Posted tagged ‘software engineering’

A second opinion

November 17, 2011

I have no idea what the inside of my body looks like and I have only a vague notion of what each of the pieces-parts are doing at any given moment.  Like most of us, I do have suspicions about when something might be wrong, but that’s when I typically turn to a pro and his or her tools and knowledge (like MRI’s, stethoscopes, etc.) to help figure out what’s going on in there.   It’s the only body I have and I plan to put it to continued good use well into the future.

And if I suspected that something was seriously wrong, I might even get ‘a second opinion.’  Depending on my insurance, I might have to pay out of my own pocket for that opinion, and there’s also a good chance I might hear the same feedback I got from the first physician, but hey, this could be serious and I can’t afford to take chances!

I work with a lot of organizations who rely on software and information technology about as heavily as I rely on my body.   In many cases, software runs their business and gives them a competitive advantage.   And many of these business users know as much about their software’s inner workings as I do about my body’s.    After all, it’s not their field of expertise.  They have IT professionals who are working ‘under the covers’ to make their software do what it’s supposed to do.

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But I’ve noticed they rarely, if ever, seek a second opinion.  Sometimes that takes the form of a “software audit” or a “code review.”   Usually, it’s done by an independent third party who, like a medical second opinion, may completely agree with what their IT pros are telling them.  On the other hand, if something is not being done according to best practices or industry standards, that’s about the only way they are ever going to find out.

Health Care has second opinions.  Construction has building inspectors.  Even elevators have to be routinely inspected.  Isn’t it about time the software industry grew up and realized that even though you may not always get a ‘clean bill of health’ from your audit, that’s better than waiting til they break out the scalpels…?

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Speed Racer

November 10, 2011

My daughter ran in the Grand Rapids Marathon a few weeks back.  She finished in 4 hours and 30 minutes, which I believe is a respectable time to run 26 miles if you’re not from Kenya.  One of the things I learned from her preparations is that you have to have a “plan” for your race.  Her plan, apparently, was to use her heart rate to determine how fast to run each mile, striving to keep a relatively steady beats per minute, which may lead to less buildup of lactic acid or other ‘cramp inducers.’  Near as I can tell, she ran the first half of the race just slightly slower than the last half, but kept a pretty steady pace throughout.  Good for her!

I have decided, though, that if I ever run a marathon, I will take a vastly different and obviously superior approach.  I will jog the first 16 miles of the race and then sprint the last ten.   I am pretty confident I can beat her time by doing that.  I can jog 16 miles briskly in about 3 hours, and then sprint the last ten at ten miles per hour, in another 60 minutes, finishing in 4 hours.  Take that!

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I was committed to this plan until a few friends asked some probing questions like, “Bob, have you ever sprinted ten miles?”    Brutally, they followed up with, “Have you ever sprinted even two miles?”  And then, the coup de grace, “Have you ever sprinted even one mile after jogging 16??”

At that point, I realized the flaw in my plan.  Trying to go faster at the end of a long race is no strategy for success especially if:

a) you’re out of shape or

b) you’ve never done it before

So why do so many project teams and project managers think they can get to the halfway point of a project in six months and then finish the other half in two??

It’s gotta be the lactic acid buildup…

Talk to me!

October 6, 2011

I turns out that the first Secretary General of the U.N. was a Norwegian named Trygve LieHe served from the inception of the U.N. in 1946 until 1952, when Dag Hammarskjold took over.  Given that subsequent SG’s have been named Banki, Kofi and Boutros, I am guessing that if your name is Bill, you have no shot at the post.  But that’s not the point.

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I can imagine that Trygve was pretty excited when he got the job.  Imagine!  Bringing representatives from all over the world to discuss world affairs in one, big forum!  I wonder what day he woke up and thought, “oh crap, they all speak different languages.  This is going to be awkward…”  To this day, I am still fascinated when I see pictures of the U.N. with all the reps wearing headphones so they can hear the translation of the speaker’s words into their own tongue.  Phew, the logistics!!

I am equally fascinated that many of the project stakeholders and sponsors I work with have no idea that the systems and applications that they have bought, built and installed throughout their enterprise over the past 20 years are essentially the nerd equivalent of the U.N.  They seem to have little appreciation for the fact that their HR System speaks Swahili, their Invoicing System speaks Russian, and their Point of Sales System is a mute who, if she could speak, would speak Farsi.

So let’s declare this week Language Appreciation Week.  If you are working with someone who is trying to get two systems to talk to each other and, in fact, have an intelligent conversation, cut them some slack and recognize that it’s harder than you may think.  Right, Trygve?

Schaden-what???

July 21, 2011

As many of you astute linguists know, Schadenfreude is a German word that basically means “taking pleasure in the misfortune of others…”  Germans have a more sophisticated word for this than we do because, well, first of all, they are more disciplined and sophisticated, and secondly, they like to create long, complex nouns for everything near as I can tell.  Our best options in English seem to be “I told you so” and “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah…”

All in all, though, I’d say the whole concept is pretty childish and selfish.

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So imagine my shock this week when I caught myself slipping into the world of Schaden.  I am working on a project with some pretty aggressive deadlines (read, virtually impossible to meet) and a team that, though dedicated, is quite novice at taking on such an intense project.  I feel like, as a good consultant should, I have pointed out these things to the stakeholders, but they have doggedly persisted in their approach and retained their timelines.  I suppose that’s their prerogative.

Then, all of a sudden, I was filled with anticipation of a day that might come when they have missed all their deadlines, and I could trot out, even if it was unspoken, with a gleeful “I told you so.”  Fess up – the reason there’s a word for this is German is because it’s pretty innate human behavior.  You’ve done it too, haven’t you?

But the reality is it’s not helpful to anyone to behave this way.  I caught myself and have renewed my determination to find ways to bring this thing to a positive outcome, or at least go down with the team.  Next time you find yourself in a similar situation, remember there’s no Schadenfreud in “team…”

Less is More

April 7, 2011

I had a strange convergence of events this week.  I have been working closely with a client during the requirements phase of a big, complex project that could easily evolve into “more is more” if we’re not careful.  I am reading ReWork by Jason Fried, which is just an interesting little collection of one or two page thoughts on how to work smarter and be more productive.  On page 83, there’s a segment titled “Throw Less at the Problem.”   Inspiring and counter-intuitive!  But here’s the convergence topper!

I was watching Jimmy Fallon’s talk show.  His guest was Jerry Weintraub who, among other things, supposedly managed Elvis Presley’s road show engagements for a while.  He told a great anecdote on the show, which I will try to summarize:

He said he booked Elvis at an afternoon gig in Miami in July.   According to Jerry, Elvis had two key requirements for his performances:

  1. there need to be women in the front rows of the audience (duh)
  2. the venue has to be full

Jerry booked an 10,000 seat arena for the show.  He called to check on ticket sales and was told by the local promoter that the show had sold out.  When Jerry got there the day of the show, the promoter fessed up and said they really had only sold 5,000 seats and that he lied about the sales because he thought that’s what Jerry wanted to hear.  Who wants to go to an indoor concert in the middle of a July afternoon in Miami??  So Jerry had to sell 5,000 seats in a few hours to make sure the arena was full for Elvis’ concert.  Or did he???

He said he hired a few local workers and removed 5,000 seats from the arena!  Brilliant! Elvis was very happy with the “sellout” for the show.

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So next time, before you throw more resources, money, time and effort at a problem, consider what you might take away instead…  Who knows what you might come up with!

I before V except after C

March 18, 2011

 

At this point in our business information technology evolution, piling on and criticizing corporate IT seems a bit too easy.  “Why don’t you just kick your grandma down the stairs, Bob?” you say.   That got me thinking…

Aren’t we all just a little amused these days when we discover one of our elderly relatives, maybe even our grandma, has latched on to a piece of technology?   Maybe someone bought them a digital picture frame, or they start emailing people, or you find them on Facebook?   Or they start buying all your gifts on-line or sit around reading a Kindle?   Good for them!   But even if they latch on to some technologies, I still doubt they will be the first place you turn when you’re trying to decide between a Xoom and an iPad or Tweetdeck versus Seesmic.

Sadly, I think corporate IT in many organizations has become our tech-savvy grandma.   Even the title of the head of IT says it: Chief Information Officer.   As if the most important role they play is manning a booth at the airport to tell you which carousel your bags will be on!   A handy piece of information, but hardly groundbreaking innovation. When did the head of IT stop being the Chief Vision Officer? The one “C” level who was supposed to see the future coming and steer the rest of the execs toward it in a way that would dust the competition and deliver real business results through innovation?

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I think many CIO’s, quite frankly, got beat down and gave up.   In the past 10-12 years, they over-promised and under-delivered.   “Yikes!” they thought.   Departments won’t tolerate bugs in software, the occasional network outage, or a slow internet connection. [Newsflash: your users and stakeholders tolerate that every day at home!!]   They thought, “we better hunker down and just make sure the lights stay on and nothing breaks.   Innovation and risk in corporate IT is for suckers.”

But when you’re being out-innovated by your grandmother, isn’t it time you let the risk pendulum swing back the other way…?

The Department of S&E

September 19, 2010

One of the things I thought was cool about 2001 A Space Odyssey was the name of the computer, HAL.  Being the not-so-intuitive type, someone had to clue me in that HAL was IBM, just one letter each toward the front of the alphabet – H instead of I, A instead of B, you get it…  (side note – Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001, A Space Odyssey, denies this and claims it represents Heuristic ALgorithm…)

Did you also know that the budgets for Research and Development for IBM, Microsoft and Intel are, respectively, $6 billion, $9.5 billion, and $6.5 billion?  Even recognizing that new products and technology are the lifeblood of those companies, that is still some serious cash to throw at one department, relying on them to come up with the next big thing.

  What about the rest of the folks at IBM, Microsoft, and Intel?  What is the budget for them to innovate?  I fear it may be $175.89.  That’s the cost to purchase and mount 6 or 7  “suggestion boxes” in the cafeteria, lobbies and break rooms.

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I wonder how all the employees who aren’t part of R&D feel about all that.  And not just at IBM, Intel and Microsoft.  They are just easy targets because their budgets for R&D are so mammoth.  What about your company’s R&D budget?  How much is it and where does it go?

I have to believe that teams that work with their company’s products and technology have an amazing number of ideas for how to improve them or how to create brand new ones.  But I worry that many of the employees who aren’t in R&D are, perhaps inadvertently, being messaged that they are in S&E, Stagnation and Entrenchment.  And I have seen this!  Employees seem all too comfortable to work very hard at keeping things just the way they are (stagnation) and avoiding new tasks, responsibilities and challenges (entrenchment).

It’s easy to think that’s the employees’ fault, right?  I mean, they’re jaded, what are you gonna do? 

Why not take a little of that R&D budget and give it to the S&E teams?  Give them a serious incentive to innovate and improve your products and services.  Give them the opportunity to become an extended and welcomed arm of R&D.

Or, just learn how to hum Daisy Bell…