Monday, October 24, 2016

The Hero's journey is no substitute for a product

A hero's journey is not a substitute for a product.
Each entrepreneur goes through a sort of hero’s journey.  If they are lucky, once that journey is finished they will emerge out of the other side stronger, wiser, and accomplishing something amazing.  It is no secret the technology world uses the language of science fiction and fantasy.  That is why a company which becomes extremely profitable it is called a unicorn.  As an agilest and entrepreneur, I convince myself that I am lucky and smart enough to aspire to this status.  It is the story I tell myself.  In the dark moments, it is what keeps me going.  This week, I want to talk about when story telling crosses the shadowy line from inspiration to deception.

Carl Jung, one of the founders of psychoanalysis, articulated the idea the human species has a “collective unconsciousness.”  This collective unconsciousness is the common characters or myths humans use to describe themselves.  The collective unconsciousness also describes what the human species aspires to become.

Joseph Campbell then built on Jung’s work in 1948 with his book, “The Hero with A Thousand Faces,” which talks about the similarities between the mythologies of western and tribal cultures.  Roman Gods were compared with the traditions of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines.  The similarities were too hard to ignore.  We had academic proof that the human species has a common story telling tradition.

Now that this knowledge was out in the open it did not take long for others to exploit it.  One of them was a University of Southern California graduate, who just has a hit film entitled “American Graffiti.”  The other was a technology entrepreneur who cultivated the image of a mystic shaman while he sold music players and later phones.

To be successful, a company needed a story and a heroic figure to pitch that story to the media and client.  It was a way of cutting through the clutter and getting the message out.  That lesson was not lost on Elizabeth Holms who dropped out of Stanford to found her company Theranos.   She created an image which was a frittata of Hitchcock’s icy blond, Steve Jobs techno shaman, and the elegant intelligence of Meryl Streep.  Her story was simple, she was going to change the world making blood testing affordable and less invasive.  She was smart enough and stubborn enough to found a company and make it happen.

The technology press swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.  Soon she was featured in press write ups, on television promoting her company, and receiving millions of dollars in venture capital.  I will not go into the details of Theranos and the fraud they committed.  Vanity Fair Magazine has already done an outstanding job on that front.  Suffice to say, Elizabeth Holms had a good story to sell but didn’t have a product.  Her blood testing tool was nothing but fantasy.

The lesson here is that every story should have a grounding in reality.  You cannot change the world with your products if your products do not work.  The rumpled engineers have to build something before the myth makers in sales and marketing come along.  Telegenic good looks and a story are not a substitute for business acumen and a product.

Anyone who grew up during the stupid and giddy time of the bubble should have known how this story was going to end.  They chose to ignore it and suspend disbelief because the story was good.  Instead of a hero’s journey, what the public got was a true crime story of fraud and greed.
It is a sobering lesson for an entrepreneur and consumer.  I hope that we are smart enough to recognize it before it happens again.

Until next time.

Monday, October 10, 2016

March of the Flaming Squirrels

Pay attention to the Squirrels.
I have spent over 18 years working in technology.  In that time, it still surprises me how many people think what I do is magic.  Furthermore, those people think setting up complicated database and web systems are like plugging in a lamp and turning on a switch.  This creates all sorts of insane and absurd situations in the work place.

When I was a young person, one of the key measures of success was the ability to handle large piles of work with deadlines.  The metaphor my teachers used was the story of a squirrel.  Squirrels hibernate during the winter months but they still need to eat so during the summer months they spend a majority of their time gathering food to store for the winter.  They also binge eat in the fall so they have enough fat to hibernate.

I took this metaphor to heart and applied it to my undergraduate and graduate work.  Each day I spent a little time reading writing and gathering nuggets of information to help myself become successful.  It worked and it seems like a good strategy.  You do little things today so that big challenges of tomorrow don’t seem so daunting.  Then I became a software professional.

The technology world has too much work and not enough qualified people to do the work.  So instead of small efforts adding up to eventual success it takes super-human effort to prevent getting swamped from the demands of the business.  It is a like being a squirrel which is caught in a forest fire.  You still have to gather food but you also confront the grim reality of painful death.

I am spending much of my time telling business people why these “fires” are bad for the business and the software developers.  As author Jimmy Leppert says, “…firefighting creates a culture of arsonists.”  In my mind, where there are arsonists there are millions of dollars of destruction and countless maimed and dead animals.  The software developers become squirrels set ablaze.

I blame a lot of things for this.  Project are funded poorly with a fixed bid mindset.  Americans do a poor job training people to be engineers and technical professionals.  Many business leaders who manage software project have no practical knowledge about how software works.  Finally, short term thinking among business investors and leaders exacerbate this forest fire thinking.  Thus, your organization, which is a fragile ecosystem resembling a forest, is beset by arsonists with flame throwers and chain saws.

I do not have any cures for these problems but I do want to point them out so people who are smarter and more influential can fix them. In order to fix a problem, you need to understand what is causing it.  So if you see your technology staff running around like flaming squirrels you should be smart enough to kick the arsonists out of your organization.

Until next time.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Well Fargo is a Victim of the Cobra Effect

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I rarely hold a grudge and I don’t like kicking an individual or organization while it is down.  I am just not wired that way.  This week I am going to make an exception because of the lesson that can be learned for everyone in the agile community.  I am talking about Wells Fargo and their latest scandal regarding opening bogus new accounts for existing customers.

This isn’t the first time I have had my differences with Wells Fargo.  They were involved in a financial literacy campaign which denigrated humanities majors and liberal arts students.  Now thanks to federal regulators they are paying a $185 Million dollar fine for creating new accounts for customers without consent.  This gets to something the agile community call perverse incentives.

One of the central tenants of “scientific management” is that you measure how an employee does their job and then based on the data, as a manager, you figure out how to make that employee more efficient.  On the surface it seems like a smart idea.  A business person measures how work is done and then they strive to use that data to improve the speed and quality of the work.  This is where the perverse incentives come into play.  If you measure something and then use it as a performance incentive it ceases to be useful because it will force people to game the system to meet the metric.  This is called the “cobra effect” and I have blogged about it repeatedly.

Based on his testimony to congress, Well Fargo CEO John Stumpf said that he set up the incentives to “cross-sell” bank services to improve the company stock price.  This was the beginning of over two hours of uncomfortable questions and criticism from both Democratic and Republican congress members.  You know that you have done something bad when both Democrats and Republicans denounce you in public.

It did not have to be this way.  Stumpf could have measured performance and created training and education programs to make his staff learn how to better “cross-sell” products.  Instead, he used the blunt instrument of job incentives and it worked for a while until regulators and congress got involved.  Wells Fargo now faces additional investigation and possible criminal penalties.  It did not have to be this way but “cobra effect” can claim another victim and it could be a major American financial institution.

Until next time.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Product Owners Have the Hardest Job in Agile.

Listen to Ben, hang together or hang separately.
I have been kicking around as a scrum master for the last three years.  I have been developing software for eighteen.  Those jobs are difficult and challenging but they do not compare to challenges faced by product owners.  This week I want to talk about the hardest job in Agile – the product owner.

The Scrum Guide is pretty clear about the members of a scrum team.  They are the developers who do the work.  The scrum master is the servant leader of the team and helps remove obstacles.  Finally, there is the Product owner.  The product owner sets priorities writes stories, and acts as the liaison between the business and the development team.  What most product owners do not know is the job includes so much more than what the scrum guide says.

A product owner needs to understand the internal politics of the organization so they can work with in it and sometimes around it to get things done.  Product owners need to understand the customer.  Not only understand the customer but be able to differentiate what software improvements will add value and which ones will waste money.  The product owner is under constant pressure to write stories and to create stories which can be transformed into testable code.  It is a grind and they need to practice mindfulness to separate what is important from what is trivial.

It is not an easy job and as a scrum master or coach you need to help them succeed.  This means spending time showing them how to write user stories.  Take time out to explain the agile manifesto and what developers need to succeed.  Take time to listen about the operations of the business and the politics of the organization.

A scrum master and product owner are equal partners.  To paraphrase Ben Franklin, you will hang together or you will hang separately.  When things go wrong it is usually the product owner who receive the blame.  As a scrum master it is up to you to make sure things do not go wrong.

Business today is not easy but a successful product owner can smooth off many of the rough edges to a software development team.  That is why it is the hardest job in Agile.

Until next time.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Humanities and Liberal Arts are Good for Technology

I want liberal arts in my business
Occasionally, the news of the week prompts me to yell expletives at my web browser or television.  This was a financial literacy course called, Teen Financial Education Day.  It seemed innocent enough teaching young people how to use credit responsibly, how to use the banking system, and make smart investments.  It was innocent until you saw the advertising materials which said things like “A ballerina yesterday.  An engineer today.”  As a successful scrum master and software developer this ticked me off.  This week on the blog I want to talk about why and emphasize that we need humanities, liberal arts, and the STEM in order to have a successful business community.

I graduated from Illinois State University with a major in Mass Communication’s and a minor in philosophy.  I pursued the minor because it was a subject which interested me.  I pursued the Mass Communications degree because I was going to work in radio.  I could not have picked a worse major as the radio business outside Chicago began to contract and the recession of 1990 evaporated any other jobs.  As a child of the Reagan 1980’s who said no to drugs, worked hard in school and strived to better himself; it was a very bitter pill to swallow.  I did everything expected of me by society and my elders and I was rewarded with underemployment and ridicule.

It would take me eight years from when I graduated from college to find a career in the technology field.  It was the giddy and stupid days of the dot com bubble and I went back to community college to learn visual basic.  At the ripe old age of 30, I was starting my career from scratch.  I was a self-taught technologist.  Funny thing was that my experience in newspaper, radio, and mass media made me a natural fit as a web developer.  I could discuss typography with print professionals in a language they understood.  I understood the shorthand of marketing professionals.  I knew things about color, shape and art which didn’t have to be explained.  As technology changed with the addition of CSS and XML, I was able to quickly adapt and retrain myself because I learned those concepts in school studying alien concepts like monads, existential nausea, and the payola scandals of the 1960’s.

As a liberal arts and humanity’s student, I had an advantage over my more technical colleagues because I had the “soft” skills and communications abilities to help software projects get done.  So when a bank like Wells Fargo says these skills are not necessary as part of financial literacy education it makes me want to become a hulking green rage monster.  Furthermore, when that bank is the second largest provider of private student loans in the United States, it looks like that a financial institution is trying to pick and choose which majors students should pursue.  It looks fishy at best and market manipulative at worst.

We need humanities and liberal arts in American culture.  We need humanities and liberal arts in American business because these graduates have the writing, speaking, learning and teaching skills that businesses need.  They understand different cultures.  Someone with a background in gender studies could help reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.  A worker with an understanding of Langston Hughes, Nina Simone or the Harlem Renaissance might be better explain diversity issues or #BlackLivesMatter to people who might not have that understanding.  Finally, an art history major would be a perfect choice for a UX designer or Web designer.

This is why we need liberal arts and humanities.  We need it because life is more than ones and zeros.  It is about people and inspiring them, understanding them, and helping them be better people.  It is about developing open minds and optimism about the future.  It is about understanding the past and the way our culture has evolved over the last 3000 years to become what it is today and what it might be tomorrow.  Liberal arts helps build better technology and better businesses and it is about time that others begin to see that.

Until next time.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Your Developers Are More Than Resources

These are more than resources
It is the Labor Day weekend in the United States.  I marks a turning point in the year as summer winds down and all attention turns to the fourth quarter and generating as much profit as possible before the end of the fiscal year.  As a scrum master, I spend so much time jumping from sprint to sprint that I find it hard to see the big picture of the how my projects are going.  It is a constant balancing act between tactical choices and strategic goals.   This week I want to talk about the most important part of the scrum process – the people who do the work.

I have worked in the technology business for over 18 years.  I have experienced the giddy and stupid times of the boom and the fear and uncertainty of the great recession.  The common thread through all of these periods was that work needed to get done.  In order to get that work completed many companies relied on consulting companies to augment their staff.  These “contract workers” were often treated poorly and given tremendous responsibility for the success of the project with none of the financial and career benefits if it did.  Add to this situation that many of these contract workers were working under H1-11 visas and you had a situation which resembled indentured servitude.  I remember working for one company and being in a staff meeting where everyone was afraid to speak because if they did they would be rolled off the project and they risked being deported.

I blame most of this misconduct on how technology work is funded in a corporate environment.  For instance, much of the technology work is considered an overhead expense.  Thus, to keep expenses down many business people only hire the bare minimum of technology staff.  There are a few help desk people.  Network engineers dot the organization chart and you see a manager keeping everything running on time.  Software developers and User Experience professionals are not considered “necessary” for the operation of the business until new software needs to be written.  Thus, when they are needed they are brought in like mercenaries to try and build software they have little professional or personal investment to build with any sense of craft.  They get paid for showing up and billing.  They are not compensated for creating shippable code.

Many of the people who do the work are referred to by other business people as “resources”.   People ask questions such as, “Do we have enough resources, to do this project?” or “Do we have the right resources with the correct skills?”  Every time I hear technology workers referred to as resources, it makes my flesh crawl.  It treats highly educated and smart people like they were rivets in a giant construction project.  I have never heard of iron workers referred to as “resources” by construction managers but every project manager I have known has referred to developers as resources.  It is so prevalent that I even catch myself saying it from time to time.

People who build software are not resources.  They are flesh and blood.  They work in cubicles and offices around the world from Chicago, to Belfast, to Chennai.  They are the people who are building to global economy one web page and user class at a time.  They take the vague ideas of a sales person on the back of a napkin and transform it into working software.  They maneuver through corporate politics and red tape to get things put on production servers.  They tolerate not having office supplies because there is no budget for paper clips from finance.  They work late hours and early mornings to communicate with off shore teams.  They make your business successful.  You just don’t see it because we keep all the lights on and everything working even if it requires metaphorical duct tape.

So show a little respect to your developers and the people who employ them.  They are more valuable than you know and they are more than just “resources”.

Until next time.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Reflecting Upon a Turning Point.

My Philosopher's journey continues
This week marks a bit of a turning point for me.  I have been part of R.R. Donnelley for three years.  This week as part of a complicated stock split, I am joining LSC Communications.  I am excited like a child going to a new school but I am also a bit scared by the unknown.  This week, I want to reflect on my agile journey and where it is taking me.

Three years, I left a consumer foods company as a programmer to become an architect.  My credentials as a scrum master gave me a leg up from the other candidates.  Quickly, I noticed that my new leadership had other plans for me.  Soon, I was leading a team of developers as a scrum master.  I was certain that change would come quickly and that the team would be kicking butt and taking names.  I was wrong.

I had to drop a few authoritarian traits I had picked up over the years.  I had to read numerous pieces of literature helping me expand my knowledge about agile and scrum.  I spent plenty of late nights working with the developers fixing bugs.  Finally, I had to confront the reality that I did not have all the answers.  It was humbling and a necessary experience.

Today, I am a few years older and wiser.  I am a much better scrum master than I was three years ago. Joining LSC Communications, I will not only be a scrum master but also coach for other teams in the organization.  It should be a valuable experience.

The philosopher Heraclitus said we could never set foot in the same river twice.  As I am about to cross over into another unexplored territory, I can say that I am not the same scrum master I was three years ago and I am ready for the challenge ahead of me.

Until next time.