbs of the exhibits, with the starter booths and McMansions of the aspiring vendors. Not quite rich enough to run with the big boys, these vendors can still put up a nice booth with decent giveaways and a manageable staff. No padded carpet, mind you, but they might have some futuristic chairs for you to sit in.

Beyond these companies, though, lies the backwaters of the show floor: the little generic box booths that ring the room.  Here you’ll find the vendors that scraped together everything they had just to show up.  Often, the same two people will be in the booth for four days straight, dead on their feet by the end of the show.  You can almost imagine them maxing out their credit cards to get in, hoping that they’ll generate enough leads to justify the expense.  Their fixed smiles are overshadowed by the desperation in their eyes as you walk by.

And who hasn’t taken that awkward walk down the back aisle of a show?  Booth after booth of anxious vendors, hoping and praying that you’ll stop, chat, and place an order on the spot.  As you run that gauntlet, eyes averted, you can almost feel their shoulders slump as you pass by without stopping.

And what if they call out to you? “Can I tell you about our new product release?”  Like a knife in your heart. All you can do is quicken your pace, purse your lips in a tight smile, and quickly shake your head as you move on to the bright lights and excitement of the center of the floor.  Behind you, another broken vendor stands next to a bowl of individually wrapped Life Savers and a stack of literature, untaken. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, they think. Next year, we’ll spring for Reese’s Cups.

Let’s hope that next year is a better year, with a VESI through the roof and every vendor in a big, beautiful booth. And if you do go to a show, grab one of those pen/laser/USB/wifi-detectors for me.

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