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So In Conclusion October 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I once worked with a person who was brilliant but, shall we say, less than tactful.  He could be abrupt and had a tin ear for many societal niceties, especially with those that he felt were wasting his time.

Once he was sitting through an interminable technical presentation.  As the speaker went through his slides, the crowd became increasingly restless but sat politely.  My coworker could finally take no more and called out from the back of the room, “So in conclusion!”  The speaker, rattled, quickly wrapped up and released the crowd.

The common reaction among those in the meeting was to outwardly note the terribly rude behavior but inwardly breathe a sigh of relief.  No one wanted to sit there; one person had the nerve to express what everyone was thinking.

Who hasn’t been in this position?  Who hasn’t wished for someone to take one for the team and cut short an awful speaker? Yet we won’t, because most of us are far too civil to do such a rude thing in public.

Perhaps we should. I do a lot of speaking, and I always hope that I am serving my audience well.  But I know that I often do not, and that they would rather move things along and call it a day.  While being shouted at from the back of the room might be a bit much, I would truly appreciate a gentle comment to pick up the pace or to redirect the flow of the presentation.  Speaking is about serving the audience, not yourself.

Similarly, those of us speaking need to be attuned to the subtle cues that our audience is giving us.  Shouted advice notwithstanding, our audience is telling us how we are doing with their posture, their eyes, and their furtive text messaging below the table.  If your audience is drifting away, that’s your fault, not theirs.

Whether I am speaking or listening, I look forward to the end of the presentation. Not because it is over, but because that’s where the questions get asked.  I find a dialog between a speaker and the audience much more useful than a monologue. I view the speaking part of the engagement as a way to set the stage, to provide background information, and to pique the audience’s interest.  With appetites whetted, we can then engage in a directed conversation that everyone benefits from.

I am always frustrated by panel discussions. I love listening to panelists field questions from the audience, comparing divergent opinions on the fly.  Why, then, do panel moderators almost always arrange for panelists to speak for fifty minutes, allowing ten minutes at the end “in case there might be questions?”  “Might be?” I’d rather have the panelists speak for at most ten minutes, with fifty minutes guaranteed for questions. If they can’t generate any questions in ten minutes, you have the wrong panelists!

As always, speakers need to focus on their customer: the audience.  The audience wants to be entertained and educated; rarely do they simply want to bask in your presence.  In conclusion, we need to be more attuned to the subtle cues of our audience so that we meet and exceed their expectations.

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Ubi Nihil Est Facil October 7, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Back in the day, I was a software developer in a research group, fiddling with Unix and workstations and this new thing called ArpaNet.  Being young and too clever by half, I decided to create a logo for our department.  No logo is complete without a motto, and I settled on “Where Nothing Is Simple,” a testimony to the bureaucracy of my company.  Good mottos are in Latin, of course, and I needed to get this translated.

Back then, there were no online translation services.  To be honest, there was no “online” at this point in time, translation services or otherwise.  I did use a “phone book” (it’s like Google, but all printed out) to look up the number of the local high school.  I called the school (it’s like texting, but converted to voice) and spoke to the Latin teacher, and she gave me the translation: “Ubi Nihil Est Facil.”

But she offered more.  Why did I need this translated?  Would I like her to find a more colloquial translation, or a reference from Latin literature?  No need, I assured her, and went on to create my logo.

That teacher provided what is sorely lacking in so many of our automated, online services: a human touch.  We revel in our online world, where everything is a click away, but we have lost something in this shiny new place.  The results of our clicking are fairly sterile, and only the most mundane queries are truly resolved by some online search engine or database.

The “why” part of the answer, that only humans can contribute, is where the real value resides.  That Latin teacher knew she could provide a better answer if she knew why I was asking. She was so pleased that someone wanted to use Latin, she was excited to reach out and help.

We seek to automate more and more these days, migrating previously human interactions to web- and phone-based activities.  The brevity of text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook strip away the soft edges of our conversations and leave little room for the discerning moments that allow us to serve each other more effectively.  Our customers may be taken care of, but have they been cared for?

Don’t forget that all of this starts with people trying to do things with other people.  Although we in IT often drive the technology that creates these faceless systems, we should try to retain the human touch as much as possible.  Our customers will be happier, I think, and our systems will be better received.

And what of my logo?  Well, back then, bosses had a more classical education, and some even knew Latin.  My snarky motto raised a few eyebrows and generated some… conversations between myself and the management team.  A different kind of human touch, perhaps, but one that I have not forgotten.  Ubi nihil est facil, indeed.

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Bug In Your Ear? October 2, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
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Let’s set the groundwork for this post: I love gadgets.  Any and all of them.  Any device with a battery and blinking light gets my undivided attention; if it has settings and preferences, I’ll spend hours learning every last mode and option.  I have yet to meet an electronic object I don’t want to know more about.

Groundwork, part two: Although I have strong opinions on shoes and ties, I will never be thought of as a sartorial trend-setter. I enjoy fine clothing and constantly seek advice on how to mix, match, and wear the right shirt and slacks at the same time.  I’ll never learn, mind you, but hope springs eternal.

However, when gadgets and fashion collide, I am compelled to provide some general guidance.  And that brings me to today’s bit of fashion advice for the gadget-lovers in the audience:

Never, never, never wear a Bluetooth headset in public. Ever. Never.

As much as I love gadgets, and as cool as the concept of a wireless headset may be, there is no excuse to have a chunk of plastic stuck in your ear, twenty-four hours a day. Who in their right mind thinks this is a good look?

We have abandoned, with great reluctance, the pocket protector.  The vast majority of people would not consider strapping a calculator to their belt.  Yet an inordinate number of people seem to feel that a Bluetooth headset is a crucial part of their everyday attire.  Apparently, nothing completes an ensemble of sweatpants, tank top, and flip-flops better than a glowing thing stuck to your head.

Consider the person behind me in line at the deli counter, waiting to get sliced luncheon meat.  What crucial call do they expect to arrive while they are otherwise occupied with the details of turkey and cheese?  What call could be so urgent that the time it takes to get the phone from pocket to ear could make a difference?  A massive stock trade? Providing a nuclear launch code? Advice to a befuddled brain surgeon?  I can’t imagine, but that blinking blue light on the side of their head certainly tells me that they are much more important than the rest of us.

There is one exception to this rule.  I do use a Bluetooth headset while driving, but only when driving alone, and only in my right ear so it is not visible from the road.  My driving skills are such that the headset significantly improves my chances of arriving at my destination in one piece.  But when I do arrive, the headset comes off before I exit the car.

I suspect a lot of people think that these headsets look cutting edge, and tell the world that you are technologically savvy.  Well, they do prove that you can master pairing a headset with your phone, but other than that, you look like a dork.  I can say this with confidence, because I mastered that look long ago.

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Effective Dining September 28, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Early in my career, my company was hiring at a furious pace.  We interviewed people all the time, and rotated the “lunch slot” among our team.  When my turn came to handle the lunch interview, I had the opportunity to take a nice young woman out to the local Steak & Ale, where the vegetable of the day was green beans.  We had a typical interview lunch, until the waiter came to clear the plates.

Her plate was empty, but when the waiter lifted it away he revealed a neat semicircle of green beans, carefully hidden under the edge of the plate.  He and I both did a double-take, but she didn’t miss a beat.  She kept talking, took her napkin from her lap, covered the beans, and acted like nothing had happened.

What drove this behavior?  Had she heard it was bad form to not clean your plate at a lunch interview?  More importantly, how had she carefully hidden all those beans during the lunch without me noticing?  Certainly it was an impressive display of sleight of hand, if nothing else.

While I do not suggest hiding your vegetables during lunch, I do strongly recommend that people seeking gainful professional employment learn basic table manners.  As I attend various business functions involving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I am astounded at some of the bad behavior during meals.  I recently encouraged everyone to master the art of small talk; now I am going to ask that we all learn how to manage meals that are not wrapped in paper.

I’m not asking that we achieve a Martha Stewart/Miss Manners level of dining sophistication.  Rather, it would be good if we all know which way to pass things, how to deal with knives and forks, basic napkin management, and sharing baskets of bread.

Many people will scoff at this, insisting that the value of the meal is in the company, not in the precision of the passing.  I’d generally agree, but your actions make an impression, like it or not.  During introductory meals and interview situations, every little thing can matter.  Your Mom was right: first impressions are lasting, especially when you are talking with your mouth full.  Or, my personal peeve, placing your dirty napkin on the table while others are still eating. (Eww!)

For those who still insist that none of this should matter, I’d like to gently suggest that you may find greater success in a meal, well-managed, than you might imagine.  Your fellow diners will appreciate your knowledge of the basic table rules that can make a meal that much more elegant and enjoyable. It can’t hurt to learn the basics of courses, plates, knives, forks, and who gets which bread plate. (Easy: hold up your hands and touch your index fingers to your thumbs.  Your left hand has made a “b” and the right hand, a “d.” Your bread plate is to your left, and your drink is to your right.)

As for my lunch partner from long ago?  I can only remember two things: the image of those beans, lying on the table, and that we did not hire her.  Cause and effect?  I’ll never tell. But, would you please pass the butter?

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What Can You Capture? September 25, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
Tags: , ,

There is a lot of discussion these days on the topic of “knowledge capture.”  Recognizing that there is a lot of intellectual capital locked in the heads of employees, companies seek tools that will make it easier to find, categorize, and ultimately share this information.  This is particularly important in industries where an aging workforce is retiring and taking a lifetime of knowledge with them.

As wonderful as it sounds, I don’t think knowledge capture is possible.  Certainly not in the sense that it can be published and managed like a vast database, to be perused by those not yet enlightened.  We are trying to treat knowledge like data, and that’s just not possible.

We have no problem capturing data.  Data is nothing more than facts, collected and indexed.  We have data streaming at us all the time, and computers are great at grabbing and storing all that data.  We also have great tools for searching all this data.  Google is the pre-eminent example; given a vast database of facts regarding which web page contains certain terms, Google will quickly tell you which pages match your query.

Stepping up from data, we have information.  Information is data, correlated.  Thus, a collection of temperature readings across the country is simply data.  Those readings, correlated to produce areas of equal temperature, become information that will expose patterns that the individual data elements cannot disclose.

We have many tools to turn data into information, loosely grouped into that class of applications known as “business intelligence.”  Depending on the usefulness of the tools, the correlated information may prove valuable or useless.  Google is notoriously hit-or-miss on this; searches for certain phrases can yield bizarre search results, because Google cannot extend a clean semantic model onto the queries it services.  For example, this blog gets hit on a daily basis by searches on “Scarlett O’Hara” because I once wrote one post about her.  I am pretty sure that those seeking Scarlett are not looking for IT management advice, yet Google keeps delivering that result.

Google keeps making that error because it lacks knowledge.  Knowledge is the result of placing information into the hands of someone with relevant skills and experience.  With knowledge, information becomes useful.  In our temperature example, the information represented by the temperature gradients allows a trained meteorologist to figure out when it might rain.  In the hands of a lay person, it is just an interesting picture.

You can argue that some knowledge can be captured; that’s why we have books.  I’d agree, but define what was captured as “shallow knowledge:” the part of knowledge that is close to the information, that involves repeatable activities, easily described.  I can read a book and learn calculus, but knowing how to apply the calculus to a problem is far deeper and more intuitive.  That’s “deep knowledge:” the complex ideas that knowledge capture seeks to document and categorize.

Regrettably, deep knowledge is almost impossible to capture.  Consider the knowledge required to drive a car.  Could you write down everything you know about driving?  Could you even say it all?  Absolutely not.  The core of driving, what makes you good at it, was learned by practice and observation, absorbing lessons that are unspoken.

So it is with all deep knowledge.  Imagine trying to write down how to negotiate with a vendor: reading body language, verbal cues, etc.  You can’t; you learn it by watching a skilled negotiator.  Even the skilled negotiator may not be able to express what they do; they just “know.”

The ease of data capture and the improvements in deriving information imply that the next level, knowledge capture, is possible and even easy. I contend it is not; while some rote knowledge may be captured, really important knowledge is only learned over time through continuous exposure to a master, much like a traditional apprenticeship.  Our fascination with tools misleads us into thinking that there is a tool for everything; I don’t know that there is a tool for true, deep knowledge capture. I think that the real answer is one I’ve promoted before: know who knows, and learn from them before they are gone.

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