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Soup And Flowers April 10, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Jerry Clower often told the story of the best neighbor he ever knew, a fellow named Ben:

Many years ago, Ben lived next door to an elderly widower, Mr. Johnson, and took it upon himself to help his neighbor.  Every day, Ben made soup and carried it next door for lunch with the old man.

Eventually, the old man passed away.  As he had for many years, Ben made soup and carried it to the old man’s house.  There he found the house filled with flowers, with many mourners paying their respects to Ben, who was laid out in the parlor.  The other mourners laughed when Ben arrived.  “Why did you bring soup? Mr. Johnson is dead!”  Ben didn’t miss a beat: “He can taste my soup just as well as he can smell your flowers!”

More recently, Susan Mazza posted a blog entry on Hidden Heroes.  She talked about the hidden heroes in each of our lives, those people that quietly influenced us and made us better people.  She shared the story of her hidden hero, her mother-in-law Ada.  She also admonished her readers to make sure that we tell our hidden heroes how we feel about them, while we can.

The resulting comments are inspiring.  People shared who their heroes were, and many concluded by noting that they would make sure to share how they felt.

Tim Russert’s book, Wisdom Of Our Fathers, is a collection of tribute letters written by adult children, about their fathers.  These letters were inspired by Russert’s book, Big Russ and Me, which is a tribute to his father.  Russert got so many letters he compiled them into a book. Many of the letters end with a similar regret: “I wish I had told him…” or “If only he knew…”

Ben’s elderly neighbor may or may not have been a hero to Ben, but he knew how Ben felt about him every day.  While those who brought the flowers to the viewing could claim to have shared their feelings, tasting that soup every day meant a whole lot more than heaps of flowers, after the fact.

Susan’s readers heard the same call to share before it is too late, and will have the opportunity to let their heroes know how they feel.  Russert’s, for the most part, are not so lucky, and missed a chance to say a few words that, guaranteed, would mean more than anything else (anything else) to their Dad.

We all have that chance to share, every day, with people that mean a little or a lot to us.  As leaders, do our people know how we feel about them? Do your mentors know how they’ve helped and how you feel?  Conversely, are you so wrapped up in your job that you haven’t shared your feelings with a neighbor or relative?

Last week, I encouraged everyone to deliver pansies but plant tulips.  This week, take the time to make sure someone tastes your soup before your only choice is to carry them flowers.

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My Book Signing October 29, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I once wrote a book called HTML: The Definitive Guide.  As the title implies, it is not so much as blockbuster bodice-ripper as it is a technical book.  It covers everything you ever wanted or needed to know about creating web pages using raw HTML.  When it first came out in 1996, HTML was all the rage and the book was favorably received among those who know their attributes from their end tags.

But this is not a tale of technology, but one of humility.

Needless to say, when my book was first published I was very excited.  The book even hit #1 on Amazon’s technology book charts for a while, which was kind of cool.  So you can imagine my excitement when my publisher, O’Reilly & Associates, called to say that my local bookstore wanted to sponsor a book signing.

A book signing!  This was the real deal! I imagined sitting at a table, a stack of books to the side, a line of people trailing off into the store, engaging in brief but fascinating small talk as each prospective web author came up to get their book signed by the Author.

So the big day came.  I arrived at the store and found that they even had a sign announcing the big event.  Wow!  There was my table, and a stack of books, and a few pens.  I took a seat and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And no one came.  No one.  I sat and smiled, hands neatly folded on the table, as shoppers came and went, buying real books that they would actually read.  For over an hour, I sat.  Most people awkwardly looked the other way as they passed by my table.

And then, a woman approached.  Yes!  She paused, looked at my sign, and asked, “Is your book about the Internet?”

“Yes!  Yes it is!” (sort of, but at this point, my book would be anything she needed)

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Absolutely!  How can I help you?”  (By now, I actually had a pen in hand)

“I have a computer at home, and it has one of those modem cards in it.  And on the back of my computer, where the card is, there are two places to plug in the phone wire.  One is labeled ‘Line’ and the other is labeled ‘Phone.’  Which one do I plug the wire from the wall into?”

“You should plug it into the one labeled ‘Line.'”

“Oh.  OK.  Thanks!”

And she was gone.  I put down my pen.

No one else came.  I never signed a single book that night.

Sometimes things that mean a lot to us don’t mean so much to everyone else.  And sometimes things that mean very little to us mean a whole lot to someone else. And sometimes we can have a very difficult time telling which is which.

Slices Of Apple, Part 1 July 27, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I beat up on Microsoft a lot (and offer praise when it is justified). In the spirit of fairness, it’s Apple’s turn, given the absolute debacle of the rollout of the iPhone 3G and related technologies.  It’s a great case study for CIOs, developers, and just about every IT person in between. Over the next few days, I’ll be extracting some lessons to be learned from Apple’s ongoing woes.

Stay Humble

Pride goes before destruction,
a haughty spirit before a fall. -Proverbs 16:18

Before dissecting the specifics of Apple’s problems, it’s important to note that they set themselves up for all the scorn and criticism they are now getting.  Apple has spent years poking at Microsoft, using every failure to highlight how great and infallible Apple products are.  Bug-free, easy to use, simple to configure, and secure, Apple has people believing that their systems and software are somehow different from every other piece of software out there.  When Apple products fail, people are astoundingly forgiving. A similar failure from a Microsoft product yields everything but torch-lit marches on Redmond. Somehow, Apple is just too cool to be wrong.

When things began to unravel, you couldn’t help but be amused as the problems began to pile up during the iPhone rollout.  For anyone who has lived through a less-than-perfect deployment of any system, big or small, it was somehow reassuring to see Apple struggle just like the rest of us.  In the end, software is software, and poor execution yields lousy results, no matter who runs the company or how fanatical the customer base becomes.

The most damaging aspect of all this is that, for the first time, Apple’s shiny reputation has been tarnished outside of the IT community.  Nerds can recount problems with Apple OS releases and other odd product failures, but for the mass of mortals who use iPods and iPhones, their infallible technology provider has stumbled, revealed to be just another purveyor of buggy, poorly tested software.  Apple couldn’t always live up to its over-hyped reputation, and that day of reckoning has finally come due.  The cost of that slip, given their previous arrogance, will be huge.

The lesson to be learned is simple: stay humble.  No matter how good your track record, you are just one project away from a similar disaster.  Lose focus for one minute and you’ll be digging out from a pile of problems.  The price of great IT execution is eternal vigilance.  No one, at any level, ever gets to let up, slip up, or give up.

When things go well, be thankful, show your appreciation to those who really enabled the success, and don’t let it go to your head.  That way, when things go poorly (and sooner or later, they will) you won’t have people rooting against you if only to reward your ego and arrogance. That’s one lesson from Apple that applies not only to project management, but to every aspect of life.