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Fighting Fires November 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Few phrases will sharpen the mind of an IT professional more than “we have an outage.”  Outages are to be avoided at all costs, the bane of our existence.  We all work diligently to build systems that will never fail.  We build in redundancy so that users will never know that a particular piece of equipment went off-line, or that someone kicked a cable out of the wall.  We are definitely a belt-and-suspenders crowd.

In a sense, that’s a shame.  Don’t misunderstand; I’m certainly not advocating more frequent outages as a way to spice up our day-to-day lives. But if you never have an outage, you’re missing a big opportunity: the chance to see your staff really shine.

Good IT people rise to the challenge of an outage.  Mindful of the impact, not wanting to disappoint customers, challenged by the technical problems, a good operations team will do amazing things to get their systems back up and running. It is a privilege just to watch them in action.

As much as your people make things look easy when all is going well, you are quickly reminded of how complicated their world really is when things run off the rails.  The many levels of abstraction coupled with the intricate details make it almost impossible for any one person to fully understand how all the pieces fit together.  A good team will play off one another, sharing information and supplying clues that collectively solve the problem.

How does this happen?  It certainly isn’t by chance.  Good operations teams develop a deep sense of ownership for the systems they tend.  It isn’t “a system;” it is “their system.”  Typically, they built it from the ground up, know every bit of software installed on it, and configured most of the settings themselves.  Like a mechanic and an automobile, a systems administrator forms bonds with their systems that will pay off when the chips are down.

To outsiders, this sounds a bit odd and even creepy.  But anyone who has been in operations understands this completely.  Each system is special and requires specific attention in unique ways.  You cannot typically step up and just take control, you have to know how and why each component was added and maintained.  Great operations people have this knowledge and use it to their advantage when needed.

Make sure you give IT people the chance to own their systems.  They need to be included in the design and development early on, integral to the decisions that drive the system design.  As the systems mature and develop, your people will acquire the knowledge that will really make them shine when things go wrong.  And may you never have a chance to see your people at their very best, when they are digging out from a disaster.

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Knowing When To Stop October 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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A recent issue of Wired had a great article on the concept of good enough: when products meet enough needs that consumers are happy. The author gave several examples of good enough: MP3s instead of CDs, Flip cameras instead of high-end video cameras, and even Predator drones instead of manned fighter jets.  In each case, the product is woefully short of perfection, but is still so useful that the perfect alternative is being sidelined in the market space. (As an aside, you may not need to read the entire Wired article; for many of you, my summary will be good enough).

The idea of good enough is certainly not new, and is simply the latest incarnation of the 80/20 rule.  Unfortunately, I think many of us who understand the 80/20 rule are still struggling to implement it in practice.  It turns out it is really hard to know when to stop.

In a world of dwindling development resources, knowing when to stop is crucial to providing maximum service for the minimum investment.  The moment a developer begins working on the eighty-first percentile of a project, they have gone too far.  They need to be pulled off and turned loose on the first percent of the next project.  This is true for everyone in the development stream: the business analysts, the designers, the infrastructure people, everyone.  At some point, they are spending too much time on a project, expending effort that will not result in proportionally additional value.  They need to let go and move on.

[Note that this is not true for testers.  There is no 80/20 rule for testers.  They need to test 100% of the 80% that has been built.  More on this in another post.]

The problem is that no one knows when they have reached the eighty percent point.  Very few projects have a bounded definition that makes it easy to see when enough is enough.  Even when you do have such a bounded definition, user-induced scope creep can easily push that definition further and further out, dragging the eighty-percent point along with it.

It is often the case that a team will unknowingly extend the scope of a project as they work through the details of the spec.  Seemingly appropriate questions lead people down paths that occupy way too much of their time.  Everyone in the room knows how they got there, and why they are discussing some arcane feature, but no one was able to throw the flag and stop the process along the way. It all seems to make sense at the time.

That’s when you need a “sudden interrupter:” someone who comes to the process late, has not been a part of the incremental walk, and can easily see that things are off-track. They provide a bit of cognitive dissonance that allows the team to reset, regroup, and reassess what they are doing. Even if the group decides that they do want to continue their discussion, the pause allows them to confirm that they are on the right track.

I doubt that many people carry the title of Sudden Interrupter, but I’m beginning to think we need a few of them wandering about.  Gentle challenges during any decision-making process are generally helpful, whether you are designing software or refining a budget.  If nothing else, having to explain “why” to an outside observer is a constructive, cathartic exercise. So, go help someone.  Interrupt them!

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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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Management By Colorforms August 31, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As big a fan as I am of technology and tools, sometimes the simplest things really are the best.

At my company, we have some sophisticated tools for tracking our project portfolio, managing schedules, resources, and priorities.  We use these tools to drive planning and prioritization meetings, as well as to help our customers understand our planning and resource processes.  They provide greater insight into the ebb and flow of the work we do.

There are tools at the other end of the spectrum, too.  In addition to our portfolio management system, I also keep a list of various projects on my white board.  These are the projects that matter to me, for one reason or another.  Some are big, some are small.  Some are strategic, some are tactical.  Some have great political implications, while others may be the linchpin of a critical operational process.  But all of them matter to me, somehow.

Next to each project, I place a 2×2-inch vinyl square, either red, yellow, or green.  This is the same kind of vinyl used in those Colorform sets from our childhood, where you would stick different vinyl shapes onto a slick black background to create pictures.  That same vinyl sticks nicely to a whiteboard, and allows me to express my gut feel about a project.  Red expresses grave concern, yellow shows some doubt, and green denotes that all is well.

I update the squares as the mood strikes and as updates flow in from my team.  When good news arrives, a project may “go green;” bad news pushes a project down to yellow or (yikes) red.

Each day, as I arrive in the office, I place a small purple dot next to each square.  If someone comes and updates me on a project, I erase all the dots next to it on my board.  If a project is neglected for a period of time, the dots accumulate.  If a lot of dots collect next to a project, I know to go hunt down someone and get an update.

This highly complicated scheme was originally created to help me keep track of lots of projects quickly.  It certainly works in that regard.  But the real value of this system is what it has done to my team.

As people come and go in my office, they always stop and check the board, looking for their projects.  They want to know that they are green or yellow, and do not like being red.  They want to make sure that dots are not piling up.  This generates lots of conversation, which is always a good thing.  The board also lets people know which projects are top-of-mind for me, although I sometimes need to remind them that projects missing from the board still matter.

Just as importantly, people must come into my office to see the board.  At some point, it was suggested that I aim a webcam at the board, so people could review it from afar.  I declined.  I like that people must go to the board to see what is going on, and I like the quality conversations that ensue.  I am also told that people stop by when they know I am not here, for a “safe” peek at the board.  That’s OK, too. As long as people are talking and interacting, good things will result.

In spite of all of our fancy tools and systems, simple things often work best.  What’s the simplest tool you use to be an effective leader?  Have you considered Colorforms?

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Longevity August 19, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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In my organization, we have quarterly all-hands meetings.  Depending on the calendar, the meetings have different agendas that match the flow of our business year.  But no matter what the time of year, we always celebrate service awards.

There are always a bunch of one- and five-year awards, which are great to celebrate.  Just last week, however, we celebrated a ten-year and a twenty-year service anniversary!  In these days of rapid turnover and short-term jobs, seeing someone spend twenty years at a company is a rare delight.

Beyond the award, however, was the manner of celebrating.  In both cases, the presenting manager had prepared a slide show of photos spanning the career of the individuals.  As the pictures went by, people would laugh and remember a moment, calling out a particular memory or exclaiming over long-lost hair and out-of-date clothes.  And the pictures weren’t just taken at work.  They showed coworkers bowling, at hockey games, and socializing with their kids.  In short, the slide shows captured years of friendship intertwined with work.

Beyond the slides, others got up and shared funny stories and past memories.  It was a great testimony not just to the honorees, but to the organization whose culture created those memories and shared stories.  I’ve only been there just under five years, but I was proud to be a part of such a tight-knit team.

These days, much is made of the new workforce, able to move from job to job, bartering skills via the internet and working remotely from home.  It is said that people may have ten or more jobs in their career.  Over a 45 year career, that means you won’t even last five years in any one place.  While this may be the best way to broker your skills and make a living, it doesn’t seem to be the best way to create these bonded teams with a long, mutual history.

I think that’s sad.  I’m all for the modern technology that enables all this job hopping and remote access, but I sure hope we aren’t sacrificing the crucial personal bonds that make work so rich and rewarding.  When we reach the end of our careers, the projects we worked on long ago will be forgotten, but the people we knew along the way will form the memories that we keep.

Perhaps the social network tools with which we currently tinker will provide the connections that will last beyond individual jobs.  Maybe the foundation of these long-term relationships will shift from our place of work to the hub of our social networks.  Will we someday celebrate twenty years of tweeting?  Perhaps, but I don’t know that all of our followers will gather to see our photos and exclaim as we put on our new watch.

Truly rewarding work is often coupled with long, strong bonds between people.  As traditional ways of creating those bonds fade away, what should we be doing to create them in new ways?  Who will celebrate you in twenty years?

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