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Got A Marker? January 15, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.

I’ve got a small confession to make. I am addicted to whiteboards.  Not whiteboard markers, mind you, although the odor can be intoxicating.  I mean whiteboards.

In meetings, I can hardly stand to not draw on the board.  If something is worth talking about, it certainly warrants a diagram or two. I am a big believer in “boxes and lines” diagrams.  If any two entities have a relationship, you can create a boxes-and-lines diagram to help express it better. Charts, trees, lists, timelines, you name it: I’d prefer to draw it out.

I’ve noticed that some people share my compulsion and others seem to have no need to leap up and draw things.  My need is so great that it was a running joke among some co-workers as to how long I could hold out before jumping to the board. How could anyone live without a whiteboard handy?

Obviously, some people are wired for visual communication and others are not.  Some people can read volumes of information and internalize it without the need for pictures.  My brain is not so gifted; I need to explicitly render the relationship to fully understand it.  I also like to color-code elements if possible, to further elaborate on important aspects of the diagram.

This affection is so bad that when I do not have a whiteboard handy, I am almost at a loss for words. Almost.  In a pinch, I’ll sketch on a sheet of paper or a napkin, but it’s not quite the same as a full whiteboard. As much as I love words, they seem incomplete without a diagram.

Don’t get the idea that I’m any sort of artist.  When I say “boxes and lines,” I mean boxes and lines and not much more.  I once even took a course on how to doodle, learning how to create little people and other elements of quick sketches.  It helped a bit, but you won’t find any of my work hanging anywhere anytime soon.

This deep desire leads to one of my fondest dreams: a world where everything is made of whiteboard material.  Imagine being able to draw on the walls and doors and tables!  A quick sketch on the dashboard of your car (while safely parked, of course) would be a wonderful thing.  Jotting a note or two in an elevator or on a credenza might be just the thing to get your idea across in a pinch.

Sadly, as you move up the management ladder, the whiteboards diminish.  Cubicle farms and team meeting rooms seem to be covered with whiteboards; management offices tend to have fewer, smaller whiteboards, often hidden behind a wooden panel or a projection screen.  People at every level need to draw; why can’t we have whiteboards everywhere?

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Losing Words January 13, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.

In their 1972 hit Sylvia’s Mother, pop group Dr. Hook tells the story of a jilted lover trying to reach his ex-girlfriend, only to be stopped by her mother.  As he pleads his case on the phone, the memorable hook of the song tells how the operator kept breaking in, demanding “forty cents more, for the next three minutes.”

As I listened to this song recently, it occurred to me that a younger audience might be puzzled by these unusual lyrics.  What is an “operator?” Why would they be demanding money?  Forty cents for three minutes? How would you pay them? Technology has marched on, leaving language (and old pop hits) behind.

The operator, of course, was a human who helped complete calls.  Before cell phones, people used pay phones to make calls away from home, ponying up spare change to stay on the line.  While the first three minutes might run you a dime (and later, a quarter), subsequent blocks of three minutes could cost a lot more.  To stay on the line, you fed change into the phone.

To the modern ear, this sounds no different from instructions on how to tan your own leather or fashion a thatch roof.  The concepts are so foreign that the words barely make sense.  Yet this song describes things that were commonplace just thirty years ago!

Much of our language is derived from current technology, forming a common cultural base. As the rate of technological change increases, language cannot keep up, stranding all sorts of shared phrases.  While amusing, I think it also creates an ever-wider disconnect between generations, making communication more difficult.

Even in the past ten years, many ideas have simply disappeared.  Back last century, people needed to rewind things.  Now, no modern device requires rewinding.  We’re at the point where nothing spins to make music; how would a 50s DJ describe his world if unable to “spin stacks of wax?” People will soon wonder why we “dial” phones.  I suspect that the number of US citizens that have actually operated a dial telephone is rapidly declining.

In a similar fashion, acronyms continue to shrink, encoding more information in shorter sounds.  During World War II, acronyms started out as concatenated syllables from related words, pronounced as a single word.  “CINCPAC” is the Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific, “CONUS” is the Continental US, and so forth.

By the 1960s, acronyms became individual letters strung together to make words (NASA, ASCII, etc).  This happy state has existed for a while, and no product or process worth its salt is without a clever acronym that forms a related word.

Now we’ve started pronouncing the acronyms for shorthand abbreviations, creating new words. I’ve actually heard people say “lol” and “brb” in running conversation, without a hint of sarcasm.  This is different from traditional acronyms, which typically represent nouns.  Now we are collapsing and pronouncing verb phrases and even whole short sentences.  This cannot be good for general communication.

What to do? Not much, I’m afraid. In between more-frequent trips to Urban Dictionary, I’ll go back to listening to Dr. Hook. They had another hit song that involved getting their picture on the cover of a magazine.  As I understand it, a “magazine” is like an entire web site, printed and bound as a sequence of “pages.”  The “cover” is the first page, and often had a photo on it.  Imagine!

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Fixing Little Things January 8, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.

I like to tinker with computers. I especially like to make sure that my computer is running as efficiently as possible.  This can be a challenge, given that more and more background tasks drain away precious cycles from the work that I want to do.

Recently, I noticed that my laptop was consuming 30-40% of its CPU while idling, instead of the normal 5-6%.  I can tolerate losing a bit of capacity to background activity, but 30% is intolerable.  After some analysis, I discovered (surprise!) that some obscure Windows process was cycling every second, doing something.  But what?

It turns out that I had recently installed an updated sound driver.  That driver enabled “enhanced features” like bass boost and surround sound that can be turned on and off on the fly.  The driver was checking, once each second, to see if I had suddenly enabled an enhanced feature.  Once I disabled all the enhanced features, the driver settled down and my machine returned to idling at 5% or so.  Once again, man triumphs over machine.

In some cases, we get so accustomed to dealing with these things that we just accept them as part of our world.  I put up with that driver issue for a while before I finally decided to dig in and fix it.  Some people would have just assumed that having your machine run at 30% utilization is normal, and not bothered with it at all. Many of us are just too busy to find and fix these little things, even though we know they are negatively affecting us.

Much as this errant driver consumed a disproportionate amount of time on my machine, it is the little things in our world that do the same thing to our personal and professional lives. Few of us have giant, gaping problems that overwhelm us on a regular basis.  Instead, we have a number of seemingly small items that ultimately limit our ability to succeed.

How many of these little things in our lives consume more of our time than they are worth?  What aspects of our personal lives are less of a help than a hindrance?  Similarly, are there little things in our business that absorb too much time and effort?  Is there a process that needs tweaking, or a policy to be updated?

It is only natural to look for the big problems and tackle them.  It may be more productive, however, to ferret out the tiny things that actually have a bigger impact.  What little thing will you find and fix today?

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Game Face January 6, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.

In the Autozone Liberty Bowl on January 2,  Arkansas and East Carolina University were locked in a 17-17 tie as the fourth quarter wound down. ECU’s kicker, Ben Hartman, missed two field goal attempts in the final few minutes that would have sealed a victory, and went on to miss a field goal attempt in overtime.  Arkansas then kicked a field goal to win.

My heart broke for this young man. Imagine missing not one, not two, but three field goals in five minutes, resulting in your team losing a bowl game. And no matter what words of condolence his teammates may offer him, I suspect Ben Hartman will blame himself for this loss for a long time.  The truth, of course, is that a football game is lost over the course of sixty minutes, not in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

As much as I agonized watching the kicker struggle, I was amazed to see how his coach, Skip Holtz, handled the situation.  This would have been a big win for Holtz and his team.  I’m sure there was bonus money on the table, and big career implications.  And how did Holtz handle the tense closing moments of the game?

He laughed.  He joked with his kicker.  He kept the mood light, even after two missed kicks and an ice-the-kicker timeout from Arkansas.  Understanding the pressure this young man was under, Holtz maintained his composure and did everything he knew to help his kicker succeed. Even the announcers were wondering what Holtz could possibly be saying to relieve the stress on Hartman.

I don’t know what Holtz said, but it was a classic example of a leader maintaining his composure during a tough situation.  While very few of us will have to lead a football team to a bowl victory, we will certainly have to guide our teams through difficult times to achieve important goals.  Understanding the stress and finding ways to distract your people from it are important parts of good leadership.

This aspect of leadership is important in both immediate and long-term situations.  Sometimes, a sudden problem explodes.  How you handle yourself on the spur of the moment will go a long way in helping your team confront and quell the issue at hand.  A light mood, a firm decision, and an upbeat approach can make a big difference.

Other times, you are confronted with a long-term, difficult problem.  A high-risk project can last for months, wearing out your team.  A difficult business climate puts people under stress week after week.  No matter what the cause, being able to sustain the right attitude as a leader is crucial.  No matter your personal concerns or stress, you must put on your game face each day and provide unwavering support to your team.

Leaders need to be able to handle both the quick-hit and long-term problems.  Your people will look to you as they form their own reactions to a problem.  If you, like Skip Holtz, can manage a joke and a smile as kick after kick sails wide, you’ll be doing your people a huge favor.

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Being Remembered January 4, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.

During lunch with a friend last month, she noted that everyone dies two deaths.  Intrigued, I asked her to explain.  The first, she noted, was the physical death that we will all encounter.  The second, however, occurs the last time your name is spoken.  After that point, you are truly dead and forgotten.

What a concept! It immediately brings to mind those timeless names that will never die, those rare few that have had an eternal impact on our lives and society.  But it also leads us to reflect on the billions whose names have slipped into obscurity, and whose impact, however large or small, has stopped reverberating in this world.

This idea was brought into sharper focus for me last week when I learned of the death of Tim Hartselle, with whom I worked many years ago.  I’ve written before about Tim here, but did not mention him by name.  Tim once worked for me as a Unix administrator.  He wasn’t very good at Unix but found great success in email administration.  I often tell Tim’s story as an example of how seemingly difficult circumstances (losing his dream job of being a Unix admin) can lead to unexpected success in ways you never imagined.

Tim was a great, gentle man, with a ready smile and a sincere heart.  His first death came at 47, way too early.  So I mention his name here to do my part in forestalling his second passing.  If you ever need a story that demonstrates success borne of adversity, you may wish to use Tim’s name as well, extending that second demise.

It may seem odd to start a new year on such a somber note, but I prefer to see the opportunity that is presented.  With a fresh year spread before us, what will you do to make your name memorable?  I’m not thinking of notorious fame, either criminal or celebrity, but the kind of fame borne of doing good things on a continuous basis.

Most of us start the year pledging to lose weight, exercise more, and to cultivate more good habits than bad.  Most of those resolutions fall by the wayside, even with the best of intentions.  This year, take a different tack.  Resolve to do things this year in such a way that your name will be remembered, long after you are gone. Being remembered, in a good way, may yield a better year than any other resolution you can make.

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